Your 4-Step Checklist to Recovering from Post-Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker Depression
First, let’s run some numbers.
It has been ten weeks to the day since I sat atop that iconic Katahdin sign. If we stack ten weeks on the date March 3rd, the day I started hiking, that puts us at June 9th. According to the journal I kept along the way, on June 9th I was already at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. In other words, in the time that I have been back home I could have hiked half of the Appalachian Trail.
Now, let’s consider what I have done in lieu of hiking.
Alright, that’s a big, whopping lie but all this time spent sure seems to translate into nothingness when you’ve got the attitude of someone who used to fill her day from morn to dusk with walking. Of course I’ve done plenty and on paper it sounds good. I’ve moved into a new place in a great part of town. I’ve gotten a job I really enjoy. I’ve even done a bit of traveling and camping here and there whenever possible. Where I fool myself is that these things are not traceable by following the progress of a tiny pinprick moving up a four foot map. Therefore, they leave me feeling that since I have returned home, I have become aimless in my wandering. I suddenly find myself directionless, no “north” to be heading towards.
Returning home and struggling to fit back into the old life is a natural and unavoidable occurrence for every thru hiker. The initial battle is with culture shock. You have to relearn to live as a domesticated animal, shedding the wild coat you grew in the woods. You would think that relearning the habits of an old life would be simple but this can take a bit of adjustment time. It requires effort to remember to put on deodorant every day and to realize that just because you haven’t gone a whole week full of physical activity, you should still take a shower every other day or so. Old habits die hard, as they say. After all, one doesn’t become “Hiker Trash” over night. It takes a while before you are cooking a pasta side you spilled on the ground regardless of the extra fiber or wearing a trash bag in the laundry mat so you can wash all your clothes at once. To this day, I am still get frustrated when I can’t excuse myself to the nearest patch of secluded foliage if there is no readily available restroom.
The other part of the struggle, the more difficult and deep seated conflict that rages within, is the inevitable shift in the way you perceive the world around you. I came home to find that everything was exactly as I had left it but some how simultaneously different. When I got honest with myself I began to see that it was just a result of that fact that I, and every thru hiker for that matter, had lived a life so incongruent with the one I left behind that it caused a major paradigm shift. Suddenly I was back in the turbulent birthplace of modern conveniences, thrown head first into a world that places extreme value on things like microwaves and fast food, TVs and wide spread 3G. Every hiker knows that the trail instills in you a true sense of what is important and what is superfluous and it is a tough sentencing to come back to a world rife with excess after living such a fulfilling life of the most paired down and simple manner.
When up against these two major facets of assimilation, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the demands of the world around you and succumb to a case of the dreaded post trail blues that sends so many hikers into a depression. Resetting roots can take a while and it is easy to get down on yourself, but it is crucial to allow for a time of rebuilding after the trail. In fighting off my own dejection, I have found that there is within me this misguided idea that my life should always be as epic as the time I spent half a year traversing the spine of a great mountain range. If only it were a self sustainable lifestyle. These days, I may not live in a hip city full of people who share my passion for the outdoors and the arts but my rent is cheap and my neighborhood is a nice community. I may not be working a stellar dream job and building a solid career but I enjoy my work as a barista and a custom framer and it pays my bills with a little extra to tuck away for the next adventure. Mine is a simple life of small satisfactions that leaves time for art, writing and hiking. I’ve got it made, if only I could convince myself to let up.
Despite the warning, the transition has been really tough, for both me and several other hikers I know, but it doesn’t have to be hopeless. Here are some actions a thru hiker can take to help become focused on a new path in life and maintain positivity.
1) Don’t forget your trail lessons!
This fast paced world beckons us to fret and worry but the trail has taught us that we need so much less than what we are told we do. If we work hard and seize opportunity then the forces of the universe that guided us along the trail will provide for us in our daily lives as well. It took me months to find a real job and I did my fair share of nail biting before I landed one. But before I did, the same ‘anything goes’ mentality I had on the trail lead me to a plethora of random and very interesting side jobs such as catering a luncheon for Delta employees in a maintenance hanger at the Atlanta airport and constructing twelve foot mythological creatures out of Christmas lights at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. The trail equips you with a set of skills to do anything both physically and mentally. You just have to remember to reach into your pocket and pull out the most applicable skill.
2) Keep in touch with your Trail Family
There is no tighter bond that that of thru hikers and that tight community can leave a gaping hole. After a near death experience and making it out okay on the other side, or verbally ripping someone apart and them knowing its just the rain and mud talking, or standing on the edge of the world and having someone there to bask in the glory with, your ideas of friendship changes. As deeply engraved on my heart my love for my hometown friends are, they can not quite relate to the trail experiences I had and sometimes I need another thru-hiker to commune with. One of the best actions I have implemented in easing my own transition is a simple email thread between fellow thru-hikers. We started it only days after we finished hiking and added more 2,000 milers onto the email list as they finished up the trail. This is a fantastic outlet for us to keep up with one another, reminisce about the trail and feel like we have someone to talk to who understands our strange situation. I recommend it to all!
3) Accept that you are different
You just walked 2,200 miles in roughly half a year. That’s more than most Americans walk in half their entire lifetime, which is approximately 76 years long. That’s wild! You have seen things many people will never see. You have had revelations that many people will never understand. You have scrapped the bottom of that barrel and soared at the highest peaks. Its hard to relate with others sometimes because, unlike many, you have chosen to overcome your fears and uncertainties, have gone out and experienced the world in a raw way and now can barely fathom a life in which someone didn’t step out of their comfortable little box. And while those who do not choose the life of discovery will forever have the short end of the stick in life, they have the right to that choice. As thru hikers we must simply let it be.
4) Find a new Katahdin
After such a complete turnaround back to a life that leaves you lost and without purpose, the best thing you can do for yourself is to hit the ground running and set a new goal, a new Katahdin (or Springer) to walk towards. This is mostly a psychological ploy to keep you active and motivated and save you from becoming a sad couch potato. It is not even pertinent that you complete the goal, just that you buy into it enough to excite you about your future and take active steps towards making it the present. Upon my return, a move to Denver was my new Katahdin. Then it changed to Olympia and who knows where it will be in a few months. But the point is that I am now working two part time jobs and stacking cash to move westward, maybe even subconsciously to be closer to the Pacific Coast Trail. Motives are unimportant, but motivation is paramount. Just pick a new “thing” and start cracking away at those miles until you get there!
Also, for you thru hikers who have a copy of Zach Davis’ book Appalachian Trials, reference Chapter 9 for more information and his take on the subject. For any prospective hikers, pick up his book and read it a few times before you hit the trail. It will pay off!
Find Appalachian Trials here if you don’t own a copy.
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Great article, although its over 3 years since summit day and I still have very low days of post-trail depression. But as advised, I am planning a PCT as my next Katahdin!