Looking Back After Three Months

It has now been over three months since I finished my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. At times, it feels like I was standing on Katahdin just yesterday. At other times, it feels like it has been years since I saw that sign. As for many of my thru-hiking friends, it has been a strange period of time.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been a good period of time. On the contrary, I’ve enjoyed the chance to regroup, plan for new adventures, and spend time with my family. I’ve had the opportunity to work on some cool projects; in particular, I wrote, edited, and completed Blaze, the zine I had been dreaming of writing since halfway through the AT. (You can order a copy here!) I have also crocheted a lot of interesting things: orders for hats and headbands from friends, requests for unique gifts like a teddy bear and a giraffe, a snail, a flamingo, a nativity for my mom for Christmas, and a whole lot of cacti and succulents. I participated in three craft shows, which enabled me to get back in touch with my creative side and make new connections. I have painted, embroidered, and started knitting a cowl. (My knitting is abysmal and the cowl is rife with glorious mistakes, but it’s fun to practice.)

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The cover of Blaze, the zine I wrote about my thru-hike of the AT. Patches did the illustrations for me, and the result is better than I could have dreamed. If you’d like to order a copy, check out the link above!

And of course, there has been hiking. In October I went on a three-day backpacking trip at Shawnee State Forest in Ohio with my friend Wiggs, whom I met on the Appalachian Trail. We’ve been walking together both on trails and in life since that weekend. We’ve explored John Bryan State Park near Yellow Springs, as well as smaller trails in Columbus and Cincinnati, among other places. Although our respective thru-hikes ended in September, it feels like the trail has extended into off-trail life. We are enjoying this new adventure, and are excited for all the adventures to come. (Look out, summer 2020!)

I’ve been grateful for the chance to spend time with family and friends, and I enjoyed being home for the whole Christmas season this year. I’m doing things I love, I’m starting a teaching job that I’m very excited about next week, and I finally had the chance to read a few books for once.

And yet, I still miss the trail every day. I miss the directed, consistent goal: get up, eat, walk, sleep, repeat. Day after day, footstep after footstep, until you reach the end. Six months of days spent doing one small piece of a massive adventure. I miss sleeping in my tent and waking up with the tentative sunlight peering through the silnylon walls. I don’t miss the pain or the fatigue or that very specific hiker smell, but I do miss the freedom of it, of walking into town with a straight-backed confidence and feeling perfectly at home in any place, town or trail. I miss my tramily around me, rounding a corner and seeing a familiar face, sitting around a campfire and eating my millionth broccoli-cheddar rice packet (but I don’t really miss those rice packets). I miss the sound of a stream next to a campsite and the comfort of sunset by a pond.

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This is somewhere in Maine. The northeast portion of the trail was probably my favorite. I miss the soft paths and conifers.

It seems sometimes that the further away I get from my thru-hike, the more I process and understand its gifts. The AT taught me so many things, made me see the world in a slightly different way. It made me less desperate to know exactly what’s going to happen, made me more flexible and okay with uncertainty. I still remember these lessons, but sometimes I worry that as time passes I’m losing the positive changes the AT made in my life. As soon as I finished I felt refreshed and reset, if anxious and disappointed that the trail had to end. I felt like things that used to bother me in off-trail life weren’t quite as annoying, and that I was more empathetic than I had been before. But now, it’s harder to remember what the lack of worrying feels like, what it felt like to understand where people were coming from and not to get upset about things that didn’t matter. Sometimes I feel like I’m right back where I started: short-tempered, easily upset, antsy.

I know I’m not really losing it, because I can still close my eyes and think about these important realizations. The trail lives inside me now, and that experience will never go away. As time goes on, I will just have to work harder to remember what the trail instilled in me, and how I can apply it to everyday life.

Anyway, that’s more than I meant to write about post-trail life. But there you go. Some reflections.

A few weeks ago, I reread my last entry from Maine, which I wrote on the plane leaving Portland. I decided to add an edited version of it here, as a kind of bookend for my AT posts. Thank you for reading this, and thank you for being there for me, whoever you are. I am grateful.

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The tramily at Katahdin! KG finished before us, on September 18. Patches and I finished on September 28th. Even though we were 10 days apart in summiting, these two defined my thru-hike and I can’t believe how lucky I was to meet them.

2 October 2019, in a plane flying from Portland, ME to Atlanta, GA, 19:34

When I’m in a plane that’s taking off, I love pressing my face to the plastic window and watching the world shrink under the wings. Tonight, leaving Maine and heading home, we’re rising from the ground as the sun is setting. We ascend, wheels streaming, velocity increasing, and we’re flying over the ocean. There’s a lighthouse down below us, and I can see its beam throwing itself out onto the waters. How small it looks from here, this tiny pinprick of moving light.

