Postscript to a Nevada Walk
California Explorer Magazine, May/June, 2006
I never dreamed that the hardest part of my 510-mile walk down the length of Nevada would be its epilogue – that period after completion of the journey, once the champagne bottles are empty and “normal” life resumes. That fact hit me in the head like a two-by-four late last year.
During late summer and early fall of 2005, I successfully completed the most complex and physically demanding objective of my 65-year-life. I pulled a heavy rickshaw down the east side of Nevada -- from the Jarbidge Wilderness area on the Idaho border to the Virgin Mountains on its Arizona counterpart. The rickshaw portaged 12 gallons of water and other supplies required by the long distances between sources.
After decades of dreaming and years of planning, I spent two and a half months with my 22-year old niece, Laura, discovering the secrets of the Great Basin. The trek was glorious, all I had expected and more, and was followed by a celebration in Las Vegas with family and friends. I was on top of the world, feeling like I’d won a jackpot.
But there were already clouds on the horizon. Within days after returning to my home in San Jose, my wife left for a month’s babysitting assignment with our grandson in New York. A week after that, Laura returned home to her family in Ohio. For the first time in many months, I was alone, and alone while undergoing withdrawal from what had been one of the top achievements of my life. Now I had done it, and I had nothing to take its place. I was miserable.
On top of that, my social network had fallen into “disrepair” during my absence. I had been out of town for over three months, and before that, even when home, I was often preoccupied with logistics and planning. Friends had gotten used to the fact that “John’s unavailable.” For me, no family, no friends, no priorities meant poor emotional health.
Oh, and one last item -- I had a foot that needed repair – read surgery. I had begun the trip with a neuroma between two of my toes, and it in turn had evolved into a dislocated toe. I completed the hike thanks to two cortisone shots, but clearly I had to repair my foot before taking on any more long distance adventures. I’d be laid up two months after the surgery -- no hiking or biking for this hyperactive adult! I decided to hold off on the operation until the New Year, but the entire affair had left me feeling less than whole.
One day shortly after Laura left, I woke up and was mired in indecision. Should I clean up the ton of equipment I had dumped in the garage, write vignettes of my trip for magazine articles, mountain bike in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains or begin the book I intended to write about the hike. The uncertainty created anxiety that in turn made decisions even harder to make. I had forgotten how to assign importance to not only the meaty but the mundane. I had temporarily lost my ability to choose among the various paths that would define the rest of my life.
Slowly, ever so slowly, I began to make myself do things that felt “right” regardless of the logic of the order that I did them. I began to write. Just translating the hieroglyphic notes from the journal of my trip into my computer was enormously helpful. I’d figure what to do with it later.
I forced myself to phone up or email friends. I’m notoriously poor at social networking (generally leaving that to my wife) and it was a real effort. But gradually the hikes and lunches that resulted led to other engagements and the companionship began to erase some of the blues.
I also began mountain biking -- biking rather than hiking because it was less strain on my foot, and I did it with gusto. The tougher the trail the better, and the endorphins felt wonderful.
Lastly, I began to sort my trip photographs, and they helped me realize the changes I had undergone during the walk. I had learned how simple life could be, and I took enormous satisfaction from that knowledge. I now knew just how far a person could walk in a day, a week, a month. I knew the provisions (both necessities and amusements) it took for each increment, and how to stretch them when necessary. I knew how to shelter myself from the elements and how to be as one with nature’s other creatures. And, most significantly of all, I had learned I could set a goal that seemed impossible, and achieve it. This realization brought back the pride in the achievement that had escaped me earlier.
So now I find myself looking back again, this time not at the trip itself, but at my recovery from the trip. Why did it take so much emotional energy to get over a three-month walk? None of my “recovery road map” was rocket science, but it sure took me a long time to figure it out.
I haven’t yet asked Laura how she coped with her recovery. She seems so far away now. Someday I will. I think she had it a bit easier since her involvement with the venture had spanned only months, mine years. She also returned to other people and medical school, whereas I was left alone. But it couldn’t have been easy for her either. We were once a team that had now been dissolved.
There’s a bond among participants in a shared objective, particularly one that takes time to achieve. I’m sure championship sports teams feel the same way after their season’s over. They’ve toiled and laughed together for an extended period, in pursuit of a goal. When the celebration’s finished, there’s the realization that the voyage can never be duplicated nor can the relationship continue exactly as before. In our case the route could be retraced, but the experience will never be repeated.
But that’s the way it should be. Reflection on accomplishment whets the appetite for more. It tantalizes the imagination as to what might be over that next mountain, and then the next one after that. At least that’s the way it was with me. Writing this in June of 2006, foot fixed, appetite whetted, I’m well on the way to figuring out what else I’ve always wanted to do. I’m sure it’ll be good.