Reflections on my 18/19 offseason, and some thoughts I'm having going into the AZT
It is objectively shitty to be 24 and bringing other people their dinner and bussing their dishes. You can work at a good restaurant, in a comfortable work environment, with good bosses, which I was lucky enough to have this Winter, but it is still just a generally shitty thing to do. And I guess there may be someone out there who is really passionate about bussing dishes. So to that person I’m sorry for being on such a high horse. But at least to me, it is simply a not fun activity to do, even if you’re getting paid for it.
I fully embraced the suck this offseason. I got home in late October from my bike ride home from Los Angeles. Very quickly my excitement to be back home, where I hadn’t been for 16 months, able to see old friends, my family and work and save up some money for the next hiking season, was crushed by the monotony and loneliness of the off-trail life of a thru hiker. I quickly filled up most of my hours with three part-time jobs, at a restaurant, working for my friends landscaping company, and tutoring some students in math. The rest of my hours were spent mostly at the gym. Lifting, swimming, mostly trying to escape from the crap inside my mind in any way I could.
For the first time in my life, small issues that I’ve always kind of ignored or put off, knowing that when I’m on trail they will seemingly disappear, feel like real problems, that are getting worse, and will need to be dealt with. I am more isolated than ever. I have all but lost the ability to reach out and form new relationships. I am increasingly closed off and aggressive to people who love me, and want to help me and share their lives with me. Mostly I mean my parents who I was worse than ever with this winter, but also close friends who just want to see me and spend time with me. I always seem to find ways not to do so. I hate how easy it is for me to acknowledge what a shithead I am to my parents (who graciously housed me for free this winter, essentially making all my 2019 plans possible) and still be unable to change how awful I can be to them. I dislike myself more than ever. Its crazy because when I started thru hiking I fell so in love with myself in ways I never had before. And my naive thought at the time was that, “I’ve done it, I’ve learned to love myself like everyone always tells you to do. I can check that box off and be done with it.” I started telling people I was in the best relationship of my life, and it was with myself. And for a lot of the past three years, that was true, and I truly felt it.
But I need to come to terms with the fact that that relationship, like all relationships do, has hit a really rough patch. I have no self-love, confidence, or care for my own happiness right now. And its manifesting real problems. I already mentioned my horribleness at home with people who love me. Intimacy also terrifies me now more than ever, particularly romantic intimacy. Romance is something I have experienced before and can remember how entirely fulfilling it can be. And I love romance, I crave it so deeply. But the prospect of being vulnerable with another person, even being physically intimate with them, fucking terrifies me right now. And its so frustrating. I wish I could just be a normal 24 year old guy who gets excited when a cool, pretty girl wants to hang out with him. But I can’t right now. And if I’m being honest I haven’t been able to for some time, and its getting worse. Mostly I just know that I’m a bummer right now. And I know what I’m like when I’m not a bummer, when I’m on, when I’m confident and happy. I don’t feel cocky in saying that that guy fucking rules. Because he does. I like him a lot. At least a lot more than the person I was this offseason.
I guess step one is acknowledging all of this, which is a big part of why I’m writing this right now. I am pretty sure not a lot of people will read it, certainly not the whole thing. But I’m definitely writing it for myself. Step two is to start seeking to make active changes in my lifestyle and mindset to help my brain learn to be happy again. And this is what terrifies me. I’m about to go backpacking again. And I know it’s going to be amazing. It always is. Even if I don’t achieve my goal of setting a FKT, or even finishing the yoyo that I’m setting out to do, I’ll still be in my element, doing what I was meant to do, once again. That alone will work wonders for my mental health. But I can’t help but be scared that thru hiking is actually just one big coping mechanism for me. I have so many miles planned over the next 18 months. What if I’m just lining those all up as a means to continue avoiding what I was forced to confront this winter? I am aware that I won’t be able to thru hike as much as I have been for the rest of my life. I will have to go through periods much longer than a few months between thru hikes at times. By thru hiking so much now, am I just setting myself for even more crippling versions of what I’m feeling now in the future? I don’t know, and it terrifies me.
I feel so broken as a person. Not because I’m sad or anything in that regard. I literally feel like I’m broken. Like I don’t function properly. I feel like I am off-putting to everyone, and thus am driving them away and out of my life. I feel like I don’t have the functional capabilities to meet with and interact positively with new people. The dumbest part is that I’m aware these are self-fulfilling thoughts, and all I need to do is tell myself differently to break the cycle. But I haven’t been able to do that this offseason. I wish I had.
