Trail blues are something you hear about, before and during your thru-hike, but of course you don’t know what to expect until you’re living in that moment. For days and weeks leading up to our summit of Katahdin I had been feeling a sadness in the pit of my stomach, whenever I thought about the future and the end. But I thought I would be fine after the trail, I am not the kind of person to get depressed and I take pride in my ability to stay positive and work to be happy. What I didn’t count on was how multifaceted the trail blues really are.
When I was living in Mexico our program prepared us for the culture shock of returning to the United States. Despite all of their instruction I found myself coping fine when I came back to America, maybe a little more stressed the usual with the faster pace of life but fine. I didn’t truly know what culture shock felt like until I got off trail. In some ways it felt extremely ambiguous and hard for me to pin down, just a sad confused cloud, but other parts of culture shock were surprisingly easy to understand.
The easiest thing to pin down is how quickly nostalgia takes over, and you miss the trail. Like it was a person or a friend or maybe it is a homesickness. The entire trail was your home and suddenly you are estranged from it. Thank goodness I have Kyle because without him to reminisce with the trail would seem like a dream. It would be hard to convince myself it actually happened. From re-reading my journal I know there were plenty of miserable moments, but nostalgia is like a rose colored pair of glasses and suddenly all you can remember were all the fun times. So you miss it, and even though you know you were ready to stop, some part of you now wishes you were still hiking.
I also realized that one of the things I missed most about the trail was how special the simple pleasures were. On the trail every shower is the best shower of you life, sleeping in a bed is the only treat you need, a real meal tastes incredible no matter what it is. Everything on trail is so special and so sparkly, imbibed with rarity and gratitude. Then you get off trail and all those special things start to become normal parts of real life and it breaks your heart.
I realized this because I was having trouble falling asleep at night. Before and during the trail I was not the kind of person that had problems sleeping, I have always been a fantastic sleeper. But laying in bed at night after the trail I was feeling guilty and at first I couldn’t figure out why. My gut feeling was that I didn’t deserve to sleep, after the trail it is hard to do the equivalent to hiking twenty miles in a day. But I realized it went deeper than that. I was feeling deeply sad because something that I used to find unbelievably special, sleeping in a bed for example, was now becoming the norm. Some part of me was depressed that some very simple pleasures that I had been taking joy in for the last few months would now become regular.
The last thing that hit me was how much the trail had changed me and my priorities. I think, before the trail, I would have been fine with my work being the biggest time commitment in my life. I would have put everything into it and been fine. But the trail does weird things to you, and the moment I began applying for jobs I began to realize that I needed a job that was going to allow me to live a more balanced life. I was going to need my outdoor time, a flexible schedule, an employer that supported my hobbies and most importantly my happiness.
You meet so many people on trail who are burned out, who are escaping from soul sucking jobs. In many ways it galvanizes you to push harder against the status quo and not settle for less. But then real life hits and when you are broke and have real life needs. You know, no matter how much you want to be picky about jobs and your happiness, you are going to have to settle for whatever comes along. My only hope is that everything I learned from the trail, about how to weather the tough times, can get me through an unsavory job until a better opportunity comes along.
But most importantly, I realized that I am lucky to be having these feeling. As hard as culture shock can be, in the back of your mind you know it is the result of an incredible experience. And when I really think about it, I can’t complain about the trail raising my expectations for how I live the rest of my life. The trail blues can be scary and sad but if I learned anything from the trail it was that, as with any low, you have to find the silver lining and stay positive.