As some of you have probably assumed, I’m back from The Long Trail. I’m back, and I finished it. It’s been an unusual month, because I’m moving, so my time to re-acclimate from the hike was disrupted by the chaos of packing, but also because of the emotional state I’ve been in since my return. I have a few half-written blogs about my experience on the trail, and I will complete and post them as the inspiration comes to me, but first, I’ve decided to start with the ending…
When I stood at Journeys end, touching the obelisk that I so fervently anticipated, through eight months of training and 29 challenging days in the Vermont Wilderness, I felt…. nothing. I thought to myself, “maybe it’ll hit me when I’m home. I am here. I did do it. Maybe I’ll feel something when I get home.” I hiked the last five miles with someone I met at Buchanan Shelter, and continued seeing through the remainder of my hike; trail name: “Sail On.” We stood at the small monument, steps from Canada’s border, wondering who maintains the well-defined space between the two countries; the space we can now see for miles. Sail On said that he didn’t know how to feel about the finish; a statement that made the anti-climactic nature of this whole experience feel more normal to me. See, he doesn’t know how to feel either.
We got to Journeys End parking lot before our ride. Sail On was riding back with me and my family, because, as it turned out, he was from Maine too, but had, as he put it, “no exit strategy.” We drank some water, had a snack, and Sail On changed into his “good clothes”; a pair of pants he’d saved until the end, a t-shirt and the red and black flannel I had come to identify him by. I maintain that Sail On was a faster hiker than me, even though he said it was because he was an earlier riser. When I passed a South Bounder on the Trail I’d ask, “did you see a guy with a white beard and black and red flannel?” “Yeah, he’s about five miles ahead of you.” “Of course, he is.” I’d roll into a shelter around dusk (or just after), and there he was… “you made it.” We should add “you made it” to my list of trail name options, because I heard it from many who left the shelter before me in the morning and ended at the same place. It came with various inflections, but always accompanied a sense of pride. It made me feel like I had accomplished something and someone else knew it too.
We were sitting there at the Journeys End Trail-head, waiting. We hiked every step we were required to hike. We climbed every mountain we stood in front of. All we had to do now, was wait. A few more minutes and it’s home-bound on four wheels. He looked in my direction and said what I was thinking, “I mean… we could… just start walking.” We laughed, threw our packs back on and started down Journeys End road; Canada on one side, U.S on the other side, The Long Trail behind us, in more ways than one. We got close to the end of the road, when we were picked up by my sister, mother and grandmother. We drove towards home, stopped for trail-less food, and laughed through New England. To me, it felt like just another supply stop though. Soon, I would be dropped off in the woods and go back to a life of trying to catch up to Sail On before dark. The first emotion I felt that day, was when we dropped him off at his car. The last tie to a life I’m leaving behind. My friend.
Another trail-mate “Green Trousers”, and I have checked in on each other since our return. She and I started talking before the trail, on The Long Trail Women’s page. There, I learned that she was already following my journey on Instagram. I knew we were starting our hikes around the same time, so I left her a note in a few log books along the way. It turns out that she started a day or two before me, but we caught up to each other right before Peaked and Styles Mountain, after she took a day in town. I was waiting for a friend to drop supplies and I hear, “I think that’s Kelly.” Then louder, “Kelly?” From that point on, we leap-frogged each other until App Gap, when she went back into town, and I kept on. When she finished the trail, she sent me a Facebook message asking how I was doing, and returned the question with, “it feels like I never left.” She didn’t really have to tell me what that meant, because I knew. Hiking, sleeping, the food, the relentlessness, the healing nature of it all, the struggle of it all; day after day after day. I had a couple people hike with me for a few days, while on the trail, and they probably come closest to understanding both lives, but even that doesn’t account for how you view something over time. How different day 2 is from day 27. Step after step after step, tree after tree after tree, mushroom after mushroom, and brook after stream after spring. There were some sections where you didn’t see summits at all, or people at all, and it was still just step after step after step, day after day after day. Everyone at home is as they were before, and so am I, but with this experience I can’t explain, so I don’t. The only response I could give to questions about this hike was, “It was really hard, but I did it.” When you get back, if you can’t explain it, the only thing to do is to go on as normal, and it literally starts to feel like you never left at all.
