After five months in the backcountry, my AT adventure was done. It was kind of hard to wrap my head around. Tomorrow morning I wasn’t going to have to get up and walk. The day after that I wasn’t going to have to get up and walk either. During my entire trek from Georgia to Maine I had only taken 6 days off (one to visit a friend, one to get custom orthotics made, one to go to an emergency clinic, and two because I needed a break from the torrential rains), and I had never taken two days off in a row. I just kept walking, I wanted to keep walking… It was what I did, and it had become a part of me. I was Patches and I walked the woods, and neither snow nor rain nor heat nor dark nor winds had deterred me in my quest to hike from Georgia to Maine.
Now I didn’t have to walk. My mom met me at the base of Katahdin with hugs, food, warmth, and a car. As I got into the car and we drove away from Katahdin I realized that I was leaving all the people that knew me as Patches behind, and was returning to a world that knew me as Jocelyn. I had left Jocelyn behind me somewhere on the trail and had become Patches, but I didn’t want to leave Patches behind as I returned to the real world, so I needed to figure out how to integrate Patches into the new Jocelyn that I was going to become. It was going to take time. I’d changed in the time I’d spent out in the woods. There were little things that were easy to see and easy to know, but bigger things that I haven’t completely figured out yet. My taste in music has changed. When I entered the woods in Georgia I hated country music, but as I traveled through the south listening to the radio and actually paying attention to the lyrics, I found that country music grew on me and the music I couldn’t stand anymore was soft rock. The way I interact with the world around me has also changed, I am happier being alone than I ever was before, and in the words of one of my fellow thru-hikers, I’ve become “fiercely independent.” I’m not sure how that is going to translate into my new life yet, but I’m sure that it will. Before I started this trip I was a planner, I always had a plan… a plan for everything, and at least three backup plans in case anything went wrong with plan A, B, or C. Now I’m much more willing to fly by the seat of my pants. Just try to make a solid plan with me now and see how it makes me squirm. I’ve changed in so many ways, big and small, and it’s going to take a while for everything to settle in and for me to figure out how all of it is going to shape me as I go forward. All of this was just starting to percolate through my consciousness as the car bumped down the road from Katahdin to Millinocket.
Being in the car, the speed at which I moved through the world suddenly shot through the roof. Instead of my maximum speed of 3-4 mph, we were going 40-50 mph. In terms of culture shock, that first car ride wasn’t so bad. I was familiar with short bursts of speed that brought me to town for one night. I’d periodically been going into town to shower, resupply, and spend the night before heading back to the trail the next day. That first night after summitting Katahdin felt like a regular town resupply night. I showered, I changed into clean clothes, I went out to dinner, and I went to bed. Those were all things that I occasionally did on the trail, and it didn’t feel weird. It hadn’t sunk it yet…
The next morning I awoke before dawn, like I always do, but my pack didn’t need packing. I wasn’t going to walk that day. I’d already summitted Katahdin and had finished my AT adventure. I sat in the window of the hotel room and watched the spectacular sunrise, it was going to be an amazing day. I fought the urge to break into the car, grab my pack, and disappear back into the woods. This was going to be hard. The enormity of my adventure and the enormity of the changes that were going to take place in my life started to sink in. I wasn’t ready, and I wasn’t sure that I ever would be. Despite my urge to throw my pack onto my back and return to the woods, my urge to return to my childhood home was stronger. My dad had been admitted to the hospital the same day that I entered the 100 mile wilderness with what should have been a quickly resolved malady (requiring a 2-3 day hospital stay). Unfortunately, however, there were unforeseen complications and he was still in the hospital 7 days later as I summitted Katahdin. Though the doctors and family assured me that he was and would be fine, I really wanted to get home to see that for myself. The sun was still rising when mom woke up and we headed homewards to visit dad and share with him the tales of my adventures.
Unlike the trip to Millinocket from Katahdin the night before, the trip back to Massachusetts felt entirely different and wrong. Normally I would be heading back to the trail, but this time I was drawing further and further away from the trail, and further and further from the life and adventures of the last five months. In just a couple of hours we crossed the hundreds of miles of Maine that I had toiled over for weeks. We stopped in York, Maine, for lunch and I was overwhelmed by all of the colors, all of the lights, all of the noise, and all of the people. I hadn’t seen an area this developed and populated since Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and even though I’d found Gatlinburg overwhelming, I hadn’t been nearly as far removed from the world and civilization then as I was now. I clung to my mom’s arm like a child and, like I child, I stared in bewilderment at all of people, the colors and the motion as we walked across the parking lot and into the crowded clam shack. I took a deep breath and tried to adjust to everything, but there was just so much.
