The sun set an hour ago and the air has gotten cool – a wonderful change from the heat and humidity of the mid-Atlantic day. It’s no longer 90+ degrees in the air, though it still has the clinging heaviness that comes with being near the water. But the bricks of the old buildings around you still hold the heat from the day – radiating out as you pass your hand near them.
Your own personal sunset as you walk down the street
I’ve been exploring at sunset more and more, walking past buildings that have been home to generations of families, a church that sheltered soldiers during war, graves spanning centuries. Turning down streets with more modern building, condos and townhomes costing more than I’ll ever make a block away from low income housing, children in playground from both sides of the tracks screaming in the summer delight that they don’t have to go to school tomorrow.
So much history here, so many people. I sat and listened to an opera singer as she hit the highs and lows of a great Italian master. What is she singing about? What is the story being told? You can hear happy and sad all in the same song – longing and regret alongside joyous reunion. People pass her by, a few stop to listen – she becomes just another sound in the backdrop; along with buses and cars, music from shops and blasted from speakers, overheard conversations from tourists. She finishes, red faced and sweating in the dying heat. Walks a small circle around her tips bucket and then takes a deep breath to start anew a fresh song.
Across the street are three crusty young punks – they haven’t showered in weeks it smells like – tourists avoid them and they smell like hikers do after a long stint out. I know the smell, and their needs. I give them some cigs that I was carrying, a pack I never smoke but have for when I go to bars. One offers to swap shirts with me “You’ll get more of a story with this one my friend!” I decline the offer but borrow his guitar for a song, singing about people left behind and the places we wish to go to.
On the walk home the lightning bugs lazily drone over the large field in the park – a city block in size. The twinkle and shine, pinpoints of light in a sea of darkness, alone from the streetlights and windows. The bridge across the river shines into the water, as headlights reflect out into the night. Airplanes come in on approach to land every 3 minutes – the last few of the night. A fat third of a moon shines down, reminding me that somewhere, someone else is looking up and wishing to be somewhere other than where they are.
But even when you’ve known it forever, somewhere you know isn’t that bad at times.
Currently, in a little town in the south-west part of Virginia named Damascus, there is an amazing event going on. A party for hikers, by hikers, about hikers.
I am not there.
It’s a hard thing – not being somewhere you want to be. It’s even harder knowing you could have made something happen that you wanted to, but didn’t. But part of growing up is realizing that just because you want something doesn’t mean it’s good for you to do.
So I’m not at Trail Days, with a bunch of other 2013 AT Hikers that I know. I was not there when they showed Seven’s documentary and my short on Thursday night.
Nor does it look like I’ll be getting on the PCT in 2015.
I don’t think that reality fully sank in until I wrote it down there.
Why not? Maybe I’m growing up a little bit. I’ve got a new job that has me tied to a contract for a year, pays well and has good benefits. It lets me meet new people, be flexible and travel some, all while letting me pay off the bills and debts. Maybe if I play things right, I can knock my debt off a lot faster than I thought I was going to. It also is a job that might let me come back and work somewhere else in the nation after my next adventure in a few years. Just not next year.
I mentioned something Chevy, a 2011 AT Thru-Hiker had said to months ago – “Some people never leave the trail.” They are walking to find something, or walking away from other things. Sometimes it’s because they don’t know anything different, they understand hiking and the people and culture. It’s the only place they feel right about. I can understand that entirely. When I sit in the cubeland during my current gig I find it hard to relate to my coworkers, I just want to stand up and scream – punch a window out to feel real air, not the same recycled air-conditioning. But I can’t – it wouldn’t get my anywhere. I know I don’t belong here, and as much as I miss the hiking and the people, I don’t belong back there yet either.
There are people I know on the PCT right now and there are people I know at Trail Days right now who I’m jealous of, whom I’d trade places with in a heartbeat. But I also know that I’m not ready to go back to that life yet – physically definetly, and probably mentally too. I learned many things about myself last year, and about those I love. But I have to work at making that person who hiked the person I am back here at home.
That is my greatest challenge. Not money, not love, not injury. But my own self.
So instead I’ll follow their adventures. Just like others followed mine. I’ll support them, just like others have supported me.
Because even though I’m not with them, my brothers and sisters, My Family, are still out there.
And you do everything you can for the family you choose.
