A few (somewhat) immediate reactions to my AZT hike

In the week since I finished the AZT every time someone has asked me how I’m feeling about it I’ve answered with some version of, “it’s still so fresh, it’ll be hard to fully understand my feelings on the hike until I’ve had time to process it.” This is kind of true; the longer removed I am from a hike the better perspective I’ll have on the experience, what it meant for me, and how it changed me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t start putting in the work to get to that place of clarity right away. Procrastination is always bullshit. And if I’m speaking honestly every time I give that answer I’m totally avoiding doing the hard, gritty work that is reflecting on a thru hike, coming to terms with its outcome, finding closure with it, and moving on to whatever’s next. So it’s been a week, and I figure the least I can do is a bit of writing to get some stuff in motion in my head. 

Readjusting after a thru hike is always a big task but I’m pretty sure it’ll be harder than ever considering what happened on my AZT thru hike. By that I am referring to my failure to yo-yo the trail and potentially establish an fkt for an AZT yo-yo as I had originally intended to do. I’ve never hitchhiked away from a northern terminus with a feeling of some uncertainty on whether I was finished or not as I did in Utah last week. Even though I had just finished the entire AZT, there was, and remains, a small thought of, “what-if”, in my head. Just this morning as I was going for a walk I was doing mile math in my head (probably how I spend 75% of my brain power on a thru hike) trying to figure out where I would be today if I had turned around and hiked south at the Utah border rather than walk to the road and stick my thumb out. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. The sense of finality when you finish a long distance trail is what makes finishing such an adrenaline rush, such a glow of accomplishment. I have found that sense of finality through nothing else in my life; I didn’t get it in Arizona. Maybe that means I should have done the yo-yo. I think it is probably a decision I will second-guess for a long time, if not the rest of my life. But I’m resonating hard on failure and difficult decisions. I need to be able to find peace in the discomfort of second-guessing a decision just as I’ve been able to find peace in the discomfort of blisters, heat rash, and numb fingers. 

Something that has surprisingly come to mind over the last few days is my decision two years ago to drop out of the PhD program I was in. I remember  well the conversations I had with my advisor about my intention to drop out. He tried adamantly to argue why I should not, and had some pretty convincing arguments. My mind was made up already, but it was still an interesting exercise to defend my decision to someone so convinced I was making the wrong one. I think doing so ended up making me even more sure of the choice, so in hindsight I’m glad he put up a fight. But anyways, one thing I’ll always remember him saying was, “have you thought about how you will cope with possibly regretting this choice?” It was a question that I had to answer honestly, and I had not. But I’ll always be glad he asked that question. Immediately I began spending long hours thinking about my future as a full-time thru hiker/traveler, and how I would cope with a reality where I ended up not enjoying that, and wishing I had stayed in grad school. Just like the conversations with my advisor, this exercise ended up helping me be even more sure of my decision in the long run. 

No one had long, well thought out debates with me about staying on trail and continuing the yo-yo. While I spent plenty of time in my head considering the decision, and tried to put my mind in a hypothetical state of regret, it was a decision that by nature had to be made rather quickly, and so I don’t think I really ever had a chance to give it enough thought. I need to be ready to live with that regret if it starts to show up. I need to be able to come to terms with the fact that I made a big, important decision (to me at least) without enough consideration or time. That’s hard. But I’m guessing it won’t be the last time I have to do so.  

After my absolutely wonderful day in Flagstaff (honestly one of my favorites of the whole hike, even if it was technically the first day after it) I caught a bus to Los Angeles and I’ve spent the last week here. It’s been a pretty relaxing week. I’ve seen my sister and some good friends here, enjoyed watching some great March madness basketball, hit the beach, eaten a ton of sugar, and taken advantage of legalized pot in California. All things that I remember fantasizing about when shivering under my tarp at night, or sinking knee deep into snow for hours at a time. But man do all these relaxing, low stakes pasttimes get old fast. Just as I need to be able to resonate on the utter discomfort of posting up for 16 hours in sub-freezing temperatures when I’m back home and annoyed with little bullshit, I need to be able to resonate on how quickly smoking pot, eating ice cream and watching tv can become menial and unsatisfying. I’m glad that I took this little vacation rather than go home and back to work right away. It’s actually gotten me eager to do so at this point. But I know that I probably would’ve had a better week if I had been covering the Utah-Flagstaff miles of the AZT. I don’t want to pine for that reality too hard because I can’t do anything to change the past. But I don’t want to avoid what I’m feeling. 

I fly back to Maryland tomorrow. My flight from there to Arizona still feels so recent, probably because it was. Only just over a month ago. That’s the weirdest thing that I’m dealing with in processing this hike. It was so short. If I had done the 50 day yo-yo as I intended it would have been less than half the time as my next shortest thru hike, and I only ended up doing half of that. 25 days is about how long it takes to just get your trail legs and into the groove of things. On the PCT, day 25 was a zero day (in LA of all places) on which I switched my shoes from Brooks to Altras, which really sprung me for that hike in terms of daily mileage and overall speed. Day 25 was the first day of the rest of my hike last year. It’s just weird to think about the AZT in that perspective.

I’m hoping I don’t revert to being super bummed and overworked all the time when I get home. I’ve already started scheduling work but am being sure not to schedule as much as I did over the winter. It’s only  about 10 weeks until I start my summer job which is the next thing I’m really excited for. So in those 10 weeks my only real goal is to cultivate my own happiness, move on from the AZT, and get logistics set for the rest of my hiking season. The wilds of Arizona beat me down and broke me, hoping that they gave me a little strength while they were at it. I could certainly use it as I head back into the grind of real life, much too soon.