Six weeks post-finish update

It has been six weeks since I finished the PCT. In general, I am doing well, and I am doing much, much better than I was at this time after my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. Partly this is due to not having to return to the same job that was not good for me in the first place, partly because the PCT is not as hard on the body as the AT is, and largely because I now have yoga to help heal my body and keep my mind strong. I feel like I gained even more inner fortitude after this last hike and can see that I am less affected by other people’s behavior than before I started the hike. I am also not eating as much sugar as I did after the AT and thus not gaining as much weight! Some feeling is already beginning to return to bits of my toes and the balls of my feet (at first- it’s not a good feeling!). I’ve even gone for a few jogs, although I know it’s not good for my body. I really, really wish I could run because I love it so much. But my twisted spine and twisted hip don’t agree, unfortunately.
What remains very difficult is the loneliness that I feel in the non-hiking world. I did not have a celebration after the AT, so I really, really looked forward to having one after the PCT. When I was hurting the most in the Sierras, thoughts of a finish celebration with chocolate cake, champagne, and lots of fruit helped keep me going. But, it turns out that no such thing has happened, and this greatly saddens me. Forty-five minutes of driving from the city to my apartment is too much for most people, or they are too busy with other things. While no one can be blamed for being busy and needing to earn a living, the fact that only one couple came to visit me for dinner and two others hung out with me for an hour in the six weeks that I have been home is deeply disappointing to me. I came back from a five-month long journey of challenges and experiences, full of life, and wanting to share what I had gone through. As much as I understand how hard it is for anyone who has not had a similar experience to relate, it is still difficult to comprehend why no one has time to even try to listen or spend any quality time with me.
What is perhaps even more disappointing is a similar disconnection from my fellow thru-hikers. I really hoped that we would be there for each other in the recovery process, but as soon as we are no longer in the same physical space, it seems hard for people to communicate in any way other than general postings on Facebook. I talked to Muk Muk once since we finished the trail and it was the best thing to find out that she was also finding it nearly impossible to get out of bed before 11! (And especially when she was such an early riser on the trail!). I looked forward to regular calls and hoped we could team up or at least inspire each other on creating a new path in life, but that has not happened (yet, anyway).

And so, I’ve had to come to terms with the reality of this isolated world and instead, just try to motivate myself to get working on things I need to do, like writing up my PCT story and trying to find a new path for myself.

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Splendor

One of the biggest blessings to me since I have returned home has been meeting my new friend, Hannah, who works in the fruit/coffee shop one street over from where I live. She has listened to a lot of my trail stories, has gently encouraged me to begin the writing process, and has generally been a supportive presence in my transition back to this other life at a time when I can’t seem to get anyone I know to hang out with me.
I since discovered that she is a singer, musician and actress, and this Sunday, I was fortunate to see the play that she has been working on since the time I first met her at the Boston Center for the Arts, entitled “Splendor.”

I didn’t know what to expect as I sat in the tiny black box theater with a wooden table in the center as the only prop. As the play opened with the characters standing around the perimeter of the room with the sounds of waves crashing and a foghorn blaring, followed by chaotic running and turkey gobble sounds, I became even more unsure. However, the acting that ensued, the story of the characters in a town just north of Boston over the course of 45 years, and the depth of the emotions conveyed surpassed all of my expectations. And I am not someone who is easily impressed. It was incredible to watch the transformation of the girl I knew from the coffee shop to an entirely different being. The emotion emanating from her was so powerful that I couldn’t help but feel that it was coming from a higher source than herself. I was in awe and deeply affected.

The writing and acting was so believable and powerful, that I sat in the front row with tension filling my body, unable to avoid the likeness of many of the characters to people from my own life. Their struggles and pain were so believable that I felt like I was about to burst into tears at any moment. These days, my yoga practice allows me to recognize when my body is tightening and gives me tools to try to let the tension release, but I still found it hard to do so while I was in that room.

