Beating the Post-Trail Funk One Pedal at a Time: A Post-Thru-Hike Bicycle Tour Report
Sometime after midnight on August 6, 2018, the remaining miles on my PCT thru-hike fell below a hundred. This is a pretty exciting number to get down to on a thru-hike; all of the work you've put in towards one goal has added up, and suddenly that goal is only a few days away. It is around this point in the hike that many thru-hikers begin to realize that their biggest challenge may not actually be behind them, but about to begin. Most thru-hikers will tell you that adjusting to life off trail after so many months on it was not only the hardest part of the whole experience, but a challenge that they hadn’t expected at all. This adjustment is often referred to as post-trail depression, but I’ll just call it a post-trail funk, because that’s all it really is.
On that summer evening, delirious, tired, and near the end of a 20-hour day, I was not thinking about my impending readjustment. Instead I was mostly focused on finishing my hike and getting a few hours of sleep before catching the park service shuttle into Stehekin, WA, for my final resupply. But I had already been thinking about that funk; in fact, it had been on my mind since before I even set foot on trail that Spring. Coming back to real life after my AT thru-hike in 2016 was hard. I spent weeks sitting around bored, sad, and just kind of wishing I was still on trail. I hated it. Going into my PCT thru-hike, I wanted to have a plan for finishing and readjusting -- this time, I wanted to be prepared for the challenge I knew I would be facing. Fresh off my first long-distance bicycle tour, riding from my home in Maryland to Los Angeles in 2017, I decided that another tour could be the perfect way to transition from trail to home. So right after finishing my PCT thru-hike, I hopped on my bike again and took off. This wasn’t a tour for sightseeing or adventure. I just wanted to go home, physically and mentally, at my own pace. Twelve to 15 miles per hour seemed about right. Here’s how it went down.
Los Angeles to El Paso: Leaving the Desert
The main reason I had come up with for why a bicycle tour would be a good way to make the adjustment of leaving trail life is that it's kind of a cushier, more comfortable version of a thru-hike. You bust your ass every day just the same, deal with the same sorts of weather and pain-based frustrations that backpacking deals you, but at the end of the day you often have a nice, established campground with showers and picnic tables, or even a warm place to stay if you can find a Warmshowers.org host. You’re still out there putting in miles, but life is substantially more comfortable. This proved true on the very first night of my journey home from California. On day one I turned an intended 75-mile day into a 90+-mile day when I discovered the beach campground where I planned to stay didn’t have a hike/bike site. So I rolled on an extra hour in hot, late-August California sun to another campground that did have one. I was even lucky enough to find company in two women finishing up a 12,000-mile, 17-month tour around the entire world. Hot, sticky and tired, I was delighted with the shower, picnic table to cook my dinner, and gorgeous view of the sunset over the Pacific. But the best part was crawling into my tent when it came time for bed. For four months on the PCT that tent had been my home. During the two weeks between finishing the hike and starting the tour, I spent the nights on strange beds, couches and floors. Crawling into my tent that night, I was washed over with all the familiar feelings of returning home after being away.
The first two weeks of the tour gave me those feelings for another reason, too: the desert. Shortly after turning east, away from the Pacific, I began a long, gradual ascent to the crest. The white desert hills scattered with brush were quite familiar, as were the smells of the high desert. It all brought me back to my first few days on trail. My long day’s climb ended up at Boulder Oaks campground, right on the PCT. Getting to ride through exactly where my PCT adventure had begun only months earlier was special. And, boy, do I love the desert. In many hikers reports of the PCT, the desert is overshadowed by the intensity of the Sierra and majesty of the North Cascades; but it left a huge mark on me. There is something so mysterious about the desert. The sky is so big, everything feels more wild. Nights spent camping under desert stars, coyotes howling in the distance, are some of my fondest memories of the PCT. Having a few more nights like that as I rode through California and into Arizona was special.
Still though, it was some damn hard riding. Hiking 2,650 miles in three and a half months gets you in pretty good shape, but not necessarily for riding a bike. Different muscles are needed and different problems arise while you’re getting your cycling legs. The first 1,000 miles of this tour gave me all the same growing pains I went through on my first cross-country tour, in 2017. Knee tendonitis set in early and often, most days. The battle against saddle sores was never-ending. All the pesky little bicycle maintenance issues that I had forgotten come along with a bicycle tour reared their annoying heads again. And of course, as much as I love the desert, riding through it in early September can be punishing. The temperature would crack 100 degrees usually by around 10 am and not get below it until about 8 pm. Usually, by that time I was already getting into my tent, trying to fall asleep in a puddle of sweat. But in a strange way, I love all of that. Anyone who catches the long-distance hiking/cycling bug somehow finds the beauty in discomfort and learns to love it. The discomfort and pain of thousand-plus-mile adventures brings along with it the sense of accomplishment, strength, and self-appreciation that make these trips worth it. In the first two weeks of this tour I was happily reminded of all of this. Yet, a greater reminder of this lesson was ahead.
