Wrap-Up – Stages of Grief

One day to normalize. That’s all I got. My flight landed the morning of  Sunday, October 2nd, I went to a wedding that afternoon/evening, and then I was back at work on Monday morning.

In a lot of ways, it sounds optimal – the financial realities of depleted savings after a thruhike and combined financial demands of the frontcountry mean that a lot of people are looking to go back to work ASAP. And I was one of the lucky hikers in that I didn’t even have to quit my job to go hiking; working for Backpacker aside, my pre-hike job – teaching and tutoring for standardized tests – was flexible enough that I could just take five months off. It also usually has an increased demand right around the October timeframe, when students are gearing up to hit late November/early December deadlines, so there was plenty of work for me to throw myself into upon arrival.

Still, I’m not going to pretend I was excited about it. Hikers naysay going back to work so soon for good reason: you need time to get used to your new reality, a reality that isn’t nearly as purpose-driven as the reality you occupied for five months. A reality that is, you find, unnecessarily complex, layered with social constructs we don’t need, relationships we don’t need, stuff we don’t need. Society is great and all – it’s nice to not go off to pee in the middle of the night to see some predator’s forward-facing eyes reflected in your headlamp – but I found that what I was getting by being back in society was so much less than the price I felt I was paying.

So, pretty much immediately, thanks to an excuse from Crankster, I frolicked off into the wilderness the first chance I got. Unfortunately, between the gorgeous scenery and my angry knees and the short timeframe I had between students, the trip, after it was over, served as more of a stark reminder of what I was missing than as any sort of balm on my soul.

And between that fresh wound and the impending winter and my distinct lack of snowshoes or skis or snowboards or money that would get me those things, I retreated into my house, into books, into a heartache so fierce that I found it hard to even write about the PCT, hard to even face the joy I’d held in my heart even a few weeks prior.

Then we elected our 45th President.

I’d known we weren’t out of the woods with that, but it hurt all the same. I didn’t cry, though – I started becoming more engaged, more talkative in person and online, more stressed the hell out. When I didn’t have students that necessitated me being alone in a car with my feelings of inadequacy and loss of purpose for 2.5 hours (to teach for 1-1.5 hours), I was either reading fiction or Facebook, wading into arguments defending friends who were defending me and other minorities. The fiction was an escape from what was now apparently reality, and I’d consume a 400-page book in five days just to have some semblance of sanity in my life, given that my home life wasn’t the best through all of this, either.

And that’s how I found myself angry all of the time.

Well, not all of the time, I guess. But the tiniest little thing could set me off. Traffic, even if expected? Angry. My test-prep boss throwing work on me last-minute, even if he’d known about the work for a week? Angry. Every news article about the incoming administration? Angry, though more justifiably so. I think I began seeking out the latter in part just to have some justification for why I felt this way. Having to justify said righteous anger to Spesh? Angry.

I suspected then but know now that the rage I’ve been experiencing is just a really convenient cover-up for fear, for sadness, for vulnerability. It took narrowly avoiding what could’ve been a bad car accident – and having my first thought be “well, that would’ve solved a lot of problems” – to drive that particular point home. I know that I’ve been terrified: terrified that my knees will never heal, terrified I’ll never have another experience like the PCT, terrified that everything in my life from here on out will be compared to those crazy, wonderful, too-short five months I spent walking up the spine of the Pacific coast – and that every other experience, for however long I live, will be found wanting. I’m sad that it’s over and sad that I just can’t “get over it”, because I “should be” over it by now. So instead of finding a healthy way to cope with these negative emotions, I, like a lot of Americans, bottle them up, because culturally, there seems to be nothing productive to be done with them. And so they manifest themselves as anger. Anger is motivating. Anger can be productive.

But anger isn’t enough, either.