We had 5 inches of rain here in VA over the last two days. The walk home from the train station has necessitated the need for my rain jacket – I’m not a big fan of umbrellas – and despite the washing it has received (does that make any sense? To wash a rain jacket?) it still smells terrible.
It smells like the trail.
Rain jackets develop a pungent odor of their own – stale sweat and body odor that is at odds with the crisp smell of rain.
It is spring now here. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom two weeks ago. Now they are on their way out – taken from the trees by the winds and the rain. But the smell of spring persists in every breath you take.
I stopped to take a deep breath on my way home. In that moment I stood and just listened. I could feel everything around me. This is what I was in those moments.
I could feel the drops of water on my skin. It had stopped raining and was just misting. I had taken off my jacket. I had taken off my shirt and tie. I was standing in short sleeves, and could feel the wind tugging the shirt, washing the drops of water over my skin.
“We are clean and fresh, unspoiled by the world yet. Can you say the same about yourself right now?”
I could smell the new life that the rain had brought. Everything was growing. The crisp smell of water, of fresh earth, of life. Flowers and trees. Grass and leaves. All happy to be breathing with me, contributing their own scent to the world in that moment.
“I’m happy to be here right now. I’m happy to be alive. Are you as happy as we are?”
The bugs are singing their symphony. It’s the noise of dusk – crickets calling to one and other. Katydids reassuring themselves they aren’t lost. Anglewings saying hello. All rolled together, playing on endless loop. Drowning out the sounds of the distant city.
“We’re in our rightful place. Are you?”
The water is rushing, trickling. Carrying away all the cares and worries. Everything is moving. Aimlessly but with purpose. There is power in it and you can hear it.
“We are going to the ocean” the water says. “Won’t you come and follow us?”
The fox that lives around here runs across the path. She’s done this every day for the last 3 days for me when I’m coming home. Where is she going?
“Come follow me. Back into the woods – into the mystery that is my den here. I am not the trickster that Coyote is in the West – but I will play with your mind here instead.”
6 second was all it took.
I question everything I’m doing again.
McAfee’s Knob is said to be the most photographed point on the AT, and with good reason. It’s incredibly beautiful and breathtaking. A jutting point of rock from the cliff-side and a sheer drop into the valley below.
Buckeye, Atreyu and I decided that we wanted a sunset and a sunrise on McAfee’s Knob. This was an ambitious proposal the required a 16.3 mile day up and down 2 significant and 1 medium sized mountains/hills, a stop at Dragon’s Tooth (another amazing sight) and a small resupply and stop at the 4 Pines Hostel. All before sunset.
Somehow we managed it. It’s still one of the most incredible achievements in my mind.
Starting off at the Pickle Branch Shelter, we got an early start which was quite a feat in itself. Buckeye is a habitual late sleeper now that he’d gotten used to his hammock, but he was actually the first one up. We beat feet the 4 miles to Dragon’s Tooth with a few others in town and made it up the craggy torturous path to the summit. A clear, cloudless day greeted us – with views for miles.
We stayed for almost an hour on top of the Tooth. Around 11am we decided it was time to get moving – and wouldn’t it be nice if we could have some real food for lunch? You’d better believe it! So let’s roll on down to the 4 Pines Hostel and go to the amazing gas station up the road for pizza! So we did.
One of the best things about hiking with Buckeye and Atreyu? They are never short of conversation or song. They are strong, fast hikers but they have fun everyday together. Sometimes they hook the little portable speaker up and play techno, or indie. Sometimes there are long involved conversations about women, philosophy or politics. But even when they disagree they respect each other – it’s a rare thing to find friends like these.
4 Pines is a converted 4 car garage run by Joe. He’s a hell of a guy – he took me in the previous year when I was freezing after Sandy and fed me fresh venison, gave me a pile of blankets and said “go nuts with the wood stove.” So when we made it to his place for lunch he took us down to the gas station. Pizza, slushies, chips, hot dogs, beer. The whole nine yards for lunch. We played a little cornhole (beanbag toss for all you Yankees) and seriously contemplated if we wanted to do another 10 miles. “We could stay here tonight and make it a short day tomorrow…”
The other great thing about Buckeye and Atreyu? They never shirk from a challenge. At 3:30 we finally got going. The terrain between 4 Pines and McAfee’s is ridgeline and rugged. You hug the tops and dip down into the saddles, gaining and losing 100 feet sections of altitude every 1/4 mile. You climb and scramble in places.
