Well… it’s been a week and a day or two since I walked off the trail. I’ve needed at least that long to process what I’ve been feeling into anything approaching English. My brain has been wrapped in cotton—in warm, soft, ‘Cotton kills!’ cotton.
I’m calling people by the wrong names, even though I know perfectly well who they are. My brain has felt as though it’s sluggishly building new pathways to all the endpoints I used to know how to manage on autopilot.
Last Saturday my family took me out for breakfast to a local diner—nothing fancy, just five of us, all adults. Sure, I’ve been eating in diners since March. The number of diner eggs I’ve eaten could actually make an omelet big enough to feed a marching band. But this time it was weird. It was a diner I used to know so very well…. Or maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe I should start with Friday night.
I took a shower on Friday night. The pipes actually screamed when the hot water ran through them for the first time in months. I couldn’t remember the order of things: soap, shampoo. Then later, toothpaste, floss. The full-size toothbrush felt like I was holding a broom. How the hell do you brush your teeth with a broom?
The house was full of alien smells.
The heat hadn’t been on for months. I flipped it on and immediately filled the place with the scent of burning dust. Which, you know, usually happens. Let me tell you, I wallowed in that warmth. After my hot hot hot shower, I got between the flannel sheets and I dragged pillows all around me, and I wore pajamas that were way too big… and I lay there. I couldn’t sleep.
I live on a bus route. Bus noises. Sirens. Moans and rattles from the heat. House noises. Motorcycles. Screeches. Shouting outside. Underneath me, a mattress that stayed put instead of slipping around on the tent floor. I couldn’t see my breath. When I rolled over, my quilt didn’t puddle on the ground and leave me exposed. When I reached out a hand, I didn’t touch mesh; I touched nothing. Void. Vacuum. It was unsettling. I felt unanchored.
Plus the emotional reaction. Or lack of reaction. This momentous day, this… event. And I had no sort of feeling about it at all. I felt zombified.
So guess what happened after all this! How did the un-trail smite me? At breakfast on Saturday I got a migraine headache.
Hello, migraine! I blame the heat, actually; sleeping indoors in the dust and mold and mites and whatever else creeps around an old damp house, when my sinuses had gotten used to nothing but net. It wasn’t a bad migraine (well, as varying values of ‘unbad’ migraines go), but it was enough to sideline me Saturday, more or less.
For the next few days I literally couldn’t sit still. I had gear to unpack. I had eight months of mail to read. I had finances to figure out. Problems to solve. Stacks and stacks of… things, of objects, of situations to manage. Car and house and phone calls and computers to update (172 Windows updates on two computers!). Lightbulbs to change. Leaks to manage. I couldn’t remember how to do things like use the washing machine; every minute of every day was spent figuring things out as though I were discovering them for the first time. I needed food in the house. I hadn’t driven in months. There was trash in my backyard. At some point, I’d had a massive flood in the basement and I had to futz with the dryer.
I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I own this many pairs of pants. I don’t need more than one pair. Seriously, I only have two legs.
But cotton socks are soft, and my big giant padded coat is excessive and amazing. But when I saw the moose on my LL Bean flannel sheets, I started to cry, and I touched them with a fingertip. I was sad because they weren’t real moose. I cried a lot this week. Not raw crying, but I’d find my eyes welling up at odd moments. They’re welling up while I type. The hike has put me more in touch with my emotions, and I find I’m okay with that.
There was a hawk in my city backyard this week, up in a tree. That made me realize that my days of observing minute wildlife have come to an end for now. No more blind orb weaver spiders, no more grouse hiding in trees being stupid and still, no more bears jumping over downed trees to get away from me, no deer wading rivers. No more me wading rivers. (That last one’s actually not a bad thing.)
It’s been a very rough week. Very rough. But at this point I’ve done everything once, I think. Including Thanksgiving, wherein I ate until I was ready to puke. My cutoff switch for appetite had come back by Thursday. A week ago, I would have been able to eat a lot more. Continuously, in fact. In fact, let’s face it, I’d still be eating.
