October 3rd, 2006

Redtail - bird face

A momentary lapse of reason: Special hiking edition

One thing I'm remembering about face-to-face customer service jobs -- after not having worked one for a decade -- is the learning experiences that come from interacting with hundreds of strangers at a stretch.

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.
emcee in the catbird seat

September links roundup

Interesting things I've found across Livejournal or around the Web over the course of the month:
  • The quotable Bax: "Magic is easy. Interfacing it with reality, now that's tough." -- Cited at notdoneliving.net. "I am beginning to really hate bosses who confuse timeliness with responsibility." -- Cited by ounceofreason.

  • And the quotes meme: Remember that "go to a page of quotes and pick 5 you like" meme that spread through LJ a little while back? Blogger Kevin Drum had an intriguing spin on it: Pick 5 you disagree with. I never did meme either one, but I like the ideas.

  • It's A Small World, PCT Edition: Turns out that the thru-hiker known as Chai Guy, who I met several times along the trail, is a friend of kshandra's. (Not only that, but my parents, who spend their summers in Maine, are friends-of-friends of the hiker known as T-bird and her family.) The thru-hiking community leads to some of the strangest connections.

  • Sucky math: hafoc examines The Mathematics of Suck, a tongue-in-cheek attempt to quantify the vileness of most modern American music. One of the funniest things I've read lately.

  • Mathy suck: Speaking of math, kistaro made an offhand comment about Manhattan distances a week or two ago. Speaking of suck, the post sucked me into a sprawling discussion with him. The geekery gets deep quickly.

  • Webcomic clichés: kinkyturtle posted some introspection on the Nine Cheesy Web Comic Plot Lines, which caused me to realize that my webcomic is fully 25% cliché.

  • Wait, you have a webcomic?: Yep! I've very occasionally changed up the format of my journal entries. The illustrated (and/or photographed) entries have run at Tlands under the name "My Afternoon: A Dramatization."

  • Calling 'em like they are: The first of these webcomics was about the brutally sucky completist ending of the game "Jak and Daxter". I now note with some satisfaction that I'm not the only one who has made that observation.

  • Coulda, woulda, shoulda wrote it: The webcomic xckd continues to steal words from my mouth. This time, it's a PCT thru-hike in six panels. Pitch-perfect.

  • I would so do this: Spawn! There may be some marathon running in my future.

  • Resistance is futile: LJ continues its slow assimilation of the rest of the world. Some years ago, on a lark I posted a link to a random Google search I performed. Since then, theferrett's musing on superhero powers has jumped out of nowhere to the #2 result for i can spell patchouli and my life sucks. The coveted #1 is only a Googlebomb away ...

  • What he said: I pretty much agree with everything Kos writes in "The Case for the Libertarian Democrat." My break with the Libertarians was wholly an issue of economic principle. Leftists and Libertarians share a strong common bond of support for civil liberty, and it's one of the things I think both groups are most correct to pull for. It's where Libertarianism veers into knee-jerk anti-governmentarianism that it goes furthest astray, and Kos is right to point out that there are places where government intervention increases personal economic liberties. It would be interesting to see leftists/libertarians making common cause to keep personal freedoms paramount -- when government gets in the way of that, be willing to roll it back, and when the profit motive gets in the way of that, be willing to roll government forward.

  • What'd he say?!: Of course, not everyone responded well to Kos' essay. Reaction among libertarians was especially varied (and generally critical). The comment that made my eyes bug out the furthest: "I can't side with Kos simply because he believes that government has the power to do good. The end." ... ... Um, yeah, guy. Sorry to hear that police and fire departments, the interstate freeway system, and the Bill of Rights haven't been working out for you.

  • More thought-provoking LJ: nicked_metal's advice on writing novels: Don't end everything at the end. bradhicks wonders whether some humans have simply had civilization bred out of them. heron61 argues against trying to prove magic. phierma describes an eye-opening class activity on class warfare. packbat reminds us of the underlying idea behind respecting people's beliefs. eclective's post title says it all: "The Power of 'I Am'."