We made it to the McAfee’s knob parking lot just before 7pm. The sun was starting to get lower in the sky – sunset was around 8:15 and we still had almost 3.5 miles to cover to the top. So we beat feet up the side of the mountain. The trail is well maintained, and a fairly easy climb until the last mile or so when you start going up steeply. We were on track and on pace.
Until we found a cell phone.
Atreyu: “It’s gotta be the cute girls we passed on our way up, about 10 minutes ago!”
Buckeye: “Maybe. But they’re probably already back at the parking lot by now. We’re going up.”
Spice: “So… what are we doing? Sunset is so close!.”
At that moment, the phone rang. Atreyu answered it. “Yes we’ve got your phone! I’ll bring it down for you!.”
Buckeye + Spice: “You’re going to do what?”
Ateryu: “I’m going to take my pack off and run the phone down. You guys keep going, I’ll meet you at the top.”
Spice: “If you do that, we’ll take your pack with us. I’ll wear it on the front and double pack it.”
So off Atreyu bounded, down the path we’d just come up. Buckeye strapped Atreyu’s pack onto my chest. I’m sure I cut a ridiculous figure in that moment, hiking up the mountain side with two packs on. But if it meant that Atreyu could catch up with us faster, it was worth it. Atreyu managed to catch up with us a mile from the summit, which was good because I was DYING carrying two packs together.
And we made it. All the way to the top for sunset. The three of us almost were running by the time we got there, because we were so sure we were going to miss it. But we didn’t. We’d managed to push a 4 mile and hour pace or more by the time we’d gotten to the top. That’s a feat for any extended period of time. It was all worth it though.
I’ve heard people say that they don’t derive any pleasure from accomplishing miles or getting somewhere. That they don’t measure their achievements by getting to X place by Y time. That may be all well and good for them most of the time, but I’ve never been able to subscribe to that theory. Getting somewhere, achieving something in the face of adversity, pushing yourself to the limit and winning – there is something valuable about that to me. Getting to McAffe’s knob for sunset was such an achievement. We all felt it and we were all filled a beautiful glow that night.
Amusingly, the photos from sunset? Completely outclassed by the photos from the sunrise the next morning.
Alternatively – Trilogy Time
For those of you who watch How I Met Your Mother (Alternatively – the LONGEST, most drawn out story you should never tell your kids) there is a running gag regarding the gang watching the Star Wars Trilogy every three years and making predictions about the future in the process.
As a dedicated Star Wars fan, geek, nerd etc this idea holds appeal to me. Because lets face it – who doesn’t dream about what their life would look like in a perfect world three years from now. Not that I need an excuse to watch the Trilogy – as Damselfly once found out, I can recite Star Wars by heart… God I’m kind of a nerd aren’t I! Hooray for nerdiness!
Really though this train of thought – the “what will my life look like in three years” started over the weekend I shared with some old friends. I had gone to a friends house for a night of partying and was with people I’ve known for forever, and some I hadn’t seen in quite awhile.
Once we were all young and stupid
Among old friends, new friends and forgotten memories, I ran into an ex-girlfriend of mine.
I hadn’t talked to her since we broke up in 2011. Rather – since I broke up with her, shattered her heart and then moved on to other things.
Ok I promise this won’t be a mope-fest of introspection this evening. Morning I guess rather.
But seeing her made me start thinking. Where do I want my future to be in three years? This was a woman who I was in a relationship with for almost three years, lived with for more than a year and she at least, saw me as someone whom she could settle down with.
Fast forward three years from my breakup with her and I’m ready to consider settling down, thought I had found someone I was in love with and even considered marrying. Whuf. There’s a scary thing to say aloud. I was ready to marry someone 6 months ago. What’s different now compared to then? Where do I see myself in three more years, watching the Star Wars Trilogy?
I’m not sure. That’s an even scarier answer.
We all have moments, crises of faith. We wonder where our direction will take us. For me, three years ago I really started to realize my dream of a long-distance hike. I gave up a lot of things to follow that dream – I left a lot of people I love and care about behind to wander for more than a year. I’ve come home from all of that and now I wonder what I’ll be doing next.
