After the Trail

3 weeks of pain, misery, and trudging long after I wanted to stop because I couldn’t find a place to stop has left me with tendon damage and relief that I finally made myself stop.

I listened to more than a few hikers talk about the incredible amounts of ibuprofen they took every day to keep getting their miles in. Hikers who talked of “open wounds on their heels that shot pain up their legs with every step,” who kept walking because they had to get so many miles in. Is it worth liver damage, blood that may or may not clot properly if they sustain an injury, just to get to Katahdin?

I felt shame, the inevitable sense of failure, until the day I actually stopped walking, standing on feet that could barely hold me up and said “I hate this!” Then, relief. I have lived for years with the sense of panic that I might not make the rent, that my car won’t get me to work and back, that I won’t sell the art I’ve put in shops, that something I do won’t work out as I hope. That same sense of constraint, of being in a type of prison, was with me every step of the trail. I couldn’t stop when I saw something beautiful (oh, I did, sometimes, but not with the usual feeling of awe and satisfaction) or even when I was tired and my feet hurt. I couldn’t tell how far I’d walked and even though I knew how far the next shelter was, I couldn’t tell how far I’d come, how far I had to go. I knew I needed to find a campsite before full dark, with a water source, and I went through long stretches where I couldn’t stop because of terrain. I was carrying about a quarter of my body weight so uphill was slow going. I met every step with a growing sense of panic. Where could I stop if I didn’t make it to the shelter? At the shelter were campsites, water, and the safety of people, even though I wasn’t interested in lots of interaction. The point is that I found every day meant nothing more than walking, constantly, for 10 hours to get to the next shelter.

I had trouble eating. Trail food was so far removed from what I normally ate that I really had trouble getting it down and keeping it there. When I’m really tired, and anxious, I can’t eat. If you walk with a pack on rough terrain, uphill and down for hours and hours, you use a lot of energy. I needed to eat and I couldn’t. That added to my panic, and of course, made eating even harder.

Many days I encountered no one until I got close to the shelter. That didn’t bother me, and it gave me hours and hours to think. I realized that my life on the trail was not so different from the life I’ve been leading for years. Getting from one rent day to the next was a lot like making it from one shelter to the next. Wishing I could stop and just look at the sky was a lot like wishing I could spend a day making art instead of going to a job that would leave me exhausted, physically and creatively. I had no more freedom on the trail than I did in real life. Less, in fact. In real life, I did find time to write, to make art, just not nearly enough. On the trail, I couldn’t draw, or write. The longer I went without doing those things that have always sustained me, the harder the days became. I couldn’t sleep, no matter how exhausted, because of the pain in my feet and my heart. I wanted to draw. I wanted to write. I wanted to read.

The trail taught me, in far less than 6 months, that I wanted to return to my life and refine it, enjoy it. I learned that freedom is a concept more than an actual environment, and we often make our own. When I go into the woods to get away from noise and work, I feel refreshed and grateful. I left the trail because I don’t want to spoil my relationship with the woods, with Nature. She doesn’t care, of course, but I do. I will still go hiking, backpacking, and spend the night out when I want to get my fill of stargazing and peace. But I’m not going to do more damage to my feet and ruin my love of the outdoors so I can say I hiked the AT.

I hiked the AT long enough to realize that I can find what I need here. I can’t speak for what other people find, or don’t find, on the AT. What I found is that I need to write, to make art, to eat fresh food and stop walking when I want to stop walking. I found that I want to get back to making my own life again, constraints and all.

I have art bouncing around in my head, stories weaving themselves in and out of random thoughts, and I can’t wait to get busy. My feet still can’t hold me up, but I can write. I can draw. As soon as I can walk, I’ll be back to work. I’m looking forward to rebuilding my life. I have a lot more appreciation for my humble building blocks.

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10 responses to “After the Trail

  1. Susan Enderle

    Welcome home, wise one. You have been so missed! Can’t wait for our next writing session.

    • katiewritesagain

      Susan, Thank you for understanding. I’m still struggling with a sense of failure and anxiety about getting back to my life. I know that we all struggle every day. I accept the struggle as process, that life is a mountain I have to climb every day, that my “muscles” will strengthen. It also helps to know the struggles are universal.
      I’m looking forward to our writing sessions! I’ll talk to you soon.

  2. Elisa Schulman

    I have been following all the stories you have written about the trail the past few months before you left. I thought, wow, you go girl! I do not blame you for stopping the trail and wanting to go on with your life, hard as it can be sometimes. All in all I know you learned something while you were out there and that was the whole point. Funny how lessons come to us sometimes isn’t it? I am just now figuring out a huge life lesson about myself. After moving to Asheville and then getting so sick and broke and ending up right back where I started. I was appalled at being back, but only just now am I realizing the lesson in it and I have some serious work to do. After that and only after that will I be ready and able in my mind and spirit to once more leave this place that I do not wish to live in and start my next chapter. So I applaud you for what you did. Life is grand, is it not? I hope your feet feel better soon!

  3. katiewritesagain

    Elisa
    I felt so ashamed that I couldn’t keep going. Then, as I walked, I kept comparing my life with my life on the Trail. You’re right-it is funny how our lessons come to us. Maybe because I’m older and less concerned with what other people think I was able to stop before I did irrepairable damage. I heard guys talking about taking 3200mg of Ibuprofen every day. Liver damage is better than getting off the Trail?? I may decide to do the trail in sections (section-hiking) but for now I need to heal and get my life back in order.
    Are you planning to come back to Asheville? My friend with the gallery-Common Ground- could be a venue for your art. Maybe we could even consider renting something together for a while until we get a little cushion in the bank and then get our own place. Something to think about. email me.
    kathleenktrt@inbox.com

  4. Good for you, knowing when to stop doing something is just as important as knowing when to start. It sounds as if you’ve learned some useful lessons from your hiking and even if they weren’t the ones you were expecting to learn it doesn’t matter, does it? What matters is that you made a good decision. What would be the point of injuring yourself just to be able to say you did something? I think what you did was, in some ways, harder than what these ibuprofen popping focussed hikers did, you’ve listened to your body and respected its wishes. I think that’s highly commendable.

