In the Fall of 2006, I was a freshman at Reed College. I though that I wanted to be a philosophy major, and despite a pronounced lack of experience, I considered myself a competent outdoorsman. With ambition blind to my own abilities, I talked two dorm friends into attempting the Timberline Trail around Mt Hood. At 41 miles in length, and with significant elevation gain, Outside Magazine had hooked me by calling it “the hardest day-hike in America”.
At that time, my idea of lightweight was an underloaded 60L pack, with a small tent, and only one (!) stove for the 3 of us. We didn’t plan to bivy, but goddammit, we were prepared to if it came down to it. And it did. As Yvon Chouinard famously said, if you bring bivy gear, you will bivy. A scant eight miles into the loop, under a drizzle slowly turning to early October snow, we were unable to find the continuation of the trail after it crossed Clark Canyon, a glacial moraine divided by a snowmelt river. We not only bivied there in the tent for a few hours, but subsequently retreated to the nearby ski resort, Mt Hood Meadows, where we spent hours in the abandoned lodge drying our clothing with hand dryers and cooking oatmeal on the floor.
While I still have a considerable amount to learn about mountain travel, it’s fun to look back at myself and see, if nothing else, the power of unbridled enthusiasm, and to appreciate the experiences that I’ve had since that which have changed my perspective and my competency in the mountains.
Yesterday, I returned to where we lost our way in the rain almost eight years ago. In place of a 60L pack, I was wearing a vest. In place of a tent was the fitness, knowledge, and confidence, to return before a tent would be needed. In place of a stove, I carried readily digestible foods that I could eat while running. What we had traveled in half a day or more I moved through in three hours. It was no triumph nor significant turning point, just a training run and a joyful morning to be in the mountains by myself.
Tomorrow, I will start my first day of medical school, a signpost which marks a new four years, or eight years even, in my life. How it will change my life, my relationships, and me, I can’t yet say. Is it absolutely the right thing for me to be doing with my energies and abilities? I wish that I could have that degree of certainty.
While running yesterday, I remembered a quote that I heard recently, attributed to the Buddhist tradition. It said, “All paths lead nowhere. Choose one with heart”. That resonated with me. It’s hard to find any absolute meaning in a world set upon by entropy. One logical response to this situation is Nihilism, but that’s no path to a satisfying life. It is vastly more courageous to recognize that in a universe devoid of absolutes, we are left to determine what is meaningful to us and to structure our life according to the values that we create in that void. The emptiness of an infinite universe could be a curse, or it can be freedom.
My emotions thrive under the pressure of seemingly unimaginable goals. This year it was first the Grand Traverse, and then a cross-country/international mountain biking dream trip. Next comes the marathon of studying and training to be able to care for the tremendously complex social, emotional, and physical beings we call Homo sapiens.
Does this mean the end of Mountain Lessons? Is it time to go find another worthwhile and occasionally erudite adventure blog?
Certainly not. Just like the people that I will be training to care for, I also have many facets, all of which have to be recognized, trained, and honored. That means that as much as possible I will be outside, under the sun, “remodeling the pain cave”, as my friend Peter recently put it.
I’m driven by goals, because they liberate me of indecision– I know when I need to train, and while I’m training, I can be singleminded and peaceful. In light of that, I’ve set my sights on an additional goal– to run around Mt Hood and complete what I started 8 years ago. It will be challenging to find that fitness before snow ends the running season, and it will be challenging to make the time to train without sacrificing my studies. That is the challenge that I need.
All paths lead nowhere. Especially the Timberline trail, which returns to the same damn spot where it began. We pick a path, follow it, and whether by pressure cooking or by slow erosion, we change. When we return to where we began, to seemingly the same place, it looks different through our new eyes. That’s real training.