As the world rushes by, I put in my headphones, select my AT playlist, and play “Birdhouse in Your Soul” by They Might Be Giants––what has become, for me, the unofficial anthem of my thru-hike. (Thanks, Nemo!) Drum beats, a catchy refrain, and I’m ascending more, more, more, up and into the clouds, turning south, and suddenly there is the melting orange sunset outside my window. Deep blue fading downwards into layers of yellow, orange, purple. The kind of sunset that could seep into the trees rimming a northeastern pond; the kind that calls for loons and crisp evening air.

And then I see it all behind my eyes. Georgia to Maine.

The enormity of what I have just done hits me. I stare out the little oval towards the sunset, songs playing in my ears that call back specific memories and images. I saw it all. I did it. Two years ago I hiked Katahdin while my family was in Maine, and I told her I would be back at the end of a thru-hike. And I did it. It is done. I kept my promise.

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A sign on a tree, above a blaze. This was somewhere in New York.

The last three days I have been reeling. Floating, really. I oscillate between a desire to plan my next thru-hike and the need to savor this one. I feel like I should be doing something, but I can’t muster the enthusiasm. I had so many ideas for projects, things I wanted to do when I got done hiking, but now I feel shell-shocked, numb. I keep playing memories of the AT behind my eyes like an internal movie on constant loop.

It isn’t so much that I want to be hiking again as much as it is that I want the experience back. There was nothing like walking into a store, restaurant, or hostel and knowing every single person there. There is nothing comparable to the sense of ultimate comfort of hiking. On the trail, you get people at their rawest, most exposed, and most honest. We are who we are, completely. We have nothing to hide behind, and we become close, fast, because of it. We can fall asleep almost anywhere, eat almost anything, talk to almost anyone. We stick our thumbs out for rides and hope for the best, and don’t think twice about it. We trust each other and we trust the trail.

In the woods, I know who I am. I know exactly how all of my gear works, what I need, how to make myself comfortable. I can tolerate storms and heat and a lack of running water. I can dip my dirty long-handled spoon way down to the bottom of the peanut butter jar and smack a glob of it on my tongue. Perfect simplicity, perfect lack of need for anything beyond what is absolutely necessary. That comfort, that confidence, is what I know I will miss.

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From left to right: me, Patches, and KG, in front of Stratton Pond, Vermont

This world, this country. It has an obsession with more. More, says the big fancy house. More, says the new car. More, say the corporations. More, say the insurance companies. More, say the shops and websites and billboards. We know this; it’s ridiculously trite to even start this conversation. Money rules. “What will you do after this?” asks everyone I know. “Good thing you’re doing this now,” say the older folks on the trail. Meaning, good thing you’re doing this now before you are tied down to amassing wealth for the rest of your life.

The trail, meanwhile, whispers less. Less, say the trees. Less, say my back and my joints.  You need so much less than you think you do. There is real magic in making do; there is such undervalued joy in seeing how well you do with less.

This is not to say I’m a “minimalist,” or that I’m going to sell all of my possessions and walk on my knees though the desert. I’m privileged to be able to hike and see the world this way. And I’m a hypocrite; we all are. We have things, and we use them and need them, and we mess up, and that’s okay. 

I just don’t want to be pulled into the more-ness. I don’t want to succumb. I don’t want to stop learning the rich ways of the long, thin place I called my home for the last six months. Her call is so much harder to hear, and I don’t want to lose her.

I wondered, before I got to Katahdin, how you end a thru-hike. How you just stop walking. How you tell your friends goodbye. I still don’t know how to do it. I kind of just did it. I kind of just let them slip through my fingers, sand from the hand of the Dream King returning to the soft places. A wave, a hug, and the end had already passed. Now, I am heading to whatever is next. I hope I never learn how to stop walking.

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Sunset on Annapolis Rocks, Maryland

 

Maine

Maine. Legendary Maine. The northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Land of conifers, slippery uphill slabby rocks, moose, Moxie, Mahoosuc Notch, and some of the best hostels on the entire AT. Maine is 281 miles of rugged footpath vaguely loping from one point to another. It is cold mornings, fabulous views, fall foliage, and misty clouds parting into afternoon sunlight. It is Baldpate Mountain, campfires, all-day vaguely-rain, loons, ponds, canoes crossing the Kennebec, the feeling of eventual ending. It is laughter with friends morphing to steam in the evening air. It is warmth and struggle. And yes, there is Katahdin. But Maine is so much more than the end point.