    • katiewritesagain

      Thank you! Yes, I think it was as hard, if not harder, because everyone thinks people go off the trail because they don’t “have what it takes.” I listened to some hikers and I think fear of failure, fear of what thier friends will think, a need to compete, are the reasons they stay on the trail. Those reasons don’t have a place in my life, they never have. The things I learned on the Trail were affirmations of lessons I’ve been learning for a while. Sometimes we have to learn things more than once, and sometimes our lessons come in surprising-and not always convenient-ways.
      Thanks again for understanding! My feet are going to take a while to heal-any suggestions for teas that might help recovery?

  5. Be it for me to remind you shame is useless… welcome back and REST yourself woman! Congrats on listening to yourself to stop, I know you and that is been hard. Glad you made this journey, sore feet and all. Sounds like your art will be the benefactor. WELCOME BACK.

    • katiewritesagain

      Sarah
      You know, another thing I learned on this trip is that it’s OK to listen to myself. All the books I read were about hikers suffering hardships-rain, cold, bugs, aching feet, heavy packs, etc., but continuing to putt one foot in front of the other all the way to Katahdin. No matter what. And for that they belong to a small, elite group of people. I applaud them, but no one ever talks about why many more don’t go all the way. The implied message (at least the one I got) was that people who quit simply quit because they weren’t as hardy, or tough, or whatever. It’s been hard listening to myself because I didn’t want to feel like a failure. Again. I also realize listening-really listening-is one of the hardest lessons we learn. And relearn.
      Thanks for understanding.

  6. Hello, Aunt Kathy! I am so glad to hear you are feeling relief from being able to stop instead of overwhelming shame. That was exactly how I felt when I HAD TO quit law school. It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do, and I have always felt like that it was somewhat like a divorce in a way. For over half my life at that time, I had dreamt of going to law school, and I made it into law school a year early…a feat few accomplish. I had dedicated the preceding years…over a decade…of my life…to making grades good enough to get into law school. And a huge part of it was my parents. For what I really felt like was pretty much the first time in my life, I had actually done something that made them proud. I knew that quitting would bring them shame, and it also brought a lot of shame to me. It took a lot to make me quit…to force me to. I had a very, very serious kidney infection that simply wouldn’t go away. I spent months in the infirmary trying to get it to go away, but I couldn’t dedicate to it the time I needed to to make it go away being in law school, and the sleepless nights of law school did not help. It came down to it was a choice between law school or my health, and I chose my health. My parents STILL do not understand, but it is MY LIFE. My mother still blames my boyfriend at the time, and claims that if it weren’t for him, I would have finished law school. Maybe that’s true, but SO WHAT??? It wasn’t specifically FOR HIM I quit…it may have been a contributing factor, but it wasn’t THE factor, or even THE MOST IMPORTANT factor. The truth of the matter is that she cares more about having something to brag about to all of her friends than she does me. She would much rather have had me go through law school, even if it killed me, than have to face teh sahame that it brought her for me to drop out. But I don’t care. But the point is, I chose my health. Yes, there were other factors, and yes…having a boyfriend that I cared about more than I had ever cared about any man in my entire life didn’t help, I am sure, but even if he was the reason, it was still my life. There are still times when I think about going back, and there are still times when I somewhat regret it and when I wonder how different my life would’ve been had I finished it. But in the end, I am so glad I did it. I look back now, and think how different my life could potentially be had I finished it, and I don’t really like that life…even if I had been highly sucessful and raking in the big bucks. I MUCH prefer this life, where I have a job I like that brings in as much as I need, than a job where I bring in a huge amount of money but am miserable working 90 – 100 + hours a week. No thanks. I like my life as it is now. So, in the end, it was the best decision, even though it was a painful one at the time.

    I think you made a very wise decision. I was an atheletic training major for a while in college, and you would never believe how far some of the college atheletes push themselves beyond injury just to keep playing the sport they love. Not only that, but you make a valid point in continuing to love hiking. Just about anything you love can be ruined if the way you enjoy it is taken away. Take running for me, for example. I love hitting the road and just running, but I would HATE it if I were pushed to go faster than I enjoy, and was not able to take in the scenery or enjoy it as I run. So I am glad you have preserved your love for hiking and haven’t ruined. I hope you heal well and fast, and life finds you very happy and satisfied.

  7. katiewritesagain

    Reta
    Good to hear from you! I will really be happy once I get my life back in order. I have a meeting with a potential client tomorrow so maybe I can get back to work slowly. Susan is being generous about letting me stay here until I’m back on my feet. Richard wants me back at the house and while I have to figure out how to get through the winter there, it’s the one place I was really homesick for.

    ANYWAY
    I have been thinking and thinking about it and I really want to be back there. Living uptown would be cool here, but unless I can find something cheap I don’t see how I could swing it.

    And it doesn’t change the fact that I still want to be in my little house in Mars Hill. Can’t help it. My heart has been aching to go back since I left.

    how are things going with you?? Please email me-I have my old phone reactivated. email: kathleenktrt@inbox.com

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