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.
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.
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?
I had a long discussion this evening with SingleGirlHiking about the Great Eastern Trail (GET), a 1600 mile long trail from Alabama to New York.
The pull is great. It is strong.
I justified it in my mind as well. The flu study I’m in the running for would pay for 4 months of hiking without any problem. I could be the third person ever to hike the GET on foot (no yellow blazing, no skipping for this one…). I could escape again to the wilderness and walk. Be free and whole again.
It’s a strong feeling. Being whole like that again.
I’ve felt good about myself before. In college I felt like I belonged, felt loved and accepted. I was loved and accepted, with many friends. They felt like family.
But out on a trail, I feel Whole. It’s hard to explain. Everyday I felt born again, every person I met never questioned who I was, or what I was doing. There wasn’t judgement on how I lived my life. My actions spoke for who I was, and nothing more.
I romanticize the Trail life quite a bit. I know I do. I remember how terrible the climb down the White’s was when I almost died. How it never stopped raining in the south for days. The feeling of dampness and wet that never went away no matter how much sun you got. The hunger and disgust when you had nothing but chicken ramen to eat that night. The pain of a 25 mile day.
But I have never felt more alive. More complete. More myself than I did out there. I had purpose and drive and love. Love for the people around me, the trees that grew over me and the smell of dirt and pines.
I can smell that freedom now when I close my eyes. I may be physically sitting in a basement in Virginia, but when I close my eyes I am in Maine or Tennese. Vermont or North Carolina. New Hampshire. I smell the pines, feel the dirt, pine needles below my feet. Feel the wind whistle around me and carry the scents of the forest while it tugs on my hair. It is as real to me in my dreams as it is to someone standing there.
Because I’m still standing there in those places. They never leave me. Even when I’m sitting in a basement in Virginia, crying a silent tear. Because of where I am, instead of where I am meant to be.
When it comes to what I’ve experienced in life, I don’t always have the right words to express myself.
I’ve always know that I have to use the right words in order to make myself understood. When I write, it becomes a little easier – I have time to think about what I want to say, I’m able to double check and think through each sentence. Writing a real letter is so much easier for me in this way than say, having a conversation online through instant messages.
But when I start to talk to people in person, I don’t always get my point across. It’s hard to convey all the feelings and the depth that I want to.
How you do tell someone how beautiful a sunset was from a mountain top? The special pine scent that wafts up from the valley into the high mountains in the Whites? How when the last flash of light disappeared from the sky, the reds and oranges turned into midnight blues and blacks. How the air tasted sweet and fresh.
Pictures help – but they are just a frozen moment – only telling part of it.
How do you describe that feelings of joy when you wake up next to someone you love if they never have felt that feeling? Is there a way to make someone understand just how close you are to someone, how you know everything about them and can read their every twitch and feeling – read their mind so well that they don’t even have to talk?
For many years I took the shotgun approach to language. If I get enough words and sentences out there that are close to what I want, eventually the person I’m talking to will understand. They’ll be able to pull together enough of what I’m saying to make their own picture.
When I hiked in 2012, I came home and used a more concise method. Trying to get as close to the real feeling and moment as possible, making sure every word and phrase I used was as close to the truth as I could get it. I carried that with me into my 2013 hike.
I still wasn’t able to convey the things I wanted to say with enough certainty. I wasn’t able to communicate what I was feeling – or how I was feeling it with certainty. It was one thing that perhaps doomed my relationship – not being able to communicate what I was feeling clearly.
Last night I went to a open house thrown by my father’s girlfriend. There were two ladies about my age there. We talked for a little and they asked about my hike. I tried to tell them about it – the people, the places I saw. Things I felt. I knew I wasn’t doing a very good job of it. I wasn’t conveying the magic and wonder that the trail gave me.
Until one of them said something that gave me hope.
“You speak about these things with such passion, it makes me want to go out and do this.”
I hadn’t said anything special – I was talking about hikers named Buckeye and Atreyu. Hikers like any other. But she heard the love in my voice. She heard how much I cared for them. What they meant to me.
