Guess Who’s Back?
Alright, we’re back! This time, to hike the Pacific Crest Trail!
It’s been almost 4.5 years since my last blog post as I finished the Appalachian Trail, and what a truly strange time it’s been. Let’s catch up.
After summiting Katahdin on September 24th 2016, I made my way back home to North Carolina. It only took me 15 minutes to hack off 6 months of completely untrimmed hiker beard. (Nobody would have given me a job, otherwise.)
Side note: The hiker beard remains one of my favorite thru hiker traditions. Shave the night before you hit trail, and then no trimming or shaving until you finish! It’s a fun look that blends in perfectly while hiking, but once back in the real world, it will leave everyone doubting your mental stability.
I lived on my parents’ couch for a month, resting my legs and eating as much food as possible. I then flew back to Chicago to triumphantly return to adulthood. I had an apartment waiting for me, I settled back into my old job, and I soon started dating a smart, funny, and beautiful woman.
Objectively, everything was going according to plan. I was doing it! I was readjusting to regular life! Whew, it looked like I dodged that post-trail depression everyone talks about.
But then, one day I started crying on a bus to work, thinking about how I wasn’t on trail any more.
Ah. Well. Clearly I was still processing some things.
You’ve Heard This Already. But Returning From Trail Is Terrible.
My post-trail depression ended up being different than I expected. After I wrapped the AT, I figured that I could dodge depression if I just lined up the logistics properly. It was like setting up a chess board… It was a problem to be solved. I’m really good at solving problems. Get job. Rent apartment. Set workout plan. Acquire girlfriend. Just place all those pieces out where you think they should be, and you’ll be good to go.
My problem was, once all those chess pieces were lined up, it was time to play… well, chess. And I didn’t realize it before going on trail, but playing chess kind of sucks.
Am I losing you? Let me explain.
Now that I have some distance from my AT thru-hike, I think what I loved most about the trail was its simplicity. You walked, you ate, you drank, you pooped, you slept. In short, you survived. Rinse and repeat for 6 months.
From my Appalachian Trail blog post in the Smokies, lovingly titled “Breakfast Pizza Was A Terrible Idea“:
This trail has made me confront my highs and lows immediately, head on – there is no dissociating by watching Netflix, or drinking, or Facebooking, or whatever other escape you fancy. It’s just me and the trail, and I’m responsible for facing each day – Whether good like today, or terrible like a few days ago in the thunderstorm. It’s beautifully simple. Simple, but not easy.
Out in the woods, you didn’t need to play chess. And on my bus ride into work in crowded, busy downtown Chicago, I think I was subconsciously realizing that the simplicity of the trail was… gone. Maybe forever. From here on out, the competing priorities of real life would be constantly bombarding me from all sides. Advance your career. Make more money. Buy a house. When are you gonna have a kid? Should you be calling your aunts and uncles more? Can I afford a new car? What’s the difference between a 401k and an IRA?
All pieces on a chess board, ready to be moved in endless combinations.
It made me really sad.
A Painful Readjustment
There were a few other signs I wasn’t adjusting well to the real world. I tried to watch the latest season of Game of Thrones, but I started sweating from all the violence and loud noises, and had to take a walk outside instead. I had a small anxiety attack in a crowded hallway and retreated to a quiet bench for 15 minutes to stare into space and catch my breath.
And my body just. wouldn’t. heal.
Months after returning to Chicago, I still had significant knee and ankle pain. I bit the bullet and paid for an MRI and X-Ray, which revealed unhealed stress fractures in my left knee, and Achilles / Anterior Tibialis tendonosis (chronic tendonitis). 5 years and thousands of dollars in physical therapy bills later, they still don’t feel 100%.
I cannot emphasize this enough. The Appalachian Trail is brutal. Do not underestimate what it’ll do to you, physically.
As I settled back into Chicago, my girlfriend (now fiancé!) would listen to me tell stories of the trail. Most of my stories would end with me shaking my head sadly and saying some combination of “Ah, I miss it so much…”, “Ah, you had to be there…” “Ah, it’s tough to explain…”
She’d look at me sideways, and say I reminded her of an old war veteran. Vets head to the VA to talk with their old war buddies and reminisce. Hikers call their trail family to swap trail stories and reminisce. Both are truly unique experiences, difficult to put into words for normal folk. Nobody else really “gets it”.
So, trivia time: What do vets do when they return from duty, but feel like they don’t fit in to the real world any more?
They sign back up for another tour.
Now, there are a few key differences from the AT in 2016.
For one thing, I found a partner in crime for the hike. Lauren loves the mountains just as much as I do. On our first date in 2016, over some amazing tacos at Big Star Taco in Chicago, we talked about how we both separately had the dream of hiking the PCT someday. And now, 5 years later, we are about to set foot on trail together. As we are preparing to start a family in the coming years, this is our last shot at something like this for decades. Plus, we both saw COVID tear through the world last year – living a long life is far from assured. Putting this off until retirement is really rolling the dice. Though I have a job I love, with a manager I respect, and meaningful advancement opportunity, it isn’t about the money – It’s about spending time together and trying to realize a dream. We have the savings, we have the ambition… why not take the shot? So, we started to plan.
Even though the PCT research was complex, we were having a blast, and deepening our relationship through working towards a shared dream. And before I knew it, a dream turned into a plan. Sometime in the future turned into this year. This is what I was meant to do. I feel like a coiled spring, ready to be released in one direction, side-by-side with Lauren.
It feels amazing.
In a weird way, I’ve rediscovered the simplicity of the trail in preparing for the PCT. Here’s one big messy goal: Get to Canada before the snow flies. How do you do it? You walk. It’s simple.
Simple, but not easy.
I’m a few months shy of 31, and if we’re being honest, I have no faith that my body will be able to hold up to a thru hike. I’m riddled with self doubt. But here we are – just weeks away from starting this whole damn roller coaster over again.
But like I mentioned above, this time it feels different from 2016. I was so focused on getting to Maine on the Appalachian Trail, of being a “purist”, that I might have missed the forest for the trees (no pun intended – it’s like a green tunnel from all the trees on the AT). Of course it’s still about the trail this time around – I could go sit in a campground with Lauren and spend time away from work for 6 months if it wasn’t about the trail. But, it’s not necessarily about “finishing” the trail this time, in a purist way. We will be plodding our way North, but if we have to skip a section due to fires, we won’t cry any tears. Need to flip flop up to Canada at some point? No biggie. If we don’t end up being able to hike the entire trail due to injury or running out of time, I think I’ll be disappointed, but it won’t negate the experience – This is about deepening the relationship and enjoying the hike. In 2016 I sacrificed it all at the alter of NOBO. Pardon my French, but I’m getting too old and wise for that shit.
I’ve asked myself more than a few times why I want to put myself through this. I get partway through answers, but they all ring false. Is it the adventure? No… The challenge? The fitness? Not quite… The community? The sense of purpose? God, it’s all of these things but it’s so much more. I’m sorry, no matter how hard I try, there’s no way to put it all into words. I’ve written and deleted this section 100 times.
But if you’ve done a thru hike, you understand why I’m doing this. Why we are doing this, together, as a couple.
So here we go again.
With that, it’s time to hit send on this post. Similar to how I blogged the AT, I’m planning to have daily updates, consolidated into weekly blog posts for the website. I have no instagram or facebook, but you can subscribe to get email updates if you enter your email address just below the end of this post. Oh, and Lauren is starting a podcast (she is much more creative than I am), which you can find here: https://anchor.fm/takeahikepodcast
Come follow along for the ride, it should be a fun one.
Until next time, happy trails!
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