I’ve seen a respectable amount of highways in my short life. I don’t remember the exact location, but near Mt. Rushmore, there is a highway that winds through the depths of the Black Hills. On a winter escape a few years back, enjoying the lack of traffic and cool mountain air with my windows down, I took the Avalon on her first big road trip. The speed limit was 55. In spite of it being the middle of January, the road was free of snow and ice, so I felt comfortable driving 55. After all, that speed limit sign tells you the speed it is safe to drive under normal conditions. The roads and signs have been around for years, and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have driven these highways. There was obviously planning involved, and it is reasonable to conclude with certainty that anyone can safely travel on this road at the indicated speed. However, on this tranquil January day, I started going around a corner. Remember, this isn’t one of those side roads where you have to slow down at every turn. No, this was considered a highway. It just said go 55. No other signs. No warnings. As the cruise control was on, I went 55 around the first big winding bend, and I thought my car was going to flip. Startled, I turned the cruise off and began going 45ish. But on the next big turn, I had to slow down again at the risk of death. What in the world? Is anyone else seeing this? No. No one was there. I slowed down for the rest of the journey through those crazy hills, but I will never forget my initial shock when my otherwise firm assumptions came into question.
I have been working six days and over sixty hours a week. It’s just a temporary thing – I definitely couldn’t sustain this. But while I’m doing it, I have been trying to make weekend trips to parks and trails in the Bay Area for the sake of getting away and finding some semblance of peace. Lucky for me, the weather has been great almost every weekend, and I have chanced upon a number of gorgeous locations in the middle of nowhere, or sometimes in the middle of somewhere.
One recent hike was particularly poignant, and I’ll get to that in a second.
In the last few interesting years, I have definitely noticed a trend: I am not able to recognize my deepest thoughts in the present. Even when I, for example, meditate on a peaceful mountain away from the noise I am so confused by, my thoughts are still muddled. Every time I would try to get away in the recent past, I would be confronted with the same frustrating blindness, and it always stressed me out that I wasn’t gaining any clarity. I chalked many of my so-called important trips up as failures, and I was pessimistic that the outcome of any future endeavors would be different. Not so fast, though. While I am still not able to articulate many of my deepest thoughts in the moment, I am nonetheless filled with an ever-increasing clarity that comes in delayed form after these getaways of inner exploration.
With this in mind, and in a greater effort to be one with my surroundings, I have focused less on obtaining any deep philosophical insights and more on freeing my mind of preconceived notions about what is supposed to happen. As a Zen master told me, “trying to be peaceful is not peaceful.” I used to try to force thoughts to occur, but this would only end up with me thinking (stressfully) about thinking. Now, I am beginning to mindfully accept my surroundings and the peace they might provide me for what they are, and I trust that future reflections will yield wisdom and insight that I cannot provide in the moment. The goal is to just breathe and take everything in without trying to explain and categorize and rationalize things that are not fully developed or that simply aren’t there. Since I came to terms with this approach, I feel more honest with myself, and I can sense some very deep insights finally coming to light.
Let’s talk about that recent hike now that you have some background.
It was a weekend, and the place was swamped with people enjoying the weather. I, of course, took the proverbial road less traveled. Besides my distaste for crowds, I also saw this as a way to get to the top faster, as I was tired from a separate mountain hike earlier that day. I found myself on what was no longer a casual hill walk but now a rocky climb. This is the last time I could safely pull out my camera. Not bad, right?
Yet the moderate incline had stealthily steepened, and I realized as I kept going up that it was becoming quite dangerous. To make things worse, I was wearing tennis shoes with very little tread instead of my hiking shoes. My pace slowed. I focused on the goal, the peak calling my name. I was almost there, but I started slipping, and it became increasingly difficult to take a further step. At this point, I had no choice but to stop in place.
My assumption the entire time had unwaveringly been that it was possible to get to the top. After all, there was at least the appearance of a trail that others had definitely taken. And this had been a well-known hiking area for decades. But I started to come to a complete awareness of my surroundings. I looked behind me, and for the first time since that drive through the Black Hills of South Dakota, I was legitimately afraid of the assumptions I justified my further continuance with. Walls came tumbling down in the most abstract part of my mind. I was much higher up than I thought, and I seemed to be standing on the edge of the world. How did the cities below get so far away? I actually experienced a sort of vertigo. I was dangerously teetering, and I started slipping again, so I fell forward in a sort of standing crawl from the grade, and I balanced my unstable feet on a set of rocks that were jutting out below me. As the disorientation faded, I found myself stuck in one spot, no longer standing, no longer able to walk. I was truly afraid of what to do next. I saw the footprints in the dirt right in front of me, yet no one was in sight. What is going on? Is this a joke? This is legitimately unsafe, yet there is no warning. Are my assumptions wrong? What should I do now?
I went up. Slowly but surely, inch by inch. My goal was to get to the top, so I patiently traversed onward in spite of the fear I was experiencing. I tossed those underlying assumptions that were coming into question aside. Maybe it wasn’t safe anymore. Maybe continuing was not the smartest decision, but I had this feeling that it might be a pivotal moment in my life.
Already, I have learned something from that final push in the face of fear, from that re-examination of those underlying notions I take for granted. Maybe my assumption of where I stand in the world is completely inaccurate. I’ve been relying too much on footprints. On marked trails. On road signs. External cues telling me what is okay, which I follow unconditionally. Maybe in the instance of the speed limit sign, it would be extremely unwise to continue at the same speed, but metaphysically, I’m saying “screw you” to these signals. They are misleading. I need to create my own assumptions based on my own goals. Had the same peak been placed in a different location without a path, I would have been much more cautious. I would have gone about things in a very different way. I might have taken a completely dissimilar path to the top. In this case, I took someone else’s path, and I almost paid dearly for it. I truly wanted to get to the top, but I didn’t think about how I would get there. It’s time to think about how I alone am going to get places. While we might have similar goals, I am sick of following your path, and I am tired of driving your speed limit.
By the way, on the trip back down, I nearly died.