One of the biggest deciding factors to everything is money. The high holy dollar bill. I need a job that not only pays the bills, but puts away a little more. Those jobs are hard to come by these days it seems – As of Wednesday I have sent out 172 cover letters in the year of 2014. I shaved my beard off so I’d look like a better candidiate.
Seriously. I shaved my beard. But still no job.
The job market sucks. There are plenty of cookie cutter college grads just like me out there all waiting for a chance to prove themselves. Nothing is owed to me – but I’d like a chance to prove that I’m worth something. Because I know I am – I hiked quite a ways to prove it to myself.
But what are my bigger ambitions? What goes beyond money? I want something that makes sense to me – maybe a career is part of that. Maybe a family is part of that. Just being a part of something again is important I think. Maybe that’s another long-distance hike. Maybe it’s falling in love again. I talked to an Army recruiter a few days ago – maybe joining the Army is the answer. Maybe I should take the plunge and vagabond my way through Europe.
Things don’t magically get better overnight – they take work and time and energy. I’m willing to do that – spend the effort, but I have to know what direction I’m aiming at.
So I’m going to sleep now thinking of a direction. Maybe not planning it out, but at least setting a compass point to follow. Waving my hands and saying “that-a-way” to the distance.
I’ll be charting my new directions while smelling the pine tree forests of New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine in my dreams.
When I read things like this, it makes me reevaluate what I want to do again. I think about the Trail everyday. Things will happen and I’ll flashback to a moment. I’ll smell something and remember an instant. Everyday.
I think about the Trail every single day.
It changed me – and I’m not sure if that change makes me fit for normal society anymore.
When I read of new hikers who are coming to grips of the realities of the trail for the first time I think about how we have a tendency to build things up. Put things on a pedestal.
I once heard a story from Baltimore Jack. Of rain that lasted for forever. Grown men would wake up hearing the same sounds that had put them to sleep. The constant drumming of rain on the tin roof. It brought them to tears when they looked outside and saw the grey clouds and constant water cascading from the skies. He said it was one of the wettest springs on the AT – and he saw more people break from the rain than he’d ever seen before. People just gave up and went home.
I can understand that. I sympathize – there are few things worse then getting up for the fourth or fifth day in a row, putting on wet and cold socks with the utmost trepidation. “If I pull them on slowly, they’ll warm up a little more than if I pull them on quick and shock my feet.” Hearing the squelch of water as you shove your feet into your shoes. Packing your things up haphazardly – it doesn’t really matter anymore, everything is at least damp already. The rain jacket has as much moisture in it on the inside as it does the outside, why bother putting it on. You’ve stopped trying to avoid the puddles and small lakes that form on the AT because the whole trail has turned into a river.
You think you’ll never be dry again. I know how it feels. I’ve been there.
It’s odd because looking back now I recognize the same feelings of despair in that scenario of rain that I had with depression. Trapped. Drowning. Overwhelmed. Too tired to care anymore. How do you keep going when it’s like that.
I think some people are just built a little differently. No matter how depressed they get, how awful the situation gets they keep going. I’ve heard some call it “dogged determination.” People have called me stubborn. It’s been described as a coping mechanism, or protective trait. Some call it strength or mettle. But whatever you want to call it – these people just keep going.
They don’t lie down and die, and they don’t seem to ever quit. And when they do quit it’s because they are literally so run down, so ragged that they just don’t have the energy anymore.
I once read a psychology theory that postulated we can all endure only so much. Our capacity for suffering, for the negatives in our life are like a glass for water. It’s only so large. The more things we have going against us, the more water fills that glass. We can only handle so much before it all spills over. You can make your glass bigger by doing positive things, having good friends to share the load or have coping strategies. But there is always a finite amount you can take. Eventually you reach that.
The people who broke down and cried on the 5th day of rain had just reached their limit. Their glass was full. That was all.
What’s the take away from all of this? I’m not really sure honestly- lord knows I rambled on in this post, but I wonder if there really is an answer. On one hand, we’ve gout our dreams, and we want to pursue and accomplish them. But we should always be realistic of the moment, of the adversity facing us. So what should we do? I don’t know. It’s something you’ll have to make up your mind about yourself. I follow this simple advice.
Don’t ever quit until you’ve been completely and fully miserable for 48 hours. Then give it another 24 hours of staying someplace with a TV and Ac/Heat. If you’re still miserable – then you can quit. Because it’s not something you can fix with pizza, Chinese food and beer. And if you can’t fix it with those things, you may be well and truly screwed.
