“Living simply, not alone, roots, rocks, trees and stone. Wondering often, suffering some. It never would abate until it was done.”
When I joined the USPS in 1983 I was elated to have landed a highly sought after place of employment. After one year of marriage my wife and I had packed up our meager possessions into a reconditioned and modified jet black, International Harvester Hurst. We left Rhode Island heading west, then north, before finally landing and settling 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle in Fairbanks, Alaska. Within a year I was hired and began my career.
Initially, it was a great place to work but over the years the entire postal service had gone through many operational changes that substantially affected the working conditions. The USPS heavily invested in automation just prior to the World Wide Web taking hold. The expected increase in mail volume never materialized which caused a nation wide restructuring of how the post office processes mail. All crafts took a major hit causing jobs to be modified, relocated or completely eliminated from our facilities. It became a paper pushing factory obsessed with numbers, and whatever cohesiveness that there was within the workforce began to erode.
All of the changes that were implemented were responsible for turning what was once a great place to work into a highly stressful and difficult place of employment. Life outside of the post office at this time was also compounding the dissatisfaction that I was experiencing. Nearing 30 years of marriage we were pretty much doing our own thing. We developed different interests and wasn’t spending very much quality time together.
Tension seemed to be building within the divide that was developing between us. Our teenage kids were experimenting with their own identities and I often wondered what it was that I was working for.
In 2007 the USPS went through another nationwide restructuring, but this time their focus was the workforce. They offered early retirement for individuals who qualified under a modified retirement plan. My years of service and age fell below the necessary qualifications for that initial round, but I told my wife that if they come back with another offer, I was taking it.
Two years later they offered another and that is exactly what I did. She wasn’t happy, but at that time, I was so dissatisfied with everything in life that I really didn’t give a shit. I needed a breather. A way to rewind.
I needed to get away from the circumstances that had been eating at me for so many years. I had thoughts about hiking the Appalachian Trail when I was younger, I did some miles in Virginia’s, Shenandoah Valley, and in the Smoky Mountains of NC/TN, many years ago. It wasn’t ever a serious consideration but the experience got my attention and had evidently planted a productive and patient seed. After thoroughly contemplating many other options I decided that it would be my best opportunity to disengage without irreconcilably severing any ties. It was an honorable way of saying, I’m getting the fuck out of here without actually saying it. I wasn’t sure what was at the end of the trail for me but avoiding having to face that reality was my motivation to stay on the trail as long as I could.
“Living simply, not alone. Rocks, roots, trees and stone. Wondering often, suffering some, never would abate until it was done.”
Everything to the left of my backpack represents the chaos that I felt I was being overwhelmed with nearing the end of my postal career. The rocks, roots, trees and stone represents the obligations of the bills, contracts, licenses, responsibilities and expectations that added up and became very heavy, consuming and overbearing. How much of all the bullshit was necessary and how much of it was not? I found myself asking that same thing over and over again. I spent the last part of my life trying to meet the demands of the status quo and then when I felt like I was there, I found myself looking around and asking myself, for what? And, is this all there is? I was at a point where nothing felt like it was worth the effort. I was confused, disheartened, and weighted down by a growing darkness that was moving me towards my own inner postal.
They say that a AT thru hiker takes about 6 million steps. Many of those steps are hard fought. It’s usually not a smooth trail, similar to life itself. Climbing over rocky terrain, stumbling on gnarly roots, crossing summits of stone and maneuvering among fallen trees became the new difficulties and challenges that became a metaphor for the life that I left behind. A hiker has a lot of time to think. Thoughts seem to arrive with every step. When I was struggling they seemed to be deep and dark. When the frequent accomplishments were achieved they could be light and airy. Every condition had its own degree of emotional impact that seemed to ignite
certain thoughts. Sometimes the persistence of those thoughts would border on harassment. They became inescapable, demanding attention.
I had been on the trail some time before I became familiar with the routine. It had taken me more than a month to accept myself as a hiker. It was a new identity for me and I liked it because I knew that I had earned what I was feeling. Each day had a purpose and I woke and walked on strengthening legs and with a confidence and determination that had been missing. Breathing early on is an issue because all of the hard fought breaths that are drawn are shallow and frequent, often to the near point of gasping. The lungs seem to improve in direct relationship with the strength of the legs. The process is slow but before I knew it I could finally breath without thinking about it. Each breath drew oxygen deep within me and provided the kind of sustenance that was needed.
Over time, a clarity of sorts appears out of the fogginess of uncertainty and reveals the unexpected.
Everything to the right of my backpack represents what I found to be most important to me. Somewhere throughout the 2179 miles of stepping and thinking, I realized that what I already had in life was more than most people ever had. Over time I recognized that what I was wanting was more out of everyone. My expectations of a wife, family, friends and what I imagined for the future were basically selfish and realistically unattainable. Over the last 30 years I had changed and selfishly in a number of ways. I wanted everyone to change, not only with me but for me. I saw that I was asking something of them that I wasn’t allowing them to ask of me. What I mostly learned was that we are a lot of things. We are complex beings that have many wants and wishes and to have expectations that there is anyone who can be your everything is both impossible and absolutely ridiculous.
“It never would abate until it was done,” is that the process of life and it’s unexpected changes and challenges don’t ever end. Children are born, parents die, good and not so good things happen to us that we must negotiate. Initially, I failed to recognize and accept that there is always going to be some darkness within the light and during the difficult times light will also filter through those episodes what seems like an
overwhelming darkness. I came full circle and found that it’s not the things that I wanted or already had that should be considered but more so of how to construct and prioritize those things in my mind.