The community of characters in the play had lost one of their teenagers in a drowning accident many years ago and this loss deeply reverberated throughout the course of their individual lives. I lost my own brother at a similar age and the pain of watching others suffer a similar loss brought back my own. The characters were also facing tough economical losses (which I am also close to facing) as well as struggling with the collapses of relationships they had hoped would last forever. The resulting tension and strain often lead to anger and fighting with one another, which again reminded me of all the yelling I was subjected to in my own upbringing. I could not sit there and be unaffected by all of this pain that was so similar to my own.

In the culminating scene, the room erupted with every character simultaneously shouting at one another on Thanksgiving Day. I could no longer hold in my tears. The tension was too much for me to bear. As soon as the tears started rolling down my cheeks, the actors, who were now facing the audience, each eating their individual slice of pie, stopped and sighed in unison. And then they looked out into the audience and made eye contact with us for the first time, tangibly recognizing that we are all connected to one another, and that we all share in the joy and suffering that make up this life.

I realized from watching this play, that as lonely as I am in Boston, and even without a family or supportive network of friends, that this area is still “my home.” When people that met me along the PCT commented on how far I was away from “home” after they asked me where I was from, I always wanted to correct them and say, “No- this is my home! The trail is my home! This is where I feel happy and alive and strong and seen”. I wanted to move to the west coast and start a new life in a place that was closer to the wilderness, where people were friendlier. But the truth is that I grew up in a distinct area at a certain time and that I have been shaped and influenced by what was happening around me during those many years. It doesn’t matter that what little is left of my original family is so dysfunctional that I can not claim to even have a family. This area is still where I am from, and what is known to me, and is therefore, to at least some extent, “my home.”

I also realized from watching this play, that my thru-hikes are a necessary outlet for me to counteract the vast amount of pain and suffering that I have experienced throughout the course of my life. They allow me to discover feelings of joy and openness and freedom and strength, without which, I would (and have been) sucked into all-consuming depression. I found it interesting to hear the director talk about how he reminded his actors during the rehearsal period to keep remembering the joy in life, whether it comes from family, or children, or anywhere else. It’s important to keep a balance. Otherwise, it is too easy to get sucked into the pain.

This morning, as I was telling Hannah about what my hikes do for me, she said, “That’s your Splendor!” I hadn’t even thought about the meaning of the title until that point! My eyes opened widely. She said that everyone deserves their happiness, their slice of pie, in life. And everyone deserves their bit of recognition.

If you would like to listen to my friend Hannah’s music and help support her creative talents, please check out her songs on iTunes!
https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/leave-the-moon-on/id623104080?i=623104086&ign-mpt=uo%3D4

“The Return”

THE RETURN

Geneen Marie Haugen

Some day, if you are lucky,
you’ll return from a thunderous journey
trailing snake scales, wing fragments
and the musk of Earth and moon.

Eyes will examine you for signs
of damage, or change
and you, too, will wonder
if your skin shows traces

of fur, or leaves,
if thrushes have built a nest
of your hair, if Andromeda
burns from your eyes.

Do not be surprised by prickly questions
from those who barely inhabit
their own fleeting lives, who barely taste
their own possibility, who barely dream.

If your hands are empty, treasureless,
if your toes have not grown claws,
if your obedient voice has not
become a wild cry, a howl

you will reassure them. We warned you,
they might declare, there is nothing else,
no point, no meaning, no mystery at all,
just this frantic waiting to die.

And yet, they tremble, mute,
afraid you’ve returned without sweet
elixir for unspeakable thirst, without
a fluent dance or holy language

to teach them, without a compass
bearing to a forgotten border where
no one crosses without weeping
for the terrible beauty of galaxies

and granite and bone. They tremble,
hoping your lips hold a secret,
that the song your body now sings
will redeem them, yet they fear

your secret is dangerous, shattering,
and once it flies from your astonished
mouth, they–like you–must disintegrate
before unfolding tremulous wings.

