Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Is there enough?



Flecks of snow fluttered into my eyes as the front tire spit a stream of grit toward my face. It seemed like a less than dignified way to end a journey that began two months ago under the scorching sun of Salt Lake City's August, and finished on this country road silenced by Upstate New York's October. And yet it hardly seemed real as the autumn storm intensified into a light blizzard — I got on my bike Utah, and pedaled it 3,200 miles, and ended up here ... in New York! I expected — no, scratch that, I knew that this would be the defining journey of my adult life. Someday I would tell my grandkids or my grandnieces and nephews this story, about the time I rode a bicycle across the United States. "Nothing can ever top this," I thought, and I believed it.

It's been nearly ten years since I pedaled from Salt Lake City to Syracuse, New York — that once-in-a-lifetime journey which, I told myself, would satisfy my craving for adventure. I used to believe things like that, genuinely. I convinced myself that this desire which hummed from the deepest core of my consciousness could finally be quelled by one great adventure. Then I could get on with my life — whatever that was. My bicycle tour across the country was a thundering crescendo. I was going to return from New York, take up residence at the newsroom desk that awaited me in Utah, move out of my college commune, and rent my first very own apartment. I was going to do the things adults do — whatever those things were.

Everyone who knows me, knows exactly how that worked out.

"I'm sure even some of my closest friends may find it hard to believe when I say I've always believed that, at some point, one of these experiences will turn out to be "enough." That's not to say, I'd be done with trail running or give up long, multi-day treks. It just means that I won't be driven to find something bigger, harder or "more" than what I've already accomplished. It seems to me that the unbounded pursuit of ever more difficult challenges can only end in a breaking point and I'm not really interested in finding where that is."
— My friend Steve Ansell, reflecting on his recent 350-mile 
journey to McGrath, Alaska, in "Enough" 

On Sunday, I had a chat with Tim Long at the new Elevation Trail podcast about the rhetorical question, "How Far is Enough?" He posted the interview under the title "How Long Distances Lead You Home." The podcast is about an hour long and can be downloaded for on-the-go broadcasting if you are interested in listening. We didn't have time to delve into philosophical concepts of "enough," because I spent too much time describing my own journey toward endeavors that might be perceived as "too much." It all started when I was a teenager, hiking with my dad; he and I would find higher and harder peaks to climb in the Wasatch Mountains. Then it was backpacking, then bicycle touring, and then I found my way into endurance racing via the backdoor of what was then the completely obscure sport of winter cycling. First it was 100 miles, then 350, and then the 2,700-mile Tour Divide. And just when burnout was at an all-time high and "topping" these adventures was becoming more of a logistical problem, I turned to something that's quite difficult for me personally, and thus deeply intriguing — trail running. 

Reading Steve's post prompted me to turn his question of "enough" back on myself. These days, I'm no longer searching for a resolution. I finally concluded that the spirit of adventure is a fundamental component of my identity. For me, adventure is as fundamental — and I might even argue as irrevocable — as eating. And like eating, it's impossible to ever be fully satisfied. I could eat the most epic meal of my life — pounds of sushi, ice cream, a mountainous salad, and all the soda I can guzzle. I'll be full for the rest of the day, and maybe even the next day. But eventually, inevitably, I'm going to be hungry again. And it's not going to take weeks. It won't even be days. One day is all it takes for hunger to creep back in. 

Imagine that somebody invented an implant that gave you all the nutrition you'll need for the rest of your life. You will never have to eat, or feel hungry, ever again. Would you accept this mechanical nutrition device — or would you choose to keep eating? Eating is a huge pain in the ass; it requires a great deal of work, is incredibly easy to overdo, and causes no end of agitation, confusion, and angst. But eating is also one of the joys of life. Each meal carries the promise of something sublime. Would you choose to give it up? Think about it. Given the option, I'd choose to stay hungry. 

Is there a limit to how much I can eat, how much I can do? Of course there is. But just like turning from backpacking to cycling to trail running and points beyond, there are always new opportunities spread across the table. You know what they say about variety — but the spice of life, I believe, lies in those variations that are still untried. Beauty is infinite; as long as I remain hungry, there's no end to the discoveries I can devour. 

