Long time no see, right??
2 years ago today I was on Springer Mt summit, less than 2 weeks after quitting my job, to start the Appalachian Trail. 1 year ago today I was in on my “Southwest Tour” with Hemlock, falling in love with Canyonlands National Park, and anticipating starting the Pacific Crest Trail in little less than a month. My mood was incredibly happy and excited, neither of which have been prevalent for me recently. However, I AM happy today, keeping the streak of great March 13ths alive and well!
The down and dirty is that I’m finally getting myself together again after a nasty case of “post trail blues”. You’d think after working in mental health for over a decade, much less being warned about it by multiple former thru-hikers, that I would have been better at implementing coping strategies. I’ve definitely learned through this process that I require some serious structure in my daily routines whether working, hiking, or at leisure. When left to my own devices, I tend to burrow into bed and avoid anything distressing. For those who know me, needing structure and to follow a plan may be self evident, in a smack-me-over-the-head type of way, but I have to admit I never thought I could flounder as much as I have in the past 6 months. More happily, I’m coming out of hibernation and feel that I’m back to “following my path” and not just in a terrible sort of limbo grieving over not being a thru hiker any longer, and the sections of the PCT I didn’t hike last year haunting me.
**In case you want to read only about current hiking, please be aware that the rest of this entry and the next several will go into more details about my front-country re-entry journey as I hope it may help others to read about my experiences, if only to know they aren’t alone in experiencing or anticipating the post-trail blues and how to navigate a significant lifestyle change (hopefully successfully!). **
To remind everyone about my PCT adventure thus far, I hiked 1700 miles in 2014: from the Mexico border north 1200 miles to Sierra City CA, then I skipped to Cascade Locks and hiked the 500 miles in Washington State to Manning Park. I originally skipped due to a variety of reasons, but primarily I was worried about beating winter in the Northern Cascades — in September 2013 hikers had to be rescued in an early season blizzard and many couldn’t finish the trail (several of whom I met in August 2014, returning to complete their PCT journeys). These 2013 hikers, one and all, thought my decision was spot on considering my circumstances. To be a long distance hiker requires flexibility, which I (thought I) had learned on the AT in 2013, but I really didn’t anticipate a semi-serious illness to throw such a wrench into the planning. If I thought about illness or injury at all, which I only dealt with in very minor instances on the AT, it was always dreading the catastrophic happenstance (i.e. breaking my leg) that would take me off the trail permanently for that season, with some self perceived dignity left intact. After all, there’s not much backpacking you can do with a broken leg! My experience wasn’t quite so “glamorous”. Hiking into Tehachapi, I fell ill with a bad sinus infection and bronchitis, which necessitated several weeks off for my asthmatic lungs to recover before hiking into high elevation in the High Sierra. I took a happily indulgent trip (read “slower than normal thru hiker pace”) through the Sierra to maximize my recovery as well as enjoyment of the “Range of Light”. Not unsurprisingly, I found myself in Sierra City later than expected in July, still with some late season northbound thru hikers around, but with serious doubts I could keep a good pace to finish before the end of September (originally, I wanted to finish in mid September). Hemlock had done some major information gathering while she was concurrently recovering from a stress fracture, and shared accumulated trail wisdom that the absolute best time to hike Washington is during August, which was fast approaching. That advice was spot on – except for a few days, I had absolutely gorgeous weather and views, and meanwhile absolutely fell in love with the Pacific Northwest (so easy to do when you aren’t slogging through foul weather day in and day out). Mt Adams, Goat Rocks, the Alpine Wilderness, the Northern Cascades….*happy sigh*. I look at my pictures and marvel over the wild flowers and sublime hiking. I happily ended my big PCT section hike of 2014 on August 31st at the Canadian border — well, I hiked the 8-9 miles to Manning Park the next day, but you know what I mean.