Oh! So yeah. I ran around and ran around and ran around and couldn’t seem to sit still, until I realized I was doing all that running around to avoid processing the facts that 1) I just did an enormous thing, a thing I’ve been obsessing over for four decades, and 2) it’s over.
Wednesday was the worst day. That day I finally forced myself to stay in my pajamas (my trail Thermasilks!) all day and relax. Breathe. And in the breathing and relaxing and stillness (or, more appropriately, while mindlessly streaming episodes of Breaking Bad, which I haven’t seen), I finally actually let the reality in a little. All the realities, but mostly the doneness of it all. It’s done. I still don’t know how to feel about that, but at least I took the first step toward… comprehension.
On Thursday morning (Thanksgiving!), I finally was able to start making lists. Lists of house jobs I have to tackle, room by room. Lists of life jobs. Lists of food I need to buy, healthier stuff so I can try to keep some of the weight off. Lists of scary things I have to do. Call the plumber. Lists of tiny things I have to do. Go through the gear. Finish unpacking. Throw out the shoes (which was so, so hard).
Friday I started poking at work. (I work for myself and I have two jobs starting on Monday, but the work is already here.) I sat at the computer for a while and just cruised around looking for backpacking destinations and shorter trips—backcountry places I can visit when the weather’s warmer. I made a long list of those.
Then, gods help me, yesterday I started looking into the PCT. I’ve been swearing up, down, and sideways that I’d never do another thru-hike. I probably won’t. But… I don’t know. I’d still like to be able to finish a thru without flipping. I’d still like to get better at this distance thing, even if I took two seasons to do one of the longer trails. There are new systems and better methods that I want to try. I’ve never really been interested in the PCT in general, but you know, there’s this sense of inevitability. Like, what else are you going to do? I wonder how many long-distance hikers drift inexorably to a second trail just because the first one got so deep in their blood that it became part of their hemoglobin? It chews at you, the trail. It chews at you even though it’s hard and miserable and unpleasant for chunks of every day.
Anyway, I even went so far as to work out the financials for a PCT hike, and I couldn’t possibly manage it for about seven to ten years (short of a another karmic miracle), so there’s no hurry. And in the meantime, there are whole skill sets I need to work on. Winter hiking—I mean, actual winter hiking with an ice axe and crampons. In snow and on icy mountains. High-elevation hiking. Better, stronger, lighter hiking; changing my mindset, picking away at the parts of it that still want to be camping instead of walking. I need to take an orienteering class; the PCT would require that I actually learn how to use a map. I’m blessed to live close enough to the Mohican Outdoor Center that I might be able to get some hands-on instruction instead of just muddling through on research or reinventing the wheel by trial and error.
There are gear things I want to play with. I never did experiment much with stoves, despite having four or five of them here. And I’m not sold on my sleep system (despite the fact that it got me through a lot of tough weather). And raingear. I need to accustom myself to a one-person shelter, which is a giant leap for me. When all’s said and done, my total number of backpacking trips is still one. And that one was enough to show me that the amount of learning I still have to do is vast. I’m still listening hard to hikers who’ve gone out again and again and again, for years. They know what they’re doing, and I want to eat their brains. That’s the good kind of zombie.
And in the meantime, there’s day hiking. Walking. Thinking. Working. Living. Reading. Writing.
As far as journaling goes, obviously, the hike is finished. I might keep the blog active, though, just to keep a record of whatever hiking I’m doing, whatever practice I’m getting, whatever skills I’m learning, whatever fun I’m having. I don’t know. My hiking life is a work in progress. So feel free to unsubscribe! 🙂 I won’t be writing a lot of entries, no matter how it goes. Certainly not more than one a week or one a month, unless I’m on a trip. Who knows? I guess it depends on how my AT lessons unpack over time. If there are late-blooming epiphanies, I imagine I’ll write a little about them.
And in the meantime, one step at a time.