Writing this is difficult because doing so is an admission that I am no longer on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Yes, it may have been close to three months since I last set foot on the PCT, but my mind is still out there somewhere, lost in the wilderness.
The transition back into the “real world” has been interesting, to say the least. The lingering effects of my thru-hiker superiority complex have made it difficult to accept that people are no longer eager to take me into their homes and feed me. I wander streets expecting to encounter hiker trash at every turn. I sit on the ground outside local businesses searching for open wi-fi networks. I dig holes and poop in them.
The trail is not something I thought I would miss. Every day I hiked and every day I thought about the next town, the next burger, the next beer, the next opportunity to use a flushing toilet, and when that day finally came, when I finally reached town, it was the best day ever – every time. But I went into town knowing that my time there would be short-lived. I knew that the trail awaited and that my journey must continue, regardless of town's temptations.
I do my best to remain present, to take lessons learned from the trail and employ them moving forward, but this is easier said than done. The teachings and experiences of the PCT are not akin to those gleaned from a classroom or travel abroad – the PCT changes you (and not just into an incredible walking machine). Sure, the PCT is just a hike, and ultimately that's what you plan to conquer, but what you do not plan for is the profound mental, social, and emotional transformations associated with thru-hiking.
What I am trying to say is (at the risk of sounding cliché), thru-hiking is a life-altering experience. For realsies.
“So how was it?”
An empty question asked as a formality in a world where nobody really cares about the achievements or intimate details of one another.
Describing the trail in a single word or sentence would be an egregious offense to all thru-hikers, yet in the interest of being polite I bite my tongue and say, “it was good.”
Sadly, a lot of people do not care to hear what you have done. You will find that the strangers you met in town along the trail expressed a more genuine interest in your experience than the friends, family, and coworkers you return to after the PCT.
To tell the tale properly I would need hours, even days, and most people would prefer to spend their time distracting themselves from the things they wish they were doing instead of being reminded of them. Not that everyone would enjoy trudging through unforgiving weather and terrain on the PCT, but the idea is there.
Hiking the PCT is not like returning from a trip. Hiking the PCT is like going through middle school, graduating high school, and then attending college. It is not one, but an infinite combination of unique experiences that words, photos, and videos will never even enter the realm of accurately portraying.
But to hell with expectations, you didn't hike the trail for them, you hiked it for you.
Trail or no trail, life goes on.
Equipped with my stunning new calves and my (again) redefined outlook on the world, it is time to go in search of my next adventure.
Growing up I, like many children, was force-fed the lie of “you can do anything when you grow up”, but it is not until now, after hiking the PCT, that I truly believe this to be a reality. I am still baffled by some of the things I made it through out there.
I would suggest that every person hikes the PCT (at least) once.
Now that my time in the wilderness has expired, certain aspects of my trail life have become inappropriate or unacceptable in the eyes of society. Most notably:
- Mention of the trail – it used to be that every single person I met would be sung the story of the PCT as I indulged their ridiculous questions – now, few people seem to know what the PCT is.
- Bathrooms – you cannot just pull over and deposit your waste (liquid or otherwise) wherever you want (the search for public restrooms once again becomes a part of my daily struggle).
- Hygiene – your once acceptable excuse for odor becomes a distant memory as you are again expected to maintain a tolerable level of stink.
- Meals – unless you want to expedite your body's return to a slothful state, you must dramatically curb the amount of food you are ingesting (no more unlimited candy binges).
- Free time – all of a sudden just sitting and doing nothing turns from a relaxing hiking break into an unacceptable waste of your time.
Now, far from the trail, finally escaped from my prison in the wilderness, all I can think about is getting back out there.
The five months I spent on the trail were five of the realest of my life. My mind was free from trivial distractions that the world pretends are important, and my number one priority every day was survival. Stripped of outside influence, I was free to make decisions for myself – without having to worry about what anyone else would think. The trail is liberating.
The trail still echoes in my every thought and action, but as time marches forward the call of the trail slowly fades into memory; it is instead replaced by a call from the future. A call not to return to, but to go to the trail, not as it was, but how it is now.
Will I return to the trail? Will I again throw myself upon the mercy of the unknown, of certain uncertainty, of the wild?
All I can say is that I hope so.