After the trail: The return of the existential despair

When I wake in the morning I sit up in bed and stare out the big window at the backyard. Outside the rain is coming down, hard, the wind lashing the trees. It’s the same storm that, a few hundred miles north, is dumping feet and feet of snow in the Northern Cascades. The storm that’s stopping the progress of so many of the hikers behind me.

I cover my face with my hands, rub my eyes, and when I open them again, something appalling has happened; life has ceased to be linear. I’m sitting in bed looking out the window at the storm and reality is spreading out from me in all directions, like water. It ripples outward with each little movement, bumping against the walls and the backs of the chairs, and then the ripples cease and there is stillness, just the sound of the wind, and the storm. And there are no clues, anywhere, as to which direction I should go.

I have not felt a speck of existential despair for the last five months, and I have taken it for granted. Now I feel something hulking, teetering, casting a long shadow. Cautiously I get out of bed and take a few experimental steps on the soft carpet. My calf seizes and I lean against the desk to stretch it out. The pain is alarming but is comforting, too; a reminder of a life I’ve grown to love. The hulking things retreats, and then is gone. So I have a little while longer, I think.

The next few weeks form a single, continuous tapestry, set against the backdrop of the howling, monsoon-like storm. My friends Allison and AK agree, with incredible generosity, to let me park my trailer in their driveway for the month of October. I hire a man with a tow truck off of craigslist- the man is resentful and foul-tempered and he angrily jacks my trailer back and forth in the narrow street in front Allison’s house before finally sliding it into the narrow, grassy driveway. I spend several hours in the rain, shoving cement blocks here and there, hooking everything up, and arranging the thick tarps on the top and then I drive to Cooper’s house and am joyfully reunited with my dogs. I cart them back to our cold, muddy home, unpack some of our stuff, sweep the floor, and blast the space heater. I make the bed and draw the curtains and collapse, curled around my small charges. It’s musty in the trailer now, as it was left uncovered in the rains for the month of September, and I am pretty allergic to mold. But it’s warm in the trailer with the space heater, and it’s only for a month. So there is that.

Egg arrives the next day, on her way south to California. In my trailer she shows me the list she’s made of qualities she’s looking for in a place to live.

“Basically, Stehekin,” she says.

“Yeah,” I say. “Maybe we should all move to Stehekin.”

The next day Egg is gone- when will I see her next? I don’t know.

Egg and NikNik!

Egg and NikNik!

Before my hike I was working as a rare bookseller; I bought rare first printings from unwitting ebay sellers who didn’t know how valuable they were, relisted them, and jacked the price way, way up. It’s a job I made up for myself last year because I needed another gig; Portland is the kind of place where hipsters with masters degrees fight each other tooth and nail for the barista jobs, leaving nothing for the rest of us, and my bookselling gig was part of the constellation of money-making I call my “Portland Hustle”. The job is good money but it requires hours and hours every week of dreadfully tedious online research, and now that I am leaving Portland I want to be free of it. I want to make room in my life for jobs that do not involve being on the computer; I want to move physical objects through space. Heavy objects, cold objects, rough objects; objects that require me to wear gloves. Preferably in some sort of inclement weather. I have a box of valuable books leftover from before my hike and I list a handful of them; within a few days a particularly valuable set sells and I walk my dogs the half mile to my favorite tattoo shop. I do not have an appointment but one of the artists has a cancellation and he sits me in his chair, chatters amicably at me, and tattoos 2660, the mileage of the PCT, on my knuckles. On the wall is a tiny, taxidermied mouse, mounted on a bit of polished wood, and I stare at this mouse as the needle bites into the bones of my fingers. I am already imagining my Rural Hustle- Maybe that’s what I’ll do, I think, in addition to moving objects through space. I’ll taxidermy roadkill and sell it to hipsters on Etsy.

I hate the knuckle tattoo after I get it. As I get older I’m beginning to have post-tattoo remorse, which is something I never experienced in my teens and early twenties. Now I sit in my trailer in the afternoon and stare at the tattoo, feeling completely and irrevocably marked. I really like my hands, they’re my favorite part of me. The numbers on my knuckles seem dark and heavy, and they’re just so… there. Like misshapen rings I can’t take off. I have a feeling, though, that I’ll grow to love these numbers, they way I grew to love the killdeer tattoo on the back of my left hand, which is a reference to one of my favorite books- The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon.

