Off trail

Tenacious Bling and I spent yesterday off-trail together. We hung out at Pinkham Notch, before driving into Gorham; while Toesalad, Padawan, Otter, and Hot Pepper hiked north over the multiple peaks of Wildcat and Carter Mountain.

It was a completely relaxing day for the two of us. Chatting with thru-hiker friends at the Notch, taking a few into town, hanging out at the library (free wifi with a better atmosphere than McDonalds - which also has free wifi), eating ice cream, and finally going swimming at the local pond.

The day was a rare gem in our push-for-the-miles hiking schedule. In the late afternoon as the sun illuminated the first crimson leaves, sirens of fall, I swallowed a morsel of regret that more of our summer wasn't like this. Swimming and sunshine. Cool libraries and afternoon ice cream.

I can't speak for other people's thru-hike experiences and I don't know what it's like for other hiking families, but for me thru-hiking is hard, hard work. It's a daily grind. I assume for thru-hikers who are dissatisfied with off-trail life the daily grind of trail life is more appealing than the one at home, but I can't say the same is true for me.

I also think that there are many ways to hike the trail and some probably bring more joy, and restful days, than others.

The trail broke me, emotionally, mentally, and finally physically. Never before have I felt as broken as I did while hiking the Appalachian Trail, and this was before my injury.

photo credit: Brienne Tougas

I didn't hike the Appalachian Trail to be broken. I hiked it to be strong. Instead, once the honeymoon period ended, I mostly felt weak and overwhelmed, irritable and out-of-control (which largely explains my irritability).

I am not the poster child for thru-hiker happiness. I've met a few of those on the trail and am thankful to call them my friends (and my son) but it still puzzles me how some people find real peace from an experience that caused me deep inner conflict and at times depression.

The irony is that I grieve being done. I grieve this final brokenness that takes me off trail and away from my family. I grieve the memories we will not share - the Whites, the infamous Mahoosuc Notch, the Bigelows, the 100 Mile Wilderness.

I grieve that while I sit here in this clean and and kindly hostel with fresh sheets and hot breakfast, my family is pitching tents for the hundredth time, scrubbing dirty feet in cold creek water, falling asleep exhausted to get up at 6am and do it all again.

I don't miss twelve hour days on the trail. I miss my family. I miss the beauty you experience only when you're "out there". I miss identifying as a thru-hiker, even a reluctant and at times ornery and depressed one.

photo credit: Brienne Tougas

Even with my grief I am stronger emotionally than I have been for a long time. I'm finally on solid-ish ground instead of the constant shifting reality of long distance hiking. I'm rested, and no longer ravenous. I have control over my days and I'm not so physically taxed.

Even so, I can't help but feel sad that I'm not hiking these miles with my family. It's a mixed bag of emotions these days.

« Not how it was supposed to end
This year especially so »
  • Jeannie

    Jeannie on Aug. 29, 2014, 1:46 a.m.

    I continue to lift up you and your family in my prayers. I can't wait to see how God uses your experiences for His Glory. Blessings for you all as this part of your journey wraps up!


  • shelli

    shelli on Aug. 29, 2014, 2 a.m.

    Renee, you are in my thoughts. As someone who has no desire to hike the whole trail at once, I can completely understand why it would be taxing for you. As someone who loves hiking with my family, I can completely understand how you must be missing them. But you are doing what you must do. What is best for you. And they are too. No worthy experience comes without its trials. I have always admired you for your honesty and willingness to embrace all your feelings, the good and bad. 


  • Jill Foley

    Jill Foley on Aug. 29, 2014, 5:25 a.m.

    I can feel your pain and mixed emotions in your words...praying for you right now, friend. May God heal you physically and emotionally. 


    P.S. LOVE your willingness to be totally transparent and honest


  • Emily Crofts

    Emily Crofts on Aug. 29, 2014, 1:49 p.m.

