I made a mistake back in Massachusetts. At the time, I didn't realize it was an issue but it's haunted me for much of the last 200 miles. You see, right as I crossed into MA, I let myself picture finishing the Trail. You're probably thinking,"That's not a big deal at all." And you're right. I've pictured summiting Katahdin a number of times. What was different about this time is how real it felt.
You see, even as far as I have come, I've never really let myself fully believe that I was going to finish. With the estimate that 1 in 5 people who begin the AT actually finish it that year, who was I to think that I was going to be that one? Sure, I had hoped to complete it, and my confidence has only grown as I've tested my legs and found my strength, but when imagining the end, it always felt far off. This time, I felt the rush of excitement of completing the journey and the emotional roller coaster of reaching the end. Then, for the first time, I pictured what comes next: the celebration with family, the taste of a well-earned beer, the comfort of waking in my own bed. And there it was, the big mistake.
People have often asked me, "What do you miss most?" to which I scramble to come up with an answer. Sure, a bed is nice, showers are refreshing, flushing toilets feel like a luxury, and the invention of the refrigerator is proof that there is a God, but I never let myself actually miss those things. Part of the reason I've been successful out here is that I built up a mental wall (how Trump-like) that separated life off Trail from on it. Even when I took time in towns and saw friends, I metaphorically kept one foot in the woods. The luxuries of modern living were simply something I refused to allow myself to get used to, to want. Each time I left the Trail, though, that wall weakened. And then, even though I was hiking in the woods, just picturing life after the AT and having it feel so close, so attainable, the wall came crashing down.
It didn't help that I also was weighing a difficult choice: my cousin was getting married in Virginia and I needed to decide whether to go. I am ahead of schedule so I had the time, and my parents were willing to splurge so I had the means to get there. But in the midst of this mental crisis, leaving the headspace of the Trail could have meant not coming back. A good number of fellow hikers have given up in the past few days; I didn't want to be one of them. So I opted to stay and hike, a decision I debated back and forth at every road crossing, mapping out just how far I'd have to hitch to catch a last minute flight. It's not that quitting is something that I even see as an option, but since that moment in MA, I was ready to be done. The 700 miles leading to Katahdin had become a burden. I wanted to fast forward to there; to still finish, just somehow sooner.
Writing this post has been hard because it means admitting the mental struggle. It's also so difficult to convey how certain I am that I'll continue while highlighting the anguish of not yet being done. It wasn't a post I could share until the battle had subsided.
And that very thing happened just the other morning. It was officially too late to get to the wedding (Congrats Megan and Terry!), that ship had sailed and I couldn't change my mind. I woke up to my usual cramping feet, screaming in protest at enduring another long day. As I massaged them, I realized how normal this ritual had become. And, how soon after the Trail, I would wake up and take for granted that my feet were pain free. That small moment of realization refreshed my entire outlook on the time I have left out here. A bed may wait for me after Katahdin, but in a short while after that, I'll take it for granted too.
I've come to recognize that the wall wasn't working. Yes, it forced me stay present on Trail, but it also separated this life from pre-Trail life. It meant that I looked at this journey as a vacation, as stepping outside of the "real world" to explore for a bit. The danger in that mindset is that when I summit Katahdin, when my hunger is sated and my days are measured in hours instead of miles, I'll go back to my old self. I'll loose not only my trail legs but my Trail lessons. The wall needed to come down so that I could learn how to straddle both worlds. The mental battle of continuing isn't over--these days are still challenging, but I know that the time I have left is meaningful. With that in mind, I've been able to walk just a little lighter as I head north.