Reflections From the End of 5,000 Miles

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Gossamer Gear | Nov 15, 2021

By: Carolyn Blessing and Jeff Podmayer

Editor’s Note: Carolyn and Jeff hiked the Appalachian and Continental Divide Trails in 2021 as a way of forming their marriage to one another. You can read about the beginning of the journey here, some thoughts on daily habits as a couple on the trail here, and a comparison of the AT to the CDT here. This is the final blog in their series.

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How do you summarize any year of your life? In particular, how do you even try to distill over 200 days of walking with your partner? It’s tricky to get our minds around a story that’s been unfolding in intervals of microseconds and also months. 

The story of our year arrived through damp down quilts after a long day of rain in Georgia. It continued watching a grizzly slide down the snow in front of us while traversing an icy drift in Glacier National Park. It involved finding a memorable breakfast burrito in town after a week of instant potatoes in Colorado. 

The stories from our year of walking aren’t just groomed pathways, perfect weather, and extravagant trail magic. Countless days were spent walking through rainstorms in Virginia, bushwhacking and getting lost in Montana, and rationing water through the Great Basin in Wyoming. We are still learning what it meant to spend a year together, walking two long trails to commemorate a marriage. Hopefully it keeps unfolding in the days, months, and years to come.

Today, we are in Joshua Tree, California, where we now live. We haven’t really unpacked—metaphorically or literally.

This experience was a gift, but it’s not neatly wrapped. There is no bow to tie at the end. A few things feel true for right now. Here they are:

1. Marking transitions matters to us. 

Some big things changed in our lives towards the end of the trip. Carolyn was offered a dream job that meant leaving the trail before finishing New Mexico on the CDT. This was a big, tear-filled decision, but ultimately the right one for us. Jeff finished at the southern terminus on November 1. 

Dealing with this decision together was important to us, and real stories rarely have perfect timelines. We commemorated the end of our joint hike by building rituals into Carolyn’s last week on trail. We wrote letters, traded backpacks (conveniently we both have the same size G4-20), and collected small, natural momentos to put ideas about what this experience taught us into physical objects we could take home. Not finishing the CDT together was hard on both of us, but these small rituals gave it more meaning.

2. Relationships are important. 

While on trail, connections can look a lot of different ways. We did this journey together without looking for a larger trail family. We spent a lot of time building our relationship to one another and to the places we walked. We enjoyed meeting other hikers and people in trail communities, but we never walked with others for more than a few days at a time. 

Including friends and family on our trip was important to us. Almost daily, we dedicated our walk to a person (or people) from other parts of our lives who we are grateful to know. This practice helped us connect to the people we love on all of the different, overlapping paths we are walking.

3. Be present and keep it simple. 

Spending eight months moving at 2 to 3 miles per hour was eye-opening. Being off trail now, one thing in particular feels obvious—the culture we’re a part of is moving way too fast. We want to keep taking time to look around and notice the living world, instead of constant distractions by the many things vying for our attention—from screens to never-ending to-do lists. 

Remembering that we can function with just what’s in a 40-liter pack: Living simply and slowing down are big lessons from this year. There are very few things that actually require the sense of urgency that is so often attached to just about everything in our lives.

4. Some things are better shared. 

While there is certainly value in doing things alone—and a big difference between being alone and being lonely—this year was an exercise in togetherness for us, in a huge variety of situations. Patience, compromise, and connection to one another was a big part of what we got from this journey. It was often messy, and rarely easy, but important nonetheless. 

We are pretty different people, and we are also a good team. Being outside for most of a year, watching patterns of weather and the environment, it’s obvious how little control we actually have. This clarity about what’s inside our limited control applies to shared experiences too. Facing the unknown, the unclear, and the uncomfortable together helped us grow.

5. Metaphors are everywhere. 

Choosing trail life is a privilege. It also involves a lot of persevering through discomfort and difficult things. For us, a takeaway from the year is learning who you are in the middle of all of that. On trail, the important things feel distilled—basic needs, relationships, our place within a larger ecosystem, and presence. 

If we let it, being outside all year becomes a lesson in taking less and giving more. Looking at more than just the trail we’re walking, but paying attention to the communities and bigger issues that surround us. If putting one foot in front of the other all year taught us anything, it helped us lean into the adage—it’s about the journey not the destination. Because isn’t it really? 

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Carolyn Blessing (she/her) and Jeff Podmayer (he/him) met working in outdoor education six years ago. In this work they lead one to four week backpacking and rock climbing expeditions in California (often in the Sierra on Miwok, Paiute, and Mono land). When they aren’t working or hiking, they love connecting with friends and family, making pizza, and learning about the world around them.