Waiting Anxiously on Permit Day

It’s a mess of my own making

I’m sitting on a beach chair in the guest room of my parents’ house, surrounded by a trash heap of cardboard boxes and instant ramen. I refer to this room as HQ. I do all my PCT prep here. It’s really quite an embarrassment. Beer bottles are strewn about, a pile of glitter covers the throw rug, and there are so many dishes stacked on the desk I now do my computing from the floor. I seemed to have reverted back to the habits of my 18-year-old self. This is not how a 36-year-old is supposed to keep a room.

On my laptop, I’ve got a tab open to PCTA.org. Today is permit day and I’m waiting in an online queue system. I’ve been randomly assigned a ticket number in the high 3,000s, which is damn near the back of the line. On the screen, inside a slowly filling progress bar is an animated GIF, a stick figure version of a thru-hiker. I can’t figure out if its purpose is to show me the estimated wait, or how many permits remain. Given my number, it could be either, which makes me anxious to no end.

If I Don’t Get a Permit…

All the things I did to make this trip possible will have been terrible mistakes. I exhausted my emergency fund, sold a lifetime of belongings, turned down business partnerships, declined interviews with Google, Amazon, and others. I’ve said goodbye to friends and sold any possessions that I couldn’t cram into the back of my Honda. I moved back in with my parents. You can add me to the list of boomerang babies.

For dramatic effect, my laptop is hooked up to the TV, one of the few vanity purchases I decided not to pawn for cash. In many ways, it represents what I’m leaving behind. Earlier in the year, I had been living whatever the millennial version of the American dream is. I lived in a nice apartment, in a city few could afford, and worked a job that paid well, in a field that I loved. I was confident that if I could somehow kick my avocado toast habit, I could probably afford a house in the next couple of years. In other words, I was miserable.

It Started Out Harmless Enough

Hiking was little more than a way to minimize the effects of burnout, a self-care routine designed to get me some exercise and out of the house. But rather quickly, three miles with friends turned into ten by myself. I did my first 20 accidentally, having gotten myself hopelessly lost in a remote area not patrolled by rangers. When, in the dead of night, I stumbled my way back to the car, I resolved to buy a headlamp and learn how to use a compass.

Slowly, the trips got longer and the wilderness became less frightening. Whenever I went out, I found I wasn’t ready to come back. Each excursion gave me a little reset where I’d come back to “normal” life a bit happier, a bit more engaged. But as time wore on, my post-trail high wore off more quickly. In the early-morning lull before my sad desk lunch or team meeting, I’d read trail blogs and imagine myself anywhere but there. My depression grew and I started to question the worth of just getting by. I needed more out of life than to feel good for being able to afford an apartment in a trendy neighborhood with overpriced coffee.

Leaving for the Trail Struck Me as Childish

After all, adults buckle down and make the best of it. Only when my job came to its natural end, did it occur to me to ask, if maybe I shouldn’t be “out there” longer, if maybe the childish thing wasn’t a better use of my time on earth, if maybe I was one of those people for whom civilization is deeply, deeply, unsatisfying. In the year that has followed, the thinking I did on those questions has brought me to where I am now—sitting on the floor, a keyboard on my lap, and waiting to enter a lottery for permission to leave everything behind.

When my turn finally comes, the page refreshes with a link to the form. I click it as fast as humanly possible. I’m so nervous I’m shaking. Surely all the dates are taken. I scan the calendar in panic, and, to my relief, find a start date I can work with. The rest of the form only takes a minute. It might only be a little past noon, but I crack a beer to celebrate. I’m excited, but I harbor no illusions that this will be fun.

I Expect This to be Difficult

At times I feel underprepared and scared. But the easy way out would be to cancel this trip, head back to work, collect my paycheck, and binge-watch Netflix every Sunday. Those things are comforting. Those things are safe. I was good at them. But they don’t add meaning or value to my life. They do quite the opposite.

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