The Trail Changes You. It’s Supposed To
That’s why we go out there, you know. That’s why we seek out the solitude of the wilderness over and over again. Because it changes us; we need it to. It’s the air we breathe and the only place where we can feel like ourselves now. That’s what it is to me. I go out there because I need to feel that wild and free. I need to wash the filth of the world off of me. And the hardest part, the thing they don’t want you to know, is that once you step into the wilderness, once you let it into your soul, you will be changed. Forever changed. You can’t go back, nor do you want to. You’re different now. You’re not the person you once were. And all the things that you thought you needed, all the things that you used to want, what used to make you happy, none of that matters anymore.
So how do you go on living the life you were living, when you know that you can’t go back? How do you begin where you left off when dreams and goals change? How do you walk back through the doors of a house full of things you no longer want or need? How do you return to a job and a schedule that feels stifling, that’s suffocating?
When you feel like everything you own and all of the things you thought you need are all for nothing. None of it matters anymore; it’s all overbearing. In fact, it’s overwhelming, and all you want to do is weed it out and get rid of all of the things you don’t need. Which is pretty much everything. You’re claustrophobic and you can feel the anxiety building because you’re surrounded by all of this stimuli; all of these unnecessary things.
Then you realize that it’s not just the things. It’s the job that no longer satisfies you, the expectation to maintain a certain image, the bills, cooking, laundry, groceries, dishes, all of the monotonous chores that fill up your time—day in and day out. It’s society, social media, man competing with man, and the constant judging.
The trail changes you. It was meant to.
You weren’t meant to step onto that path of dirt, roots, and leaves to remain the same. You were meant to be changed. Your sense of smell will become stronger, you’ll be able to feel the different seasons changing, everything will become clearer, and all your senses will become stronger. When it looks like there’s no path, you’ll know better and continue forward. You can read the forest now; you can read the signs of dead leaves crushed by feet, as the continuous steps build an almost invisible trail. A crushed-leaf superhighway. You’ll know how to tell the difference between a moose and a deer track, what time of day the sun starts to creep below the mountains, where to find water seeping out of the pores of the earth. You develop into a hiking machine.
Your muscles will become harder, you’ll develop calluses in places you never thought possible, toenails will turn black and fall off, and everything on you will ache. And ache. And ache. You’ll learn how to filter water from a stream, how to eat the same meal every day, where to set up camp, and you’ll be happy living simply. The desire to smell like perfume will fade and you’ll prefer to smell like earth and sweat and sun-warmed skin. Walking without a pack on your back will feel strange, your stride will lengthen and you’ll walk at incredible speeds… uphill. Every fiber of your body will be fine-tuned and trained for hiking.
And you’ll feel like your body is finally doing what it was designed to do originally.
You’ll cry for no reason, for everything, and nothing. You’ll stare off into the sea of endless trees and tears will begin to stream. And then you’ll find yourself smiling because you have never felt so alive, you have never felt so happy. Even in the rain, even when you’re exhausted and frustrated, when you can’t possibly take another step. When you’re so angry and sore and lonely, when you feel like you’re lost and worried. Even then, even when all you want to do is turn around and go home. You breathe deep, take one more step, and proceed. Because even when you’re miserable and tired, hungry and dirty, you know deep down that this is still better than being back where you were. You know that this is real; this is what it is to be alive. To feel every single emotion, to have all your senses turned on to the world around you, to feel everything so deeply, that’s what it is to be alive, that’s what life is all about.
The trail changed me.
Ever since I took that first step alone, on a heavily trafficked mountain, barely reaching above 1,600 feet, it changed me. I’ll never be who I was before, nor do I want to be. But accepting that I won’t be happy building the life I once wanted is difficult for me, as I’m sure it is for many people returning after a thru-hike. I ask myself time and time again, how do I go back to that life as the person I am now, the person I’m becoming, and be happy?
So rather than trying to force myself into a mold that I can no longer fit into, instead of trying to separate myself into two people—Rebecca and Socked In, I’m stripping away the old me, as painful as that may be. I’m stripping away layer after layer of false happiness, like layers of an onion, I’m allowing the trail to strip me down to the very center of my being. Every step further into the wilderness, every time I set out on another hike, another layer peels away.
Every time I breathe that mountain air I feel cleansed, home, free. Like I’m finally who and where I was meant to be.
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