Warning: this post has a low joke quotient and a high introspection quotient. If you come here for the jokes, I'll throw you a bone first — sodium sodium sodium sodium sodium sodium BATMAANNN — but that'll mostly be it for today. Sometimes (rarely, thank God) I get in a Serious Mood and want to write Serious Things, and now is such a time. You'll endure it or ignore it as you please. Carry on.
Several weeks ago, my PCT friend Hitch posted this article ("The Virtues of Microadventures," a Q&A with British hunk Alistair Humphreys) to Facebook, and to say it induced a flood of memories and some pointed self-examination would be an understatement. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but if you can't: the premise of Mr. Humphreys' ethos is that you don't have to take much time or go far from home to have an adventure. You can sleep in your backyard or go walk up a nearby hill. It all counts and, if repeated, over time adds up to some experience of otherness, of adventure. Sleeping outdoors has to be part of each one of his "microadventures" but it doesn't even have to be, for you. It really can be as simple as a deliberate walk somewhere new.
Perhaps surprisingly for someone with a penchant for transcontinental walks, it has not lately been my habit to go on small adventures. It hasn't even been something I've thought to try very often. While I was thru-hiking, I remember talking with people on the trail about my reluctance in the real world to walk short distances for pleasure. I specifically remember Hitch and I discussing how we knew people (her sister, my then-girlfriend) in normal life who were far more inclined then us to take a little stroll in the park or around the neighborhood. At the time I thought that I might be inclined to embrace the constitutional — the daily walk as part of routine — and that I already embraced the ultra-long thru-hike, but that I did not care much for the walks of in-between length. It's almost as if the short adventures, compared to the very long ones, failed to reach some minimum standard of fulfillment. I actually did believe that for a time, and now I curse myself for it, because I look back to a time, well before thru-hiking, when my friends and I made what can absolutely be categorized as "microadventures" (even though there was no name or even really self-awareness attached to what we were doing) a deliberate part of life, and it was incredibly fun and fulfilling. That time was my freshman and sophomore year at Carleton College, and the activity of choice was wandering off campus and sleeping out under the stars.
"A bit rumpled but feeling great." That was me on, I'm guessing, maybe three dozen mornings over my first two years at Carleton. Carleton is in rural Minnesota and has an 880-acre Arboretum, which remains one of my favorite places on the planet if not for its intrinsic value (don't get me wrong, it has plenty), but because of the universally positive associations I have of times spent there. My friends started a "sleepout" email listserv in freshman year and used it to announce various locations in the Arb where they'd be spending the night. Others would join, or not, depending, and sometimes it wasn't just the Arb but someplace illegal (roof of a campus building) or deliberately uncomfortable (canoe anchored in the middle of a lake, or on the frozen lake in the wintertime) or deliberately comfortable (high-jump mat at the track), but the ending was always the same — walking back through campus at 8 or 9 a.m. with my sleeping bag and pad thrown around my shoulders while a few people threw odd glances my way. Change clothes in room, eat breakfast, don't shower, head off to class. I don't recall ever feeling unrested even if it hadn't actually been that many hours of comfortable sleep. I just remember feeling that they were pretty enjoyable nights, whether I was alone or in a group of a dozen, which each happened with about equal frequency. And I remember doing it maybe once a week, especially in the fall and spring (my roommate Blake did it in the Minnesota winter too, but he's a very different person from me).
If I sound a little rose-tinted and nostalgic here, well, I'm pretty damned nostalgic about it all, even though I'm not that old and it wasn't that long ago. I ceased the microadventuring pretty abruptly after my sophomore year, for who knows how many reasons ... I got a heavier workload and simultaneously got worse at dealing with it, started dating/sharing a room with someone who steadfastly refused to sleep outdoors because it threatened the good night's sleep that she believed essential for her (admittedly outstanding) academic performance, became maybe a bit depressed as a reaction to, or as a cause (who can tell?) of those and a dozen other issues. But for whatever reason, for my junior and senior years I can only remember sleeping outdoors — for the sole purpose of sleeping outdoors, not as part of some multi-day trip — twice. And then, besides one dedicated camping trip, never again after graduation (June 2010) until starting the AT (April 2011). And never between then and the PCT. And never since. And — again, cause and effect are impossible to establish here — I've felt more than a little dulled, wasted, and energy-bereft during that whole time.
My longtime friend and foil Eva, whom I met back as a freshman and who was a part of many sleepouts, including the aforementioned one in the canoe and the one on the art building rooftops, by comparison hasn't lost the spirit of those days quite so easily. She actually tried thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail the same year that I did, 2011, but had to leave after 500 miles with a knee injury. Once that was finally healed two years later, she started taking very deliberate long walks around Manhattan, where she resides. She's described her routes to me and says she's aiming for a 50-mile day this summer. Sometimes she sleeps on the roof of her apartment. I admire that spirit immensely — it's straight out of the Humphreys microadventuring handbook — and look forward to getting out and just doing doing doing things like that myself. So far I have only the seeds of ideas (airport in the far north to Spencer Butte in the far south of Eugene? Sleep out in the backyard [or "garden," per the Mr. Humphreys the Brit] x nights in a row in the dry summertime? Sleep on top of Spencer Butte before I leave South Eugene?). I don't feel so compelled to tell anyone about them, except maybe to inform someone of my plans as a safety precaution. But I do feel a gnawing necessity to inject small doses of adventure into my life, since I'm undoubtedly in the position now — thanks to work, other people, and all that rot — of not being able to go on a long hike for at least another year.