Epilogue: Learning How to Stay
Note: This is a recap of our PCT thru-hike April 12th to September 26th, 2016.
According to my Halfmile app, I’m 2,392 miles East of PCT mile marker 2,620. I must have gotten lost somewhere.
Two months after finishing the Pacific Crest Trail, I still don’t know which direction to go. As dramatic as it sounds, part of me is grieving the loss of the trail. It’s not like losing a person, but the change in my lifestyle is big enough that I recognize the shape of grief among my feelings. Everywhere I’m reminded of the PCT – on social media, in my own legs when I leave the shower, tan lines and muscles melting back into pale skin. The smell of fall leaves wet and decaying is the smell of Washington. As we lived the gypsy lifestyle of the newly re-acquainted to society – the couch hopping that comes before an apartment rental – the reminders of our hike were all around us; backpacks, tents, used gear with the yellow needles of larches still clinging to them. I still dream about the trail, I still lie in a half sleep and expect to open my eyes to tent mesh.
These feelings don’t make sense, because the trail isn’t lost. I know it’s still there, underneath the snowdrifts that people gleefully post on social media. Part of me wants to jump for joy when I see those pictures – We made it! And before snow! – but then, these pictures are a blow, as well, because they’re limiting. Even if I fell off the edge of sense and flew back out there to find the trail again, it wouldn’t be the same. The season is over, and so is our adventure.
To that effect, maybe finishing the PCT is more like leaving a relationship, one that I knew couldn’t possibly be long term. Because even though it’s over and I had the final say, there’s a less sensible part of me that’s still in love. There’s a desperation I’m confusing for romance that makes me want to go back to it against my better judgment. I let something beautiful and powerful take over every aspect of my life, I swayed to all of its whims, I excused its temper, found fault in myself when I didn’t live up to its expectations. If this were a relationship, it would be an abusive one.
And maybe that’s why I feel lost now, because for six months, I let an entity outside of myself define me. Who am I? A hiker. What am I good at? Walking. What are my goals? Going forward and going up… Now that I no longer have those things, how do I begin to measure my success and failure?
I’ve started to dread small endings – the check reaching our table, the expiration of our welcome in a guest room, the moment sleep is replaced with wake. I know it’s because “How far?” has been replaced by “What’s next?” I never have an answer for this that satisfies me. Our days used to be built around “how far?” We could pull out maps and phones and talk to everyone who asked that collective question and we would decide, “this far.” But, “what’s next?” doesn’t have a numerical answer – and maybe worse, it doesn’t have a collective pronoun attached to it. We aren’t figuring out what’s next. I am.
“I guess I’ll find an apartment and a job.”
“Maybe I’ll plan a presidential traverse, a long trail thru, a hike of the Cohos trail.”
“Maybe I’ll just walk around the city and think about how I feel like I’m the wrong shape to fit into it again.”
I know this sounds like classic post trail depression. And, if I’m being honest, it is. Every time I go home after a long trip, it does get easier – but it never gets easy.
People ask, “what’s the hardest part of coming back?” I’m getting to be an expert at coming back, which means that I’m learning how to better answer that question.
The hard part of answering any question is not forming your answer, but identifying the answer that people expect you to give. People assume naturally that the hard part of coming home is the change of environment. After six months, we’re back in society, no longer living ‘in the woods.’
But the truth is, we weren’t living ‘in the woods’ for six months. The trail took us from desert to mountain to forest. We walked through meadows and around glaciers, stopped in towns frequently, witnessed new landscapes and animals from week to week. If anything, the PCT was a lesson in adaptation. Of course it’s different to sleep indoors on a soft bed with a streetlight outside the window, to remember how to drive a car – but after adjusting from the Mojave to the Sierra Nevada, what are these differences?
On a thru-hike, there is only one constant:
For six months, we’ve been in constant motion. We’ve had the sense that we are going somewhere, that our momentum is carrying us forward. And then, all of a sudden, we stopped.
It’s the feeling you get when you step off a boat and your legs are still trying to adjust to the shifting deck. The sensation of watching the train next to your train leave the station. It’s closing your eyes on a summer night after you’ve spent all day in the ocean and feeling the surf still pull at you. I can still feel the movement, even standing still.
And that’s what’s hard about coming back. Halting our movement and re-starting it in a completely different direction. We’re home and we want to get on with our lives, but first we have to find jobs, find an apartment, move all of our things back to it, catch up with our friends and family and all the changes in their lives this summer – and after we’ve done all that, then it really feels hard. Because then, even though we’ve found our momentum again, even though we have work and shelter and a routine, how do we make it feel different than it did before?
Because the truth is, hiking didn’t change our lives. It didn’t change us. We’re the same as we were before – we’ve got new stories and a few interesting scars, but we’re the same people. We still make the same mistakes, fall into the same patterns and slumps, fail to say the things we mean to say, struggle to live up to our best selves. Coming back to that, every time, is such an about face from the feeling of freedom and potential on the trail, it’s easy to feel disappointed and lost in your old self.
Every time I come home, I wonder: how do I make this different than last time? How do I make my life feel like the trail?
The answer is: I don’t. I can’t. Because the trail isn’t a way of life; it’s an escape. It’s a place and a time where you can experience constant progress, and that’s not how the rest of life works. Back at home, where jobs and friends and family are waiting, you don’t move unswervingly forward. Sometimes you have to take a step back to move ahead. Sometimes you have to start from scratch and build back up.
There is no map for life, no blazes or medallions to show the way. And for the few people fortunate enough to have the time and the opportunity to hike a long distance trail, we’re allowed to pretend, for a while, that there is one way, one direction.