 As to the breaking point, Tim Long made a great observation on his own blog:

"I've always looked at life like a rubberband. The further you stretch the pain and suffering, the easier it is to stretch it to that point next time and then you stretch it a little more. Your perception stretches. What was perceived as difficult or maybe even impossible is now ordinary." 

 "What happens when the rubberband snaps?" you may wonder while sipping your tea at your work cubicle, wasting time at work reading this drivel. Death. The metaphor of the snapping rubberband is Death. Up to that point is living full."

16 comments:

  1. Interesting concept as I read in my cubicle, which by the way prevents me from adventure but lets me acquire cool gear. I am on another spectrum. I don't really need to experience suffering...my idea is that I have had enough of that in my life. for me the rubberband is all about exploration into that calm state that only wilderness provides. I need that flow and seek it endlessly.

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  2. And adventure might be something that has nothing to do with endurance sports. The world is big with so many opportunities.

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  3. Jill,

    I'm glad my post inspired you to post some more detailed thoughts on this subject as I had some questions for you after your initial response. I think there is more to say on this and related subjects that really can't be done in a comment. However, I feel I should offer some sort of response especially now that it has been a full month since my original post.

    I think my short addendum to my post would be that "enough" does not mean "done". The pursuit of adventures in the outdoors will always be a core part of my character, My thirst for variety and trying new things will always drive me to seek out new and unique challenges. However, I don't feel that those new adventures necessarily need to outshine what I've already accomplished in some way. Whereas, I think a few years ago I felt that I was on a continual, upward trajectory of endurance, difficulty, remoteness or what have you.

    Basically, I think my perspective has changed over the past couple years to focus more on the uniqueness of a few big events per year rather than to live in a constant state of "what's next?" To use your food analogy, its sort of the difference between indulging in a few big gourmet meals rather than trying to eat everything in sight like a ravenous beast.

    Anyway, there's much more to say/discuss on this subject than can be said here. I look forward to getting together with you and Beat to discuss more once this "adventure" of a different sort I am in the midst of right now settles a bit.

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  4. Mary — I understand, and I still think "suffering" is the wrong word to describe the process of stretching my physical and emotional capabilities. But Tim makes a great analogy in his version of the rubber band. I still remember vivid specifics about that first hike to Mount Timpanogos with my dad at age 16, or the first time I rode a bicycle century. There was no small amount of pain and fatigue, and yet also so much joy and fulfillment. Now, when I hike Timpanogos or ride a century, there is still fatigue, joy, and fulfillment. But these emotions emerge on a much smaller scale. To experience those same challenges and extremes of emotion, I need to stretch myself farther these days. I value these experiences enough that I still choose this path. Someday I may change my mind. Or perhaps, as Tim suggests, the rubberband never snaps. We continuously find new avenues to stretch ourselves.

    Danni — I fully agree. All of my big adventures were once simply that. I found endurance sports as a matter of curiosity and convenience, really, but stayed because I enjoy the tangible challenges of established events. Plus I'm such a terrible planner. I'd rather avoid in-depth trip planning if I can. During our cross-country trip, we set out with a final destination, a Rand McNally Road map, and few other ideas about where we'd spend nights or even what states we'd eventually pedal through. My latest trip to Alaska had similar aimlessness. Such spontaneity works great for touring but less than great for hiking through large swaths of wilderness. And yet I drag my heels on planning a fastpacking adventure.

    Steve — your post and Tim's call did inspire much self-reflection on this matter. As you pointed out, it's not something that can be adequately covered in a short blog post. I hope we can get together soon. I'd love to hear more about your current adventure.

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  5. I loved the comparing seeking adventures to eating:) And yes, as Steve said, enough does not equal done for majority of us. Just different? A little later? It's a process, indeed, varies for each of us by definition, but a process nevertheless.

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  6. One can expand one's abilities and have "bigger" experiences by adding to one's skill set - getting better at something, or learning to do something new. It doesn't always have to be about "harder, longer" (tip of the hat to PKers) to be "more." Or one could strive to do the same thing "better" - not necessarily "faster."

