Usually when something is going to have a profound impact on my life, I feel inexplicably drawn to it — a feeling of excitement builds in my gut and I have no idea why. Like the time I was driving through Santa Monica as a teenager and looked up and saw a Wicked poster and hadn’t a single clue what it was (I didn’t even know it was a musical) and every fiber of my being screamed “whatever that is, it is going to be AMAZING!” Goose bumps rose all over my body. And when I finally sat in the audience a year later and saw myself in Elphaba while my Glinda-like best friend sat next to me and we watched the themes of our childhood and friendship come to life on stage with the most incredible story set to soul-inspired music, my heart cracked in two and was put back together again while the lights came up on my tear-stained face, and my life was changed.
Or that time when I was in middle school and my friend was having a birthday party and the DJ played swing music and we all learned a little bit of swing dancing and a massive bear-like creature came roaring out of my chest screaming “I MUST DO THIS” and many years later I threw myself obsessively into swing dancing and was out almost every single night, dancing for hours on end (even on school nights) because I loved it so much.
This knowing I feel before an experience is so normal for me that I forget that occasionally things whip in and change my life without precursor or internal fanfare. That’s why when I don’t feel enthusiasm at doing something, I am hesitant to throw myself all in. I dip my toes in tentatively and think things through logically. I give things a shot with the mindset of “we’ll see.”
Brandon and I have another couple that we hang out with often who are really good friends of ours. Erin and James love backpacking, and invited us on a trip, so we said yes. I have never felt particularly drawn to the idea; on the contrary, the idea of hauling a heavy backpack for long stretches has always sounded rather unappealing to me. Don’t get me wrong, I have always loved hiking. And I enjoy the occasional camping trip, though we never did much camping when I was a kid so I didn’t grow up loving it like so many people I know do. It’s more of an acquired taste. As much fun as it is sitting around a campfire getting tipsy and eating hot dogs and marshmallows and trying to fall asleep in a tent while the next camp over is still drunk and cackling, it just never really thrilled me enough to want to do it on a regular basis. So the idea of having to haul everything on my back first and then go camping was more of a shrug and a “sure, why not give it a try?”
On top of that, I am probably in the worst shape I have ever been in. I’m not out of shape, per se; I can still go for really long hikes with little problem (sans weight, of course) and I still try to get in at least a little exercise every day, but these last couple of years I have thrown myself so hard into work (which usually means sitting at my computer for hours on end) that I don’t exactly have the stamina or muscles to dance for six hours straight like I used to as a teenager. Gone are the days of being able to just go rock climbing when someone invites me; I’d probably really struggle right now if I tried to go for very long. I’ve been meaning to get in better shape, but everything else always seems more important and, well… it’s easy to stay on the momentum train.
Still, I was determined to give it a try. “You’ve been wanting to get into better shape, Tien. Here’s your chance!” I told myself. For the two weeks leading up to the trip I pushed myself to exercise more and use muscles that I had forgotten about. I didn’t train like I probably should have and didn’t go for any walks with weight on my back, but I did try to prepare somewhat at least. I definitely felt a lot of trepidation about how the weekend would go and I hoped I wouldn’t be a complete drain on everyone else. But our friends promised us it would be a short three hour hike to the campsite and three hours back. One night. A great beginner trek for me to get a taste and see if I liked it. Not to mention Brandon used to do a lot of backpacking so he already knew what to expect and we could plan together appropriately.
The hike was definitely a lot harder with a giant backpack, that’s for sure. I was slower on the uphills than everyone else. But we made it to the campsite without too much difficulty and set up tents and sat around talking while we ate dinner. I forgot how delicious food tastes when you really kick your own ass exercising. I find it ironic that the most difficult part of the trip came when it was time to go to sleep. Because I hadn’t been sure that backpacking was an experience I wanted to repeat, we had borrowed the tent and sleeping bags from our friends and I had decided not to invest in better sleeping gear (because, ouch! That stuff is expensive. I wasn’t about to drop that much money on something I didn’t know if I was going to be doing again any time soon.) Even though I was exhausted from the hike it took me over two hours to fall asleep because I was so uncomfortable. I woke up in the middle of the night several times from bizarre dreams and my tailbone and hips were aching from where they pressed against the rocky ground and I berated myself for not taking the time to figure out a way to have a more comfortable pillow. Ever since getting rear-ended in my early twenties I have had neck problems and this trip showed me that a wadded up jacket does not qualify as a pillow when you are almost 30 and your muscles and bones don’t bounce back like they used to when you are younger. I woke up feeling far more sore from sleeping than I did from hiking with a heavy pack, which I thought was pretty funny.
