Reflections on a Trail Well Traveled
I was silly to think that we would be immune to post trail depression.
For months now, we both felt like the end of the trail would come as a bit of a relief. We love our lives in Minnesota and California, and the communities we’re apart of have always left us with a strong sense of belonging and support. The trail was incredible in so many ways, but we constantly feel a gravitational pull towards the lives we lived before.
It took till our first goodbye for the tears to start flowing. We only spent four weeks with our trail family but they became family nonetheless. We spent every night of four weeks camped side by side these individuals, climbing up hills together in the day and shooting the shit at night. It’s hard to imagine being away from them now, no longer having people around to laugh at our dumb hiker jokes or to be unabashedly confident in asking for a bite of whatever treat you’re nibbling on.
It’s not just the trail family though, it’s the hiker community as a whole. There’s something special about the hiker world that makes you feel so accepted and encouraged. I live for the days where I’m wandering somewhere and am called out for what I truly am, “hiker trash!” The total sense of dedication to one another, the willingness to go out of your way for each other, so fully characterize the people we were surrounded by these past few months. Hikers are generous, they are enthusiastic, they are compassionate. The moments in which I saw the best qualities within us radiating out of my fellow hiker trash, for nothing other than a pure love for what we’re all doing and the community we’re a part of, filled me with absolute joy. Who wouldn’t want to live in that world endlessly?
When I finished the trail, I didn’t feel how I expected to feel. I wasn’t teary-eyed or sad about the end of the experience, or overly excited about the accomplishment. To be honest, I just felt like it was any other day. Even as we got into Manning Park and began celebrating, nothing felt different. I didn’t transform suddenly into a thru hiker, devastated or excited or apprehensive or anxious or nervous or anything. It was an odd feeling, as I expected a more resilient emotion to shine through my exterior, but instead I was really just present in the moment observing the end of an era, so to speak.
I was a little saddened by this until I realized the reason why my emotions were so controlled. So much of thru hiking and being a backpacker is living in the moment. You can never have your mind too far ahead fixated on a future goal, you’ll never make it. The best parts of the trail are sprinkled within each day or peppered throughout the week, and if you’re too focused on the end you’ll miss them entirely. I learned this early on when Bighorn and I refused to say we were hiking the whole trail. “We’ll see!” we would always say in response to whoever asked us if we were hiking every mile. We accepted that anything could happen and that we might be pulled from this experience at any moment, and that helped us stay truly focused on each individual moment. Now at the end, my attention was on being with my trail family at the monument. I hardly noticed the implications of what that really meant, that the trail was actually over.
To be honest, at times my mind would wander to what was ahead, to this monumental moment. Parts of the trail that I yearned for would stand clearly in my mind, causing me to think about the future. My mind never lingered there for long though. I was almost always snapped back into the moment by the trail and it’s this quality that I think I personally was meant to learn.
All my life, I’ve lived a few steps into the future and it has hurt me in a number of ways. I struggle to enjoy the moment or seize the day as I allow thoughts of my future to cloud my mind. I’m notorious among my loved ones for being someone who doesn’t like to have fun. It’s not that I don’t enjoy fun, it’s just that I can’t help but focus my attention elsewhere and anywhere but where I am. If I was meant to learn any lesson out here it was absolutely the importance of being present and I’m grateful everyday to the trail for that. It’s transformed the way I view productivity, helping me realize that sometimes the accomplishment is simply being aware of my surroundings. I already see this as being transformative in how I approach thru hiking, should I ever pursue another trail. Rather than moving quickly, I foresee myself taking my time to linger in the places that call out to me just a little longer, to be less task (or mile) oriented.
As the end was approaching, we found ourselves often in introspective conversations trying to grapple with the inevitable closing of this chapter. We all felt generally disappointed about the reintroduction into the “default world” as Comma calls it. This was so incredible, how can we hold onto the good parts when we are no longer living and breathing the trail?
The yoga side of me preached non attachment. It was great, but to yearn for it constantly will only create disillusionment with the default world and a feeling of discontent for my life elsewhere. The hiker trash inside me though tells a different story, one where I live in the default world as if it is the trail.
Sure, maybe I shower more often and walk a lot less miles, but isn’t it feasible that we could all live life with the same excitement, compassion, and generosity as the hiker community? Couldn’t we all live in a world where we’re more presently focused, less concerned about a far away goal? If we carry these qualities with us into life off the trail, can we be better stewards of connection and community in our “default lives”?
These thoughts are sitting with me. I was disheartened by the immediacy in which the lessons of the trail can disappear when, while in Manning Park, we were treated poorly by a group of four thru hikers. They were self centered in their actions, only considerate of their group without care for the rest of us. It made me angry to see, but I realized that reaction was already taking me away from my own lessons from the trail. I don’t need to react to their actions, that only gives them credence. As long as I live the best version of myself, one who looks out for those around me as if everyone is in my trail family, than the actions of a few should be nothing more than a whisper in my ear.
The lessons will continue to filter in for weeks, months, and years following this endeavor. It simply was too big of an experience to sum up quickly and efficiently so shortly after the finish. All I can say is, the trail has changed me so much and has continued to put me on a path I want to be on. I hope the memories of this experience stay sharp in my mind forever.
But, for now, it’s time to stay focused on the moment. For Bighorn and I, that means a lot of things as we navigate what we want our lives to look like now that we’ve finished the trail.
In the short term, we’ll be back in Encinitas Wednesday morning to enjoy a few days with my parents before heading to Northern California. We’ll be working for a few months doing seasonal work and trying this time around to enjoy ourselves while doing it, rather than working endless hours to accomplish outlandish goals.
After work, we’re not sure where life will take us exactly. Minnesota is in the cards but careers are up in the air and housing is an unknown. We’re not particularly worried though because we’ve learned that with a bit of effort and dedication, the trail will provide, so why wouldn’t life provide as well?
Do I see a long distance thru hike in our future? It’s hard to say no right now as we live in the glory moments of this accomplishment. If not a long distance hike, though, I certainly foresee some solo trips in the near future. I’m letting some ideas sit with me, as is Bighorn, and I foresee us both stepping a little out of our comfort zone within the next year in hopes of working towards some new goals.
I can’t promise we’ll be having extravagant adventures in the near future on the same level as the PCT, but if you’ve enjoyed following our story these past few months I encourage you to check out our other social media. You can find us on instagram at @alexamshapiro and @youmeandthepct, and I have a blog (thirtysixgoals.wordpress.com) where I document my efforts towards completing my bucket list. I’ve been working on it since 2009, and hiking the PCT was one of the very first goals I put on that list.
Thanks everyone for all of the love and support. Until next time, happy trails.
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