The universe loves foreshadowing. It's almost comical sometimes. A few months ago, in the middle of a guide training course, one of the instructors and I were talking about the advantages of having a tricked out camper/van/home-on-wheels adventure mobile. Listen to any two climbers talk long enough and the discussion invariably turns to the topic of the climber van. In this case, the conversation was sparked by the fact that my then wife and I had recently bought one, built out the conversion, and spent the summer living out of it and travelling all around the American West. In the world of climbers, skiers, and other outdoorsy mountain folks. . . we had it made. Married, no kids, owned our home, both of us had an enviable job at the world's largest snowboard company. We took our dogs to work, and from time to time all four of us would meet up for a mid-day break to get some coffee, or go for a walk or a run in the nearby woods. Looking back, we always suspected that we didn't do that quite nearly enough. And then we decided to take a dive into the deep end. We hatched a plan to buy the van, quit our jobs, and rent out our house for six months to travel and climb and explore the western U.S. Over the course of those months, we truly lived the dream. Our only responsibilities were to take care of each other and to have as much fun as possible. The idea was to give ourselves the chance to reset, reconnect, and recharge both as individuals and as partners before coming back to our career-driven lives and starting a family. My instructor had been married as long as me, a little more than three years. We had just been talking about the challenges and realities of marriage, specifically how they relate to making a living as a mountain guide. I made a joke about how one of the best parts of having a camper van was that if I ever get kicked out of the house, I always have a place to go. Being a far wiser man than myself the instructor replied, somewhat sternly, that I shouldn't even put that idea out into the universe. Though I laughed it off at the time, I knew he was right. I knew that somewhere deep down within my wisest sense of self, I actually wanted that idea out there.
Over those few years our marriage had hit its share of rocky ground, but it never seemed to be any more serious than typical marital issues. From time to time, we worked with a therapist to resolve the harder problems. We were fully committed to bettering ourselves and our relationship, and learning from our mistakes as we grew. For most of our friends, we seemed to have a picture perfect relationship. Over time though, she poured a lot of her energy into work. For nearly two years she managed to balance a full-time career, an MBA program, and trained for a Boston-qualifying marathon time. During that time, I began to explore every opportunity I could to start turning my passions into ways of one day making a livelihood. I started teaching yoga. I took the first steps toward becoming a climbing instructor. While she focused on her career, I put most of my energy into my passions, mainly climbing.
We once shared a dream of starting a therapeutic climbing program. She was going to use her social work background to run the clinical side, while I would get some basic climbing guide certifications and run the programming aspect. I had always been unsatisfied with my career as an accountant. The idea of sharing the world that I loved with others, especially in a way that could transform lives, was clearly appealing. Like many young couples, we had initially built a strong bond over the idea that we were going to work together to change the world one day. It was exactly this youthful idealism, this ambition to do something bigger than the both of us, that I fell head over heels in love with. When we met, I was a young punk working in a snowboard shop, in Chicago of all places. I was heavily weighed down with student loans, and for lack of a better option ended up taking my parents' advice and found a job as an accountant. She was a bit of a hippy, with a master's degree in social work, hell bent on working for the good of others. We both felt trapped living in that midwestern metropolis, and daydreamed about the day we would make our escape to the mountains. In those days, the only thing that made either of us truly happy was being around one another. I'm not sure the dust will ever settle enough to clearly see when all of that changed.
Eventually she got the dream job that she had been pursuing for years. I'll never forget that day. She was riding her bike from our northside apartment to meet me at my office downtown when she got the offer. Ecstatic, she called me and I pretty much jumped out of my chair. As soon as I finished work, we rode our way back across the city, not sure where to go or what to do to celebrate. It was a chilly spring evening, I think it might have rained a bit. We stopped to eat deep dish pizza. We drank a bottle of wine and somewhat buzzed, called our parents to share the news that we were moving to Vermont. I cashed in my meager life savings, borrowed her family's heirloom diamond, and we made it official. Writing this now, I realize that it was the beginning of the first period of my adult life when I was truly happy. In our wedding vows, I wrote about how she allowed me to finally set aside all of my big, un-lived dreams and just be happy with what is. She helped me to see the beauty in the present moment. For the first time, I learned what it meant to free myself from the burden of always seeking something more. What I know now is that those dreams aren't so easy to shake off. No matter how hard you try, they continue brewing, silently buried underneath all of your best reasons to ignore them.
