The Unmarked Trail

Since Vermont, I've been lucky to have pretty steady companionship. I've gotten to hike with people attempting the Long Trail in Vermont, my Dad, and of course other northbound AT hikers. Most recently, I was with a group of six who love to hike fast while taking time to enjoy themselves. They're a fun crew that has made Maine go by a lot more easily.

Occasionally as we're hiking, though, the topic that every NOBO (northbound) hiker dreads but secretly is always on our minds comes up--The End. Someone might say, "This time next week we'll be within 20 miles," or "Is Katahdin as steep as this?" And the innocent comment sets off a chain reaction of emotions. I mentioned in my last post the complexity of wanting to be done yet not wanting it to end. With each mile, the extremities of that spectrum seemingly get further apart.

Maine has been tough, and to be honest, the rest of the Trail has been tough too. I get to camp most days physically exhausted and ready to collapse. How nice it would be to relax; how lucky would I feel to be comfortable. And yet, while tired, I have never been more fulfilled. My days are packed with challenges, beauty, and connection. I know my body, know myself, better than ever before. How will The End affect that? Is comfort worth the trade off?

Having hiking buddies to share these doubts with has been nice. I think we're all a little on edge about what comes next and have taken different approaches to cope. Some have slowed down dramatically, extending this trip and prolonging the freedom that comes with being out here. Others are planning to take the long way home, opting for a road trip that might offer both modern luxuries and a sense of adventure. I've started to plan for what comes next: moving into my new apartment, going to a family vacation, and preparing for school this fall. No one coping mechanism is best, but I all think they serve to distract from our main fear: the unknown of tomorrow.

See, for the past 5 months, I've been pretty much able to tell you what my day would be like as soon as I woke up. I knew the weather, I could see the elevation profile, and knew about when I'd come upon any views. Sure, I made a thousand little decisions throughout the day and often was surprised, but in general I had a pretty good idea of what was to come. The Trail was laid out for me, I just needed the grit and persistence to follow it.

In "real life," there often is no trail; we're on our own to figure out what our next step should be. It's funny that my adventure feels in some ways safer than the norm of everyday life. On Trail, I've been freed from having to decide where to go by following the blazes, so my mind has been opened to deeper reflection. The mountains have become a mirror in which I've gained a deeper understanding of myself. Off Trail, what if I'm so bogged down by the complexities of life that I don't make the time to get grounded? What if I'm paralyzed by options and don't know where to go?

I think that's what is scariest about The End. In leaving the Trail, in having that transition be so sudden and final, will I lose all I've gained out here? Of course I'll miss the mountains, but I know that I'll return to them. When I do, what will that mirror show? A man who enjoyed a journey or a man who was defined by it?

I'll be entering the Hundred Mile Wilderness tomorrow and the next time you'll here from me, I'll have reached The End. I might not find the answers to these questions before I summit; I've learned that you can't rush these lessons. What I hope, though, is that in asking these types of questions, in exploring these fears, I'll get a little closer to clarity. That while my next trail may be unmarked, I will still walk forward with equal confidence and awe.

Final plug: I still have not reached my fundraising goal of $6,600. While I've had more than $2,000 donated in the past few days (yay!) I still have about $1,000 to go. If you've enjoyed following me on this journey, please consider donating. I hope my words have intrigued you, my struggles inspired you. Now I'm asking you to pay it forward and help someone else work through their pain to find beauty.