    Renee, you have been in my thoughts and in my heart so very much. Thank you for all that you have shared here and in the past-- the raw honesty, the disappointment, the heart ache, as well as the joys, the profound personal growth, and the insight about yourself you've gained through this whole amazing experience of your life (at home and on the trail.). You have gained wisdom and strength through it all, even though to you it may be hard, at times, to see it.

    So glad you were able to share that mother-daughter time together. Those memories are so precious.

    Sending my love, prayers, and support, my friend. xo


  • Sandi Meyerhoff

    Sandi Meyerhoff on Aug. 29, 2014, 6:42 p.m.

    I can only imagine the pull emotionally. I must say that your honesty about it all is brave. Your being true to yourself in this and that takes guts. We are all wired and built differently and there is beauty in that. I just wanted to pop in and say...Well done! You gave it your best and that is enough. I must admit I am looking forward to your writing again :)

    So much has changed in my world over the last months. I look forward to hearing  your voice again and the community in the comments.


  • Sarah M

    Sarah M on Aug. 30, 2014, 2:14 a.m.

    I've been thinking about you (and praying when I do) and wondering how you've been doing off-trail. When you wrote on instagram your mom 'took your place' with Damien, and you sort of became support staff, I thought, what a great way to make lemonade. I will selfishly say I have missed your writing and this space and am glad you're back here and writing, but I am so sorry you can't experience the last leg of the trail with your family, hiking next to them. I'll be thinking about you (and then praying when I do), still, until you're all back in your new place in Quebec.

    Sarah M


  • Margo Burke (PrayerWalker)

    Margo Burke (PrayerWalker) on Sept. 1, 2014, 12:28 p.m.

    Renee, I am a subscriber to your video series and eagerly await each episode. After I watched your August report from Pennsylvania, I did a search on facebook and with much surprise found your blog. I'm sitting here now with tears in my eyes having read this post. I experienced depression too after having to end what I hoped would be a thru-hike of the AT last year. I suffered a possible partial tear of the plantar fascia on my right foot in May of 2013 and had to rest it for 10 weeks. My injury came much earlier than yours and took me off the trail at Dennis Cove Road (mile 417) about 50 miles South of Damascus, VA. Yes, it is a grieving process. It was the death of a dream for me. I expect some of the depression came as a result of my brain not receiving the endorphins it had become accustomed to daily from all the walking. It was an abrupt cessation of those "feel good" endorphins and it took many weeks for my brain to adjust to the withdrawal. You are a strong and honest woman and courageous too. I look forward to seeing your summit picture on Katahdin with your family. I am returning to the AT tomorrow to continue North from Dennis Cove Rd. I hope to make it through Virginia and possibly Harper's Ferry. This time around there are no deadlines for me and the days will not have to be grueling. I will miss the company of other thru-hikers (the family so-to-speak). I pray every day for all those hiking the AT so you have been in my prayers and I will continue to pray for you as I walk. "When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who instead of giving advice, solutions or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the powerlessness, that is a friend who cares." The Road to Daybreak - A Spiritual Journey


    • renee

      renee on Sept. 1, 2014, 4:41 p.m.

      Margo, I'm thrilled you are headed back to the trail. I remember Dennis Cove Road fondly. I wrote a post about that area. 

      If there is one thing I could change about our hike it would be to remove deadlines, because of those our hike has been grueling many times (for me at least, Damien manages those better than I do). But there wasn't any other way for us to do, at this point in our lives, financially or logistically (because we're Cdns and there are issues with being out-of-province/in-another-country for more than 6 months). Our deadline is what it is but it significantly affected the experience for me, and I guess our whole family. 

      Having said that, because of our deadline (and the miles we were doing each day) we hooked up with YWAM in PA and they have remained friends (trail family) the entire way since. We plan our routes and weeks together, we zero together, we hike together. The second half of our hike has been full of laughter, close friendship, encouragement, support, and helping each other. 

      So, I can't say I'd do it differently because we'd have lost this friendship, which has become so meaningful to us. But that's the way life goes. 

      Thank you for your prayers. I am following your blog. 




You can subscribe to comments on this article using this form.

If you have already commented on this article, you do not need to do this, as you were automatically subscribed.