A reading of Appalachian Trail thru-hiker blog posts for the 2013 season reflects a range of emotions and thoughts about nearing the conclusion of their journey. Some stragglers are attempting to reconnect with fellow “tramily” who are some days ahead of them, while others have summited Katahdin in Maine and are homeward bound. As expected, among the shared thoughts of many are the loneliness arising during the last miles, the bittersweet feelings when Katahdin first comes into view, and a mix of wonderment about how they’ve achieved the great task, and what will come next after the trail.
Personally, I found a therapy in spending a lot of time transcribing my hiking journal into a new one, expanding my thoughts, reliving the experiences, and jotting down lessons learned. It’s important to do this soon after the hike, say within two to three months. It’s amazing how quickly the memories of the trail can blur in some places and exaggerate in others. The farther out from the experience one goes, the more romantic a gloss seems to settle upon it. At least it was so for me, but with an “exact recollection” by way of that re-worked trail journal, I know fact from fantasy and it’s a solid reference for my memory in the years since my hike.
Some hikers are “slowing their journey” to stretch the last days as much as possible. Of course, to do that on a northbound course through the “Hundred Mile Wilderness,” will require packing as ultralight as possible while having adequate food to last more than a ten or eleven day trip, which is the usual amount of time it takes to backpack this section.
Weather, too, is a reason, with fall colors beginning to show and nights dropping to near freezing or a bit below. Those who hope to reach Baxter State Park for the last ascent will have to step things up before the park closes, and the further you walk into autumn the more likely it is that a possible early snowfall will grace the summit of Katahdin.
Going home feels both strange and right at the same time. It’s a sort of “free fall” where you don’t know just what to do with yourself for the first days; which are often filled with reconnecting with old friends and family who gushingly admire what you’ve accomplished and how slimmed down you’ve become. You end up tired from telling stories of the adventure but you rally and share them anyway, partly because you enjoy it, and perhaps that’s just the price adventurers pay for stretching their limits. What’s important is setting boundaries around when and how much you share. Well-meaning folks can be a bit vampiric in their desire to hear the stories again or introduce you to their other friends so they can hear them. After all, they now know a long-distance hiker! Maybe it’s sort of a “brush with fame.”
It will take time for things to fall into place. As with the grieving process itself, it’s important to not make major decisions for a while. For some going back to work will be an immediate concern, but that’s probably the biggest and only goal you should consider tackling in the short-term. As the experience fades and you readjust to living in “the real world” puzzle pieces will line up and the journey will integrate itself into your heart and soul. But it will never go away, never fade.
And you wouldn’t want it to.