Starting is the hardest
Starting is the hardest part.
Six months ago, I was starting, waving familiarity goodbye from the window of the plane I almost didn’t catch on my way to San Diego, where the next morning I would begin my attempt at hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in its entirety. Boxes of belongings still sat in my vacated apartment because Cameron and I had prioritized fun with friends over completing the moving process, which I never regretted but Cam might have since he was the one left to finish the job.
Now, I sit writing at the house on Gladwood: Cameron’s house, where my far-fetched goal of hiking a long-distance trail slowly became a viable plan over many nights spent discussing what I really wanted in life. Now, I’m back here, reflecting on how that plan developed into a six-month, constantly evolving reality. The house has changed, too. Once a charming old gathering place for friends and family, the Glad Pad is now a dilapidated old gathering place for rats and for sale by owner. I’m writing for the first time in over a week, contemplating the moves I have to make. From a life alone in a tent to one with my boyfriend and two roommates, from one house to another. I’m starting again, this time attempting a happy and fulfilling life back in the fake world.
It starts with the new house on Ledgestone. I like the nature theme of the streets I’m living on. Gladwood and Ledgestone. The former implies, first and most obviously, a sort of pleasantness. That’s how I would describe “glad,” anyway. Googling “define:glad,” my preferred method of lazy denotation discovery, yielded the result “pleased; delighted.” So we agree! Then there’s “wood,” as in the wood, which to me implies a surroundedness.
I’ve moved into a house of three boys with a neighbor, collectively referred to as “Neighbs,” who is Kimmy Gibbler-esque in the sense that he visits frequently and without announcement. Also Cameron’s cousin is visiting. I’ve gone from living alone in a downtown loft, surrounded by skyscrapers and strangers, to alone in the woods, surrounded by trees and chipmunks, to very much not alone at the Gladwood, pleasantly surrounded by furniture and men.
Then there’s Ledgestone. This one feels more risky. You’re standing not only on the ledge, but on a single stone on the ledge, which Google defines as “a narrow horizontal surface projecting from a wall, cliff, or other surface.” So there’s a single stone on a narrow surface projecting from some other, larger high-up surface, and that’s what you’re standing on. You’re teetering. You could fall. But maybe falling is a good thing, because you could fall either direction. You either fall back onto the hard, solid ground from which you stepped onto this ledgestone, or you fall forward, into the wide open space, no idea how long or far you’ll fall or where you’ll land. Or, as some do, you teeter forever, looking back and forth from flat safety to apparent peril, experiencing nothing but indecision and visions of what could be.
Back in the environment I left, which hasn’t changed much though I have, irreversibly, I find myself trying to re-insert myself into my old life. Trying to rebuild a life with the same old pieces even though the blueprint has changed completely. It’s like putting on an old pair of jeans you once loved and wore everyday, and they still fit and you’re excited they still fit, but you can’t wear them. They just don’t look good anymore. Your taste isn’t the same, styles have changed, and it’s over between the two of you. That was going to be a metaphor until I realized I’ve had that exact experience as I’ve gone through all the boxes of clothes.
Here I am, in the same house, with all my stuff everywhere. After carrying everything I needed on my back for six months, I’m motivated to get rid of as much as I can, and it’s even easier to do that since we’re moving and have to find a new place for everything anyway. But you can only get rid of so much stuff before it stops making a change in your life. Eventually, if you still feel cluttered, you have to change yourself.
I thought about this today when I unzipped a bag and discovered all my makeup. On the trail, I never gave much more thought to how I looked than wondering if the amount of dirt on my face was appropriate for the restaurant I was about to eat in. Now, back in a world where people get made up, I suddenly feel like I need to have makeup. The thing is, I like the way I look without makeup. I know I don’t need it. Two weeks ago when I was still living out of a 40-liter sack, I would have thrown out all of it but the trademark blue mascara I wear to concerts.
But I’m not living out of a sack anymore. My new bathroom has a shit ton of storage space, and the makeup I have still isn’t that much, even if I keep all of it. I’m just at odds with myselves. Or maybe the problem is I don’t know yet how to integrate my trail self with my off-trail self. Or maybe there aren’t two selves at all, just different environments and responses to those environments. Maybe what I do is just keep adapting. Keep the ~dontcareaboutmakeup~ confidence and the four lipsticks because sometimes there are occasions where lipstick is fun and not every color lipstick goes with everything and no one said you have to carry it up Mt. Whitney or like anywhere at all, that’s what all those cabinets are for.
