I’ve have always been amazed at thru-hikers. And I would relish sitting down and discussing what it was like spending six months on the trail. But to the non-hiker, or non thru-hiker they may not know how to respond to the enthusiasm of thu-hiker. Contributor Rachael Leahy thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and had confusion on the lack of enthusiasm when she returned to real life. Read below her thoughts.
During my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, I wrote extensively about my experiences, the people I met, the mountains I summited, and crazy life on the trail. Upon returning home, however, I was unsure what to say as I am stashed (temporarily) in a soul-crushing corporate job and only dreaming of adventures to come. Then my friend and fellow thru Puma told me that if I just started writing, the words would come.
So here I am. Recapturing my feeling of connectedness to all of my lovely hiker brethren and reflecting seriously about my AT journey and things to come.
Recapturing my feeling of connectedness . . . this actually wasn’t something I knew I was missing until I saw Puma yesterday. We slipped into an easy conversation about our favorite mountains, worst injuries, and hairiest nights in the backwoods. We played the name game – Did you meet Bigfoot? Do you know Beehive? Little Bear was a beast (in the best way possible). Did you see Cheeks carry her full pack up Katahdin? That was crazy, but pretty cool. And I realized, as we talked plantar fasciitis and rolled ankles, sewing up clothes in inappropriate places while still wearing them, the relative merits of regular and ultra-light gear, and opinions of hostels and towns, how much of a community we are. How much of a culture we are. Or technically, and as an anthropologist I feel the need to be technical about this, how much of a subculture we backpackers and hikers are. Talking to Puma was like walking into a party full of people who think that everything you say makes sense and all your (dirty hiker) jokes are funny. In other words – awesome.
Talking to Puma was also like putting down a really heavy pack for a few minutes.
Thru-hikers (and other adventurers – I’m talking to you, you LASH and section hikers, you rock climbers, you mountaineers, you surfers – you know who you are) build up a stock of crazy experiences that I think, unless you’ve always lived a crazy adventuring life, fundamentally alters how we see the world. I’ll talk for myself now though, as everyone’s journey is personal and I’ve probably generalized too much already.
I didn’t believe I could thru-hike before I left. I also had no conception of the things I’d do while on the trail: climb 10,000-foot mountains, sing Wicked at the top of my lungs on top of those mountains, live through a spider infestation in my tent, filter mud to get drinking water, spend terrified nights alone in the woods, act like wooden planks laid on the trail were “speed ups” and zoom along them humming Mario Bros. music, hitchhike, ask strangers for food, sleep in strangers’ homes, meet more new people in six months than I have in the last four years, eat more food in six months than I have in the last four years, cry alone, cry with Beast, cry on the phone with Kraig, cry with Mambo, laugh uncontrollably with those same people (usually, but not always, at different times). . . the list goes on. I also realized that I don’t need or want the stuff we accumulate so easily (I Kon-Mari-ed my whole apartment when I got home!). I carried my house with me, ate breakfast and dinner in different places every day, and kept a good book or two on my phone. Throw in Kraig, add a pillow, and I’m set for life.
When I got home, however, I was astounded at how little people wanted to know about my trip. Please, if you’re my friend and you’re reading this, don’t feel obligated now to pepper me with questions about the trip. Bear with me for the rest of this post and you’ll see it’s ok.
My most ardent supporters generally asked somewhere between four and six questions about my trip (except a few – you also know who you are). The general pattern was, “Oh you’re back.” Like I wasn’t just gone for six months, but had just walked around the block. “How was it?” Life-changing, world-altering, mind-boggling. “That’s cool. Did you see any bears?” Um. Did you hear my last answer? But yes, yes. Bears are a thing. “What was your favorite part?” Oh geez. Here’s a random memory. “That’s cool. Are your feet better?” No, not really. “Ok. Want to watch a movie?”
At first I was surprised by these reactions to my trip. I kept waiting for that glorious moment when someone would engage with me on it, really talk to me about it.
Surely someone out there wanted to hang out and listen to some crazy stories?
Or, failing that, surely some of my friends loved me enough to act interested for more than a hot second. After awhile though, I recognized the pattern and stopped expecting anyone to ask more than the stock questions. I can now sum up my entire experience in thirty seconds and repeat my happy, canned answer faithfully to anyone who inquires. And this, this summation of a six-month journey into a thirty-second sound-byte, this feeling of frustration that no one around me sees how I’ve changed when all I feel inside is like a new person, this sensation of being slowly forced back into the box from which I escaped when I stepped foot on Springer, this is the pack I was able to put down with Puma.
Early on, I felt frustration, resentment, and anger. Did no one really care enough to ask a few more questions?
But then I had a seminal moment; I found out I wasn’t the only one experiencing this strange dysphoria.
This gave me pause. It’s not that you, my friends, don’t care about me. It’s not that you don’t care about the adventure, the change, the transformation. At the end of the day, it boils down to two things. The first is that, unless you have a comparable experience in your past – you likely have no metric to which to compare this experience. You don’t necessarily know what questions to ask or how to engage with us in this new place we’ve found. And that means I need to do a better job talking about my trip when you do ask. I need to revamp my thirty-second sound-byte to be less about bears and more about following your passion, your heart. I need to tell you less about the giant pizzas we scarfed down at every opportunity and make sure you know that this was a huge risk that paid off in spades in terms of experience and growth. The second thing I need to do is worry less about it entirely. My adventure was and always has been for me. I will focus more on the positive changes it instilled in me and less about externalizing the experience (except perhaps here, where if you’re reading this I rather assume you’re interested in thru hikers’ experiences).
Both of the changes, you see, are on me, not you.
So all in all – this is an apology. It’s an apology from me to you for not thinking through this vein of thought sooner, for not trusting your support when I know I have it, and for sometimes feeling alone at home when in reality I’m surrounded by a great deal of love. I hope you’ll accept it and forgive me all those times when I tried to tell you just one more hiking story! I’m putting the emotional pack down permanently now and focusing instead on getting my tried and true Baby Deuter back out on the trail for our next adventure.
Michelle, @dignthegarden still here with you today! Swipe for more photos Another place I love to hike is the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. Big South Fork is huge, with sections in Tennessee and Kentucky. It’s full of beautiful bluffs, gorges, natural arches and rock shelters. It also has great campgrounds. Pictures are from the Angel Falls Overlook trail. My favorite BSF hike is Honey Creek Loop. #hikelikeawoman #hlawamBADASSador #teamHLAW #hlawateam #mountaingirl #getoutstay #getoutdoors #getoutsidetn #getoutside #adventurewomen #SHEnanigans #outdoorwomen #sheexplores #staywild #nature #hiker #mountains #forceofnature #optoutside #freedom #ontheedge #trailtime #hikethetrail #865life #bigsouthfork
If you’re a thru having a similar experience, I hope this post helps. And if not, I’d love to hear about your post-hike experiences with friends and family in the comments.
Read more of Rachael’s hikes on The Trek.