When I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) last year, I was happier than I had ever been. I was surrounded by incredible beauty on a daily basis, and felt a sense of community and purpose in my life. It was exactly what I’d been wanting to do for a long time. I was living the dream.
After I got off the PCT last October, I felt lost. I couldn’t go back to what I’d been doing before after tasting such happiness.
But I didn’t want to have to have my life revolve around scraping enough money to support a series of long distance hikes. Being miserable while I was saving up for future hiking trips seemed unbalanced and unsustainable, like a sure path to depression. What if something happened again, like my stress fracture, that prevented me from hiking? I needed to find a way to make off-trail life fulfilling and meaningful.
Making a Difference
Seeking a new path, I traveled around last winter. I visited Still Waters who was serving the homeless with the AmeriCorps program. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, AmeriCorps is like a domestic version of the Peace Corps. Volunteers work all across the US on critical problems including homelessness, the environment, energy, and education. She urged me to volunteer at the soup kitchen and shelter as I searched for jobs. As I watched Still Waters listen to her clients and find ways to help them, I could see that making a difference was part of the answer for what I need to do next. As I peeled mounds of sweet potatoes, I realized I didn’t need to change the world, I just needed to do a small part, to make a contribution.
I thought about causes I believe in. I am most passionate about the environment, our trails and parks, and connecting people with nature. Maybe not as critical a problem as homelessness, but it felt more personal and compelling to me, and like something that has served as a driving factor in my life. It was also related to one of my childhood dreams.
Living the Dream
If I could make my dream of hiking the PCT a reality, then I could turn my bucket list and all my childhood dreams into a to-do-now list. A childhood dream of mine was to be a park ranger. I wanted to lead interpretive programs, answer the nature questions at the visitors center, and know every trail, plant, and bug in my park.
|It feels like I'm making a difference when I share my excitement about the natural world with these children. Plus they call me "Ranger Joan."|
|Working with the Montana Conservation Corps for National Trails Day.|
|My AmeriCorps Team!|
|Guess which one is me.|
|First graders mesmerized by a click beetle.|
|Responding to phone calls from park visitors about fawns too close to the trail is part of my job.|
If anyone out there is wondering what to do after a long-distance hike, I hope you seriously consider finding ways to give back. Committing to serve in national service program like I did is just one possibility. Volunteer at a local park, join a trail crew, find a cause you support, and get out there in the community and do something.
|Plus, this is the view I get from "work."|
Montana State Parks AmeriCorps