She didn’t understand the story so much, or the reasoning behind it. It didn’t matter. She felt the magic through my voice, and it touched her.
I think this is one of the first times that I saw someone’s eyes light up with understanding. Not amazement or wonder at what I did – but understanding of why I went back.
The passion that I feel for these people, this trail that they walk on and 2000 miles we spent together came across in my voice and touched someone else.
It’s a wonderful and special thing to be understood, and no longer feel like you’re talking to nothing.
One thing I have a lot of from this trip is video. Moments that I was able to save. They tell only snippets of what happened, but sometimes when you string them together, they tell more of a story then you ever thought.
So this is an attempt at a story. Just like these writings are trying to tell a story. I hope you enjoy it
The other night an old friend of mine called me up and demanded I drag myself out of the hole I’m living in and come to her place for dinner. She’s known me for years, dated me once upon a time, and is one of those people who knows everything about me. During my Soouthbound AT Hike she drove 4 hours to come see me in PA. Changed her schedule for me, bought me all the lunch I could eat and then tossed in some groceries too.
One hell of a lady
When AT Thru Hikers get home we usually have a hard time reconnecting, reintegrating. We are detached from the people we knew before at home, because we’ve done something so different from anything most of them have ever experienced that it can become hard to relate. We isolate ourselves often, because the people we’ve come back to just don’t get it, are so focused on their little slice of the world that we don’t understand anymore. Think of it like this – why would a hiker who has lived the last 6 months out of a 60 liter pack care about buying more stuff. The new car, that expensive pair of shoes, the big screen tv – we don’t really care about these things anymore.
The closest thing I’ve come across to long distance hikers and those like them are returning vets. They get it. (No, I’m not comparing the trials both have faced as alike – the isolation is the same though)
So when it was demanded that I leave my house to hang out with her, and a few other people I went. It’s good sometimes to leave your comfort and go be uncomfortable – especially when you know it’ll do you some good.
Sometime during the evening we got on the topic of girlfriends, love interests and partners. Like with any other group of friends, we like to know what the others are all into – “But is the sex good?” is a generally accepted question in my circle of friends. When one of the guys said he hadn’t asked the girl he’d been pining over for a bit out, I kinda lost it a little.
“If I can drag myself out of my depression and the hole I’m living in, to come out and see you, eat tacos, get lotto tickets and snag depression ice cream cones, you can ask a girl out!”
Later when I’d gotten home I realized something – it was the first night since I’d been back where I didn’t feel the sharp knife of loss when I was with people. I wasn’t thinking “Man, I wish Roadkill was here, she would have loved that joke.” Instead I was just thinking of me.
Beyond that though, I wasn’t longing for my trail friends and family when I was with other people. I was okay with where I was in that moment, fully there and not with half of my head in the mountains somewhere.
Hikers become so close to their tramily (trail + family) – we share everything with the people we’re with. There are perhaps 3 people in the “real” world who know everything about me, but with my trail family, they know everything. You hike long enough with someone, you tell everything and learn all. Keeping a secret while hiking with someone is to me, impossible.
The people who become your tramily are people you like – who you chose to be with and stay around. They get you, and you get them. You don’t always agree – hell sometimes you bicker all day long, but they are yours. And you are theirs. It’s strong bond of love, and when you don’t have them anymore you long for them to be there. It’s a tragedy that we’re all so far apart usually.
Even when I was in my relationship on the trail, in love with a wonderful girl, I still missed my tramily. I wasn’t with them a lot when I was with her, because she had a different hiking speed, and a different desire of things to see and do. I had made a decision that she was important to me, and as a result I missed time with my tramily. I don’t regret that, even with the way things ended up with her, but I do miss the times with the tramily.
When people ask me what the best part of the Appalachian Trail was, I say without hesitation – “The people I met and the friends I made who became my family.”
Have you ever awoken from a dream so powerful that you can still smell the forest? You can still feel the touch of the wind on your face? The warmth from the lover next to you?
I feel like everyday has been a dream recently, and I’m going to wake up anytime now, only to find that what I thought I was dreaming was reality, and the reality I thought I’d lived was just the dream.
