I’ve thought of it as a whim for over a year. It has a whimsical feel.
And I guess it was, although I don’t think I live in a universe anymore in which whims don’t involve determinism at some level. I don’t trust this kind of randomness.
Not that I have a good explanation, but a year ago today I walked from my home, here in the north Puget Sound region, to St. Andrew Presbyterian church in Renton, which is in the south. Thirty miles by highway or, as it turned out, byway. I stuck with the latter.
I like to walk. It was projected to be a warm and sunny day. My wife would be waiting for me, as she had choir practice. The route looked fun. It felt like a challenge. I had plenty of time on my hands. And so on.
I called it a pilgrimage, finally, and it was, as long as you’re willing to give me some leeway on spiritual or moral enlightenment. This is a tricky business, being a pilgrim, and way more complicated than you might think.
For one thing, a lot of mental energy was expended on not getting hit by something. Cars, trucks, bikes. I crossed busy streets very carefully, but I was extra vigilant on the trails, as bike riders zipped past me without, usually, a vocal head’s up. I never saw another walker, so I assume that I was an anomaly on at least some of these, or at least on a weekday.
And then there were the last six miles, as I turned left and headed east. And up.
I drive up Coal Creek Parkway regularly these days, sometimes once a week. It’s never not on my mind, that walk, not when I do. If you know the area and are on Coal Creek someday, think of me at the intersection with Forest. That’s where I sat down, 26 miles in, and gave up. I’d run out of water, not carrying extra because hey, I was walking through cities. They have stores and such.
Just not where I was walking, not that last hour or so, and I was a little dehydrated. Out of gas. Able to walk but less interested. I texted my wife to come pick me up, but by the time she responded I was back on my feet, eyes focused on an imaginary horizon on an imaginary flat route instead of the hill I was climbing. A grocery store appeared a mile later, I got rehydrated, and I ambled the last three miles in an hour, taking my time. The entire walk took over 9-1/2 hours, although it was closer to 11 by the time I reached the church, counting breaks and lights, etc. I burned about 3600 calories, and climbed a total elevation of 2500 feet. Whimsical.
And I had some enlightenment, which I tried to explain to a friend who was waiting for me at the church with a cold drink. It wasn’t particularly grand enlightenment, but it’s all I got.
This is hard, I kept thinking. I’ve walked a lot, and a lot of it was hard for different reasons, but this was hard. It was a little stupid, too, but mostly hard. I didn’t need to prove to myself that I could do a hard thing.
I just needed to remind myself. That was my moment of clarity, unobscured by sweat and sore feet. The coming year might not be so fun, I was thinking. I might need to remember that I know how to do hard things.
I was right, by the way.
We went hiking in April with old and dear friends at Multnomah Falls near Portland. This followed two weeks of alarm, as a routine physical exam showed some blood test abnormalities and, by the way, I’d lost over 40 pounds I didn’t mean to lose. It wasn’t a mystery to me; I knew what I weighed. But hearing myself describe the past year to my doctor, with the lack of appetite, sleep problems, other problems, I suddenly realized what was going on.
People in recovery circles tend to use a vocabulary that employs flexible semantics; words sometime mean what you want them to mean. What you need them to.
What I’d engaged with over the past year had been carefully planned, well-documented self-destructive behavior. I’d call that a relapse.
Understanding that, I got a clear picture of what I’d done to myself. I went on a hunger strike to protest the lack of serenity in my life. I screwed up. I’d erased all I’d managed to accomplish over the past decade.
Or that’s how the semantic part works. Flexible, as I said.
But we hiked that trail, on that sunny but cold April morning, and it was steep and everyone was breathing hard, including our companions, both obnoxiously healthy and athletic people. Just not me.
“Chuck didn’t even look like he was breathing,” one of them said to Julie later. I was, but instead of the energy-poor, deconditioned self I expected, this was just steep. I live in the land of steep. I’ve walked a lot of hills. Including one that nearly broke my heart, a year ago today, and I remembered then that I know how to do hard things, and why.