The Problem with Isolation on a Solo Thru-Hike
I’m back. I know, I wasn’t really missed, but I have some serious tea to spill (as the kids these days say). Well, it’s my own tea, and I just feel as though I need to get it off my chest, ya feel? So here goes.
Before I really start this post, I just want to say that isolation can be very healing and beneficial. Just read this article. Spending time alone to get to know yourself is something that you can’t reproduce anywhere or through anything other than being alone under challenging circumstances. And before you make premature judgments about me and my struggles with isolation, please keep in mind that I’m in recovery from disordered eating and have struggled for years with depression. Everybody is different, with unique experiences. I’m just putting this article out there to say that it’s OK to leave the trail when you feel like you need to. It’s your own hike, and each hike is different.
Why My PCT Isolation Was Confusing
Before I start this, please know that this is my own experience. For some people, toughing it out is the best thing you can do, and it promotes growth. That was certainly not for me.
Thoughts When I Left the Trail
I left the trail at Truckee on July 21. As rain dumped outside the Reno airport, I lay on the ground for approximately six hours (the shuttle from Truckee to the Reno airport ran very infrequently). Was I really making the right decision? I smelled like a pigsty, had a one-way ticket home, and a bag full of peanut M&Ms. I should have been happy. My body would finally get a chance to recover. I would sleep in a normal bed every night. I would see my family for the first time in 2018 (which, for a brand new college student, is a long time). I had decided that I couldn’t mentally continue the trail, so shouldn’t I be happy? This is what I wanted. This is why I called my mom in tears while sitting in the middle of the trail three days before. But as I lay in the Reno airport, I felt empty, aching, and desperately alone.
The flight passed quickly, and soon I was in my family’s arms. They made me tell them every trail story, show them every picture, and demanded I not leave anything out. My feet still had absolutely no feeling, and talking about the trail made my heart ache. Had I made a mistake? Was the trail really home, and had I been too weak and self-centered to see that?
Showering every day was awful. Brushing my teeth was awful. The ache in my heart grew every morning that I woke up and didn’t see the stars. I missed my trail family, the peaceful monotony of walking, my tangled hair and hitchhiking with strangers, sharing rooms and swapping stories with other people as homeless and alive as I was, eating entire pizzas and sleeping in a real bed once every two weeks.
Thoughts When I Got Back on the Trail
The aching emptiness I felt after leaving the trail grew so much that I left home and took a bus to Ashland on Aug. 7. I would indeed spend the remainder of my summer hiking, even though I had almost no money, and hadn’t fixed what I’d left the trail to fix. The bus arrived in Ashland, I met up with hiking buddies and got a hitchhike to the trail. Instead of feeling exhilarated as I’d expected, the aching emptiness only got worse. The smoke made the sun bright red, and every step I took rocked me with dread. I’m not being melodramatic. I truly felt awful. As I was trying to fall asleep under a tree, I considered kneeing my arm so hard that my elbow would dislocate. I considered jumping from a tree and landing on my arm so it would break. I was miserable as I looked through photos from earlier in the summer and thought about breaking my bones. And then I realized that my morbid thoughts were only occurring because I didn’t actually want to be back on the trail. I wanted an excuse to leave but was too afraid to call home and show back up only having hiked 30 miles. That was weak and pathetic. I was neither weak nor pathetic.
I began to wonder why I was so desperate to leave the trail again after being so desperate to get back on. It didn’t make sense. I wanted to recapture the wonder and joy and pain and vulnerability I felt during the first half of the summer, what was wrong with that? Why was that impossible? The more I thought, the more I realized that I was back on the trail for the wrong reasons.
- I was back on the trail to try to relive the beginning of my PCT experience. This was impossible because I had already grown and learned from those experiences. Even if I recreated my desert or Sierra trek, with the same people, rides into town, hitchhikes, etc., it wouldn’t be the same because I’m a different person now that I was then.
- I was trying to lose more weight. In my “Why I’m Hiking List,” I said I was going to hike because I wanted to love my body. During the first 1,200 miles of the PCT, that’s what I learned. My body felt like a machine, my heart pounded, and I had never felt so proud of myself. But here I was, feeling absolutely disgusted with my body and its performance.
- I hadn’t addressed the problem that I had aimed to fix when I got off trail in the first place. When I called my mom in the middle of the trail near Truckee, I felt a huge sense of relief that I would be leaving the trail. My mind was all over the place; I felt angry, confused, and tired. The Sierra had wrecked me mentally, and I wasn’t ready to hike into the smoke of Northern California alone again. I was caught in a weird state of limbo. It’s hard to explain, and even harder to rationalize.
