If you just completed your first through hike, the feelings that you are going through right now are very intense and difficult to articulate. To this day, 9 years after my first thru hike, I still can’t fully wrap my mind around it all–the origin or the solution. The good news is, I have (mostly) recovered, and on each successful hike, I have learned to deal with it much better. So will you!
When I got to the end of the PCT, I was very ready to be done. I had had an amazing adventure, met some of the best people on the planet, and became the person I always wanted to be. I had the confidence to do anything, walk up to any person, try any new thing without fear of failure. I was strong as steel. I could hike 3 miles an hour straight up a mountain non-stop and carry on a conversation. I was was forever changed–a new person who would never settle for mediocrity, yet life would forever be more simple.
But, I was also very unhappy.
I couldn’t shake the gray cloud. There were many times in the first few months that I would just start crying for no specific reason. I would look up at the mountains with a longing more than just a desire to be in the trees. I missed my trail family, and they are the only ones who understood what I was going through. Things around me–sinks, toilets, cars, lights, television, beds–felt so foreign. They were nice, but I felt like a small child learning how to use them again. I couldn’t talk to people. I spoke a new language. I barely recognized the people I loved and I didn’t know what to talk about with them. How long had I been gone for (it seemed like years)? Now, I had to go back to work, find a home, and start a routine that seemed completely pointless.
Since then, I have talked to others and discovered that this is a natural and normal feeling to have. Some hikers call this feeling “post-hike depression”. And, we sometimes refer to this period after hiking as “re-entry”, as if you were a released prisoner readjusting to society.
Still having a hard time reconciling my feelings, I reached out to some other thru hikers on the matter. Mandy “Purple Rain” Bland, creator of Purple Rain Adventure Skirts (http://www.purplerainskirts.com/) what her experience was and how she dealt with it.
“I was pretty eager to be finished with my thru-hike but quickly experienced a disconnect with friends/family. People were gushing over what I had just accomplished while I remained humbled by my experience not wanting to wooo everyone with stories of trail. I longed for greater depth and meaning in my relationships. The real world seemed so superficial.
When I finished the AT, I had no idea a hiking community existed. Meeting folks from ALDHA West and being welcomed into the hiking community has been so great for me both personally and professionally. Starting PR Skirts has allowed me to stay connected to trail and I have never felt so fulfilled by my work.
Planning the next thru-hike always helps with the blues too;)”
In an interview on the podcast, Trailside Radio, Heather “Anish” Anderson, PCT and AT unsupported speed records holder, (https://www.facebook.com/AnishHikes) talked about post hike depression:
“What I’ve learned is just to let it happen…accepting it’s part of this journey…I always have a next goal, whatever that may be. Not to distract me, but to help me channel the depression…into something positive. Allow yourself to grieve, but have your next focus.”
I asked Sage Clegg, women’s record holder of the Triple Crown (http://sageclegg.com/), and the first person to complete the Oregon Desert Trail, about her PHD experiences:
“After every hike I have a transition period between trail life and front country life that is always a bit awkward…I finish trails full of hope, with a list of good deeds and “to do’s” that is miles long. Then I collapse on the nearest couch and sleep. When I wake & take a shower I look in the mirror and see normalcy looking back…I struggle with where to put myself, what to fill my days with, how to get everything, or at least something on my to do list done. I feel horrible for not accomplishing any of my goals… And it just cycles around like that until I find some type of off season structure or head off to work.
In the front country I don’t feel very special, unique, or free. On the trail I don’t think about my image or identity very much, I just am. The clear cut goals of the trail and the adventure along the way distract me from myself, but in the front country it’s much harder to simply be, and it always catches me off guard upon re-entry.”
It seems that whatever the cause, that the depression does subside and that most hikers find some strength in setting their mind on their next goal in life. Also, if you don’t already have a Hikertrash meetup group in your town, put one together. Misery loves company.
What happens if the trail changes you so much that your goals are now in question? My friend, welcome to the group of thru hikers who become repeat offenders. See you on a trail.