Is There a Cure for Re-entry Syndrome?

Porters carrying loads below Kabru Massif

Porters carrying loads below Kabru Massif

I just returned from a long trip abroad. Three weeks in the Himalayas. It was glorious. It was magical. It was horrifying.

Moments of grandeur and high-mountain beauty slice against images of filth and extreme poverty. But what endures as I try to sift through my everyday life, is the memory of smiling locals and a feeling of what can only be described as re-entry syndrome.

I’m no stranger to re-entry syndrome. When I got off a three-week trip on the Grand Canyon several years ago, I stumbled around in a fog for weeks. My usual sense of purpose and industry had vanished. I was left with the big questions that had arisen while floating the Colorado, but none of the simple answers that had reverberated off the canyon walls.

It’s the same now.

Sikkim is a state in India. Wedged between Nepal and Bhutan and butted up against Chinese Tibet, Sikkim was a separate kingdom until 1975. In some ways, it is more Nepali than Indian, and our trek took us along the border between the two countries. Goecha La, our high point, after two weeks on the trail, brought us to within 5 kms of Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world which borders Nepal and Sikkim.

sikkim himalayas

Prayer flags mark the pass into Dzongri

Yak herders bring the animals back to camp

Yak herders bring the animals back to camp

I loved walking amongst these giant mountains. Every morning the sun rose to reveal new ridges and glaciers, taller peaks than the day before and rows and rows of sharp beauty. I especially loved the “not-thinking” required in trekking. We had porters and yaks to carry the heavy gear. My job was only to eat, sleep and walk. I’d pictured spending hours on the trail sorting through the minutiae of my mind–plotting my upcoming book, making a final decision about whether or not to continue my radio show, figuring out how and where and if I could manage to create some significant work.

But that’s not how it worked.

Whole days went by and I just walked. No mental plans were made. No epiphanies found.

Chortens above Dzongri, Sikkim

Chortens above Dzongri, Sikkim

I wondered if I were squandering my chance. After months of research for my latest book and years of plotting and scheming, this was my opportunity to catch up. To let my mind wander. To come up with my next big idea.

Camp, 14,000 feet

Camp, 14,000 feet

Instead I just looked around. I gaped at the mountain view. I cried at the scenes of poverty in the cities. Some days, while hiking along the base of towering peaks, the tears flowed for no apparent reason. Maybe this was gratitude, I told myself. But even that thought vanished in the monotony of putting one foot in front of the other. Maybe it’s an altitude thing. Perhaps I was a little hypoxic.

Or maybe the physical act of walking was erasing my need to analyze and understand every little emotion and idea that entered my brain.

Maybe I simply needed to be.

Now I’m home, and I’m experiencing reverse culture-shock. There should be a to-do list on my desk a mile long getting checked off one by one. I should be getting back into the groove, preparing for the ski season, stocking up at Costco, obsessing over the weather forecast.

Instead, I feel like I’m floating. Somewhere between the Himalayas and my old life is a new path twisting in front of me like a toy snake. I’ll find it soon enough.

But I’m not in any hurry.

10 responses »

  1. Kim, this is one of your best posts yet. Not only is it beautiful and eloquent (I loved “I was left with the big questions that had arisen while floating the Colorado, but none of the simple answers that had reverberated off the canyon walls.”), but really rung true with me today. In fact, just the title called my attention because I knew exactly what you were referring to!

    Next to me is a rather vast to-do list. Some of it fairly essential but not urgent, a lot of it important in the long run, some of it not essential at all, but would be nice to get to. Right now we’re planning our own trip abroad, hoping to depart in February. I’m longing to escape the demands of life right now, even though I know that’s not a long-term solution. The real work – and the most realistic approach – is in finding a balance. We can’t escape all the things we need to do. We also can’t just live life on the trail if we have other goals we want to accomplish, such as writing a book.

    I can totally relate to those times on the trail where kilometres pass and your mind hasn’t really been thinking about anything in particular. As much as we want to think through some things, sometimes just letting ourselves ‘be’ is part of the process. So much happens in our subconscious. And also, when we allow ourselves to be present instead of trying to mull through some thoughts, we can actually open ourselves up to new experiences that may provide the inspiration we need. I’ve been learning this one a lot lately during my playtime with my little girl. At times I get a bit restless, feeling like I want to get things done. But if I just pay attention, I’ll discover something new.

    On that note, this comment marks my last week of 52 Weeks of Feedback (! Looking back over the list, I realize I chose your articles three times. Yours were some of my favourites, I think because they always struck a chord in me. I feel like we could easily fill up an afternoon chatting over coffee.

    I look forward to more of your posts!

    • Oh Megan. Thank you for this lovely feedback. And may I say Bravo for completing your 52 weeks of feedback project. What a great endeavor to have embarked upon. It is true what you say about the value of receiving feedback. Even negative feedback–if honest and free from vitriol and ulterior motives–can be very valuable.

      I know what you mean about how it’s okay to just let ourselves “be” sometimes. I know that in my head, but my heart wants to see me tick things off my list. I’m not sure if I’d truly expected some big discovery while on my trip, but it happened at the culmination of a bunch of projects, so I was ready for a new direction to unfold.

      I also agree about the afternoon chatting over coffee. That would be lovely if it could ever happen.

      Enjoy your future travels and thanks again for the kind words.

  2. WOW !
    your post made me pause & think a while !
    sounds like you & John had an amazing trip.
    you’re so right about the impression of floating after experiencing “time out” & simply “being”.
    a bit the feel i get when in africa & returning – a long moment without wifi & connection to our home life, makes us concentrate on just being.
    remember how hard it was to pick up with communication again & the regular course … felt like floating & taking time getting back into my old reality. getting back but with new perspectives.

    take your time to come back & enjoy the post-trek effect !!!

    • You are so wonderful Corinne. I should follow your lead and allow myself this time to regroup. I love what you say about “just being.” I want to be more like that all the time.

  3. Absolutely lovely post, beautifully written. somehow I knew it would be when I clicked on the link. Especially your line about being between here and the Himalayas. wish I could sink into this and chew it for a while but I have a deadline today…..gorgeous photos too! Makes me want to go back to the Himalayas…possible trip next spring. stay tuned.

    • Jill,

      Thanks for taking the time to even read this post when you have a deadline. I’m trying to enforce a few deadlines on myself as a kickstarter for motivation. It isn’t working. I guess I’m too smart for my own good.

  4. Dear Kim,

    Thanks for sharing your feelings regarding the amazing experience in the Himalayas. I found you after searching “re entry syndrome” as I have reached home 48h ago after a 6-week out-of-this-world experimence in Ladakh, similar in some ways to yours. I totally feel spaced-out and as you nicely put it, floating somewhere between the Himalayas and my old life. I can’t seem to focus on anything in an apathic mindset,finding the world surrounding me somewhat dull. Thanks to your testimony , I now feel releaved:)
    Best, from Switzerland ,

    • Thanks for the lovely comment Hugo. Travel always changes our perspective. The trick is to carry that wonder through to our everyday lives. After the floating feeling passes, hopefully you can bring some of that wonder back to you. Switzerland is a country full of beauty too. I always try to see my home from the eyes a traveller. Best to you.

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