Walking through the unruly trail just north of Cascade Locks, OR, I started to panic. What was I going to do after the Pacific Crest Trail once I arrived at Bridge of the Gods, where I had decided to get off the trail? In that moment, I could not even remember what “synthetic life,” as my friend Trail Spawn called it, was like. How would I survive a life with interstates, Wi-Fi, and Postmates?
As I walked over the steel-grated bridge, I was proud of myself and my journey. Flipping north to avoid avalanche conditions, finding a second trail family, and dealing with drastic elevation changes were all challenges I had overcome. Now, relaxing at the Ale House, the goals and daily trials were gone. When I got home, the lack of everyday fulfillment was even more obvious. I spent days sitting around, daydreaming of the trail, texting my NOBO and SOBO trail families who were still on the PCT, and navigating the new (but old) noises of life.
The Cascade Locks Ale House pizza burger symbolized both an epic celebration and the end of an intense bout (of hiking).
I needed something else to do and something else to think about, even if the PCT would still float around in my mind. Looking back on the transition after a month off-trail, there were a few things that helped.
Talking to My Trail Family, and Finding Another
I was lucky to stick with the same extraordinary people for 745 miles. Then, when I went to Hart’s Pass to start the SOBO part of my journey, I found a few like-minded people to hike with, sticking with them until Oregon. When I was back home, I talked with or texted these two trail families almost every day. It was nice to track their progress, but what was even more helpful was having a support system of friends to talk to about the trail, my post-trail life, and funny parts of synthetic life.
Of course, I wanted to have more face-to-face interactions as well. I set out to find a third community to be a part of at home, a group of friends I made through environmental interests and events, ones who were interested in hearing about the trail. Together, my three networks helped immensely in integrating back to off-trail life and keeping a part of the trail alive. It helped the PCT seem like less of a distant dream.
The hardest part of being back home is the noise. When I first arrived, I kept asking my friends and family to give me space to think, perceiving everyday conversation as too much effort and filler. I quickly realized this was mainly due to the reduced time to myself, time I used for internal meditation, to think through anything on my mind, and to get into a flow state. I did not have that silence or space off the trail.
I had to create my own time for silence. It was difficult at first. But, many frustrations at the air conditioning, water heater, and car alarms later, I found that mornings and nights with earplugs in gave me enough time to think, reflect and focus. Now, I still make time for my thoughts, even through the background noise.
Embracing How You’ve Changed
Though many thru-hikers are unemployed, homeless, and living humbly, sense of fulfillment is high with the accomplishment of daily hiking goals. Arriving back to your city life, a parent’s couch, or a mundane office job may feel a little less fulfilling than the challenge of the trail. I found my perception of lack of fulfillment especially hard because I dove into obligations that limited the time I had to plan a new project or find similar purpose.
It is easy to refer to the trail as the “best time” in your life. But it is important to give yourself space to think about how you can take what you have learned and the ways you have changed to achieve a new, fulfilling goal. This goal can be as simple as hiking a five-mile loop every day for a year. Once I settled into my own routine, having an intention to complete and look forward to every day helped me feel like I was growing and not floating in a stagnant way.
Change is hard, whether it is the change of being on- or off-trail, or any internal growth. Giving yourself space to think about why you feel certain things about home life, and what you can do about them, is an important way to embrace how you have grown.
As you start to get better at not introducing yourself with your trail name, remember to have patience with yourself. The post-trail transition is difficult, even for those who have had another transformative wilderness experience. Through balancing integration back into home life and celebrating your achievement (whether you finished the entire thru-hike or not), you can slowly get to the place in your transition where you want to be. Post-trail life is part of the journey that you embarked on, and the precious time you had on the trail is well worth this adjustment.
If you find yourself slipping into a more serious post-trail depression, utilize online and in-person resources, and do not hesitate to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).