One thing is certain — 2016 has been one hell of a year. A turning point for the nation, for my family, for me. My grandmother passed away in the early months of the year. I then embarked upon an epic journey in April to live, really live, for a while that came to a temporary end on October 17, 2016. Upon coming back to the city where I grew up, my aunt was in the hospital and a nation was poised to elect its first woman president. Most welcomed me back, asking “how was your hike” as if it was an afternoon stroll through the woods or extended vacation on the beach, to be summed up in a few sentences. Completely at a loss to satisfy their question, I could only think back over the prior 6 months, hiking 1700 miles, climbing up and down the equivalent of the Empire State Building several thousands of times — literally, climbing the tallest mountain in the lower 48, surviving heat stroke in the desert and being on the cusp of hypothermia during 100 year record breaking precipitation for the month of October in Washington (and for the Pacific Northwest — that is really saying something), doing all of this while suffering increasingly debilitating achilles tendinitis, and doing 98% of all hiking solo resulting in a life-changing event that simply cannot be put into words, let alone summed up in so few.
I also knew and had been well warned that post-trail depression would set in — and it has with a vengeance. An excellent description of this phenomenon is expressed by a fellow hiker and blogger:
The reasons for post trail depression are quite obvious once you think about the position you will be in once you finish your hike: You will have just completed a gigantic goal for which you are proud, but few others understand. You will likely be homeless or penniless or both. You will likely have no job, and no sense of purpose. You will need to redefine yourself. You will go from exercising 8-12 hours a day to almost nothing. You will go from warm months into the cold depressing winter. You will be expected to adjust to a new lifestyle. Seems like a slap in the face, right!?
When you’re hiking, your brain will be used to high endorphin levels from all the exercise. The word endorphin’s comes from “endogenous morphine”, which means a morphine like substance produced by the body. Their effect is to lessen pain and produce a euphoric effect, much like that of morphine. By going from hiking many miles every day to sitting on the couch, you’re effectively taking a morphine addict and putting them in rehab.
Pretty much all of what Dormouse describes is true for me and could not have been written any better. The endorphin drop and time my body needs to heal from injuries has resulted in sleeping all day on some days and conversely suffering sleeplessness and restlessness for days at a time, literally vibrating with unspent energy and anxiousness. I am indeed almost penniless, and jobless, though my aunt has provided a soft-landing to avoid total homelessness. Add the separation from the most excellent of friends made all along the journey, the need to fit back into “polite” society (i.e., bathing, using a restroom, for us women, wearing makeup and actually brushing your hair, etc.– all of which norms or frequency requirements seem absolutely silly now), the separation from the challenges and shear wonder and beauty of most days on the trail and the result is that falling into a deep slump has been all the more easy. Now, top that off with the results of the election, and it seems like I have fallen into a bizarre, crazy world that I neither recognize nor in which I want to be a part.
I want to run, not walk, back to the trail and just disappear into that world of independence and beauty again. And then, the guilt hits…from all angles. Guilt about wanting to disappear when action seems so necessary right now. Guilt about wanting to just get a job driving for Uber or the like that will allow me to earn enough to survive while saving to complete the goal of finishing the trail and the journey that I started. Guilt in the knowledge that collective inaction will likely contribute to the destruction and devastation of the natural places which I love the most and feeling cheated because I already feel as if I am in a race against time to experience those places from the destruction that has already begun. With all of this, even my best friend in the world said that my heart felt desire to simply get some work to pay the bills and save until the next hike were the equivalent of “being an Olympian and choosing not to go to the Olympics.” And, in fairness, she is not alone in her assessment of my having had “enough time off” from getting back to the work in which they “need people like you,” meaning back to some kind of involvement in the legal profession.
But truths about myself that I learned while hiking so many miles cannot be unlearned or ignored. I want to advocate, but not as an attorney. I want to be passionate about what I do to earn an income, but I do not want it to consume all of me. I want to do the best that I can do at everything that I do do — including caring for my health and my soul — and feel that my best is an accomplishment worthy of respect. I want to continue to surround myself with people who are interesting and who I love, trust and admire without feeling or being told, in so many implicit or explicit ways, that I am unworthy of their company. I can live better with less stuff and more joy. I want to be outdoors at least for a large part of most days. Sounds like I just want to be …well, human for a little while longer. Perhaps for the rest of my life.
