Well, that didn’t last long did it? I was out on the trail for less than 7 days before I realized that I was way in over my head. I pressed on to 9 days, and 110 miles, before I gave myself permission to go home.
Hiking was great. I thoroughly enjoyed being surrounded by trees, embedded in raw nature, with no responsibilities or people to please. I loved falling asleep with the sunset and awaking with the sunrise, knowing my only tasks for the day were to explore and follow my feet. I enjoyed hearing the rain on my tent at night, I looked forward to meeting new people around the picnic table, and I had to catch my breath every time I crested a mountain top because of the views… and my elevated heart rate!
It was amazing. Really, truly amazing. But it wasn’t where I needed to be.
Despite the joys, I had to spend all day alone with myself. That’s a bold statement coming from someone who was trying to escape the expectations and the people-pleasing. Typically that means spending time away from people and developing new habits of self-confidence. But, for me, it meant I could no longer ignore the painstakingly loud, self-doubting, anxiety bomb between my ears.
Day after day, step after step, all I could hear were my past mistakes being dissected in detail, my life choices being second-guessed, my dreams being called impossible, and my attempts of being content with myself smothered.
It sounds harsh. And while I do like to over-exaggerate, I’m not joking when I say that 10-12 hours a day by myself with nothing to do but to think were sheer torture. And what’s worse is, I didn’t have anyone to help me debrief these thought spirals. So I went to sleep w/ the racket, woke up w/ the racket, and walked with the racket, each and every day. 9 days on the trail doesn’t seem like a lot (though, if I may pat myself on the back, it’s further than 25% of people who start the trail go), but when it’s spent listening to the same sad song on repeat, it can feel like a month.
The first few days I thought, “Okay, well, this is why I am out here. To let the racket run, to let it all go, and to replace it with contentment.” But after day 5, I couldn’t take any more. If anything, it was getting louder, and I felt out of control. At this point, I was literally talking to myself aloud, begging God for some relief. To no avail…
In my first town stop, I had a good cry and a long conversation with my dear friend and mentor. It didn’t feel right to quit on such terrible terms; forced out of the woods by my own fears and insecurities. The very ones I went into the woods to defeat. Not to mention, the shame piled up: “You loser… you’re going home after less than a week?! What about all that prep? What about all the people who supported you? You’re really letting everyone down. And for what? You didn’t even learn anything.”
Only two sentences got me back out on that trail the next day:
– “You can’t quit before 100 miles.”
– “Don’t quit before your miracle.”
We planned it out. In 3 days, we would cover too many miles and end up in Franklin, NC where we would shower, eat, have a beer, and rationally make a decision. (“We” refers to me and the greatest trail buddy a person could ask for, by the way.)
The next two days were honestly very awesome. Instead of trying to fight my thoughts, I just let myself think them. No judgement. That’s what they teach you in meditating right? To just “be,” and let whatever is there “be.” Well, whether I fully believe in meditation or not is irrelevant, because I did it, and it worked. I let myself ask the questions I was ashamed to ask, to feel the feelings I was trying to stuff down, and to selfishly admit that the only reasons I wanted to really finish the trail was for the muscular body and the accolades.
The questions and thoughts I sorted through cannot be shared in a neat little paragraph, so I’ll save them for another time. By the time the third day rolled around, I still wanted to go home. Regardless of what I could learn or accomplish out in the woods, the truth was that I had tried to run from my life at home. No matter how long I spent away from home, I’d still go back; I couldn’t do anything to change my circumstances from the trail.
My last day on the trail was picture-perfect. Literally.
I was with my two favorite hiking buddies, at the 100-mile tower, at sunrise. After a good night’s sleep we got up before the sun for some incredible night-hiking, watched the sunrise while enjoying our breakfast, and spent the rest of the day in 70-degree weather hiking downhill. At the bottom of the mountain, we caught a shuttle to town, enjoyed a beer and fish tacos, took showers, and had some of the best thai food I’ve ever had. At least I was quitting in style! And with peace in my heart. That was important.
