I’ve never read the book “Eat, Pray, Love” but my vague understanding of it is that the main character takes a year to do the aforementioned things to find herself or something like that.
I’ve been going through some soul searching lately, feeling lost in work and life in general. While I’m all about the broad philosophy of eating and praying and loving, I certainly don’t have a year to donate to self-discovery in exotic locations. Feeling particularly lost and trapped in life this past week, I realized I needed to focus on finding contentment in myself again. STAT.
I gave myself three days.
Before you cry out about how completely unrealistic that timeline is, I should remind you of two important factors; I’m very efficient when I feel like it and I was determined to be successful. This wasn’t about me wanting to find a sense of inner peace… I needed to. I needed to find internal contentment as much as I needed air and food and water.
Plus I don’t get that many days off work and travel costs money, guys.
Saturday morning before the sun could rise I hopped in my trusty Corolla and headed south. My destination? Southern New Mexico and the promise of isolation in the trippy White Sands National Monument. I was antsy for a new ecosystem, a different environment, a brand new state; something as fresh and bright as I wanted my heart to be.
As someone who rarely drives her car anywhere, there is a romanticism to a solo day of driving. Busting out my old college mix CDs, I put miles and my personal troubles behind me to the dulcet tones of Tribe Called Quest and Shania Twain and 3 Doors Down. (My mix cds are an unpredictable and often entertaining mix of genres and audio quality and choices.)
I didn’t think during my morning drive and had no desire to. I wanted to simply be, focused on the road and the sky and the occasional direction from Siri. I was in the midst of reliving Miss Hill’s miseducation at full blast when my phone alerted me to an incoming text.
No! I wanted to get away! I wanted to be alone, away from everyone and everything! (I had even brought my passport on the off chance that I didn’t stop driving until somewhere into Mexico… be prepared, right?) And even though it was my one of my besties checking on my progress and thinking about my safety, I rebelled against the interruption. I recoiled against the connection. I didn’t want people checking on me-I wanted isolation.
My temporarily acquired inner peace was shaken more by my vehement annoyance at friends contacting me than by the actual messages. My determination to “fix myself” over the weekend was increased exponentially my dislike for my irrational response to a caring message.
I redoubled my in-the-moment efforts, singing almost aggressively (thanks Gorillaz) in an attempt to get that feeling back. I lost myself in music and looking towards the miles in front of me once again.
You can cover quite a bit of good (and terrible) personal musical history in an eight hour drive. But eventually I made it to my destination. There it was…. the desert! Sand dunes! A place noted for isolation and quiet and everything I wanted!
Except for one minor factor that I failed to pay attention to… Spring Break.
Apparently if you plop some gypsum sand dunes down in the middle of nowhere (sorry) New Mexico, it becomes a proverbial beach party on a sunny Saturday in April. As in beach blankets and frisbees and kites and picnics and seriously ALL OF THE PEOPLE. I drove around the entire park looking for a quieter corner but everywhere was Spring Break Party Time. It has gotten so bad at this particular National Monument that they ban alcohol during this time of year, though I question how enforced this policy is.
Alright, well I could be alone with a bunch of strangers. I could still achieve that sense of peace, I was sure. I just had to keep walking, get away from the parking area and the easily accessed areas.
No matter how far I walked into the dunes, the sounds of merriment and laughter and children playing (screaming and yelling to my anti-people-mode ears) seemed to chase me. I couldn’t get away. Well, not without getting horribly lost forever and ever in the middle of the desert. Have I mentioned that I have no sense of direction? And that sand dunes are super disorienting?
With a sigh that reached into my bones, I headed back to my car. The desert was a bust.
Back in the controlled peace of my car, pavement once again gliding under my wheels, I felt the quietness of the interior (no tunes this time) seep into my heart. I drove 45 minutes up into the surrounding mountains, the wooded alpine village a sharp contrast to the open expanses of the desert below. I layered up and went in search of the sunset. Just down the road was a wooded trail with a promising abandoned train trestle at the end .
<Determination Makes Glorious Re-Entry Onto Scene>
Now would be the time that everything became clear to me, right?
The comforting presence of the woods engulfed me and I heard nothing but my footsteps, leaves rustled by the wind and the occasional bird trill. As the sun dipped lower and lower towards the treeline and I traipsed the downhill route I found myself doing something very strange. I started to run.
Important Note: I am not a runner.
But suddenly I couldn’t stop myself. Not a sprint but at a steady, ground-eating pace I raced the sunlight, raced away from my own confusion and disquiet, raced away or towards something that I couldn’t quite define.
It felt good focusing on my footing and my breathing. I watched the trees slip past me and the fading sunlight schizophrenically caught then released by the foliage above. Maybe this was a runners high, that mythical illusive experience I had heard of but never achieved… perhaps it is the surroundings and state of mind that matters more than the mileage. (Or maybe it was the lack of air at elevation making me loopy.)
When the trail took a steep upwards turn I slowed back to a walk, surprised by my relative ease of breathing. And then I let myself do the thing that I had been avoiding and the thing I needed to do the most. I started to process my life.
My mind quietly focused while strolling up through the treeline towards the open sky. One specific goal, seemingly silly and trifling, bubbled to the surface. It was a clear vista in a mud puddle of desires and thoughts and hopes and maybes. This target of X started a casual ripple effect of planning; to do X I first need to do Y. But I can’t get to Y until I take care of Z, and on. All seemingly unconnected big picture goals, together they painted a pathway in my mind of broader things I wanted in the next several years.
To climb Kilimanjaro for my 35th birthday (well, during the year when I am 35), I had to accomplish a string of non-linear elements- simple but big goals- within a concrete timeline.
It was doable. And it gave me direction. This pseudo-epiphany requires a ton more time spent doing research, refinement, study and writing down obviously, but as I crested the last hill on that walk I felt like I had intention. One clear objective in my life that was close enough to scare me, big enough to inspire me and tough enough to be worth it.
I hadn’t touched so many of the other elements of my life that felt unsettled but this was only day one of pretend vision quest, remember! I had lots of time and many miles to figure the rest out. I didn’t want to solve all my life problems in one sunset stroll. That would be overachieving to the point of being obnoxious, even to myself.
But I was already somewhere different than that morning, in both reality and in my heart.
And it was good.