    Even wilderness trips really don't have to be excruciatingly planned out and executed with military precision like the current trend of "how to" books seems to indicate. If you know what you're doing out there, you can travel indefinitely and change your destination whenever you want. That's where the skill set comes in. As a matter of fact, precisely planning a wilderness trip is more than likely going to be fruitless because things are always different than one expects and Mother Nature always has a say.

    As far as experiencing extremes of emotion - honestly that seems a little odd. Fatigue and pain are states of being, not emotions - do you actually mean "extremes of emotion," or something else?

    I think if you enjoy what you're doing at any given time, great, but if you're waiting for the depths of despair just so you can experience an upswing of joy, well, maybe there's a challenge for you to overcome that has nothing to do with travel. That is similar to something I had to correct when I first started traveling the world at age 18 - I would get morose and lonely and start navel-gazing and writing overly dramatic trip journals, and think I was doing it right. They're hysterical to read from twenty years down the road.

    Basically I think such optional experiences should be mostly fun or it's just a form, as Mary says, of suffering, and we don't need more of that in the world. I don't mean "hard workout" suffering, but I do mean emotional suffering, which has no place in "fun" as far as I'm concerned. I also think if one isn't having mostly fun on adventures or trips, the skill set isn't there yet, or something else is going on inside that person that has nothing to do with the activity itself.

    "That was fun, I'd like to do it again" seems healthy, "how can I top that now, the next thing must be bigger!" seems a little pathological.

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  7. I think neither Jill (making assumption here) or I seek out emotional extremes but unless you're incredibly callous, despair and emotional pain occurs, whether you have control of it or, more typically, not. It could be losing your best friend and soulmate like I did when my father died suddenly or a dissolved long term relationship with someone you shared your life with. It happens and those emotional extremes stretch your capacity to understand them and handle them. That was the point.

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  8. With navel-gazing blog posts such as this, I'm mainly trying to describe what drives me. Some people are driven to master technical challenges on mountain bikes; some people are driven to run as fast as possible in a 5K. Some people are driven to relax on beaches. I don't expect different people to be driven by the same motives, and honestly I don't believe one is necessarily better or worse than others. I do try new things from time to time, look for new motivation from different sources, but ultimately I keep coming back to the same overarching desire — to travel long distances under my own power.

    Regarding extremes of emotion, I was mainly referring to joy ... and also to the satisfaction of overcoming negative emotions, such as fear and doubt. I tend to agree with Footfeathers' point. Endurance endeavors have helped me gain a better understanding of myself and what triggers emotional reactions, both positive and negative. When I encounter life's inevitable moments of despair and grief — frustrating world events, catastrophic natural disasters, relationships ending, people I love dying — I feel stronger and better prepared to handle them.

    But the one emotion that this hobby has helped me understand over all others is fear. I was once gripped by fear, nearly paralyzed by it — now I feel that I have some control over this largely irrational emotion. For me, endurance sports have always been about looking fear and weakness in the face and pressing forward anyway.

    In many ways, the "bigger, longer, harder" drive has little to do with numbers and more to do with facing new fears and encountering new heights of joy. It doesn't actually need to be longer or more physically difficult, although often it is — but the main drive is something that's more mentally or emotionally challenging. And of course it's more complicated than that. Otherwise the argument that I should just learn new skills would hold up, because of course I'm terrified of extremely technical mountain biking or downhill skiing. But for whatever reason, these activities trigger all of my negative emotions with no outlet for positive emotions. My fear of technical mountain biking has often ended in crashes and pain, and thus holds no joy. But the fear of being alone in the wilderness has yielded to strength and joy, and thus sparks continuing passion.

    But again, it's hard to go into much depth in a blog post let alone a comment. Still, it's a good discussion. Thanks for the comments.

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  9. Jill, I was just thinking about this subject this morning. I think for me, one reason I seek out adventure is that I crave that extreme focus that you need to train for and accomplish something big.

    Obviously, there is a lot more too it, but generally after the adventure is over and the high of the accomplishment fades, my brain starts thinking about what's next. I go into a sort of low level depression. With nothing to focus on (outside of work and my relationships), my mind is all over the place and I'm looking for the next big thing to bring me back to focus. Sometimes, what's next is to do the same thing faster, or better in some way (or actually finish). But usually, it's something completely new. A new area to explore, or a new sport or a new project at work that will push my limits. I'm in that post adventure state right now.

