Thru-hiking will always impart a heavy sentimentality to my memories. For me, it added a kind of legendary vibe to place names, rumors handed down the trail, real names and occupations no longer relevant. This place in Washington evokes a field where Jiminy Cricket materialized after vanishing from our world for 500 miles. When I hear of towns called Hot Springs, I think of the one we dreamed of, repeating the name for a week as we shivered to sleep in the Smokies, imagining literal hot springs welcoming us like Odysseus after some major journey. Katahdin, with its appropriately dramatic name and prominence in Native American legend, was the ultimate example, an abstract vision of the final mountain, which I’d never even seen a picture of and which gradually started to appear in the distance. It was a simple, isolated drama where the goals were clear, almost everyone was friends, and the enemies (weather, injury, forest fires) were well-defined and non-human.
But, I am not ashamed to say, at the end of my hike, I was REALLY FUCKING DONE with hiking. I was so burned out it was really a chore to get through the unambitious 15 mile days we were doing at the end with my dad. I was tired of looking at trees, I was tired of eating so much, I was tired of not knowing whether I would be able to find a place to dig a cathole or whether I’d wake up in the middle of the night and fall over a bunch of times trying to find a place to pee. I was tired of hearing people talk about their mileages, about the weight of their shoes. I was very ready to go home.
But when I got there, I couldn’t really handle reality. The idea of people working out on purpose to counteract their lifestyles stressed me out. Sitting at a desk stressed me out. Driving, listening to people talk about how they wanted to buy a boat, trying to buy a new refrigerator. Why was any of this necessary? Not even wanting many possessions or stability or convenience, I found them inescapable and suffocating. I walked to Olympia just to sleep somewhere other than my own home. I slept over at friends’ in order to feel like I was going somewhere. At first I thought it was the normal readjustment period (and some of it was- I no longer cry when I see shirts that say “I cardio for pizza” and I can hold a reasonable conversation about a few normal-person topics), but the restlessness didn’t let up. So I found a job where I didn’t have to sit all day. I walked to work every day. I hiked like it was my second job, getting into better shape than I ever was on the AT because I had real food and newfound purpose.
Basically, I imitated thru-hiking with my real life as much as possible. But what was it about the hike that I wanted to regain? Was what I was seeking a genuine thing I could actually have in a long-term sense? I only started to process some of these things when I went to hike for a week on the PCT and found myself back in the same environment. Talking to the super-green southbounders, I felt like an awkward old person who couldn’t help but give unsolicited advice. I knew better how the northbounders were feeling, and meeting them made me realize what I missed most was the reassuring feeling of identity. When I could be interesting to– and even feel understood by– an outsider, using my same set of answers to questions: “Yes…Mishap…March 18…About 20 pounds.” And when I barely needed to introduce myself to other hikers before we could meaningfully relate to each other. “Thru-hiker” wasn’t an achievement, it was my entire sense of self. And now I was answering, “no, I’m just hiking a section.”
However, in Washington I’ve explored hiking more deeply in some ways. I’ve done it for more consecutive hours without sleep, much faster, on more challenging terrain, while more lost, with different people, more alone. I have been taking the time to replace the fragile sense that other people understand what you’re doing and think it is impressive with actual, meaningful facets of my identity that I can build up again. The first facet I missed was the physical aspect, because, chemically, being really active makes you happy. With the benefit of variety, I turned out to be physically capable of doing so much more without the problem of mental burnout, so this one is actually pretty trivial to find in real life compared to the others.
The second thing is some feeling of independence that has gotten stronger as I hike more alone. The idea of living off of what you have, stopping to take water straight from a spring or set up your bed for the night on whatever surface you see fit is incredibly liberating and makes you feel useful and free. This is something that luckily can be cultivated in most areas of life, and hiking alone on my odd days off has really brought me a sense of confidence and peace I have never felt before. One of the best things my hike did for me was to make me seek out real independence and face some of my weaknesses.
A third aspect of the thru-hiking “experience” is a sense of variety and adventure that I have been somewhat unable to replicate and which to me personally is the most important part. I can climb mountains every weekend, but I still miss the reliance on strangers, luck, and weather to determine my daily itinerary. On my most recent trip, I got to get creative with how to get home from the trailhead, but that’s a rare occurrence (and I don’t really want to rely on hitchhiking for thrills, or at all in most places). I get to work at the same time every day by the same route, I don’t have to wait for a guy in a construction van to pick me up at a road intersection or read confusing directions in the guidebook to find the right place. In fact, this may be an unsustainable way of life? I’m still working on this one.
The worst blow for many people who get home from Katahdin, though, is the loss of the sense of belonging. It’s so hard to go out and have an experience and try to describe it to friends when you come back. Unlike while thru-hiking, you’re not all in the same adventure at the same time anymore. It was this clash that I felt most strongly when I talked to people while section hiking, when passers-by asked if I was was coming from Canada, and I was weirdly shaken by not having a home on the trail anymore. People would ask if I was a thru-hiker, and I’d want to say, “I’m not a section hiker, I’m a temporarily embarrassed thru-hiker. There’s no car waiting for me at the end and I’m hiking at a respectable thru-hiking pace. I know what it’s like to walk 2000 consecutive miles and I’m only waiting until I can do it again.” But I knew that was absurd, as everyone I met was on their own immersive wilderness adventure. This distinction probably meant nothing to them, and obviously, the lines between different types of people and different types of journeys are not so clear.
The challenge for my life from this point is to find a bigger, sustainable adventure and to figure out how to cultivate that sense of community and belonging even though we can’t all have the same quest anymore. Not all quests are straightforward, and that’s ok. In the end, even Katahdin was really only a ruse; it wasn’t worth looking forward to getting to the mountain that only meant that it was time to go home.
(Also, I’m definitely going to hike the PCT sometime, but I already knew that.)