Greetings from Iowa City, Iowa. It’s hard to believe that at this time last year, I was completing my first few miles of what would turn out to be a 5.5-month journey through the some of the most mountainous environments found in the contiguous United States. Little did I know at the time, but that journey wouldn’t stop after hitting the Northern Terminus, and since I’ve been back in my home state of Iowa, the Pacific Crest Trail might not be constantly underfoot, but it continues to give me some direction in life.
Before departing on the 2,600-mile trek on the PCT, I went through a solid year of planning, saving up and trying just to imagine what exactly I was getting myself into. Through all the guidebooks, blog posts and insistent talking to friends and family who I’m sure grew tired of hearing about it, the one thing I really didn’t read up on or plan for was the moments after the trail, the days, weeks and lifetime that follows such a life-changing experience.
Perhaps it was because it was getting way too far ahead of myself fully planning my return back to the civilized world, but I suspect also that my research didn’t touch upon the subject very much, because unlike the tangible trail towns, mile markers and natural attractions that line the trail, the post-trip experience isn’t such a well-laid path.
Even myself, someone who has been faking being a writer for over a half-decade (someday I’ll make it), it’s hard to describe what the trail experience means for me now that I’m done hiking, but also how those 5.5-months have changed the way I see and evaluate my daily routine which includes street signs, running water and refrigerated food items.
Right off the bat and after my first civilized shower, I had already concluded one aspect of the trail that I could carry around with me in lieu of my tent, sleeping pad and trekking poles; the value of seeing something through to the end and how a big task can be managed by taking it one step at a time.
While I’m not sure if I’ll ever shoot for such a large physical goal as the Pacific Crest Trail ever again in my life (though, I’m not ruling it out), I consider other aspirations in my life to be much larger, including my pursuits of making a career out of writing, but also the age-old quest of finding the exact combination of meaningful work and genuine relationships to live a fulfilling life. I now have a better understanding that these too, these seemingly insurmountable goals, these too can be accomplished one step at a time.
But that might be too easy of a generalization of what the trail really provided for me, or how I’m feeling about the whole experience 365 days later, as I’m suddenly a little bit more stationary in my daily life. A daily life where the sun doesn’t spin around the earth without at least once getting lost in vivid daydreams about moments from my time spent hanging out in the dirt.
Often, it’s not just the Kodak moments that I remember, but something much simpler, like the intense darkness found at night in the wilderness on overcast night, the sharp pain from a bee sting in a burnt down forest, the exhaustion that completely overtook my body more than once or even that homesick feeling in my stomach as I limped through parts of Oregon with an ankle the size of a softball.
With these day dreams come the same ups and downs I experienced while traveling the trail. At moments, looking back on it all, it can make me smile mysteriously in a crowded room full of strangers, and at others, it can make me think twice about not just staying out there for good. What I have begun to quickly realize however, is that even looking back on the hard times, the times where I considered giving up on it all, I would do it all again in a heartbeat given the right circumstances and opportunity.
It’s that realization, that regardless of how difficult times were on the trail occasionally, how being by yourself in a remote wilderness surrounding, away from family and friends and those who love you, of feeling physically and emotionally spent at the end of each day, that even with all that I would do it all over again; that right there, that is what I’m starting to uncover 365 days later.
It’s not only the good moments that seem to define my experience of the Pacific Crest Trail, it’s not even the big moments, it’s all the moments, in succession at the time and molded together in my memory. Looking back on my time spent exploring the mountains, rivers and wild landscapes that comprise the West, it helps me understand just a little bit better about the value of my current situation, my exact location in space and time that I find myself in now, right now, at this exact moment.
It’s still hard to fathom at each passing second, especially in the ones where life seems anything but extraordinary – when bills are due, when people’s expectations aren’t met, or when a bee stings me as I’m walking through the neighborhood – I am trying to remind myself through my experiences hiking for 166 days, that whether you find yourself standing atop Mount Whitney just before the storm blows in, or you’re eating peanut-butter Ramen noodles for the umpteenth time in a row, even if just sitting in your car waiting for the light to turn green, if the Pacific Crest Trail has taught me anything 365 days later, it’s that