Immediately following my through hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, I found myself lost in a sea of fragmented pieces that used to be my life. The PCT had consumed my life for the better part of a year. Having achieved that goal, I realized that I didn’t have the first clue what I wanted to do next. I had tried to think about it during the hike, but the trail was demanding, it required all my focus to keep going every day. I didn’t have any leftover energy to contemplate my cosmic place in the universe, or even really what I wanted to be doing six months from finishing the trail.
Not only that, but the trail had changed me in ways that made going back to my old life impossible. Though there is not much skill involved in hiking, it requires a high degree of focus to put one foot in front of the other, moment after moment, day after day. You eat, you sleep, you rinse and repeat. More than anything else, through hiking is a mental challenge, one that drains you, causes you incredible amounts of pain and suffering, and, undeniably, creates the most beautiful sense of connection to and presence in the world. You the unity between your self, body and spirit, and the nature and humanity around you in a way that I believe is natural, the way we were intended to live. (I understand how ‘woo woo’ that sounds, but feel free to ignore my hippie ramblings if that kind of thing doesn’t do it for you.) I couldn’t contemplate returning to a typical job, to paying bills, to going grocery shopping once a week, and living in an apartment in the city where I would be isolated from the community I had grown to love and thrust into the chaos that comes along with the modern, overpopulated, consumerist, neo-liberal landscape.
I had also picked up a boyfriend along the way who I knew would be remaining a fixture in my life; separating was not an option for us. He had his own goals and desires for life, and part of getting off trail for us was figuring out how to align our long term plans. However, doing so was a lot less hassle than many people (on and off trail) assumed. We are remarkably compatible in many ways and the alignment of our values was just one.
We originally planned to stay in Washington for a couple more months, but after being on the move for 5 months for me (for him it was more like several years) sitting in one spot made us feel stagnant, confused, and frustrated. Neither of us was having luck finding work we were excited about, but John had worked as a long haul trucker in the past, and he knew his former company would hire him back in a heartbeat. It was something that he knew he would like, and a new adventure I was willing to try. So, after spending a couple weeks on the West Coast, visiting friends and spending Thanksgiving with my family in Washington, we packed up my Subaru with everything I owned and headed East to Indiana. For John, he was returning to familiar territory, to a life he was in control of. For me it was the exact opposite.
Up until the PCT, I had lived my entire life in Washington state, my whole family was there, everything I knew. I had done some travelling, and I was highly independent. While the idea of moving across the country was intimidating, I trusted John and some primordial part of me knew that as long as we were together things would work out. In my head, I had two options: returning to life as I knew it, or throwing out everything I had known and starting fresh. With everything I had experienced on my hike and my new resolutions about the terms by which I wanted to live my life, taking a plunge into the unknown was the only tolerable route.
With the whirlwind of road tripping North to Washington state from the Mexican border, then East to Indiana where John’s trucking company was based, I didn’t have much time to reflect, to think about what I wanted to do, what my new goal was, where I wanted to go from there. Once we got into the truck, things changed quickly. Suddenly I had nothing but time to think. Think about where I was, what I was doing, and most importantly why I was doing it. At my core I knew that I was doing the right thing, that I was where I needed to be, that at some point this fog I found myself lost in would lift and I would know where this new path was leading me. It felt like I was in the dark, taking steps before I saw where my foot would land, and it was scary. Worry and obsession overcame me at times, a preoccupation with all the ways I might be horribly messing up my life. It was the same song and dance I’ve lived a million times: what college should I pick, what do I want to study, what do I want to do after college, is this career for me, should I hike the PCT? I’m a firm believer in weighing your options and the ramifications of your choices. But, and this is a big “but”, obsessing has never gotten me anywhere. Time and again I had to remind myself, you have to move forward in order to see what will happen next.
Living in a truck took some adjustment, but it was an easier transition than some other lifestyles might have been. We were at least on the move, like when we were on trail. With just the two of us, I could mostly forget about the noisy chaos that comes along with society. Riding with John felt just like hiking, we would sit in silence, like we walked in silence, or talk about this or that. We were by each other’s side; we were doing it together. Plus we had a warm, dry place to sleep every night and a fridge, huge bonus. I was doing some freelance editing work online, which kept me somewhat occupied, and I was learning a lot about the trucking industry.
For the most part, trucking keeps us on interstates or in industrial park areas of cities, so I wouldn’t really call it “travel.” The amount of concrete, the smelly exhaust fumes, and the depressed, angry, or just plain checked out faces at truck stops and travel centers, could be overwhelming at times. I found the mere existence of the trucking industry to be frustrating (throwing back to my earlier statement about consumerism and neoliberalism). As John pointed out to me time and again, the waste involved in hauling freight from one side of the country to another is abundant, but people need there stuff, and trucking is the solution we have developed to solve that problem. To me, all these things were symptomatic of society as a whole, a general malaise and disconnection that I was seeing everywhere post-trail, not just surrounding the trucking industry. They were things that had always existed, but that I couldn’t quite put my finger on before I experienced a more profound connection with the earth and the humanity around me, an awareness of how life could be lived as opposed to how we do live. In trucking, these tendencies of our culture are thrown into sharp relief, and I will continue to characterize this phenomenon in future blog posts.
On the other hand, we were independent in a way we couldn’t have been if we were working a 9 to 5, or if we were paying rent. That freedom is something impossible to trade away after living in the woods, free of external responsibilities. Despite its flaws, trucking seemed to be the right thing to be doing. We spent a quiet Christmas at John’s tiny house in North Carolina, my first Christmas away from home, then New Years on the truck. Time slipped by with the miles we drove and soon it was 2 months since the trail had ended and I still felt lost in a void of indecision.
My plan was to find a job online that I could do from the road. As I explored the possibilities, it became more and more apparent that I didn’t want to be doing any of the sorts of jobs I could get online either. Customer service, sales representative, HR representative, nothing appealed. What I really wanted to do was write, but after some research I realized writing is not something I could just start making money doing overnight. I needed a job, and gradually I came to the most natural conclusion. I was already living in a semi truck, why not drive the damn thing?
John and I did the math on how much we could make team driving. Companies will pay more for team drivers, meaning two drivers in the same truck. Under ideal conditions, you can keep the truck moving 24 hours a day, 7 days a week which means more profit for the company. Given that each of us could work 11 hours a day, getting paid by the mile, we figured that I would be able to make a comparable amount of money to the well paid HR job I held before the trail. I would make more than enough to cover the cost of my student debt, plus enough to save up for our next adventure, with the added bonus of not paying for rent or utilities. After that realization it was an easy choice. I was going back to school, this time to be a truck driver.
It was another step in the dark, but for the first time since we had gotten off trail it felt like I was doing something with purpose and intention. I wasn’t drifting along in the wake of my boyfriend or riding a wave of post-trail depression. I was creating a route to achieving my long term goals: paying down my debt in the most stress-free way possible so I could ultimately pursue the things that really mattered to me.
Now to answer the question: what really matters to me? I’ve been asking myself that question since I graduated high school, and I have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer. Given all my experience since I was 18, however, I have to think that the sheer fact of asking, of continuing to evaluate and reevaluate my choices and actions has taken me to some pretty incredible places. Maybe it’s not a question that needs to be answered. Maybe it’s just a reference point, something to keep you pushing to take the next step in the dark. What I’ve found is that on the other end of that step there’s normally something more beautiful than I ever imagined.