Mom, Grandma and I drove back in less than two days. It was almost insulting to look out the window and see the great distance I had so laboriously covered roll by so quickly. I immediately chaffed against the new dynamic wherein I was not in control and had to make constant conversation. Grandma sensed that I wasn’t feeling talkative, and even her suggestion of “quiet time” turned into a discussion on the merits of silence. I drove the whole way to retain some semblance of power.
Mom told me her rendition of our unexpected reunion back in Copper Harbor. She and Grandma got into town a day early, and drove around to explore. They were circling around in a parking lot near the harbor when I saw her. She never heard me call out to her but she did see someone walking towards her: a beautiful woman with a bright smile on her face, a woman who seemed open and free and almost glowed with radiant positive energy. Finally it clicked in her mind- she was looking at her daughter. Most of the time I don’t know how to interpret Mom’s flattery. She is my mom, after all, so she possesses the extreme bias of unconditional love. But for just a moment, my own mother saw me with the eyes of a stranger, and what she saw was good. It is a special thing.
I shaved. Finally, after 6 weeks, I shaved my armpits, my lady-parts, my legs. The exception are the long fuzzy hairs surrounding bloody scabs- remnants from that last treacherous night of hiking that I dare not take a razor to.
On the trail I struggled to reconcile my self-image with the fact that I was no longer a productive member of society with a business card and a regular paycheck and a commute. At least I was hiking 20-plus miles almost every day. At least I was engaged in something purposeful and tangible. Now, I have neither a job nor a mission, and no plan for how to get either. I am more or less living at home with my parents, something I never thought I’d do again when I got married 6 years ago. I wish I could hang on to the self-worth I gathered up over all those many miles and live off of it now, but it dissipates like a sneeze: powerful, but brief. I start every day again at zero.
So what the hell did I get out of this trip? I am torn between the constantly fluctuating extremes of great pride and great shame. In a colloquial “things-you-can-talk-about-at-a-dinner-party” and the quantitative “this-is-how-far-and-how-long-I-went” sort of way, I have exceeded my goals. I have something that looks good on paper, that will make my family proud, and that will give me bragging rights for a long time to come.
The feedback that I get from other people who hear what I have done is simultaneously encouraging and irrelevant. There is almost a loose script that most lines of questioning follow. First, “how did you cross the Mackinaw Bridge?” I tell them about the ferry. Next they wonder “was it fun?” when, to their disappointment, I answer honestly: “absolutely not.” It was meaningful and powerful and beautiful but absolutely not fun. Finally, they ask “are you going to do it again?” It reminds me of when I graduated college and was pressured with suggestive inquiries about graduate school. It reminds me of my sister who just gave birth and is already being asked to cast her mind to the next stage: “how many do you want?” “When will you have the next one?” “Maybe you’ll have a boy next time.” This well-intentioned ugly tendency to always ask “what’s next?” before the dust has settled, the resume is updated, the umbilical cord has fallen off, is very unsettling. I don’t care for it. I shoo them off now as I did before with an unsatisfying response: “it’s too soon to say.”
I might have thought in advance that I would want validation, but now I realize that I also want validation on my terms. I want people to appreciate the things I like about my trip, not how I crossed the damn bridge or will do it again next year, only better. I want the things that leave an impression on others’ minds to be the things that are real. I don’t want to be loved, I want to be understood, and then loved for who I am. But I guess I can’t chose what people think, I can’t even be sure of what they really feel. I have enough trouble figuring that out for myself.
The more glory that my achievements brings me, the harsher the pang of guilt that tells me that my successes are false and that my failures- those things I avoid mentioning- are the resounding truth.
Here is how I have failed: I am still bulimic, I still have bulimia, it still has me. I did not stay on the trail “as long as it takes.” I am not recovered. Even after all that I gave up: my marriage, my home, my job, my life, I am still trapped.
I suppose I could’ve stayed on the trail for the additional weeks or months or years that it would take to morph into my Better Self. What I did instead was to defer to the other, lesser goals. Yes I passed the distance, put in the time. I declared my mission accomplished though a revision of the original intent. The problem with having too many goals it that they can’t all be achieved. So to realize some-but-not-all is always a bitter victory.
And what about those promises I made at the 45th parallel? I said that I was starting a new life. I wonder if it can still be true even though I’ve clearly polluted my original ideal. It’s already clear that, whatever this new life is, it includes the struggles that haunted me in the old one. But perhaps the difference is in the end to that old duality where I was 2 people in 1 body. Where I showed only the parts of myself that I liked and created a whole hidden life to store the rest. I am merging the opposite sides, the equator and the pole, the strong and the weak, the hard and the soft, the warm and the cold. I have tried and failed to remove like a tumor all the parts of me that I don’t like. Now I will try to reincorporate them into my being. My strengths are my weaknesses. My vices are my victories. The denial is over.
Maybe my chances for recovery are no greater on the trail than elsewhere in the world. Maybe my recent struggles are as much a result of that protracted solitude as anything else. My cures have their own side effects. Maybe I have taken a powerful step but it just didn’t reach as far as I thought it would. I guess I learned that you can’t schedule an epiphany, I’m still waiting for mine. I take comfort in knowing that, even though I have not come as far as I hoped I would, I have never been closer than I am today.
This is the last post, at last.
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Beautiful Michelle–this line sticks with me “I don’t want to be loved, I want to be understood, and then loved for who I am.” Thank you so much for sharing 🙂
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This is an inspiring, insightful record of an amazing journey. I hope you print this into a book just as it is. It will be an incentive to others just as the book WILD was to you to step out of their box and see what they can do. Thanks for sharing!