I turned 40 earlier this month. I don’t think I ever really believed I’d get this far. I didn’t have dreams or goals growing up, so it’s strange to be here now, probably more than halfway through my life, feeling full of possibility and even ambition. I have a sense of control over my life now, so I am asking myself what I want it to look like. And it’s not a question full of dread or compromise. I’m feeling like maybe I don’t need to settle for the status quo and am compelled instead to find out how far I can push past self-limitations. Can a late bloomer such as myself reach for radical change and achieve it?
I was never a physical person growing up. I remember wheezing around the track in elementary school as the other kids circled past me once, then twice. I was active in other ways; I played a lot outside, I loved obstacle courses, I even had a brief stint with Soccer when I was in eighth grade. But running seemed like punishment. Calisthenics was torture. I couldn’t do pull-ups or push-ups. Plus, the P.E. teachers of my youth were not actually interested in any of the kids that weren’t already athletes, so my group of friends would habitually forget our clothes, or get our periods, or find any excuse not to work out. The teachers barely batted an eyelash. My family had a vehement hatred of sports and were suspicious of anyone who would be involved in such a thing. I never got the message anywhere that I could be an athlete or even a fit person, even though looking back I see that I had a strong body type that would’ve had excelled at many different kinds of physical pursuits if only I or anyone else had seen it and planted a seed for it.
I’ve found exercise so late in my life. Time has been tough on me; I’ve aged hard, and my body has gone soft. I understand that there is no longer unlimited potential out there waiting to be realized by me. There are some physical goals I’m just not going to be able to accomplish. But I might be able to go farther than I think I can, and that’s what I want the focus of the next years of my life to be.
I’ve known in the back of my head for a while now that I want this hike from Mexico to Canada to be my gateway. I want to come back from it well seasoned and ready for more. I want to think grand and then reach for it as hard as I can. What are the real limitations of this body, this mind, this age? I’m spending my days as I wait to head down to the desert wondering, “what if”? What if I can do a triple crown in one year like (Married to the Trail) is attempting right now? Who says I can’t? What if I walk through every state in the U.S.? Or from the Southernmost tip of South America to Alaska? What if I just jumped in whole-heartedly and lived a life of inquisitive adventure? There’s only me to stop myself from seeing where my limit lies.
Even a year ago I would’ve been too scared to let these questions be authentic; I’d do what I usually do and turn them into a joke because it’s hard for me to let myself believe that I deserve to have a worthwhile life. That I’m allowed to not only have ambition but pursue it. That if I want to see the world by walking my way through it, I should just go ahead and honor that. Why the hell not?
There is a scene in the movie Everest (Based on the book, “Into Thin Air”- way better than the movie and worth a read) when the author Jon Krakauer asks the people have left their lives, their families, and their security to spend weeks suffering in order to climb to the top of a mountain that is a notorious killer, what prompts people to do such a seemingly unreasonable thing? [paraphrased] “We do it because it’s there!” Everyone shouts in unison to his question. “I do it because I can,” says a man. “I do it because I’m 47, and I’ve done six of the big summits, so I need to do the seventh,” Yasuko Namba explains. “I have kids. They see a regular guy can follow impossible dreams, maybe they’ll do the same,” Doug Hansen explains. Then Beck pulls Krakauer to the side and says, “You know, when I am in my real life, I’m just… there’s a black cloud following me, a depression. When I am on a mountain, it’s like a cure. It’s the only thing that makes the depression go away.” (get real quote).
I relate to all these answers when it comes to what I think of as Endurance Hiking. Especially the last. I have a good life nowadays. A lovely home, amazing husband, entertaining and eccentric animals; I’ve even been making headway into the writing world. All of these are ingredients for a satisfying life. And yet. There is a dark cloud in me, something I manage well, but it’s still there, nevertheless. When I am on the trail, surrounded by the physicality of earth and sky, that darkness fades. Oh, I am still moody and full of all the same emotional cycles and worries. But I’m not depressed. I am what I think “normal” or “emotionally adjusted” might feel like. I am not lost or broken. I am whole. Or, just in case I’m over-romanticizing: I have more clear moments where I know that I am whole.
My mother couldn’t understand why I thought I had to do the Pacific Crest Trail. When I told her all my reasons, she pointed out that I could get all these same things from finishing college, or cultivating my home life, or some other safer, more conventional endeavor. Those are the moments I feel like I may as be one of those guys sitting at Everest base camp, shouting, “Because it’s there!” and laughing uproariously. I don’t think these things can be adequately explained to people who don’t already have some form of it themselves. It’s unreasonable; it doesn’t make sense. She’s right, though; I could go to school and achieve something, maybe. But the success proffered at school is meant for others, it’s not meant for me. School-suffering doesn’t fit with me, where trail-suffering does. It’s important to choose your suffering, right? In the end, no whys or hows will explain that walking five months is just right for me. It is because it is because it is.
I didn’t have much control over my early years. Later, I was too ill and damaged to make good choices for myself. Now I’m forty, and I want more. I don’t know how much life I have left. My suspicion is that I have less than others because of how the first forty have gone. So I want to make what I have left count. Maybe getting to Canada will be enough, but I don’t think so. I’m certain I need to walk through as much of the world as I can before I die. I need to see the places where no cars go. I need to follow a line, a trail, a dream and a goal that only exists because I conjured it up. I need to witness the geography of this earth and just be in it. I just want to be in it. As long as possible.
Thanks for listening! I’m excited for the PCT and what lies beyond. It’s so great to be excited and share it with y’all. March 20th just can’t get here fast enough.