It's been about two months since I left trail.
I'm sitting comfortably in my college's library, in the midst of my senior research, thinking about loans and my job and planning to clean the house when I get home. I'm doing adult things. I'm finishing school. I'm figuring out what career will make me happy long-term. I'm wondering when I'll get back on trail.
I miss it. I miss the calmness I feel in the woods, the people I met, the time I had to think. Never before have I felt as confident, competent, healthy, and happy as I did while on the AT.
And yet, leaving was exactly what I needed to do.
It was August 13th. I walked alone through the wilderness and came to a dirt road. I had heard about the trail magic that was there over the weekend, but since it was Monday, I considered moving on. There would probably only be leftover, crushed Ho-Hos. It wouldn't be worth the anticipation.
I walked by a tree that had a sign advertising trail magic, and Tommy had left me a note. "Triscuit, you'd better not miss this!" Maybe there were some other leftovers as well. I walked across a bridge and into a small, dirt parking lot toward a man in a bug-tent. Immediately I felt stupid. There was no magic; just someone about to go hiking in the wilderness. As I was about to ask about the magic, I recognized everything. The black car. The goofy grin.
Tommy stood and raised his hands in greeting. "Want a beer?"
He had it all. Hot dogs, cold water, and even neosporin and gauze for my ankles (which had been rubbed raw after walking in rain for four days straight.). For the first time in a while, the sun was out. I relaxed in a folding chair and reached in a bag for a soggy Ho-Hos and laughed with him inside the bug tent. It was wonderful. He told me that he had a park pass for the following day to climb Katahdin; after that he'd head back to New York.
After a few hours of rest and hot dogs, I laced up my boots and hoisted my pack on my back. I left in good spirits, with only eight miles to the next shelter. My hip felt good. The sun was out. I walked over pine needles and wove around lakes on relatively flat trail. Four miles in, I came to a campsite on the edge of a lake and decided to walk on shore to look. The water was still, and clear, and reflecting a few clouds on smooth blue. I found myself holding my breath as a loon broke the silence, it's eloquent and lonely voice coming from some place I couldn't see.
It was only a mile later that my hip flared up again. Soon the elation of seeing Tommy again wore off, as did the Ibuprofen and the novelty of hearing a loon for the first time. I stopped to rest every few minutes but still felt dizzying pain shooting from my hip to my torso. With every other step my vision blurred and I had to brace against my sticks to stay standing. I took a break by another lake to filter water, feeling discouraged. I wanted to hike. I wanted to make it to Katahdin. I could push through this. Still, I wondered if I was trapping myself in the wilderness by walking farther from the road and a potential ride home.
As I stared at the ripples in the lake, something shiny caught my attention. Using my sticks I dragged it towards me until it was within reach. A coin. I flipped it in my hands and saw it was a state quarter that read, "New York: Gateway to Freedom."
That was not the sign I wanted.
"Stupid quarter," I mumbled, as I stared at the Statue of Liberty on the back. I decided that we create our own signs and attach our own meanings to things. I decided that to take this as a sign that the trail was my freedom, and that I chose it over New York. I would keep going.
I could tell you about the next few miles to the shelter, or my resolution to keep hiking. I could tell you about the people I passed and the first time I finally saw Katahdin. I could tell you about the mosquitos and the bog boards and the beautiful views and my quick pace. I could tell you how I ended up sitting by a river and campsite for hours the next day, in a good amount of pain. But what it boils down to is that I seriously considered going home. I was no longer treating myself well. I wasn't eating. I was using hiking as a way to be thinner and feel power over my body. I was pushing through pain (maybe hurting myself permanently) to do something I no longer enjoyed. Perhaps I felt I deserved it. Or perhaps I felt that being strong meant doing the miles at whatever cost. Perhaps I felt my hike would be a failure unless I hiked Katahdin.
Yes, I could tell you a lot about the last 24 hours on trail. I could write about my thought process while I made my decision. But what matters is that I did make a decision. I decided I would climb Katahdin not out of obligation, but with pride. I would climb with a healthy body and mind. I would climb with someone I cared about. And I knew that in order to accomplish these things, I would have to climb in a different season.
I hiked to the last place I had reception and called Tommy, who had just finished his climb (and eaten a Triscuit for me at the summit). At the end of the day we were rolling in his car along dirt roads, headed home. I was disappointed in myself, but grateful for Tommy and his willingness to get me. I was grateful that I had been able to see at least 70 miles of gorgeous Maine. And I was grateful that I was able to make a hard, but healthy decision to leave.
I still have over 1400 miles to go before I finish the trail, just like I still have a long ways to go in my recovery. But I also have to keep reminding myself that I hiked 700 miles. I learned to communicate my fears and history with my family. I was able to recognize what situations aggravated periods of restricting and binging. I found a stronger sense of self. So now, even as I'm off trail and struggling with food issues, I'm no longer afraid to move forward. Because I know I'm 700 miles farther than where I started. And next season I'll chip away another mile, and another, learning more each time. So that by the time I finally climb Katahdin, I will feel confident that I deserve it.
One step at a time, right?