Starting the trail, I felt empty and truly exhausted, but excited. And then it started to work on me, slowly but surely. I found that all of those things that exhausted me before need not be part of my life at all. I learned that, post trail, I wanted to make sure I worked to live rather than lived to work. The trail taught me that focusing on my own health and welfare, including finding joy and beauty was not selfish but necessary to get through each and every grueling day –both mentally and physically. When work and pain did not balance out with joy and beauty (a rare thing on the trail, though the work and pain could be great at times), the day was miserable — period.
There are, of course, a myriad of lighter “truths” about myself which I knew to some extent before the hike, but truly came to appreciate during:
(a) I am a night owl — I have been since I was a child and will always be no matter what I am doing.
(b) Because of (a), I am very grumpy in the morning — approach at your own risk, awaken at your peril (yes marmots — that means you too!).
(c) Because of (a), I enjoy all activities — including hiking — during the afternoon, evening and nighttime hours and going to sleep after the sun rises and yes, I can see what I am doing and where I am going, and it is just as spectacular under the night sky as it is under the sun, and yes my predisposition to the darker cooler hours of the day made hiking in the desert a joy, and no, I am not always in the dark, but yes photos of the night are hard to take even with Samsung’s otherwise excellent camera!
(d) To avoid (b), life is simply better when I can sleep in.
(e) I love animals and even insects generally and I miss them terribly when I don’t see them for a while — right now I miss those pesky marmots, the pikas, the kangaroo mice, the owls, the bugling elk, the ambling black bears, the noisy coyotes, the serene deer, the show-off jack rabbits, the startling grouse, the majestic eagles, the spiraling hawks, the anxious vultures (though I suspect they were a little too anxious for us inexperienced hikers near the Mexican border), the rainbow of butterflies, the huge variety of spiders, the dragonflies, the horny toads and seemingly infinite variety of other lizards, rattlesnakes, gartersnakes, gopher snakes, actual toads and tiny green tree frogs, so many, many different birds, and the list can go on and on.
(f) I DO NOT LOVE biting flies with psychedelic yellow eyes that take a chunk out of you and never stand down; fire ants that do the same; mosquitoes so thick you must prepare your meals with a bug net over your head; forgetting your bug net is on your head and attempting to eat or drink before uncovering your mouth; hornets and wasps that chase you down the trail; scorpions that pop out and want to fight while you are, um, indisposed and armed with nothing but toilet paper and a tent stake.
(g) I always missed my cat Tiger — especially on those cold nights!
Alas, and with no time to adjust back into that part of the world from which I had abstained (I will not say this is the “real world” as everything I experienced in the prior six months out in the wilderness was more real than anything I experienced either before or after the journey), the electoral college favored the minority (albeit disappointingly slim) of the nation who plunged our government into the hands of a narcissistic “reality” (term used quite loosely) TV star and internet troll whose xenophobia, racial hatred, misogyny and environmental destruction became the rule of the day. Even while the majority of my fellow Americans and myself voted against such regressive destruction, the damage such a government can achieve is devastating and another slap in the face. The world with which I must now engage makes the love, respect, comradery, beauty and wonder on the trail seem like a cruel tease.
Where is my home now? The trail? Somewhere else? I hiked over 1700 miles, skipping a large section in Northern California due to an injury-induced slow pace, and proceeding to Oregon and Washington until weather conditions finally made the hike too dangerous to continue with my small group of fellow hikers a little after Stevens Pass, Washington. But, Northern California and the final push into Canada are waiting to be completed. I will return to complete them. After 6 months on the trail, the trail became home, where I felt most comfortable and when separated therefrom, even if for a few days, I would start to feel anxious to get back out there. I am anxious now, but at least have so many memories to share and more to be made going forward….
And, without further ado — below are some of my favorite pics from the Southern California sections of PCT to Kennedy Meadows (the gateway to the Sierras), picking up where my blog posts left off. Future posts will feature the Sierras, Mt. Whitney, Oregon and Washington! Stay tuned!