Heading Home Again
I felt numb as I hitched back into Ashland. I had failed myself, I had failed my trail family, who was somewhere in Northern California, and I had failed my family and friends, who were expecting not to see me for the rest of the summer. And then… NO! I hadn’t failed anybody, especially myself. My experience on the Pacific Crest Trail was completely unique, and not a failure at all. In fact, it was an accomplishment just to get on the trail as a 19-year-old, completely alone, and with very minimal backpacking experience. Still, though, I felt embarrassed.
The rest of my summer was calm and uneventful. I slept in, packed and repacked my school backpack, and washed my trail clothes more times that I could count until my mom was satisfied that they smelled no more. None of my friends or family members were disappointed with me. They were actually super happy to have me around for the next few weeks. My trail family understood completely, and I visited them when they reached Bend.
They were exhausted, emaciated, and just generally seemed dull compared to the last time I had seen them. Did that make me happier that I had left? Yep.
Why I Decided to Leave the Trail
It’s hard to reintegrate into society after a trail. I spent the majority of my hike in complete isolation, going over mountain passes alone in the middle of the night, listening to audiobooks at 3 a.m. as I paused for the umpteenth time to shake the sand out of my shoes in the desert. I camped with my trail family sometimes and hitchhiked into town with them if I knew where they were. I made tons of friends but spent the majority of my time alone.
Do I regret spending so much time alone? Not really. Had I not spent so much time alone, I wouldn’t have met Bob and Cari, the trail angels that picked me up in the middle of the night when I was totally lost with a dead phone and batteries. Had I not hiked at night, I would not have gotten my trail name (Spooky), which fits me perfectly. Had I not hiked alone, it wouldn’t have really been MY hike.
I decided to leave the trail because I wanted to look back on the trail with fondness. I wanted to keep the incredible memories I had made, and not only remember how miserable I was at the end. I left because I was out there for the wrong reasons. I left because I was too tightly wound up in my head, overthinking things and mentally tearing down everything I had built up during my hike. I left because I had no more money and school would be starting up again in a few weeks. And I left because I felt like it. Must I say more? There’s really no reason for me to justify my feelings to anyone, especially myself.
One of my inspirations to hike, John Zahorian, said in a recent video of his that he also left the Pacific Crest Trail because his heart wasn’t in it anymore (around 3:10 of this video). My heart wasn’t in the trail after I left at Truckee; it truly wasn’t. John then goes on to say that you just have to go after your dreams, and whatever happens happens. My dream was to love myself, and I accomplished that, just not quite in the ways I expected. It just so happened that my heart wasn’t in the trail anymore. So I left.
It’s OK to take care of yourself. And self-care doesn’t just end in taping blisters and taking zero days. It’s so, so, SO much more. Even if you’re thinking about hiking the PCT, you’re accomplishing things. You’re ambitious, adventurous, and ready for a life-changing time.
So, the Problem with Isolation on Solo Thru-Hike?
My expectations were unrealistic. I was trying to hike for other people, even though most of my hike was spent alone. My isolation made me doubt myself too much. My isolation made me lose my mind. My self-love hike morphed into something horrible and disgusting by the time I finally realized it was time to quit. I got too caught up in my head. I was scared, angry, numb, and most of all, confused. I had spent so long suppressing my emotions that it was hard to feel them freely.
Would my hike have been different if I hadn’t isolated myself? Maybe. But that’s not important. My hike was glorious, frightening, exhilarating, at points crushing, but completely life-changing. It was incredible, even though it didn’t end on the happiest note.
I guess my point in writing this post (and yikes, is it long. Sorry.) is to say that isolation is both good and bad. It worked for me because I learned how to rely on myself and myself alone. It didn’t work because I lost myself in my own thoughts.
My advice? Be honest with yourself before you begin your solo hike. Are you really, truly, absolutely mentally ready to spend the majority of your summer alone? What are steps you can take to not start tearing yourself down during endless hours of walking? Are you prepared to honestly reach out to other hikers if you’re in trouble? Are you prepared to talk to yourself honestly, and recognize when you’re not feeling well?
After all, this is your own adventure, and as Amelia Earhart said, “Adventure is worthwhile in itself.”
PS. The featured image is my bacon cheeseburger and fries in Mammoth (mile 900). Contrary to the image, I was actually very happy, but my emotions, even at mile 900, were a little bit volatile. 🙂
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