The thing about these dreams is that they morph and refine over time. At different times, they manifest in different forms. At one point, for me, it was being a musician. Then it became photography. For some time, back in college, it was to work in the snowboard business. What I have discovered is that the underlying desire is not so much a particular career or lifestyle, but rather the hope of finding your true purpose in this life. Our hobbies, interests, even passions change over time. The single constant is the idea that we have the power and the privilege to choose a path through life that leads to finding maximum fulfillment in our work and our relationships. Some of us follow those big dreams right out of the gate. Others, like me, take more time to realize what those dreams are actually leading us to. The longer we wait, the more time those dreams have to brew and settle and refine until, finally, they have reached a state of such perfect clarity that they are impossible to ignore.
For me, it started to become clear that the most fulfilling work I can do is to build meaningful connections with others by sharing the experiences that I know and love. Sharing the sense of inner peace and clarity that I find in a yoga practice, or the exhilaration and connection to the world that I find travelling through the mountains, these are the things that I feel most excited to teach and pass along to others. Becoming a mountain guide slowly, steadily became the compass pointing my way through life. Early on, the idea started out as something I could do on weekends. The deeper I got into it, the more I began to see that, despite the hardships and challenges, this is the path I most want to travel. Needless to say the idea of leaving a stable, well-paying office based career for a life of seasonal, not to mention dangerous, work involving significant travel and an equally significant pay cut is a tough one to swallow. Especially when you are thirty years old, have a mortgage, want to start a family and it's your husband who has the idea.
So I let the idea brew, while we both became a little more disillusioned with our careers. By the time she finished school in the spring she was feeling completely burnt out on her job. The realities of a career in non-profits began to outweigh ideals that led her to it in the first place. Starting a family and having a stable, yet flexible job became her priority. I was not quite as ready to start raising children, but looked forward to it nonetheless. In the months leading up to our trip, we fell further and further apart, each focused on our own projects and priorities. We knew we only had to make it a few more months and then we would be free from everything else and could get back to focusing on each other. In the meantime, the excitement of our pending mega-vacation was enough to keep us moving forward. Yet, the issues were already bubbling. She wanted to spend three months on the road, I wanted to go for six. When I went away for two weeks to finish my EMT training, she made it clear that she hated the time apart whereas I felt that it ultimately brought us closer together. When we finally pulled away from my parent's house in Chicago, officially marking the start of our trip, she jokingly declared that we were either coming back pregnant or divorced. The universe loves foreshadowing.
So we truly lived the dream for a few months. Living in a 12'x6' box with another human and two dogs has its challenges, but we did pretty well. We saw some of the most beautiful places and visited friends all across the country. We shopped local farmer's markets, lived simply and sometimes spent more than we should have. The summer was full of big alpine adventures and lazy days spent cragging in the sun, bathing in creeks, and searching out the best free camp spots. For a few weeks, we even considered settling down in Lander, WY. Yet, as the summer began to wind down and it came time to start thinking about our return to civilized life as responsible adults the arguments got intense and frequent. I committed us to Boulder, CO when I accepted a job working with a brand new start up company, which meant no paycheck or benefits for the foreseeable future. Stupid idea? Possibly. But after several arguments and tough conversations we had decided that we could make it work, at least for a few months. That meant the pressure was really on her now to find a job so we could afford to live and eat. In the meantime, I would look for extra work on the side. And through it all, I was still committed to pursuing training and starting to work as a guide. At thirty two, and ready to start a family, this was not the situation she wanted to find herself in. Yet, I pushed harder and harder. I really believed that our relationship was strong enough to make it all work. Taking a gamble on an unpaid start-up gig seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up because, if it paid off, it would mean having the flexibility to work as a guide while also having the chance to run a company using my current career skills. It would allow me to pursue my passion for guiding and also provide an extra measure of financial stability. And, the work seemed more exciting than the other options available. I knew that I was asking a lot of her at this point to be supportive of it all, and to potentially put off having children a few more years. Under all the stresses of having to find jobs and a place to live, before our travel budget fully ran dry, it was all just too much. We both cracked.
