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  • Friday, June 3, 2011

    Yosemite, Part Ten
    - Number 26 on my life list.

    Part 10 
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    The bus zoomed out of Yosemite Valley on curvy narrow roads. I was in the back with my head against the window. Boulders and cliff walls zipped by, sometimes only a few feet from my face. Tree branches growing over the road whacked at my eyes behind the thin pane of glass. I sat unflinching, thinking about the months that would follow. My next excursion was a long gray winter away and I was consumed by wanderlust.

    Returning home from my last few trips have been met with prolonged feelings of anxiety. Feelings that stem from knowing there was something I needed to do, but I was not doing it. I knew I needed to leave Indiana, at least for a while. Well, not just Indiana, everything. It’s not the first time I felt this way, but I have always managed to convince myself to take the easier path instead, to always side with the comfortable and the familiar. But no matter how good that can be, it is no substitute for adventure and the thrill of the unknown.

    Outside the window, the granite terrain of the Yosemite Valley merged into less dramatic rolling hills, the color of California sun-bleached hair.

    Since the time my grandpa told me about a lawyer who quit his job to hike the Appalachian Trail, I dreamed of living my own simple nomadic life. All morning, I thought of the two hikers I met yesterday on their trip of a lifetime. They were doing it, and they seemed okay. Why did I always squelch these desires? They too were consumed by wanderlust, but they didn’t struggle with it. They ran with it. 

    I have tried to satisfy this feeling with weeklong journeys into the woods, but rather than quench these feelings, they have only served to embolden them. 

    The two hikers, or at least the version of them I built up in my head, weren’t waiting for some external thing to happen to set them in motion. Nor were they waiting for someone else to lead them. 

    - - - 

    We approached a bus stop where a girl was sitting on the ground, next to a backpack that seemed to weigh more than she did. She jumped up and hoisted it on her back as the bus came to a stop. Her long dark hair was tossed and twisted like it only does when you’ve been living on a trail for a while. 

    On that final morning before heading into the valley, I convinced myself that the next chapter of my life had started now. That somehow I would forever think of Yosemite as where it started. But when I turned down the invitation to hike the John Muir Trail so quickly, I wondered if anything really changed at all. 

    For a time, however, that regret took a back seat when she got on the bus.  I knew she would sit somewhere near me. I knew I would drum up the courage to start up a conversation. And I knew that I would no longer be disappointed that I was leaving today, because I wouldn’t have met this person if I wasn’t. 

    I now feel that I was simply struggling to not be dragged back home. I was grasping at anything, or anyone, to keep me there. The poor unsuspecting girl, you really had to feel sorry for her. 

    I think the reason the idea of destiny or fate is so appealing to us is because we don’t want to make big decisions. It is much easier to say, “If it was meant to happen, it will happen.” It allows us to push the blame onto something outside ourselves when we fail to step outside our comfort zone and take control over our own lives. 

    She climbed aboard and walked down the aisle, scanning for a friendly face to sit next to. She sat in the crowded front half of the bus. Okay, so maybe I was wrong. And I couldn’t just walk up to someone on a bus and start talking. What would I even say? 

    Meanwhile, in the back of the bus with many empty seats around me, two teenage girls jabbered about their pregnancies and the baby names they were considering. They gossiped about how so-and-so in their high school was pregnant too, and how like, so crazy it is, all these babies.  "I know, riiiiiight?” one said with a high-pitched kryptonite voice. 

    There are moments like these when I wish I could just turn off my hearing. That moment of silence would have been so soothing, like when you finally turn off a loud radio that has been struggling to find a static-free station. 

    I did the next best thing, though. I took a nap. The kind of nap that feels like it lasts for hours, but mere minutes pass by. The highest ranking nap there is. 

    When I woke, I could see that the backpacking girl was reading a magazine.  The article's headline in large bold print proclaimed that $75,000 was the cost of happiness. As though what you had to do to obtain that salary didn’t factor in at all. The very idea made me kind of angry, because it brought into question everything I confirmed on this trip about living a simple minimalist existence. 

    Money and possessions have never been motivating goals in my life. I always felt that the true measure of success was in experiences, even though I don’t feel I’ve lived like I believe that. I want to wake up in the morning not knowing what the day will bring. I want each day to feel like collecting a new precious gem, that is beautiful and rare, instead of endlessly polishing the same one in a vain attempt to make it into something prettier or new. 

    For some reason, I wondered what she thought about it. 

    We arrived at the train station. I went inside and sat on a chair with my backpack on the floor between my legs. I rearranged gear to get it ready for two more airplane rides. The backpacking girl sat a few seats away, within talking distance. 

    The course of many lives have been changed by the simplest of words: hi. 

    But I couldn’t get it out. When the train arrived in front of the station, a part of me was relieved. Sorry, can’t talk now; I have a train to catch. 

    I loaded my backpack on the train’s luggage rack and took a seat on the upper deck. Over a few rows of seats, I saw that tossed and twisted dark hair. Oh good, I would get another chance. Dammit. 

    A man with a conductor hat, name tag, and walkie-talkie strolled down the aisle checking our tickets. He attached little blue tags, which displayed our arrival location above our seats. As we approached the next stop, the conductor walked by to remove the tags of those that would be getting off. I looked up from my book, that I was really only pretending to read, and saw the top of her head again, leaning over her cell phone. 

