What's next?I have returned from the hike after having quit my job before I left. I didn't take a leave of absence. I quit. So I have no slot to fill and am not sure what to do next. I think this puts me in a scary place. But it's really not unlike standing at the terminus at the border with Mexico and considering the immense weight of the unknowable thousands of miles ahead.
I had hoped to form some kind of answer to the question of "what next" during the hike, but really honestly I didn't believe one would come to me during the hike. After all, I've never had an answer to that question at any other time in my life, and I'm not so young and naive to believe that who I am could be fundamentally changed just by taking a long walk. No answer to the question came to me, just as I suspected. As a result, I feel a little like I'm floating over a chasm.
In fact, if anything, the hike only took all my faults and all my good qualities that I knew I already had and held them up in front of me to say "see, this IS who you are and there's not a whole lot you can do about it so you might as well learn how to either use what you have or work around it."
I remember at Warner Springs that I overheard a conversation between a young man who was quitting his hike and his family that had come to pick him up. He complained that the hiking was hard and that it wasn't doing anything to help him find himself. I never did this hike to "find myself". I actually did this hike to become myself, which is different. The trail has been calling me for 33 years and I needed to find out what it wanted from me. I still need to find that out. I might have to do this hike again and again until I do.
Has the hike changed me?I expected the hike to change me a little bit, but as I walked it never really seemed to me like I was any different than before. Now that I home, I'm not so sure about that. I think maybe it did change me a little bit.
For example, there was an earthquake yesterday afternoon. It was mild. The Earth rolled around a little bit for about 5 seconds and then it was over. But the news on television went on and on attempting to spin this 5 seconds of Nature's "wrath" into a Big Story.
They showed the same silly 6 bottles of stuff that had fallen off a shelf somewhere over and over. Sheesh, I knocked over more stuff trying to roll a shopping cart through K-Mart with my big backpack in it. They interviewed people who were completely freaked out. I suspect those people just wanted to see themselves on TV. And most ridiculous of all, they had an expert on that warned us in a serious tone that now we all needed to form back-up plans for loss of cellphone service.
Why do we need that? Seriously. That does not compute for me. I walked for days with no cellphone service and cared not one bit about it. The only time I was sorry I had no cellphone service was when I had to walk the Quincy-La Porte road and couldn't call my mom to come give me a ride. But I walked the road for 5.5 hours, eventually hitchhiked and lived through the inconvenience just fine. The frenetic quest for comfort that imprisons people so thoroughly that they actually believe they need a back-up plan for the loss of something utterly inconsequential to their survival screams at me from every direction now.
Nature will throw stuff at us and most of the time it will only inconvenience us at the worst. Sure I hated the snowfields enough to quit that part of the trail, but honestly the worst they ever did to me was make walking difficult. It was a silly mental challenge I simply didn't live up to. Same with the creeks. It was more mental than physical that they scared me. A back-up plan in case of loss of cellphone service? And you say that as if it's so grave and terrible a threat to our survival that we should all run out and spend some money to protect ourselves from it? Puh-lease.
Scoffing at modern life certainly was something I did before the hike, but the hike has made modern life seem infinitely more ridiculous to me now. I have changed simply by being even less tolerant of its silly ways and more confident and comfortable out in Nature. I often told Tony that the trail is where real life is happening. I always felt like so much more happened every day out there than ever happened at home. And the irony was that I was doing so much less.
Alienation from societyLast night I was reading Ray Jardine's PCT book. He always struck me as somewhat of a crackpot, but in retrospect he's actually quite right on a lot of issues. Near the back of the book he has a chapter on re-entry. It's closer to crackpotism than most of the rest of the book, but I found that reading it now after being out there he really hits the nail on the head.
He writes that when we return we feel alienated from a "society frenetically in quest of comfort, security, and social status." Those words could not more accurately describe the off-trail world. It's frenetic. The security it chases is illusory. The comfort and social status are mostly irrelevant. Acquiring and hoarding and trying to guard your comfort and security makes you weak and shuts you off from the generosity of the Earth. It's killing the Earth, too.
