One day to normalize. That’s all I got. My flight landed the morning of Sunday, October 2nd, I went to a wedding that afternoon/evening, and then I was back at work on Monday morning.
In a lot of ways, it sounds optimal – the financial realities of depleted savings after a thruhike and combined financial demands of the frontcountry mean that a lot of people are looking to go back to work ASAP. And I was one of the lucky hikers in that I didn’t even have to quit my job to go hiking; working for Backpacker aside, my pre-hike job – teaching and tutoring for standardized tests – was flexible enough that I could just take five months off. It also usually has an increased demand right around the October timeframe, when students are gearing up to hit late November/early December deadlines, so there was plenty of work for me to throw myself into upon arrival.
Still, I’m not going to pretend I was excited about it. Hikers naysay going back to work so soon for good reason: you need time to get used to your new reality, a reality that isn’t nearly as purpose-driven as the reality you occupied for five months. A reality that is, you find, unnecessarily complex, layered with social constructs we don’t need, relationships we don’t need, stuff we don’t need. Society is great and all – it’s nice to not go off to pee in the middle of the night to see some predator’s forward-facing eyes reflected in your headlamp – but I found that what I was getting by being back in society was so much less than the price I felt I was paying.
So, pretty much immediately, thanks to an excuse from Crankster, I frolicked off into the wilderness the first chance I got. Unfortunately, between the gorgeous scenery and my angry knees and the short timeframe I had between students, the trip, after it was over, served as more of a stark reminder of what I was missing than as any sort of balm on my soul.
And between that fresh wound and the impending winter and my distinct lack of snowshoes or skis or snowboards or money that would get me those things, I retreated into my house, into books, into a heartache so fierce that I found it hard to even write about the PCT, hard to even face the joy I’d held in my heart even a few weeks prior.
Then we elected our 45th President.
I’d known we weren’t out of the woods with that, but it hurt all the same. I didn’t cry, though – I started becoming more engaged, more talkative in person and online, more stressed the hell out. When I didn’t have students that necessitated me being alone in a car with my feelings of inadequacy and loss of purpose for 2.5 hours (to teach for 1-1.5 hours), I was either reading fiction or Facebook, wading into arguments defending friends who were defending me and other minorities. The fiction was an escape from what was now apparently reality, and I’d consume a 400-page book in five days just to have some semblance of sanity in my life, given that my home life wasn’t the best through all of this, either.
And that’s how I found myself angry all of the time.
Well, not all of the time, I guess. But the tiniest little thing could set me off. Traffic, even if expected? Angry. My test-prep boss throwing work on me last-minute, even if he’d known about the work for a week? Angry. Every news article about the incoming administration? Angry, though more justifiably so. I think I began seeking out the latter in part just to have some justification for why I felt this way. Having to justify said righteous anger to Spesh? Angry.
I suspected then but know now that the rage I’ve been experiencing is just a really convenient cover-up for fear, for sadness, for vulnerability. It took narrowly avoiding what could’ve been a bad car accident – and having my first thought be “well, that would’ve solved a lot of problems” – to drive that particular point home. I know that I’ve been terrified: terrified that my knees will never heal, terrified I’ll never have another experience like the PCT, terrified that everything in my life from here on out will be compared to those crazy, wonderful, too-short five months I spent walking up the spine of the Pacific coast – and that every other experience, for however long I live, will be found wanting. I’m sad that it’s over and sad that I just can’t “get over it”, because I “should be” over it by now. So instead of finding a healthy way to cope with these negative emotions, I, like a lot of Americans, bottle them up, because culturally, there seems to be nothing productive to be done with them. And so they manifest themselves as anger. Anger is motivating. Anger can be productive.
But anger isn’t enough, either.
In December, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. Couldn’t take myself as I was anymore. Work was slow, so I decided to set some goals: start a morning routine, finish up the blog, find a way to make a living that wasn’t as soul-crushing as I now found test prep to be. The routine was easier than I thought, and I explored avenues for freelance work; while I thought, initially, that I wanted to get into freelance editing, sitting down to write every weekday – as much as it sometimes felt like a chore – was also the most freeing thing I’d ever done. It came to feel normal, to feel right, to feel… healing. Even though I couldn’t run, didn’t want to exercise for fear of making my still-painful knees worse, I exercised my mind, and my heart soared. I got to laugh
at with, cry with, roll my eyes at past me. I got to relive those days, even the days like Eagle Creek, which I wrote with tears streaming down my face. And it was in the act of writing, of interpreting and editing and reliving a lifetime within a lifetime, that I managed to find something like peace.
Eleven weeks after I made that decision – Friday of last week, to be precise – I finished the blog, and to be honest, I feel pretty lost all over again. That said, I also feel more able to focus on the positive, on the steps I’ve made towards improving my physical, mental, and emotional health. My knees finally feel like they’re on the mend; though they’re still pretty stiff and climbing stairs is something that I have to think about rather than just do and running looks more like fast waddling, I can do all of that without pain. I’ve gained back most of the weight I lost on the trail, but it seems like it’s decided to either stay mostly muscle or look proportional – though I’ve been eating better and getting outside more to counteract it, what with the
climate-change-induced spring that’s come a little early to the Front Range. I’m waiting to hear back – on more than one front – about how I’m going to spend my summer, and while said wait feels like it’s killing me slowly, I’m hoping to know for certain by the end of the week. And meanwhile, I’m still writing, and reading a lot – Octavia Butler, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston. I’m trying to feel my feelings, to GET REKT at least once a week, show myself that it’s okay not to be a robot, it’s okay to hurt. It’s okay to ugly cry at the pinnacle of Finding Dory. The ability to admit when you’re hurting – even if only to yourself – can be a strength.
It’s been a helluva long road to this point – I realized today that I’ve been off the trail nearly as long as I was on it, and I still don’t think I’ve fully recovered from what it’s done to me. I don’t know that I ever will – but I have to come to terms with that. I think that’s why many thru- and long-distance hikers are often repeat offenders – why practice acceptance of the world as it is when we know our hearts will always be in wild places? But accepting that we can only hike long-distance trails when we can hike them is a form of acceptance, and in the meantime, we spend time with other hikers, we talk trail online, we go to events like the Rockies Ruck to meet new people who love what we love. And, of course, we hike as much as we can.
I say all of this to say that what I’ve experienced, a preponderance of the overwhelming feelings I’ve had since the end of my hike (and a lot of my feelings before, re-reading some of my posts) is a natural reaction to grief. This is a normal reaction to losing the way of life you’ve come to love. And, as it turns out, there is no normal timeline when it comes to grief.
So if you’re out there experiencing anything like this, even now, even when you “should be over it”, or if it’s muted or you’re finally feeling like you’re on your way to recovery, I want you to know that you are not alone. I want you to know that you don’t have to do it on your own, that grieving, asking for help, neither of those are character flaws. I want you to know that I’m still struggling, just trying to make it through one day at a time, and it’s okay if you are, too. Leaning on our hiker friends, who know what we’re going through, and our friends and extended family, is important, both now and in the days to come.
If you need more help than a post/commiseration can provide, I invite you, even if you’re not in crisis, to talk to the folks at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It’s a free service in the US, and you’ve got your pick of communication methods: you can talk to them on the phone at 1-800-273-8255, by texting TalkWithUs to 66746, or chat with them online at the link above – and all of these services are available 24/7/365. These folks can, depending on your location, potentially connect you with low-cost or free local therapy, if cost is a prohibiting factor. If you’re not in the US, I invite you to look into similar programs, or if you know of any, do comment below, and I’ll update this post accordingly.