So yeah, this offseason I worked a lot. Despite how I opened this blog I am very grateful to my employer this offseason. I made a lot more money than I anticipated, and as I mentioned had very good, kind bosses, who also completely understand that I’m going to be leaving for two months to go do this crazy random thing. That kindness isn’t lost on me. I met cool people through that job, really cool people. I wish I could have been more vulnerable with them and turned fun work acquaintances into real friends. Maybe I’ll at least learn a lesson and be able to do that in the future. I did get to spend some quality time with very good, old friends this offseason. My friends from high school are incredibly important to me, and it was awesome to be around some of them again. I exercised a lot. I made more progress in the weight room than I have in four years, and am bulked up, ready to shred it all off on trail. I also made the most progress in the pool in my entire life. I am a stronger swimmer than I’ve ever been before. I have distant aspirations to finish an Iron Man one day and my swims this winter got me excited for that. More than anything, I have to thank the pool for the mental relief. Some days when I felt like I was going to literally lose my fucking mind, the pool saved me. Just being able to hear nothing for 30 minutes, only the gentle splashes from my strokes, and let my mind wander and be free for that short time, helped bring me back from the brink of insanity.
Over the last few weeks, as my hike approaches, my need to find something to be anxious about has manifested itself in my upcoming AZT yoyo self supported FKT attempt. I’m incredibly scared about it. Arizona is getting a huge, late winter, and there will be significant snow on day one, and throughout the whole hike. It will make my goal of finishing in 50 days even more insanely hard than it already was. It will make finishing in 62 days, how much time I have before I need to be back in MD for a wedding, feel like a lot tighter of a window. But I alternate between insane anxiety and a bunch of excitement. I know how it feels to be out there, pushing for a goal, not knowing if you will make it or not. The uncertainty is so exciting, and makes it that much more sweet if/when you do accomplish your goal. I’m trying to be easy on myself too. I’m going to go out there and hike my absolute fucking hardest. Hopefully that leads to doing what I’ve set out to do. But if doesn’t, because of a big winter, or injury, or any other unforeseen road block, I think it’ll still be a good experience. Hopefully no matter what I’ll at least hike the AZT NOBO, and be able to check another trail off my list, which is really my only long term goal in life right now, knocking a bunch of these bad boys out.
Before each of my thru hikes, I have made the background of my phone a quote. It is a pretty silly, easily mockable thing to do. But it can really make a difference on a thru hike. Looking at that quote every time you need to use your phone, which isn’t that often but at least once or twice a day, particularly if you’re using Guthooks and checking your map on your phone.
On the AT I chose a pretty classic quote that gets tossed around the thru hiker community. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” This is from Thoreau’s Walden, and pretty much summed up why I went on that hike. It was my first thru hike, so strange for me to reflect on my headspace going into it, how little I knew about everything I would experience. But I went on that hike to begin living deliberately, and I like to think I have continued that since than. I certainly felt fear that I would die one day and discover I had not lived, and I hoped to try to actively combat that. It was the perfect quote for that hike.
Last year on the PCT I went much more masochistic with the quote, and I certainly have become more of a masochist since I finished the AT. Its a big part of why I thru hike. Shortly before my PCT hike began, I read an article about Aleksander Doba, who at 71 had just kayaked across the Atlantic Ocean. A quote from the article stuck with me more than most do, and trust me when I tell you its not hard for a quote to stick in my brain. “If you aren’t willing to suffer, you can do nothing. You can sit and die.” This quote graced my phones background for the entire PCT. Every day I reminded myself that in order to accomplish something significant, I had to suffer every day for it. It worked, and I persevered through a difficult hike more successfully than I ever could have imagined.
Before I leave for the AZT this Wednesday, I’ll be changing my phones background, currently a photo of my shadow on my bicycle from my last bike tour, to a quote that I stumbled upon in a very cool way on that same bike tour. Leaving El Paso, I was riding strong, dominating my only climb of the day, when I came across a dumpster beside I-10 with a message sloppily spray painted on it: “The pain you feel today will be the strength you feel tomorrow.” I guess its kind of similar to my quote on suffering I used for the last hike. But I like the slightly more positive spin on it. Whereas the other quote posits that we should embrace suffering and pain in order to avoid sitting and dying, this quote suggests we should do so in order to experience later strength. I’m ready to do that on the AZT. Day 1 is going to be fucking painful. I’m going to be postholing at altitude, cold, with wet feet, and going frustratingly slow right off the bat. I’ll need to remember that I will be going through all that shit for a specific purpose, to strengthen me for the rest of the hike.
And I know I need to be ready to embrace that quote internally as well. All the pain I’ve been through this offseason, I have to believe it will lead me to becoming a stronger person one day. Its tough that I don’t experience that now, or know exactly what that means. It sucks to feel so unhappy, helpless and confused in regards to my own mind, and who I am as a person. I hope I don’t feel that way one day, and I hope that by going through it this offseason I am planting the seeds for the strength within that I desire to become reality one day.
Its a cliche but I really want to thank you for reading this. And I do mean you, whoever you may be. And I know that seems inauthentic seeing as I’m addressing multiple people, but trying to do so as individuals. But I really mean it. Like I mentioned earlier, I have been struggling with intimacy a lot over the last few years. So believe it or not, you reading this was probably the most authentic, intimate interaction I had this offseason. That means everything to me. To know that if just one person read this, I had that interaction. So thank you. Its hard for me that this level of intimacy has to come through me writing a blog and a random person or people reading it, but I’m still thankful to have that at least. Whether I’ve met you before or not, I love you for reading this and letting me share it with you. Thank you. I look forward to writing to you again from on trail, very soon.