There was one thing on the hike that I could never bring myself to talk about with other hikers, but unbeknownst to them, they, and the trail, were helping me through the most difficult thing I’ve had to deal with in my life so far. A year and a half before leaving for the trail, I lost someone very close to me and before leaving for the hike I felt like I hadn’t dealt with it yet.
In the summer of 2008, I met a guy (ironically) named Trail. We hit it off right away and dated for 2 ½ years. When our relationship ended, we remained close friends and he was still a huge part of my life- it never felt like our story was over yet. In the summer of 2012, Trail wrote to me and said he wanted to give our relationship another try. I was in Germany at the time and only had a couple days at home in Michigan before going back to Ohio for school. I was definitely open to the idea- my feelings for him really hadn’t changed either. But at the time I had a difficult course load and I let myself think I was just too busy at the time. I told him when the semester was over and I was done with finals we could come back to the possibility. Two weeks before the end of the semester, on December 2, 2012, Trail lost his life in a car accident.
It felt like my life had shattered. We had kept our relationship mostly between us and that made me feel like I was dealing with the loss alone. I had met a few of his friends before and my friends knew about him but I had no one to grieve with. My friends were amazing though- they sat with me in my horse’s stall while I cried harder than I knew possible and they made it clear I was allowed to feel sad for as long as I needed to. They drove three hours with me to go to a fundraiser for Trail’s family. I will never forget their support but even so, I felt like it was something that I hadn’t fully processed. My friends always joked that I didn’t have a soul- we would watch a sad movie and I’d always be the only one not crying by the end. I’ve just always been able to separate myself from my emotions and this wasn’t totally an exception. After about two weeks of not having an appetite and crying for hours everyday, I slowly went back to normal life. There was still an empty ache in my heart but my focus was on my last semester of college and finding a job. I started working right after graduation and barely had time to think about whether or not I was hungry, let alone whether I was still depressed.
The loss of a loved one definitely changes the way you look at things. I have regrets about things I didn’t say or do and it’s taught me that regrets are not something I want to have in the future. I was so unsure about hiking the trail but I knew I would regret NOT hiking so there was really only one choice- to hike! I also felt like the trail would give me the time I needed to think and process and heal. People like to ask you why you are thru hiking and I could never bring myself to explain the full reason, but somehow being in the woods for six months with my mom, along with a bunch of strangers who became like family, carrying a 28 pound pack on my back made my loss more bearable. My mind had time to wander all it wanted and to follow my thoughts through. I could be as social or as quiet as I wanted and I never felt judged by my fellow hikers.
It took a long time, but around Vermont I remember finally feeling truly happy again. The trail showed me that life is still beautiful and filled with amazing people. I think that having to face my thoughts on a daily basis but still having to get up everyday and do what I set out to do helped me deal with this loss in a positive way. This tragedy has changed me but I’d like to think it’s changed me for the better. It has shown me what really matters in life and it has made me a more open person. It no longer makes sense to sit back and wait for something to happen to you, or to keep your mouth shut when you care about someone. I still miss my friend everyday but I am thankful to the trail and to my trail family for being a part of this healing process.
There is a poem by Ernest Hemmingway that I think is fitting for the circumstances that brought me to the trail.
“If there’s empty spaces in your heart,
They’ll make you think it’s wrong,
Like having empty spaces,
Means you can never be strong.
But I’ve learnt that all these spaces,
Means there’s room enough to grow,
And the people that once filled them,
Were always meant to be let go.
And all these empty spaces,
Create a strange sort of pull,
That attract so many people,
You wouldn’t meet if they were full.”
There were a lot of things that had to go wrong in my life to lead me to the trail, but it ultimately led me to some of the greatest experiences of my life. The trail has given me a quiet acceptance of the things that have happened and taught me to trust that things will work out the way they are meant to. The trail gave me the time to realize that I can’t change the things that have happened but I do have control over how these things change me.