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  • Thursday, February 19, 2015

    Incommunicado

    “What are you running from?” a co-worker once asked me.

    I didn't immediately know how to answer his question. I had finally convinced myself that quitting my job to hike the Appalachian Trail in June 2011 was the right decision, but was I running from something?

    "I'm not running from anything,” I said. “Continuing to work here is me running. Staying in this town is me running. I've been running my whole life! Going on this trip is me finally stopping!"

    "No, I mean, like, are you running from the law or IRS or something?”

    “Oh,” I said and smiled.

    “You just said you're going to spend the next six months hiking through two-thousand miles of wilderness. Why do you want to do that?"
    "Because when I'm hiking," I said "I never feel like I'm wasting my life."  
    The trip didn’t seem that crazy to me, although there was a time when I would have agreed it was crazy, and honestly, all about running from something. I daydreamed about it whenever things weren’t going well. I never dismissed the difficulty, but I found peace in the thought of hiking a single trail for six months. It was my escape, even if only in my mind.
    Until I click Publish, few people know about my issues with anxiety. I've had it my whole life. It's the kind that comes from nothing, that doesn’t need a spark to light or fuel to burn. Sometimes it’s a debilitating inferno. Sometimes it’s just in the background like a pilot light, but it’s always there, burning in my chest. 
    When I finally started backpacking, I discovered that after five or six days alone on a trail, that anxious feeling, which always sat in my chest like a lump, just vanished. Actually, more than vanished. That lump, which felt so dense that light couldn’t escape its gravity, burst outward like a supernova. I never felt more alive or aware of my surroundings.

