Taken at the Flood: My 3 Year Hike of the Appalachian Trail (Which Took 4 Years)

appalachian trail

I have a history of walking

I’ve been known to walk:

  • into people’s conversations;
  • in and out of their hearts;
  • towards opportunities; and
  • perhaps most of all—certainly the most tiring—around and around in my own mind.

Three years ago this month, I started a walk. A pretty big one. It technically moved me 2,300 miles across America. Metaphorically it took me into a deep and dark yet strangely comforting pit, which I’m still climbing out of. 
I hiked the Appalachian Trail, and three years later I finally finished. I’m in a new place.. I’m proud of myself. Really proud.
Before we go any further, this is not a post about hiking the AT.
I have been asked to write about it, but I can’t cram the emotions I feel into words. Even now, writing about not writing about it, pressure builds in my sinuses, and something masticates my tear ducts. I can’t put the experience in words.(1)

appalachian trail
An early morning in New Hampshire. Just me and spiders.

Someone recently asked me if I’d seen Wild (2014). Correction: I get asked this all the time. I get it. People want to relate—they want to put themselves into a conversation about my experience. I know it comes from a place of kindness but it is frustrating. Like hearing, “Hey, you did this amazing thing. I have nothing to say about that, so instead I’m going to reference this movie I saw.”

Don’t ask me if I saw/read Wild. Don’t tell me to either. I know enough to know that it was not the experience I had, and frankly, there are many other experiences I’d rather read about.

After the most recent Wild inquiry I just said, “Someone in front of me was watching it on the airplane, and I saw parts of it. She found herself. That was the opposite of my experience. I hiked the Trail and lost myself. Unraveled like a sweater. I’m slowly reknitting the fabric of myself line by line.”

It felt true as soon as I said it.

A year ago, I wrote a post, Still so far to go…, about post-Trail depression, how coping with life was devastating because it was like coming down from a high, leaving a home, a departure from all I was used to. It was about leaving, being without—despite my amazing accomplishment, I felt failure and emptiness.

appalachian trail
The only selfie I took, somewhere in Virginia. I had 100 miles to go, I could already feel the onset of sadness and confusion about finishing.

A year after this post, and three years after I started the Appalachian Trail, it’s different. I don’t feel like I lost something. I feel like I’ve been awakened to something I never knew existed. I feel empowered. I awakened to my deep, deep self and to my deep self’s needs.

appalachian trail
Katahdin, Maine, the steepest vertical assent. You have to crawl with your hands.

Two major changes happened in my life because of the Appalachian Trail and its aftermath:

1.      I changed my profession to something not predicated on accomplishment, achievement, or casual updates to people I don’t know. I write. Yes – I write. I love the process, the craft. I could write in a vacuum, with no audience; I’d be eternally happy. I just do it for the love of it.
Sure, I’d love to be good, and I work very hard at it. But even if I’m not good and never will be published— I love the craft. The words.
2.      I now accept my long-existing mental illness as a mental illness, something to cope with and treat. Not something to outrun, outfox, or outdo.
These decisions have many implications, none of them easy or fast. When you’ve been doing certain things the same way for a generation, they are hard to change. It takes admitting that you were wrong—a fragility I couldn’t handle.
Like so many highly ambitious and over-achieving individuals, I tied my self-esteem and self-worth to my professional self. “Ellen” was what I did, not who I was. A precarious coupling that leads to anxiety and no self-esteem foundation.
A bigger challenge, but one that was buried deeper and got less attention, is the mental illness I’ve suffered from since college, possibly earlier. I have a form of bipolar II that was undiagnosed. When I was a child, mental illness was generally associated with a lack of character and an expression of weakness. By adulthood, no one despised mental illness more than I did. I despised it in myself most of all.
In my early 30s, I was falling apart and prime for an intervention. The Trail was that. A hallelujah chorus raising me to my feet under a streaming light, arms lifted to something better.   

appalachian trail
Little Bald Mountain, North Carolina.

