Words & Photos by Robin “Little Spoon” Standish
I stood at the Northern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail, amid the acrid haze of the wildfires that had filled my lungs for the better part of a month. My dirt stained fingertips hesitantly touched the cold, coarse granite monument that gave my Triple Crown a sense of finality after three years of life on the trail(s). While the moment was both powerful and precious, I felt suffocated by the question of what now?
Musings from the end of the trail(s).
It had first reverberated in my head but now coursed throughout my body, gripping my heart in the form of a rattling anxiety. Dusk settled in around me and cast a murky orange hue that lay suspended in the thick, heavy, air. I tried to draw an invisible line under my accomplishment. To see it as the success that it was supposed to be, but all the glory I’d imagined for this moment was no match for the clawing tendrils of reality that reached out for me. I thought back to my first day on the Continental Divide Trail and the infinite miles that were mine for the taking. Time. I had so much time.
I stepped away from the rusty, mangled barbed wire that separated countries and effortlessly slid back into my world feeling the external clutter melt away in the heat of the mid-morning sun. I followed the faint footpath, cow trails, and occasional markers across the Chihuahuan desert. The sand slipped from under my feet like the imaginary hourglass that quietly emptied in the back of my head. The trail offered no benevolence, constantly tossing me back and forth between pleasure and pain, serenity and insanity.
I learned thousands of miles ago that it was easier to surrender to the will of the trail. Though she always had the last laugh I couldn’t help but laugh along with her gracelessly, manically all the while deeply sun burnt and questioning my intentions in this desolate place. Hikers often speak of freedom, liberation, and the community, but beyond that is something stronger, darker, and more mysterious – an enchantment of the heart, which is not so easy to articulate.
I had found a home in a place that belonged to no one: along the contours of the dusty trail, beneath the blue light of dusk, in cow pastures, burnt forests, and on stormy ridge lines.
I slept to the delicate hum of insects and was unperturbed by nocturnal hunters for I felt just as wild as them. I rose with the sun and walked to the rhythm of my beating heart, untangling the misconception that comfort and happiness were one in the same. Belonging had been found by leaving everything behind, rejecting the confines of fear and step by step easing the spirit by traveling into the unknown. This was life in perpetual motion with no intentions of conquest or laying claim but only to wander farther and deeper into the possibilities of self, and to understand the world with a more expansive view.
As Canada drew closer, the wildfires that consumed the Pacific Northwest exploded, the trail began to close and reroute almost hourly. The information was convoluted and had often changed by the time we heard it. I felt like a refugee, my home slipping out from under me leaving me scrambling for something to hold onto. Myself and many other hikers waited in a town that waited for evacuation orders creating an air of tense uncertainty. It felt apocalyptic, a gray veil draped delicately over the trees, the streets, and our shoulders. Ash and embers swirled down from the dark sky and sirens echoed into the once peaceful woods. We were all waiting for some kind of direction but as with much of the CDT this was just another time to choose our own adventure
I found solace and defeat in the shower of a grimy hotel room. With water as hot as I could stand it and my forehead resting against the plastic wall I tried to will coherent thoughts through a cloud of smog and too much beer. I watched blood drip from my nose into the steaming puddles around my feet, splattering finely against my ankles. Water beaded and rolled off the sticky layers of oil, dirt, and sweat that I wore proudly in towns as if to say: I am not one of you. No matter how hard I scrubbed my skin, it remained stained by my environment, absorbed into me no less then I was in it. Despite the clutter of thoughts that hammered at me, my internal compass remained unwavering in its direction that my feet would follow.
It wasn’t that I wanted to walk a shoulder-less highway for two hundred miles, or that I enjoyed the consequences of filling myself with toxins, and above all I realized that it wasn’t about the Triple Crown either. It probably never was. The words had only provided me a distant obscure goal, a palpable, clean, excuse to explain why I had to keep coming back. But there is a truth for which there are no words, that is woven into the contrails of morning or glissades by on a windy afternoon, piece by piece infiltrating the heart, the soul, and the bones and that is what draws me back and makes me stay. Things just make sense. For the last several weeks I had reassured myself that the end was not as close at it felt. Don’t worry I thought there are still 500 miles left. 400 miles left. 300. 200. Then desperately I just need more time.
