It Feels Like Coming Home
Small pebbles of milky quartz and granite studded with shimmering mica crunch satisfyingly below my brand-new trail runners. Beneath them is a two-foot-wide path consisting of fine-grain sand, carved by wind into miniature valleys and hills. A thin veil of fog lurks, weaving itself between bristly cacti and loitering languidly around barren shrubs. My flashy, bohemian dress flaps against my ankles, as the early-morning breeze flows beneath it like a stream under a submerged log. The desert sun has started to creep ominously above the horizon, but for now it is still the in-between time. The time when night has not yet relinquished her jurisdiction before her more severe brother, day, takes the helm. The time when both the sun and moon are visible in the sky, gazing longingly at each other across the heavens. In the desert, that means hiking time. On the Pacific Crest Trail, that means life. I put one foot in front of the other, without a single glance back.
My body thrums with elated energy and my heart is permeated with gratitude and disbelief. My cheeks are sore from grinning at plants; thin smile lines grace the corners of my mouth. I call out good morning to every mahogany manzanita tree I pass, lightly grazing my fingertips across their smooth, innocent trunks. I am dancing past mile markers as memories of my 2016 hike waltz through my head. I am amazed at the minute details that my brain squirreled away. Recollections as seemingly inconsequential as eating strawberry Pop-Tarts on a particularly flat rock, the perfect shape to be my rear end’s rest stop. I have not entirely processed that I am here again. I am on the PCT. I am back on trail. I am walking to Canada. It feels like coming home.
It is hard to believe how much I have grown in the year and a half since my previous hike. I am surprised to find that regardless of that growth, I am essentially hiking for the same reason: to heal, to learn, to connect. I recently read a passage from a blog I wrote in that time period and realized that I still identify strongly with the words.
“My goal is to continue re-activating the person that I am, my authentic self. I got lost along the way, hidden beneath the jumble like a buried prize in a crane machine game. I have already started that journey of discovery these path few months. The proof is here in these words and sentences that flow out of me, a mighty spring stream grown strong from the winter melt. I had stopped writing years ago, telling myself that I was dumb, un-creative, and worthless. Stripping myself of my most powerful weapon, but I am reclaiming my voice.”
In 2016 I was fresh out of a three-month inpatient stay at a mental health facility, receiving help for trauma-related PTSD symptoms, an eating disorder, and self-harm. I was urged by my treatment team to postpone my hike until the following year because they were concerned about my ability to stay safe while on trail. In all my stubborn glory I argued every day, adamant about honoring my original timeline. I knew instinctively that the PCT was the next step on my path of healing, although at the time I couldn’t explain why. I started that year optimistic and armed with a mental toolbox full of tricks to allow me to cope. I had already conquered vast obstacles, but had no concept of how much more satisfying my life would eventually become. I began the trail afraid of people and interactions, which caused extreme anxiety and a tendency to isolate myself. I stealth-camped every night alone, hidden from the trail and areas where groups of hikers congregated. Until recently, I never realized how much of my existence I lived shackled by these fears and how it seeped into every area of my life.
As I follow these footprints of my 2016 shadow, I am grateful to be able to reflect on this growth and the progress I have made. I still camp alone, not in fear, but because I know what my body and mind require to be healthy. I relish the quiet time at the end of my hiking day, when I can process my experiences and assess my thoughts. During the day I talk to every hiker I pass, whether it is a quick greeting or an in-depth conversation. I initiate opportunities of connection and crave that special feeling that is only created by exchanging energies with another soul. I want to know the people around me that are members of this magical bubble of reality. I want to know what motivated them to hike and what their passions are. I want to learn from them, because each one of them has experienced life in a completely different fashion than I have. I want to share myself with them; the person I am, the person I was, and the person I am going to be.
I bask in the shade of a gazebo, relishing the cool cement of the picnic bench beneath my dust-covered thighs. My pride swells in accomplishment, 20 miles on the first day, and I smile at my reward, a gourmet meal of oriental-flavored Top Ramen combined with a heaping spoonful of peanut butter. I call this creation hiker pad thai and it claims its own plateau on my hiker food pyramid. A lanky, middle-aged man approaches me mid-bite and I smile at him with my eyes, while my mouth is otherwise occupied.
“Can I join you in the shade here?” he questions.
“Of course,” I answer, after swallowing. “I wouldn’t have you sitting out there in the sun after that brutal climb out of Hauser Canyon!”
We chat amiably, exchanging the basic reel. Where are you from? Have you long-distance hiked before? What is your trail name? I am slightly reserved, as I am never quite sure how people of that generation will receive my alternative looks and personality. It isn’t until the end of our conversation, when something he says makes me recognize that despite our generational gap, we are kindred spirits.
“Throughout the course of my life, I never really felt like I fit in anywhere. Not in school, my work, or even my family. It wasn’t until I thru-hiked the AT and experienced the community on trail, that those emotions were kindled inside of me. I finally found a place where I belonged.”
The moment those words left his mouth they traveled into my ear canal, took a pit stop in my heart, and continued straight into my soul. “Me too,” the little Matador that lives inside me shouted out internally. “Me too!”
In an instant, the trail instilled an early reminder, one of many lessons I am destined to learn again and again. Everyone has a story and no one is ever as different from myself as I perceive them to be.
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