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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Re-entry: Life after 6 months on the Appalachian Trail


I’m standing at the counter in my father’s condo in Delaware staring at five post-it notes filled with much to do and a familiar feeling comes over me suggesting I may have taken the wrong trail.

I pull my cell out of my back pocket and there’s my handy trail guide right there on the first screen, but it can’t help me anymore. There are no white blazes, no rock piles, no cairns and no tracks. Nothing but post-it notes and a phone that screams after having been silenced for so long.

Less than two weeks ago I awoke in a bunkhouse in Millinocket, ME, disoriented with the absence of a tent ceiling staring back at me. Looking around at all the hikers sleeping, I slowly cleared the cobwebs and understood I was in a hostel, but something still felt different. As I hobbled quietly toward the bathroom on creaky joints that refused to budge it came to me:

I don’t have to hike today.

The day before I had summited Katahdin and finished a journey of 2,189.1 miles and 199 days. There were no more mountains to climb, no more liters of water to filter, and no more instant mashed potatoes to eat. Nothing left but to find my way back… somewhere. It was an hour shuttle from the end of the trail to the small town, half of which was spent just getting out of Baxtor State Park.

There was much to do before getting on another shuttle at 9 am, but that was normal. There was always much to do in the morning when you rebuilt your home each and every night only to take it back down again the next morning. It was simple, peaceful work, but it was work. That day was slightly different, of course.

I emptied my pack of toilet paper, chlorine, and other things that I no longer needed to bring wherever I went, replacing it with new necessities like deodorant, shaving cream and razors. I stepped on a bathroom scale and noted that I had gained about ten pounds along the way despite losing 3-4 inches of waistline. I’m sure Jenny Craig would love that secret, but it’s not really a secret. All you have to do is walk from Georgia to Maine.

Millinocket may have been an hour from the trail, but in psychological space it might as well have been 100 yards. There would be no culture shock here, something I expected to occur very soon. Celebrating my birthday at a Marriott in Mt. Arlington, NJ was culture shock. This was home.

I wished I could stay longer, but it was mid-October, my adventure was over, and it was time to move on. I had time for a great cup of coffee in a hiker café, signed my name on a ceiling tile and got in the van. The shuttle would take me to a truck stop where I could catch a bus to Bangor.

I had never been to Bangor and wasn’t sure what to expect, other than small. What was small, anyway? The first time I visited Denver, I thought it was small. Now, the roughly 700-resident town of Millinocket felt gigantic. There was an outfitter and motels and half a dozen restaurants and it took a mile and a half to walk to the other side of town.

Things felt relatively routine at first as I stepped off the bus with the other passengers, almost exclusively hikers, but quickly everyone went their own way, some continuing on to Portland, others into taxis or toward nearby motels. By the time the dust settled, I was suddenly alone in a bona fide city. The airport was practically across the street and strip malls, branded motels and auto repair shops filled the horizon in every direction.

My philosophy on the trail tended to be to “wing it,” never looking too far ahead at the towns I was walking toward and my vague plan today had been to stay in a hostel or campground. I had booked a flight for DC during the bus ride, but it wouldn’t leave until the next morning. The hostel I had heard of seemed to be non-existent online and off, and the absurdity of waking up at a campground and making it to the airport by 4:30 or 5 for a 6 a.m. flight was realized as I gazed at “small” Bangor.

I reluctantly made reservations for a cheap motel with a free airport shuttle and headed toward the nearest strip mall. Hiker clothes can be boiled, bleached or given radiation treatment, but they will never be worn again without eliciting cries of protest from anyone unfortunate enough to get stuck in a small space with you. It was time to feel the comfort of street clothes for the first time since March.

Between a Marshalls and a local discount store I found myself a clean, if not trendy, set of clothes for my journey back to the “real world.” For the first time in months I was a bit nervous about leaving my pack outside and unguarded, but there was nothing to be done. I stuffed my wallet, phone and insulin into my jacket pocket knowing my safety no longer depended on being prepared for the next thunder storm or cold spell.

The increased stares and shuffling of children out of my path reminded me I was no longer in a hiker town, but I had gotten used to this 1,000 miles ago. I quickly learned that the only way to survive was to walk through every door as if you owned the place. Sometimes, after a particularly challenging stretch of trail, it almost felt like you did.

