I shared earlier, on this blog, that I had some personal struggles that resulted in me taking a leave of absence from my doctoral studies. I still think it was the right decision, but I'm still not happy with it. It resulted in a bit of a crisis in faith in myself. I had thought I could do it, all the way up until I couldn't. It was, and still is, a bitter pill to swallow. So, the question became, "How can I restore faith in myself?" I chose to set a new goal for myself that was challenging, but also attainable on a shorter time scale.
Three years ago I read about an interesting backpacking trek in Backpacker magazine. It was organized by an outdoor gear and clothing manufacturer, Fjällräven. The original hike was in Sweden, and it is much longer, in a more remote location and features far more elevation change. I'm not entirely sure that I'm up for that...yet. However, in the last few years, they've started a new hike in Denmark. Denmark, unlike Sweden, is neither remote nor mountainous. It's shorter in length and seemed all-around doable, though still very challenging. There's no way to sugarcoat three 16-mile days. And since I am no longer traveling to Texas for summer courses, I had the opportunity to go. Almost on a whim, I registered for the hike. So, here was my chance to restore faith in myself that I could do what I set out to do.
Sounds straight forward, right? Sort of... I do not speak Danish. Other than departing for a cruise from Copenhagen, I'd never been to Denmark. I didn't know anyone on the hike. In fact, there were only four Americans registered for the hike, and the other three are all men. I tried, for a short while, to convince someone to go with me. It'd be less scary if I could share it with someone else...but no such luck. In the end, I had only myself to rely on. And I'm kind of glad that that's the way it worked out.
So, with a roughly 25-pound pack on my back (that I swear doubled in weight), I set out on my adventure from teeny tiny Faldsled harbor. After stopping to shed my rain jacket, which did not breathe (contrary to its marketing propaganda), the first half-day was pretty easy. By later afternoon, my feet were tired. They hurt. And, as it turns out, when your feet hurt, everything seems to hurt. I made camp, napped briefly, and had dinner with a pair of kind Danish ladies. It turns out, pretty much everyone speaks English - and pretty darn well too! I didn't sleep super well that night, despite being tired, but I was up the next morning to pack up my gear and head back out for day two.
The first half of day two, which in theory should have been easier since it was at sea level for pretty much 10 miles, was absolutely miserable. I had some hotspots on my feet that quickly turned into blisters, no matter what I did. Nearly a mile and a half was spent walking on large cobbles with uneven footing and every step was excruciating. I fought back tears as I tried to keep going. I was not going to give up. I could not give up. Just put one foot in front of the other. Repeat.
After getting my blisters drained and my feet thoroughly taped up by the Danish Red Cross at the checkpoint, I ate a quick lunch, grabbed my pack, and continued on my way. They still hurt, but not as much and gradually I found that I was better able to pay attention to the beautiful countryside instead of my feet. It's amazing how much natural beauty can dull pain. I made it to camp, set up my tent, and boiled water for dinner just in time for the rains to start.
Perhaps rains is not right...I think RAINS might be more accurate. It rained. It poured. It thundered...and it lightninged. (Okay, I realize that's not a word.) I have never found myself practically outside, lying in a small tent in an open field, during a significant thunderstorm. It's both awe-inspiring and absolutely terrifying. I felt the ground shake underneath me as the lightning arced from one side of my tent to the other. In between the thunder, I could hear the dogs barking and howling in the tents around the field. They were scared, and I'll admit that I was, too. There wasn't much sleep to be had that night for anyone.
Two days and about 50 km in and I'm wiped. I waited an hour for the Red Cross to drain my blisters and tape my feet (again) before setting out for the last day. The trail's pretty empty because most folks are long gone, but it's a brilliantly beautiful day and that makes all the difference. Checkpoint completed, I continued on...until what I thought was the end. On paper, it's a 75 km hike. At the 75 km mark, I'm wondering where the dang finish line is. Turns out it was a 76.1 km hike. "Are you kidding me?! Deep breaths. Avoid the panic. I can do this..." That's the mantra I repeated over and over again in my mind. "Deep breaths. Avoid the panic. I can do this..."
The finish kind of snuck up on me. I turned a corner and there were suddenly flags. Lots of flags. Big flags. White flags flapping in the breeze. I could feel the tears welling up in the corners of my eyes. Then, the clapping started. People who had finished were sitting on both sides clapping and cheering me on. People that I didn't know. People who come from other places and speak different languages. People with whom I, at the very least, shared this common bond with, this experience. They had made it. And now, I, too, had made it. I cried.
I'm sure there were many reasons for those tears. I hurt. I was beyond exhausted. But above all, they were tears of relief. I had done it. I accomplished what I had set out to do, and in doing so I took a really important step towards restoring faith in myself.
Friends and family keep asking how my trip and the hike were. There's no way I can explain all of this (above) over and over again. So, my response is just a bit of a smile with a simple, "It was awesome." Because you know what? It was.