    Another unrecoverable half hour went by. The conductor made another pass, pulling my blue tag, then the next, and the next. I watched him walk by her seat, but he passed without grabbing hers. So, she wasn’t getting off at my stop. My window of time was closing. 

    I’m not even sure why I cared. But not unlike the offer to hike the John Muir Trail, she made me see that there was an endless number of forks in the road. Brand new paths not rutted by routine. I didn’t have to be this person spending fifty weeks out of the year simply deepening the rut. It made me realize that next year could be completely unknown, and that thought was powerfully thrilling. 

    I sat and stared at that lingering blue tag, but I did nothing. If this was fiction, I would have written the ending in a lovelier way, but it is not. It’s my life, and the dismal and often perplexing way I live it. 

    “But, what about bears?” several said before this trip. I mocked their irrational fears, but I’m no better. My fears are no more logical than theirs. Most of us have something keeping us from another, possibly more rewarding, life. If it’s not bears, or a fear of quitting an unfulfilling job, or a particularly intense shyness, it’s something. 

    When I was sitting on North Dome a few nights ago, having one of the best nights of my life, I made a wish on a shooting star. I wished that the way I felt at that moment never had to change and that I could always feel that joyful and free. Life is constantly offering us moments like those, but I have to face the fact that there is no destiny. There is no fate. Wishes only come true if you make them come true. 

    - - - 

    On my last flight, I sat next to a stout ginger man wearing camouflage. When the seatbelt sign went off he stood to grab a camo backpack out of the overhead and pulled out a portable DVD player. 

    I turned to rest my head on the window and stared dumbly at the flashing lights on the wing, blurred by clouds. For a moment, the sky cleared and I could see the lights from an unknown city in Middle America. Thick storm clouds, orange with the glow of city lights, hung over it like smoke-gray anvils. At every moment, lightning streaked through the clouds. It reminded me of a computer animation of firing neurons in an active human brain. Even though the city’s inhabitants haven’t seen the Milky Way from inside city limits in decades, above the storm clouds the sky was clear, and magnificently starry. 

    The plane disappeared back into storm clouds. The view from my window was now the reflection of my scruffy week-in-the-woods face. I shut the shade. 

    I looked at the portable DVD player sitting on the man’s camouflaged lap. He was watching “Over the Top”, the greatest arm wrestling/child custody movie ever created. Well, top three anyway. 

    Eventually I started a conversation with him. We talked about the trips we just experienced. My whole life I’ve been presented with different paths to take. In nearly every instance, I’ve taken the safer route. For example, when given two opportunities to talk to a traveling stranger, I chose a guy in camo that owns “Over the Top” on DVD instead of an attractive backpacking girl. 

    Suddenly, strong turbulence jarred the plane, stronger than I’ve ever felt before. The first thing that went through my brain was how tragic it would be if the plane went down when I could have been hiking the John Muir Trail. Everyone would be screaming for their lives and I would be berating myself for thinking this was the safe option. Life is unpredictable. There are so many unknowns. You think you’re playing it safe and suddenly, your airplanes wings fall off. 

    I looked at the flight attendants face. It was calm, and therefore, so was I. Although, thinking I’m safe is really a falsehood. I need that fear for motivation. Nobody lives forever and the fact remains that death doesn’t wait for us to have lived our lives to the fullest. 

    - - -

    When I got home, I was so tired I crashed into my bed without changing or unpacking. When I woke up, I immediately turned on the shower. I peeled off my socks and flicked them right side out. An endless cloud of dusty soil flew from them with every flick, like beating a rug on a clothesline. The smell of soil transported me back to the pine forest on Yosemite’s north rim. 

    I turned on the space heater to warm the bathroom. I thought about how I warmed myself by lying on a sun-drenched slab of bedrock just two mornings before. It seemed like ages ago. For a while, everything went back to normal. The next morning my alarm blared at 6:30 AM: work, stress, Indiana, boredom. The rut. 

    My dreams of finally starting the next chapter of my life were stifled by the realization that change was hard work. I started to question again why I would even want to change things. My life is not bad; honestly it’s better than it has ever been. But if my life list has taught me anything, it’s that there is so much to experience and so little time to experience it. A safe and comfortable life is fine if that’s what suits you, but I’m not satisfied with a “safe and comfortable” life anymore. At least not right now. I think for now, I’d like to take a shot at having an “amazing” one. 

    I have been thinking about the billions of years that passed before I was born, and the billions that will pass after I’m gone. I get this tiny sliver of time in between to be conscious. To experience everything that I can. It is such an incredible gift, such an astonishingly rare gift. Playing it safe is no way to spend it, because in the grand scheme of things, whether it lasts for thirty years or ninety is insignificant. What matters is that I recognize it for what it is. One chance to take advantage of it while it lasts. One chance to live an amazing life.  

    Clicking send on my Letter of Resignation
    By the time you read my next post, I will be jobless, homeless, and heading to Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail. I’m not exactly sure what stories I will have to tell over the next few months, but then again, that’s exactly why I’m doing this. Yes, I’m finally doing this. Right now it still feels like a dream that I will soon wake up from. 

    Please stay tuned. 

    - - -

    The blog will be updated as frequently as possible from the trail. Through both good times and bad. Please come back and see how things are going. Whether I remain positive and blissful for the five-month journey, or the trail manages to drive me insane, I can assure you it will at least be entertaining for you.

    As always, thanks for reading -RG



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    A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.