Pacific Crest Trail Diaries 19: 2 Months After the Trail
Updated: Sep 21, 2018
It was two months ago today that I sat at a small bar in Sumas, Washington, reflecting back on the 2,650 miles that I’d just walked. I started walking north from Campo, California on April 27th and continued on that trajectory for 124 days until crossing into Canada. It was one of the greatest accomplishments of my entire life. I went to college for six and a half years, but that couldn’t even be held up beside the PCT for comparison; somehow walking that distance, carrying all my belongings on my back, and living out of a tent for four months felt so much bigger than going to class, becoming a graduate teaching assistant, and eventually completing a Master’s degree. Walking the PCT, for all intents and purposes, was a senseless act and it paradoxically made more sense to me than anything else that I’d ever attempted in my life. It held meaning to me that was beyond words and even today I look back at it with longing and wonder how long it will be before I can be on that trail again.
It’s funny—I longed for civilization throughout so much of my time on the trail. I missed sleeping in a soft bed, eating a cooked meal, taking a warm shower, and seeing the people whom I have loved. I think that it’s even fair to say that I longed for those things every single day on the trail. I would spend time thinking about food in such deep and intense ways that it can only be compared to sexual fantasies. I wished for clean clothes and a long shower as if it were the most wonderful thing in the entire world. I sometimes would be out in the middle of the desert or up on a mountain and try to put a price tag on how much I would have paid for a beer or a hot bath… never was I able to settle on a monetary figure, but I will say that there was more than one occasion where I would have paid in the triple digits for a shower—no joke.
It was a hard life out on the trail, but I even knew better than to wish it away. I knew that as soon as I finished the trail I would miss it. I knew that I’d go to the PCT Facebook page after reaching Canada and I’d watch my fellow hikers who are still on trail with a sense of envy. I expected that it would take a week or two for that feeling to fully kick in, but the truth is that I immediately missed the trail, the trail life, and the people who I shared those miles with. It was a something that ended with the crossing of an arbitrary line in the sand, but the trail never really left me. I was changed by it and I never want to go back to the way that I was before hiking the PCT.
Everyone reacts differently to finishing such a long trail, but I underestimated how it would impact me. One of the people whom I hiked with more than anyone told me many times that he expected the two months following the trail’s completion to be completely magical. He had been through similar adventures before, and by his estimation, there would be two months where nothing could touch me, where I’d be invincible to all hurt and pain, where I’d be constantly inspired and empowered by the preceding four months. He convinced me of these things, but unfortunately he was very wrong; there was another side of the coin.
I had known about “Post Trail Depression” for a long time before starting the PCT, but I have to say in earnest that I completely underestimated what it would be like and how heavily it would impact me. To those who are unfamiliar with the term, I really recommend that you Google it. It’s a phenomenon that’s very well documented and discussed by a number of thru hikers. The basic premise is this: During the trail a hiker is pumped full of endorphins for 15 hours a day. From when he wakes to when he sleeps, his body is operating at the highest possible octane. You know how they say going to the gym can help with depression? Well imagine if you were to go to the gym for 15 hours a day… every day… for four months. The body is literally “high” on endorphins for the entire distance of the trail. This isn’t to say that the trail is “easy” because of the natural high, but it does mean that adjustments take place. I mean, seriously, why do you think that people want to hike such a long trail? Well… there are a lot of different reasons, I suppose, but a lot of it has to do with the *feeling* of being out there. It’s completely magical. But thru hikers are hiking to Canada, and that’s a distinct destination; they aren’t hiking forever, and they can’t keep that up forever. In the grand scheme of things, “it’s only four or five months.” At the time that a hiker starts the trail, five months feels like an eternity, but in reality, nothing lasts, and so like all good things, the PCT does come to an end.
And when the trail does end, it causes a lot of trouble for many hikers. Two of my favorite analogies for describing “Post Trail Depression” are that of heroin withdrawal and post-partum depression. With heroin addiction the body becomes dependent on the chemical flood of an opioid, and removing that substance shocks the body into a severely unpleasant state—not unlike what happens after being on trail for 4-5 months and then coming to a rest at its conclusion. Post-partum depression works in a similar way, except it’s not from an external stimuli so much as a natural flood of endorphins that comes to rest after childbirth.
A lot of people recommend getting into running or working out after finishing the PCT, but I found that it barely helped at all. It’s just not possible to get the body to reach the same state that you were at on trail even if you are working out for 2-3 hours a day; I mean Christ—that’s only a fifth of what you were doing every single day on the PCT! And so the body goes into shock and is at a complete loss for the natural high that carried the hiker from Mexico to Canada.
