Before a thru-hike, many people discuss the plans before the trail and what being on the trail will be like. Few people ask what it is like when you FINISH the trail. Adjusting to life after the trail can be interesting.
The following came from discussions I’ve had on email hiking groups. It is something cobbled together from several years of writing, but it should provide some food for thought.
It is always there, of course, when you come back from the green world. You
have been living by sunrise and sunset, by wind and rain, surrounded by the
ebb and flow of lives that respond only to such simple, rhythmic elements.
But now the tone and tempo of the days switch. Instead of harmony, jangle.
—Colin Fletcher, WINDS OF MARA
In various magazines, books, and online hiking forums, there is an emphasis on gear. What kind of water filter to bring? What type of stove to use? What is the best sleeping bag?
Gear talk is the nuts and bolts of our passion.
But, gear is not what hiking is all about (for me anyway). Part of the allure of hiking for me is the journey. A wilderness pilgrimage where I immersed in beauty for months at a time. Part of the journey is the arrival back home. It is the part of the journey seldom talked about. Adjusting post trail can be interesting.
Re-adjusting after my Appalachian Trail hike was just brutal.
On August 1st, 1998, I finished the Appalachian Trail (AT).
Easily one of the happiest days of my life. One of my best friends, who I have known since Catholic school days, hiked the last week of the trail with me. My youngest brother and other friends met us at Katahdin Stream campground at 7 am.
Still remember the day distinctly. The ponds were misting for the day was cool, but warming quickly. The two miles from Daicey to Katahdin were strange. Almost dreamlike. Five mos of hiking about to come to an end. But I arrived in the parking lot, and there was Steve (brother), Leo, Jim and Steve (friend). They hadn’t seen me in 5 mos, never saw me with a beard, and couldn’t believe how I looked (or smelled!).
Climbed to the Tableland with them. But, as soon as I saw the Katahdin sign, I sped up. All but Steve and Tim fell behind. Reached the sign, hollered, took my picture (with a full watermelon I carried to the summit). The others arrived and pulled out a feast. Leo packed in a bottle of Dom (!). My first and only time drinking a $100 bottle of champagne. They also sprayed me down with sparkling wine. They said I smelled better stinking of cheap booze! We also had cold-cuts, bagels, cheese, fresh fruit. As Squanto said, “Your friends packed an Italian deli to the summit!”
Also puffed on some convenience store stogies, my youngest brother packed in. Reminded me of why I don’t smoke…
Happy..happy..happy..very happy day.
August 2nd, 1998. Shaved, showered, put on clean clothes.
I was somewhere on I-95 getting back to RI.
The rental car became very quiet. My brother, who had just graduated from high school, said “Paul. There’s something I have to tell you”.
That line is usually not a good way to start a conversation…
“While you were away, our parents separated. The family house has been sold“…
And my next question was asked with a bit of dread. I wanted to know about the family dog of 15 years who had arthritis and was going blind.
I should have known better when I asked: “What about the dog?”
STEVE: “She’s been put to sleep“.
The double whammy of getting used to civilization after five mos of exploring the woods AND getting used to the idea that the previous 24 yrs of my life did not exist made for an interesting time. Pulling up to the family home and seeing a SOLD sign on the front lawn, finding all my belongings in cardboard boxes and having two weeks to find a place to live (when I did not expect to) was a bit overwhelming.
Needless to say, 1999 was a difficult year for me. Felt lost. No one in my family could relate really. I was supposed to have “gotten it” out of my system. At 24, I was supposed to start thinking of serious things. And Rhode Island is not exactly a mecca for people who value the outdoors as something to be cherished.
Coming from a conservative, blue-collar, Catholic background, I was not supposed to do things like dreaming of taking big adventures. One was supposed to be more than enough. As the relatives said “Time to get a good job, meet a
nice girl, start a family” (Come to think of it..they still say that. 🙂 ). My friends, except for one friend, wondered when I was going to “snap out of it” as well.
Long story short…needed a change and moved to Colorado one year to the day I ended the AT. Wanted to get away and start fresh, if you will. I was not the first person who looked West to reinvent myself. Tim kicked me in the ass to get a move on. Basically said “You aren’t happy. Do something about it!” Good friends are like that…
Moving to Colorado was an adventure in itself. I might as well have moved to Guam. For most of my friends and family, going to Boston (1 hr away) was a road trip. Being 2000 miles away? Wow… Definitely became the black sheep in a family where all children and almost all the sixteen grandchildren still lived within ten miles of each other.
Think that is common for many people who finish a long trail. Feel adrift. Not sure what to do next. The goal you worked so hard for has been completed. Now what? Part of that feeling is physiological. Your energy level was absurdly high. The body becomes addicted to that level. Then, the activity ceases abruptly. But, the big adjustment is psychological. Getting used to many people again. Getting used to living on a schedule that is not set by you. Going from your “office view” being the mountains to working in a cubicle again, wondering if you can get the extra day-off for a long weekend.