I’d forgotten how bright and colorful civilization is. On the trail most of the color is in the greens of the trees, the browns of the trail, and the greys of the rocks. With the coming of fall the monotony of the palette changed and hues of red, orange, and yellow were slowly introduced into our visual scene. Even with the addition of the colors of fall, I wasn’t prepared for the variety and intensity of color in York. The people, cars, and buildings were sporting bright pinks, reds, purples, neon greens, turquoises, blues, and yellows, and all of the colors were moving. Adding in all of the unnatural bright lights: headlights, tail lights, flashing signs, stop lights, and all the sunlight (due to the lack of tree cover), I found it to be an overwhelming visual cachophony.
I ate my meal and retreated to the relative safety of the car. Clearly it was going to take some time for me to get acclimated to civilization. Unfortunately for me, being in the car had it’s own drawbacks. I wasn’t used to processing visual information that seemed to be whizzing along at 70 mph while I was sitting still. My brain was not at all happy about this change and I found myself getting intensely motion sick. The phenomenon of getting motion sick every time I got into a car would last for another 4 days.
After we’d been driving for a while, we stopped for gas and to let me get some fresh air. I got out of the car and walked around for a minute. It definitely felt good to be standing on my own two feet again. After my stomach settled a bit, I realized that the gas station came with a convenience store. A convenience store! Without thinking I automatically went inside and started figuring out the kinds of foods I should buy for the coming week. This convenience store was a big one with a huge selection of food, making it easier to resupply from than most. It then dawned on me, I didn’t have to resupply from the convenience store. I was going home. Unfortunately, that just made me confused about other things. My home was the trail, wasn’t it? What did going home really mean other than that I was leaving the trail? I was going somewhere though, a different home, i had to find a new home. After a few more moments of reflection, I decided that home, now, meant my family. I was leaving the trail to go be with my family and to see my dad.
All of these thoughts flew through my mind as I stood there in the convenience store looking, I expect, just a little bewildered. My mom had brought plenty of food, so I didn’t really need to buy anything, but I found I couldn’t leave without picking up one or two things… I couldn’t quite get myself to believe that being able to go to a convenience store, never mind a grocery store, was something that I could do anytime, that it wasn’t a special occasion that meant I was going to get to eat for the coming week.
I returned to the car and my mom’s amused smile, “What do you have there?” I smiled back and replied rather sheepishly, “definitely not a whole week’s resupply… But maybe enough for a day or two.” I tried to explain how weird it was to go into the store and not have to do a resupply. How the opportunity to shop for food felt like a luxury. It made me feel like I didn’t really belong in this world. It was just one of many things that people take for granted in their lives that were suddenly big momentous events for me.
As we piled into the car to complete the last leg of our journey I continued to extol the virtues of that convenience store and to impress upon her how special it was, what I wouldn’t have given to have a place like that in Monson, Maine or back in North Carolina… About the rating scale I secretly used to compare the quality and selection at the different convenience stores. This one surely rated a 7 or 8, whereas the one I resupplied from by the Nantahala River in North Carolina would have gotten a 5, and the one in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania a 3.
My mom patiently and sympathetically listened to me ramble on and on about convenience stores until we got to the hospital to visit my dad. She must have been relieved to finally be released from that conversation, but perhaps one of the superpowers that mom’s have is the ability to seem interested and genuinely care about whatever their kids do, no matter how inane.
It was a great relief to finally get to see my dad, give him a hug, and hear, first hand, about how he was doing. Once I saw him in the flesh I could really start believing what the doctors had been saying right along, that he was going to be ok. After visiting him for a couple of hours we returned to my parents house where the rest of the family had dinner waiting for us. It was great to be surrounded by the love and support of my family.
I knew that it was going to take a while to get used to, but it seemed like there might be some advantages to life off of the trail, and that eventually I would learn to be ok here in the real world.
P.S. My dad is now out of the hospital and doing quite well. I am still working on getting used to the real world, and will continue to post updates to this blog. I’m also planning on putting up some health updates and gear reviews. Let me know (by leaving a comment) if there is anything you’d like me to blog about and I’ll try to address it.