I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order. ~John Burroughs
I expected physical challenges when my daughter and I set out on our Big Epic to hike the Appalachian Trail for 6 weeks. I understood we would, at times, be stretched to our limits, and that this would require mental stamina to overcome physical obstacles. I knew there were things I was hoping to sort out for daily life back home: how my primary role might change, how to best help daughter overcome disabilities, where to focus my time and attention, and more. It seemed to me that this “discovery process” was the healing and order I was going to find while my body was busy with hiking and my mind was free to wander. Oh, I knew there were many who headed to the trail to find deep healing from trauma or overwhelming grief. That is a common reason to leave civilization behind, at least for a while. I even met some of those folks: a fellow who left everything behind when his mom died, a pair of older women reeling from difficult divorces, a young man who was basically homeless. But, obviously, this was not MY reason for going to the trail. Me? I was seeking adventure!
And then…I found myself sobbing when I saw a walking bridge over I-70 in Maryland. So many times, I had driven under this bridge, wishing that I could be hiking the AT, not really believing it would ever happen. Now we walked across this bridge. As drivers below honked and waved, I smiled through the tears, happy that “my turn” had finally come. It freaked my daughter out to see me cry, but it was easy to write it off as a funny sort of joy. The more tired I became physically, the more often I found myself with tears running down my cheeks while I hiked. I cried after chatting with a red-headed thru-hiker…who could have been my red-headed son who died almost eight years ago and who never had the chance for this sort of adventure. I cried when my hips ached…because that son could never have managed the stresses of backpacking after injuring his hips with competitive figure-skating. I cried to see how stable my daughter was while in the woods, unlike the debilitating anxiety she faces in town. After all, how can she live forever as an elf in the woods?
What was WRONG with me? I was a hot-mess, riding a roller-coaster of unexpected emotions. Typical of my usual way to attack life, I hesitantly started talking to other hikers we met along the way. (Okay, so the hesitation wasn’t usual for me!!) I asked why they were on the trail. As mentioned above, a few were running away from trauma or seeking healing from grief. Most were simply taking a break, were fulfilling a dream, or were looking for the “what’s next” in life. On the surface, THEY didn’t seem to be dealing with a wild ride of emotions… But as I confessed my struggle with unexpected emotions, these hikers slowly shared a similar story. Almost every person I talked with had been surprised by tears. This strong man sobbed at the beginning of his thru-hike because his mother was no longer alive to follow his adventures. That young man had cried in his tent on many lonely nights, after the break-up of a long-term relationship. There was a woman who was sad at the distance between herself and her grown children; another one with tears over dreams she had put aside to raise her family.
Since returning from the trail, I’ve searched other blogs. I’ve read more trail journals and autobiographies. I don’t see this effect of the trail mentioned anywhere. I’ve tried to stuff it down, burying these memories under all memories of celebration and achievement. After all, we had an Epic Adventure! But…this story keeps coming back, over and over. Apparently, it needs to be told. Sometimes, when we go to nature for other reasons, we discover grief we weren’t looking for. I’ve spent months processing on this…and I realize this isn’t a “beast” to be feared. It isn’t an indication of something “wrong” with me that must be fixed. With a change of perspective, these wild emotions morph into something positive. Although it certainly doesn’t feel soothing in the moments that tears run down my face…this experience is gradually bringing more order to my emotional world.
I’m finally ready to share this story…and, as I start to plan our return to the Appalachian Trail in the late spring, I recognize I will most likely find more tears along the way. And…that’s okay.