Outside Looking In
“May you live in interesting times.” Well, I certainly am. This isn’t quite the blessing it would seem, in fact it’s generally considered a rather harsh curse. What I mean is the conundrum I’m currently in is what I can only describe as interesting, and not in the good way. I’m a stranger in a strange land, an outsider, in my current circumstances.
Loads of people flip-flop on this trail and for lack of a better term that’s exactly what I’m doing. The difference, and it’s a big one, is that most of those people are heading south at this point, trying to beat the winter cold and get back to wherever they flipped up from. Obviously, I’m not one of them, I’m heading north. So, so what? Right? The ‘so what’ is taking into account all the people I’m hiking with. For me, hiking north to Katahdin is A destination, for them, hiking north is THE destination. That means the people I’m with are very close to the end of this all-consuming, life-changing experience and I’m, well, not. When I get to Katahdin I still have a couple months of hiking to do and they have to go home and figure out how to be normal civilized human beings again. Can you imagine the emotional rollercoaster these people are riding right now? They have walked the length of the country over the course of about six months. They have been living, every second, out of a backpack during that time. They have seen things and met people and experienced life in a way that will undoubtedly change the course of their existence from this point forward. And now all that is coming to an end. Imagine the feeling you get when you’ve been on a week long vacation and it’s time to board the plane that will take you away from paradise and drop you back in the evil of evils — work. Now, multiply that by about 25 times and try to picture what you would be feeling as you set foot on the plane. If you’re not imagining what can only be described as the world collapsing in on itself then you love your job way too much. It’s scary. It’s terrifying, mind-numbingly awful and bloody well miserable. And that’s just what I can imagine, much less the actual reality running like a Scooby Doo backdrop on infinite repeat through their minds. I’m scared to death of the end of this trip and I still have awhile to get within sight of it.
Coincidentally, yesterday we stood on the west peak of Bigalow Mountain and literally saw the end of it. The great and mighty Mt Katahdin sat there on the horizon — THE REAL DAMN MOUNTAIN — as big as real can be. And they have to come to terms with that. This would be something like watching your own death, Ghost-of-Christmas-Past style, all the while knowing there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
I hope by now the image is coming into focus. I’m well aware that lots of people write about the end of their thru-hikes and describe all the anxiety, hope and fear that comes with that. I’m not writing anything monumental here, I’m just in a position to give an outsider’s view on it, so I am. It’s a very strange sensation, to put it mildly. The air feels different around the folks I see and talk to every day. It tingles a little bit the way it does when you’re all too close to a lightning strike. You can feel the tension in the air when a bunch of thru-hikers hang out in a bar, it wafts around and mingles with the aroma of food like an uneasy putrid cloud. You can almost taste the building anxiety as you breath the same air as them. It’s really REALLY freaking weird sometimes. I imagine it’s similar to the feeling a person would have if they were the only one with a parachute on a plane packed with people imminently bearing down on a mountain. Okay, that was a bit too dramatic but you get the picture. It’s bloody weird. People are a little tense, a bit on edge and sometimes I have to consciously avoid talking about certain things. It’s uncomfortable sometimes. The worst part might be that I want so desperately to help ease their anxiety to some extent but I know all too well there isn’t a damn thing I can do or say that will make one iota of difference. That part really sucks. It conjures the feeling you get sitting in class knowing with absolute certainty you’re the only one prepared for the pop quiz your professor just announced. This really isn’t a ‘woe is me’ sort of thing, I just feel bad. When it’s coming time for my hike to end I expect anyone around me could easily write these same things, word for word.
At this point everyone more or less ignores the white elephant in the room, whenever possible that is. Overhearing, “So and So just summited,” and, “we only have x-miles left,” never seems to help anything but it never seems to stop them saying it anyways. Sometimes I can see these things melt the face of whomever I’m talking to at the moment and I just want to turn and scream at the offender. But that’s not how life works. In fact, some people seem so anxious to finish you’d think they’re a different species with a completely different set of motives and emotions. Again, super weird.
On the whole I’m being a drama queen and I’m well aware of it. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs and you can’t paint a picture on paper without overzealous symbolism. It’s a funny world, I know. Overall, people are coping pretty well for the most part, the majority of what I’m talking about are vibes and those subtle little changes people exhibit under stress. It has to end, everybody knows that, we all just don’t like to think about when it actually will. They are, we are, all only human after all. Anyways, that’s my spiel on the current weather conditions here in ATville. Stayed tuned for the coming forecast. Cheers y’all.
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