December 19, 2009

I’ve been home for a month – so now I have a little bit of perspective on this fantastic experience.  So what are the big take aways?  People have asked me how this experience has changed me, and that’s a really good question. It’s so strange how I feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz – did this crazy journey actually happen now that I’m back in my own bed in Kansas – or New Orleans?  It’s good to be home and I’m happy in my familiar world – so what’s changed?

I feel calm.  Secure.  I know that I can manage challenges.  I’m not worried too much about what the future holds.  I’m willing to take time to be intentional about next steps and not just rush through my days.  I’m finding it much easier to meditate, and I’m making it more of a priority to take a small chunk of my day and be still.  I’m not really interested in going back to a frantic existence packed with too many obligations.  I had been working on this before I left for the trip, but I’m even more committed to it now.  Success and happiness won’t be measured by how packed my calendar is or how many accomplishments I can check off every day.

I have less patience or need for daily news – so much of it seems like unnecessary static that fills my brain and doesn’t help anything.  I can keep up with the big stuff via some weekly publications, and even those can have the tendency to over-focus on minutiae that will not matter at all in a month or two.  A lot of what we label information and become addicted to is basically irrelevant.

I’m physically stronger, and hope to retain some of that strength.  I know my body can do far more than I ever gave it credit for in the past.  I can manage pain better than I thought I could, and I now know my body can recover from being pushed. On the trail, it’s so important to take care of your body – to eat when you’re hungry, to drink all the time, to rest – I worked hard but I also slept a lot, and ate a lot, and stayed hydrated!  I’m trying to remember not to put off the needs of my body now that I’m in a safer environment – it’s so easy to ignore your body’s messages in daily life.

I have a lot more faith that things will work out.  Or that I can handle what happens.  Granted, I think I had an easy relatively uneventful hike in terms of things that were scary.  I never thought I was going to die.  That first day in Maine was pretty scary for a couple of hours, but I never went for a long period of time being frightened or physically deprived.  I was healthy and safe, for the most part.  But that’s true for many of us most of the time and we still can be pretty good at worrying.  I come from a long line of worriers, and I did worry plenty on the trail, but I also kept going and didn’t let worries stop me.  So hopefully I’ve reinforced something I already knew – as Mark Twain said, most of the worst things in my life never actually happened.  And whatever does happen, even if it’s difficult or scary, we deal with it one step at a time.

I’ve realized that everyone has very different experiences and opinions about basically the same things.  This isn’t really a revelation, but it’s so prevalent on the trail because you hear so much about what’s coming up, either by word of mouth or in the shelter registers. So one person’s favorite hostel, or view, is another person’s nightmare experience because of bad weather, or place that they thought was dirty and no fun.  Some of these differences in experience are because of external circumstances, because of who was there or if it was foggy or raining – but really in life as well, you need to be aware that other people’s reviews or ideas of what’s good or bad are likely to be different from yours, and to take others’ recommendations with a grain of salt, especially if your tastes are usually unique anyway.  I tried to go into every section of trail, trail town, and hostel with an open mind to soak in whatever happened.  And that’s a good thing to remember in daily life too.

Many people who hike the trail comment that it restored their faith in humanity, that there are mostly good people out there who will help you if you need it, and beyond that, will go out of their way to do something for you even if you don’t ask.  And it’s true.  The AT is surrounded by a caring community of people who make it a project to help hikers, to provide food, water, rides, treats, and plain old encouragement.  Hikers call all of this good will “trail magic”.  And even when someone has planned it, it does feel magical.  Yet more amazing is the unplanned “magic” that happens. The person, item, or experience that happens to show up just when you need it.  It’s very difficult to explain.  But I think that this type of magic actually exists in real life too – we just pay less attention to it.  When you’re a hiker, you have to rely on the kindness of strangers to get you into town or to help you in other ways, and in regular life people pride themselves in being independent and not needing help.  We also perhaps fail to notice all of the serendipitous occurrences that bring us what we need when we need it. But it does happen in daily life, and it’s worth noting and appreciating.

Once people have hiked the trail, it draws them back – they come back to help other hikers, to pay it forward, to re-immerse themselves in the experience of having a simple life focused on being in the moment, to participate in genuine fellowship, and to follow a very clearly marked physical path. But I think the other thing that happens is that they realize they can do this same type of thing to some degree every day, on the trail or not.  We can all pay attention to the needs of others and help out, we can seek and accept help when we need it rather than insisting on being independent. We can purge unnecessary possessions, distractions, and “static” that has the potential to fill our days with worry and fear.  We can live more intentionally and simply, and we can work to create caring vibrant communities.

Ultimately, I learned that I have a lot of power to shape my life and that most reasons people give for not being able to do things are self-created.  I’m excited to see what’s next once I’ve rested and regrouped a bit more.  I’m so grateful to everyone who supported me and believed in me and helped me along the way.  I’ve been spending the past week or so sending thank yous and contacting people who helped me, and there’s still much to do on that front, but it’s so heartening to think how many people supported me and helped me to achieve this dream.  Thank you so much, and if I can help you with your dream sometime, please let me know!