I like to talk about difficult things.
I do it here weekly: surviving depression, manic loneliness, even (briefly) losing my humanity. And yet, even I have things that are difficult—nay, impossible—to talk about. Emotions that lack words, experiences that long for understanding, memories blocked by boulders of encumbrance.
One aspect in my life dominates all of the non-talked-about things: my experience hiking the Appalachian Trail, which, though I write about it, I seldom express in a way that does it justice.
For the past few years, a couple times a week, I’ve experienced visual flashes of heavy things falling on my head. Quick images, not even scenes. There. Gone. Directly correlated to stress.
One night, in Shenandoah, I was out in a thunderstorm, and a tree fell on my tent. Missed my head by inches. The noise, the fear, the brush with death, those never go away. But I don’t think about it consciously. They are just images.
Is that the story people want to hear when they ask me about hiking the AT? I can’t possibly explain what that is like, or make you understand. Nor would I want to.
There’s a sadness in my heart, an emptiness. Homesickness, sorrow even? The part of me that misses the Trail. Misses the me who did the Trail.
How do I explain the nature of that loss and longing?
I miss the food. I’ve never loved food so much. The cold-morning, cold oatmeal, that moment of calm when I stretched and began as I meant to go on.
Food carried me, psychologically. From the Slim Jims to the Snickers and to the wheat germ I had for lunch. Dinner—ramen soaked in water—was flavored with bits of cinnamon left from the oatmeal. Meals were a break, a reflection, a nourishment of self. I miss loving and needing something that much.
People don’t want to hear about the psychological rejuvenation of Pop-Tarts. The emotion behind it makes them uncomfortable. They ask if I carried a stove. Details. Logistics. No. Sure. Does it matter?
I could read the forest. I could always tell if humans were around—humans make noises even when they aren’t making noises. I knew when it would rain. Lightly and torrential. I knew all the night noises—when to be concerned, when not. I can still feel footsteps in my chest, even in bed.
Do people want to know what the forest sounds and feels like? Will you think I’m crazy?
I had to kick a dog once. It broke my heart—I love animals with visceral passion. A pit bull came after me, and I kicked it in the face. It ran out of a house in Massachusetts, a rundown farmhouse, yard littered with sun-bleached toys and rusty parts. Protecting its kingdom.
Fear coupled with guilt turned to anger. I hated the people in that house. Beyond reason. I hated them for making me kick their dog. I can’t talk about that either without sounding vile.
As I fall asleep at night, every night for the past four years, I’ve gotten into the habit of clearing my head by remembering each night on the Trail. I was out there about 110 nights, so I have quite a few to remember. At some point, it became a game: Could I remember all of them? I probably remember seventy percent, haven’t thought of a new one since January. But when I do, when one pops into my head, a place, a scene that I forgot, it is sublime.
It’s like being back there. I wish you could see that moment of joy.
But you can’t. I’ve never carried this many secrets up such a steep, rocky path day in, day out. Never been so unable to express such a huge part of me. Never felt this much distance from people, yet closeness to myself.
But it isn’t entirely my fault. Nor is it yours when you live through something huge and traumatic, and afterwards you feel isolated and misunderstood.
Others can’t enter our remembered experiences because they literally cannot enter the experiences.
They lack an engagement paradigm. Those who haven’t hiked the Trail don’t know how to engage with me, one who has. They can’t begin to ask the kind of questions I want to answer—not that I even know them myself. This is imminently human, we process difficult things by relating them to what we know. And we’re bounded by our own experiences.
If the experience—in my case the Trail, in your case perhaps something else—is so beyond anything someone else can imagine, then what?
Then we just don’t talk about it. Don’t engage.
The hardest thing about returning to life from the Trail is the “not talking about it.” Not knowing how.
Maybe I’ll write about it someday. There are words there, maybe they sit next to sadness. American artist David Salle once said, “I have to get lost so I can invent some way out.” Maybe that is the nature of creativity, to want expression so badly but lack it so deeply that thoughts have no choice but to coalesce into art.
Until that happens, I welcome love, compassion, and patience. Things we all need when carrying experiences we cannot talk about. Come to think of it, it’s what we all need all the time, regardless.
I saw a tree fall once. No wind, no lightening. No nothing. It just decided it was done, time to shuffle off the mortal coil and surrender to gravity. Down it went. I was there for that. Me and me alone.
Perhaps in life, there is a small pocket of things best not shared until they are ready.
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