Being someone who has dealt with depression throughout much of my life, I expected that there would be some impact on my system after completing the trail, but I completely underestimated what that would actually look like. I don’t think I even could have imagined it. It was one of the most despondent states that I’ve ever been to in my life. Every moment was meaningless, every breath was a chore, and every time I woke up I was overwhelmed with sadness. The only time that I ever really felt joy was when I went to sleep at night because at least then I could put my mind to rest and dream about still being on the trail.
Every year thru hikers deal with differing stages of post trail depression, and every now and again someone takes their life in the wake of finishing the PCT. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t almost one of those people. I thought every waking hour about why I was continuing on. During the trail there was always meaning; there was always a goal; there was always a trail ahead and a destination, a goal for the day. Off the trail things are more nebulous though. After 124 days of always knowing exactly what my day would consist of, I was suddenly in an abyss of unknown and pointlessness. What was I waking up for today? Why was I even going on anymore? What was the point? What could compare to the feat that I’d just accomplished? What did anything mean? Why bother?
One of the hikers who I hiked with died not long after he left the trail. His cause of death was listed as “unknown,” but I wondered pretty heavily if I could guess the cause. For the record, I don’t know what caused his death, but I have heavy suspicion, and to be even more honest, I envied him a lot during the first month that I came off trail. “That lucky fuck,” I’d think to myself. He got out of it and doesn’t have to deal with this pain anymore. That said, I also watched as his family and friends mourned his passing and I knew that it wasn’t an option for me to put my own friends and family through that same kind of pain. I had to go on living even if I didn’t have a purpose or understanding to “why.”
My plan for after the trail fell through very quickly, and I think that had a lot to do with the pain that I felt. Even before the trail, I planned to move to Washington for about two months and spend my time writing. Unfortunately, the place that I had set up to move into didn’t work for me. I could have lived there in terms of the space being available, but I couldn’t live there in terms of feeling like I belonged. It was a town that absolutely wouldn’t have worked for me. It rained almost every day and I couldn’t find anyone to relate to. After being on trail for that long, everyone I had known understood my struggles. They had all hiked the 2,650 miles too, and so they understood, but suddenly after completing the trail there was no one who could understand. They’d all ask “how was the hike?” and I’d be unable to say anything really. I learned to just start saying “it was good” and leave them to ask further questions if they really wanted to know what it was like. Sometimes I’d get frustrated though and I’d ask in response, “how was your childhood?” I mean how could I possibly answer that question? I’d just been through the biggest adventure of my entire existence. I’d walked through 700 miles of desert, then 300 miles of the High Sierra, then back into the desert, then through all of Oregon and finally dealt with the fires in Washington. Every day was a journey. Each and every day was a story in itself. How was I supposed to sum that up in a sentence? How in the hell could I honestly and fully answer “how was the hike?” I couldn’t. And that caused me a lot of frustration.
I wanted to be able to share my experiences with others, but I knew all too well that it was beyond wordable. That occurred to me at some point in the trail actually; although I’d set out to do this hike and write a book about it, there was no getting past the irony that I was setting out to write about the unwordable. I wanted to put on page a set of experiences that completely defy being explained through words and pages. I wanted to do the impossible, and whenever someone would ask me after the trail how the hike had been, I couldn’t help but feel reminded that I was setting out to do the impossible. It was frustrating to no end, and so that also contributed to my depression and anxiety after the PCT.
A person is changed after spending that much time in the outdoors—there’s no way around that. For the entire distance, everything he owns fits on in his backpack. Here are his most prized possessions: A tent (exceptions apply, but I liked my tent a lot), his sleeping bag, his sleeping pad, his down jacket, his cooking set (some go without this luxury), his trekking poles, his shoes, his one change of clothes (sometimes), his food bag, and his water supply. Here are the things that don’t matter to the thru hiker: His house, his wardrobe, his ties, his dresser, his computer, his watch, his access to the local grocery store, his gym membership, his book club, his collection of fine art, his online reputation, his job prospects, and his bank account. The trail just changes you.
