Thru hiking goes like this. If you close your eyes and take a deep breath in, then keep your mouth closed and let it out real slow – that’s the feeling. A calm, pure wave. I got to live four months of that feeling, and will be grateful for it for the rest of my life.
I finished the trail a week ago, and since then my brain has been a frizzle frazzle mess. Ever play with one of those clear globes in a science museum, where you set your fingers on it and the electrical current spews a bunch of staticky lightning that follows your fingers around as you move your hand over the surface? That’s what my brain feels like, that zzzzzzzzzz that pulses where the fingers make contact with the glass.
Yesterday I had my first post-trail breakdown (I’m realizing now that my blissful terminus photos are a stark contrast to this, but bear with me). I drove home from work, parked in the driveway and took a deep breath, and when I let it out there were tears that slid out with it. Ever since, when I try not to cry, I end up with a massive headache. Suddenly I’m back to working and driving and making new plans. Should I go to the dentist? What kind of health insurance do I want? Where do I want to live? What happened to Taylor Swift?
It feels so good to cry. I cried more on trail than ever in my life, moreso out of gratitude and surprise than anything else. But now I cry because I’m realizing that there’s no other place to feel the raw comfort of a thru hike other than on a thru hike. There’s no other place to feel the intersection of fear and euphoria, to feel so grounded in gratitude, to have your heart cracked open by the kindness of strangers.
Talking to other hikers has helped. There was a thru hiker meetup in Denver and I had half a mind to drive the 15 hours just to be in the presence of hikers again. That’s how strong the pull is. Thankfully the internet creates a space where we can keep in touch with each other, commiserate on the end and support each other by walking through this flimsy, uncertain space in solidarity.
For now, I’m here again in this space between no longer and not yet. It’s easily my least favorite space (we’ve talked about this), but I’m trying to honor it for what it’s teaching me in its own way. I’m trying to pull lessons from it like I’m in that last desperate oxygen-starved push from underwater, breaking through the surface because I don’t know what else to do with this feeling. With it comes the sad realization that in the stretches of time when we miss and look back on things, we’re bypassing opportunities to create new memories, to appreciate the space we’re in right now, even if it’s tough. And boy, it’s tough. So much of my energy is pushing towards the future, towards figuring out my next big thing, instead of taking a moment to sit here in this painful place without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it. This right here is the hardest part of thru hiking: the end.
What it looks like
Well, it ain’t pretty. The other day I was talking to a fellow thru about the joy we embody on the PCT, that untouchable happiness we carry with us for so long, and then we reach the terminus and BAM, it’s gone. Where did it go? How can something that feels so genuine, that feels like it’s mine forever and ever and always, disappear so quickly into thin air? Why does reaching the end feel so hollow?
Now I’m back with my dog, and I get some peace from listening to her little sounds while she snoozes the days away. I went back to work a couple days after finishing the trail because I wasn’t sure what else I’d do with myself. I’m fortunate to have a job that I can do from anywhere and a boss who supports my ever-wandering spirit, but I’m also paralyzed by choice. I drive to the ocean to watch the sunset, try to run on my busted knee, write in my journal, walk on the beach. I drive home, get my dog from inside and bring her out to the car with me. We sit in my car while I write because I don’t want to live in a house, don’t want to be in a house, and the car just feels better.
I’ve spent a lot of time alone, which makes me miss the bustle of Seattle, where there was always something to do. Wasn’t I always alone on trail, you ask? I was, but I wasn’t. Solitude when it’s just you is so different from solitude with a thousand people around. I’ve found myself reevaluating my friendships here, trying to figure out where they fit on the kaleidoscopic spectrum of feeling. There’s the issue that I haven’t lived in San Diego for a while. Seattle moved me into a new space, then the trail moved me into a newer space, and now many of my relationships in San Diego feel really far from where I am now, I feel far from the person I was when I lived here. So, so far.
What feels right and what doesn’t? I haven’t had conversations about anything substantive in so long, it’s been interesting to tiptoe back into that space and really discern who it is I want to be having these conversations with. Who do I want to have in my life? What would I be better off leaving behind?
The Last Miles
The last miles of the trail were beautiful and forgiving. The weather cooperated and made it easy to push big miles even as the days grew shorter. The water carries weren’t so bad, I loaded up on my favorite snacks, and everything just felt like home. Everything I needed, right there with me. Side note: writing this is making me pretty profoundly sad.
