The sting of leaving the trail is as real today as it was six months ago. We were standing at a crossroad in Lyme, New Hampshire. We had tried to find our groove again after leaping ahead to Vermont, to no avail. The trail was so different. The white hash marks continued to lead the way, but the earth was soggy from the recent melting of snow. The weather violent. It seemed as though winter was refusing to let summer have its way. The untrodden trail was slick. The forest was coming to life. With ravenous hunger, the black flies were feeding. We were their food source.
Just the night before, we had made dinner at the bend in the river. It was peaceful. Beautiful. Surreal. Deep inside, I knew that this might be the last night on the trail. I drank deeply of the beauty. We made ourselves a little fire in the lush open field. The kids laughed full heartedly as the wrestled around in their tents. Taylor and Kole serenaded us with the guitar, ukulele, and their voices. I wanted to push the pause button. I wanted to stay right there.
How could so much change in only a few short hours? How had the trail, which we had fallen in love with, become such a trial? Spirits had fallen. Batons of joy and sadness were being passed from person to person. When one was up, another was down. The stride had been broken beyond repair. We returned home after waiting a few hours for Ryan’s parents to come pick us up in Lyme, NH.
I cried the whole way home. I cried hot tears, the kind that chap your cheeks. I had pinned so much on the end of the journey. I couldn’t help but look back at the day that we had arrived at Amicalola Falls. Our family huddled up, like a team readying themselves for a championship game. We huddled in close. Ryan pronounced the beginning of our journey. We had made it. We had arrived at our destination. The beginning of the trail was a mere few hundred feet away, the end 2,189 miles north. The spark in everyones eyes was bright. On this fateful day, that spark was gone. What had changed? Even more daunting, what was next?
We arrived at our little house late in the evening. Everyone dropped their smelly packs, showered, and fell fast to sleep. In the morning, we woke to the poignant reality that the journey had ended. We tried, each in our own ways, to process this fact. We even tried to plan a return to the trail, but we were continuously unable to fit all of the pieces back together.
Our time on the trail was not in vain though. We learned so much about ourselves. We gained invaluable insight into the hearts of each of our children. We may not have finished the Appalachian Trail, but we left with the tools that we need to effect change in the trajectory of our lives moving forward. After weeks of contemplation, we decided to sell our house and everything we owned, in order to move into our little camper, and begin a new journey. With far more questions than answers, we set off into our future.
I wish that I could tell you that it is ALL wonderful and amazing, but it’s not. I try to remind myself to stay positive, to find the good in each day, and to embrace this day knowing that I am not guaranteed tomorrow, but ignoring the difficult realities that exist in the beauty of the now is unhealthy and dishonest. The honest truth is that deep below the surface I long to be back in my home, surrounded by the familiar. The uncertainty of where we are headed is scary. I miss the simplicity of the trail! Follow the white hash marks and you will never be lost. Keep heading north and you will eventually reach your destination. I want something tangible to lean into and onto… but the compass of our lives spins, the wind blows, and plans change.
Facebook reminds me everyday of a life I thought would be mine forever. I smile at the thought of the memories, I rejoice in the friendships made and kept through the distance, but I find myself a bit bitter. “If Ryan had never had to go to war…” And there I stop myself. That is NOT a trail I need to devote time to. It is a slippery slope, with no end. I do, however, allow myself to say those words. I give myself the space to acknowledge the moment our family was changed; the time when hopes and dreams were replaced with words like duty and sacrifice. Acknowledging that we are changed, has opened the door for us to begin to dream again. We are restless, wandering vagabonds. Cue the music to a 90’s Michael W. Smith song… we are ‘looking for a reason, roaming through the night to find our place in this world…’
Since leaving New Hampshire three months ago, we have visited New York City, Washington DC, some dear friends in Virginia, and Disney World. Though we thought we would be living in our camper, we have been staying in a condo that is close to my dad. We visited my hometown of Palm Beach Gardens, reconnected with old friends, made new ones, and spent some amazing time at the beach. We have all experienced so many good moments; making memories that will last a life time. We are so thankful! But there is real life stuff that causes angst. Finding the balance between preparing our two oldest sons to launch off into college, discerning the needs of all of our kiddos, and trying to figure out what it is that we (Ryan and I) are meant to do, while fumbling through ups and downs of PTS, is a bit challenging.
Thank you so much for following our journey. We are headed west in a few short days, out into more of those green (or white) lumpy places we love so much. We have thoroughly enjoyed being near family, but we are excited about the adventure the next couple of months will bring. We plan to do a whole bunch of soul searching while we are out there.