I like my life in Dallas. I liked it before the trail, I liked it on the trail, and I like it now. But there are parts of it that don’t fit anymore and parts that never fit to begin with. There are parts that used to fit really well that now just fit sometimes. I’ll move those parts to smaller spaces and make room for new things. For the new parts I brought back with me. Ones that aren’t physical, that won’t fit on a bookshelf or in a drawer, that I carried with me home from the trail and that I’ll try to carry on with me into the future. The great thing about these parts is that, though they can’t be held in my hand or framed or stored away in a safe-deposit box, they can be lost and found again and again in different places and people and experiences. Once you know they’re there, they’re yours. And they weigh literally nothing.
Part of the beauty of any human experience is its singularity. I could never make anyone understand what I went through on the PCT or how I changed or what I learned. Fortunately and unfortunately, that is a non-transferrable understanding. But I want to share what I can, however I can. When you buy a piece of art, no one else can get in your head and understand the intricacies of why it spoke to you, but if you hang it up on the wall, you can at least give others a chance to find something in that piece that speaks to them, even if it has nothing to do with the reason you bought it. Appreciation of an experience can be as singular as the experience itself.
As I look back through my collection of PCT mementos, I find the physical is limited to a wad of bandanas and a stack of stickers from stops along the route, three rolls of film, a handful of rocks, a holey trash bag of tattered, torn, dirt-stained, sun-faded clothes, and a bruise on my hip that seems unlikely to ever go away. The rest is an abstract blur of memories, friendships, and lessons I’ve tried and failed again and again to accurately express in words.
I didn’t take beautiful pictures on a fancy camera and I didn’t record many conversations with other hikers. I didn’t track my location with GPS or take a selfie at all the iconic waypoints. I didn’t live blog my journey or diligently record every mile every day. I didn’t call home enough or post to the Facebook group of friends and family I promised to update regularly. I didn’t hike every mile of the PCT. I didn’t even complete a single state. But despite whatever I didn’t do, I started. I took one huge step from a flat, safe surface to a single stone on the ledge and looked out into the foggy depths of the unknown. I stood wobbling on the stone for months, glancing back and forth from that rock-hard stability to the heart palpitation-inducing uncertainty in front of me, and when I could teeter no longer, I jumped.
For six months I fell, from shining rays of novelty, ecstasy, and fun, through a mist of curiosity and wonder and into dark clouds of boredom, sadness, loneliness, and disappointment. There bolts of rage and claps of frustration energized me and I kept falling, a single drop in a shower of connection and self-discovery. Eventually I was slowed way down by a canopy of peace that lowered me gently into an old-growth forest of acceptance and gratitude.
I experienced it all, mostly by myself, and a lot of it was the good things I mentioned but a lot of it was those other, darker things. A big part of my experience was getting through the experience. Maintaining my will and desire to do what was necessary to achieve the goal, day after day. Doing what was necessary even when I couldn’t find the will or desire. Learning and re-learning to be kind to myself. Never giving up. Giving up for half a day to get it out of my system. Trying to stay sane. Going insane and then writing it all down and reading it back to myself in the hopes of finding my sanity somewhere on the page. Usually it helped.
So I jumped from the ledge stone and landed back at some version of the glad wood, and though I don’t have a detailed log of the fall, I do have notebooks full of sporadic recordings of the feelings I felt as I fell. I want to share what I wrote, because it’s the truest expression of what my journey along the trail was. I’ll remember the views and the people and the lifestyle, but a lot of what I’ll remember most from this first thru-hike attempt (yes, I expect there will be more), is what I learned about myself through the experience. My biggest fear is forgetting, and I hope to gain some insight into what I learned and what the experience meant to me by going back through all my journal entries and sharing what I find I found. I’ll hang it here on proud display, and though you may not see what I see, I hope we can stand next to each other staring at this weird piece of art, tilt our heads to the side and go, “Hmm.”