Heading Back to the Trail After a Week Hiatus and Relationship Lessons Learned From That

This article originally appeared on The Trek on May 14, 2021. Read it here.

At the time I’m writing this, I’ve made my plans to head back to the trail where I left off a week ago and should be on my way within a few days! I’ve had a lot to think about from this experience of deciding to come home for a week. I hope to leave you with some things that I have learned, and I’m also hoping that sharing this will be especially relevant for anyone maintaining a relationship while one person leaves to hike and the other stays at home. Remember that anything I say will probably not apply to all relationships and I’m not in any way a professional on this subject matter.

Spend Some Time Thinking About What Your Personal Threshold is For Needing to be Somewhere Besides the Trail

You’re out there doing this hike and you’ve made sacrifices to do it, whether you’re there for six months, a three week section or three days. It might seem like in that moment, nothing is going to possibly be more important than finishing that hike. But life still goes on off of the trail, and things happen. In what types of situations would you find it more important in your heart to go home, vs. the importance of remaining on the trail? I’m spending some time thinking about this myself, because I’ve realized the last thing I want is to make a decision that I need to pause the hike for something and also be beating myself up for it at the same time.

This threshold is going to be different from person to person. It’s hard to think about, but I know that if I received news that someone close to me passed away, was in a serious accident or having trouble with a serious illness, I’d be working on a way home upon hearing about it. I’d also attempt to get off the trail to attend the weddings of people close to me or similar meaningful once-in-a-lifetime events.

I can add a new one to this now: I know that I’ll come home if my significant other at home finds themselves in a difficult situation and I can tell they’re really having trouble managing. However, I do think that this might change for me had we had certain discussions beforehand. A lot of these things also might change based on how far you have to travel to and from the trail, your budget, how much time you have left in your hike, and the wishes of those at home. My main takeaway is that I think it’s okay to decide that there are places that matter more to you to be in than the trail, given certain circumstances, and this can only be determined by you.

Think About What Your Own Needs Are and Discuss Them Ahead of Time

Say your partner’s friend is in-between places and your partner wants to offer to have him stay at your place while you’re away, and you can’t be reached for him to ask you this question. Is that something you’re okay with him just taking the reigns on or do you not feel comfortable with this? What about if something happens to your car while you’re away and there are a lot of different avenues and options that go into getting it fixed? What about if a check doesn’t clear properly for whatever reason and for the first time in your life you have a late rent payment? What if you can tell that your partner is really struggling emotionally with some bad news? The list is endless, but I’m saying these things because they are all random things we’ve faced that never even crossed my mind.

Sometimes it’s hard to admit your deal-breakers. It makes me feel high-maintenance saying I need this, this, and this to be in place while I’m gone or I won’t feel comfortable being away. But I’ve realized that certain things matter to me that I didn’t even know matter to me, and it’s made it a heck of a lot easier to think about things and say, clearly, that there are just some things we need to agree on that will be taken care of in a certain manner for me to feel like everything is remaining calm and in control.

I realize it might be hard to come up with a list of arbitrary things that matter to you because the point is that it’s tough when situations arise that we never even thought of, but I really wish I had thought more clearly about how certain things do matter to me when I’m leaving things in someone else’s control, and just taking the time to talk about these things ahead of time can make a huge difference. It leaves the guesswork out of it, as you’ve collectively already talked about how you hope various situations will be handled while you’re away.

You Can’t Plan for the Unexpected, but You Can Plan for Communication Strategies to Fall Back On

My boyfriend and I really didn’t discuss any strategies for what steps we would take if things unexpectedly got tough for one or both of us. This didn’t cross our minds until now, dealing with the aftermath. I guess we figured we had it – we’ve hiked a bunch of the AT together. He’s hiked some of the AT while I’ve been away. I’ve hiked some of the AT while he’s been away. We lived in two different places for a period of time and did long distance. We shared a studio apartment for a period of time while never having our own space. I’ve been away from home for multiple two-week periods of time because of my job. We were aware that this would be tough for both sides in some aspects and acknowledged that, but we did not establish any clear guidelines for where the threshold is for someone saying, “I’ve got it,” when the unexpected happens while the other person can see things aren’t being held together.

We are now trying to implement a piece of wisdom that a friend we both look up to passed down to me. She’s had more experience being gone hiking while her significant other is at home, and said she asks her to clearly state “I need you to come home” if that is what needs to happen. This seems so simple, yet this is something my boyfriend and I were not doing at all. I know he would have felt guilty asking me to leave my hike for any reason so he simply wouldn’t do it, and I felt increasingly stressed by feeling like he was trying to hold everything together on the home front and I was playing a guessing game through the cues I was getting of what it was like for him to manage everything, further increasing his stress when I decided I just needed to get home. We weren’t really being honest with each other about what each of us needed so that I could securely keep hiking because we were trying not to add more stress to the other person, and in turn this just added more stress onto both of us.

