On post trail
Do you know what it’s like to have ultimate freedom and belong only to the mountains and desert and forests? If you do, then you’ll understand what they mean when they say thru hiking will ruin your life, but in the best way. You’ll be chasing this high for the rest of your life, the endorphins of crossing high mountain passes for days on end and sleeping out under the stars and belonging to nobody and nowhere apart from yourself and the great wide open space of the horizons before you.
I hadn’t realised it at the time, but it wasn’t finding the motivation to walk every day which was the hardest part. It wasn’t traversing high snowy passes with 7 days of food strapped to my back. It wasn’t the continuous relentless heat of the dry desert, the sudden and unpredictable nature of wild fires or pushing through injuries which come with hiking a marathon every day. It turns out, the hardest part was the part I hadn’t given any thought to. I definitely hadn’t prepared for What happens when your thru hike is over?
It had been over a decade of wanting to thru hike the Pacific Crest Trail and then finally 2 years of planning for it. Researching gear, visas, logistics, training, dreaming of the ultimate unstoppable freedom. I’d not given any thought to what would happen after my thru hike. I’d heard about post trail depression but honestly it didn’t sound fun. I ignored the thought. On reflection though, I had been so focused, so motivated to get to Canada that I had made one of the biggest mistakes any thru hiker can make. I’d made no plan of what to do if I did manage to succeed. I’d initially assumed I may return to Aoteroa when my work visa was approved for another 2 years, but it became apparent to me as my hike went on, that returning to the wild island paradise that had become home felt like going backwards.
Immediately after my thru hike ended, I felt out of place in society. I went to Boulder, CO, to visit a friend, she took me to a bar but in my hiking clothes I didn’t fit in and the loud music felt brash and confusing. I now belonged to the quiet forest at night and I didn’t know how to find a way to rejoin society. I was so, so hungry and yet not. At 2am I would wake in the night ravenous and unable to sleep due to hunger, my metabolism was still out of control but without the vigorous exercise I was used to my body was confused for weeks, I had gone from burning 6000 calories a day to almost nothing. My feet ached and the hiker hobble has only just eased over 2 months later. I’ve had bad flu like colds 3 times in 2 months, perhaps a release of toxins or tension built up in my body. It seems a common ailment for hikers after getting off trail. I became focused on rehabilitating my injury. Focused on healing my weary muscles, but the truth is, the heartbreak that my thru hike left me with was much worse than the heartbreak that motivated me to hike. I felt lost and out of place in society. The bars and cafes and restaurants which had always been a safe space days for me now felt alien, I didn’t know what to wear anymore and make up felt weird. I wanted to lie under a tree on a hot sunny day in Southern California airring out my feet, wiping sweat from my face and picking out and eating spilt macaroni from the dirt. I want to still be Scorpion Queen, at home in my beloved desert.
Now when people ask me my name, I pause. I am now Juliette again, back to wearing uniform and having burns and cuts all over my hands instead of bruised and grazed knees and legs. I miss wearing tiger striped shorts and bright red sneakers. I want to walk into a trail town and connect with fellow hikers at the local brewery, lie in the dewy grass kissing under the full moon and know that there is nowhere else I’d rather be ever again. I want to wake on the ground with the sun hot on my face and eat 4 protein bars in my sleeping bag until I have no more excuses to pack up my gear and start walking for the day. I want to stumble down the trail and see my friends at water sources, to catch up with Butterfingers, who assures me he is going so fast I will never see him again, only to always be in the same town, at the same time. I’ll see Moo’s name in trail registers and race through the night to catch her, hike but not hike with Postal, split cheap motel rooms with Sparkles and JJ Bean and Cool Rocks. I miss the trail, I miss the people, I miss the person I became. My purest, truest self. When you remove every single element of societal influences, you are given this rare, beautiful opportunity to become unashamedly the person you truly are within. I am grateful to have found this person, but its confusing how to still be this person when returning to society.
Most days I still forget to put on deodorant, but I shower daily now. It feels ridiculously luxurious to have hot water by turning on a tap. I like eating fresh fruit and barista made coffees and cold beer. Its nice to have different clothes to wear and mirrors and to blow dry my hair but I no longer need these things. On the trail, the only person I had to rely on, was myself. The trail was a logistical nightmare, but I worked around every single obstacle to make it to Canada. Even to make it to Mexico in the first place! Back in reality there is a chain of command and I often feel out of control and overwhelmed by no longer being self reliant.
I wished I’d planned something for after. By personality I am spontaneous, my decisions are usually emotionally impulsive. Its hard for me to commit to anything long term. However my advice to the thru hiking class of 2023, whatever trail you are hiking, make sure you consider the future after a thru hike. I managed to find a job in the Swiss Alps for the winter, but it was really, really hard, especially since Brexit to make this happen. I wish i’d been more forward thinking and made a plan to save myself the feeling of being broke and lost back in society.
Now when I walk to work in the mornings, I wonder what it would be like to keep walking again. Hike up into the mountains and not look behind me. My injury heeled, my body knows what it needs. I will walk the Pacific Crest Trail again. That is almost guaranteed as the only reason I can be ok, with my thru hike being over, is to know that I have now found my home. I will walk other trails too. The desert of the Arizona trail beckons me in 2023. The Continental Divide Trail waits for me in 2024. It is comforting to know that there is more of what I love, that there is a community for thru hiking and unlike the end of a relationship, my broken heart is felt by many other hikers, all of having found our home.
I believe a successful thru hike is when you’re not ready for it to end. That it is when you have found a place that you belong and despite the emptiness of grief and loss which I now understand is simply post trail depression, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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