Learning to Accept the End of the Journey

When I returned to the real world from the trail, part of me didn't quite realize what a culture shock it would be. Of course, I knew after five months of living in the wild that certain things would take some adapting to, but I never realized how difficult this would be.

I came home expecting to spend my days basking in my own wonderful glow of adventure. Instead, I felt myself buried by small things: there were bills to pay. And my lease was up in a few months. And I needed to find a job to pay for all these things. Life caught up to me, and I realized how much I hated living on the grid. I hated being a slave to rent payments and responsibilities and the things in the real world that tied me down. I wanted to feel the freedom I felt on the trail, knowing I could do and be anything I wanted to be. Knowing that the world was open to me, that nothing was unconquerable if I wanted it desperately enough.
But now, suddenly, I felt reined in by society's demands. You're almost thirty. You're supposed to have a mortgage and a career and thirteen kids already.

I felt myself slipping into a post-trail depression. I used to wake up every morning surrounded by friends. I would walk through beautiful landscapes and stunning scenery. I would breathe the open air and feel the strength of my body propelling me forward. I would go to bed surrounded by friends and do it all again the next day.
And now I was just... alone. I woke up every day in a stuffy house. Tanner would leave me to go to work and I would be at home, not knowing what to do with myself. It took me a long time to figure out what it was that was causing this overwhelming gloom.

And then I realized: I no longer had a purpose.
On trail I had one overwhelming purpose for five months: walk north. Walk north. Walk north. And the desire and the dedication to complete my goal was enough of a spark to keep me going. I was seeing new things! Meeting new people! Walking from one end of the States to the other!
But suddenly, I had none of that. My one driving goal was gone, and with it, my sense of purpose. 

I wandered through my days like a zombie, trying to pick up the pieces of who I was when I was on trail. I am strong. I am capable. I am vibrant and adventurous and bad-ass.
But suddenly I didn't feel it. Suddenly my self-esteem was leaking out the door. I couldn't remember why I had been so confident in myself, why I had felt like I could take on the world. Now I was trapped in a tiny world when I had become accustomed to wandering through a big one. I wanted my wilderness back. I wanted my sense of purpose.

It's heartbreaking to leave behind a dream you've carried for 2,600 miles, especially when the goal hovers just tantalizingly out of reach. Fifty miles and I would have completed my journey. Fifty miles. And part of this depression that seeps over me at home, part of it has to do with the fact that I haven't finished the task I set out to do five months ago. Part of it has to do with the fact that I want to finish, and instead I'm trapped at home, feeling useless and without purpose.

Friends and family at home try to console us: "it doesn't matter that you didn't finish. Fifty miles out of 2,600 is nothing! We know you made it from Mexico to Canada."
Yes, fifty miles is nothing. A two day walk, no more. On any other stretch of trail, it would barely even register. But on the final fifty miles? Nothing could be more crucial. Nothing could be more important.

Our friends and family still try to console us. They don't understand. They say, "remember, it's the journey, and not the destination, that matters."
It's a nice sentiment in a way, and I can't find the heart to argue with them. But if I'm being truthful, I can't agree. Yes, the journey was wonderful. Yes, it was life changing. Yes, technically I walked from Mexico through most of California, Oregon and Washington. But to say that the destination doesn't matter is a slap in the face. Friends and family don't understand what it is to be a thru-hiker. They don't have that mindset. They don't understand that for five months, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, we had one driving goal. One. To walk north to the monument.
In the real world, you battle with hundreds of goals every day: working hard enough to earn yourself a lunch break. Working on a project that's due at the end of the week. Saving for a vacation at the end of the month. Saving for a new house. For a new baby. For retirement. Goals are coming and going so quickly that you barely notice them. You celebrate them daily, begin another just as fast. Imagine working for five months on a project merely to have it torn up in your face by your boss. But it was all the work you did, and not the final result that matters, right?

And for a thru-hiker? Life is simple. Life is straight forward. Every single person walking the trail is living in the present moment and no further. And every single moment of your day is spent reaching one mighty goal: to make it to Canada. To reach that northern monument, just as you left behind the southern one. There are no big decisions to be made. There are no stresses. There is nothing hindering you from your one overwhelming destination. You wake up. You walk north. You go to sleep. You wake up. You walk north. You go to sleep. And as you grow closer and closer, the obsession grows stronger. Your will power grows stronger. Your resolve, your strength, your determination grows stronger. You realize that you have broken every barrier you have ever built for yourself and you've just walked twenty six hundred miles from one end of the country to the other. And dammit, you deserve to touch that monument. You deserve to reach your goal. Because if you work hard enough, it's within your grasp. It's all you think about. You spend hours of your day walking north, and monumental daydreams leak into your head.

What will it be like? Your mind drifts forward in time. You imagine your feet aching after a long day. You imagine coming around the bend in the trail. The trees open up. There is a clearing ahead. And there, just ahead of you, is the weather-worn gray wooden monument. It looks just like the one in Mexico, except that it is in Canada, 2,650 miles away from the one you left five months before. You fall to your knees. You press your forehead against the wood. You begin to cry. You embrace your friends, you cheer, you drink champagne and let a thousand emotions run through your thoughts. You take a hundred pictures standing beside your final milestone. You say goodbye. You reminisce. You move on.

And all these things run through a thru-hikers head every day. Every day. Every day since our first day on trail we have dreamt about the monument. Every day we dream about taking that photograph next to it. And so it is little surprise that reaching the terminus becomes an obsession. Thru-hikers are a determined group of individuals: once we have a goal in mind, we will walk to the ends of the earth to achieve it. We will walk through 100 degrees of heat. We will walk through four feet of snow. We will walk through days of rain. We will ignore the weather and the warnings and the risks. We will defy the government. We will put ourselves in harms way. We will make smart choices, but if there is still a choice to be made, we will always choose the one that takes us north.
It's what we've worked for for so long. And if we can, we will.

And that's why the destination matters. Yes, the journey is important. Yes, the journey will be the memories we remember. But the final monument is a thru-hiker's Valhalla. It may seem crazy, it may seem superfluous, but until you've spent every waking moment of five months working toward one specific goal, you can't judge when I'm heartbroken to leave it behind. You can't judge when I don't accept that it's only about the journey. Because if I'm being honest, the journey is also about the destination.