The transition back into "normal" society is ever looming over a thru hiker as they near the end of the trail. A lot of people talk about it. Hiker's who have done it before offer up good advice to those who are about to experience this transition for the first time. I even read a good bit about it in a book before I even left for the trail in March. But really, much like getting on to the trail in the first place, nothing can prepare you for it.
Once off the trail I spent nearly three weeks at my brother and sister in law's house in New Jersey. That entire time, I sat there waiting for the moment in which I realized I was in the middle of this dreaded transition, but it never came. No moment of disgust at the luxury of the life around me. No distaste towards the people I was around. None of the things that I heard from so many sources was sure to happen. I thought maybe I had escaped it.
This past week I finally drove back down to Georgia. I had planned to do a bit more hiking to make up the short section I had skipped in Pennsylvania, but with a new house and roommates already lined up for me back home, I decided it would be most responsible to save what little money I had and return home sooner rather than later to begin the inevitable job hunt.
On the way down I drove I-81, which parallels the AT all the way from PA down to TN, or so it seemed by the amount of trail town names I was seeing on freeway signs. I remembered a shelter I stayed at just outside of the town of Marion, VA and I remembered passing under I-81 in the back of a cow farmer's car as DuffleMiner and I hitched into town. The shelter was on the property of the Mount Rogers Visitors Center right off of a road so I stopped by to see if any Southbounders needed a ride to town. There was one guy there, Danko, a young tall, lanky, bearded (aren't they all) guy from Missouri. He had started on June 2nd, so we had passed each other on the trail at some point and had been on it at the same time for at least two and a half months. It was nearly 5:30 and he was happy to join me for dinner in town. We ran by Wal-Mart first so he could resupply on some things and then we went to Wendy's. Not a exactly a glamorous night out but it is the sort of thing that makes a hikers day. After dinner I dropped him off at the shelter and finished up the last 5 hours down to Georgia.
The beautiful thing about the hiking community is that I can walk up to a stranger and make a friend of him with out the slightest feeling of awkwardness between us. It's a normal thing for two people who have never met to have a relatively intimate, one time only meeting with one another. You never run out of things to ask about and share with two hikers.
Since I have been back in my hometown I have kept very busy with visiting with friends. With some of them it is like things have not changed in the least. We just catch up on some facts and carry on like we did before. With others there has grown an obvious chasm between our interests in life.
Over all, I feel a bit like I am simply six months behind in a life a never said I wanted. The fear of this life is what made me want to hike the Appalachian Trail in the first place. Now that I have completed the trail, I am again faced with this formulaic, although fool proof, "life" of what I would call non-living.
Now, the prospect of it only seems more unappealing. Some of my friends have moved into bigger houses. Some have gotten new jobs that aren't particularly satisfying but pay well. Others have accumulated a collection of new, really neat things. More now than ever I hope to avoid all of those things and for the first time ever it is more than just a hope. I have lived so minimally for so long that it seems easy to go with out these things I once thought were something important.
The house I am moving into is a small, older house and will be shared with 3 other people. I am having to (and enjoying) getting rid of a lot of things in order to be able to fit all of my belongings in my new home. Before the trail I was very sentimental and would save everything. Now I have lived a life where you cull your material possessions down to the necessities and throw out all the rest, putting it in storage inside your heart and memory, and then putting it into the trash.
It's a better life, a lighter life. One I hope to cultivate for a very long time.