Yup, I finished the PCT on September 29, 2015. Since being off trail, I have experienced a variety of emotions, but the predominant one at the time of finishing was relief. Even now, I wake up every day feeling relieved that I do not have to walk 25+ miles, especially today, when I woke up in Zion National Park to rain and reassured Tim, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to hike today if you don’t want.”
At the time of our finish I was physically and mentally exhausted.
My legs and hips were so tight that anytime I went from sitting to standing I moved like a grandma. It would take me 5 minutes of hobbling around and groaning before loosening up enough to walk normally. Even now small amounts of physical activity exacerbate my body stiffness. I went on an 11 mile trail run/hike last week. Afterwards, I stopped at a service station to grab a coffee, and as I hobbled from the car to the store entrance, a 60-something, Canadian gentleman standing with his campervan asked me if I had “fallen and hurt myself or something?” to which I responded, “Too much hiking.”
After the PCT, my feet ached all the time, even when I was lying down, and the throbbing pain would wake me up from sleep at night. My right foot had developed an overuse condition called tarsal tunnel syndrome, which means I had a pinched nerve in my ankle that resulted in an area of numbness on the bottom of my heel that spread to the ball of my foot.
Near the end of the PCT we had a string of rainy and cold days when we were soaked to the bone and deprived of our usual vistas. I developed weather-related PTSD every time I saw a cloud in the sky, nervous that it would rain every day until we finished. I worried a little about impending snow, and if we would be able to finish the trail. Mostly I worried if I would be warm enough. For example, how many times could I get into my down sleeping bag while wearing my wet clothes, making a reeking, steam sauna before the down lost it’s loft and ability to keep me warm?
Then there is the obvious. The lens that Tim and I were experiencing the PCT was different from many other hikers. We had lost a very important family member (Tim’s dad) at the mid-point of the trail. The loss alone was great enough, but we were active witnesses throughout the stages of dying. It is beautiful and an honor to be with a person during this final life stage but also sad and traumatic.
The three weeks that we were off the trail felt like a year as we made difficult decisions about end-of-life care, taking on the role of primary caregivers, sitting by and watching our dad rapidly lose his ability to communicate, feed himself, walk, get out of bed, shower, toilet, and eventually breathe. Knowing these things happen is sad, but witnessing them is devastating. A long hike provided me with space to freely process and to avoid the typical workplace condolences and societal grief-response expectations.
Then, there is the least helpful emotion of all-guilt. I feel guilty that I am relieved the trail is over. My expectation was that I would love it and miss it. I thought I would be effusive about trail life and that I would be wishing I could be back on trail. In fact, I love coffee, the internet, having easy access to almost any food I desire, potable tap water, watching TV, sitting on a seat, riding a bike sometimes, hanging out with friends, and going to different places in a car when I want to.
But this is where emotions get complicated because for every one of those non-trail things that I love, I find myself thinking about the things I appreciate about the trail culture: the absence of mirrors, de-emphasizing physical appearance, braiding my hair once a week and forgetting about it, bragging rights for who has gone the longest without showering, waking up in the morning and being exactly where you’re supposed to be (no commuting), sleeping in your hiking clothes and hiking in your pajamas, and simplifying life to those things that are important enough to carry on your back.
I miss the physical trail too: the volcanoes, mountain passes, old-growth forests, trees dripping with moss, the subtle flora and fauna changes between regions and altitudes, alpine lakes, roaring rivers in canyons, ice-cold springs on hot days, the way the trail changes with the seasons, desert cactus, moon phases, the glistening, heavy and wet forest after a night of rain, the stars, the silence, the creak of trees, the sounds of wildlife.
There are things I miss about the lifestyle: sleeping outside on my mat either in my tent or directly beneath the stars, covering up with my fluffy, soft sleeping bag, breathing in the fresh night air blowing by my face, swimming in mountain lakes, watching the sunset every night, and hiking through space and time. We were on trail for 2650 miles and three seasons—spring, summer, and fall—and we witnessed the gradual transition of the forest from spring desert flowers to fall colors on deciduous plants.
Our second to last night of the trail we walked on the mountaintops in northern Washington. It was fully autumn and the mountains were spotted with bright gold larch trees. The sun had just set and the sky was a beautiful purplish-pink and blue. We could see Mount Shuksan to the northwest. As we walked along the ridgeline, we saw the moon, but it was different from the full moon that we had expected. It was a sliver, and we were walking directly toward it. As we watched and hiked, the moon grew smaller and smaller. We were hiking directly into the lunar eclipse. It was just us. We had this piece of heaven to ourselves, and it was breathtaking. I felt deeply grateful but also relieved to know we would finish the trail in just 2 days which marked the moment where we could do anything other than hike.