Post Trail Depression
About six months back I found myself staying at a little bed & breakfast for a couple of days before starting out on my last leg of the Colorado Trail. Mostly I used the time to rest, but I also spent some time reading about future hikes, looking back on photos from the trail, and wondering what the last hundred miles of the CT would look like. But while I was there, I also spent some time writing.
When you spent a long time alone, like I’ve done while thru hiking, the mind tends to wander, and you think to yourself that someday when the time is right, you’ll sit down and write it all down.
It’s easier said than done when you’re in the middle of a thru hike though because there are miles to be walked, water to be filtered, food to be devoured, and so on. But in trail towns, things slow down a little bit, and I like to make sad little attempts at capturing all the thinking that went on over the last week and throw it down on the page. I’m not sure why I do it exactly. I guess that it gives me some kind of fulfillment. It makes me feel like I’m doing something with my time on earth, even if it’s just stabbing at invisible monsters in the dark.
But you’re here reading it, so at least there’s that… at least I’ve made that much of a difference in the world.
I start this blog with Breckenridge however because while I was there, I realized that my time left on trail was too short and that I was just going to have to make a list of things to write about next time there was time, or maybe after the trail was done. I wrote about some of those things, and others I have not. Others still I never will write about, but that’s just life.
On that list however was the topic of Post Trail Depression. It was more than six months ago that I made a little note to write about it, and up until tonight, I haven’t been able to even start.
I looked at it a hundred times at least, and a few times I even sat down to start writing it out. But it never felt right. I was too lost in it to write about it. How do you write about the sea when you’ve been away from land for so long that you’ve forgotten what it feels like to walk in the grass? You’re supposed to write about battles once they’re over, not while they’re being fought.
Here’s the story that I wish I could tell about thru hiking: It’s challenging, you go out there, walk your ass off for one, or two, or five months and then at the end of it you reach your destination, there is confetti, Champaign, and the next few months are absolute bliss—you just ride that wave of adrenaline right back into the rest of your life.
That’s the story that I wish I could tell. But that’s not a reality.
Shoot, maybe it is a reality for someone, but it hasn’t been my experience with thru hiking, and from those I’ve spoken to, reached out to, and come to know well, few hikers find joy and ecstasy at the end of a thru hike. Instead, it’s often the complete opposite. It’s despair.
I had heard of Post Trail Depression when I was preparing to hike the PCT, but thinking about worries like “being a bit sad after the trail” seemed like such a pithy concern that I gave them little heed. That is, until about a month before the end of the trail. That’s when it started to sink in that at the end there would be the “real world” to go back to. After four months out there sleeping under the stars, facing physical challenges, and reaping the rewards in simple ways like watching the sunset, or listening to the birds chirp while you eat a meal, it all comes to an end.
The hard truth is that the part that I find the hardest about thru hiking is not the start of the trail; it’s the end. It’s the part where you have to be lost in life again. On the trail there’s always a direction to walk. Success is simple and it can be quantified easily. But in everyday life it’s hard to find that same sense of achievement that I’ve come to find in thru hiking.
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself though. Let’s just think about the physical and simple part of the equation. Most anyone knows what it feels like to go out for a jog or hit the gym. These kinds of activities literally cause the body to produce drugs… most people call these “endorphins” but in a very literal sense of the word, they are drugs. Ever hear of “runner’s high”? It’s a real thing. The fact is that we feel happy when we’re active.
Now imagine going to the gym and pumping your body full of those feel-good endorphins for fourteen hours a day! It would take a lot of work, but after your body adjusted to the physical demand, it would be an amazing feeling. Day after day of fourteen hours of endorphin highs.
Well, at that point, you will have produced something akin to a junkie. The only difference is that one is getting the high from physical activity and the other is getting the high from street drugs. They’re both in the same situation though, because take away the high and both of them are going to go into physical withdrawal symptoms.
This, in a nutshell, is how I’ve tried to explain post trail depression to people who have never heard of it before. Your body has been running at 100 miles per hour for however long it takes to walk this long thru hiking trail, and then at the end, it just stops. The endorphins are gone. Go ahead and just try replacing that high by going to the gym or training for a marathon… you can’t keep it up at the same pace as you had going on the trail. You can’t be on a treadmill for fourteen hours a day like you were when you were on the trail. Trust me… I’ve tired.
So there’s the physical component, and then there’s the emotional part of it. The fact is that thru hikes are a kind of beautiful that most people in the world will never have the pleasure of experiencing first hand. From my experience, that beauty never becomes quite novel per se, but it does become something that you get used to out on the trail. It becomes easier to take for granted than if you were to just be thrust out there after working an office job for a week or something. Once the trail’s over however, you’re taken out of that beauty and sent back to the day to day life that we have decided is normal in this twenty-first century world.
Ever seen footage of a dog that has been kept in a pin its whole life and then set free in a pasture? If you haven’t then go onto YouTube right now and check it out; it’s awesome. Unfortunately, the opposite happens too. Get something used to a cage and then set it free—it experiences bliss. On the other hand, set something free in the wilderness for awhile and then send it back into a cage afterwards—that’s a recipe for depression.
I guess what I’m getting at is that post trail depression is a drag. I want to say it using more crass terms than that, but I also want to keep my blogs somewhat free of profanity if I can. But you get the picture. It’s something that the hiking community is well aware of and it’s hard to find a long distance hiker who hasn’t had to deal with it to some extent or another. Some even have taken their lives after long trails… something that hit very close to me after the PCT and almost took me as well a time or two.
I don’t know if I’ve ever admitted that publicly, but it’s true. I can point to more than once after the end of a long hike where I couldn’t find any more meaning in life and struggled to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
It hit me hard after the PCT. Far harder than I was expecting. It took a good two months before I was able to start to shake it off and probably six months before I felt like I was “me” again. Then when the Colorado Trail came, I shrugged it off again until the end of the trail came and I was smothered in it just like before. I thought the CT would be easy because it was just a month compared to the PCT’s four months. But it wasn’t. The Colorado Trail was among the best experiences of my life. By far my favorite thru hike. God… so much to say that was good about it. But I’ll save it for another time and another day; read back through my trail blogs if you’re curious for now. Maybe someday I’ll write a book about it.
But at the end of the Colorado Trail I went into a severe depression that every day I felt like I was getting close to shaking off, but that never quite ended. It lasted me for six months leading up to today as I sit here writing this, but I think that I can finally say that that is behind me now. And I’ll be damned if it wasn’t hiking that got me back to feeling alive again.
Winters are always hard for me, but add onto it the ending of such a perfect hike like the Colorado Trail, and I can see now how I created something akin to a perfect storm. It was only once I started training for the CDT that I stared to feel like that darkness and depression was maybe behind me again.
I’m now three weeks into training for the CDT and have been hiking 30-70 miles per week with progressively more weight on my shoulders. It feels good to be on trail again. It makes me feel alive and happy again. It makes me feel like I have meaning again. It gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning… again…
All of this is to say that I regret the fact that I haven’t made a lot of public posts about hiking lately, but the sad truth behind it all is that I’ve been stuck in a depression since the Colorado Trail and have only just recently managed to shake it off. I’m looking forward to the CDT, and trying to think of ways to stay sane once that one comes to an end, although to be frank, I do have a few things that I’d like to try after the CDT that I didn’t have at the end of my other hikes… stay tuned on all that.
With all that said however, I’m going to call it a close there. I hope that you’re reading this from a good place yourself, and if you’re not, then I hope you believe me when I say that there is always a light at the end of a tunnel. Sometimes it just takes time, persistence, and patience to get there.
Keep hiking. Keep living. Keep loving.