They broaden you, expose you to passions and outlooks and ways of thinking that you wouldn't see if you weren't being paid to smile and talk with folks while separating them from their money. I've got a few anecdotes perhaps worth relating, but one from Sunday morning stands out just now.
That's because sometimes these interactions can reach far beyond expanding your view of humanity, and offer you an illuminating view of yourself.
Case in point --
* * *
A man came to my register to buy some groceries, and was chatting with the female behind him in line (they seemed to know each other, but I think they ran across each other in the store and started chatting while shopping). I don't recall at all the conversation that preceded it, but I believe he was trying to illustrate some broader point when he turned to me and asked: "So what about you? What do you do when you're not stuck here behind a register?"
This caught me completely off guard, so I answered the only way I could think to: Completely honestly and spontaneously.
"I write," I blurted out, part of my brain cringing at the cliché of it all ... news flash: unambitious mook working lowly retail job harbors aspirations of literary greatness in off hours! ... and so tried to extend my answer somehow. Of course, most of my other personal pursuits tend to soundbite in ways that derail conversations completely, so this left me groping for something else "safe" to share. So I fell into the deeply unfortunate but hopefully understandable trap of conflating life with work: "And, um, sometimes I fill in at the newspaper I used to work at."
"Why'd you leave the newspaper?" he asked.
And the Duh Hammer nailed me squarely between the eyes.
"For my Pacific Crest Trail hiking trip."
"You walked the Pacific Crest Trail?!?" he asked incredulously.
"Well, about a thousand miles of it," I said.
We ended up having an animated and terribly worthwhile three-minute talk on hiking -- an eternity in customer service time. But what stuck with me was that Duh Hammer moment.
Here was this gigantic multi-month odyssey that I only, oh, upended my entire life for, that I've only been wanting to do since my college days, that took me halfway across one of America's largest states. A journey that took me to the continental U.S.' highest point and spanned distances some people can't even imagine covering without an airplane. A trip that, even in "failure" to accomplish my stated goal, still ranks as an accomplishment few would attempt to rival.
And now that I'm stuck back in a daily routine, it seems so far removed from my life that a mere two months after my trail departure it doesn't even cross my mind on a list of interests without a little helpful prodding.
I really don't know what this says about me (would the charitable explanation be that my life is so full of casual greatness that I can't see a thousand-mile walk as a big enough deal to alter my self-image?), but in any event, I'm pretty sure I'm embarrassed about it.
* * *
Speaking of the hike, I received two relevant questions from my Ask Me A Question poll. (No, I haven't forgotten AMAQ!) I was planning at some point to do a AMAQ: Baxwalk Edition, so this seems as good a time as any to revisit the meme.
First, a reader asks, "How was your trip? Do you plan on resuming it anytime soon?"
I never bothered to publically and officially say so until now, but my last day of actual hiking was August 1. From April 27 to August 1 -- 97 days, of which 58 were spent wholly or partially on the trail -- I covered 916 miles of the PCT. 877 of those were consecutive, from the Mexican border to Lake Edison; the remainder was the leg near our house that kadyg and I walked during my July stall-out.
I cut my trip short due to medical issues, having developed patellar tendonitis in the high Sierra. (Insert irony here.) I probably could have returned after a few weeks of healing and at least limped over the 1,000-mile mark, but my financial reserves just ran too low while my knees were recovering, and I had to give myself some closure so that I could look for a job and start pulling in some income again. As far as the injury, my knees just refused to heal even slightly for about three weeks -- and then my physical therapist, getting as frustrated as I was, prescribed a regimen of intense stretching, which did the trick, and the pain and swelling cleared up within 7 relief-filled days.
I enjoyed it. I loved the experiences, I love the stories, and even though I didn't finish the PCT or even the JMT, I did get through THE DESERT and climb Mount Whitney, both of which are major accomplishments. The scenery was incredible, the camaraderie was intense, the solitude (when I had it and had the time to sit back and appreciate it) was affirming, and you'd better believe I am not done with this trail by a long shot.
This season's hike is over. I've made commitments that will keep me from anything so ambitious for a few years -- most notably, I'm following through on my agreement with Kady that once the season's hike was over, our next goal was to put her through cooking school -- but we've both agreed that I really ought to get back out in the backcountry in about 5 or 10 years for Baxwalk-PCT Take 2.
I haven't decided whether my next attempt will pick up where I left off, or whether I want to start from the border again and re-walk those 900+ miles on my way to doing the whole thing in one season. I probably won't decide that until the next hike rolls around.
Another reader asks, "Have you ever felt the terror of death grip you?"
The answer is, yes, I have.
The reason I mention this here is that the full explanation is one of my wildest trail stories, at which I have so far merely hinted.
It deserves a special post of its own, so I'm going to keep you all in suspense for a day or two. After some sleep, I can clean out my links file and then devote some writing time to it.