I think I had a unique post-trail story, but sure of this story reflects, in some ways, for other thru-hikers, too.
My Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) re-adjustment story was in some ways better, someways worse. I figured having done the AT, and I would be ready for the post-trail “funk.” Wrong.
First, the IT industry took a big nosedive in Colorado. Even more so than the rest of the country. Long story short, the job I had lined up before I left was no longer. The company was liquidated. The job I took instead was not the most desirable one.
I fell into a post trail “funk.” Did not really enjoy where I was or what I was doing. I had trouble relating to the societal norms.
I also had trouble in large crowds; to the point if people asked me if I was OK. I am still like that in crowds, if a bit better than previously. I don’t think I was really prepared for the physiological changes. I was so preoccupied with the family issues post-AT that I did not notice the physiological issues at all. This time I did.
But, living in Boulder (which *IS* an outdoor mecca), there was much more support from other people. People who may not have thru-hiked but have spent weeks or months biking in Europe. Climbing the Himalayas. Training for ultra-marathons. They could relate on some level. People who actually wanted to hear stories. Who nodded their heads and understood.
I also became heavily involved in my outdoor group. I took over the e-mail list for a bit, organized a bunch of trips. In short, found a new “project” right away. And I took up running, helping to keep up that physical activity. The combo of running and being involved in something shortened the post-trail funk.
A lot of what is experienced right after the trail is physiological. A hiker is coming down from a drug (endorphin) high. Your body is addicted to physical activity. To go from such a high level of activity to a little is hard.
Getting regular exercise is important. A way to let out the stress, stay in shape post-trail and give your body the badly needed physical boost.
The other, much more important aspect, is mental.
The big goal is over..now what? Can a hiker find something in life that gives focus?
Keeping up physical activity, having a focus and forming a community is what helped me adjust to the “real world.” Living where I live (Boulder, CO) helps immensely too. But every community has some people you can relate to. In Boulder, it is easier. But if you look, you shall find.
So, post-trail “funkiness” can be interesting. You feel lost, uncomfortable in “normal life.” You miss the lifestyle terribly. Some people adjust better than others. Some keep on hiking. 🙂
But it is the PRE-TRAIL adjustment I really find is my main struggle.
Over a decade of finishing my AT thru-hike, I want to be on the trail again.
Weekend and even longer hikes (such as the Colorado Trail) are a tease! I don’t know if I adjusted if I still want to keep on going on these long wilderness pilgrimages. Kinda like a healthier (physically) junkie! 🙂
I once told my on again/off again girlfriend that after the CDT I’d be ready to settle down; one more big hike is all I need.
She looked at me with a Mona Lisa smile and said: “You’ll be saying that when you are 70“.
She also once told me “The outdoors for you is not a hobby, it is a lifestyle“.
Her two comments could apply to MANY people in the outdoor community.
So post-trail adjustment? I am afraid for many of us are in **PRE-trail** adjustment. We long for the next big adventure. Trying to find the balance.
Being in my thirties, I find I am struggling with this balance. Finding my life is in transition.
Part of the transition is that many of my friends are now married and starting to have families.
Having wandered on and off for the better part of a decade, my life has taken a different course than many of my peers.
Instead of a career, I’ve had a series of jobs to pay for my hikes.
I do not own a home, but have purchased a new shelter recently.
Last year, I had my first vehicle in over six years.
And now that my friends are entering a different stages of their lives, I am really beginning to question this stability vs. community pull in my life.
Back in April 2007, I accompanied the Zapins (Marni, Josh, Avery and their dog Traveler) on a three-mile hike to Lost Lake.
Marni and Josh are two of my closest friends in Boulder. What started off as a “fun run” one New Years Eve almost six years ago has grown into a strong friendship. I’ve shared holidays with them, been to many awesome places and have had discussions that go beyond just spending time together on a hike or a run. After Avery was born, Marni and Josh started referring to me as “Uncle Mags”. Truth be told, Avery has become an adopted “nephew” to me.
So, I was delighted to spend some time with them.
The hike was moderate, but always more challenging when a little one is on the hike. The hike was also a little more challenging due to the snow around the lake. No matter. The little guy enjoyed the hike. He was laughing and smiling (and sleeping!). Here is a boy that will grow to love the outdoors.
The Zapin family at Lost Lake
The hike caused some thinking on my part. It was a few weeks before I turn 33. Hardly old. But I am getting older.
I’ve made choices in my life. Choices that are not conventional. Because of these choices I have made, life is a lot different than I would have imagined since taking that first backpacking trip in 1996.
That trip was a watershed moment in my life. It leads to hiking the Appalachian Trail two years later. Doing the AT lead to me moving to Colorado and wanting to do other trails.