And, of course, I do grow to love the tattoo. I love it just a little at first and then more and more each day, as my life on the trail grows more distant, more irrelevant, more disconnected from all the people and things around me. The numbers become a soothing talisman, a badge of honor, a reminder of the place I was. Of the place I’d rather be. It existed. It was real.

More real than anything.


Out of nowhere I get a text from Track Meat, who I haven’t seen since Northern California- he, Veggie and Ole are in Portland right now, at this moment. I bike downtown, over the Broadway bridge in the damp cold, the lights of the city twinkling on the water, and meet them at a bar in Northwest. My tall friends are still wearing their hiking gear and I give them bear hugs, order a massive basket of fries, and watch them get drunk. Ole is headed home, to California; Track Meat’s plan, at the moment, is to buy a motorcycle and drive it to South America. For a moment I think I’ll hitch south with the three of them, and then I realize that that’s not what I want to do at all.

Track Meat, Ole, Veggie

Track Meat, Ole, Veggie

I go rollerskating with some friends at Oak’s Park, which is the last hardwood roller rink left in the country, or something like that. Proficiency at walking, of course, does not transfer to proficiency at the roller rink, and I hobble around on my skates, clumps of eight-year-olds whizzing by me at a frightening speed.



I meet up with Ben and Angela and Thyra at a bar down the road, walking there in the cold night, and we talk about the trail. I haven’t seen them since the Desert, but we laughed a lot together and they live in Portland and it is so good to see them now. They walk me back to my trailer and hang out, petting Kinnikinnick- Ben and Thyra want to live in a trailer, too.

Ben and Angela and NikNiik

Ben and Angela and NikNiik

I go running. At first, running is painful, each slap of the pavement reverberating up through my feet, ankles, and knees. I am used to walking on the soft trail, not jogging on concrete. But after a few days my joints adjust and I discover, to my amazement, that nothing makes me winded. I run six miles, the most I’ve ever run at once, then eight miles, then ten, then twelve. I run for two hours and I am not winded. I realize that I am in the best cardiovascular shape of my life. And I realize that it won’t last.

Running in Forest Park!

Running in Forest Park!

In addition to having the heart and lungs, however temporarily, of an athlete, exercise no longer gives me endorphins. Before the trail, if I ran for three miles, I felt incredible after. Like, SO PUMPED. Like, FUCK YEAH, LIFE! BRING IT ON! Now, if I run for an hour, I feel normal… for a little while. And the rest of the time, I feel like shit.

In some sort of interesting way I don’t understand, the chemicals in my brain and the physiology of my body have rearranged themselves around the constant exertion of the trail, in that hiking up mountains, at some point, started to make me feel “regular”, as opposed to exhausted or elated or sore. Now, when I’m not exercising, I feel stagnant and dull, my blood barely moving, my heart pumping at a sluggish rate.

Twelve hours of exercise a day, I realize with wonder, has become my body’s new baseline. And there is no way, in my life in the regular world, to replicate that.

The big, heavy, hulking thing hits me after seven days. It’s afternoon and the rain is still falling, torrentially, pounding against the sides of the trailer. My lamps are lit against the gloaming and the dogs are curled into donuts on the bed, asleep. I’ve just eaten lunch and I sit on the bed and then I fall over, curl into the fetal position, and start to cry. Something warm and bright inside of me has broken open, spilling everywhere. Something I was clutching tightly now slips through my fingers and away, like sand. It’s gone. It’s really gone, and there is nothing I can do. The sense of loss I feel is overwhelming, waves and waves of it breaking over me. An ocean of loss, a continent of loss. The Lost Continent of Loss. Everything that I have loved, now gone; like coming out the wardrobe from Narnia, back into the regular world, and then Narnia is just gone, that world and all its inhabitants who you’d grown to love. That world that seemed more real than anything, that world that seemed as though it would last forever. Now I am crying in my trailer and outside, the rain is falling, and none of it makes any difference because what I had is gone, and there are no reference points for it anywhere; no connections from there to here, no faint paths through the tall grass, no way to tie one place to the other.