We’ve even had a hard time committing our minds to the fact that an unexpected situation could arise where he needs to tell me I need to come home, or where I decide that I need to come home. But we both know by now that this is a reality that happens. I’ve realized that this takes a lot of trust that each of us are going to come through on our end, where if we reach that absolute threshold we will clearly state that we need the other person there. This also means trusting that the other person is going to stick to this, because the point is to not leave each other playing a guessing game. We must trust that we will be honest when we reach our threshold, and we do know that neither of us reaches this threshold easily or takes it lightly.

Implement Reminders to Slow Down Before Making Any Tough Decisions

In a previous entry, I spoke a lot about how I’d been feeling rushed on this hike so far. That feeling will especially not help when it comes to making a decision about something as logistically big as “Do I hike on or change the plan and go home?” So we agreed upon another strategy for how to deal with things when things get tough: take an extra zero day before making any big decisions. If something big is going on that really needs to be talked about and we haven’t had time to talk about it, we know that it could make or break the hike to just take an extra day to sort things out, rather than making some quick decision about what needs to happen.

Sitting here at my computer, this seems like no big deal. But I know that while on the trail it feels completely different. It’s really easy to get wrapped up in what you “should” and “shouldn’t” do. There are always going to be a lot of people on the trail during hiking season and believe it or not, you’re constantly surrounded by other hikers on the AT, and those hikers are doing their hikes in different way. I’ve learned that it’s very difficult to turn off that “comparison” in my head. If I keep turning up around people who are hiking a little farther or faster than me or not taking much rest, I feel like I’m supposed to be doing the same thing and it’s really hard for me to remember that I don’t have to do that. Sometimes I find myself wanting to get where they are because I realize I like the company and it makes getting into town a lot easier when you have others to share it with.

To go along with that theme, I can easily feel down on myself if I wind up taking a second zero day, especially if I’m paying for it at a motel. One of my goals is to keep working on turning all of this off and slowing down, because I’ve unfortunately learned it’s a big challenge for me not to compare to others and always feel like I “should” be doing more. It can be hard to turn off real-life habits that follow you to the trail. That’s why we’ve had to discuss and agree ahead of time that it’s part of the strategy that I’ll take a second zero day if something happens where I’m considering going home. This doesn’t happen often but as we learned, sometimes it needs to. Taking an extra day off of hiking to communicate about whatever has been going on could actually keep you on the trail.

This May all Seem Like Overkill, But I Really Don’t Believe It Is

It’s possible that someone could be reading this who’s thinking this is all a little silly because they’re going to go on a long hike and complete it no matter what their partner thinks or no matter how tough things get for that person while they’re gone. I’m no professional, but I’d at least ask that person to consider how they really feel about their relationship. It’s also a reality that the challenges the distance brings while one person is gone hiking could wind up giving the couple a new perspective and end things. For where I am right now, as long as I’m in a relationship, I’m going to do this all-in, which means being aware of how tough one person leaving on a long hike can be on the other person, especially if you share a living space and especially if unexpected situations arise and things feel overwhelming. I have my boyfriend’s unwavering support, yet I still know that he has tough days where he feels my absence, days he wishes he could talk to me and can’t, and times where things happen that we never planned for.

I’ve come into contact with others on the trail who have a significant other at home, and for people in this situation, there’s always going to be some degree of missing that other person or having a tough time without them, from the point of view of both partners. Take it from me, who was in a situation where we figured “we got this”, and then still wound up feeling challenged anyway. I really learned what things need to be “together” on the home front for me to feel okay being gone hiking. You might save yourself a trip home by thinking about these things and discussing them with your partner before you leave. Maybe just a few simple things like talking about strategies for communicating about unexpected situations ahead of time, and mentally telling myself it’s ok to take one extra day in town when needed, would have helped us reach solutions sooner.

I also have an inReach and send a pre-set message to my family and boyfriend once a day that just lets them know I’ve reached the place I’m going to camp for the night. This is pretty easy to do, and something like pressing send on a pre-set message can be an easy way to alleviate a little bit of stress that those at home could potentially be feeling. If anything, it’s just fun to let them know where you’ve made it to that day if you so desire.

It’s still hard for me to write about these things because all couples are different and depending on what you’ve done previously, you’ll have a different threshold for how you handle being apart. I’m learning to not be scared of the comments for this reason. My biggest takeaway that I’m trying to get across as an average person just drawing from my own experiences is that the unexpected can happen, new situations arise, and taking a few steps to talk about certain topics ahead of time might make things easier when things don’t feel so easy.

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