    My whole life I tried to cure my anxiety by feeding it little bits of happiness or meaning: better jobs, different relationships, old religion, new religion, no religion, or a just different philosophy. Nothing really worked for me. Solo backpacking taught me that I didn’t need to add something; I just had to release what was already in there. I didn’t stress about anything because I no longer felt like I needed anything. 
    This feeling only lasted on the trail, though. The anxiety didn’t die; it just went home early and waited for my return. Initially, I’d feel good to be back home. I always developed a new appreciation for the comforts of home after a week in the woods, but eventually I’d more or less return to my normal self.
    In some ways it got worse. When you carry something with you every day, like a wallet or wristwatch, you eventually forget it’s there. Our brains are great at blocking out persistent sensations. But stop wearing that watch for a few days then put it on again and you can't help but notice its weight. Similarly, I couldn’t just ignore that pilot light anxiety anymore. I felt it burning constantly. Backpacking became my anti-anxiety medication, so I made it my life.
    So here I am, four years later, still administering my drug in the mountains of Spain. Or at least trying to. 
    Just a few days after the altercation on the beach, I stopped in a park for lunch. I lit my alcohol stove, set a pot of water to boil, and put on headphones. I unfastened a hiking pole from my bike and set it next to me, just in case.  
    When I heard voices nearby, I immediately shoved my headphones into my pocket and gripped the hiking pole. I sat still and alert waiting for my assailants to show themselves. 
    Two chatty elderly women strolled by.
    Since I started backpacking, I have wandered alone through forests home to grizzlies and mountain lions. I’ve encountered black bears in my camp. I’ve inadvertently stepped over venomous snakes. I’ve been lost on remote snow-covered mountaintops. I’ve been so dehydrated that I couldn’t produce enough saliva to swallow food. I’ve hitched rides from hundreds of strangers. I’ve slept, unconscious and vulnerable, in countless public places. Yet, I don’t remember being on such high alert, as when two old women strolled by me in a park in Spain. 
    The paranoia lasted for a couple weeks after the mugging. It surprised me how intense it got. Faces didn’t seem friendly anymore. I constantly looked over my shoulder. I tensed up when I heard noises at night. Even in broad daylight, I recoiled when anyone came near me. I angered easily and was ready to fight any man who so much as looked at me. And I used to be so friendly.
    A certain level of trust in humanity is required for this kind of life and for a time that was stolen from me too. The paranoia brought with it an extreme anxiety. I only camped outside if completely secluded. Even cars passing me on the highway stressed me out like they never had before. When roads didn't have shoulders, my heart raced every time I heard an engine behind me. It didn't help that someone stole my bike helmet when checking into a hotel one night. The anxiety sapped my energy so much that I often had to get off the bike to walk up hills.
    In a hotel bar, I saw a case of knives for sale. They were organized by smallest on the top shelf, to the largest on the bottom. I knelt down to the bottom shelf and requested the biggest one they had. Well, second biggest, the Ali Baba sword seemed excessive. I felt a lot better with the knife at my side. I had a little bit of control back. Or at least the illusion of control, but that was enough.
    Even as the paranoia faded, there was also the fact that 70 days passed since I had an actual face-to-face conversation with anyone. I realize now how important that is to me. Technology is great for keeping in touch with loved ones, but you get something from face-to-face contact that I didn't really understand until now. And my replacement phone never made it passed Spanish customs anyway, so I don't even have the ability to talk to friends whenever I need to anymore. 
    All of this left me feeling more alone than I ever have before. I started to question why I'm still doing this and considered leaving many times. The thought of returning to more normal life, however, made my anxiety worse, so I found myself thinking of the next adventures. That's when I thought of my co-workers question again.
    "What are you running from?" 
    I went into the mountains to get that blissful feeling back. I found secluded places to setup camp and I just stayed there a few days until I ran out of food. Then I moved forward until I found another place to camp. If I couldn't find a secluded spot before dark, I got a hotel.
    One morning, I got out of my tent and stood barefoot on sharp gravel for my morning restroom break. I looked up at the treeless mountains and dusty mesas in the morning sunlight. The ground was covered in jagged rock and tough desert plants of sage and brown. I took off my unneeded jacket and stepped into my shoes, so I could admire the view in comfort. 
    Bugs buzzed around my head annoying me. I focused on one of them. Bees. “Why can’t a moment ever just be perfect,” I thought. 
    I kept my eyes on one of the bees as it landed on a small flower with five white petals and a yellow center. It lingered for a moment then hovered to the next. The program running in its brain fascinated me. 
    I knelt down to wipe away the gravel from a small patch of earth and sat down. I watched the bee move from flower to flower as though bouncing in weak gravity rather than flying. As it floated around collecting pollen, I noticed the hundreds of white flowers all around me. I didn’t notice any of them yesterday. All of them were there because of a simple program running in the bee’s tiny brain that evolved into a codependent relationship with the flower. They depended on each other for survival.
    I realized that the only thing imperfect about this moment was me. I began to feel much better, but that feeling I used to have in moments like those wasn't as powerful as it once was. Maybe I've just been doing this for too long. Maybe I've let moments like this become too normal.
    When I first ventured far away from my home in the flatland of Indiana, I sped down the highways of the American West looking up in awe at that mountain scenery. I noticed that the locals on the road commuting to work stared forward, bored out of their minds, and I thought about how lucky they were without realizing it. I used to resent growing up in such a geologically boring area of the country, but I learned to be glad for it because it allowed me to appreciate the west properly, similar to a long winter’s effect on spring. Has spending too much time backpacking turned me into one of those unappreciative locals? Or is it something else, 
    I packed up, rode to the next town for supplies, and then moved to another spot deep into the woods on the base of a white-capped mountain. On my last morning there, I sat against a tree to read a book and sip coffee. I started to feel that old feeling again. I felt the anxiety began to vanish, but I felt like if I moved or got distracted by another thought I would lose it, like when you need everyone to shut up when you’re trying to remember a song that’s on the tip of your tongue.
    I needed more time, so continued inching across Spain in this way for two more weeks.
    On my final night of camping, a storm blew through. The wind kept me awake, so I stayed up to read. When I finally fell asleep, a gust of wind ripped my tent and it collapsed on top of me. I crawled out and tried to repair it in the rain. After spending so much time trying to hide quietly in the mountains, I stopped what I was doing and let out my frustration by yelling at the top of my lungs into the night sky. I was done with Spain. This wasn't working anymore. It's time to get moving again.
    I've often wondered if I could ever give up a life of such long adventures, but in the course of the last few months, I've discovered that I need people in my life. I need adventure too, but I need to find a proper balance of the two.
    I rode to the town of Malaga on the southern coast and booked a hostel. I've spent the last few days writing and actually having conversations again. I'm feeling much better now. I've stop stewing and made a new plan, a plan to wrap up this adventure for now. I'm heading to Seville, Spain next, then Lisbon, Portugal. From there I'll probably give the bike to the first homeless person I see, and then head to the airport. I'm not going home quite yet, though. There is still more I need to see before I do that...

