It’s remarkably easy to get totally lost. Five minutes, for me apparently, in a city where I have lived my whole life is all it takes. Not really a knight errant, who wanders around without direction or care, it’s more like I have a willful kind of topographical agnosia; that is, not only do a I have a terrible sense of direction, I love the not-knowing that comes with it. Like a wandering monk, only way more prone to eating big meals and liking my warm bed.
Sally McRae, ultrarunner and ultra-optimist, knows her stuff: she’s tough, she’s savvy, and she’s bright. Recently, talking about endurance athleticism, she quoted British author C.S. Lewis who once said that “hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny”. Both of them are unique spokespeople for that transformation — she having risen against serious personal odds to now be a contender in any race she enters, including the year’s Western States 100, and Lewis for his numerous personal battles over faith. That, and he did write the Narnia Chronicles after all.
Stories of encountering conflict in the unknown are not just common in our culture, they are ubiquitous. The idea that a person undergoes a metamorphosis only when they are as far away from their ‘comfort zone’ as they can get is the central motif of every story we tell: from Spiderman to Casablanca, Mission: Impossible to Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants to Game of Thrones to Chaucer’s Cantebury Tales or The Hunger Games, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Handmaid’s Tale, Midnight’s Children, Titanic, 2001, Harry Potter, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, etc., etc., etc. The yarns we spin to make sense of this world and this fragile, beautiful, bizarre, and utterly absurd human life all hinge on this notion. It’s how we make sense of all the things.
But it’s not an abstraction, is it? It’s a practice, it’s a method, tried (over and over) and true. Sounds cliche, I know, but as an old prof of mine — wise as the rock cliffs that brought him up — once said, “cliches are cliches because they’re true.”
It was noted aviator Anne Morrow Lindebergh who observed that “it is the wilderness of the mind, in the desert wastes in the heart through which one wanders lost and a stranger”, not, it could be added, an actual, physical location. The unknown, the realm of vision and redemption, struggle and mystery and terror, is more a psychological ‘place’ than somewhere on a map. The isolated, cartographic space, the wilderness or foreign land, can definitely be an impetus, but it’s just as easy to get lost in your own backyard as it is in a forest if you are vigilant in keeping your eyes open. If only you are honest enough to acknowledge your fears and brave enough to diligently face them.
After two separate physiotherapy appointments and a visit with the sports medicine osteopath, I am both unhopeful and sick of seeing professionals smile at me and say ‘well, you’ve really got me stumped’. It seems that a month ago I strained (tore? ruptured? effed up) my PCL in a mighty bike wipe out the day after I finished my first trail race of the season. The PCL is a tiny contraption in behind the knee which, apparently, is responsible for the stabilization of lateral movement in your leg and, in my case, part of the buttressing assembly in my overall sense of well-being; which is to say that it keeps one running fluidly, efficiently, and for the long haul. It is also, from all the humming and hawing I’ve heard, something that rarely gets injured and so little seems to be known about its mending.
But even unhopeful — as punk godfather Henry Rollins once growled, “hope is the last thing a person does before they are defeated” — there’s still lots of gumption left in me, and so just because I can’t run, for the time being, most decidedly and emphatically does not mean I’m sitting on the couch.
It’s kind of a gross irony that this bike wipe-out has simultaneously derailed at least the early part of my summer’s running and totally amped up my cycling. In the past five weeks I’ve ridden to every small town within a 50k radius of where I live, checked out all of the multi-use and ATV tracks around, and have now taken to turning down every gnarly and nasty looking opening in the forest I can find. This recovery business is demanding.
Thus my getting so easily lost. But that’s hardly the end of the story. Quite the opposite.
When I was a kid, this whole section of the city was a forest. The powerlines, which cut a straight swath up and over the hilly terrain, was the only bit of rationalized wilderness for miles in every direction, and so that’s what we stuck to. In the spring it was way too muddy and way too buggy, but the rest of the year it was a mainline for adventure and whether on our (ill equipped) bikes or skis, we’d roll over these hills for hours. Today I’m sitting on my (far better equipped) Cannondale MTB staring at the powerlines from the side of the street, deciding whether to follow them, or go down this other path to my right which I’ve never noticed before. I know from experience that it could easily come to a dead end or plow straight into a swamp or be one of a million intersecting ATV trails that lead to god-knows-where. I look at my watch — I have two hours. I turn right.