As I see my friends starting their own families, I think of the choices I made in my life. There is one choice that leads to me not taking that backpacking trip that weekend. I’m still in Rhode Island along with the rest of my (large) family. Another choice leads to not doing the PCT in 2002 and staying with the company I was working for at the time. I might be in Portland, OR now; making considerably more money but deep in the corporate world. And so on…
All choices that lead to somewhere different.
As I approach my mid-30s, I wonder what choices I may make now that will affect my future. Do I settle down a bit? Do I continue my wandering ways?
When I did the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in 2006, I could not help but think about the need for a community in my life…but still have this urge to wander and explore. I have yet to reconcile these very different, but equal, pulls in my life.
I enjoy the time spent with my friends. By spending time with my friends who now have a family, I am seeing what my life could have been like. It is not better or worse..but definitely different from the way my life is now.
All choices involve sacrifice. The key is to make the sacrifices that will make the life the most fulfilling for each. My question still remains for me: What sacrifices do I want to make and for what ends? The simple answer is: I still don’t know.
They are questions I am always asking myself. I think I’ve found the answer..but then I feel the pull again.
I sent out an e-mail to some CDT friend in 2007:
Hard to believe….
For those of us in the CDT 2006 crew (and those who admit to knowing us.. 😉 ), it has been about 1 year (give or take) since we finished the CDT.
Feeling a bit of CDT homesickness if you will, I watched Disco’s Walkumentary again.
I laughed at the many funny memories, thought wistfully of the time spent in the Winds and think of what a great year 2006 turned out to be.
I don’t think the time on the CDT would have been as memorable if it was not for all the great people we met on the trail. Safe to say, I think many of us did the CDT expecting a solo experience and not a social one. The CDT was mainly solo for me, but the moments spent with other hikers were so memorable. There were not many of us, but those of us out there seemed to really have some great memories together. One crazy weekend in CB, marg night in Rawlins (who ever knew a pit of a town could be so fun ?), walking through some gorgeous country together and too many other memories to count.
One year later, it is amazing how many of us still see each other. A bunch of us did the 13er traverse outside of Berthoud Pass, D-low, Disco and I experienced CDT-like brutality (questionable boundaries, old and vanishing trails, road walking and snow drifts included!) around Pikes Peak, we continue to hook up for beers, a few of us hooked up at the ALDHA West Gathering (sigh. not d-low or I), and one crazy and unexpected night, Speedo was in Denver at a mainly thru-hiker get together. Many of the people on this e-mail list were there. The energy was high and made for a memorable night.
What is there to say? The CDT last year was awesome. And I think part of the reason was because of the shared experience we all had. So here’s to the CDT in 2006. Here’s to a great 2007 that we are about to finish. And here’s continuing to staying in touch for 2008 and beyond. 🙂
The replies back from my trail buddies were in a similar vein.
Balancing a sense of wanderlust with an equally strong sense of wanting some stability and community in my life has been difficult.
I enjoy my community here in Boulder. But, I look at photos from past journeys, I read my journals, and I watch the videos. My mind wanders to the backpack hanging on the garage wall. I just want to grab the pack and go.
As of this writing in August 2008, it has been ten years since I’ve done the Appalachian Trail. Hiking the AT, frankly, ruined me. It was hard to go back to my previous life in Rhode Island. And it left me with the desire to continue to wander. The intellectual part of me thinks “You are are now in your 30s. You should grow up and settle down!” My gut tells me “When can I get out again??!?!” I readily admit to not knowing how to strike a balance.
For those cursed and blessed with wanderlust, you are in good company. Steinbeck wrote a wonderful book called TRAVELS WITH CHARLIE. In this travelogue, Steinbeck (along with his dog Charlie) travels the roads and off-the-beaten-path areas of early 1960s America. A chance to reconnect with the common people he wrote so eloquently about in the past.
Some of the first lines Steinbeck wrote set the tone of the book:
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. . . In other words, I don’t improve, in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable.
I’ll repeat what a former girlfriend once told me: “The outdoors for you is not a hobby, it is a lifestyle.” She’s right. But more importantly, my outdoor TRAVELS are a lifestyle for me. A lifestyle I am finding difficult to give up; a yearning that never goes away.
Even if I am not on the trail, or planning to be on long journey, the urge to get out there never goes away. Day hikes are nice, overnighters are fantastic…but nothing replaces the sheer joy and bliss of being on a journey. The simple act of putting one foot in front of another. Getting from Point A to Point B under my own power. Living out of my pack. Having the country all around me and being discovered one step at a time.
Once a bum. Always a bum.
Update 2013: In some ways, this article is a “sequel”. I am married now, trying to balance all those so-called adult things, and still trying to get out as much as I can. A partner calls it my “mid-life crisis.” At least it does not involve a 20-something-year-old grad student, a sports car and a cocaine habit. 😉