Back to the studio

On Monday, I drove down to my yoga studio in Boston and took my first two public yoga classes since before I started the trail. I was surprised at how well I did! I thought I was going to have to take a different spot in the room than my usual front row, in front of the teacher one, but I decided to set up in the same place as always and I had no problem fitting right in! It felt really good to be back in the same space as one of my strongest role models. At the end of the first class, I sat quietly with a little smile on my face and proudly thought, “I did it!”- “I successfully made it through my first class…And… I did it!…I walked from Mexico to Canada!”. I am surprised at how quickly my body has adapted within the course of one month from being barely able to do chaturunga or urdhva dhanurasana (lacking both strength and flexibility) to somehow not being so far off from where I left off six or so months ago!

At the end of my second class, my teacher read some words that he wanted us to repeat as a meditation:

I let go of other people’s stories about me
I let go of my stories about other people
I let go of my stories about myself
In letting go …I am free…to be who I actually am

He asked us who we would be without these stories?

I realized (well before this class) that my long hike allowed me a reprieve from being labeled by anyone and put into a box that is hard to escape. The trail provides a space for those who hike it to shed layers of anything that has been imposed on us. I feel fortunate that I was able to spend five months in a place where no one cared about anything other than who I was at that very moment that I was interacting with them. I don’t think there was a single person on the trail that wanted to know what my back story or my history was. No one wanted an explanation for any of my behavior or any of my characteristics. I met many people who accepted me upon meeting me and complimented me for my open-heartedness and easy laugh. I didn’t have to hide myself or pretend to be anything that I am not. As my hike progressed and I moved into new states with different weather, I reflected on the metaphor of the change in clothing as a dropping of the masks we often wear to hide our true selves. In the desert, we were all covered up in clothing to protect our skin, wide-brimmed hats, and sunglasses. In the Sierras, we allowed our skin to be exposed to the sun a little more. By the time we made it to Oregon and Washington, I found it interesting that I no longer needed to wear anything on my head at all. It felt like I was exposing myself and being more accepting of who I really was.

My teacher’s words seemed to have met a much greater need within the other students in the class. In life away from the trail, it is so easy to label and classify each other, to feel as if you know everything about someone, and to feel separate from them, just as it is easy to feel a certain way about yourself based on what other people know and have known about you. It’s hard to get out of the patterns that we find ourselves in- doing the same kind job and the same activities and interacting with the same people again and again.

Yesterday, I returned to the studio for another class, with the understanding that I will do as much as I am capable of at this time, with the strength and flexibility that I currently possess, knowing that this has to be built upon gradually. (My yoga injuries have already quickly returned!). Before class started, I saw a fellow student and friend for the first time since being back and she remarked about how strong I looked. I didn’t really believe her… I felt happy the first week I was back, but then fell into a very lonely and depressed state and assumed that what I had gained from my hike had already left me. But after class, my teacher said, “You changed so much!” Really? She said that I seemed much stronger! I found this so fascinating. They must see an energetic shift in me. I guess it wouldn’t be possible to come back from such an experience without more confidence and self-acceptance. Right now, it is my task to stay in an open space that is filled with hope for my future. It’s time to get to work on creating a life for myself that I want to live- one in which I am productive and living my purpose and sharing what I have to offer with others.

In November, I will return to my one yoga teaching job a week that I had before my hike. I offered the job to one of my favorite yoga teachers while I was away- someone who is very experienced, very skilled, and very confident. She is about to embark on her own traveling journey for three months and said that the students were asking if I was back. They want me back after having had her for a teacher? Wow…

My medal!

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I received my medal for completing the PCT on Wednesday! I had been looking forward to that since before I started!! (Somewhere along my journey, Fun Size crushed my dreams by telling me it was a fake medal made out of chocolate! No! No… Don’t do this to me! …He left me thinking that it really was chocolate. Fortunately, I can confirm that it is a real, hefty medal! I feel proud. And I love the PCTA for giving these out!).

