— Thomas Huxley
Leaving the trail is one of the most difficult experiences of the trail. I had adjusted to a life on the trail. I was used to the routine, the regimented lifestyle, and the repeated phases of the trail. Life was simple. It was hard, but simple. Eventually the hike must come to an end, and we are forced to return to “real life.” That return seems to have been broken down into phases of re-assimilation to me, each having their unique flavor.
The first phase was shock, amazement, relief, rest, and celebration. We had just completed an amazing journey, our bodies were sore, our spirits were lifted, and our dreams were actualized. It is not possible to celebrate continually, so once the fizz of the champagne had settled, we needed to enter into non-trail life.
It has been nearly two months since we completed our hike. For the first two weeks after the trail, I still had pains. When I woke up in the morning, I would stand up on feet that have hiked over 2600 miles, have been my greatest asset, and greatest enemy for six months. I placed my hands on nearby furniture to brace my body as I hobbled out of the bed room. Fortunately this has passed, and I no longer have immediate aches when I wake. Occasionally, I sense some faint pain in my knees, reminding me of my accomplishments.
The most noticeable change between life on the trail and life off the trail in this phase is sleep. One would believe that I would be getting more sleep now, with the opportunity to sleep in, but that is not the case. After a fairly lethargic day (any day you don’t hike 20 miles is lethargic), my body has an abundance of energy. As such, I find it hard to go to sleep at a decent hour. If I do go to bed early, I lay restless in bed, mind wandering.
My body is still used to waking at first light, so as soon as light starts hitting my eyes, I wake up. This results in a complete lack of quality sleep. I stay up late, I sleep poorly, and I wake early. Then, around midday, I am tired from poor sleep. I want to take a nap, but know if I do it will only compound the problems of poor sleep. Two months after leaving the trail, I am still waking up early, but I am getting better sleep now.
After settling down in the daily routine of life, I have entered the reflective phase of post trail life. Life is routine enough that mundane time is spent thinking about how I spent my year.
I spent nearly six months of my life, receiving incredible support from nearly everyone who knows me, as well as an enormous collection of complete strangers. I was told on a nearly daily basis how amazing I was or how great it was to be pursuing my dreams against all odds and struggles. There was not a week that went by where someone didn’t say to me, “What you are doing is amazing,” “I could never do that,” “Congratulations to you for the huge endeavor you are undertaking ,” or “You are living your life to the fullest.”
A huge collective of people dedicated their time and resources to helping me fulfill my crazy dream of walking 2600 miles in the woods. I was a complete (dirty and smelly) stranger to them. Why did they help me? What was special about me? How did they arrive at the conclusion that I was someone that should receive their assistance? I know it wasn’t something unique to me, because several hundred other hikers received their own magic, their own assistance, and their own blessings from their own complete strangers.
I did not experience firsthand the magic other hikers received. As a result of that, my journey felt personalized. Every person I met that helped me along the way seemed to be placed on the trail specifically for my journey. They may have only been around to help Apricots and I, and no one else. This constant support from strangers gave me the illusion that I was someone special. In the back of my mind, I knew I was no different than any other through hiker. Yet, at the front of my mind, I was special. This carries over into post trail life, lending itself to what many call post trail depression.
I am not “depressed.”
I am not “hitting the bottle.”
I am not in need of “little happy pills.”
I am getting slapped in the face with reality though. I spent six months of my life hearing how special I am from complete strangers. Now I am back in the real world, seeking a job in a horrible market. I am faced daily with the challenge of competing with other people to prove myself to someone else. This is the opposite of what the trail was. On the trail, I was faced daily with the challenge of competing with nature to prove myself to myself. I had a shared experience with others, where we all lifted one another up (literally and metaphorically). Now, I am in a world where we are forced to claw our way to the top, trying to hold others down.
What is the next phase? I just hope the next phase is being a mindless automaton in a working society again. Grinding through the daily drudge of work, so that I could start paying down my debts and saving up for the next “big hike.”