In December, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. Couldn’t take myself as I was anymore. Work was slow, so I decided to set some goals: start a morning routine, finish up the blog, find a way to make a living that wasn’t as soul-crushing as I now found test prep to be. The routine was easier than I thought, and I explored avenues for freelance work; while I thought, initially, that I wanted to get into freelance editing, sitting down to write every weekday – as much as it sometimes felt like a chore – was also the most freeing thing I’d ever done. It came to feel normal, to feel right, to feel… healing. Even though I couldn’t run, didn’t want to exercise for fear of making my still-painful knees worse, I exercised my mind, and my heart soared. I got to laugh at with, cry with, roll my eyes at past me. I got to relive those days, even the days like Eagle Creek, which I wrote with tears streaming down my face. And it was in the act of writing, of interpreting and editing and reliving a lifetime within a lifetime, that I managed to find something like peace.

Eleven weeks after I made that decision – Friday of last week, to be precise – I finished the blog, and to be honest, I feel pretty lost all over again. That said, I also feel more able to focus on the positive, on the steps I’ve made towards improving my physical, mental, and emotional health. My knees finally feel like they’re on the mend; though they’re still pretty stiff and climbing stairs is something that I have to think about rather than just do and running looks more like fast waddling, I can do all of that without pain. I’ve gained back most of the weight I lost on the trail, but it seems like it’s decided to either stay mostly muscle or look proportional – though I’ve been eating better and getting outside more to counteract it, what with the climate-change-induced spring that’s come a little early to the Front Range. I’m waiting to hear back – on more than one front – about how I’m going to spend my summer, and while said wait feels like it’s killing me slowly, I’m hoping to know for certain by the end of the week. And meanwhile, I’m still writing, and reading a lot – Octavia Butler, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston. I’m trying to feel my feelings, to GET REKT at least once a week, show myself that it’s okay not to be a robot, it’s okay to hurt. It’s okay to ugly cry at the pinnacle of Finding Dory. The ability to admit when you’re hurting – even if only to yourself – can be a strength.

It’s been a helluva long road to this point – I realized today that I’ve been off the trail nearly as long as I was on it, and I still don’t think I’ve fully recovered from what it’s done to me. I don’t know that I ever will – but I have to come to terms with that. I think that’s why many thru- and long-distance hikers are often repeat offenders – why practice acceptance of the world as it is when we know our hearts will always be in wild places? But accepting that we can only hike long-distance trails when we can hike them is a form of acceptance, and in the meantime, we spend time with other hikers, we talk trail online, we go to events like the Rockies Ruck to meet new people who love what we love. And, of course, we hike as much as we can.

I say all of this to say that what I’ve experienced, a preponderance of the overwhelming feelings I’ve had since the end of my hike (and a lot of my feelings before, re-reading some of my posts) is a natural reaction to grief. This is a normal reaction to losing the way of life you’ve come to love. And, as it turns out, there is no normal timeline when it comes to grief.

So if you’re out there experiencing anything like this, even now, even when you “should be over it”, or if it’s muted or you’re finally feeling like you’re on your way to recovery, I want you to know that you are not alone. I want you to know that you don’t have to do it on your own, that grieving, asking for help, neither of those are character flaws. I want you to know that I’m still struggling, just trying to make it through one day at a time, and it’s okay if you are, too. Leaning on our hiker friends, who know what we’re going through, and our friends and extended family, is important, both now and in the days to come.

 


If you need more help than a post/commiseration can provide, I invite you, even if you’re not in crisis, to talk to the folks at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It’s a free service in the US, and you’ve got your pick of communication methods: you can talk to them on the phone at 1-800-273-8255, by texting TalkWithUs to 66746, or chat with them online at the link above – and all of these services are available 24/7/365. These folks can, depending on your location, potentially connect you with low-cost or free local therapy, if cost is a prohibiting factor. If you’re not in the US, I invite you to look into similar programs, or if you know of any, do comment below, and I’ll update this post accordingly.