As unappealing as my options for making it to Canada were, the alternate was even less so. There would be no satisfaction in returning to my other reality any sooner than necessary.
With the pavement hot under my feet, I left the woods and took to the highway. Drivers turned their heads in bewildered amusement and newspaper writers stopped to ask questions. Others slowed down just long enough to ask if I needed a ride or water before leaving me in plumes of dust, smoke, and exhaust, though it was hard to tell the difference anymore. This was the CDT getting the last laugh and while my feet turned raw and knees numb I laughed too if from nothing more than delirium.
The developed land was too vast to be quantified, and the endless ribbon of pavement made my head spin with boredom. I marveled at how two worlds, so completely different could be in such close proximity yet unaware of each other. It was my hope that by the end of the third trail I would have figured out how to make them harmoniously coexist in my life, yet I had reached no such conclusion. Over the last 8,000 miles I had come to understand that the trouble with thru hiking is that what was once a means to escape the ordinary had effectively become my ordinary and the line between was increasingly blurred by the time spent. I had never felt so far away from creating that delicate, precarious balance between the life I loved and the one that I was expected to return to and exist in. The conflicting desires and identities hung over me often, though always the heaviest towards the end of a trail.
In the evening when the road became still I listened for water, a commodity now that I no longer had maps to tell me where the next source would be. I stumbled down a cut bank and found a shallow creek outlined by drooping fireweed, animal tracks and crusty cow patties. Relaxing into the dirt, I sank my swollen, hot feet into cool liquid and waited for my dinner water to boil, feeling utterly content. I admired the long white scars carved into my calves by the wicked thorns of the Ceanothus bushes and Cat Claws and touched the notches scooped out around my ankles and knees from crossing talus fields covered in snow.
My toes slid over the bony lump on my left foot where I had broken it on the Appalachian Trail and convinced myself that if I wore shoes a size to small it would mimic a cast so I could continue walking. My body had become a collage of memories and experiences etched into my skin. It was a constant reminder of the places that had so drastically helped shape my perspectives and clear away the smokescreen of the material world that had lost its grip on me.
The trails have taken me in many unexpected directions but when I look back at the big picture I see a spider web of perfect connections, somehow always ending up right where I needed to be, with some lesson learned though likely lost on me in the moment.
When I felt fast and strong I would be confronted by raging stream crossings or by miles of sun cups that deeply pockmarked the snowy landscape on the Pacific Crest Trail. When I was weak and tired the next water source would be discouragingly far away. And when disheartened I would climb up to a pass and gaze out into the vast rows of canyons and frozen mountain peaks whose reflections wavered in the high alpine lakes and be lost in a stunning moment of bliss.
There was part of me that thought that it was the trails that made me so resilient and strong, independent and bold, compassionate and patient, beautiful and humble. I had created a correlation between my self-worth and the trail and perhaps that is why I always feel an overwhelming need to return: because those dusty, meandering, foot paths somehow make me feel like I’m better person out there, than in civilization.
But as I sat in my filth shoveling ramen and cheese greedily down my throat, I realized that all of those attributes had always been inherent in me and that the trail had only helped me realize it for myself. I had to quit believing that walking thousands of miles would be my only source of happiness though it will likely be the one that always pulls the hardest. That’s the thing about wilderness travel, it always leaves me longing for the next ridge, longing to be swallowed by the impenetrable silence of the desert just before sunrise, and longing to flip the hourglass and slip back into the unknown trusting that it will take me to exactly where I need to go.
Our friend Robin Standish is nothing if not committed. Her dedication to life on the trail takes many forms: stacked up thru hikes, beautiful photographs of wild places and in this case, a well-thought-out, soulful investigation of the sidecar realities that going ultralight carries—out there, in actual practice. Give her a follow on Instagram (@walking_thru) to see what she gets into next.