Getting Lost to Find Myself
“And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” — John Muir
So long for now San Francisco — I’m off to live like a vagabond for a year and contemplate creativity, purpose, and how to live life a full life with chronic illness.
For the TL;DR updates along the way, subscribe to my new newsletter.
It’s a Saturday at Pinnacles National Park, in the middle of one of the hottest weeks on the West Coast. It’s a holiday weekend, but the smart folks who had planned to tent camp here got wise and all stayed home, or found the nearest shop with AC and planted their butt there as long as the staff would allow.
I’m clearly not one of those smart people. It’s 110° Fahrenheit and I’m sweat-glued to a hammock in the closest tree-shaded area I can find. Luca, my longtime canine companion is lounging with me, intently watching the various bugs and birds that come to the small creek near us to drink.
Muggy heat aside, fear and anxiety has gripped my throat and I’m finding it harder to breath. It’s finally hit me — after months research and planning, I had finally gone full-on nomad.
The day before, I had left the Bay Area with everything I owned either in my car or in storage. I had given up my lease, and left my job a few weeks prior. And now I’m languishing in the heat with a bed in my trunk, no internet access, and about 15 percent of an plan of what I’m doing next.
But inevitably, the anxiety begins to subside, and I start laughing loudly, and uncontrollably. The family in the campsite next to me peer suspiciously at me out of their AC-cooled RV. Luca sits up, also seemingly concerned by my sudden outburst. I pat him on the head reassuringly.
“Well, Luca, we’ve officially gone wild. What the fuck are we going to do now?”
He stares at me with a gaping, drooling smile, lets out a dramatic sigh, and deflates onto his side for a nap.
The Japanese have this great practice called shinrin-yoku which is the practice of taking short leisurely walks in forest, and is supposed to have some impressive health-boosting results for those dealing with anxiety, depression, and other chronic disorders.
I came upon the term after spending the last 3 years in severe chronic pain, largely stemming from a congenital neurological disorder that limits the impinges on the spinal cord in my lower back.
Over time, the discs in my lower back have began degrading — I ruptured a disc in 2014, and again in 2015, which has impinged on a nerve. In response, my autoimmune system has gone into overdrive, causing my joints to swell and lose sensation. After two years of specialists, the doctors have come to the conclusion of ankylosing spondylitis, which is one of several classes of autoimmune arthritis, and like many autoimmune diseases is incurable, but can be managed.
Chronic pain feels like trying to run a marathon in concrete. On a good day, I can hike, I can climb, I can cook myself dinner. On a bad day, moving is not an option; my joints stiffened and my muscles in perpetual spasm. I become a stone statue, frozen in place while watching the world go by.
Losing control of your body is certainly a humbling experience. No matter how smart you think you are, there’s nothing to make you feel more powerless than when body is actively trying to destroy you.
You’ll note that “short leisurely walk” and “go live like a vagabond in the woods without a plan” are not in fact similar. That’s because I secretly enjoy pretending that I’m preparing for Mad Max. Also, I’m a compulsive overachiever, so if I’m going to try this forest bathing thing, I of course have to do it in the most enormous, life-altering way possible.
Last year, shortly after regaining some semblance of normal mobility, and frustrated with an endless melange of doctor’s appointments, I booked an impromptu two-week trip to Belize. I didn’t have much of a plan, except that I knew I wanted to see both the jungle and the islands, and learn how to scuba dive.
I spent that trip largely on chicken buses, contemplating pain, purpose, values, and resiliency throughout Belize and parts of Guatemala. Without a concrete plan, I learning to be patient and listen to my body, rather than fight it. The lack of structure meant I could change plans with a moment’s notice, and I found that often, by taking an extra day to rest when needed, I would be more energized the following. While I couldn’t make the pain go away, I could be patient and listen to my body, rather than fight it.
The shifting plans also appealed to my longstanding sense of adventure. I loved the thrill of not knowing what I would be doing the following day, which gave me the freedom to say yes to opportunities as they arose (like taking in Mayan ruins in Tikal). Whether I was hiking or diving or simply taking a day to nap and read on the beach, I found myself in a state of deep stillness, surrounded by beautiful landscapes and people with fascinating stories. Regardless of how I was feeling day to day, I was tremendously grateful to be alive.
I came back from that trip with more questions than I had answers, and a deep longing to return to the wilderness. I was hungry to explore the vastness of it all, and in return learn more about myself and the world at large. I had unknowingly began a journey of self-exploration — dissecting my identity, my values, and my priorities in order to live a full, purpose-filled life, while embracing my body’s limitations.
The Tonic of Wildness
“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
Since that trip, the outdoors have been my respite from a world of chronic pain. It’s as if time slows amongst the trees and allows me to think deeply, without the constant buzz of cell phones, and email, and daily routine. It quiets the pain, and allows me to just be, inside this body, at a singular moment of time.
I focused a tremendous amount of energy on how to maximize my physical health. I picked up rock climbing and strength training on top of hiking. I worked with a physical therapist and a personal trainer. Disease aside, I wanted to be in peak health and learn how to nourish my body.
When not outside (and often when in the mountains too), I read and researched voraciously. From January — today, I’ve read two dozen books (that averages out to about 2.6 books per month) on a myriad of topics, from philosophy, biology, anthropology, economics, politics, and more. I’ve been a sponge for both fiction and nonfiction — taking notes and jotting ideas along the way.
In July, I was invited to pursue a line of research in Rotterdam, the Netherlands on community, resiliency, and technology. The program would last 16 months, and I had a choice — start this September, or join the next cohort in September 2018. I was thrilled — it allowed me an opportunity to explore some questions that have been gnawing at the corners of my brain for some time now.
After receiving the invite, I spent a long weekend in Lassen National Park for a friend’s birthday, and pondered the idea at length. It wasn’t the first time I had contemplated moving abroad, and the idea of setting up shop in a completely unfamiliar country excited me to no end. But I was just discovering how to live with this disease; was I really ready to put that aside jump into a new, all-encompassing challenge?
What would happen if I took the time to learn how to collaborate with my body, rather than fight against it? What would I change about my daily routine? How might my career trajectory change? Most importantly, how would my quality of life change?
What if I had a year before I had to be there — allowing me to take a sabbatical to travel, explore new ideas and old passions and refocus on my purpose?
I had no answer, but I did have a decent car, some savings, and a bundle of excitement and nerves that vibrated in my stomach when I thought about the prospect of a creative sabbatical filled with deep inquiry and self-care.
Less than a week after returning, I accepted the research offer, gave notice on my job and my house, and began retrofitting my Subaru to fit me, the dog, and all my gear for the year ahead.
The Best Laid Schemes are Subject to Wildfires
On the week I was planning to start driving northward towards Oregon, the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse seemingly struck the West Coast and suddenly everywhere I had planned on going along the way was ablaze —including heartbreaking destruction in South and Central Oregon. So after a few days cooking in Pinnacles bemoaning my poor planning, I was back in Oakland, sleeping on a friend’s couch.
A few days of errands, catching up on wayward emails, and an impromptu meditation workshop, today I’m starting to slowly make my way through the Sierras and Northern CA — visiting some old favorite places and seeing what adventures I end up on in-between.
How to Follow Along
If you want to follow along as I wander around like a dirtbag with my canine counterpart, contemplating the meaning of life, follow this blog.
If long-form isn’t your thing, you can skim through my notes, musings, and things I find interesting along the way in newsletter-format by subscribing to my newsletter.
Have suggestions on beautiful places I should go and fascinating people I should meet along the way? Send me a note!
Lastly, if you really just want the pretty pictures, you can follow my Instagram.