El Paso to Austin: Pain and Rain
My first break came in El Paso, TX, where I stayed for two nights with a really cool host whom I was incredibly lucky to find. None of the Warmshowers hosts I had contacted had been available, and all the hotels in town were out of my price range. I resolved to ride to a hostel even though I had heard mixed reviews for it and also that it might be expensive. But the trail gods were looking out for me. Riding through the UTEP campus I stopped at a light and another cyclist rolled up alongside me on a classic-looking, blue, steel commuter. We made some chit-chat at the light and continued to talk as we rode down the hill together. She asked about my bags, and when I told her about my tour, she happily offered to let me stay with her. Sometimes I’m blown away by how many strangers have helped me out, but I think it’s a testament to how much kinder people are than we often believe. I took a day and a half to explore El Paso and its sister city, Juarez, Mexico, trying some great food and drink, talking to locals and enjoying riding around without a fully loaded rack. Anyone who has hiked and/or cycled with me knows I absolutely hate taking zero days. But when I do take them, I usually have a really great time. I left El Paso rested and eager to ride on into Texas. Everything on the tour was going smoothly and I felt unstoppable.
And then, the trail gods spoke as directly to me as they ever had. Leaving El Paso, I was riding strong, dominating my only climb of the day, when I came across a dumpster beside I-10 with a message sloppily spray painted on it: “The pain you feel today will be the strength you feel tomorrow.” I’m a fan of toughness and mantras of this nature, especially when hiking or cycling, so I happily took a few pictures and finished my day in Sierra Blanca, TX. I didn’t think much about the actual message, though, and what it might mean for me on this ride. How foolish.
I had one more strong day of riding and great weather to get to Marfa (awesome little town in the Big Bend) before things took a turn. The first day out of Marfa was miserable. It poured rain all day and it didn’t help that I rode 110 miles that day, easily my longest day of the tour thus far. I could have stopped in Marathon, which would have made it a short, 55-mile day and allowed me to warm up and dry off during the afternoon. But I chose to ride on. As the final few miles of the day dragged on I lamented not stopping in Marathon, but the decision had been made and I had to make it to Sanderson, TX. As rough as that day was, the next was even tougher. Again, I got drenched within the first 20 miles. Much to my dismay, reaching Dryden, where I had hoped to find a coffee shop or gas station to warm up and get a caffeine boost, I discovered there was absolutely nothing there. Another West Texas ghost town, a dot on the map that is just an empty circle. So I pushed on, at least relieved to see the skies clear and rain stop. But, when one challenge passes, another always seems to enter on such days. In this case, it was headwind. The headwind I encountered as I road east from Dryden was as strong and direct as I can ever remember facing. Headwind is one of the most demoralizing things you can experience as a cyclist. You work harder and go slower. Riding alone, there is nothing you can do to make it any easier. As the day wore on, the winds tired me out so much that I was forced to stealth camp on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere. I was still damp, the air was chilly, and more than ever I wanted those luxuries that bicycle touring can provide. But I didn’t have them. I went to bed exhausted, alone, and missing the hell out of the PCT. For the first time on the tour, I noticed the post-trail funk that I was so hoping to avoid.
But the pain is always worth it. Frustration is always worth it. As the negativity of that day bled into the next, I could feel all the shit bubbling up. Still facing strong headwinds, I had another empty stop in Comstock and a bad sunburn from foolishly shedding my jersey once the rain had stopped the day before. I started that day out of my boondocked site feeling terrible, every little thing pissing me off. Even my podcasts failing to download drove me crazy. I made it to Del Rio feeling tired and angry, took care of town business there and rode on. Arriving in Bracketville around 3 pm, I took an hour to eat, collect my thoughts, and finally download my podcasts. I decided to boondock again to save money, so I left town on Texas Ranch Road 334. As I rode into the evening something funny happened. I turned my phone off, stopped checking it every five minutes, and just rode. And I started feeling good again. So I kept riding, strongly now. And then, the ultimate reward for two and a half days of pain and rain: floodwaters running right over the road. They were shallow enough to ride through to the other side, where I immediately dropped the bike, tore off my clothes and collapsed into the water. As I lay cooling my blazing sunburn, I felt all the crap stuck on my body and in my mind being washed away. I had a beautiful riverside campsite that night, reminding me always to keep my faith in the trail gods. And, getting into my tent that night, I remembered the dumpster. Pushing through pain is awful, but always worth it. Every single time.
