*I'm prone to candor in inappropriate forums. Be prepared for that.
People hike long trails for plenty of different reasons. I met speed hikers who were Hell-bent on finishing quickly. Some fitness fanatics were looking for an extreme version of Slim Fast. There were soul-searchers trying to reconnect with nature. Others were hoping to deal head-on with grief, addiction, mental illness, even terminal illness. For some, it was a life-long dream to hike this trail, come to fruition upon retirement. A few hikers just wanted to have a good time in the woods for a summer.
Importantly, most thru-hikers I met got more out of this experience than they'd expected. Kids out to smoke lots of weed in the woods ended up in deep, meaningful relationships instead, or had epiphanies about their future goals. One PTSD sufferer I met, a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, told me that he re-taught himself how to have fun on the trail.
An adventure like this does not lend itself well to expectations. Most people threw out their mileage spreadsheets in the first week (I met some who persevered, though, like Navigator and Half and Half). Strong folks broke down, people quit unexpectedly, athiests found religion, god-people found nature. It was a kind of chaos that constantly made me smile. ("Cats and dogs living together." Ghostbusters.)
My plan for the trail was twofold: catalog flora and fauna as much as possible through photos and spend a summer hiking alone. In light of those goals, I failed miserably. My plant knowledge ran out in the Sierras, and I was in too much pain to bother with photos. And hiking alone? Impossible. First, the trail is crowded and so are the best campsites. Second, I met some amazing people whose company I honestly enjoyed.
But, of course, my naive plans aside, I learned more in my 5 1/2 months out there than I have over many years. Here are ten of the very damned basic things that I got out of this:
1. How to accept proffered help from others
Trail angels, on-the-fly advisors and friends all repeatedly drummed into me that people give a shit and that's alright.
2. How to mind my own business
Nobody can completely do this, but I certainly can rein in it a bit now. When people around me start saying or doing stupid things (in my estimation) of their own volition, I can now generally hold my tongue on the unsolicited advice, having received SO MUCH of it from others on the trail.
3. How to be straightforward
Much of civilized life requires nuance for politeness. Understatement, especially regarding pain levels and emotions, just doesn't fly in the trail environment.
4. How to appreciate simple things
Food, water and shelter. I love them all more now that I've fought my own feet to have them. Running out of the basic things I need to survive, then getting them back, makes me enjoy them even more.
5. How to be with someone constantly without resenting him/her
It took me until the end to do this, but I succeeded. My struggle with this was by far the biggest, and certainly wasn't easy on a couple of pretty amazing people. Thankfully, they've been patient with me.
6. How to love the natural smell of humans
Yeah, I've never been a big fan of the perfumed masses, but now, even people fresh out of a very soapy shower are overpowering to me. Sweat smells better than a flowery disguise.
7. How to cope with chronic pain
Doing this with already fucked-up feet was an interesting decision. My podiatrist told me that my feet "aren't made for walking," and to "consider taking up kayaking." I've discovered that I'm much better at ignoring pain now and focusing on other things as distractions from it.
8. How to use humor for absolutely every kind of situation
At first, I tried to be serious when, say, helping a guy who was scared shitless about his heat exhaustion or talking with someone going through a serious crisis. People come to me, however, because I'm not serious. After I realized that making light of things is my way of dealing with them, I gave up the facade and had lots of successful interpersonal interactions.
9. How to love calories
I was very used to avoiding them. Now I see food in terms of caloric economy: price/calorie, weight/calorie, pleasure/calorie. Therefore Corn Nuts and Pop Tarts.
10. How to accept not working
There have only been a few vacations in my life since the age of 15. I work hard, like long hours, and get restless otherwise. I will admit that not working made me feel guilty. This was exacerbated by the hundreds of folks who told me how "lucky" I was to be doing the trail, since they all had jobs and commitments. Working, in the Western sense, is not the natural human condition. It was nice to experience life from a very different perspective and with a new set of priotities. This is why reintegration is hard on thru-hikers.
On the lighter side, here are some interesting things I noticed on the trail:
1. Dirty, pot-smoking hippies. About 80% of the hikers I met smoked pot as a painkiller or for general recreation.
2. Retired badasses. So many folks have told me that they're "too old" to do something like this. More than half of my friends on the trail were over 50, a good many over 60. Plenty of them were stronger and faster than I, and most were never serious athletes. Just very determined.
3. Dogs. Only a couple, surprisingly, but I really loved seeing them.
4. Nicotine. Appetite suppressant that makes high mountain passes exhilarating. That same 80% of hikers smokes cigarettes (or pipes). It's not evil in moderation, folks.
5. Shit. Horses leave it in the worst places. Narrow mountain passes, places where you can't see what your foot is going to land on until it's too late. People leave it, and toilet paper and goddamned baby wipes, all over the place as well. Surprising and disappointing.
It was an unforgettable time, to be sure. And I miss it.