It’s been 5 months since I’ve come back, 6 months since I first had the serious knees pains in the Whites. 4 1/2 since I was told I had a stress fracture in my knee and that I’d walked 450 miles on it.
It hasn’t really gone away. The pain. It still aches – maybe it’s been the cold weather, or the rehab or any number of things. But it doesn’t feel healed.
I did 2.4 miles today – half walking and half jogging. It was supposed to be all jogging but I just couldn’t do it. It was really too painful at times – especially going downhills or inclines.
So now out comes the ice
I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever truly heal. Physically, mentally and emotionally.
Better question – do I want to heal from all of this?
I’m not talking about the physical bits – I very much want them to heal up completely. But do I want to go back to the way I was before? Do I want to go back to offices, schools and a world of concrete? Do I want to return to the trail? I know I’m not the only one with these issues – Lots of other hikers I know are having the same issues with transition and their futures.
Spring Fever has officially hit and a lot of people are talking about new hikes. Hell Acorn has gone from the AT, to the Florida Trail and is now heading to the PCT. Some are talking of CDT, JMT or even the AT again.
But I’m struck by something my friend Chevy, a 2011 thru hiker had said about his girlfriend at the time.
“We got off the trail together, but she never left the Trail. She couldn’t leave it. I understood that, but you have to come back to society at some point. You can’t keep walking away from yourself and your problems forever. So we ended. And she kept walking.”
I feel that pull everyday, to go back out there and be free. It changed me, hiking for that long. But I also was on the trail running away from things, trying to figure myself out and to achieve something. I did those things. Now I’m back in society figuring out my next move.
Maybe it is hiking about long distance trail. Maybe it’s getting a good job that pays well and paying off my student debt. Maybe it’s going back to school for something I want to do. Maybe it’s meeting someone I can spend the rest of my life with.
Maybe it’s all of those things. But for the moment, I think I’ve got to Leave the Trail for a little bit. Concentrate on something that isn’t 20 miles a day.
Because we all have to change, and leave our trails at some point. They all end – there is a finite amount. I’d rather leave more adventures for tomorrow then put off everything for today.
I just think about what Chevy said sometimes and wonder – what happens to those people who never leave The Trail?
Personally I think the line “live with no regrets” is a bit silly. You’re going to have regrets no matter what you do, because you’re never going to get it completely right – even when you do.
So really, shouldn’t we phrase it “Don’t let your regrets rule your decisions?”
I bring this up after talking with a friend of mine. She’s a bit paralyzed by decisions she’s trying to make because she wants it to come out “perfect.” Personally, I gave up on “perfect” awhile ago and have been striving for “not having things on fire.”
I think it’s more realistic isn’t it? Things are usually fixable, or at least manageable if they go terribly wrong. Spending time and worry and anguish over trying to get something “perfect” when instead you could spend that time actually Doing.
No one is dead, pregnant or in jail. Pretty much everything else we can fix.
I heard this one growing up a few times and took it to heart more in the last few years. I’ve changed – gone from a meticulous planner to letting more things just “happen”. It hasn’t always been easy, and I still revery easily to a worrying, planning control freak, but I’ve been much happier accepting that things just happen.
You’re better off doing something than worrying over the results unduly. Putting something in motion always is better than standing still – soldiers learn that from day 1. Applies to you’re daily life as well.
Sometimes things are beyond your control though. That was a big discovery that I had to live to learn. I’ve always been a fixer – how can I make you feel better, what can we do to make things work out. I went into social work because of this, and I found that in the end, the only thing I can TRULY do is myself.
The line “I’ll take care of you if you take care of me” has about 8.47 million results on google. That’s a lot of people who think that’s the right way to go about things. Personally I’m more in line with the following.
I’ll take care of me and you take care of you
4.2 million results for this one – about half. You can only really make yourself happy. You do the best you can too – because you’re not perfect and the situations aren’t perfect. But you’ll act the best you can, and you’ll have regrets and wonder “what if.” That’s fine. Just don’t let them rule you.
PS – I’m not advocating not helping others when they ask for it, nor am I saying turn into a selfish, narcissistic prick. I’m saying don’t neglect your happiness.
Unless you’ve got kids. Because once you have kids, you give up your rights to go have fun – you have responsibilities to someone else who is entirely dependent on you. The end.