I’m not a cocky person. Usually, I have a myriad of little things running through my head, putting me in my place, so to speak. When I do have confidence, it’s usually for a good reason. When Dan and I finished the Continental Divide Trail last fall, I actually had confidence that I could transition back to a normal life, and that honestly, it wouldn’t be that challenging. I figured, how hard can it be? We have carved out a life that is pretty good. We live in an old cabin in a small town – 150 people in the summer time, and significantly less in the winter – with wilderness and forest service lands literally right outside our door. Whatever it is that we want to do – be it mountain biking, running, roller skiing, groomed nordic skiing, backcountry nordic skiing, AT skiing, telemark skiing – we can either do it directly from our door, or drive five minutes to Eldora. I’d have to say that we’re pretty darn lucky. And it’s always been good enough – until now.
There’s a lot of literature out there about thru-hiking – and in almost every single one, you’ll also read about a phenomenon called “post-trail depression”. There’s also a phrase used very regularly after people get off a trail: “thru-hiking will ruin your life”. I saw these, read about them, acknowledged them, and honestly, disregarded them. It’s not that I think I’m any better and any better adjusted (heaven knows I’m not) than any other hiker out there. It’s that I knew we were coming back to something that was pretty darn good. I know other hikers often end up back in cities – and I definitely recognized how hard it would be to go from living in the wilderness for five months to constantly being surrounded by the horrid hustle, bustle, noise, and stress of the city. Heck, I’ve never been able to stand it. I grew up in a town of 1,600 people, and it’s the largest place I’ve lived.
I didn’t expect that deep, deep melancholy that settled over us after we got off the trail. Everything seemed so…tame. It seemed like nothing was worthwhile. On the trail, if we were trying to meet up with someone, it was within a several day time window. Or, as hikers coordinating a ride from town, even that would have an hour time frame.
“We’ll meet to ride back up to the pass around 9 or 10.”
“I expect we’ll be in Helena sometime between Wednesday and Friday.”
The trail life invites freedom – in its most free form – into your life. It breathes in your very lungs, it is your heartbeat, it is the blood pulsing through your veins.
But you can’t very well tell your boss that you’ll be at work around 9 or 10 – let alone that it might be between Wednesday and Friday that you’ll actually show up. There are things, simple things really, that you are expected to show up to in everyday life with. And this is true on the trail, but they’re different. If you forgot your rain shell, well you’d be a very unhappy hiker if the winds picked up, the sky opened up, and the rain cascaded down. In real life, it’s frowned upon if you walk out of the house without your wallet and phone – items I failed to bring with me for the first several weeks back.
People are intense, too. Angry, even. They stand in line, glaring, sit in their cars, impatient. It was challenging. I wanted to be alone, to process whatever was happening inside me, but we had to go to work. It was both overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time. There was too much and too little.
Heck, it was even the little things. I couldn’t just drop trou whenever I needed to pee, no matter where I was. I had to, gasp, find a restroom. It’s weird, but even those little things add up.
Where freedom and peace of mind came so easily on the trail, I found myself fighting for it every moment back in the “real world”. In the middle of November, I realized that it just wasn’t going to come easy, and started making an effort. I tried to approach it like we would a challenge on the trail – slowly, steadfast, with single-minded determination.
Every night, I incorporated a mindfulness meditation into my routine. I would make a cup of tea, drink it, and then let the calming voice of the woman who lead the meditation wash over me. I cried every night, even though I wasn’t sure why. Things got a little worse before they got better. I began crying at random times – driving down the canyon, I’d see something that trigged me, in the market I couldn’t focus on my groceries and became overwhelmed – anywhere and everywhere I became susceptible to the fountain of tears. But it slowly got a bit better: I began to be able to sort through the raging emotions locked inside my chest. When work was slammed and I was working with six people at once with more staring at me, waiting, I could breathe in and out, focusing on nothing but the breath, and come at my situation with a bit more clarity.
I then brought a gratitude journal into my life. It seemed hokey, but the rate I was going, I needed something. The meditation opened me up to being grateful, and the gratitude journal allowed me to tap into all the little things I could be grateful for. Slowly, I began to heal. Ten people standing around me didn’t cause a panic stirring within me. I could shop for my groceries. I could be on time somewhere – and I’d even have my wallet and my phone. And gradually, the happiness came back as well.
I still miss the trail life with such a deep persistent ache the when I think about it, it’s actually painful. Thru-hiking might have ruined me, I’ll be honest, but in the most beautiful way possible.