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A Thru Hike Ruins You

Words & Photos from Sydney Hosford

Every time I pull out my 2400 Windrider to head out on another adventure, I’m reminded how once you start, you can’t go back. They assured me, to walk for hours, days, and months on end does nothing short of tear up your gear, deteriorate your body, and mercilessly break your heart. Those who trudged the steps I was about to take were confident a thru hike would ruin me.

Pretty immediately, I realized some truth to what they said. Stripped of the things that gave me comfort back home, the trail removed all senses of normalcy, throwing me into a remarkably defenseless and vulnerable state. Yet, as I trekked onward, both naked and afraid, it became clear that walking on trail was like walking into a world where cloths from my eyes and gloves from my hands were removed. Barriers I didn’t know were previously dulling my experience were now gone. I could see things clearly in a way I hadn’t before. Be it anger, fear, or joy; the emotions were so monstrous they brought me to my knees with nothing left to do but dissolve at their intensity. My friend would frequently muse, “In the ten years I’ve known you, I never knew you to cry this much.” I often felt inept at dealing with these emotions, that I would just melt. From mindless, muddled motions to crisp deliberation, my daily objectives were shifting from pointless considerations to the essence of human life.  

Certainly, the trail re-centers you. It grounds you, focusing you on a single dirt path that, while volatile, is inexplicably REAL. One so strong and compelling that anything with real purpose grows before you in rainbow hues while everything else, suddenly aware of its irrelevance, fades away. In what I thought was ill-preparedness without the familiar armor I would use to get through my daily struggles back home, I utterly folded to the iridescently bright tones. But perhaps surrendering to their honesty was exactly the raw colors I needed all along. 

My return to society was not unlike going from a quiet evening stroll to boarding an overpacked bus. Once again, clothed and gloved, I was overloaded with stimulation that was impossible to sort through without my bare hands and unobstructed eyes. Overloaded with endless noise and meaningless sensation, I was reminded just how challenging it is to decipher what one wants and needs when an endless amount of options varying in shades of gray lay before you. I’d grown accustomed to following that single path that led me exactly where I needed to go. Once again, I had to learn to navigate the many turns twisting around me, frequently mere mirages of paths that often led nowhere worthwhile at all.  

In short, to what should not have been a surprise, the transition post-trail was more difficult than I would have imagined. I’d always believed myself to blend in seemingly well with the hustle and bustle of the busy world. However, attempting to come back into what was now a foreign land, I was a stranger unfamiliar with the daily exchanges and unconvinced by the material thrills. Like walking beyond the boundaries of an invisible bubble, I thought I could easily absorb myself back in. But just like an imposter, the system no longer recognized me, and unsurprisingly, I had changed. Upon my return from Canada, I was malnourished from hiking twelve hours every day for five months, constantly asking for more support of my muscles than I ever gave in return.  

Believe it or not, though, when I came home, I didn’t WANT to eat. I cut my daily 5,000 calories by more than HALF, not only because I simply didn’t need it any longer, but my body was hungry for rest. For months, I’d force-fed myself before I’d even need the intake, knowing that by the time I did, I’d already been too weak. I wanted to remember what it was like to await a well-deserved meal. But despite how tasty a home-cooked dinner over a celebration with friends looked, and despite how ravaged I might have looked and seemed, halfway through, I’d get full. My body was used to short bursts of energy that I immediately put to use. Not only that, but for months I’d gone without meat, vegetables, and fruit instead, ingesting fatty, processed gas-station snacks that to eat on end would make anyone diabetic. Long ago, my body stopped asking for balanced food, giving up hope of ever again sitting down for a substantial meal.  

In my first week home, I couldn’t leave my bed for longer than a shower, and I couldn’t make it through the day, despite twelve-hour nights of sleep, without dozing off. For weeks, I was nauseous and dizzy, feverish, and clammy. In the most accurate of terms: I felt like shit. Any noise gave me headaches. I couldn’t make it through a car ride without Dramamine. And even just a large family gathering made me motion sick. I’d reach for an orange, eager to taste something fresh but deeply crave anything coated in icing. All my joints and the pads of my feet ACHED to the point of intense pain as if they had needles running through them. For weeks, my body throbbed from the rapid relief I’d pulled from its rugged routine. 

