Two months ago, I promised my hiking friend Poppy an explanation about post trail blues. She is considering thru hiking the PCT in a couple of years. Hiking would mean taking 5 months off from her Occupational Therapist job working with children, a job she loves. It would mean leaving her dog in someone else’s care, leaving family and friends. She is happy in her life. “I hesitate to do a thru if in the end I feel sad and discontented.”
Why do thru hikers finish the trail and get the blues, Poppy asks, is some of it missing your new trail family and trail home? Feeling like you accomplished something and other people just don’t get it? The answer to the first question is yes but its a no to the second.
Hikers will tell you that the hike “changed” them. But what does that mean? For me, the change was subtle yet profound. On the trail, I felt more content, more accepting of myself, more comfortable and compassionate with other human beings than ever before. This has carried over into my off-trail life to some degree. I worry very little about how people see me, I smile and say “hi” to strangers on the street, just like I did on the trail. If they don’t respond, no worries. It’s their problem, not mine.
I fall back on a phrase a lot in my life: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” In every culture there are some restless souls who wonder or wander. The PCT is a perfect fit for us. At home, every night I fall asleep counting campsites one after another, retracing my route north, finding the calm and peace of the trail. In my heart, the trail will always be there. But I want to physically be there hiking a long trail too.
Like Poppy, I didn’t hike to “be fixed” or “find myself.” But Poppy found that in her time on the trail she realized that there was a part of her that needed to be fixed, her faith in humanity through the kindness of strangers was restored although she didn’t know she’d lost it. For me, every single day out there, even the hard ones, I was happy and content in my own skin. I didn’t know that was possible. It was the best therapy possible.
Of course, any traveler returning to the world after 5 months has stuff to catch up on. A lot of the younger hikers needed to find a new job and a place to live. Others of us returned to home and family and jobs. Some hikers intended the PCT to be a major break from the old life and didn’t know what they would do next, they hoped that the trail experience would help them see their way forward. But I would say, that nearly all of us thru hikers found ourselves lost, for the first time in months, truly lost in the so-called real world.
I’ve been busy and traveling and spending time doing things outside that I love, running and snowboarding, but I only started feeling better when my husband decided he’d like to hike through Washington, the country he grew up in. I would like to see the Cascades in a different season, when I’m not so fatigued from hiking 2000 miles. I jumped at the plan, and could stop trying to keep secret that the accomplishment of thru-hiking the PCT wasn’t a check mark on a bucket list, but an addiction and the new plan for my “one wild and precious life” as Mary Oliver says.
So the plan is for us to hike slowly and carefully for awhile, until Dan flies home to Alaska to catch our yearly supply of red salmon and I continue south on the PCT to Mexico. It will look different going the other direction, I will have way less company but I am good with solitude. I would love to be hiking a different trail, the CDT, and see something new, but I truly love the PCT and I think I mostly just need to be walking, day after day, for months. The cure for post trail blues turns out to be planning the next long hike.
Catwater, 62, Alaskan….