    Thursday, January 22, 2015

    Decisions, Decisions

    I’m a very indecisive person. I tend to stop, weigh all my options, and then make an informed rational choice. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be debilitating. Sometimes I never come to a rational conclusion, then do nothing. I even make simple decisions, like buying groceries, needlessly complicated. I’ll often find myself walking around a supermarket multiple times before I even put anything in my cart.
    So when I got mugged a couple nights ago, it should come as no surprise that I stood still with the tip of my hiking pole pointed at a man holding a stun gun, considering all my options.
    I recently decided to head to Spain’s Sierra Nevada National Park. I couldn’t remember the last time I camped in the same place for more than one night. Camping used to be like meditation to me, but being constantly on the move has taken some of that away from the experience. I planned to setup a base camp on a remote site in the mountains, without moving forward for a few days.

    My last chance to pick up groceries and charge my batteries was in a city called Almeria on the southern coast. On my way to the grocery store, I found a McDonald’s, so went inside to look for an empty electrical outlet. I sat for hours eating junk food, writing, chatting with friends and family, and letting my batteries fully charge. At around midnight, I checked satellite images on Google Earth for a place nearby to setup camp for the night. I found a relatively secluded spot on a beach two miles south.
    After seeing it in person, I no longer felt good about the area, buildings abandoned, streetlights out, and it was too exposed and close to the city. I pushed my bike into the sand anyway, to have a better look around .
    There was litter strewn all over the beach, collected into piles wherever the wind carried it. From the satellite images, there seemed to be trees to hide in, but I only found shrubs shorter than my tent.

    I almost left, but the next closest place I found was ten miles away in the wrong direction, so I decided to explore the area a little closer before giving up.

    The deep sand made it hard to push the heavy bike, weighed down by gear. I unhooked my hiking poles and used one as a kickstand, so I could explore unburdened by it. I pulled out my cell phone to turn off the podcast I had been listening to. I wanted all my senses in this creepy place. That’s when I saw him. 
    I’ve never seen anyone on the beaches this late at night, so when his silhouette turned and started moving toward me, I got nervous.

    He talked to me in Spanish as he walked toward me. He didn't stop until he was uncomfortably close. Although I didn’t understand him, I knew I was seconds away from being mugged.

    I sought out this spot for the safety of isolation, but now it felt dangerously isolated. No people. No security lights. Just him and me. Our closeness would have been uncomfortable even if he wasn’t an intimidating stranger and we weren’t on a secluded beach at 1 AM.

    I tried to just walk away and hope I misread the whole situation.
    "Lo siento, no habla espanol," I said, I'm sorry I don't speak Spanish. I pushed the handlebars, the tires dug into the sand, making a quick getaway impossible. The bike suddenly felt like an anchor. He stepped in front of me. He had his right hand behind his back. He repeated the same words in Spanish. Maybe it was good I couldn't understand him.
    “Please don’t do this. Por favor,” I said. “Habla Ingles?” My voice sounded weak. I hate that my voice sounded weak.
    I gripped my other hiking pole and swung it at him. He stepped closer to me, making my swing completely ineffective. He grabbed me with his left hand. In his right, he pulled out what he was hiding. I looked down and saw the crackling blue arc of electricity.