It is as though it never existed at all.

The hole I fall into is deep, and wide, and airless, and luckily Instigate rolls into town, like a hiker Mary Poppins, before I lose the strength to pull myself out of it. Instigate is not sad, not even one little bit, and now she’s exploding her bag everywhere, and bustling around, and there are so many Activities! to be done, and how can a person find the space to be cry when sharing their 20 foot trailer with someone else? It feels good and right and natural to do everything with Instigate, as a team- Let’s Fill The Propane Tanks, Let’s Go Running In Forest Park, Let’s Try On Dresses With Giant Tigers’ Faces On Them At Forever 21, Let’s Make Raw Chocolates And Eat Them All. It’s not the things we’re doing that makes me feel better but the fact that we’re doing them as a Team; I realize that I wish I could always do things this way, with a handful of other people who I trust; that the PCT was my first experience of healthy interdependency, as opposed to the codependency that I tend towards in dating relationships or the solitude of my single life, and that this interdependency was beautiful, and healing, and that I want nothing more than to recreate it now, in this life.

But how to do this? There are no models, no models for it anywhere. The PCT was the most primitive sort of human society- people moving over the earth with the simplest of goals, wanting only the simplest of things, needing each other more than they could bear. Each day I hiked from point A to point B, each night I unfluffed my sleeping bag beneath the milky way and ate dinner with my team, laughing and joking about our special life, which we shared with a finite number of other people, also in clumps, behind us and beyond us in the dark forests. The unspoken understanding was that we would each do our best, take care of our own, and never complain. We would not needlessly drain the pot of our collective morale, which we filled each day with our jokes, our stoicism, our lightheartedness in the face of adversity. We wouldn’t take more than we needed but if we needed it, it was there. And this trust was like cement, fixing us together in a constellation that held the three of us, making us stronger together than we could ever be on our own. And, for the first time in my life, I felt as though I really, truly, had a place– I was living, somewhat miraculously, in a world free from existential despair, which seemed impossible- as though I’d stumbled into a world without gravity, or onto a planet that failed to spin. Suddenly I belonged, to my friends and to myself, to the forest and to the trail- I belonged in a way I had never, in this modern, western world, belonged before.

Instigate in the trailer

Instigate in the trailer

Instigate and I take the dogs to the park and talk about the future (Instigate wants to move to Cleveland, do climate justice work, grow her collection of houseplants, and of course in 2015 there is the CDT) and I try to fixate on the fact that I have glimpsed, for a moment, this rare and miraculous thing that I hope to somehow recreate, as opposed to the fact that it is has been irrevocably lost. For the most part, I manage, although thinking about the rest of the month, alone in my trailer in the rain, fills me with despair. And of course part of it is physiological too- I start to wonder if finishing the PCT is a little like coming off an antidepressant cold turkey, in which case I’ve just got to ride this out and eventually, one day, I’ll wake up and feel a little better.

And the country, too, there is that. The oak savannahs of Southern Oregon, which is where I’ve decided to move, on advice from my friend Heron, who lives there. The trees, the air, the hard cold stars. It wasn’t just Instigate, Spark and I fixed together in that constellation, on the trail. The forest was there too, holding us. The forest was our container, our planet, our entire world. The forest! That place outside of time, those wise trees with their patience and unconditional love. The city is noisy and crowded but there is no love in it; lots of people walking around, trying to love each other and failing. Standing all together and feeling alone, wanting to need each other but unable to figure out how.

So my heart is broken; to the country I will go.

22 thoughts on “After the trail: The return of the existential despair

  1. There are some of us who need to be outside and moving to be happy. Or maybe we all do, just some of us haven’t realized it yet. I’m lucky and have a job that gives me lots of outdoors time. you can find an outside job, but you have to look, and no need for a degree either. wildland firefighter, trail crew, road crew etc. not as peaceful as hiking, but better than being a cubicle rat like society says we should.