My computer is presently in the hospital for a two night stay, as it had been in near death condition when I returned. Hopefully, it will soon be revived and then I can get to work on my many projects.

I recently dipped into depression land as the result of too much loneliness. No one has time to break from their busy schedules and hang out with a girl who has so many stories to tell about traveling from Mexico to Canada. It makes me very sad. And it got to the point where I was feeling very angry in the grocery store. Why don’t I know anyone here? Why don’t I have friends here? It was so great to always run into fellow hikers at nearly every store and restaurant I went into along the trail. Automatic friends. Such a close- knit, connected community.

I had an even tougher time when I made my first foray into Boston the other night and was immediately besieged by more people than I had seen in the last five months at the train station- many of them angry and rushing to get on a train. It was overwhelming and the energy was crushing me. I cried most of the way from North Station to Davis Square and wished I was back in the Sierras. The Sierras! The toughest part of the trail and the part I was most sick in. And the part of the trail that I did not want to return to again. But now…

I wondered why hiking nearly 3,000 miles in all kinds of conditions with a heavy backpack weighing on my shoulders, sleeping on patches of dirt, and all while being sick was relatively easy for me and why walking through the city is so extremely hard and soul- crushing to me? It’s going to be a hard road…

Now what…

I have spent most of my time since I’ve been home glued to the unfolding news on the events on the PCT in Washington. Winter hit early this year, and I am so glad I finished before the snow came. I would not describe my hike as “fun.” It was often stressful and exhausting. But I wanted to get to the Canadian border before winter stopped me, and I am thankful I was able to do that. Many of my friends are still out there, trying to figure out how to get to Canada. There is several feet of snow now on the high passes and many people who have tried to go out have had to turn back. A few hikers have been trapped in storms and had to be airlifted out of the mountains. One 23 year girl has just been rescued after being trapped for over a week in heavy snow near Goat Rocks.  It’s a very serious and scary situation. A lot of hikers have abandoned their hopes of making it to the border and have returned home. Others are still trying to complete their journey by walking roads.

There is no big fanfare awaiting us at the border- no pot of gold at the end of this journey, no fireworks, and no epiphanies.  We simply just arrive at a little clearing in the woods, in which a wooden monument stands.  But getting to the border and seeing the monument is a big deal to us. We have all invested a tremendous amount of ourselves in making it to this specific place: our savings, our time (in both planning and actually hiking), and our energy. This adventure is not like a vacation. It is a five month long mentally and physically exhausting endeavor, and most of the time, we are in some state of discomfort. We walk for hundreds and hundreds of miles in extreme heat, and then extreme cold. We sleep on patches of dirt. We have no shelter in rain, hail, and lightning storms. We fight our way through constant high wind. We are swarmed by massive numbers of mosquitoes in the Sierras that don’t allow you to enjoy the incredible scenery. When we aren’t being eaten by mosquitoes, flies and gnats take over, and then bees. We ford endless rivers. We are constantly covered in dirt. Our gear is always breaking. We carry a lot of weight on our backs up and down mountains all day long. We have very little to no time to relax and take in our surroundings. We have to keep moving no matter what if we want to achieve our goal of walking from Mexico to Canada.

Arriving at the monument signifies that we were able to overcome every obstacle that the PCT threw at us. We have known what it looks like since before we started and we always know how many miles we have left to hike until we reach it. When we actually touch it and take photographs with it, we are given a sense of closure and a feeling of internal peace. We know how much it took of us to get there, and we know we are that much stronger for everything that we went through.

There have been a lot of emotions swirling out in WA along with the snow these past couple of weeks- sadness, fear, frustration, and anger. (Some hikers have even been turned away from the trail due to the National Park closures!). Eventually, the feelings will settle and the achievements will overshadow the frustrations. It takes time to process everything we have experienced. For some, not being able to finish has given them an excuse to hike the trail again next year. I personally need to figure out how to channel the tremendous amount of energy and focus that I put into this hike into the next chapter…

“Kindness”

by Naomi Shihab Nye

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.