18 thoughts on “Wrap-Up – Stages of Grief

  1. Jim Benthuysen ( Caveman) says:

    I did a thru across Europe in 2012. The post trip grief / reentry crushed me – I’m a older physician but was clueless as to what was happening . It took years but I’ve never been the same in arguably a good way . But the stress aged me faster no doubt. I’m lucky in that I retire now and leave in 2 weeks too. Pilgrimage walk 800 mile in Japan. With the goal of meditative walking. I’ll trail angel and segment this summer too. So I’m in a different life point. But the imnediate effects were just as you described – anger – grief- bad driving habits – -all -of – it. The trail has so many lessons — we are so so lucky even oddly for this .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brown Girl says:

      Happy retirement! May it be filled with so much hiking.

      Also, this is an interesting lesson – I’m not quite sure I’ve learned all it has to teach. There’s something just a little past this that I’m sure is quite profound, but I haven’t quite gotten there yet. One step at a time, I guess.

      Like

  2. dipink1 says:

    Love your blog, it has easily been one of the best written blogs on the PCT.
    With the comment about the Suicide Prevention Hotline, I wanted to post this website:
    https://www.qprinstitute.com/individual-training

    The QPR Institute will train anyone on how to regcognize when someone may be suicidal, and how to intervene. Many people with suicidal thoughts would welcome a helping hand, but so many of us don’t know when it is happening, or how to help. Like learning CPR, this 1 hour training may help you save someone’s life. It’s easy, and it is not expensive, and you don’t have to be a trained psychologist to help.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. adamtdresser says:

    I want to respond to each of your paragraphs, but I will restrain myself.

    I would like to commiserate that in April is the two year anniversary of my start, and I’m still depressed from finishing. I’m feeling a little better lately, but the dark winter and election of President Trump were tough.

    The PCT changed me, and I think about it every day. Like, looking at the sky has about an 80% chance of reminding me of the PCT. How many times a day do we look at the sky?

    But it is becoming sweeter. Hiking the PCT was the coolest thing ever. And whatever happens, no one can take it away from me. And there’s the possibility of doing it, or something like it, again. Every day I feel a little more awesome for what I did, and a little less sad that it’s not my life now.

    Humans adapt. You get used to it. Whatever it is.

    I wish you well. I hope you keep writing. Thank you so much for finishing your trail blog with some aftermath. And feel free to post again and let us all know how you are.

    -Glide

    Liked by 2 people

    • Brown Girl says:

      Winter is always hard for me. It helps living in Colorado, with all the sunshine – the SAD hasn’t been as bad since I moved here – but it’s still hard. I agree with you, though, this winter, with all the social turmoil, has been especially tough.

      Time heals most everything. I’m glad the light side of things is coming a little easier, for the both of us, and I hope it continues to do so.

      I’ll for sure keep writing – maybe I’ll check back at the beginning of hiker season, when the new class is starting to take their first steps on trail. I’m sure that’ll hit me pretty hard. But hopefully I’ll have some more adventures of my own to report on by then, too.

      (Relatedly, if I write 2000-word posts, you should feel free to write whatever it is you feel in response. I’ll try to do it justice in my reply, promise.)

      Like

      • adamtdresser says:

        Well, since you’re so sweet, and since you asked, here’s the other things I wanted to say:

        I also came right back to work. I got taken off the trail by a bad infection in my toe, so I came home unexpectedly early. The night I came back there was a big lightning storm that started a bunch of fires and my phone started ringing (I work for the Forest Service and was red-carded for a bunch of stuff). I managed to hold them off for about four days (which I needed because my apartment/life was all fucked up) and then I got sucked into the Fire Machine.

        Sixteen hour days, 14 days in a row, still sleeping outside with my PCT gear, although I will say the food was definitely better than what you get on a thru-hike. People were complaining, but after months of bars and jerky I was pretty happy. I tried to eat and put on some of the weight I lost on the trail.