For four months I walked. I was too tired to think about anything except water, food, darkness, and rain. My anxieties were different, simple.

Then it ended, and my thought patterns returned. It doesn’t happen like it does in Wild. Four months of hiking don’t change a personality.
But an intervention – and time—do. As I found out, and as I write emphatically today in this post.
My life changed slowly. I can’t walk you through how I slipped into writing, or how I got into treatment and learned coping mechanisms for my illness. I could, but not here. Bit by bit. With courage. Determination. A lot of help from people I love and who love me.

I take my profession and my mental health seriously. I have to.

You should, too. I hope you do, in whatever way you need to.

Hiking the Trail, and living through the aftermath, confronting myself, is the most important thing that has ever happened to me. I’m proud to say I finished. I finished the journey I began three years ago. I never stopped walking.

Life isn’t about what we do or what happens to us. It’s about what we make of the things that happen to us.

Turn experiences into something useful. Take them at the flood.(2)

And never stop walking.

appalachian trail
Saddleback Mountain, Maine. 


Story Break

(1) I find it difficult to write about, true, but I added some photos which I think capture the big and small of the experience.
(2) “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.” William Shakespeare

  • Sometimes I know illness from true self, other times the distinction seems like a lie. Sadly, I’ve never been able to construct a mental self-architecture that could fully withstand ignorant patronizing or profound and (at least apparently) physical setbacks. They often entice me to jump down the rabbit hole.

    I start thinking about that—how to think happier and more resilient—because the moving parts look mathematical. Further down the hole, the picture always drowns and I reacquaint with a familiar fog. I remember that unconscious, unexpected, unexplainable things often matter much more than what I know. That friends and nature and exercise deliver fulfilling moments more reliably than anything else. That I never felt more heard than by a friend that had no feedback.

    But… I’ve also been known to experience a serene beauty, welled up with tears full of sunlight, sitting in my little Corolla, waiting for a train to pass, listening to Tupac going on about money and bitches and gansta parties. In those moments, I can’t help feeling like a stranger in my own existence.

    Anyway, it sounds like you’re figuring out a framework that’s flexible and smart enough to withstand the reality *and* the mystery, not to fall apart the way mine does. From where I stand, it’s a promising achievement so far, and you should be proud, or grateful, if you prefer.

    • Adam, your first line says it all. It is incredibly hard to separate the two, and to me, not knowing myself is the hardest part. Not being able to control myself is the second. I don’t by any means have it figured out, and will possibly never know what is self and what is illness. I think I can now better weather the periods of doubt and despair though…but that is only true as long as it’s true, you know? I agree about the serene beauty, what a lovely way to say it and so true. It just hits, happiness. And when it does, it is sublime. Thank you for your very thoughtful and heartfelt comment. Don’t forget your complexity and depth, and how rare and wonderful that can be. xoxo

  • I don’t know if my 2 year experience in the field of writing counts as anything, but i’d like to tell you this.
    Your tales and pieces give me pleasure ,immense joy and satisfaction.
    It doesn’t matter whether the reader is a child or an aged person, your words ring a bell in people’s minds.
    Something that happens rarely, at least in my case.

    • It counts as everything. It’s why I write, to connect and show people the small distance between us. Well that and I love words and characters. Thank you Parthiva, your comment means a great deal to me.

  • Hi Ellen,
    I hope you would have been doing great.
    I read the above post and it was getting better as I read it. The way you crafted your thoughts and expression into words, I totally loved. It’s good to read such expressive language.
    Keep writing and sharing 🙂

    • Hi Shashi, doing very well, love writing. Yourself? Thank you for your comment, I’m so pleased you liked it. I worked on it for a while, realizing it, then the writing was easy. 🙂

  • Aditya Jahagirdar

    “My anxieties were different, simple.” Probably the best thing I’ve read in a week.

    A resplendent read!

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