    He tried to press the stun gun to my neck, but I reared back and grabbed his wrist. Electricity buzzed and crackled right next to my ear. I waited for the pain of electric shock. I waited for my muscles to contract. I waited for my body to drop to the ground. I was certain I'd lose everything.

    I shoved him away enough to point the hiking pole at his gut. I don't even remember doing it. He backed off. The stun gun never made contact with my skin.

    He tapped his wrist and yelled something else in Spanish. I think he was telling me to give him my watch. I didn’t have a watch. He seemed willing to back off, but not without taking something for his trouble. Then I finally heard a word I could understand.

    “Móvil! Móvil!”

    He wanted my cell phone.

    “Móvil!” He looked behind me and waved his hand as though summoning friends. I snapped my head around, but only saw an empty beach and crashing waves. If he had friends, I figured we would have met by now. He was bluffing.

    “Uno…” he started counting slowly. He lifted something white out of his pocket.

    “Dos…” Was it pepper spray?

    “Tres!” He held a white lighter above his head and flicked it, pretending to signal the others. He flicked it repeatedly, but couldn't get it to light. His hand was shaking too much.

    I had a decision to make, so of course I stopped and weighed all my options. He didn’t have backup. He didn’t have any other weapons or he would have used them by now. And he was nervous.

    Alright, Option 1: 
    Give him my phone.
    Pro: He may just take it and run.
    Con: I have over $400 invested in it. It's my only way to communicate with everyone I know and love. I'd be all alone in this Spanish speaking country at a time when I never felt more alone.
    Con: It was my only map.  I'd be lost without it.
    Pro: I'd potentially keep everything else, the bike, my laptop, my camera, and all my backpacking gear, in which I’ve invested almost three grand.
    Con: I have saved passwords and possibly personal financial information on it.
    I pulled out the phone. He held out his hand, but kept his distance due to the hiking pole still pointed at his gut. I tapped the settings button on the phone.

    “So if I give this to you, then what? You let me leave? We both just walk away?” I knew he didn’t understand a word. He said something indecipherable back to me, and then once again started to count to three. He held his lighter high in the air, flicked it, and once again failed to get it to light. I wasn't falling for his bluff, but it bought me time. I tapped the factory reset button.

    Option 2: 
    Ram the tip of this hiking pole into his gut and get psychotically violent all over his face.
    Pro: Maybe I’ll get to keep the phone. 
    Con: I could screw up, get myself tazed, and lose everything. 
    Pro: Maybe he doesn’t get away with this. Maybe he gets what he deserves. Maybe he bleeds to death in the sand.
    Con: Even if I could do it, I'd have to live with the fact that I stabbed a fellow human being for the rest of my life.
    I realized my left index finger was too swollen and painful to bend. I don't remember doing that. “I think you broke my finger,” I said.  
    “Móvil!” he yelled. “Móvil!”

    Option 3: 
    Back away with the hiking pole pointed at him and just get the hell out.
    Pro: This is finally over with.
    Con: The bike required both hands and was too heavy to move quickly in the sand. I’d have to leave it and lose everything.
    I decided to start with Option 1. If that didn’t end it, I’d move on to Option 2. Finally, if things went horribly wrong, I’d give Option 3 a go.

    I reluctantly held out my phone. The screen displayed a progress bar as it formatted. He grabbed it. I felt defeated, but even in hindsight, I can honestly say I made the right choice. The most rational of all choices.

    I pushed the heavy bike through the sand and got out of there. He didn’t move. I felt his eyes watching me from behind. When I got onto pavement, I hopped on the bike and looked back. I saw his silhouette in the silhouettes of shrubs. He had followed me at a distance.

    The streets were empty and eerily quiet. Every noise made me look over my shoulder and peddle faster. At first, I just tried to put distance between us. I turned down roads based on which were the most well lit rather than where they actually went. I looked to the stars to make sure I was at least going north, but for the first time since I’ve been here, when I looked up I saw nothing but clouds.