The afternoon went quickly as I had the strongest cell service since Connecticut and started down a long list of phone calls and texts. It had only been a week since I was joking with other hikers in Monson about my 360 unheard voicemails and 42,000 unread emails. “That’s a problem for future Kevin,” I had slipped, accidentally spilling my real name into the conversation. Then, suddenly, I was in an airport motel in Bangor realizing: Crap. I am future Kevin.

I considered ordering a pizza or finding a restaurant, but my appetite still insisted on quantity over quality. I had covered 47 miles in my last two days of hiking to the base of Katahdin, the last 25 in roughly 8 hours, so it would be quite a while before my hiker hunger subsided. I hobbled to the nearest gas station a half mile down the highway and picked up cereal, milk, piles of granola bars and heat window hot dogs and hamburgers. This would have been unthinkable a year ago, but now it was dinner.

There was no difficulty in getting ready in time for an early flight. Even now that the sun dawdled until almost 8 a.m. each morning I was always awake early, usually a result of temperamental blood glucose levels. At 3:30 I went down to the lobby for a cup of coffee, sprayed down my pack with linen-scented Lysol and got into the airport taxi. In ten minutes I was getting out at BIA’s only terminal, but after taking three steps I realized I set my cell phone down on the seat of the shuttle and missed it in the darkness. I turned around, but the car was gone.

In six and a half months of hiking I had never come even close to losing my cell phone. Why then? It was the pace. I had been in and out of shuttles since Georgia getting to grocery stores, post offices, and hostels. A shuttle ride often involved very lengthy conversations and disembarking could be a 20 minute process. Not anymore.

Bangor may have been a city, but it was a city in Maine. I went inside to the American Airlines counter to check my pack and receive my boarding pass, finishing off by sharing my cell phone catastrophe. Not only did the airline rep allow me use of the phone, but let me take my time in calling the motel and then the number the motel provided for the shuttle. Chalk one up for Maine. If the sunset wasn’t quickly headed for 4 p.m. each night I might have declared my residency right then and there.

I did not, though, and after an hour and forty minutes in the air I landed at Reagan National. There is something disconcerting about spending more than six months hiking to Maine and then traveling more than halfway back down in less than two hours. We are all affected to varying degrees by the culture around us and when you travel on foot those cultural shifts happen very gradually.

I’ve gone from Howdy to Hello and back to Howdy again. I’ve learned where it would be considered rude to pass someone on the street without saying hello, and where it would be considered a sure sign of insanity. Now I was going from one extreme to the other, from the largest wilderness area in one of the wildest states to one of the largest metropolitans in the country.

My first few hours were surreal. As someone who experienced daily panic attacks until spending six months in the woods, I expected the worst. Instead of panic, however, I found a world in slow motion, a world that I observed but did not appear to be in.

When the seatbelt light went off all of the DC natives simultaneously went into their post-landing routine. A chorus of seatbelts clanked in unison, cell phones were turned on, calls were made, luggage retrieved and a mad dash for a cabin door that was not yet open began. One man installed a Bluetooth headset in his ear in preparation for any calls that may come and I mentally smacked myself on the back of the head for having once been him.

I moved so slowly through the airport, loitering here and there, that I constantly expected to be escorted to a special room reserved for suspected hiker-trash writer-terrorists.

I knew the luggage would not be ready, so I ignored baggage claim. I got an iced tea. I went outside. I looked at the scrolling advertisements all over the airport. I watched the scene. I finally made my way to baggage claim and picked up my pack as it rolled along the conveyer and followed the signs to the metro station. I walked down the long corridor and looked at the people-mover as if I had never seen one. When an urgent warning told “passengers” that it was ending, I’m pretty sure I giggled.

It wasn’t until I started exploring the next day that I really began to feel overwhelmed by the differences. I was staying in a condo my father had moved into only a week before and he would be out of town for a couple days. I will have to admit the culture shock cannot be entirely blamed on six months of living in the woods. I spent ten years living on both sides of the beltway, but that was a long time ago. My last five were spent in upstate New York between Syracuse and Albany, the only rural area where I had ever lived, and I had become used to a different pace. DC had changed. I had changed.

I tried to make excursions on the metro to places where I could walk around. I’m an early riser, so this usually meant I was getting onto the train during rush hour into the city, and the cars were packed shoulder to shoulder. There were probably more people in one subway car than I was used to seeing in weeks.

