Returning home is the most difficult part of long-distance hiking; You have grown outside the puzzle and your piece no longer fits. ~ Cindy Ross
I have just completed the biggest physical challenge I’ve ever attempted – walking 300 miles following the ancient Lycian Way along the coast of Turkey. I was expecting to be overwhelmed with a sense of pride and accomplishment, but instead I am out of sorts and filled with a sense of loss. What the hell? It is like the day after Christmas all over again.
When I was a kid the most melancholy hours of my year were reserved for Christmas Day afternoon. I was left with an emptiness knowing that everything I had looked forward to for a year was suddenly over.
Every year, the Friday after Thanksgiving signified the beginning to the final countdown. We would buy the tree, pull out the decorations and spend the day filling the home with Christmas. I vividly recall removing the family Christmas countdown wall calendar from the boxes, anxious for the days left to the “big day” to be publicly tracked. Each space on the calendar represented a day and there was a place to tie 2 candy canes, one for me and one for my brother. Each day we would be able to remove a piece of candy and count down one step closer to Christmas morning, the biggest day of the year.
I loved that calendar and would begin each morning running to mark myself another 24 hours closer to Santa’s arrival. By December 15th I was beside myself with excitement. By the time I was eight I was convinced that the 10 days before Christmas were actually longer than all the other days of the year, an evil plot to prolong all children’s wait for Christmas morning.
By the time Christmas Eve finally arrived I approaching complete hysteria. I recall each year pulling off the final candy to reveal no more days left, simply a night’s sleep and my dream day would be here. I always slept fitfully the night before and would sit bolt up awake with all the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning. There is a very good reason writers use this analogy for happiness as I can think of no better encapsulation of pure joy than when I would bound from bed and race to the tree. The next few precious hours after stirring awake on Christmas morning represented the peak of happiness for me each year.
By early afternoon the presents had all been unwrapped, the toys had all been played with, and the sugar rush from the chocolate and candy had worn off. It was at this moment, without fail, that I would be filled with a sadness and loss I could not explain. It was like something I had never fully appreciated or known was valuable was suddenly wrenched from my life and I was not sure how I could get it back.
How could a day I looked forward to so much each year always leave me downcast by sunset?
The Melancholy of “I’m Finished!”
Immediately after completing the Lycian Way hike in Turkey I felt like I was 10 years old again. I had just spent 30 days in the most physically demanding experience I had ever attempted – over 300 miles of walking and a cumulative ascent greater than that the height of Mount Everest. I’d become comfortable finding and setting up camp in the middle of nowhere. I’d discovered a sense of partnership with Betsy that I had never known possible. And against all my innate tendencies, I was able to let go of the rigors of planning and become comfortable not knowing where we would be sleeping each night.
All in all, I was pushing some major personal boundaries and discovering new aspects of myself in the process. I imagined taking those final steps would fill my heart and head with an overwhelming sense of personal accomplishment and delight at completing the challenge. Instead, I was smacked in the head with that familiar, yet long-forgotten feeling of loss.
Our last morning we awoke in our tent on a beach listening to the sounds of the waves a few feet away and watching the sun rise over the water. It was the perfect ending to 30 days of walking and a pure digital detox. We walked up to the highway and caught a domus (small bus) to head into the city of Antalya. As soon I sat down I was seized by the feeling that something was missing. I was disappointed at the prospect of not getting up the next day, lacing up my boots, and setting off with Betsy to see more of this amazing country by foot.
As we drove back into civilization Betsy held my hand and we talked a bit about all we had experienced during this adventure. We discussed:
- the kind lady who allowed us to pick apples in her garden and refused to accept any payment
- the color of the Mediterranean that first morning we crested the hills and it spread out before us
- the fact that our asses are probably as tight as they have ever been
- how proud we are of each other
- the perfection of our last morning, watching the sunrise and eating breakfast in the ruins of Phaselis
Despite all these thoughts and conversations, I could not shake off the sense of melancholy that had covered me like a blanket. Despite talking through all the great memories made I was mourning the loss of the adventure itself, but also the anticipation itself.
It’s the anticipation.
It is clear to me, and now to you dear reader, that I LOVE the build up to events and experiences that I believe are truly going to impact me. For months I thought about what it would be like to take my first step under the Lycian Way sign.
How I would feel when I camped inside the first set of ruins.
I had envisioned the smell of salt water as we crested the hill with the Mediterranean Sea spread out below me.
I also imagined the sense of accomplishment I would have at the end of this month long walk and knew it would be the greatest feeling I could create. But all that anticipation had built up for so long that I was not prepared for the void it would leave when the anticipation itself was gone.
In the end, the trail far exceeded all my romantic notions. The silence was complete and divine. The walking was hard but at virtually every turn I was rewarded with views and sights I have never experienced before. Sleeping amidst ancient ruins made my skin tingle to know that all around me were buildings that had been there for centuries and here I was getting the chance to fall asleep staring at the architecture. And each day we encountered amazing people who were quick with a smile and ready to help by giving us directions, food, or water.
Plus, for 30 days I was able to completely disconnect from email, Facebook, promotion of books, news, and all the various trappings of the online world. Instead of being lost in my computer I let my mind wander and create. Betsy and I would talk for hours about new ideas, our thoughts on various subjects, discuss new book ideas, or just simply marvel that we were here walking through the history of this area.
As I look back at these 30 days, of course I am overwhelmed with a sense of appreciation for each moment. The experience has changed me and many ways and it is now that I am starting to appreciate just how much. However, in those moments of true honestly, it is the sense of loss that I feel the most. The loss of the anticipation that I had for experience. The loss of solitude when I was walking and alone with my thoughts. The loss of that focused and non-distracted time with Betsy where we could be together fully and had the time to talk for hours.
I miss the trail.
In the coming weeks we will both write far more about this experience, we’ll share images from the trail, and post videos we took along the way. We will spend time talking about how this experience has changed us, how our relationship has grown stronger as a result, and what we can do to maintain the sense of peace we achieved while walking.
Soon this sense of emptiness will pass, just like it did on December 26th each year. It will slide away and leave me with all the fond memories of an adventure I will always treasure. The images will spark stories which Betsy and I will share over wine for the rest of our lives. I will begin to understand just how much this walk changed me and begin appreciating how these steps impacted my life.
But for now, I am wallowing a bit in that sense of loss for a couple more days. I wish I was rolling over in the tent to watch the sunrise knowing I had 20km of walking ahead of me and wondering what all I would see. Instead, I’m in a cozy apartment with food and drink at my disposal and paved roads to guide me anywhere I want to go. I want to hold on to that feeling of sunrise in the tent every morning, anticipating the day’s challenges, even though I’m now waking up every day in a comfy bed.
There is a new adventure out there waiting for me, this much I know. A new part of the world is waiting to be explored on foot and will start calling to me and the cycle will begin anew.
The spark of a new challenge is the gift that arrives when the melancholy of success starts to fade.
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