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."