Do I miss that? Of course. But I have to remind myself that now I have more options than North. I have East and South and West to explore. I have ‘staying’ to explore. I can wear jeans and get a dog and plant a garden. I can take classes and bake bread again. I can pull my life out of storage and recognize that, even if it’s worn and faded in all the same places as when I left, there’s still movement in it. Because ‘staying’ is not a passive decision; it’s a direction in itself.
Where are they now:
Some of you may be wondering what happened to the rest of the ‘Mile 55’ crew that we started with, or the odd assembly of souls whose paths crossed with ours. In an effort to both pay homage to our friends and blatantly pander to the public, here’s a recap ala 1980’s movie style:
Bivvy AKA ‘Luke Healy’
Bivvy made it to his book signing in Philly on time and has since had his first book ‘How to Survive in the North’ listed as one of Publisher Weekly’s ‘Best books of 2016.‘ After spending 5 months outdoors on the West coast, Bivvy also became the first cartoonist and the second Irishman to ever receive a tan. He is currently applying aloe in large quantities, offering his expert critique on cinema to other people at the matinee, and working on his next book, a graphic novel about the PCT.
The Camel of Corvallis
Despite being the Mile 55 member who went the longest without showering, Camel was the first one of us to secure both a job and a house after finishing the trail and returning to his beloved Corvallis. He was also the first to finish the trail overall, proving that the noble camel, while prone to spitting at friends and fond of its own filth, is in fact the most surefooted and expedient animal. At some point in the future we all plan to meet up, but in the meantime we take comfort knowing that wherever Camel is, he’s in the shade, drinking a gallon of milk.
Toe Touch AKA ‘Juliana Theresa Veronica McCloskey’
After patiently tolerating the pace of the Mile 55 group for a thousand miles, Toe Touch hiked 1,140 miles to the border of Washington state in 52 days, stopping only, in true Toe Touch fashion, for a bachelorette party. Shortly after entering Washington, her sister surprised her with plans to meet her in Vancouver, forcing her to slow down and maybe saving her life since at this point, Toe Touch was throwing up black stuff and peeing blood. While her lack of pain receptors make Toe Touch a great endurance athlete, they do sometimes require her to surround herself with slower people as a survival mechanism. Currently Toe Touch is training to be the first person to cross the US using only jumping jacks, burpees, suicide drills, and other track-and-field approved stretches choreographed to Beyonce music
Centerfold AKA ‘Jon Paul Graca’
‘JP’, ‘Big Cat’, ‘Hollywood’, ‘The Pope’, or ‘Centerfold’, as people affectionately know him, returned to sleepy Portsmouth, NH to his old job. He will soon be living directly below Chuckles and Little Spoon, where he can bang on the ceiling when they get too rowdy and steal their Sunday paper for the coupons. A lot remains to be known about Centerfold’s future: Will he get up the nerve to talk to that little red-headed girl? Will that degree from Trump University ever arrive? Is the family he abandoned in Omaha going to figure out his alias or recognize him, despite extensive plastic surgery, from these photos? The future is still largely unwritten for young Centerfold, child of tomorrow.
Little Spoon AKA ‘Mark Santoski’
After removing his nerdy glasses, ‘token geek’ Little Spoon went on to a career in modeling which culminated most recently in signing a four year contract with Calvin Klein. He told Chuckles that she was a great friend and they would always have the PCT before devilishly winking and hopping onto a moving bus that, ironically, bore a scintillating image of Little Spoon reclining in nothing but Calvin Klein’s new hiking boots.
Chuckles AKA ‘Maggie Wallace’
Chuckles has slowly weaned herself off all-you-can-eat buffets, to the relief of the good people at Old Country Buffet and their investors. She now spends her time staring gleefully out the window during snowstorms and writing recaps of the last six months of her life.
Hagrid / Boy Drogo
Hagrid AKA Boy Drogo has gone back to his old job where, despite there being no food preparation involved, he is required to wear a full body hair net. When he’s not helping out precocious wizard students, he can be found riding across the Dothraki Sea with his Khaleesi.
The Brit Family Robinson
Having discovered that hitchhiking with adorable British children is an incredibly cost-effective form of transportation, the Brits have forsaken their cars and now live a gypsy life traveling the North American continent. Actually, they finished the PCT after hopping around to avoid flooded rivers and they are now back in England, where Pippi and Captain Obvious will grow up to be the coolest people on their island, even if they do say Aluminum strangely.
Despite numerous requests to ‘go home Rant’, Rant did not go home until finishing every last mile of the PCT. He is currently missed by all members of the Mile 55 crew and remember fondly as, in Toe Touch’s words, ‘the drunk uncle we never wanted.’
Soulflute and his bus
Soul flute’s plan to lead a curious science class through the human body backfired due to a faulty shrink ray. Presumably he’s still wandering around the West in anticipation of ski season, but if you happen to watch the full moon rise over mount Shasta on a clear night, you might just see the bus flying overhead.
The cow that almost stampeded our breakfast
After her humiliating retreat, the cow has been sighted in several towns throughout Northern California trying to pass herself off as a traveling band teacher who scams small towns into giving her money for children’s uniforms that never show up. It has been rumored that she became involved with the Southern Oregon mafia and has since joined the witness protection program:
Against all odds, Mile 55 is still talking to each other, even though they spend a lot of time arguing over who gets the Continental Divide Trail book that month.
Thank you so much for reading this blog! We feel so lucky to have been able to hike the PCT in 2016 and we could never have accomplished it without the help of friends, family, and complete strangers.
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Beautiful, honest, and hilarious, this has been (by far) one of my favorite PCT blogs this year. Thank you!
Good post trail blog. David Odell AT71 PCT72 CDT77
Applicable to not just hikes but much of life. Beautifully written and captures the struggle of post college life and that one question I fear: what do I do now?