Most of the long-distance hikers on the Appalachian Trail are in a time of transition. One phase of life is finished and there is still uncertainty about the “what next?” This definitely described me last summer as I prepared for our big adventure. Hubby and I were trying to choose a direction to follow among many possibilities for the future. Hiking the Appalachian Trail seemed to make so much sense—take a long break from the demands of “real life” and sort out big questions along the way.
Obviously, on challenging, overwhelming days (like the one I described HERE) the only questions being pondered are things like “can I manage to keep moving?” or “when can I crash for the night?” Even on good days, however, life questions rarely crossed our minds. In talking with other hikers, this was a common experience. The immediate overshadowed the ambiguous or unanswered.
“I’d set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again. But the truth was…I was consumed only with my most immediate and physical suffering. Since I’d begun hiking, the struggles of my life had only fluttered occasionally through my mind…I’d imagined endless meditations upon sunsets or while staring out across pristine mountain lakes. I’d thought I’d weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey. Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did…” – Cheryl Strayed, “Wild”
We often used our thoughts to distract ourselves from frustrations of hiking including aches and pains. I tended to focus on finding safe footing or on how much further we had to go before stopping for the afternoon. I looked forward to enjoying a chocolate bar at our next break. I debated whether or not daughter had been doing enough “school” things or I plotted out my next blog post. Daughter preferred to remember lyrics or make up new ones to favorite melodies. She quoted extended passages from books, movies, and plays. She made up profiles for new imaginary characters and planned how she would later draw them. All of this kept our brains busy while hiking, but did nothing toward finding answers to big questions.
When we took a break on the trail or on zero days, we tended to live in the moment. We enjoyed the view or listened to birds sing or wondered about little critters we saw. We traded stories and information with fellow hikers. Questions that felt so important to sort through when at home, lost their urgency while enjoying the pleasures found in nature.
We have been home for a month now. I’m still baffled as to the “what’s next?” I’m not sure what daughter and I “should” be doing. Some days I’m not even sure what we want to do. Hubby and I are trying (so far unsuccessfully) to figure out what work he will do as he finishes his career. We need to envision what retirement might look like and how to best prepare for it in the next decade. All things we were pondering before the AT adventure. All big questions. All still unanswered.
What we DO know is that the time spent backpacking was invaluable. It brought calm in the midst of the questioning. It brought enjoyment and practice living in the moment. Daughter and I look forward to spring. We still might not have answers to our life questions, but we are heading back to the trail for whatever gifts we will find along the way.