What It’s Like to Come Home from a Thru-Hike

The End

Thru-Hike

At some point in a thru-hike, usually between two and three months in, home seems to have become some place less familiar, a foreign world that has likely warped and changed beyond recognition, somewhere far and distant. Yet returning to this place always seemed to be on my mind.

At least once a day I would fantasize about making my way to Seattle, the celebration that would ensue, the flight home, the feeling of the impact when the plane’s wheels hit the runway of Logan International, and then most triumphant moment of all, the look on my loved one’s faces as I stood in the terminal, the emotional flooding and shock from the heavy humidity hitting me all at once like a sudden downpour, the firm squeeze of hugs from the family I missed so dearly.

And many days it felt like this time would never come. No matter how many downed trees I scurried around, steep hills I climbed, or streams I rock-hopped across, there were more miles ahead. It often felt like a never ending pattern of doing 60-100 mile section-hikes, going into town, and then going back for yet another section. And then one day it finally hit me: I was on my last section.          

The Initial Hoorah

Thru-Hike

For most PCT hikers, this surreal reality sets in some time after leaving the resort town of Stehekin. This rang true for me. Twenty-five miles of trail and 5,300 feet of rise brought me to the stunning high-point of Cutthroat Pass, where I decided to pitch my tent for the night. Two days later, I would find myself at the Canadian border. For the small group of hikers around me who were also on their last leg, I could only wonder if they were experiencing the same feelings of ambivalence. 

It seemed as if before I could even shout, “PCT 2021!” it was all over, and I was in the car riding to Seattle. And all the things I imagined happened; I went to the big city, celebrated with the boys, sat uncomfortably in a plane for six hours, and saw my family for the first time in five months. I was home, and with the pride of an accomplishment so few can claim. Friends and family praised my prowess. I had done it. At the age of 25, I had over 5,000 miles of backcountry backpacking under my belt.

The “Set In”

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I’m sure I annoyed many hikers with my platitude of discouraging high-mileage itineraries. I probably said something along the lines of, “I know you’re excited, but it gets old fast once you get home,” to most backpackers I spent time with. I remembered it all too well from the AT. I came home, was ecstatic to be there, and within only a few days missed the trail. And I came to realize the world I left behind hadn’t changed that much, especially not to a level beyond recognition.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to not have to hike twenty-five miles up and down mountains all day and everyday anymore, but there’s a reason we go out there. It’s an alternative lifestyle to be lived, and there was no exception to this inevitability upon my return from the PCT.

Stress

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Coming home is stressful, and this is exacerbated by my lack of a place to call home. I had an apartment before I left, but my inability and unwillingness to pay rent while I was gone forced me to give it up. I am grateful to have a family that fully accepts my couch surfing, but I can’t say this mission to find a new home makes my return any easier.

On top of this, I have to find work again, get my car back on the road, and continue my avocations (freelance writing and stand-up comedy) that I reasonably put on pause during my hike. Needless to say, it’s a lot. I also have the poor habit of stuffing all my belongings into storage before my departure and failing to make note of where everything is (future me can worry about that). And because half of my direct family is in Massachusetts and the other in New Hampshire, I’ve had to do a lot of driving.

It doesn’t help that most people simply don’t understand the repercussions of thru-hiking or how hard it is to get back on your feet as a young person. I have a job interview tomorrow for a counseling position, and I had to buy the clothes for it at a thrift shop. I can only hope they’ll understand why the gaps in my work are because of aspiration and not laziness or self negligence.

I wake up most days with the thought, “Okay. I have a lot to do. But wait, what were those things again?” I am stressed, and although I do think I handle stress well, I can not deny this is the case. 

Change

Thru-Hike

Just like I remember there to be upon my return from the AT, a heavy wave of disconnect lingers in the air. As people rush back and forth from work to errands and family life, I no longer feel a part of this agenda. I understand why human society operates the way it does. I just haven’t been a part of it for so long. Two elements of my life which were so deeply ingrained have now been almost fully stripped: vigorous exercise and immersion in the outdoors. I find myself compensating by going for long runs and stepping on almost every trail I drive by. But it isn’t the same.

On the contrary, my confidence is at an all time high. I could go on about why this may be, but that’s a blog for another day. I just completed what I once referred to as my “Three Days of Anxiety.” I did stand-up comedy for the first time in over two years, went on a date the next night, and then had a job interview for a competitive position, and I must say, I think I nailed all three. My composure in the face of adversity is stronger than ever. Perhaps I’ve just needed a new challenge, and hell, it’s hard to imagine anything I’m taking on could be harder than a thru-hike.

What Family and Friends Can Do

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If you know someone who has recently completed a thru-hike, take it easy on them. I can’t stress this enough. They likely have many people to see and things to do. Understand that this person is going through a transition and may be in a strange place mentally. Not to mention, they probably aren’t rolling around in money right now.

We want to celebrate, but there might have to be ways to do this other than extravagance. My focus right now is getting back on my feet, and this just about occupies all my time. Give us our space, and we’ll go out for those beers. It may just take some time. And I think I speak for many others when I say I’m sorry. I’m doing all I can.

We’re only human. So show us some extra love, because as much as we don’t want to admit it, we miss the nearly stress-free life of thru-hiking, the pride of walking twenty-plus miles a day, and the blissfulness of the mountains. We need this love. And to all hikers who may know someone who just returned from a thru-hike: check in on them. They just may need it.

Afterword

It’s good to be back! I sincerely apologize for not actively blogging on the trail. I just didn’t have the time I thought I would have to do it. Thru-hiking is very much about living in the moment, and I was sure to make this my priority. Not to mention, I’m not too fond of the format of doing this blog on my phone. There is more to come, and I’m elated to share pictures on my social media accounts! If you are interested in writing for Boom’s Playground, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me via email, this site, or social media! Happy outing!

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Published by Nicholas J. Devlin

I'm a freelance writer from western Massachusetts. Horror, comedy, and all the unholy things my parents told me to stay away from are my favorite. Oh and I like the outdoors. boomsplayground.com/ fulldarkfever.com

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