Trail Thoughts: The Dark Forest

Losing your way is always a possibility, no matter how clear the trail ahead might seem. For me, this meant losing sight of my goals during a two-week party binge in Zagreb, Budapest and Bratislava. I spent twice my normal monthly budget during those weeks, completely undoing my careful spending of the months before. This was a highly uncharacteristic move for me, even more so when I felt a sudden reluctance to continue my hiking adventures in Slovakia. How did this happen?

At first, I chalked it up to my travelling the Balkans during a pandemic; almost everything was closed, whatever was open was near-empty and border crossings were arduous adventures all of their own. All in all, a pretty bleak experience. To then finally arrive in the EU where hostels were populated and social once more, meant finding something I missed out on for months. Add to that an unexpected (and all too short) meetup with one of my best friends from back home, and it only made sense that I suddenly sought comfort in the social atmosphere of party hostels.

But that didn’t explain my reluctance to getting back on the Trail. Was I getting weary of travel in general? Or was there something else that I wanted, but was having trouble realising?

The forests ahead seemed unwelcoming and full of hardships

I guess that sometimes, we tend to distort tasks and expectations that lie ahead into some sort of figurative dark forest, where we then fear to tread. Even though we know this dark forest isn’t all that dangerous, our minds nevertheless create imaginary obstacles to prevent us from walking underneath its shady canopy.

This dark forest often grows from a fear of failure, fear of success, or, as I now suspect was the case with myself, some hidden unanswered need that isn’t being met. Where before I would relish the opportunity to dive headfirst into the unknown, I now felt strangely hesitant. And where I usually yearn for the freedom and serenity of woods and hills, the actual forests ahead seemed unwelcoming and full of hardships, warped by the dark forest growing in my mind.

I forced myself to start my planned hike and entered the hills above Bratislava to continue my travels in earnest, doubts be damned. After a few days of sweating and toiling in the hot Slovakian summer weather, I felt a little better. Physically, I was in terrible shape, but that was nothing new; COVID-induced quarantine and only a few hikes during the months before never got me back into the fit shape I was in last year. I knew from experience that my physical discomfort would only lessen the longer I stayed on the Trail.

I always considered myself immune to this

But despite the beauty of my surroundings and the prospect of exploring a country full of adventurous potential, I was still feeling uneasy. And after dreaming of home for the third time in five days, I suddenly realised I was suffering from something I hadn’t felt in a long, long time: I was homesick.

The last time I can remember feeling homesick, I was around 7 years old and not enjoying school camp. No wonder I had such a hard time identifying the source my discomfort; I always considered myself as someone immune to this particular brand of melancholy. As it turns out, I wasn’t. And as ideas of onward travel slowly turned into an ever-growing reluctance, I realised I now faced a choice. Would I suffer through and continue my travels? Or would I cut to the roots of this dark forest and choose to fulfil my needs over adhering to a flawed self-image?

After all, what is the point of having the freedom of a travelling lifestyle if you can’t give yourself the freedom to act on your own inner needs?

So, I flipped a coin. Heads would see me continuing my travels, tails would mean heading back home for a while. As I looked at the coin on the back of my hand I knew the outcome of this coin toss never really mattered.

The relief I felt at the fact that I was finally going home was all the answer I needed.

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