NOTE: In order to share our story, we have to share with authenticity. How can we know true joy, if we don’t experience the sting of sorrow? (words from Riley, our youngest son). I love this insight. It perfectly captures my heart. I know that there are people in our world struggling with dark realities, darker than my mind could ever imagine. I would never want the struggles that we experience to ever be placed on a scale with theirs. However, I also don’t want to paint a picture that would give indication that we have somehow arrived and have it all together. We don’t. You don’t. None of us do. We all struggle. We all have ups and downs!!! Our family has been forever changed by war. Though my children and I have never experienced the war first hand, we have forever been changed by it. Striving to find healing in the aftermath was our reason for heading out onto the trail; it remains our purpose in all we do today.
Ever been on a road trip, and found yourself lost? You turn off the music, stop the conversation you are in, and concentrate on figuring out where you are, and how to get back to where you were heading. We need the time and space to sort somethings out. Broadcasting our intent has added an unexpected layer of complexity to this process.
We want to be transparent, but we have no desire to look like vascilating fools. We want to share, and will in time.
This messy, up and down, here then there, is an important part of this process, maybe the most important. It’s here, in this space, where we are becoming who we are really meant to be. For a family, that has only bean able to control how they would react and respond to commands and orders from the military with no regard to our needs or desires, we are learning how to identify and communicate those needs and desires. PTS and is secondary effects are very real. We have to be careful that no matter what we are doing, we examine the motives behind our decisions. Are we running from something? Are we making decisions out of fear? Are we trying to put a bandaid on a festering wound? Where are we emotionally, mentally, and most important, spiritually? As we explore all of this, we need space.
When it’s time, we will share… Until then, Happy Trails!
Before we started this journey, we asked our friends what they thought they would have the hardest time with if they were heading out on the trail. Most of the responses were in relationship to hygiene. Many people asked about using the bathroom. I thought it was particularly interesting when I found a 140 page book on the topic of how to poop in the woods. I thought, really? It can’t be that incredibly difficult. Well, let me tell you, it isn’t that easy either.
Have you ever gone to the gym and worked out so hard that you had a hard time sitting down on the toilet? Ok, then. Now imagine that after hiking 14 miles up and down the mountain, the time arrives where your body is telling you it is time… to poop!
There are two main obstacles that I face when it comes to using the bathroom… in the woods.
Pain. Not only do I have to find a place at least 200 feet off of the trail, away from a water source, and from other campsites. Sometimes, this requires scaling down a hill, or climbing up another hill. If the urge comes while I am on the side of a mountain… finding that place can be even harder, requiring my tired legs to work more. Then I have to dig a hole, and squat! Ugh, pain in my knees, pain in my feet, pain in my quads… pain!
Privacy. At the beginning of our hike, the trees were leafless. Nature was not my friend in creating a curtain to hide my bare bum. Now that there are plenty of leaves, I have to be concerned with leaf identification… imagine getting poison ivy, oak or sumac because you squatted right over them! The days of lazily sitting on a toilet reading a magazine are just not a reality out here.
My solution has been to use the privy every time we are near one.
What is a privy you might ask? Well, simply put it is an outhouse like building usually near the shelters along the trail. Some of them are fully enclosed structures, some of them are three sided, with the fourth side (the opening) facing the woods. The best part of the privy is that you don’t have to squat all the way down, bury anything, or worry about being seen by any of your fellow hikers. That is unless you find yourself at Moose Mountain Shelter in NH… then well, maybe the birds above can’t see you below, but that is about the only privacy you will have.
One day, after we had been on the trail for several weeks, I told Ryan that I had to make a confession. Nervously, he asked what I had to confess. I told him that I hadn’t pooped in the woods yet. Not quite understanding what I was meaning, with great concern for my health, he let me know that this was not good for my health. He thought that I meant I hadn’t had a bowel movement for weeks. I let him know that I was scared that I would be seen squatting, so I had simply relied on using the privies.
SO, here’s the deal. One day, we decided to camp at a tent site that had no privy. When nature calls you answer, so I grabbed the little trowel and some toilet paper, and went on the hunt for a place to go. I walked down an old trail, then walked several yards into the woods. Dug a little hole in the ground called a “cat hole”, and I went to squatting. The sun had gone down, there was barely any light left. I had my headlamp, but had turned it off, as to not draw attention to myself (not sure who I thought would see me). Then out of no where, two people came down this trail… that went to NOWHERE… and as I am mid-business, had two peoples headlamps pointed straight at me! The exact fear that had kept me from pooping in the woods was now being fully realized!!! Nope, I didn’t get over it. I still rely on the privies. I just might not live through another experience like that one!
In the last post I said I was going to publish again in Damascus. Well, almost 2 weeks later I finally have enough time and connection to sit and write for awhile. Sorry for the delay. ; )
After leaving Damascus on May 13 we hiked on for quite awhile, covering many miles in a few days. Our goal was to reach Pearisburg before driving up to NY. Plans changed though, and the 7 of us loaded into a 5 person car and drove back to Damascus for Trail Days. While at Trail Days we had the opportunity to repair gear, recouperate physically, and pick up a few more sponsors. All in all, Trail Days was a bunch of fun and a great place to say “Hey” to some trail friends. Than we got a bigger rental and drove up to Syracuse and here we are.