It was my favorite state on the Appalachian Trail.

I was tired, but I never wanted it to end. It did end, like all things do. But first, there were almost three hundred miles of beauty that I will never forget.

Here we go. The last of the AT entries. The final state. Enjoy.

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That moment when you’ve walked from Georgia to Maine

12 September, Long Pond, 12:15

When I think of Maine, this is what I imagine. A soft shore of a lake with clear, shallow water rippling to land. Loons calling in the distance. Pines and firs on the edge of the water. Clear blue skies and the mountains beyond. It’s perfect, and it’s ridiculous. The sigh of the water could be a track on a “Sounds of Maine” CD. Are those loons even real? I’m losing my mind watching this scene. As the wind pushes to shore the tiny waves lap and flee over and over. I could have plucked this place from a magazine featuring local trails and nature walks for weekenders. It isn’t fair. It’s so beautiful, it’s just not fair.

It is bizarre to be approaching the end of such a long journey. I’m done with the walking, over it completely, but I don’t want to be done with the trail. Friends have gone ahead and people we know have already finished, and we have a new tramily now. It feels like change, that only constant, is seeping into the cracks of on-trail space time and saying this is ending, you’ll have to let it go.

A few days ago I was desperate to be done—wet, uncomfortable, uncertain. Now, I know I’ll miss this. The presence. The light. Hearing Jingles laugh at our silly inside jokes. Singing Les Mis with Patches to get through a rough mile. Listening to Platypus tell me about trees. I never want any of it to stop. But I feel that things are coming to an end. There will be other trails and other summers, but never another trail and another time like this one.

And I am okay with that, in a way. When this is over, it will be through. I will leave it behind and hold it forever, just the way it was. Not a journey that was perfect or exactly as I imagined, but something much better: the adventure that did happen, the people that I did meet, the things that I did experience, the lessons that I did in fact learn.

It’s almost too perfect the way the trail parallels life. As much as we expect things to be a certain way and work towards their fruition, the fact is that nothing is set. Everything is always becoming something else. I remember how my mom told me once that when she was young, she had this idea about life that went something like this: you work hard and you learn all there is to learn, and then you start your life and you’re set from that point forward. And then she learned of course that this isn’t how it works, and I’ve come to realize it firsthand too. We’re constantly learning, or we should be. We are always evolving. There should be constant addition and subtraction as we move through the world. Life is always beginning and ending, and we are never set. Learning to live in that tenuous liminality is the real gift of walking.

So I know the days by the ponds with the loons will come to an end. It’s just how it works. There is no other way. I don’t want to think about that right now, though. I’m just going to sit here, Jingles on my left and Patches on my right. My friends; my family. We’re just going to eat lunch and sit in the sand before everything starts moving again. Here we are.

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Somehow this turned out as the most underwhelming photo of Maine, although the moment was lovely. This is Long Pond. There really were loons.

13 September

Piazza Rock Shelter, 06:10

I was cold last night. I had to sleep with my filter because it felt like freezing. Fingers of cold air kept slithering into the space between my down quilt and my sleeping pad. I kept waking up, feeling every bruise and ache, trying to keep myself from longing to be home because I know I’ll miss this, all of it, even the discomfort and the frosty fall nights in Maine. It’s so hard now not to fantasize about a warm, comfortable bed and a hot shower, and a meal that doesn’t come from a bag. I could foam at the mouth right now imagining the way my childhood home smells in October, with my mom’s pies in the oven and a host of autumn candles sending pumpkin and caramel into the air.

But I have to keep myself from falling into these thoughts, because I still have 218 miles to go, and I’m still out here on the trail that is my home. I still have people to meet, I still have mountains to climb and things to see and lessons to learn. I have to get out of this sleeping bag and into the cold air. I am so close, but I still have to keep moving.

On Saddleback Mountain, looking towards The Horn, 13:12

I will never get over how beautiful this state is. Treacherous, yes. Cold, yes. And beautiful despite this, or because of it. The trees are slipping into autumn robes everywhere around me, in the valleys, on the distant hills. I look downwards and then up, a parabola from me to the next peak. I see the path I’m about to walk. It looks so easily erasable, just a thin brown pencil line wiggling between one point and another.

I see Jingles down and across the dip, ascending towards the Horn. She’s a tiny purple speck sauntering upwards. It hits me: we are just little things. Such little things, walking. But we contain so many worlds. I’m here in my head and she’s down there in hers, probably rocking out to something loud, and somewhere behind me Patches is probably listening to a podcast, and up ahead Platypus is managing a severe lack of snacks. So many of us out here, occupying our own distinct universes, while we share a smidge of space-time out here on this path.