My peaceful heart broke when my husband pulled up in the rental car at our rundown motel. I had created such a bond with these people, my trail family. I had created a bond with the trail, with my pack, and with my daily routine. Was I sure I wanted to go? Would I regret this?
Funny thing about life is you’re never stuck. You can always change your circumstances. The only thing that got me into the car, (besides the promise of clean clothes, a fancy hotel mattress, and deodorant) was knowing that this wasn’t the end. If I got home and regretted my decision, I could go right back out and try again.
And I did. Regret it, I mean. Maybe not completely… I really did not enjoy tent-life or being alone with my thoughts, in case I didn’t make that clear! I tried to remember what drove me home to begin with. But, there was fear in my heart. I was afraid that I’d go back to my old routines, never facing the problems I was trying to run from or making the changes I knew I needed to make. I was afraid people would judge me for coming home early, or say “I told you so.” I was afraid that even though I wasn’t in the woods, I’d still be alone all day… I quit my jobs, I put my friendships on hold, I had no projects or plans or reasons to get up the next day. I felt like such a failure.
So I did go back out. I set out with the plan to hike from Delaware Water Gap to the NJ/NY border. I figured I could do it in about 4 high-mileage days, then my dad could pick me up and I could spend the rest of the week recovering in my parents’ homes.
As I set out on the second part of my journey, I again gave myself the freedom to feel. I let pure raw thoughts and emotion flow out of me like the fierce streams I walked through. And believe it or not, I actually had some fun. I am a thrill-seeker, always putting myself in situations I know I won’t enjoy simply to feel the stretch and growth and fear. I like to think that each time I come out a little stronger, even if I quit, even if it takes me 6 months to convince myself I’m not a failure. So while I hiked in the pitch-black on a trail I’ve never been on before, doing mileage I knew wasn’t safe, surrounded by coyote howls, completely on my own in the mysterious woods, I smiled. I worried, but I smiled. And I kept walking.
It wasn’t until I set my tent up that I remembered I really hated living in a tent. That I really missed cooking. That I really missed talking, and music, and people.
It didn’t take much to convince me to call it quits early… again. While I was walking the second day, my brain was making its usual racket, and I was lonely. My body ached from the rough terrain and over-zealous mileage. I ran into a day-hiker who said a storm was on the way for the evening and it would rain all the next day.
At first, I was flooded with the all-to-familiar shame: “You’re going to quit again? Really? What will people think? Can’t you accomplish anything?”
But then I remembered my favorite motto: CHASE JOY
This wasn’t bringing me joy, like I had hoped. Pieces of it were, sure. But I needed to find more than pieces. I deserve more than pieces.
So, I’m home. And no, I don’t like it. I’m bored, I’m sad, I’m still surrounded by all the reasons I left to begin with, and I don’t have even the slightest clue what I’m going to do to change my circumstances. But for once, I am listening to me. I am letting myself ask the hard questions. I am letting myself wonder about what could be. I am letting myself fall short of expectations. I am letting myself be wounded. I am letting myself rest. I am letting myself explore. I am letting myself make mistakes. I am letting myself chase joy, even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else, and even if I’m not 100% sure what that looks like yet.
I’m embarrassed to be home. I feel like I have to explain to people why. I feel like I have to hide from the people who didn’t want me to go to begin with. I feel like I can’t reach out to anyone or reconnect to anyone because despite the short time-period, I am not the same girl as when I left… what if they don’t like me anymore? What if I don’t like them? I feel like I have to make choices that I’m not ready to make just because it’s what I’m supposed to do next.
I know that’s all crap. I mean… people may ask me all those questions or expect me to have an explanation, but I know that I don’t owe anybody anything. However, right now I don’t have the confidence to stand up for myself. That’s just the truth. How can I share with people who I am if I really don’t know what that looks like yet?
I’m in-between. Please give me grace.