I mention this only because the dreams I’ve had when I’m not out in the wild have been the strongest things. I can smell the pine forests, so crisp and clean on the air. The cool clean feeling of spring water as it trickles down your throat, cooling your mouth and belly. The snap and rush of streams and rivers as the flow past, power that leaves you behind. The taste of the woman I loved on my lips as she parts from a kiss.
When you wake up from something so strong, so real and you find yourself back in the reality of shopping malls, cars, frantic paces and people with no idea of the beauty around them, you can’t help but wonder.
Why am I here? What is the reason? Why did I chose to return here when all I want is out there?
When you hike long distances, going months on end in the woods you want nothing more than to go to a town. You dreams of nothing but TV, hotel rooms, greasy terrible food and air conditioning. The modern conveniences that America takes for granted on a daily basis. When you get those things, you love them, never want to let them go. You gorge on Chinese food, drink coca-cola until your stomach hurts. You watch the worst kinds of trashy TV, because it isn’t what you’re doing, has no basis in the reality you live in. You sleep in rooms that don’t let you hear the outside world.
And when you’re done with a day or two of that, you return to the woods and it’s majestic beauty. You wonder why you left town – it has all the good fun things that you want! You don’t remember months ago when you were trapped in that world of computers and tvs, flashing lights and advertising. When you yearned for nothing more then an open road, a direction that didn’t lead to suburbia or cubicles.
Sometimes we miss things right in front of us, while we look ahead to our yearnings. I know I’ve missed important things that stood right in clear view, important things that led to terrible consequences because I didn’t notice them. But even the little things you miss; the sunset, the drop of water falling from a branch and catching the light, a secret smile between lovers, are so very important.
Open your eyes. Look around and go explore a little. Find the secret spots that are just around the corner, the ones that let you know the world is full of hope and love. Power and beauty.
I think that is part of what life is – finding those moments, making those memories that last forever. Because they are all you can carry with you in the end. They don’t weigh a thing, but are also the biggest burden for a soul to have.
And they are all yours.
One thing I’ve struggled with all my life is the truth. Telling it, living with it, accepting it. The truth is a scary thing, because it lays us bare to the world, exposes our good and bad for all to see.
When I went out on the Trail I had few rules – but without a doubt the biggest was “tell the truth to everyone.”
That seems like a simple thing doesn’t it? Telling the truth?
Not so simple when you’ve grown up in a family that plays “information wars” with every scrap and piece of information. Where you act as the go between for divorced parents, and have family that gaslight you, forcing you to constantly question your sanity. Not necessarily the healthiest place to grow up in – but grow up I did, and unfortunately I carried parts of that into adulthood.
I wouldn’t ever say I was pathological when it came to lies, but I most certainly used them when it was more convenient than the truth, easier to say then to explain the whole wide range of things involved. So when I left for the Trail I made a promise to myself.
The whole unvarnished truth, for all to see and hear.
I did a fair job of it my first hike – I caught myself more than a few times slipping into bad habits but on the whole I kept it together. So when I went out the second time I made the same vow. I kept it too for a far larger portion than I thought possible. It was a big achievement for myself, telling the truth.
It had some unintended results though. People got to know me in ways I never expected, and several people got to know some secrets I don’t think I ever meant to let out. One person in particular learned everything about me.
When you mix honesty and love together you get interesting results. There wasn’t a thing I held back when asked, every single moment was given freely, though at times with trepidation; because who wants to be rejected for the things they have done, for the way they feel and act?
Maybe that’s why this breakup and betrayal hurt so bad at the end. Because I had opened up to someone I held close, and when they hurt me they knew everything. If she was a person bent on evil, those things she knows could destroy me in the most soul crushing ways – because being hurt by those you love truly does cut you down cruelly.
All of that aside though, I maintain the same vow now, on here as I did on the trail.
All that passes from my lips in the truth, as far as I can see it from my perspective. I won’t lie to you, I won’t evade and try and paint it in a better light. Explanation will be the facts and the feelings, as close to the real authentic moment as I can. I won’t be perfect with it, it’s impossible I think, but I’ll get as damn close as I can.
I owe it to you and I owe it to myself.