So, now that you know where we are, I’d like to touch on how this trip is affecting me mentally. During my time at camps and shelters I’ve been able to talk to many adults about what they hiking for. The most common answer is, “I’m trying to find out what I want to do next.” The following conversations show that almost no one knows the answer to that question. It’s made me consider the same thing. What do I want to do? How do I want to live my life? These conversations also have taught me that there is no time like the present. I refuse to be in my mid thirties and still be wondering where my life is going to go. I promise myself to work and fight to follow my heart and do what I love to do. As my new friend Neil told me, “Be true to yourself and don’t waste time.” So, that’s what I aim to do and ask all of you, the readers to do the same. Procrastination is my biggest enemy and I ask you to join me in my fight against him.
That’s what I have for now. Thanks for reading and Happy Trails!
When we started to plan this journey, we had just found out that Ryan was going to be medically retired from the military. He had been in the military for 17 years at that point, and had been diagnosed with PTS and a TBI. This diagnosis came after over a year of treatment. Ryan tried to return to duty, feeling strong enough to do so, but after an honest attempt it was obvious that it was not in his best interest or the units for him to continue to serve on active duty.
While Ryan was in treatment, we were simultaneously fighting for our marriage and our family. As his wife, I learned everything that I could about the various ways that PTS manifests itself. I learned so much about how a traumatic brain injury has impacted Ryan, and consequently how it has impacted our marriage. Understanding became the solid platform from which we could launch into the next chapter of our life.
When it was clear that Ryan was going to be retired, we started thinking about what we were going to do next. We decided to head out on the trail. Here we are two months later… 550+ miles behind us, many many more ahead of us. We aren’t much closer to knowing what we are going to do next, but some things are much clearer than they were when we started up the trail on March 12.
Earl Shaffer hiked the trail to “walk off the war”. What I know for certain is that one cannot simply walk it off. It is not the walking that helps one to deal with the trauma of war, but the trail provides a natural boundary from outside influences and stimuli that sometimes hinder the healing process. When we are on the trail, I see such peace in everyone’s eyes. When we get into town, there is an initial excitement for showers and clean laundry, a little snack and sometimes even a real bed, but that excitement tends to last no more than about 24 hours. Past that time, the excitement turns to anxiety and an itch to get back out to the trail.
The past couple of weeks have not gone as planned. With an injury, Trail Days and a meeting in NY, we have spent more time in town than we are used to, and it is during these times that I have been able to truly see how far we have come, and how far we have to go. There is no set destination, but there are definitely things we need to address and work to overcome.
It is so hard for people to understand the complexities of PTS. Many times things look totally normal to the outsider, but with anxiety of being in crowds, conversations that are initiated by well meaning people about the war and our governments position on foreign policy, and the like cause an emotional distancing amongst us. Though Ryan is the one diagnosed with PTS, there is a very real presence of secondary PTS within each of us… To varying degrees. I’ve never really had issues with crowds, but now crowds cause me anxiety as I prepare for the way that Ryan reacts to them.
As we prepare to head back to the trail, these are issues that will be at the forefront of our conversations. With each trip to town, we will focus on growing in these areas. Each of us have to face how things that are out of our control effect us, this includes how we react to how each of us react.
We have met many people along the way that have left the trail because they have found what they were looking for. We may not know much, but we do know that we are not ready to go home yet. Yet. One day we will be there, but it is not right now.
What to say first? It’s been so long since my last blog post, I don’t know where to start. My last one was at Hot Springs, and many things have happened since then. We’ve stayed at Miss Janet’s house, white-water rafted, taken a few unexpected zeros, played music, sang songs, hiked, met David from Doe River Hiker Rest, finished North Carolina, reached 400 miles, and Ava had a birthday celebration.
But that doesn’t cover half of the crazy stuff that’s gone on during the past few weeks. There have been very in depth conversations about our goals on the trail and the different ways of completing it. These conversations have sparked thoughts of what I really want from this trip. Not the physical side of completing the trip, but the mental and emotional parts. When I’m at Katadin do I want to say, “Wow, I just hiked 2000 miles.” or do I want to say, “Wow, I’m so much closer to my family than I was and I’m mentally prepared for what’s next, whatever that is.”
So, what’s my most memorable experience? I’d have to say white water rafting with Mr. Jamie. I’ve rafted twice now, the first time when I was maybe 9. I hardly remember it but from what I do, the two experiences were very different. For some examples, this time I had a paddle and last time I didn’t go swimming. The paddling part was cool enough, but being tossed around in class four rapids and being spinned around 360 degrees under water (Quick side note: I nearly got the name “Maytag” from that. I thought that was funny.) is quite more exciting.
That’s about it for now. The real packs are back on from almost 2 weeks of slack packing and we’ll be in Damascus by Friday. I’m planning on putting out another post then. Happy trails!