Marfa to Austin ended up taking seven days, many with torrential rains. I had a headwind practically the entire 600 miles, and the remoteness of West Texas forced me into long food carries, stealth camping in very subpar spots, and a sense of loneliness I hadn’t experienced in some time. But arriving in Austin, bike in poor condition, body tired, everything dirty and wet, I knew that what I had just ridden through had prepared me to dominate the rest of my ride. I was ready for it, but only after a fantastic weekend in Austin.
Austin to Nashville: Feeling Ready
Not only was Austin awesome, but some help from Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop and a trip to the Yellow Bike Project had me leaving town on a bike that was in tiptop shape. I rode a strong century out of the city and ended up in Burton. As I prepared to stealth camp in the town park, I contacted a local Warmshowers host at the last second. Carol was happy to host me despite the short notice, and she turned out to be one of the best Warmshowers hosts I had. Eighty-eight years old, she had the energy of someone my age and was happily hosting cyclists for her eleventh consecutive year. We had a great time and even played a few games of pool on her table. I love nights like that on a bicycle tour -- serendipitous encounters that turn into lifelong memories.
The strong riding I put in that day soon become a theme. All the headwind I had fought getting to Austin had me in some damn good cycling shape and I took full advantage. I’ve often been told it's about the journey, not the destination, and thus I should slow down and not worry about miles. I've always found that I enjoy the journey, even more, when I'm pushing myself to get every mile I can. And that's just what I did as I made my way across east Texas. Big day after big day, each of them feeling stronger than the last. 87.8, 117.5, 99.0, 110.6. I love those long days when you get into camp just as the sun is starting to set.
Two weeks after crossing into Texas from New Mexico, I crossed the border into Louisiana. All of a sudden the rest of the trip didn't feel so long. And that was a good thing. I had been away from home 14 months at that point. With a cross-country bike tour, PCT thru-hike, and half of another tour under my belt, I felt very ready to go home. And I was glad to feel ready; it was starting to feel like my plan for staving off the post-trail funk was working.
So I continued putting in big days, working my way through Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee on the Natchez Trace Parkway. The Trace is an amazing ride, one of my favorite sections of road I’ve ever ridden, and I had a blast every day on it. It winds through beautiful Appalachian foothills on the historic Natchez Trace route. The road is incredibly well maintained and has low traffic and great camping options. Truly, it is a cyclist’s dream.
The Trace carried me all the way into Nashville, where I was eager to take a rest day and explore a city I had wanted to visit for some time. I lucked out with another fantastic Warmshowers host couple, who were nice enough to let me stay two nights. Although I had a pretty good time in Nashville, I was honestly a bit underwhelmed with my experience. Little did I know, I was only being set up for one of my least anticipated and most fun city visits ever ...
Nashville to DC: A familiar way home
My first day out of Nashville was another century that carried me to Monterey, TN, as I started to really work my way into the Appalachians. I always love the strength I feel after a rest day. There’s so much power in my legs. I didn’t time my breaks properly that day and ended up riding 66 miles nonstop between second breakfast and lunch. It was hard, but my body answered the call as it had been doing for 3,000 miles by then. After a weekend indoors I was more than happy to sleep in my tent that night, stealth camping in the public park. By this time the tent felt more like home than ever. As I cooked my dinner and enjoyed the free Wifi from the McDonald’s across the street, I became reflective. I had known all along that Nashville would mark the beginning of the end, and on that first night east of Nashville I started to think about my whole trip to that point. Not just the current tour, but also the PCT and the bike tour the year before. Less than a thousand miles from home, the weight of all I had done started to sink in. And I felt thankful. Thankful, tired and ready.
The following day I made a last minute decision to push all the way to Knoxville. My main destination was a re-encounter with the AT in Hot Springs, NC, the next day, and Knoxville worked out to be the most convenient place to split the trip. The ride was hard, with many big climbs, but it was special. I started getting classic glimpses of those Blue Ridges that are so familiar to me. It felt good to see my favorite mountains shining their blue haze down on me. I love them so much; they feel like home.
Knoxville was great. My host for the evening worked late, so I went to a bike shop and met a really cool shop rat who took me to a good coffee shop across the river. After that, I went to my host's boyfriend's house to wait for her. It was so nice just to hang out with a guy my age. We talked cycling, and he took me to a co-op where I downed a half gallon of chocolate milk before we met up with my host. The three of us went to downtown Knoxville, hung out at a very cool bar/bowling alley, played pool, and cycled around the city enjoying the warm, early fall evening. I sensed an amazing vibe in Knoxville and could totally see myself living there one day.
