By: David Smart
It took me six months to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and three years to write a book about it.
I’d never written a book before, but the trail left me more broken than I had entered it, and I was desperate for change.
There’s an affliction that finds home in the minds and bodies of thru-hikers after leaving the trail. It’s called post-trail depression. So many of us embark into the wilderness to seek answers, only to find more questions. Trail life is often so much more different than the lives we lived before it, and integrating back into society is a long and difficult process.
After finishing the trail, I denied my feelings of brokenness for some time, and it’s only when looking back that I realize just how much I was affected.
In an effort to re-integrate, I set about on the project of writing about my hiking experience with the following questions in mind: Why did I hike the trail? What did I learn? What could I take from it moving forward?
Unlike the PCT, which has a fairly strict six-month deadline, I didn’t know how long this sojourn would take me, but I needed to answer these questions. Only then, I decided, would my life path and my decisions finally make sense.
So I embarked.
A highly self-critical inner-voice followed me throughout the entire process, but after months of pushing onward—of learning the rules of writing, the art of storytelling, and laying the groundwork for the story—I finally found myself digging deeper into the questions I had laid out before me.
Nearly three years had passed by that time, and I found myself unable to set a final deadline because I had not yet found the answers I sought.
Finally, in the summer of 2018, even though the book wasn’t finished, my body must have known the process was soon coming to an end. An intuition settled into me, and I decided that October 17, 2018 would be the book’s launch day—it was exactly three years to the day when we finished the trail in 2015.
Ultimately, as the date was approaching, I still felt dissatisfied with the answers I found for myself. Sure, I had identified many lessons learned throughout the pages of this book—some profound and others shallow—but it seemed that deeper digging only led to deeper holes. I could have spent years longer on the project and still never be satisfied. No amount of writing could provide me complete and thorough answers to my desired questions.
And yet, when the book was finished, I felt healed.
“How could this be?” I wondered.
Unknowingly, a combination of time, writing, reflection, and meditation had helped to heal me. Having re-written and read my past story well over a hundred times, I had grown so sick of it that I was more ready than ever to begin a new one.
It was then I realized, it was not an intellectual question that needed answering, but rather an emotional feeling that needed passing through.
My philosophical questions remained unanswered, but my post-trail depression was gone. During my process of writing, I discovered the beauty of brokenness. To me, feeling broken is a signpost which marks the start of a new trail—a trail that leads internally.
Healing from my hike was a long and difficult process. It was not something that happened forcefully or as the result of answering an intellectual question or coming to conclusions, but something that happened naturally, over a long period of time of continued engagement and intention.
I’ve come to see that feeling broken is both a blessing and an illusion. Healing ourselves from our perceived brokenness is not something found through intellectual pursuits—of understanding or arguing this ideology or that philosophy—but instead, in my experience, healing requires time spent alone, free from distraction, and shining light on the depths of our own mind, identifying our limiting beliefs, and uncovering our delusions. And for this journey, there is no need to hike for six months. It’s one you can begin in this very moment.
May you find love and light on every step of the way. May we all heal our wounds, and may your trail provide.
David Smart is a writer, podcaster, journeyman, and author of The Trail Provides, a thru-hiking memoir currently available for purchase on Amazon. You can read more of his work, listen to his podcast, and preview the book at thinkingwithdavid.com.