I am genuinely surprised when, within a matter of a few minutes and several twists and turns, I have no idea which direction I’m facing or where, in general terms, this trail is even going. I shouldn’t be surprised — several adventure races with friends has driven the point home that I have no real sense for direction, that I am, in their terms, lost in my own mind. I keep going — one thing that the chronically geographically challenged person learns is that you can, most of the time, just retrace your steps; knowing where you are and how to get back are, after all, two different things. The trail turns from a fairly wide ATV track to a rougher, newer trail to basically a twenty foot wide clear cut leading directly into a muddy, bug infested middle of nowhere. I still keep going, rolling the tall 29ers over logs and split trees and stripped bark, around stumps and through mud holes. Every now and then I get off the whip and push it. The bugs get nastier and thick. I am trying to navigate both the terrain and my sense of where I am and balance that our against my watch. An hour left, forty minutes, thirty and on the ‘trail’ goes. it must lead somewhere, I’m telling myself, but I used to live in the country and know full well that nope, it most definitely does not have to lead anywhere.
With twenty minutes to go, I come to a crossing trail — it is packed dirt and looks a lot more promising. I look closely at the trail and see what appear to be fresh bike tracks. Closer up I see a dog print — someone has been here, I can’t be too far away from somewhere. I’d love to tell you that I bent down to the ground and gave it a sniff, nodded my approval and howled off towards lunch; but nah, I just sort of shrugged, hopped back on and bolted down the trail.
I probably shouldn’t deviate from the direction I’m already going, but it’s too far and too late to turn around now and it’s certainly not getting any better. I roll out and start picking up the pace. It’s a race against the clock now; my wife is fine with me going on any and all of these goose chases, but being late and slowing down the necessities of our family’s schedule could easily turn these trips from necessary-parts-of-what-I-do to an-unaffordable-luxury. I jam it into high gear and high tail it out of there.
Fortunately, it’s the right decision and after a few minutes I coast out onto a familiar street — in exactly the opposite place to which I thought I was headed. For the second time today I am legitimately surprised by something which, in hindsight, I shouldn’t be.
The unknown is a weird, elusive thing: it can be right around the corner or halfway around the world, we both choose it and can be forced into it, but no matter what, it’s function remains the same: a radical change in perspective, an awakening of sorts. That night as I sat at home and looked at the maps, trying to ascertain where the hell I’d gone, I thought about this; that even though I may not have known where I was, there was nothing frightening or challenging about the day, that other than my race against the clock there was no real conflict and, therefore, no chance for transformation. It wasn’t exactly boring, just utterly reasonable. I’d might as well have been on the stationary bike at the gym. Or doing visualization practices and waiting for the pounds to strip away.
It is entirely possible that I’m an epiphany junkie, that I’m just wired for not being able to appreciate the subtle beauty of the world unless it is grossly overemphasized, but either way I’m in this deep because I truly believe that life has no meaning other than what we give it and if you really want to live it, then you have to dig in with everything you’ve got. When it comes to pounding hearts and dripping sweat and having your breath stolen by a vista or a near miss or having no idea where you are, I’m all in.
I picked a spot on the map, a stretch of old rail bed turned rough trail that I had never been to — I had no idea what kind of shape it was in, only the most vague notion of how long it was (“the map”, Alfred Korzybski so painfully pointed out, “is not the territory”), and the barest inkling of how to get to it. 50k south, once on the trail I would be outside cell reception and on my own. It was the same impulse that has driven every explorer beyond what’s drawn on the paper or in the minds of general opinion.
Sometimes it’s best to just jump.
The ride had been longer than I had anticipated and the grand thoughts that had generated my plan had long since evaporated — it was just as the 19th century Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had lamented, that “adventure is just bad planning.” Now I was, quite simply, way out in the sticks. As I spun along, the gravel agitating my already addled sense of security and determination, I let my mind get the better of me — what if I wiped out here? How far away was I? Could I handle it if a bear stepped out in front of me? Or a pack of ATV riding, beer swilling yahoos? I made a short list to put and keep things in check — animals, yes, I think I could deal with that; yahoos? probably; biking for another few hours, definitely. What about the bike? I knew I could fix a flat, but the chain? The derailleurs? An experienced lunatic/ adventure racer friend of mine once told me that his back derailleur came off waaaaay out ion the boonies and he was forced to field strip it down to a single speed. Did I know how to do that? Extremely doubtful, even in theory it was questionable. Gear monkey I’m not.
Perhaps a dozen or more miles from anyone and no way to call out, if the machine failed me now I would very much be left having to abandon it and hoof it out, unable to run (damn PCL). This makes everything else much less certain — without the speed that the wheels afford, the animals and the locals turn into unpredictable beasts and characters from Deliverance. Like a forest after sunset, all the shadows in my mind become potential nightmares and violence, everything tame turns feral. I pedal faster, doubly cognizant of the fact that this might cause a more serious problem if I wipe out. I ride the edge of anxiety and try to race it out.