Interestingly enough, I was still in great spirits. I was filthy and sweaty and smelly and pretty damn chipper. Many times throughout the night I listened to the panoramic symphony of crickets serenading us in our tent and thought, “if I was comfortable right now, this would be incredible!” I was looking forward to what promised to be a much easier hike back to the car with a lot less uphill than the trek there, with my backpack much lighter than before from all the water we had been drinking. I thought of how I usually take showering for granted and how fucking amazing it was going to feel to sleep in a real bed with a real pillow. But I was so happy to be right where I was, with great company and good friends and the beauty of nature all around us, drinking water and getting exercise. I know that all of these things have a massively positive impact on my mood but it’s easy to forget when you get sucked into the day-to-day grind of things.
Somehow on the hike back our lead got a little turned around and we ended up going the wrong way which caused us to have to do a painfully steep incline for the last half a mile back to the car. A tiny part of me was disappointed because I was exhausted and just wanted to take my backpack off and be done. But mostly I was mentally unfazed by this sudden twist, which surprised me. I knew it was going to be harder for me than the rest of the group because I had already been the only one with trouble hauling my backpack up the inclines on the first day, and I was probably going to be trailing behind everyone else. And yes, I ended up being the last one, huffing and puffing and sweating like crazy because my leg muscles weren’t at all used to it with so much weight. But Erin stuck with me and encouraged me and kicked my butt a little when I needed it and I appreciated her for that. We were so close to the top and I was struggling but so happy to be almost there when Brandon came jogging back down and tried to remove my backpack, saying he would carry it for me the rest of the way to help me out. I love him so much for his sweet intentions, but I swatted him away and grumpily snapped my pack back on. “Don’t take this away from me,” I told him. “I’m so close to the top. Just let me finish this on my own.” And when we finally made it it felt just as amazing as I knew it would, like those times when I did in my early twenties going rock climbing when I pushed past the fear and made it to the top even though my muscles were shaking and I was terrified I would slip and hurt myself. I ended up being thankful we went the wrong way, because it made the whole experience that much more memorable.
That feeling of being capable…. that feeling of succeeding at something that is difficult and pushes you beyond yourself… it’s a drug, that’s for sure. But the very best kind.
And yes, that first shower after was the most amazing shower ever. And dinner tasted fucking incredible. And colors were brighter and my mind felt sharper and I felt a renewed sense of appreciation for both nature and technology.
But the best part came when this night owl woke up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at an unnatural hour the next day, before the sun was up and the fog was still thick around suburbia. I watched all of the parents ushering crowds of children off to their first day at school and I felt utterly thrilled to the tips of my toes that I am an adult and I’m no longer shoved into a classroom being force-fed things I don’t care about and will never remember. I was one of the first people into the coffee shop and I ordered myself a giant cup of hot black coffee and sat in the corner by myself slurping it straight into my soul and nibbling on a pastry and feeling more thankful and centered than I have felt in a long, long time. The easy and convenient things always feel more delicious when they are preceded by the difficult and the challenging — especially when those challenging things are just enough for you to handle and not completely overwhelming; when they push you right up against the edge of yourself but don’t throw you over. You get to stand there and feel more awake and alive and capable and somehow free.