So after being out there for that long and caring mostly about water, food, miles, and vertical profile, the world feels changed at the northern terminus. I know that I felt changed, and for awhile I didn’t know what to do with that feeling. Today—two months after the completion of the PCT—I’m starting to find a way to sort of “meet in the middle” between what I gained on the trail and what exists in society (or as I like to call it, “the real world”). I found that I don’t want to collect *things.* I don’t want to define myself by what I have or what I own. I want to define myself by my belief systems and my actions. I’ve taken to still using my sleeping bag, and I try really hard to be grateful for my food. I don’t try to stock up on foods and fill my pantry. Recently another hiker posted a thread on the PCT Facebook group asking other thru hikers what they find most odd about reintegration in society after their thru hike; here are some of my favorite responses: “How chained a lot of people are to their own vision of success...” “ Amount of time and effort spent on looks.” “People seem to worry about the most trivial things.” “Mirrors. There are mirrors everywhere.” “How much people work and how little time is your own.” “Litter. After carrying the extra weight of garbage for DAYS so I could dispose of it properly, I was shocked to see so much garbage thrown on the side of the freeway for no reason at all.” “There are so many chairs and benches to sit on everywhere.” “Shitting in potable water.” “How often I do things out of habit that don't bring me any joy” “EVERYONE IS RUNNING AROUND LIKE THEY ARE ON FIRE!” “You cant just whip it out and pee whenever.” “Why are there lights everywhere!?!?” “People letting the water run for no reason.” “ We don't actually interact with others very much unless it is some work/economic transaction.” “ Phones walk into a room where every single person is on one looking at who knows hour after hour...” “ the stigma of homelessness seems even more absurd than it did before.” “The smell of chemicals everywhere! In your home, perfumes and deodorants, laundry. So much unnecessary crap we inhale and put on our bodies all the time frown emoticon.”
I resonate with every single one of these responses, and getting to see other hikers expressing these feelings really helped me to feel less alone. On a similar note, earlier this week I posted a picture of my sleeping bag laid out on my bed and mentioned that I only am able to sleep well at night when I’m back in my sleeping bag. Many of my fellow thru-hikers said that they agreed, and one person posted a response saying “You will figure out more and more that those of us who have spent time outside of the system, and immersed in nature gain a special magic power, we are able to see through the illusion of society. This of course comes with its own challenges, we no longer can participate in it blindly. But take comfort, there are others of us out there, and we carry the energy of truth with us. I see it as we become the very important/powerful bringers of truth, planting seeds through the most barren parts of society.” It’s things like this that really helped me to see that I wasn’t the only one feeling that way that I feel after the trail. It helped me to see that it’s okay to feel like I do.
After the trail I traveled to Alaska for about a month. It was great to see family while I was up there, but that was about the extent of the good that I found in my birth-state. For the most part I was just cold and unexplainably depressed up north. Every single moment of every day was a struggle with depression. I thought constantly about dying and almost nothing could make me feel happy again. I went to the gym for two hours almost every day, but it didn’t seem to help me at all. I just felt despondent and without hope. I had no idea what I’d be doing in the future, and that killed me inside. I was so lost until I finally made the decision to come back to Arizona to seek work and the companionship of old friends. That, without a doubt, was the best thing that happened to me after the trail.
As soon as I landed in Phoenix I could feel tangibly better. It took awhile to find housing and work, but with time those two variables fell into place and I found myself where I am today—not content with things really, but moving towards understanding and beginning to cultivate happiness. Being back in Flagstaff has been great because it’s allowed me to reconnect with friends and old trails that I used to know. I’ve been up and down the Grand Canyon twice since getting back here on October 1st, and I’ve been able to spend time with good people who I really missed on the trail. I wish that I could spend more time with my dog, Huxleigh, but life is challenging, and it’s impossible for me to explain at this time why that hasn’t been possible; I’ve been able to see him twice, but I painfully must admit that I don’t get to see him like I wish I could. Again—it frustrates me to be sitting here writing and not be able to write about those things that are most important and affect me the deepest.
I’m presently working three different jobs and I’m in a very good living situation, but my biggest goal is really to get back out on the trail. I want to be able to hike the PCT again in 2016, but I don’t see how I’ll be able to save up enough money to support another thru hike before 2017. And so I take things one day at a time, just like I did on the PCT, and I try really hard to figure out what it is that I need in order to bring me happiness. Some days I find glimmers of hope and I really do sit in contentment, but the truth is that life is hard. It gets better some days, worse others, but as of two months post-trail, I can at least say that I know what my goals are, and I’m making progress towards achieving those goals.
So for the time being, I’ll leave it at that. I don’t actually know why it was so important for me to write this, but it’s been something that I’ve wanted to do since I realized that my post-trail anniversary was coming. I thank those of you who found it worth reading, and until next time, this is “Wormwood” signing out.