Today I read in the paper a couple of stories about chemicals. One is that in California there is potential legislation out there to ban BPA. BPA is a chemical used in plastic. It accumulates in the environment and causes estrogenic effects in living creatures all along the food chain. In other words, the chemical harms living beings' ability to reproduce. The chemical industry says this chemical is safe. Really? Is it safe to live in a world where living beings cannot reproduce?
Another article was about two other chemicals used in food packaging that may be banned because they accumulate in human bodies and that 100% of children tested have this chemical in their bodies. The chemical industry says there is no proof that the chemical gets into "the environment" (they were careful not to say "our bodies") from food packaging. I believe that people in modern society have the ability to read a sentence like this and nod their heads in agreement, thinking to themselves that yes, we should find out how it really gets into the environment before we rush to judgment. But after 3 months without brainwashing, I can only say to myself that if the chemical is in the packaging then right there that's how it gets into "the environment". In fact, if the chemical exists at all it's already in the environment.
By the way, I recognize the irony that much of my successful hiking was dependent upon gear that has been created with all sorts of plastic and chemicals and things that are nasty to the Earth. Most of it was made in China, too, where companies go to avoid environmental laws. I benefited from this, even depended upon it. But as I slowly traversed the State of California, picking up little bits of plastic candy wrapper, shaking me head at piles of used toilet paper, shedding tears watching birds try to make a living in polluted water, it really hit me: We are all downstream. There is no "away" for things to be thrown. We must change our ways.
We probably won't change, however, as we destroy the Earth that sustains us with our frenetic stockpiling of comfort and security. Ray is probably correct that those who "know how to bend and flex to Nature's ways are far more likely to survive" the inevitable collapse of our unsustainable ways.
Warning: some Jesus-freakism coming your wayRay even goes on a ramble about Jesus. I'm not a religious person by any means, and generally I scorn most of it these days, but I recall as I walked along that I thought about how Jesus was quite right when he said to look at the birds, how they don't worry about how they will be clothed and fed, that God takes care of their needs.
Before the hike I worried constantly if I would have enough things with me to be warm and comfortable? During the hike I sent more and more things home. I wore the clothes I needed and carried no extras. I fixed the things that broke. I received and gave help to my fellow travelers when we were in need. I left the trail to refill the things that ran out. Anything I didn't have that I suddenly needed I learned I could actually do without or improvise a solution for. Magically, purses and trains appeared when I needed to use them most. Providence cared for me as much as it did for the birds.
Next stepsNow I must begin another journey down an unknown trail and hope that I can find my way, survive the challenges and make enough money to get by.
The first step is to heal my broken feet. I believe now that it was my shoes and not the miles that broke them. I've got to get some new shoes. All my old ones are way too small now.
Next step is to get involved in my community. I have some time and a little money left over. I think I can best figure out what to do next by sampling more of what's out there. Also, I learned by watching my friend Gary on the trail that you get more by putting yourself out there more. He received more trail magic than anybody I ever saw and he did it, it seemed, simply by talking to people. He'd introduce himself, say he was hiking the PCT and was in need of something and he'd be given that something and then offered even more. He got offered a job that way, he got to use computers for free that way, he got rides that way and all-he-could-eat food that way. I need to get out there more.
A few things I'd like to doI'd like to rid the world of litter, plant and care for trees and spend more time in Nature. I want to spend more time on my music, too, even though that will never be anything more than a way to enhance my leisure time. I want to maintain my weight loss, eat more fruit, shop at the co-op more often, ride my bicycle, take care of birds, pick up more hitchhikers (as long as they look safe) and have more compassion for people who do not fit in to modern life. I want to get rid of all this crap I have. I don't need it. If I travel lighter through life I'll probably be as happy as I was when my pack was so light just before a resupply.
Sorry this was so long. It's what I've been thinking about these first two days home. Soon my tears will dry. Soon the vividness of the trail will wear off. Soon I will be normal again. Or will I?