  2. I’m having this same sort of reentry trouble after finishing the AT a few months ago.

    It’s brutal, innit?

    Thanks for the perfect summation.

  3. It’s fascinating to read the aftermath of a journey I am just beginning. It seems so far away. I suppose because it IS so far away! I hope to make it out the other side as you have. Those knuck tats are sweeeet!

  4. Good blog again as usual! I hated it when I read the last narnia book. I like my factory job. Walk all day making things with my friends.

  5. If you want a physical job, albeit inside, but have some lifestyle freedom, check out this option.

    I loved this “my first experience of healthy interdependency, as opposed to the codependency that I tend towards in dating relationships or the solitude of my single life, and that this interdependency was beautiful, and healing, and that I want nothing more than to recreate it now, in this life.” I can relate and it’s fantastic that you are learning and experiencing at such a young age. You now know what to seek in a partner, in friends and most importantly not to settle for less.

    Keep growing, keep processing, keep sharing . . . you will find your niche.

  6. Thanks for putting into words the swirling feelings which continue to crash over me and eat me from the inside out! Non trail people keep asking me how I feel and what’s happening to me and offering to help, but it feels like the trail had it’s own language and I don’t know how to translate it into Modern English. I have a good cry everytime I read a re-entry post, and it feels good and real and connected. Thank you:)

  7. click shared with me your blog several months ago when she gave me a ride fro monson to portland….I delayed the inevitable by working as a hiker hostel after finishing the AT for a month, then went on a road trip westward across usa with fellow hikertrash but learned quickly that one cannot recreate but perhaps may one day experience things anew similarly rich….pct beckons for me and that is solace. in the mean time I plan to stare out the mountains here in British columbia…

    trails go ever, ever on ..tread deliberatly

  8. So well written. I felt it hit me again. Don’t let the anniversaries catch you by surprise. I finished the AT Dec 9th, 2012 and entering Dec of 2013 (last month), it all came round again. It was a countdown. There were trail anniversaries every day. Sometimes I’d torment myself by reading the blog post from that day, or looking at the pictures again. I finally made a slideshow of them for Christmas presents for my family.

    There were plenty of moments in the last year when I felt fine, though distant, and plenty of joyful moments, though still removed. I light up when I meet hiker people. There’s this thing about us and you can sense it.

    I came back alive in the middle of my despair last month because I decided to go to the ATKO but go early and hike the AT sobo back to the event at Amicalola Falls. Maybe I’ll get to show my slideshow. I also finished the application for my 2,000 miler certificate. Now maybe I can finish my blog which has been stuck. I’ve felt so overwhelmed and not ready to let go. I’m planning to hike the PCT by 2017, sooner if possible, but I have animals and feel trapped sometimes, by my love for them and all their needs, even as they comfort me.

    I don’t really have a point, except to say it gets better, and it doesn’t. I work in a beautiful outdoor setting, but don’t see it much. Maybe that’s part of my angst. I see absolutely no point to working two jobs to get enough hours for health insurance and to pay for a cold, poorly insulated house with four giant rooms and two yards. Heating costs are ridiculous. Yard work, really? Can’t you see that I’m not really here? I’m still out on the AT somewhere. At least my heart is.

    AT 2012

  9. Thank you, I hiked the ADT in 2006 and still have those flash back feelings from time to time and the angst in my heart for another thru hike. All seems to fit together in time. For myself I know my life changed forever for the better, a kind of knowledge only a thru hiker can understand. It does get better. Thanks to Toots for taking me along

  10. Enjoy your new home and take life one moment at a time.
    Love your writing.
    Have been following you for about 2 years now.

  11. You’re an amazing writer Carrot. And I feel just like you after coming off of the trail. I miss that interdependency and freedom and inner peace I felt there and I want to replicate it. I just try to find little ways for now and think big thoughts for the future.

  12. I did the PCT in 2007, and I’m still getting over finishing it. In a way, those long hikes kind of ruin you — normalcy doesn’t really seem acceptable after taking on such an endeavor and it does make going to work and doing those everyday, normal activites a little harder, at least for me. Now, going in on 7 years since we finished it (7 years!), I think my head is still on the trail.

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