Have you ever heard the phrase, “Follow your bliss”? If you’re not sure which direction to take your life, simply “follow your bliss.” The more I thought about it, the more it felt like another idealistic platitude.
Then I went backpacking.
I’ve been re-reading old journals from my first backpacking trips, before the Appalachian Trail, before leaving everything behind... other than what I could carry on my back, of course. It's nice to have a record of how I felt. How those first emotions on the trail would one day lead me to where I am now.
|Mt. Franklin at Isle Royale|
Before those trips, I didn’t even know what “bliss” meant. Don’t get me wrong, I could have given you a definition and used it in a sentence, but my description would have been as lifeless as a sentence in Webster’s. Now bliss has a feeling. It’s not some meaningless abstraction. I understand it with all five of my senses.
Nevertheless, with this recently acquired and frequently profound understanding, I can no longer tell you in words what "bliss" means.
One thing I can do is repost some of those old journals, which some of you have already read, but since I’m not hiking right now, and since I have new Kindle subscribers (who I want to get more value for their money), I’m going to post a few reruns. I'll continue to write about gear, but today I am going to start reposting my journal from Isle Royale National Park, which was the first time I got it into my head that “following my bliss” meant living the life I live today.
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My journal from Isle Royale, September 2008
Sometimes I reach up to feel the edge of my glasses to see if they're still on my face. On my drive home from work, I’m occasionally surprised to see that final turn without realizing I've already passed all the familiar landmarks. I know I am wearing underwear but I can’t feel it. My brain signals my consciousness only when there is a change; the repetitive is consistently blocked out.
There is an evolutionary advantage to disregarding the ordinary. It allows us to focus and react quickly to a dangerous or advantageous situation; but the shortcoming is that much of life is repetitive and thus ignored as insignificant. The result is realizing one day I’m 30 and can’t remember where all the time has gone.
I can’t smell myself either, but I've been on a trail for a couple days as I write this, so I’m sure I stink.
One night, while my brain was trying to block out the repetitive chore of folding laundry, I stared at a mound of socks on my bed rolled into balls. Each ball of socks represented a day in my life. Looking at them piled together, I felt like someone with amnesia seeing unfamiliar photographs of themselves with smiling strangers. What did I do with all of these days? Where was I? It seemed like I just did laundry. I was troubled by the number of days now piled up on my bed.
The speed at which this particular year is traveling by is quite alarming. This is the reason I started a life list. The only way I know how to apply the brakes is to do something different, always be thinking of the next adventure, and strive to live in the moment.
Quieting the mind and living in the present is not always an easy task; I pretty much fail at daily actually. I find that it is effortless, however, when I’m alone in nature… and there is no better place for solitude in a pristine natural world than the island of Isle Royale, number 75 on my life list.
Isle Royale National Park is a series of islands tucked away in Lake Superior about 15 miles off the shores of Minnesota and Ontario, although technically part of Michigan. This archipelago encompasses over 400 islands. All of which dwarf the main 45 by 9 mile island, Isle Royale, with 165 miles of trails.
Opting for a more spontaneous trip, I didn’t do much planning. I wanted to be surprised. I didn’t want to do a lot of research and expect anything in particular. I did learn about the moose that live on the island however, and saw an opportunity to simultaneously cross 42 off my list, see a wild moose.
My goals were simple: go to an isolated island, hike, camp, lounge in my hammock, see a moose, live in the moment, and slow down the passage of time. How hard could that be?
I purchased my ticket for the Isle Royale Queen IV ferry, departing from Copper Harbor, Michigan, a month before this late-August trip. I left work a little early and drove north through Chicago just missing rush hour, then through Milwaukee while of course singing the theme song from Lavern and Shirley as I passed various breweries. Then I passed Green Bay, which somehow I don’t even remember, but I know I did. My brain ignores a tedious drive as much as anything, and I do a lot of it.
After twelve hours of driving, stopping only for gas, I arrived in Copper Harbor around midnight. I searched for the dock where I would need to be at 8 AM the next morning, then for an unassuming place to sleep in my car.
I pulled into a motel parking lot about 200 feet from the boat. It looked closed. I would be waking early, so I figured nobody would notice a strange man sleeping in his car. Just then, a woman walk to the front desk with a Golden Retriever by her side, holding his beloved tennis ball. I’ve never met a Golden Retriever that didn’t share this peculiar love for tennis balls.
“Get down!” she yelled, but I really didn’t mind. “Can I help you?” she added.
“Are you getting ready to leave for the night?” I asked while crouching down to pet the dog.
“No, just making rounds to check ice machines and whatnot.”
I asked if she had a room available. She did and it would be $60. I quickly went through my options: sleep in the front seat of a small Honda or a bed with blankets and a pillow, shower or no shower, private restroom or find one in a gas station, extra alarm clock or rely on my unreliable cell phone alarm, a private place to change clothes or that gas station bathroom. It was an easy decision.
I put the key in the door numbered 17 and it popped open, unlocked and unlatched. It was a butterscotch colored room with two beds and a hot pink bathroom. The door would barely shut behind me and the curtains didn’t really close all the way, but it was clean (at least on the macroscopic level).
Another benefit to staying here, that I didn’t consider was cable television; I could watch Letterman, which I hardly ever get to do since I don’t have TV at home. His guests were the women’s beach volleyball gold medalists. It was clear I made the right choice in staying. There would be no regrets.
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Thanks for reading, or rereading... I'll re-post part 2 tomorrow.
A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.