And as I climbed into the car to make the drive from Orange County to San Diego, I felt better than I have in a long, long time. The depression that I’ve been carrying around lately has been tied to a feeling of losing my sense of hopefulness and optimism about my future. I’ve become cynical, sarcastic, and bitter — something I never saw coming in myself. I used to have all of these huge dreams and things that I wanted to do and accomplish, and somehow in the last couple of years I feel like they’ve all died and I’ve given up on so many of them. But interestingly enough, the overwhelming happiness I felt after my trip didn’t change any of that — it was in spite of it. I know that might not sound like a good thing, but I promise you, it is. It made me realize that I could still feel good about myself without needing my life to look a certain way. I don’t have to hang on to any of my dreams in order to feel good. I don’t need them. For those that don’t understand, that probably sounds negative, but it’s not. It’s the closest thing I’ve felt to free in a very long time.
Negative thoughts continued to pop up as I was driving; typical anxious thoughts that I’ve become so used to: “you always make such a fool of yourself, Tien. You’re such a loser. No one likes you. I don’t know why you even bother.” But something small shifted inside of me. A very lucid, clear thought floated to the surface, a bubble that burst open and spilled sunshine over the anxiety: if I let my mind wander for this whole drive, these thoughts are going to take over like they always do. But I feel good enough right now that I don’t have to let that happen. I need something to focus on, something to pull my mind in a different direction. I mulled it over and couldn’t come up with any thoughts that I knew would keep my mind occupied for the next hour in a truly positive way, when all of the sudden it clicked. Brainstorm.
If I could only use one word to describe myself, it would be creative. It is the one thing that I truly live for, the thread of my soul that makes me happier than anything else on this planet, and the one thing that I would die inside without. When I am brainstorming or working on creating something that I feel excited about, I am at my happiest. It only made sense for me to use this beautiful slice of solitude to dream up something new.
But here’s the interesting part. Normally when I brainstorm story ideas, I get hung up on wanting everything to come together perfectly. I want everything to make sense, I want everything to fit together logically and still have a powerful underlying message. I allow myself to get stuck there, and it’s why I rarely move forward. For years now I’ve been starting stories, writing chapters for things I never finish and developing characters for novels that go nowhere. I get frustrated because I can’t see the entire road and I’m so hell bent on wanting it to be perfect that I never complete anything. I know this is my weakness and yet it’s always been hard to let go somehow. In other creative endeavors I can let go of perfectionism, but I just care so fucking much about writing that I get stuck. It’s been my single lifelong dream, and I’ve already told you that I easily get hung up on dreams. That’s why I finally set my sights on something different and decided to publish a children’s book. It still took me a year, but it was something I could actually finish. I was less attached to it being perfect than I am writing for adults, and that’s why I could do it. That’s also the same reason that I started writing this blog — I wanted it to be an exercise in writing things that are less than perfect. Sure, I rewrite here and there. But I’m allowing myself the space to let thoughts roll over the keyboard, completely uninhibited, and let them be grammatically incorrect if that’s the way they come out. I’ve been trying to ease myself, step by step, away from my perfectionistic nature, and it’s been leaking out here and there where it can. But I’ve still been stuck when it comes to stories, and I’ll be honest with you: a big part of me has given up. No, I don’t think I can ever completely let go of that dream because it is too close to my heart, but for my own sanity I have had to let go of it for the most part.
So that’s why brainstorming on my drive to San Diego felt like such a huge breakthrough. This time, I wasn’t creating for an end result. I wasn’t trying to create a perfect, epic, incredible, life-altering story. It was just me and the scenery shifting around me and good music on the stereo and a single good intention — keep feeling happy. What if? And How would? and Wouldn’t this be cool? I’ll be honest: part of me didn’t want the drive to end. But all drives do eventually end, and I tucked my story idea into the back folds of my brain for later. It’s one of the best I’ve had in a while. I can’t make any promises, since I always have the best of intentions when it comes to new story ideas, and things like this take more time than I ever want them to. But it’s the first time I’ve felt excited about a story idea in a long time. I’m going to spend some time nurturing it and see if it turns into something. Most of all, it made me happy to simply spend an hour being me at my very best.
And backpacking? Well, I guess I’m kind of hooked; I had no idea I was going to enjoy it as much as I did. It looks like now I’m going to have to start doing a little research and looking for some of my own equipment. I don’t see myself having the time to become a hardcore backpacker, but I definitely see more trips in my future. I love when life takes me by surprise and sends something my way that is not only wonderful, but exactly what I need.