If this undertaking made me appreciate anything, it’s how INCREDIBLE our bodies are at adapting to the hand they’re played. Despite my sleep deprivation, the deficit of calories, the grueling and never-ending proceeding to walk onward, my body adapted. It didn’t matter if I was tired, cramping, swollen, or bleeding; my body showed up. Misery or not, I was walking 25 miles that day. But here I was, returning home, giving my body what for months it craved–food, sleep, rest–all the positive things that would theoretically make it function that much healthier.

Ironically enough, though, that’s exactly what brought my well-oiled machine to a grinding halt. And it makes sense, right? The human body is designed to maintain homeostasis. Mine had done so great a job at keeping my internal environment steady that it began to work in favor of single-handedly breaking me down.  

To my body’s demise, I flipped what became my damaging dose of normalcy on its head by removing the drug that fueled it so efficiently. I changed everything in just 48 hours. From when I slept, how I slept, how much I slept to what I ate, and when I ate, how much I ate. I went from obscene amounts of exercise and unreasonable physical demands to sitting in a bed 24/7 from exhaustion. I went from being outside with little human exposure and limited encounters with screens, noise, or large crowds to overexposure and flashing lights within the bounds of four walls. Needless to say, my endorphins, blood sugar, and the overall nervous system went haywire.  

Not only was I trying to get back to a state of health, but I was also re-acclimating to the cleanliness standards of an average human being. I remember walking into my childhood bedroom in search of something to wear. Perhaps some running shorts and a T-shirt, happy with really anything other than the same shirt I’d worn for months on end. Laughing at myself, I pulled underwear from my dresser drawers, realizing I’d forgotten that, for someone who hadn’t been living in the woods, this was a basic component of what a normal person would wear each day. I stepped back, assessing bras that weren’t stained with sweat reminiscing on days pre-trail when I went so far as to wear something with lace or a wire, let alone an undergarment at all. The predecessor of an evening out in a trail town was simply rinsing off if I even got that. I’d shamelessly walk into restaurants, having not showered for weeks, so I’d forgotten that putting on lotion, brushing one’s hair, and dabbing on perfume were things non-woods-dwelling people did.  

Peering into my closet doors, I found treasured jeans and cherished blouses I forgot I owned, smiling at them like old friends. I forgot proceeding through daily life offered so many choices. Before the trail, choices always seemed like a good thing. But after having lived without them for so long, I’d realized just how nice it was to NOT have to choose. I’d seen just how much time I spent deliberating over things that, in the end, simply didn’t matter. 

Walking through stores, I was dumbfounded by the volume of products that barely had a difference between them. Going for ice cream, I was overwhelmed by the number of flavors I could try. Often, I’d go into a day knowing exactly what I wanted, but by the end, having passed so many endless suburban strip malls, fast food chains, or even just scrolling through Facebook seeing what everyone else was doing, I was once again unsure. All the other possibilities, all the combination of things that could exist, all the choices someone else had made often led me to the misguided belief that perhaps whatever these other options were, well, maybe they could be right for me too. I was once again reminded of what it was like to drown in an overwhelming sea of gray. 

In my travels, all that really mattered was getting food, drinking water, hiking miles, sleeping even just a measly six hours a night. Those were my only priorities. But despite living such a minimalistic life, I had never felt so free. Of course, when I was frightened, I felt scared. And, of course, when I was concerned, I was worried. But these were real, tangible emotions I could tie back to a reasonable stimulus that warranted such a feeling. Upon returning home, I was reminded of the familiar gnawing, muddled mix of unsolvable emotion–anxiety. The façade of urgency to resolve something that, in the end, if left unsolved, I’d come to realize on trail the world does go on after all.  

Despite the pain, the misery, or the drudgery of what tomorrow’s climb would bring, to fully surrender to the raw, incomparable shades beyond gray–I wouldn’t change for the world. It’s almost like opening addiction’s crooked door. Yes, they assured me a thru hike, just like an alcoholic’s first sip of wine, could never be limited to just one. Confidently I assured them, “I’m different. Only one, and I’ll be good.” 

Little did I know once I scratched that initial itch, it would forever permeate my skin. As if before I’d written only in pencil, discovering there was a way to live my moments in colored ink. And while not all the colors that filled my days were the prettiest, they were real, undeniable tones bringing to life a story that without color does not speak much to beauty at all. 

You can hear it in my voice as I suppose they were right all along. How can I turn back the page to my graphite world once I’ve seen the brilliance in color? Every day my scratch still tingles; so damned as I may be, I suppose they were right all along. I’m ruined. 

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