When I skipped, my original plan was to return to Cascade Locks and hike southbound back to Sierra City, provided the wildfires had resolved. In Skykomish, I read rather despairingly about ongoing multiple trail closures, including Crater Lake, and worried legitimately about my poor lungs and wildfire smoke. An additional factor was that I was getting pretty lonely by 1700 miles into the hike. While I did the majority of the miles solo, I was very lucky to have some great trail friends around, which made SoCal, my illness hiatus, the Sierra, and Washington so memorable and enjoyable. However, the prospect of hiking 900 miles with few people around (September being past prime southbounder season in Cascade Locks) and a partially closed trail to navigate, only pushed me firmly into the “you’re really section hiking the PCT” camp. When I made the decision at the end of August, I was very much okay and happy with it. Today, I still feel that hiking these sections at optimal times of year and being able to see the entire trail was the smart way for me to go. However…..the time in-between is a different story. I almost immediately missed the trail horribly, and began to have major post-decision regret and second guessing myself. The regret I’ve felt over this decision is also despite knowing full well the trail is still there and will be there for me to finish. At first, things were going along swimmingly, being back home and seeing family and friends again, catching up on their lives and talking about my trip. As soon as the home-honeymoon period ran its course, however, I figuratively as well as literally burrowed myself away.
Since the beginning of October I’ve literally been avoiding my life – I’ve not been on Facebook or text messaging, much less this journal, barely on email until the past month or so, not going out socially or on backpacking trips, only walking a minimal amount outside every few days instead of many miles each day (and thus weight gain and decreasing physical fitness has leapt into the gap), not engaged in this year’s thru hikers planning their season (which makes me feel horribly guilty not giving back), and most importantly for my future not wanting to really engage in career planning since I felt so much in limbo and just not wanting to have to work again. So, to those of you who haven’t heard from me in ages, please don’t take it personally.
I think part of what I was dreading in going back to work was the thought that once I really started back to “my frontcountry life”, I’d have to work several more years before I could take another break to hike again, then rinse and repeat for another 30 years, which seems horribly long. About as easy a “goal” to contemplate as to hike a 2000+ mile trail, some might say! Trying to navigate how to engage a flexible job stance, which I’ve realized is counter intuitive to me – when I commit to something I give it my all and tend to stay for the long term, and potentially resigning every other/few years seemed beyond my fiscally risk adverse comfort level despite gaining a new outlook and flexibility on the trail the past 2 years. I absolutely love long distance backpacking and immersing myself in nature for months at a time, but finding a work-life balance I think I could live with has been very hard.
To make a not-so-long story short, as there’s not much more to share about when I was deep in avoidance besides waxing lyrical on the plethora of books I read, I’ve been thinking very negatively and not actively seeking happiness in my daily life over the past 6 months, which is ironically longer than the amount of time I was on the PCT. I am resolved, NO MORE!
I’m really looking forward to the Wilderness First Responder course I’m taking starting next Friday, as its something I’ve wanted to do since taking Wilderness First Aid right before my first backpacking trip in 2011. This is great to do right now while I’m still unemployed, as normally taking an 8 day intensive course would necessitate using vacation time in my administrative line of work. I know I’ll want to save all vacation time for backpacking – my bucket list trails (see below) has grown exponentially in the past year!
I’ve started to read and actually enjoy hiking blogs for this year, instead of being jealous that I’m not out there/planning my own long distance hike for this year, which is all I could manage a few short weeks ago. Good luck class of 2015!
As for hiking in 2015, depending on what happens with my job/career transition, I hope to have some time to either do some of my missing 900 miles of the PCT, if my finances stretch to taking a trip across the country, or perhaps doing a trail maintenance “Volunteer Vacation” through the American Hiking Society. I’ve not done an AHS trip before and would love to hear feedback. Otherwise, revisiting a beloved AT locale is also very probable. Hiking Maine and New Hampshire, finishing the Long Trail in Vermont are both high on the list, along with the Benton MacKaye trail, Grayson Highlands, the Smokies….the list goes on and on!
Shorter long distance trails that have made the long term hiking bucket list include the Colorado Trail, the Camino de Santiago (in Spain), the Tahoe Rim Trail, and the Wonderland Trail. I also want to go back to Yosemite to further explore the trails around there, including the 20 miles (and Half Dome) I didn’t tackle of the John Muir Trail in 2014. When I get more adventurous for routes versus well established trails I’ll tackle the Pacific Northwest Trail, the Hayduke Trail, the Continental Divide Trail (of course!) and the Te Arora Trail in New Zealand. I can’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, after all ;).
*EDIT: If you are at all interested in my thoughts on my gear choices for the PCT last year, I have updated that tab in each category*