It’s been a little more than a month now since we finished our thru-hike. A few more things I’ve noticed:
We sit way too much. Of course I’ve heard all about how terrible sitting is for you (“sitting is the new smoking!”), but in my pre-trail life I didn’t perceive that I sat all that much. My job as a preschool teacher kept me on my feet most of the day, and I biked or walked to work and most places around town. I ignored the other sitting I did. Then I spent half a year without chairs in my life. When we came back, all the sitting killed me. I realized I was sitting to eat food. Sitting (in a car) to get myself anywhere (neither Delaware or Baton Rouge is bike or walking friendly). Sitting to chat and tell stories about the trail. Sitting to read. To write on the computer. To watch a football game. To wait at the bank. At first, if I was sitting “too long”, maybe longer than half an hour, I’d start to feel an actual rising panic. It must be how some kids feel having to sit all day in school. It sucks.
So many strangers. This is another one I knew beforehand but feel more now. On the trail, people we passed said hello, almost invariably. They usually also asked how it was going or wished us a good hike. When you walked up to a shelter, you made an effort to be friendly with the other people who were there. And you saw a limited number of different people each day (unless you were in town). In real life, people ignore each other on the sidewalk. They often don’t even look up from their phones to realize they’re about to run into you. If you stand at a bus stop with six other people, you all ignore each other and stare deeply into the palms of your hands (phones again). In general, you don’t need to be that awesome, because you don’t know the people you’re around and you’re probably not going to see them again. It isn’t that everyone is really mean and cruel. It’s just that there’s an extra effort toward connection that, in general, people made on the trail that I don’t see being made in real life.
Lessened attachment. Eric and I were minimalists before our hike, so I’m pretty practiced in the art of giving things up. However, there were a few ill fitting t-shirts and things I’d carted around a little too long because of emotional attachment or wanting to be the sort of person who owned these things. After not seeing or using them for half a year, I came back and found I didn’t care about them that much anymore. Hooray!
No one knows who I am anymore. When were hiking, I was a hiker. Everyone knew it, by my clothes, my bag, my stink. There was something comforting about an identity I was proud of being broadcast silently to everyone around. There was no question about who I was or who other people thought I was. And that’s something I never would have expected myself to say before. I’d expect myself to not want to be pre-judged based on my appearance. But the first time we went out in Millinocket in regular clothes, I felt a little sad. How will everyone know I’m a hiker?, I thought.
I’m still me. Hiking the Appalachian Trail gave me some insight into myself and was a special kind of chance to develop and strengthen my coping mechanisms. But it did not fundamentally alter my personality or erase any of my struggles. While I didn’t expect it to, I secretly hoped it would. Just a little bit. But I’m still very sensitive, physically and emotionally. I still struggle to accept that about myself and let it be okay, rather than worry about how everyone else perceives it. And I still catch myself entertaining for far too long daymares about people I love getting in car accidents.
But I’m a better me. The other day, I conceived of a project, went to Home Depot and bought supplies for it, and built the project…all in one day. Old me would never have gotten that done. I’d sit on the idea for awhile before I got motivated enough to venture into Home Depot. Then I’d get really overwhelmed in Home Depot and leave there with the supplies but completely drained of energy. So, wait a few more days before attempting to build. Then probably get frustrated in the building process and let a few more days go by while I worked on it fitfully. But this time I did it all in one day and it worked! So, I’m proud of that. I’ve also been pretty good at managing our unemployment. I’m making lists of things to do and getting them done. I’ve had very few moments of despair where it’s three in the afternoon and I’m walking around not knowing what to do with myself.
On the one hand, it feels like it’s been a long time since we were living on the trail. On the other, it’s only been a handful of weeks. They weren’t kidding when they said that the post-hike time is hard. I’m figuring out how to re-conceive of a world that is now at once familiar and strange. And I’m figuring out how I’m different and how that changes my relation to everything. Figuring, figuring, figuring. It’s a mental thru-hike now.