What Follows a Thru-Hike? Reflections on Navigating the Real World

Victoria 'Cartwheel' Beltran
Post Thru Hike After Reentry

Alexa, cue Earth, Wind & Fire’s song '

On September 21st I finished the Pacific Crest Trail, which still feels very surreal and like a fever dream my brain concocted. But I did it, I checked one of my biggest dreams off my bucket list. Now what? What comes next? What follows a dream?

These questions began plaguing my mind the moment I crossed into Washington. I remember crying as I walked across the bridge — which, if you have followed my PCT  journey, you’ll know is quite a common thing for me. But the reason for the tears, this time, was different; I realized that my journey was coming to an end. I felt this immense pressure to be present, and make every moment count, and not forget anything about this section.

Post Thru Hike After Reentry

Washington felt like a cocktail of absolute awe, grief and joy. Tagging the terminus felt surreal and preposterous. Who would have guessed I would have been able to walk from Mexico to Canada? Five years ago I could never have imagined it. 

Touching the monument for the first time … I sat down staring in disbelief. My tramily danced, hugged and cried all around me.

Post Thru Hike After Reentry

It’s now been more than a month since that wonderful chaotic day. In the past three weeks, I have couch surfed across California, applied to more than 50 jobs, interviewed at 10 different companies, taken my pup Neo on more than 50 walks, eaten 3x my weight in breads, pasta and pizza (I’ve been really hungry!!) and ... finally landed a job in Boulder, Colorado. The job is in my dream industry and I found a great place to live.

Which I realize sounds ideal and perfect, but it did not occur as seamlessly as it may appear. During that time I was a hot *** mess. The first week I drove all over the Bay Area, dissociated a lot, and cried myself to sleep basically every night. 

During the day I was fine, if I just didn’t think about the trail or my friends, or the forest; but as soon as nightfall hit, I would slip into withdrawal, wishing I was back there. I spent most of that time eating and drinking those feelings. Which I do not recommend, but hey I am human, and humans process emotions in all types of different ways.

The second week was ‘productive.’ I really dove into the job search and started getting feedback, interviews, emails, introduction calls, etc. That second week I had a sense of purpose and urgency, developing tunnel vision in order to distance and suppress the withdrawal symptoms.

Post Thru Hike After Reentry

Those emotions I was hiding from — and needed to face — began to surface week three. I finally found some alone time at my old house in Southern California. I had a place to cry, and actually dive into the grief. I allowed myself to reflect, relive and reminisce. Beer was consumed, lots of it.  

I still haven’t fully comprehended that I am done thru-hiking for this year. It feels a bit like I am taking zeros, and at any moment I can return to trail.

Post Thru Hike After Reentry

I am currently plopped on my fellow hiker trash friend's couch, attempting to process the last 6 months of my life, and getting ready to move my pup and myself halfway across the country. I have landed a great job and found an incredible place to live. It feels like everything that I am supposed to be doing is happening. I am adulting. I am reinserting myself back into society. So why do I feel so hesitant and nervous?

I mean, I am a thru-hiker. I have faced Mother Nature’s fury, bears, inclement weather, rattlesnakes, blistering heat, even my own body and mind turning against me. So why is this next step so difficult? It’s just driving to a new state? it’s just showing up to a new job? 

Post Thru Hike After Reentry

Along with the anxiety, there’s also the excitement, and yearning for normalcy and stability. I have been looking forward to having my own space for the past six months. I miss being able to walk around in my underwear, eating vegetables, singing in my room, and making stew when it gets cold outside. I miss watching the rain hit the street through my window. I miss the boring stuff. I have actually been looking forward to paying my bills, creating a sustainable income, and purchasing furniture (oh, and paying off the credit card debt I accumulated on trail, yikes). 

I realize how ridiculous all of this sounds after I just finished a six month adventure of a lifetime, but it's true. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would have missed all of these ‘normal’ things.

Reintegration has been trying, but I have honestly been very lucky. I have reached out to multiple tramily members, and am attempting to be open and honest about what I am feeling. I have had an incredible online support community, who have overwhelmed me with congrats, love and admiration ... and so many questions! 

Post Thru Hike After Reentry

My family hosted and fed me until I couldn’t breathe (for which I am so grateful), and they have expressed how proud they are of me, which still shocks me to this day. My friends have been so kind and welcoming. Gosh, I don’t think I could have survived this month without all of these people who have helped me.

Last but most certainly not least, reintegration has given me a newfound sense of clarity around who I want to be. During the hike I thought a lot about who I did not want to be. I did not want to be a gatekeeper; I realized I want to be a gate-opener. (Oh, god I sound like Oprah). I want to teach others about the wilderness and share the raw magic that thru-hiking can provide a person. I want to make myself into a tool that others can utilize so they too can experience the absolute madness that thru-hiking and long-distance hiking can cause. 


Post Thru Hike After Reentry

In short, thru-hiking is wild; reintegration is a roller coaster of emotions; the real world is an intimidating place; but after you figure out who you want to be, or at least find a direction to point yourself, it gets less scary, and dare I say it… easier. 

Just remember how brave, strong, and badass you are — you’re a thru-hiker. (This is my pep talk, for myself, and for you, my fellow hikers.)

Cheers and Happy Trails my friends,

Cartwheel aka V in the real world

Trail talk

1 comment

Kesa W.

Kesa W.

Yay!! I’m so proud of you!! I’m a travel nurse that just settled down in Erie, CO. I’ll keep an eye out for you while shopping in Boulder. I’d love to meet you in person!! I had to get off trail due to a knee injury last summer, 100 miles into the JMT!! I hope to have my knee surgery this coming year and finiah the JMT in 2023!!! My long term goal is the PCT!! Again, congrats and thanks for sharing your journey!!! ♡

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