The reentry issue

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.

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.

Categories: Appalachian Trail | Tags: | 30 Comments

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30 thoughts on “The reentry issue

  1. Ginny Henninger

    I’ll keep looking for your entries. So happy you’re home for a while, and safe.

  2. Beth

    Hey Karma! So many hikers are posting the same feelings, feelings us easy chair hikers will never have the privilege of fighting through. I would dare to bet you’re not the face book kinda woman but there is a wealth of support there for the class of 2013. Any woman that can stare down the deadly porcupine can manage the reentry into civilization. We’ll stay unsubscribed just in case. Welcome back. Beth and Bern

  3. jim beauchamp

    Ah, the things we take for granted in daily life… Sounds, lights, smells, switches! And those are nothing compared to the emotional/mental adjustment to convenient living. None but the bold know!

    With continued admiration, we will stay tuned!

  4. Dale

    Thank you, have a great time planning your next adventure

  5. Hi Karma! Following a journey of such epic proportions, the reentry into the so called real world (other world) is a minefield. I was home for 28 days before I went back to my work (two and a half days a week). Your thru-hike will continue to impact your thoughts, your emotions, your desires, your entire life. From now on. Forever. For now bask in the glory and the sense of accomplishment of your amazing journey.
    I don’t do face book, but I do email to stay connected with my friends and family. You have my email, will you send me yours. I did start my own personal blog (apart from my online trail journal) as a way to continue to write semi-regularly and share my thoughts and feelings (and adventures) with my friends and family. Sort of “after-the-hike writing” therapy. One step at a time, one day at a time, never forgetting that life is truly an ongoing adventure. ~~Flame

  6. Red

    I was so glad to see an entry today. You describe your entry as well as you described the trail. I look forward to reading your words as you continue this journey.

  7. Blackbird

    There’s always busking!

  8. Slo & Becuz

    As I said, Because and I will be watching and waiting to hear from you. Keep on writing!!!

  9. Eileen

    Oh no, you’re human! I won’t tell, I promise. I think you said somewhere that nothing will be the same as it was before AT. That is true but hard to define some of the changes. Hang on. 8 months away takes long time to return from.

  10. Trashbag

    I m do excited you made it safely home. What an adventure. Codger and I are planning to go back on May. Congratulations. You did a great job


  11. You’re grieving the trail. Wow. Thought you’d be basking in the luxuries of suburban life. Breaking Bad will be a good distraction. Hope you carry your adventurous spirit into everything. I’m still your fangirl.

  12. Ryan

    You kick ass, Karma. Still looking back to meeting you on that Amtrak all those months ago, and comparing what you’ve accomplished since to what I have. I’m so impressed, and my only real regret is that there are no more updates to look forward to. Congrats and know that your next adventure will come to you in its own time, and is probably something you could never anticipate if you tried.


  13. Norma

    I am Flame’s older sister. She shared your blog with me and I have enjoyed traveling with you every step of this journey. I am truly amazed at you two for completing something that I can’t even dream or imagine ever doing. Congratulations on sticking it out, no matter what anyone said. Amazed at you.
    Loved reading this reentry issue on my 68th birthday. Thanks for sharing this adventure with us. You are the bomb.

  14. milkman

    Hey Karma,
    Everybody has been asking about you.
    Stop in our new place.
    That goes for anybody reading this.
    We got a pretty cool place to hang out and just hang out.

  15. I wouldn’t be surprised if you find yourself on another adventure within the next few years. You were born to hike. Thanks for sharing your amazing adventure.

  16. I’m sure it is quite the task to get back into the swing of things in the “real world.” I’m sure it won’t be too long before the mundane world seems somewhat normal again. I can’t speak from thru-hike experience, but I went on a year long adventure by myself in the UK and it changed me. When I got back to the States I found that a lot of the things I use to do didn’t make any sense to me anymore. Things like driving my car to the store 3 blocks down the road. I never drove the entire time I was in England, always hoofed it or used public transportation. I started using the bus to get back and forth to work, because I enjoyed my time in transit, being able to read for 20 min instead of paying attention to the road. Little differences like words I use, to this day I constantly refer to people as “love(s).” I’m guessing your going through kinda the same thing. Anyhow, I’ll quit rambling. I hope you will give all of us an update here and there as to how your doing. Hope the hiking bug stays with you and I get to read about more of your adventures! 🙂

  17. Amazing, totally amazing. When your feet touch solid ground, we will know you are back! Yay!!

  18. EarthTone

    When I saw you wrote that it’s over, I immediately said, “Oh no. You just finished phase one.” It looks like I got that one right. As a constant hiker, I am always obsessing with being “out there” on the trail, even if I have already hiked that section multiple times. I just need to be in the woods, with all my gear on my back, being me.

    You shouldn’t have to go as far as the MOC to learn to use a map and compass. The Delaware Valley Orienteering Association ( is right nearby you. My wife and I have done some of their events. There are so many levels of orienteering, from beginner to expert, it is easy to learn the skills. It is hella fun too. We just ignore the experts who take one look at their map and are off RUNNING through the woods to the controls. We take our time and enjoy the hike.

    Keep on hiking,

  19. Birch

    Karma, congrats on finishing your incredible journey. And, Thank You for sharing your experiences. I have thoroughly enjoyed “participating” in your hike. You are an incredible story teller. As I read your posts I was always transported back to my hike. Thank You!

    I wish I was able to assist you in some way when you came through the Berkshires.

    Enjoy your accomplishment. You have earned it. I know you are “thinking” about the PCT. I too feel the draw. If you want a smaller thru hike – think about the Long Trail. If you ever feel like doing it reach out because it am definitely looking for someone to share the experience with.

    Good luck with your foray back into real life and keep us updated. I am going to miss your posts.


  20. sarahdancewrite

    Congrats on finishing – and thank you so much for posting. Good luck in the new adventures life brings you!

  21. Bern

    My morning coffee is just not the same…….

  22. Bern

    Merry Christmas Karma.

    • Same to you, Bern! And to Beth and your whole family. And a stuoendous New Year! 🙂

      I think I’ll hit the trail on Friday to burn off some Christmas cookies.

  23. Tie dye/Karen edwards

    Hi karma. We met on a bus into rutland from the inn @ long trail. I’m in NJ now, having finished my NOBO journey on Oct 31 @ Abol Bridge. Just read your description of “stopping hiking”. What a difficult transition it is. I, too, want to keep learning how to do this better. I wish I could have found other women to hike with, but it was not to be this time. If you’d ever like to chat about any of this, please be in touch. I’m in north Jersey, in the beautiful town of Chester.
    Happy new year and happy hiking in 2014. Tie

    • Tie-Dye, hi! I remember that bus ride very well! That was a great conversation. Then somebody said they thought they’d met you going SOBO, so I wondered if we were orbiting for a while, even though the math seemed odd.

      We should get together at some point and debrief over coffee or in the woods! I’m near south Jersey, you’re in north Jersey… split the difference and call it an hour. That’s not bad at all. 🙂

      Happy new year to you!

    • Red, hi! 🙂

      I hope you get out there! Section hiking is the way to do it.

      We’ll see about the PCT. Next year would be great, but it depends on work.

      One day at a time! 🙂

      Be well!

  24. Debra Gillenwaters

    Whenever you start or PCT quest please let me know. I have so enjoyed your descriptions and look forward to what you have to say about the PCT.

    When fest is done I will become a section hiker. I may never be able to handle the entire trail, but your words have inspired me to get out there.

    To be just me.

    See you in August Karma

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