Having an adventurous spirit comes with a certain amount of skepticism from others. There are many ways to adventure, from the occasional day trip to the full-time nomadic life, and no matter where you fall on that scale, there will always be people who just can’t fully understand how or why you do what you do. Even those of us who consider ourselves adventurers often go through a progression before fully accepting our wild side!
The year after I graduated college, I went to the cloud forest of Ecuador to volunteer and do research, and I was TERRIFIED. I had never been to South America or the jungle, I didn’t know the language, and in general I had no idea what to expect. My mother and significant other at the time were perhaps even more afraid than I was, picturing only civil unrest, drug smugglers and deadly spiders. It turned out to be an adventure of a lifetime, completely dissolving my fear of exotic places and instilling in me a craving for the wilderness that I have been trying to satiate ever since.
Just over a year ago, a friend told me his plan to leave his job and everything he knew to volunteer at a primate sanctuary in Brazil for an undetermined about of time. I thought the IDEA of doing this was incredibly exciting, but I couldn’t wrap my head around ACTUALLY doing it. I was still stuck in the mindset that there were limited viable options for my life path, and throwing away a steady paycheck with 401k contributions, a house and the eventual 2.5 kids complete with minivan and stick-figure family was unfathomable to me. I had gone on plenty of adventures at this point, but they were more like rugged vacations- an end date followed by lucrative employment, all meticulously planned.
Now I find myself doing the things that I once feared the most: quitting my job and leaving my life as I know it to pursue an indefinite adventure. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is an approximately 2,650 mile hiking route that runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington. It passes through many state and national parks where hikers will experience everything from low desert to high alpine terrain where they will battle extreme heat, swollen streams, swarms of mosquitos and the dreaded poodle-dog bush among other things. The rewards? Incredible views, new relationships with like-minded individuals, lots of time spent in the wilderness and a deeper understanding of oneself and one’s place on this planet. Or at least that is the plan.
As I prepare for this adventure, I find myself answering the same questions, getting the same quizzical looks, and making the same reassurances over and over. Fearmongering is a huge issue, even within the long-distance backpacking community. “You’re going alone?” Well, sort of. I don’t personally know anyone else doing the trail this year, but there are 49 other people with permits to start hiking in the same place on the same day as I am, so there will be plenty of other people. “How do you plan to protect yourself?” Ahem, protect myself from what, exactly? “BEARS! CRAZY PEOPLE IN THE WOODS!” Well, I would LOVE to see a bear in the wild, and I am more likely to meet a “crazy person” in a parking lot, on the sidewalk, or elsewhere on my daily commute to and from work than in the wilderness. Drunk drivers picking me up while I try to hitchhike into town? That’s a more realistic fear. “Wait, you’re HITCHHIKING?! Please tell me you’re kidding.”
Conversations continue this way and for the most part, don’t bother me. Most people don’t understand backpacking, or the trail, or the incredible trail angels who form a huge support system for PCT hikers. I try to educate friends and family as best I can, and eventually the questions become more logical and form out of genuine curiosity rather than out of fear. Thinking back to my Ecuador-exploring days, I’m sure that I would have been just as afraid of the plethora of unknowns as my friends and family are with their limited knowledge and experience, but doing good research, educating myself and preparing for what’s ahead have given me confidence and perspective for this undertaking.
What happens after the trail is still a bit fuzzy, and I have less confidence answering peoples’ questions on this topic. “That sounds like an awesome adventure! Your job gave you that much time off?” Nope, I’m quitting. “So you have something lined up afterward?” Nope, I’ll figure it out. “But how will you pay your bills?” Actually I bought a van and will probably live in that for a while until I figure out where I want to be, so my bills will be significantly lower. At this point, people generally just check out of the conversation, writing me off as mentally unstable. I would love to chalk this up to just being different people and wanting different things, but then I remember my conversation with my primate-loving friend and realize that we are all just at different stages. Maybe these people truly are different and love the idea of their big house and 2.5-kid future and that is PERFECT- go for it! But maybe, just maybe, there is an adventurer in there somewhere who is just waiting to evolve.
When I told my brother that I planned to thru-hike the trail, his first reaction was, “You know this is going to kill mom, right?” Our mom? The one who always encouraged me to play in the dirt and get lost in the woods? Now, three months out, that lovely woman looks at me every time I see her and asks, “You’re really doing this?” as I prepare. Yes, mother, I am. You’re going to be so proud when I finish it.