For some of us, a home is on the trail. A place we left but always seem to think about.
The following essay is about the return to the home many of us long for time and time again.
I wrote this essay in October 2001 after the ALDHA Gathering and a few months before I left to thru-hike the PCT. Updated a bit in June 2017.
The essay was originally published in ALDHA’s Winter 2003 issue of the “The Long Distance Hiker”.
The return home. It is part of the journey that is not talked about when the hike is planned. In our minds, we see ourselves on the ridgeline, basking in the sun.
The triumphant last step after seeing the last white blaze on Springer or Katahdin. Reaching a forest road in a remote stretch of woods, finishing the trail after using vacation time to achieve a dream.
Seldom do we think about the return home. Adjusting to the “real world” after a few days in the woods can be jarring. Instead of sipping tea at a quiet campsite, the reality becomes drinking coffee in a noisy breakroom. We exchange the two-mile an hour pace of walking for the ten-mile an hour pace of a traffic jam on a busy interstate.
The return to what is considered civilization is even more jarring after a hike of several weeks or months.
From walking on the ridgetop of the Appalachians to walking in a crowded shopping plaza is a harsh transition. The daily rhythm of life is no longer set by where the next water supply is located or by the rising and setting of the sun. Dentist appointments, the lunch hour, and the evening news now set the daily rhythm of life.
After the return home, the mind begins to wander. During the commute to work, a campsite in a shady grove of trees is remembered. While waiting in line at a grocery store, a memory of ponies in Grayson Highlands is recalled.
Weeks or months go by. For some, a realization is made. Home does not seem to be this world of pointless meetings, deadlines, and projects. Home has become where the smell of fallen leaves is still fresh. Home has become where the wind gusts by at 30 MPH on the Franconia Ridge.
We get to return home for a little while at times. A weekend here of there. Vacation time used for the rare hike of a week. But it is a short visit back home. Not quite enough to reacquaint ourselves with how much this home means.
Sometimes we meet others who are trying to get back home. It may be raucous May weekend in Damascus, or a reflective time in October to gather together with friends who have not been seen for a while. Or we share a beer wth people who became friends.
We talk. We all recall what home was like. We listen to each other. And we wonder when we can return for a long visit.
Then one year, we can return home for a long visit. The time becomes right, debts are settled, and money is saved. The shoes are again laced; the pack is strapped on the back. We have returned home. Home may be the Appalachians or a new home in the Sierras or on the crest of the continent.
But we are home. And we are glad to return.