It’s taken me thirty one years to dip my feet into the Pacific Ocean. I saw the Atlantic coast once when I was young, but it was never the shoreline I dreamt about. My family started taking vacations to an island off the Western coast of Florida and it’s a magical place. But it is not the same. I have no clear recollection of where the fascination with the west coast started. My formative years were heavily influenced by the Southern California skate and punk scene. I was attracted to the surf culture, even though I never tried it, in no small part due to Pac Sun being the main supplier to my teenage wardrobe. I have been California Dreaming for most of my life. Today, finally, I felt the Pacific waves wash over my bare feet.
If everything had gone to plan, I would be somewhere on the upper reaches of Mt. Rainier in the middle of new guide training. Meaning, I would have made the twenty hour drive from Colorado to start work for the season. Would I have made that same drive for this? Not likely. As I sit here writing at the Kalaloch campground, I can hear the tide gently roaring through the open windows, less than a hundred yards away. What I saw today was the most beautiful thing I have seen in my life. A Pacific sunset. Just enough clouds in the sky to keep it interesting. Lush green forests, dropping steeply to the crashing waves smashing into craggy cliff lines. Islands of rock jutting up from the waters. Driftwood. Beaches covered with smooth riverstones. Ferns. Great snow capped mountains towering above in the distance, just out of view, but their presence felt. This is where the mountains meet the sea. This is the place I have been looking for all my life. Yet, I know that I would have never travelled this far just to see some ocean waves. Which might be getting at the root of my problem.
It has been a long winter for me. The simple fact is that I tried to do too much, leaving too few resources to focus properly on what I needed to do. The typical pattern was to work seven days straight of ski patrolling, immediately leave work on Friday to make the drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park, scramble to get prepared for a weekend of guiding. After two full days of guiding, I would again scramble to get packed up and make the eight hour drive to Salt Lake City for a two week ski guide training. After the training, it was straight back to Colorado and back at work the next morning. Most of these transition days involving little sleep and the additional anxiety of preparing for the next event. Throughout most of the winter, on the rare day that I was not working as a patroller, a guide, or involved in a training course, the last thing I wanted to do was be out in the mountains. With the details of time and place varying slightly but more or less the same, this pattern repeated itself over and over for three months. It is an easy bake recipe for burn out.
As this cycle dragged on I found myself increasingly cutting corners, letting details slip through the cracks, and no longer able to maintain a level of excitement that I pride myself on. The days leading up to the next big event meant that I had little attention for my friends and loved ones. No doubt leaving a strain on relationships that I will have to work hard to repair. While working furiously over the past couple of weeks to rebuild the van, I had to choose between time spent preparing for guide tryouts, finishing less important details on the van, and spending time with people I cared about. I was happy with my decisions to prioritize time with loved ones, even if it was just a few hours here and there. I was inclined to work late into the night, every night, doing all I could to get the van project finished. Getting ready for tryouts seemed lower priority. I have been well trained and practiced in those skills, and I had gotten used to just showing up and making it happen. I thought I was doing a good job of balancing it all. I was wrong. That was plainly obvious when I showed up to guide try outs less prepared than I needed to be. I was not hired. Not because I lacked skills or fitness. The reason I was not hired was as simple as not having loaded the actual maps onto my GPS. It was that one thing I kept meaning to get around to but never did. I had loaded them onto my computer, studied them, organized them, and had done everything except actually download them onto my hand held device. It was clearly stated in the tryout information sheet to have this. The morning of the tryouts, I tried syncing them with my phone but could not get a strong enough signal. I had a map of different routes on Rainier, I was sure I could get by with that. I know how to navigate in white-out conditions, I could just improvise with what I have and demonstrate my skills. Except, that is not what they wanted to see. More important than skills and problem solving, the most basic concept, that I failed to prove my competency with, is the ability to follow instructions, down to the smallest details. This is something I usually pride myself on doing. Usually is not good enough. It’s the unusual moments that catch us by surprise, and get us into trouble. Especially in the mountains. Especially as a professional mountain guide.
So that hurt. Bad. It’s one thing to fail when you know you gave your best effort. As a climber, you get used to that. It’s an OK sort of failure. It’s the failure you walk away from knowing you learned something and will come back again and do it better. You still head back to camp, throw your feet up, and have a beer with friends around a campfire, full of life. There is this other kind of failure though. The kind where you know you could have done it better. When you know you simply did not give your best effort. It’s the kind that tastes bitter on your tongue, because it’s been marinated in regret. I have only tasted this kind of failure a few times in my life. It’s the kind that leaves you with the pit in your stomach. The kind that makes you realize there are fuck ups that can’t ever be fixed. Getting divorced felt like that. Blowing this try out also felt like that. When my marriage ended, I at least had a vague idea of what I was going to do. I was going to commit myself to my dream of becoming a full-time mountain guide. I was going to travel around, free as the wind, and take people on the biggest adventures of their lives, every day I was at work. Having that helped soften the blow a bit. Working on Rainier was part of that vision. So to have fucked that up, not only did the failure sting but it left me with absolutely no direction. I had no back up plan. I found myself about as far away from home as I have ever been, suddenly with no where to go. No way to make money. So now what?
I decided to follow the sun. Without any plan or agenda, I pointed West and drove to the coast of the Olympic Peninsula. Losing track of time and days, I have ridden my bike along the coastal highway. I have run trails through the rainforest. I have sat down to write with the ocean waves rolling by just outside my window. I have immersed myself in the journey and the road in a way that I have longed to do for so long. Stopping wherever I want to stop. No end in sight. Just moving through this land for the sake of moving. No rush, no hurry. Yet, I still feel it in the back of my mind. There is a vague pressure to be doing something productive. Write more. Go climb something big. It’s been difficult to just go for a run or a ride and not be thinking about how I could turn it into some much bigger, epic adventure. Then I could write about it and sell to a magazine. Or make my blog more famous. And shit. Just enjoy the fucking moment. It seems like it’s been forever since I had a chance to do just this. Something most of us call a vacation. For me, every vacation I have taken for as long as I can remember was time away from work to work, even if just a little, toward some hobby goal or passion project that I hoped would one day lead to my livelihood. Writing words or music or scheming up some project I could sell to the media. Where does it stop? Does it stop? Should it stop?
Balance is the key, and, the hardest part to achieve. Our culture does a good job at pushing us over the boundary between healthy ambition and overworking ourselves. We are chronically stressed out, anxious, and afraid to fail. It doesn’t matter if you work in a high rise office building or the mountains. None of us are immune to it. We all have to consciously work to find the balance between achieving our biggest dreams and just letting the universe unfold itself the way that it intends to. In general we need to let ourselves float along the river. Sometimes we need to swim against the current for a bit to get on the track we want to follow. This is OK. If it’s all we ever do though, we’re bound to end up jaded, bitter, and exhausted. I’m noticing that when it feels like all I have been doing is swimming upstream and getting nowhere, that’s exactly the time to surrender to the flow. Let it take you along for a bit while you rest and relax. Stop fighting it, and seek a new perspective. Then maybe you can try again, reinvigorated. Recharged. With a more focused sense of purpose. And a better idea of where you want to go and how to get there.