Puzzle Pieces

I was recently struck by a quote from former AT thru-hiker and author Cindy Ross. “Returning home is the most difficult part of long-distance hiking. You have grown outside the puzzle and your piece no longer fits.” This rings true to my post-hike life. This entry is as much an update as an attempt to articulate something for myself that I can’t quite pin down.

I am currently living with my parents in North Olmsted, the west Cleveland suburb where I grew up. I finished my hike with a couple hundred dollars to my name (more on that in a bit) and I’m working with a house painting company for the rest of the year to save up money. I have never felt more inept starting a new job. I certainly don’t have an innate gift for painting but I’m getting better. I bring an affable attitude, try to only need shown things once, and arrive on time (a strong currency, apparently). The days pass quickly and I get to listen to podcasts to my heart’s content. I’ve learned quite a bit about home repair and, well, painting houses. Useful knowledge for sure, and areas where I had limited prior experience. My blue collar co-workers carry a different energy than I’m accustomed to (I sometimes feel like I’m conducting a covert field study on middle-aged straight white suburban men), continuing my 2017 streak of spending time with many new-to-me types of people.

There are undeniable positives to living in my hometown for an extended period of time. I usually only visit a couple weekends a year, wherein I have to cram as much time with as many people as possible. Enough gratitude cannot be shown to my parents for welcoming me home while I get back on my feet. It’s wonderful to spend so much time with close childhood friends who live in the area, several with families of their own. This is also the most consecutive time I’ve ever spent with my three nephews. Two of them are now old enough to sustain genuine human interactions, which, if I’m being honest, is the time of childhood that starts to pique my interest (I’m not an infant/toddler person). I babysat the whole gang for the first time this weekend! There is a lot of love for me to soak up before I move next year.

When discussing massive life undertakings, be it a long hike or a relocation, you often hear people list the reasons why not to make a move; why it’s easier to stay in place, to remain in stasis. Trust me, I get it. Change rarely comes without a cost and years can slip by waiting for circumstances to perfectly align. But sometimes when life presents you with an alternate path, you need to leap regardless of how smart the decision looks on paper. Largely speaking, the timing of my hike panned out very well. I was not rooted to my city of residence and I didn’t have to plan my trip around  familial responsibilities or professional commitments. Freedom of schedule, mind, and heart are huge assets.

Financially speaking, though…yikes. Between my divorce, two cross country moves, and a year spent in the stomach-churningly expensive Bay Area, my bank account was battered to shit before I even left. I am incredibly fortunate that friends and family helped me purchase some big ticket items (backpack, sleeping bag, and tent in particular) so that I could focus the bulk of my remaining savings on the hike itself.

The personal cost for undertaking my life-changing Appalachian Trail adventure was hobbling myself financially and moving back into my childhood bedroom.  I knew there was going to be a months-long transition period before I could head back to Chicago (where I lived before moving to California for my ex husband) and resume my life in full. The people in my hometown notwithstanding, there’s a reason I moved away the week after I graduated from college. North Olmsted hasn’t felt like home for years. It is bizarre to feel so displaced in a city I know like the back of my hand. 

Life on the trail is so singular. Every step, every campsite, every bruise, every bite of granola, every bead of sweat, every everything leads to one goal: hike north to Mt. Katahdin. It’s as simple and complicated as that. The stillness of nature creates a clarity of mind where your attention can wander freely through hundreds of thoughts a day, or drill down on essential specifics. It is a rare privilege to live for so long with such utter freedom. 

Life in the regular world has far more rules and boundaries, yet somehow feels less defined. Daily motivations are harder to come by and goals are easier to let slip through the cracks. I haven’t found the focus necessary to tackle the writing goals I set for myself in the woods. 

I want to talk about the hike at all times of the day to anyone who will listen but I very much do not want to be “that guy”. I don’t want to hold people hostage viewing a slideshow (never a fun position to find oneself). There are questions I’ve been waiting to be asked, volumes of stories I still haven’t shared, but I feel too peevish bringing them up unsolicited for fear of monologuing at people while they wait with polite patience as I wipe up my drool.

I miss mountain tops. I miss camping under the stars. I miss planning no further than 3-4 days at a time, roughly the amount of food I could carry on my back. I miss going days without hearing the sound of a car. I miss constantly redefining my limits. I miss the family of weirdos and thrill seekers I made along the way. I miss so much about so many things and I’m struggling to find the best outlet to express myself.

It has been over two years since I put my career ambitions–those of an actor, a teacher,  and a new writer–on the back burner in support of my ex’s needs and I don’t know how to make them a priority again. I feel like part of my life was stolen away when I moved across the country based on a series of calculated deceptions. Feeling sorry for myself is just as useless as focusing on blame. I know it’s my responsibility and no one else’s to get my life back on track and I don’t want to waste my time in North Olmsted waiting for the financial freedom to make it happen.

I left the Appalachian Trail with an entire new toolbox of life skills, one of which is being kind and patient with myself when I’m struggling. This mentality kept me going during many a rainy day. I need to accept that it will take time to learn how to use these tools in a completely different context. I grew in monumental ways outside the puzzle, as Cindy Ross put it. Rediscovering my voice as a human and artist within standard societal conventions (including the need to earn money) appears to my new Katahdin.

Maybe my next step needs to be admitting that this transition is harder than I was hoping it would be, and allowing that to be okay. 


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