I didn’t know how to make the transition back to my pre-hike life, and even though you blog readers warned me about the emotional aspect of the return, I really didn’t see it coming. I felt a sense of melancholy and anxiousness; like I didn’t belong at home anymore. My first full day back, I was standing in my bathroom, after taking a shower. Everything felt so easy. Too easy. On the trail, you have to work for everything you need. From the moment you wake up, you start packing all of your belongings, and work to get to the next place you’re laying your head. You have to work to stay clean and dry, work to keep your feet in reasonable shape to prevent blisters, and work to use the privy. Its work to make a meal, and work to get through nights that are cold or rainy and nights that find you in shelters that are too full, or worse- empty. You have to work through fear of the outdoors or unknown, and then after a while, the unknown becomes known and you have to work to stay sane and motivated in the known; in the knowledge that tomorrow will likely be as hard as today and require as much work. Get up and pack your stuff, again. Hike, again. Find a water source, again. A place to lay your head, again. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a positive experience, but you have to fight for it. When I got out of the shower, I looked towards the hallway where my full pack still sat and started crying. I didn’t even know why, nor do I have the words to explain it now, it was just too easy and I didn’t belong.
My partner came to my side, and said nothing, but embraced me tightly. All I could say was, “I didn’t expect this.” As a hiker herself, all she said back was, “I did.” In the community that evening, everything was loud and fast, and I felt genuinely nervous. Defeated. I was supposed to be better. I was supposed to gain clarity, be one with nature. Stronger. More emotionally intelligent. Why did I come back more anxious and afraid?
As you know, in the past, I have used physical activity as a tool to combat stress and anxiety. Well, like any hiker returning from a long-distance trek, I had abused my body. My knees and hip started to hurt a few days into the hike, mostly on the descent. Somewhere around Mt. Ellen, the knee pain just stuck around. Somewhere around Belvidere, my toes started tingling at night, and somewhere around Hazen’s Notch, every step hurt. When I got home, and my body realized it could rest, my knees locked up, and I could barely get up and down the stairs. One toe stayed numb for three weeks and my hip hurt to sleep on. I went from training five days a week, to hiking 10 hours a day, to nothing. It wasn’t just the lack of activity though. I spent nine months with this hike on my mind. Everything I did was in preparations for it; training, researching the trail and equipment, writing the blog, Instagram. It became the thing I talked about most, the thing I cared about most, my identity. All of the sudden, it was over. It was over, and I couldn’t explain it in a way that would explain it. My life became packing and moving, and healing. Moving is stressful for anyone, and regular life has had its own stressors too, so as I said to start, it’s been an unusual month for me; a hard month for me. Through it all, I lost part of my identity. A fat girl on a long walk came to the end of her walk.
The truth though, at the expense of sounding remarkably cliché, is that life is a long walk. It’s full of ups and downs, and adventures and lulls. Adapting to change isn’t easy, but I have to believe things are put in your path when they are needed. I needed the hike to prove to myself that I was capable, that I could start something hard and finish it. I needed Green Trousers to remind me that people back home were rooting for me and watching my journey. I needed Sail On and the “you made its” when I got to the point in my hike where it physically hurt to go on and I wanted to quit, and I needed you all to tell me that it was ok to feel a little lost when returning from an adventure like this.
I am recovering, day after day after day. I’m figuring it out. I feel stronger this week than I have since I returned, because I’ve allowed myself to process this for what it is and give it the acknowledgement that it takes to move on from it. But it’s also because I have decided not to resist my pre-hike routine; work and friends and family. That sense of self that permeates in me, can’t be drowned by this transition, or any transition. I’ve decided not to baby my strains and sprains, and not to stop myself from finding a new adventure. Who knows what that entails, it may not even be a hike. I’m on this walk nonetheless, and I’ll keep going, step by step by step, regardless of where it takes me.
So yeah, like I said, I’m back and it was really hard, but I did it.