It’s so cool. I love this place. This trail has made a home for itself inside me.

20 September, Moxie Bald Mountain, 07:34

Last night I cowboy camped here with Sorte and Zippy. We got to the summit just as the sun was setting and drank hot chocolate while the world turned orangey purple. I fell asleep with starlight streaming in my eyes and the Milky Way loping across the night sky. It was cold, colder than any other time I’ve cowboy camped, and I had to wear all my layers and pull my buff over my face to keep the chill out of my bones. I thought about Max Patch, lying in the grass with KG and Patches, one of the first nights when I felt like I really started to know them. Last night felt like a sigh of acceptance. I will be in Monson either today or tomorrow—the last town before the 100-Mile Wilderness, and the last stop before I summit Katahdin. The last hostel and the last full resupply.

I didn’t let myself think about Maine any earlier than Vermont. If you think about the end of a thru-hike when you’re in the middle of 2,192 miles, you’ll drive yourself insane. So I thought about other places instead: Hot Springs, Damascus, Shenandoah, Harper’s Ferry, New York, Rutland, the Whites. The goals were little and manageable, bumping just ahead to the next destination when one was reached. So when I crossed into Maine, and realized that this trail did, in fact, end up here, I had to start thinking about Katahdin.

Katahdin. The sacred mountain. Already summited by some of my closest friends on trail. The end is within sight, almost literally, just about a week away now. All of the memories of my hike are starting to play behind my eyes like an end-of-movie montage. I see laughter on the way up steep mountains, epic sunrises and sunsets, curses and cirrus clouds at sunset in Shenandoah, reading books over coffee and watching movies in tents. I see ponds and silence, tears, Sour Patch kids, entirely too much peanut butter, and the feeling of clean relief after taking the first shower in six days.

They’re all there, these and more, in my memory. My friends are all in my heart. I’m not ready, and never will be ready, for this hike to come to an end.

How do you end a thru-hike? How do you get to Katahdin, and realize that you are done walking? How do you stop walking? How do you tell your tramily goodbye?

I guess I’ll find out soon.

26 September, Rainbow Lake Campground, 13:18

I’ve just finished a meager lunch from what remains in my food bag. I still have 7.9 miles to go, and I’m taking it easy today, since my 27.1 yesterday took it out of me and tore up my feet. I haven’t seen Patches or Platypus in two days, and Jingles is a day ahead and summiting tomorrow. I was alone all day yesterday and I have been for most of today, with the exception of chatting with Data at the shelter a few miles ago. I stopped here at this lake for lunch because I needed to be on the shore of a body of water. I needed to hear the little rippling waves lap up against the rocks. I needed to see the reds and oranges of fall across the lake.

A loon calls from somewhere in the distance. And then, all of a sudden, I am crying. Something about that sound, the two melancholy notes from across the water, makes me able to feel the palpable closure of this journey. I see the book being shut. I see the credits ready to roll after the final scene. Tonight I’ll sleep at an Appalachian Trail shelter for the last time on this thru-hike. I will finish the 100-Mile Wilderness, and all that remains afterwards is Katahdin. When I summit that sacred mountain, I will no longer be engaged in a focused pursuit where the only major daily task to accomplish is to walk. I won’t wake up to fireflies in my vestibule, I won’t step carefully over roots, I won’t scrounge around the bottom of my ursack for a jar of peanut butter. I won’t see notes in logbooks and won’t have any more logbook entries to write. Won’t sign my trail name or write “to the world!” for any other hikers to see. I won’t stay in any more hostels or eat my soul out at any more buffets. I won’t stop for lunch at a lake in Maine and hear the loon calls.

How the fuck do you just stop walking? How can you go back, once this is what you’ve known? I hate this trail sometimes, don’t get me wrong. I screamed at it in the dark last night, begging it to just give me a nice easy walking surface for once. My feet pulsed and ached with every step and god, I just wanted to be done. I am ready to be done. But life can never be easy, can it? What’s the fun in a straight, flat, unchallenging path that goes on for miles? What’s a hike without a little pain? What is an existence that does not contain a little madness, a little darkness, a little fear?

The loon cries again. The tears redouble. God, I’m always crying. It’s my default method for dealing with the madness of emotions too big to grasp. The wind pushing gently towards me feels like the spirit of the trail itself entering my blood cells. You did it, says the Appalachian Trail to me. You said you were going to do it, and you did it. Look at me and love what you’ve done.

I love what I have done. I love this trail. I love my people. I love what I have become.

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September 28, 2019. I summited Mt. Katahdin after a northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail lasting 6 months and 4 days, and covering 2,192 miles.