I’ve been distracted recently. I suppose in a way, everyone has been distracted recently, but I really feel all over the place.
I’m normally very goal-directed, and I have, for the most part, always known what I wanted. It feels like I’m losing that, though, and I don’t like the feeling.
A friend recently asked me where I saw myself in five years. I couldn’t for the life of me think of a satisfying answer. I don’t see one thing. I don’t have a plan. I could go anywhere and be happy. I can think of many things I want to do, places I want to live, things I want to achieve. I can’t conjure a singular goal, except that I want to hike. (And write. And travel. And teach. And make things. And dance badly until 4 AM with my friends. And be alive. And be in the mountains.)
Beyond that, I genuinely don’t know. Or care.
It feels very not me.
I guess one could blame the pandemic. Although it affected everyone differently, I think we are all feeling, to some degree, a weird awareness of non-time, like one day it was December 2019, and we blinked and now it is January 2022. I’ve been reading a lot of books having to do with time recently, too, and this might have contributed to the distinct sense of things Not Being Normal.
It feels like more than that to me, though. Maybe it’s a delayed quarter-life crisis, something I should have had a couple of years ago but didn’t because of my thru-hike distracting me from the pain and injecting me with so much serotonin. Or because of, you know, covid. Maybe I’m just feeling a little lost and a little scared of the future.
I’m coming up on yet another huge-seeming life change. After a year and a half of living in Columbus, Ohio, I am moving back home to the Greater Cincinnati area for a while. I am also in the process of preparing for another long-distance hike (send good vibes for the PCT permit round 2 next week, please!).
Moving feels overwhelming. I had a breakup a little while ago, too, which has contributed to the strangeness. My family and I had a somewhat chaotic Christmas season, and I just tested positive for covid (again, despite being vaccinated and having had it last year) at the beginning of this week.
This isn’t to say that I’m not happy. I think at the root of it all, I am a genuinely happy person, whatever that means. I feel joy to be alive. I am so privileged and grateful for all I have and all the opportunities and love and adventure I’ve been given. I love life and the world and its people.
But life happens in the space between contradictory statements. I am happy, and not. I am found, and lost. I am here, but I am somewhere else too. So be it.
When my brain starts feeling like it’s going to explode, I usually find that going to the woods sorts it all out, at least for a little while. So that’s what I did today.
Even though it was a high of 15 degrees Fahrenheit, I had to get outside. I bundled up in four layers, masked up, and headed to my favorite local spot: the Highland Cemetery Nature Trails.
There was no one else out there, which is what I was hoping for. No one but whitetail deer and squirrels—both gray and black—and the cold, beautiful, bitterly cold evening.
I tried to pay attention to my breath as I started down the Black Squirrel trail. I listened to the in, out, in, out pull of oxygen into my lungs and the crunching of my trail runners on the crisp layer of recently fallen snow. I noticed my thoughts: jumbled, crazy, twisting in and out of worry and wonder.
I don’t know if meditation is a thing one can be “good” at, but if it is, that individual is not me. I feel like I have a million things winding their way through my head all the time, and when I stop and notice them, I have a hard time not berating myself for what they are saying. I tried not to do that on this walk. I just listened to what was in my mind and followed the path mentally as I followed the path in the woods.
I walked up onto the Screech Owl trail, then the Fossil Trail, and finally the Coyote Trail. I crested up the side of the hill and dropped down to the waterfall on Moser Branch Creek. There were icicles on the edges of the falls, and in the middle, the stream tumbled downwards. I took a deep breath, savoring the evening now dipping into twilight, the sky getting more orange and pink.
I completed the loop and made my way back to the Black Squirrel trail, realizing that it was almost 5:30, when they lock the gates. I felt really warm by this point, and restored to my more comfortable default: the me that I am on the trail still feels like the truest version.
I knew I was cutting it close, but I still stopped to stand at one of my favorite spots: a little rock outcropping along the smaller creek leading back to the parking lot. These falls aren’t as big as the others, but they form a pleasant series of cascades. I squatted down on the rock and took a deep breath of the winter air and watched the water moving.
Out of nowhere, a line from the Sufi mystic poet Rumi that I used to love popped into my head:
Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.
I thought of all the distractions that have been clouding my mind: the move, change, relationships and their weirdness, family, career, what I’m doing with my life, whether it even matters, etc etc etc. I’ve wrestled with self-doubt about this strange path I’m on, the love of long-distance hiking and how it elevates but also kind of ruins your life. I’ve wondered if it’s time to “settle down” and find a “normal job” or if I should have just stayed in Cincinnati after the AT or if I should be doing the standard post-college American path because it’s somehow selfish to do anything else. Or whatever.
But then I thought of that poem and how I used to love reading that red-covered copy of Rumi in the Pitts Theology Library when I was a student at Emory. I felt a sudden rush of love for and kinship with that past version of me.
And I smiled. And laughed a little. Because God has been doing this thing recently where I work myself into a mental rut of overthinking, and then just when I think I’ll never extricate myself from it, They slide in with a cheeky smile and a little note to remind me what’s what.
I already know what I love. I already know what I want and what I’m going to do. I might not have the exact specifications, timeline, or plans figured out, but I’m on my way.
And I’m realizing that it’s okay to be distracted every once in a while, as long as we remember that central core of who we are and what we love: the stronger pull. The strange pull. What we already know to be true.
I walked back to the car feeling lighter and more ready for whatever was next. I felt more enthusiastic about planning my thru-hike, getting my semester planned out, and for whatever is waiting for me in the next year and beyond.
You never regret going to the woods. You learn things out there. Give it a go.
That’s all. That’s really all I have to say about that frigid hike I took today. It was nice to remember a line from a poem, and to feel like I was doing okay.
So are you, by the way. You’re doing cool things. I hope you go into 2022 remembering the stronger pull of what you really love.
Thanks for being here.