    I can't say that I crave the emotional extremes, but learning how to manage them out on the trail has helped me immensely in dealing with them in everyday life.

    As far as enough, I don't know if that exists for me, but there is definitely an enough-for-right-now.

    Julie

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  10. Even too much is not enough!

    From one glutton to another. :) Great post.

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  11. Good post. Never enough for some... I'll never forget seeing Norman Vaughan on the trail to Nome in the serum run a number of years ago. He was over 90 at the time and carried a walker with him. He was my hero.

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  12. Fear can be very rational; it's your brain's way of telling you something is out of whack. I'm kind of astounded at the number of people who write about being afraid most of the time in their sport - climbing comes to mind. I think people get scared because they're pushing way over their skill limit. It's possible to learn to climb without being terrified all the time.

    It seems these days that people go for the "extreme" before they even learn how to do the activity itself - if that makes sense. For instance, people are diving straight into the backcountry before they even learn how to ski. It just seems to be the ethos of the day that top-roping isn't cool, taking lessons is for babies, and if you're not operating at the very limit, you're not trying hard enough to be worthy (of what, exactly, I don't know). I don't know how things got that way. I think it's perfectly fine to be satisfied with "everyday" activities. But for me personally, I feel that I accomplish a lot in general so I don't feel the need to continue to push hard at every single thing anymore. I don't care about "success" as long as I'm enjoying myself. But that's just me of course.

    I remember reading an article about a guy who was riding his trainer 3+ hours every day just to stay competitive at bike races at age 65+. It just seems like such a waste - an enormous amount of time devoted to something that ultimately has little to no bearing on a life well lived. Will he look back and wish he'd spent more time on his bike trainer, I wonder?

    This is getting kind of rambly, but maybe that's the difference - will you look back and be satisfied with the things you did in life, or wish for something else? I worry about this sometimes, especially with spending so much time writing silly shit for the Internet. Will I regret all that lost time later? Will I regret the time it took to write this comment...? Only time will tell I suppose.

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  13. Phil — jealous that you had a chance to meet Norman Vaughan. I remember putting together his obituary for the Homer Tribune and thinking he was someone I would have liked to know.

    Jill — my perspective is that if you think something is a waste of time, it is; and if you don't, it isn't. Maybe for that older guy, the three-plus hours he spent on his trainer was his favorite part of the day. Or maybe he so enjoyed the thrill of being competitive that he was happy to make the time sacrifice. What matters is that he was happy; who's to say he wasn't?

    And as to wasting time on the Internet, well ... I can't even quantify the vast amount of time I have "wasted" connecting with people and compiling my life online in the past 10 years. I still don't regret it, and doubt I ever will. Just because some other people don't see value in something doesn't mean I can't. Experience is always subjective, and everyone gets to decide on their own terms what makes for a life well lived. That's really the only point I was trying to make.

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  14. I was driving across Northern New Mexico last Sunday thinking about miles, the meaning of adventure and why write about my modest activities. I think Jill and Danni have nailed it. There are so many opportunities for adventure out there, it is a mindset about what each person chooses to do. Finding the best cheeseburger in America could be a great adventure for some folks. If the activity seems "epic" to the person undertaking it, then it not only is adventure, but it will probably be fun for the rest of us to hear or read about that person's experience of their own sense of an adventure.

    Personally, I love reading about ultra-adventures that are beyond me to undertake. They are interesting stories but they also inspire me to push myself farther, remind me when I am feeling in over my head or fearful that others undertaking harder adventures sometimes have the same feelings and yet go on to their goals. Thanks Jill for your "navel-gazing."

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  15. Hi Jill, I just ran across your blog by searching "outdoor blogs Alaska". I live in Alaska and I am one of cofounders of a peer to peer outdoor rental and sports equipment company called GearSpoke. (www.gearspoke.com). We are currently looking to cross advertise with like minded companies/bloggers, which would help with new traffic sources on both sides.

    Please email me linda@gearspoke.com, if you are interested.

    Thanks and happy blogging!

    Linda

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  16. * slow clap *

    I love this post and all its links. Great job putting into words something so difficult to explain. Great comments as well.

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