        I was close to broke when I got back, so it was good to get back to work and make money (overtime and fire-pay even!), but because it’s my forest, and I’m kind of the suppression repair/rehab guy, I worked on the fires until we got snowed out in December.

        That was when I really came home. And my hike was over. And working the fire was over. After being pushed along most of the year, all of a sudden, there was nothing. It was winter and dark and very sad.

        But I’m so glad I did a blog! Reading it, editing it to add little bits, has been a wonderful escape when I need it most. I still have one final blog post to write to wrap the whole thing up with a bow, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.

        As for the future, I’m really flummoxed by this new reality. I used to enjoy all kinds of news and being well-informed, but now the news is so bad it makes me depressed and angry. I’m considering cutting way back on my consumption of news. What then? Am I choosing ignorance? I want to know what’s going on, but it hurts me. You know?

        Don’t feel a need to do justice in your reply. Any evidence you actually read this is good enough for me!

        Happy Trails,
        -Glide

        Liked by 1 person

      • Brown Girl says:

        Man, that’s a hard way to come back from the trail. You’ll finish your blog one day, though – when you’re good and ready.

        One thing I’ve found useful is http://whatthefuckjusthappenedtoday.com – it’s a news aggregator that I’ve found keeps me informed, but contains (most of) my outrage into just one part of my day. It’s certainly made me more productive. So I stay informed, I do a lot of reading on political theory, I try to inform others, I go to protests/rallies, and I make phone calls – and hope that helps.

        Like

  4. sherpadventures says:

    Zuul, thank you for writing! You are not alone,we are not alone, i feel like 99% of thru hikers are struggling right now, each in our own ways shapes and forms. Blogging is something i wanted to do from the start, quickly realized i dodnt have time to keep up with on trail, and now the whole PCT almost seems like such a special chapter of my life its like i dont even want to touch it or pull it apart into blogs or stories for fear it wont actually accurately portray the trail. It means so much i dont feel qualified to justly depict it the way it deserves! But of course i also know that the experience left untouched is absurd, I do want to share it, I want others to be able to experience it, i want it to be a part of my life now and forever, I want to blog. The huge canyon between wanting to write and actually writing is one i havent leaped over yet but everytime Im reminded on facebook of the way you just got yourself down to it and cranked it out is inspiring! It pushes me a little closer to the edge, I want to be pushed off the edge, cuz i know ill have no choice but to fly to the other side and start putting words to the experience 🙂 So thank you for pushing me a little closer to the trail in this noisy suffocating life 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brown Girl says:

      Yeah, most folks I talk to aren’t at 100% again – but I don’t know that we’ll ever be, unless we’re on a trail somewhere.

      I’ve found it easiest to write what I want to remember. (Granted, I also think it’s important to write about my weaknesses/things I don’t necessarily want to remember, but it’s certainly easiest to write what I want to remember.) For you, that might just be stories of important moments on the trail, or cool happenings, or unforgettable evenings. It can be whatever you want it to be. Let those little bits and bobs act as the first opening of a floodgate, and whatever else you want to write will come pouring out.

      (What’s cool that I found is that, in the writing – either through written notes or voice notes or photos or sometimes just in the flow of writing – I re-remembered a thing that I’d already forgotten. That’s been pretty cool, too.)

      Also, I’d love to read about your hike, if that helps to push you over the edge. 😉

      Like

      • sherpadventures says:

        Thank you for the encouragement! I started a blog, got discouraged in how quickly I became SO behind, and have struggled to get started again, it’s such a daunting task. I’m slowly getting back into it, I do need little things to push me over the edge to keep chipping away at it so thank you 🙂

        Like

    • adamtdresser says:

      Start your blog! I wasn’t gong to do one but a lot of friends and co-workers more or less begged me to. I’m so glad I did. Not only was it a good way to update everybody while I was out there, but it’s an awesome journal that I can look back on. I plan to have it printed into book form when it’s done.

      Just go do it! You’ll be glad you did.

      Liked by 1 person

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