What the Long Trail Taught Me
First and foremost it taught me that we all walk for different reasons and our paths are all different lengths. We may all walk the same trail but our experiences will be unique. The trail has things to teach you, but you don’t know what those things are until you’re walking. And those are not the lessons you set out to learn.
I set off on this journey assuming that I would make it to the end. In fact, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind when I started the trail that I could finish. I had prepared mentally for being alone in the woods, for being away from friends and family for weeks, and having limited access to social media for days on end. I had spent months working on increasing my mileage on trail, had the perfect gear, and understood that I would be living on pre-packaged food for a while.
There were times when I thought about what I would’ve done differently in preparation for this hike, while I was on the trail, and honestly there’s nothing I would’ve changed. So when I decided to call it quits on day four it wasn’t that I hadn’t been prepared for the trail, it was that the lessons I needed to learn were taught to me in days, not weeks. That my path ended at mile 36 versus 273. The trail gave me everything I needed and to continue would have been pointless.
I learned about the peace that can only be found by spending hours alone in the wilderness, miles away from society. You let out the deepest, heaviest sigh, and all of the weight of the world melts away as you sit in silence. Being alone doesn’t need to be scary, it can actually be a very powerful and calming experience.
I realized that although I may fall, over and over again, even into mud pits when trying to gather water for the night, getting frustrated won’t reverse the falling. All you can do is get back up and wipe off your hands and legs the best you can. I learned that even when you wake up to winds gusting and you don’t know if it’s the best weather to go walking, sometimes you don’t have a choice. And those winds don’t seem as bad once you’re out in them because instead of blowing you around they’re just keeping the bugs away. That something that seems scary may actually be a blessing in disguise.
I learned the simplest things are the ones that bring the most joy. Water when you are thirsty and have spent the last five miles over mountains praying for a stream. Then finally getting to a stream with viable water and feeling complete and insurmountable joy rush through you as you fill your bottles with clear, flowing gold. And you swear it doesn’t get any better than this. It can’t possibly be any better than this, and you’ll smile.
Everything will hurt, you will want to stop, so bad, but you can’t. You can’t stop here. You have to push on because the shelter is on the other side of that steep hill that you just climbed back down swearing that it couldn’t possibly be the trail. But it is. So climb back up it and over the other side. Cry if you have to, pray, repeat “never again” over and over as you push your way up the sixth mountain of the day, but you can’t stop here because the shelter’s on the other side.
And when you get to the other side of that mountain you swore you couldn’t climb, the trail won’t be easier. You’ll have to keep pushing through mud and stream-covered trails, for over two more miles, until you finally, finally stumble into the shelter. And everything will be all better instantly. It will all seem so much less difficult from inside the shelter, with food in your belly and someone to chat with. That the simplicity of food, water, and warmth can bring peace and make even the toughest of days end with a smile.
I learned the need to slow down. To stop and look around, take a picture or two, or three. That there is so much beauty all around us if we only took the time to stop and see. That short days are some of the best days, friendships can form in a matter of minutes with like-minded people, and that there may not be a better sound than that of the wind blowing through the leaves. I learned that things don’t stay easy for long, and if the trail was flat for more than a half-mile, then you’re bound to be coming up to a climb. That the flat parts are made sweeter and are more appreciated because of the mountains in between.
But most importantly, after a short eight-mile day, with only one mountain to climb, I learned what it feels like to be at peace. To sit at a camp, to wash my feet in a mountain stream, to just be in the present and take it all in. I realized that all I want is to walk through the woods, take it all in, and then write about it. To share the experiences I have out there with the world. So that they will be inspired to try a walk in the woods. To give hope to those who may not think they’re able to do something like go for a hike. To let those who can’t experience the wilderness see it through my eyes.
Being outside to watch the sunrise after a perfect night’s sleep, in the middle of a fluorescent green forest, with nothing but the sound of the birds to wake you, that’s bliss. But to feel full without having eaten because the forest has filled you up with everything you need to sustain you, and then to try and eat more will give you a stomach ache. Climbing out of Devil’s Gulch felt wrong. The beauty of the morning began to be replaced with a sense that something was off. And I learned a long time ago to listen to my instincts. Rather than being let down or disappointed in myself, the about-face I did felt natural. It was the right thing to do.
And as I turned down the blue-blazed trail, I was smiling. I was smiling as I climbed down that mountain and scrambled over boulders before I got to the turn taking me off the Long Trail. I smiled as I texted my husband saying I was ready to go home, and I felt the weight that had somehow climbed onto my back again, drop down. The weight that had re-attached itself to me as I was going the wrong direction just moments before, fell off.
The trail taught me more things than I could put into writing and it was everything I needed it to be. It broke me down, built me back up, and showed me the simplest things are the ones that make me the most happy. It taught me that I have an amazing support group at home, that I am not alone in this and there are many people who care about me. The trail opened my eyes to what it is that makes me happy and that it’s not just being alone all the time in the wilderness. It showed me that part of what I love about hiking is sharing that experience, that I can’t do that when I’m isolated from people in the woods. Most importantly, the trail taught me that I’m not done learning but now it’s time for other mountains and trails will teach me.
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