On the 4th August 2014 my son and I stood on the summit of Katahdin having set off from Georgia 5 ½ months before. Setting off on 28th February 2014 I had no idea of what lay before us. How the journey panned out was to be nothing like I had imagined. But, just as importantly, I had no perception of how my life would change the year following the adventure.
In previous blog posts I have spoken of the post-trail depression, as many other hikers have also. However, I never realized as we started on that cold day in February just how much the hike would affect me, not just physically, but even more so mentally.
As I hiked down from Katahdin it was fair to say I was in the best physical and mental condition in my life (especially when you factor in my age). The post-hike physical with my doctor confirmed all the benefits I had gained during the journey, 60lb lost, no more pre-hypertension, no need for acid reflux medications or sleeping tablets, pulse was down to 60bpm; although I did have arthritis in the knee this was an acceptable fallout from the hike (in my mind). I felt so good about myself!
As my feet started to throb less and the swelling went down I found I was getting more and more depressed in “normal” life. I have heard the crash from endorphins and adrenaline are contributing factors to the feelings of depression. I am no doctor so have no idea the science behind that, but it appears a reasonable assumption. Knowing the “buzz” I received each day on the hike, especially the last few weeks in New England experiencing amazing views and summits and hiking 20-25 mile a day. The ability to eat anything and everything you want, listening to Loons as you wake in the morning and even the taste of fresh mountain water. I am back doing what I wanted to get away from before last years adventure. Who would not get a feeling of depression when back in the “real” world?
Initially I was of the mind I would never want to hike a long trail again. I was in pain for several weeks post hike, mainly in my feet and problematic knee. But as the swelling reduced and the pain dissipated I started to think of maybe a shorter 200 ish mile hike, maybe the JMT, Camino or Pennine Way in UK. But more and more over the past few months I have been setting my sights on something bigger. What about a SOBO of the AT, or an extended section of the PCT? All possibilities in the future and I would love for my son to join me again.
Sharing the experience with my son certainly was significant to the experience. Within 4 days of summiting Katahdin I was dropping him off at the airport in Texas so he could head back to his life in England. We had spend 5 ½ months together sharing experiences that very few fathers get a chance to capture. It had been better than I imagined and I loved the time we had to share and the experiences we had.
Without question I have thought of the time on the trail everyday since we summited. Watching videos of our hike, of our trail families hikes, of the Class of 2015, reading the blogs and seeing the photos, how can I forget? Since leaving the trail I have immersed myself in the community, I write monthly on Appalachian Trials, have my own blog and video channel about hiking, offered Trail Magic and been back to the AT, plus other hiking trails, often. But nothing can come close to living on the trail for an extended period of time. Nothing can give the buzz the trail does on a daily basis. Even when I have gone back to the AT and hiked sections, its just not the same and doesn’t fully satisfy that longing to be back on a thru-hike. I suppose the immersion is not the same when the community interaction is of a day or two rather than a few months.
One of the main differences I see in hiking now is that the bigger goal of reaching Katahdin doesn’t exist. I hike just to hike, if I take a side trail it doesn’t matter in the slightest. I go where I want to go and when I want. Its not a continuous journey north anymore. There isn’t the draw to white blazes as there once was, white, blue, double yellow…..it doesn’t matter what trail I take. Its hard to explain but the draw north doesn’t exist. I went back to the Shenandoah’s recently and followed the AT for about 5 mile before I decided to take an extended side trail to a view. It was then I realized I don’t have to make 20 miles to meet the deadline, the clock isn’t ticking anymore and a weekends hiking is a lot more relaxed than the focused hiking I was used to. But does that mean its better; absolutely not!
I don’t believe it is the Appalachian “trail” as such that is engrained in my mind, I am sure if we had selected to do the PCT for our first long trail I would have the same feelings. After all, the entire trail is a passive tract of land between two points, its what surrounds the trail that makes the experience. The people, views, animals, community; its what the trail is made of which makes it so special.
So what will the next year bring? Well I imagine I will still think of the trail daily, I will still dream of another long trail and plan to get away for weeks if not months at some point in the future. I am not ready to forget the trail and move on, I cannot see a day I ever will be.