The streets were different as well. Rows of shiny, identical bicycles were scattered about for rent here and there, like some dystopian society. The flow of people never ended, and they were all anonymous. On my first trek out, I accidentally said hello to the first person I passed. Habit. He just looked at me peculiarly and went on, and why not? Why say hello to one person when there will be one hundred more coming up right behind them? I started to feel a bit comfortable walking around the Washington Monument and the National Mall. These walkways were sparse and filled primarily with tourists. It couldn’t last, though.

Walking in the city presented new problems that demanded immediate solutions. It felt odd to have to give myself insulin shots on a busy street. Finding a bathroom now required google maps. I had been used to being constantly on the move and having shelter only at night, but suddenly shelter sounded pretty good. Driving was stressful, and this is where I learned how to drive. The GPS on my phone just wasn’t fast enough. Too many turns too quickly. By the time the poor British woman in my phone could speak, the intersection was gone.

The stress of so many people coupled with blood glucose levels that were even more difficult to control now that I had stopped hiking left me utterly exhausted. I walked just enough to avoid a serotonin crash from such drastic change in activity. I pondered what needed to be done, but it all seemed like some curious, abstract idea. Apartments, budgets, mail, insurance, excel spreadsheets – these were not things for me. I thought about streams for water, flat ground for pitching a tent, sun to dry wet clothes. The future to me was the next town where I would be able to do my laundry and take a shower and drink something cold.

Then one night I went to a small concert venue where a folk rock singer, Jaymay, was playing. A hint of Steve Forbert in some of her songs, he said, and I was sold. I love live music and listened intently. As I sat there in a tiny bar in Clarendon, I finally remembered what is so great about cities. For so many months I have been hiking and researching and writing, putting everything I have into creating a book that shows how modern life became so complicated, and at times it feels I am at war with technology or with progress or with city life.

I am not.

Blaming technology for modern culture would be like blaming a car for a car accident. Technology is not driving, we are. The same is true for cities. No one builds a city; a city builds itself as more and more people congregate. We want to be near other people, for business, for a social life, for common interests. Some of these cities burst at the seams. Sometimes an argument can be made that our own, independent purposes have backfired. This is especially true when so many live in populous cities but don’t know their neighbors, don’t participate in any type of community, don’t live “in” the city.

I am glad to have come to this realization, but after a week in DC those old familiar signs of stress began to crawl out of the woodwork, and it was time to go. I headed to the next stop where more family and friends waited at the Delaware Shore, and when I crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge I breathed a sigh of relief. The pace was so much slower. Not Appalachian Trail slow, but pleasant enough. For several days I saw person after person in a constant state of catching up, and I never seemed to get tired.

Then one morning I was looking through some kitchen drawers for a coffee filter when I saw it: a little pad of sticky notes. I made one list. Then I made another. And another. I made new lists that were better organized than the first ones. I stuck some on the computer and some on the dashboard of the car. I drove around doing errands all day. I was productive.

So I guess that’s how I got here, staring at a bunch of post-it’s on the kitchen counter. There are six now; I made one while you weren’t looking. Is there no-in between? I cannot turn my back on the real world, nor can I embrace it. What to do?

But then I start to remember a funny day back in June when I was hiking along a lake and listening to Greek philosophy and having ideas. I remember all the wisdom that came. I remember that concrete reasoning is a curse of popular culture. There is no “real” world, only a constantly changing barrage of many worlds. One starts long before another ends, and the worlds overlap and mesh and dance around one another.

I let the notes be for now. That’s why they’re sticky – so they can’t get away. They’ll wait. I set my phone on airplane mode, take a long gaze at the sun sparkling on the bay, and begin to write.

I’m in my world now, and I know that with just the right amount of dancing (or hiking) it can connect with any world I want it to – when I want it to.

More Stories From Unlikely Hiker Trail Journal

About Kevin McCourt

Kevin McCourt is an entrepreneur, writer, and reformed geek who challenged agoraphobia and insulin-dependent diabetes by thru-hiking the entire 2200-mile Appalachian Trail in 2016. He is currently working on his first non-fiction book, a philosophical and scientific look at how modern life became so complicated and the persuasive influences that created the world we live in today. He currently lives in Ocean View, DE and wherever his tent is set up.

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