Coming home from a thru-hike hurts. It is often masked by eating mountains of ubiquitous food, luxuriating in melt-your-skin-off hot showers, and sleeping in just because there is a bed covered in blankets. But, once that initial joy has worn off , it hurts. You have experienced something you cannot explain to others, but so desperately want to convey yourself. The ineffable struggles, triumph, and insignificance that only someone how has lived out of a backpack for months can feel places you closer to most homeless people than your family. In our society, most homeless people are viewed as crazy and you begin to wonder about yourself. You are stuck in the position of being type cast as a person by an experience you cannot reiterate.
Clouds make you cry. Birds cause you awe. Everything moves so fast. Food begins to taste beyond divine, only then to nauseate you as your stomach stretches back to normal size. People you once found comfort in now seem trivial. The practices that once caused relaxation now feel vapid. You are left re-defining everything in your life - relationships, occupations, basic choices. You're a freak, and only you know it, for no one else has changed.
Watching my child go through this has been both heart-breaking and frustrating. I can not ease his pain; no one can. The lasting effects will exist within him forever. At first he toggled wildly between extreme isolation - taking 5 mile walks during the day to sketch or "just be alone" - and extreme clinging - not wanting Jules or I out of his sight even to sleep or use the bathroom. This has slowed down now that we have been home for over a month, but he still has difficulty sleeping and struggles with fitting in with friends he once played with so happily. He does not wish to talk about the hike with anyone except Jules and I, and even then it is only in passing or as a descriptor. Quite often his reason is simple, "I don't want to be the weird kid."
I would love to claim that I have fared better, but my response was similar. Unable to explain myself to others, I retreated dramatically, cried a lot, found our meager life gluttonous, and felt unworthy of most everything around me. Jules and I bickered almost constantly about matters so trivial they could only be masking much larger emotional insecurity. Divorce was mentioned, frequently. So, The Barracuda and I play "the weird kid" together, and I try to steady the rocking boat that is our family.
We read a lot more now, if that was even possible. Our discussions of classical literature have jumped a few more octaves as The Barracuda now has so much more suffering to relate to. So much of the heroes epic, the plight of the human condition, the experience of the outcast, have now been felt first hand. We read Ozymandias and after extracting its description, The Barracuda will come at me with "Human life is so fragile. Why do we hold onto it so tightly?....It's like we go Lennie on it and never give it a chance." (Lennie is a reference to a very simple-minded character from Of Mice and Men who loves things so much he doesn't realize his own strength and crushes them with misplaced affections.) These are questions that have no answers from me. Do they have any answers anywhere? These are the reasons classical literature will remain enduring the times. Now he gets it in a way I could never teach, and he's not letting go anytime soon.
It requires a whole new level of emotional honesty from me and character education. I'll admit, as of late I'm falling a bit short. In so many ways, that is the brutally tough part of the whole lesson: we can work, and strive, and get infinitely close, but in the end we all fall short somewhere. We have never coddled our son, or sheltering him from the world in some misguided attempt at innocence. Innocence is a way of approaching the world when you know all there is; naive is being ignorant to the darkness. If there is one thing we never want it is an ignorant child. So we talk, and we read, and we forge into the unknown of where we are going.
All of this might seem remarkably bleak or at least a very distressing outlook to come home to. However this topsy-turvey life re-evaluation and personal soul searching is what any great pilgrimage requires. Religion must be worked at...If you truly take religion seriously it has to transform you. We are transcendentalists. To hike is to live our faith, not merely out-of-the-box as Thoreau did, but more in the fashion of John Muir. We wish to get our hands, lives, and souls dirty, not just play at kitchy, counter-cultural references. We wish to stretch ourselves: to grow into the uncomfortable places and to be chanted by what we find there.
"And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey of miles, a journey of one inch, very arduous, and humble and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet and learn to be at home."