Sunday, February 21, 2010

On happiness

Date: Feb. 21
Mileage: ~5
Total climbing: ~2,200 feet
Time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Weather: Sunny, 42 degrees, light winds
Details: Hike to Ben Stewart, 40-90 percent

I didn't sleep well last night because my heart rate wouldn't slow down, something that happens to me when I am "overtraining," which to me means working my body at a consistently higher rate than it is comfortable with for an extended period of time. The kind of thing I do during an ultraendurance race. The kind of thing I'm actually seeking to do right now, with my "mountain bender." But after not sleeping well, I woke up late with a sun hangover, prickly quad muscles and legs that felt like they were stapled to the mattress. My hands are torn to shreds from my Sheep Creek bushwhacking adventure and I'm finally starting to get blisters on my toes. So I decided, "time to take a rest day." I knew, physically, that rest would do me more good than exercise at this point.

I did some cleaning and organizing at home, and at noon decided to go to the office a couple hours early and work on some administrative stuff that I've been putting off. As I drove south, the mountain peaks that envelope Juneau like a fortress became visible through the diminishing fog. As though emerging from a fog myself, my inertia slowly became supplanted by desire. "I have two hours," I thought. "What can I do with two hours?" I drove past my office building and kept going.

I had in my car a pair of running shoes and clothing I wear to the gym. Not exactly up to the standards of the winter trekking gear I traditionally use, but perfectly adequate for what I had in mind - climbing to Ben Stewart, a 3,366-foot-high peak on Douglas Island. I have actually never been all the way to this peak before, because it's a muskeg-slicked slog in the summer and in the winter it is usually the realm of skiers - located in the immediate backcountry of Eaglecrest Ski Area. But it's a good, fast peak to hike for two reasons - you can "cheat" by starting at the base of the ski area at 1,150 feet rather than the typical Juneau starting point of sea level. And snowshoeing snowboarders generally lay a good boot-pack trail that is sufficient for running.

But as I tried to kick-start my reluctant legs and adjust my sunburned eyes to the bright white snow, that nagging guilt, "why are you doing this?" trickled into my mind. So I thought about it. I coughed and clawed up the slush and ice and thought about it. I didn't think very hard, because mountain benders combined with my weekend work duties generally turn my mind to mush. But the only answer I could come up with, as I stood on the peak with the sun-drenched pinnacles of Southeast Alaska surrounding me, was, "It makes me happy."

But that started me thinking about the substance of happiness. To me, the question "what is happiness?" is the same as asking "what is food?" It is something that fills you up, energizes and replenishes your body and mind. It is something you need and something you seek after. It is not the same for everyone - some people crave lobster; others like peanut butter sandwiches. Happiness is organic in the same way food is, consumable and finite. One source will never be enough to satiate a person forever. We are destined to pursue it our entire lives, and eventually find fulfillment in the pursuit as much as the reward. The question "are you happy?" is the same as the question "are you hungry?" Happiness is hunger, the force and motivation of life. If I'm satisfied today, I'll still have to go searching the next day, and the next and the next, until I breathe my dying breath. And to stop searching is to starve, slowly but surely. This I believe.

Then again, I have been spending a lot of time in the sun this week. :-)