The next morning I hung around until 9:30 (extremely late for me), relaxing with coffee and biscuits and enjoying the fun, spontaneous time there. I zoomed through my ride that day, eager to get to Hot Springs, the first of many familiar stops as the tour wound to a close. The ride was full of beautiful, blue ridge views over wide rivers -- scenery I know so well and love so much. It felt great to be on the AT that night, at the Laughing Heart Hostel, where I met a cool flip-flopper finishing up her thru-hike. I felt thankful to be with thru-hikers again for a night. I plan to hike the AT again, and just being in with that community for a night lit the spark I'll need to make that happen.
Heading to Asheville next, I had some familiar faces to look forward to seeing. People I feel incredibly lucky to have in my life. First, I spent a day with my sister. She was in Atlanta for work and took the time to drive up to Asheville see me. I’ve always been closer to her than anyone else and getting to enjoy her company for a day of this tour, just as I had when she came from Los Angeles to Yosemite to see me during my PCT hike, meant everything to me. Right after she left town, Darwin, with whom I finished the PCT, arrived with his wife, Snuggles, on a bike tour of their own. They were just in time to beat a hurricane, which we spent the next two days waiting out in Asheville. My initial reaction to spending extra time in town, as always, was frustration. I always want to get out and cover more miles. But this close to the end of my journey I found it quite nice to slow down, chill out and enjoy the rainy days with two absolutely delightful people.
After riding out for a day with Darwin and Snuggles, I headed off on my own again, now truly on the final stretch of my tour. The Blue Ridge Parkway from Asheville to its northern terminus in Rockfish Gap, VA, gave me a special couple days of riding: classic, cold, Appalachian fall days with crisp, fresh air and clear blue skies over the distant blue ridges. Each day I pushed over a century and rode right into sunset, the evening skies full of amazing colors. Even at the end of the day, when I was exhausted, cold, in pain, and so ready for the comforts of home, the magic of those mountains gave me energy. Bike touring is hard. It hurts. Some days it’s cold and miserable, and yet I love it. On my penultimate parkway day, a light, cold rain started as I ate breakfast in the dark. It didn’t let up until 3:00 PM. My toes were numb the entire day; freezing, hard rain stung my face. But there was never a doubt that I’d make the century-plus ride to my Warmshowers host in Roanoke. And, damned if that shower didn’t feel amazing.
After one more century, I finished the parkway triumphantly and headed down to Charlottesville, where I picked up the Trans-America Adventure Cycling route, a cool bookend to my adventures. Nearly 15 months earlier, I headed west on that route from Yorktown to begin this crazy year-plus of adventuring. Re-riding those first 150 miles as I headed to Norfolk, I remembered how I struggled through those miles in 2017. This time, they were cake for me. It put into perspective how much stronger I had become, mentally and physically.
My final night before Norfolk, I stayed in the Willis United Methodist Church in Glendale, an awesome church that hosts hundreds of cyclists each year, including me on night one of my 2017 tour. The church kitchen, the tables, the different sleeping rooms all were familiar. My evening there, 15 months earlier, still felt very recent. I had spent that evening with a cyclist who was finishing his tour, as I was now, and the memories of that night suddenly came back. We had spaghetti. He gave me some good advice and the pressure gauge that I was still using to check my tires. The next day I rode to Ashland, which now I passed through again. That church, those routes, those roads, all so familiar. And yet, I was such a different man. I thought back to who I had been 15 months ago, with so much ahead to experience, so many people to meet, so much hardship to overcome, so many miles ahead. And there I sat, exactly where I was on the first night of this great adventure. Did I feel wiser? I certainly felt stronger. Mostly, I just felt tired. I went there and back again. It’s funny, the bike mechanic in Charlottesville was the same guy I met in 2017, so too was the piano teacher at the church, doing exactly what she did on that late summer evening. Life went on while I was gone. And now I was back and it was all the same. Yet I was so very different.
I suppose the only remaining question is whether it worked or not. Did going on a bike tour immediately following a thru-hike ease the transition from trail to real life? As I write this, I have been home for eight weeks. I can certainly say the bike tour helped me through the first few. I was so damn tired at the end of it, and I had been gone for so long, that I was more than ready to be home again. As I re-entered society, found work, established a normal social life and did what I was supposed to, the process was noticeably easier than it had been after the AT. I was happy to work again, happy to go to the gym again, and certainly happy to be able to reunite with friends and family.
But it’s been eight weeks now. The adventurer inside me can be tamed only so much. My feet are starting to itch, and they’ll get itchier as the winter goes on. I’m doing fine, and as I’ve relived my amazing bike tour through writing this, I feel more connected to the outdoor community than ever. My successful bike tours and thru-hikes have given me the confidence to know I can pull off even more ambitious goals in the future. And all that makes the offseason feel a little easier, and shorter. For that, and for so much else, I am grateful.