    After a couple of miles, I saw the McDonald’s golden arches. Only the drive-thru remained open, so I knocked on the glass door startling the manager.

    “I need to call the police," I said through the gap between the doors. "Hablas Inglés?”

    He shook his head. “No.”

    “Policía, teléfono,” I said, holding my thumb and pinky to my head, the international sign for telephone.

    He walked away for a few moments and came back with two of his employees.

    “We call police. Two minutes,” one of them said through the gap while holding up two fingers.

    “Gracias,” I said then took a seat on a bench.

    I didn’t expect the police to do anything, and of course they didn’t, but it felt irresponsible to tell no one. The first two cops didn't speak much English, so they called for another car. He spoke a little English, but it was still frustrating.
    "Are you going down there to check it out? See if you can find a guy in a black hoodie with a stun gun and a stolen cell phone," I said.
    "Well," he said. "That would be very difficult."
    "Can you at least check?"
    "We sent a third car there," he said, but I hadn't even given him the exact location yet.
    When the cops left, I stayed back to use McDonald’s free WiFi to book a hotel, since I no longer had a phone. A girl walked up to the fence behind me out of nowhere and startled me. She asked me something in Spanish.

    “No habla espanol,” I said. 
    I continued searching for a hotel, but kept one eye on her as she walked to the parking lot. Moments later, I looked back up and she was standing right in front of me. Even this smiling young woman made me nervous now. Maybe she had a weapon. Maybe she was just a decoy and her boyfriend was sneaking up behind me. I wished she would just go away.

    “Uhh, Toilet?” she asked and pointed at the entrance. She thought I was an employee and wanted in to use the restroom.
    "They are closed," I said. She smiled and left.  
    I got back on my bike to ride to the hotel two miles away. I couldn't wait to close the door to my room and lock the deadbolt. I peddled faster. Suddenly, and for the first time while I’ve been outdoors in Spain, it began to rain. And then it poured.

    I was ready to leave this country first thing in the morning and never come back.

    After I checked into the hotel, I locked the door and sat on the bed. I stayed up passed 5 AM replaying the events in my mind, only I imagined other ways it could have gone. Something dark hidden in the recesses of my brain forced me to visualize all of the ways Option 2 could have played out. In my mind I have stabbed him with the hiking pole over and over again. In the stomach, in his chest, in his neck, under his chin. I can't get those images out of my head.

    I’ve often wondered how I would handle a situation like this. Although I know I’m ridiculously indecisive, I always thought when push came to shove, I would react on instinct and with more bravery. I thought I was the kind of man who would stick up for himself, and just maybe, the kind of man who would have jabbed him with the hiking pole, pinned him to the ground and broke his goddamned face. As it turns out, that isn’t who I am. I’m the kind of man who stops, weighs all his options, and then makes an informed rational choice, even when being mugged. I think I'm glad for that.

    Except that I’m not.

    I don’t care about the phone. It's just money. I know I made the right choice. I have absolutely no doubt about that and I appreciate how lucky I am for how things turned out. I just want the fantasy back. I want to go back to believing that when push came to shove, I'd stand up for myself. For once I could set rationality aside and reacted with instinct and fearlessness.
    The next morning, I walked to the grocery store to pick up supplies. I walked down the aisles looking at labels, mentally calculating costs per calorie, putting things in my cart, deciding my choices weren't healthy enough and putting them back.
    I stopped.  
    “You’re still doing it. Quit over-thinking everything!” I silently berated myself. I walked back to the beginning of the first aisle with an empty cart. I breathed in deeply then out. 
    "Alright, let's do this again."

    I was out the door in under ten minutes with two grocery bags in my hands. A small thing, I know, but it's progress. 
    There was still the matter of what to do next. Rather than sit in my hotel room for the rest of the day weighing my options, I resolved to continue like nothing has changed. I'm riding into Sierra Nevada mountains now to find a remote quiet place to setup camp.