All along, our plan had been to stay on the road until Thanksgiving, and then be settled down and working again by the beginning of December. I had signed up for a ten day guide training course in California that ended a week before the holiday. In the weeks before I was to head to California, we had our share of arguments, but we had committed to working through it all. What happened over those next few weeks still seems to have passed in a blur. I went on the course, and for the first time, was convinced that I could really make a living at a mountain guide and still provide for a family. In other words, I realized that our dreams were not incompatible. She had been arguing that they were, and I argued against it, for months. I was never totally sure, yet I wanted to believe there was a way to make it work. Now, after taking this course and getting to know other guides who had made it work, I knew it was possible. After finishing, I went in to town and called her on the phone. I don't remember the details all that well, but things were said on both ends that left us each feeling hurt, alone, and unloved. From there I had to face the long drive from California to Chicago, but was looking forward to reuniting in a few days to enjoy some time with family and to start fixing some of the things that needed mending. I had scheduled a meeting with someone in Boulder in a few days, so having a day to spare I met up with some friends for a day of climbing in Las Vegas. That night, as we headed into town to grab some food after climbing I got a message from my mom that my wife had called to say she wasn't coming over for Thanksgiving. It was essentially in that moment that I knew our relationship had hit its end. The day after Thanksgiving, I drove out to Vermont to clean out our house and pack up the rest of our belongings. I then drove it all out to Colorado where we had rented out a new apartment. It never felt like a home to me. Though we dragged our feet for a few months, it was clear that we were both just treading water waiting for it all to drown. Before long, I moved out of the apartment and back into the van. Shortly after we filed our divorce papers. Even now, the weight of that word crushes me to the ground. I’ve done all I can to avoid it. I’m still not sure how to talk about it or even if I’m ready to. When necessary, I say we’re ‘splitting up’ or 'separating'. For some reason those words seem a little lighter to handle. Divorce though, damn, that one is heavy.
What really went wrong is that we both wanted things that were important to us as individuals, and at some point, those things became more important than wanting reach other. As Paulo Coehlo says in The Alchemist, "when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." Really though? Did I really choose a career over the love of my wife? I guess the better question is how much did we truly love each other. Maybe our definitions of love were too different. Maybe it just had more to do with who we each were, and who we wanted to be, and those people no longer being compatible. Some days I am confident that I truly gave my whole heart and everything I could offer to her and it just wasn’t enough, for either of us. Other days, I look back on decisions I made and think about how I could have done it all so differently. Reading over my wedding vows, there is one promise in particular that I did not hold myself to. I told her, as witnessed by our closest friends and family, that no matter what I would always drop everything and be willing to open my arms to her. Over time, as we both got busier and busier with our own lives, that’s the one promise I broke more and more. But I can’t help in asking myself why? I felt like I was so openly giving of my love, but often did not feel it in return. So maybe that’s why I turned to the other places I found that love. My yoga community. The mountains. My climbing partners. These are the places I felt most accepted for the person I am, the most loved for what I had to offer. Inevitably, my attention shifted to these places rather than her. I can’t say whether it is the reason or an excuse. I know it doesn’t matter now. Recently, I found myself reading back through old journals. The feelings that tore our marriage apart were nothing new. While they may have been subtle, the records of my own thoughts shows that they were always there, bubbling beneath the surface. I even came across an old page of notes, from before we were even married, that I had written about a book idea centered around a character who goes through a break up and decides to move into his car while living in a big city. The urban dirtbag I called it. The idea was to explore themes of living simply and learning about just what is needed for a fulfilling life. Until finding these notes, I had no memory of this whatsoever. Is this really what I wanted all along? The universe man, the universe.
Now I’m living in Boulder, floating around between friend’s houses and basically living out of my van once again. It’s much less fun when you do it alone, and are tied down to a single place. I’m working as an accountant, in an office every day. Yet I have been training harder than ever and spending lots of quality time in the mountains. I just had my first day of paid guiding work., and another step in my training just over the horizon. It feels that I’m about to approach a major crossroads. Never before have I had the complete freedom to go where I want and be what I want to be. Yet, it’s now me that is holding it all back. Am I ready to fully let go of the life I’m used to living? A consistent paycheck, a home, a yard, benefits, and a career that is generally acceptable to society. Do I even have a choice at this point? I had a dream job once, working in the snowboard industry, and it turns out it wasn’t quite what I wanted after all. What about now? Sometimes the things we want don’t turn out to be all we imagined. What if this new path follows that same pattern? When did I become so afraid of the unknown, of the uncertainty? For months as we watched the flame of our marriage flicker and grow dim, my only comfort was in knowing that despite the pain and heartbreak that we were following our hearts. Now, thrown out into this great, dark unknown, I’m no longer sure of that. Whether I wanted it or not, this is what I asked for.
From here, all I can hope for is that I can once again find the voice of my heart. Life often feels like a whirlwind of confusion right now. Fear of the unknown and excitement over all of the new possibilities are constantly shuffling for the seat behind the wheel. I think I know where I want to go, but in this upheaval I can't seem to trust that instinct anymore. I hope that both myself and the person I had once committed to spend my life with, that we can each learn to once again express that unburdened smile of our youth, the one beaming with idealism and anticipation of a better world.