Because walking happens so slowly, the end of the trail is this predictable beacon that sits far in the distance for a very long time. Hikers can mourn the end of the trail for as long as we want – a month, a week or even a day before it ends – because we know it’s inevitably there. But actually reaching the end feels so heavy and hollow, no matter how long we’ve tried to prepare for it. Our emotions are a graph that flies real high and then plunges like the back side of a Sierra pass. I’ve seen hikers reach the terminus and take a nap while they wait for a ride. I’ve seen hikers get showered in champagne and love from family, looking a little shell shocked by the burst of enthusiasm and company. And I’ve heard from hikers that they reached the monument, tapped it and said “well, I guess this is it.”
However we choose to celebrate it, we all leave with a broken heart. This amazing journey we’ve gone on, that’s given us more than we ever could’ve imagined, has ended. We reach the razor’s edge between sorrow and joy, having anticipated it but not entirely sure what we’re in for. The comment I received that resonated the most when I finished was, “Sorry for your loss.” A primal love, gone.
Advice? Lean the fuck out
Hey, you. You a long distance hiker? Finish something really big and amazing? That’s awesome. You’ve changed. You’ve changed. All those people in your life who didn’t come along on your big adventure? Their lives probably haven’t been turned upside down and reworked like yours has. Tread lightly.
Sometimes when we come back from life-altering experiences, we like to poke the bear a little bit. Churn the dirt, revisit old spaces, dip our toe in just to see how it feels now that we’re in this new brain. Test the resiliency of the ways we’ve grown over these past months, try to show the world (and ourselves) that the things that once knocked us down can no longer do us harm. My advice? Lean the fuck out.
We’ve done ourselves the amazing favor of gifting time for self growth, now we owe it to ourselves to safely harbor it. That guy will STILL break your heart. You’ll know when he can’t anymore. The place where that tragedy occurred is still going to hurt. A friendship that was lacking that thing, that element, is more far gone now than it was before. Your feet have grown two sizes, your old shoes still aren’t going to fit.
I’ll be first to admit that these things are easier to write than they are to practice. My friend Julia will tell you that I was struggling hard with some of these just yesterday. Don’t poke the bear, Kate. Do not poke the bear.
Breathe it all in. Let it all go. You owe it to yourself, you really do.
One more little piece
I’ll try to embody a serious tone with this one, because it’s more… serious. I’m not a doctor or a therapist and I can’t speak for any mental health except my own, but I will say that I’ve crashed damn hard from some very joyous times in my life. One thing that I’ll applaud the thru hiker community for is that they’re pretty open about post-hike depression, and seem to host a safe space for hikers to seek advice and struggle with uncertainty as they step off trail.
I’ve experienced depression only once in my life, and once was plenty. One thing I learned from situational depression (chronic is a whole other beast) is that it can be avoided. I’ve heard the avoidance described as a walk along the edge of a steep drop off into a bottomless abyss. That abyss is depression, and once you’re in it, it’s a long and brutal climb out. I’m going to be bold here and say that most hikers come out on the edge of depression, not in it, and this piece is for them.
Yes, the abyss can be avoided, but you really have to work at it. Pull at the building blocks of your life, even if it feels like you’re reaching in the dark, and put something together. It doesn’t have to be pretty or permanent or make any sense. What you’re doing is creating steps away from that edge that I promise you really, really don’t want to go over. Reach out to other hikers, buy a coloring book, go to a yoga class, plant flowers in your old hiking shoes, turn off your computer monitor and type it all out, cook something new, dream up the next big adventure. I promise it won’t feel this way forever, happiness is just going to be a bit of a chore for a while. Tend to it.
Where from here? Well, I’m working full time again as a programmer. I’ve accepted an offer to become a Writer at this fine site, so if you have any topics you’d like to see me babble about, shoot them my way! Stoked to keep up my passion for writing.
I have a visa that’ll allow me to live in New Zealand for a year, but I also have New York on my mind. I was going to climb Kilimanjaro in January with a couple friends but my heart fell out of it, so I’m sitting with the possibility of doing the Annapurna Circuit next month. I have an interest in Colorado, and southern Utah has always had some shimmer. I’d be lying if I said Seattle hadn’t crossed my mind too (read: foot in mouth). I looked up the CDT and the Arizona Trail and the JMT, feeling so unsettled in this buzz of energy I have to rocket out of here. Yesterday my mom came home and told me that I need to say goodbye before I leave, I can’t just pick up and go. She knows me well.
Doing the Pacific Crest Trail felt 100% right. I had no doubt that what I had chosen was the right thing for me at the time. I don’t feel that way about any of the options that are in front of me right now, and it’s an unsettling place to be. I know that things will be okay eventually, but right now they’re sad and tough and not very pretty. And that’s okay. I’m working on having faith in the gifts my next step is sure to bring, and holding fast to those I’ve been given.
Cheers, dudes! We made it to Mexico! Vaya bien!
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