And then, in the midst of all of this mental yammering and emotional/ existential stomach churning, it all settles down, almost of its own accord. I seem to inherently know that there’s nothing that I can do about any of it, that the best I can do is acknowledge my situation and keep going.
Then the clouds part and I see the sky for all its gorgeous blue; stuck in my head, I had no idea. My legs are strong; nature is all around me, the simple wind and a dozen insects taking off in front of me, the dry heat of the day; my vitality is tangible. It sounds ridiculous (cliche?), but I am alive and can feel it in the most real way. My heart, only just now beating from fear, softly slows and swells.
In Salomon Running’s poignant film ‘Of fells and hills’, Rickey Gates concludes his meditative narrative on the culture of hill running in Great Britain by expressing his envy for the people who live at the feet of this rolling landscape by saying “In the end, I think a single mountain range is enough exploration for an entire lifetime”. Monastics of all kinds have always believed this; the word ‘monastery’ literally means ‘a place for doing something alone’, understanding that it is with ourselves that we come in touch with the world. Few know this as well as the Jesuits, who built their practices on intellectual development and really wrestling with issues of faith and belief; just listen to what Gerard Manley Hopkins says about these fells and hills:
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
The mind is one heavy, scary place, though
people who don’t think about anything don’t think
so. And our short lives don’t really give us time to deal
all that well either. Hey, the irony,
gross though it is, is that our comfort comes when all hell breaks loose: get to it then
because this is all we get, every friggin day.
Here, one more story.
Having decided to sit in meditation under the bodhi tree until he attains insight, Siddhartha Guatama (who was soon to become the Buddha) is confronted by Mara, the ultimate demon of humanity whose sole purpose it is to keep us from waking up to our own immediate sense of the present. These days we might call him The Interwebs, or just General Media. At first, he shows Sid beautiful women who tempt him to stop meditating and get it on with them instead; nah, says our man, think I’ll just hang out here with my breath for a bit. Next, Mara vaults an assault of arrows at Siddhartha, but as he unflinchingly sits there, cool as a cucumber, refusing to accept the fear that they are meant to instill as being real, they turn to flowers and fall at his feet. Not ready to give up, Mara shows Siddhartha his own corpse, decaying away and then, finally, he pulls out the big guns, saddles up beside our man and says ‘this is stupid, dude. What are you doing here? Don’t you have something else you should be doing? Life is SHORT, man! Shouldn’t you be living, eating chocolate bars or hanging with the family or something? This is pointless. You’re shirking your duties and responsibilities, you know.’
Right there, Sid turns to Mara and says “there is nothing but this moment right here and this is what I am doing” and, with that, he awakens! Mara, it’s said, continued to come back and try and irk Buddha with bouts of restlessness, aversion, craving, sleepiness and skeptical doubt, but our man was too sly for those old tricks and he’d catch sight of Mara slinking around in the shadows, like a raccoon behind a tree pretending to be a bear, and say “I see you, Mara”. Acknowledgement is our honesty, bravery holds us to the course.
My wife bought me a Road ID for Father’s Day last year. On it is my name, birthdate, phone number, her name, and her phone number. Like a medical alert bracelet, the idea is that is speaks for you when you can’t. It is, in no uncertain or blindly symbolic way, my connection to the familiar, to my home. ‘It’s because you’re always getting lost,’ she said; I’m a bit of a smart ass though and so I replied, ‘yeah, but that’s where I find myself so often.’ ‘Right’, she said, ‘and this will bring you back to us.’
I’m sure that it’s a pain to be married to someone like me — I’m impulsive in a calculated way, dedicated to pushing out against my own boundaries, and enthusiastically unconventional in my sense of fun. I run ultradistance trail races through the mountains and forests for kicks and, quite literally, can’t go for a bike ride that’s less than three hours. I often get lost. I’m a bit of a danger to myself in my unbridled love for doing exciting things outdoors and mercurial in almost every aspect of my personal and professional lives. But — and this, I’m convinced, is why she likes me — I choose to be this way on purpose and am fully committed. I thrive off of my own love of life and do everything I can to be infectious about it. I hear the myths, want to live them for myself, and then want to pass the story along so that, hopefully, other folks will catch the fever too. Isn’t that what we’ve always done?
See, this isn’t my story, it’s our story and all you need is gumption and a good pair of shoes… but like that other beautiful game, even the shoes are optional.