“Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea…”
JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit
I’m reading the book The Hobbit with a close friend of mine. I’ve read it several times before, and the last time I read it was in high school. I’d had an idea back then that I’ve since forgotten. But, having fallen from memory, the idea buried itself in the book, hibernating until I opened its pages last month. And as I began reading once more, the idea spread its wings, shook the dust off, and — like the thrush from the story — took flight again.
You might think it’s a simple idea — just an unremarkable, common bird — but to me it is novel.
The idea is this: the road just outside Bilbo’s front door — when taken far enough — took him all the way to the Lonely Mountain and back.
AMAZING IDEA — RIGHT?
Yes, admire that thrush as it flies. BEHOLD ITS WONDER!
But really, the idea was so engrossing to me when I was younger, and I find myself lost in it again now. Something so ordinary — the road literally outside my front door — is the same road that travels through other lands that are completely exotic to me.
And to go from here to there, all I have to do is take the road.
Isn’t that a strange thought? The same road that Bilbo strolled along during peaceful afternoons was also the same road walked by trolls, orcs, elves, goblins and so many other creatures one can hardly imagine. That same road that meandered through the sunlit Shire also traveled through foreign towns, then empty lands, mountains, forests, and ended at the lair of a dragon.
The only thing separating any of these things was distance. But what is that distance? It’s not like space travel, it’s not like wondering if it’s even possible to travel light years in a single lifetime. The road is already there, surmounting the distance. If my thrush would fly high enough into the sky it would see all the road, and the road would become so small that everything on it would appear as if it was right next to each other. Every living thing and every place all linked, all tethered together from that bird’s eye view.
How do I know dragons are real? I step onto the road — and now we’re connected.
When I was younger, I wondered about the road outside my house. Where else did it lead? How far did the road go? And I would wonder about it, and I would also wonder at it, because the road was a hopeful thing to me. No matter how often I felt isolated, stuck on my own island or trapped in my own world — the road told me something different simply by the mere fact of its existence. Someday, somehow, I would go somewhere.
But like I said at the beginning, I forgot.
And I came to believe that I couldn’t go anywhere. I had reached a dead end, or was retired in a cul-de-sac. I used to believe there were things I would never be because I simply couldn’t be them — I’d blown my chance. There was no path leading anywhere else.
But the path was always there. There was always a road. I just didn’t take it, and worse I didn’t even see it even though it was right outside my front door.
The Mental Cage
In her book Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali talks about her journey out of fundamentalist Islam. While running away from a forced marriage, she began making a new life for herself. She went to school, held a job, and formed new friendships. But it took a long time for her to change her mind in spite of the changes around her. She writes the following, also using the imagery of a bird:
“Islam was like a mental cage. At first, when you open the door, the caged bird stays inside: it is frightened. It has internalized its imprisonment. It takes time for the bird to escape, even after someone has opened the doors to its cage.”
No matter the road right outside my door, and no matter that the door was open — I was stuck in my mental cage. And religious or not, I think everyone has cages.
“I can’t hurt that person. I can’t disappoint them.”
“I’m not good enough to ever do that.”
“I don’t deserve to be happy.”
“Why try if I’m just going to fail?”
“Sometimes you just have to accept your place in life.”
I’m sure you recognize these voices even if they use different words. They were loudest to me anytime a thought of “I wish this for myself” appeared. They all reduce to the same despair: “You cannot get from here to there.”
And sometimes still I get so frustrated, so discouraged, so brokenhearted and so lost, I feel like I will never reach any destination I’ve set my heart on. But in hindsight, seeing the distance I’ve already come — there’s always a road. As I look back, I see the difficulty was often not the path itself, but rather the real obstacle was summoning the courage to take the path in the first place. After that, the challenge was finding the strength to take one more step, and then another. And with each step, I’m learning to stay on the path.
And I am going places I had thought were impossible to reach. But again, from the bird’s eye view of my thrush — they were always right there.
But for the thrush to see that, it had to hop out of its cage, and fly.
Sometimes I run an experiment with myself. I stumbled across it while dating, and things weren’t going well. I was stressed and could not decide what I wanted, debating if I was overthinking things, being unfair to other person, or even being unfair to me. Suddenly, an idea popped into my head.
“Forget any decision that I need to make. Forget the stress. Forget any unpleasantness, anger, or hurt. If I was on the other side of all of that — what would I want tomorrow to be? What would Tomorrow Christopher be grateful that Today Christopher did?”
To put it more succinctly: “If I didn’t have to worry about how to get there, where would I want to be?”
And I realized where I wanted to be. In that particular situation, things were not working between us. No one’s fault, we’re both good people, but just different people. I was just stunted because the decision itself was stressful and the anticipated pain and awkwardness obscured things. But the longer I didn’t make a decision, the more a stressful day rolled into becoming a stressful tomorrow. If I was already investing in difficult days, why not just have one more, rip the bandaid off, and then wake up tomorrow? Today Christopher needed to man the hell up — to do otherwise was being dishonest. The greatest respect I can give someone is honesty — especially when it’s painful. I expect nothing less from others.
But that experiment stuck with me. That question: If I didn’t have to worry about how to get there, where would I want to be? I discovered that setting my sights on a destination helped me take the road. It helped me have the bird’s eye view.
No more mental cages holding me back. No more distance or rocky passages dissuading me.
Like Hemingway says: “Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today.”
Staying On The Path
When I was preparing for my solo hike, I was reading up on people who had hiked the Appalachian Trail. I was hiking the Knobstone Trail, much shorter, but still a trail people used to train for the AT. Everyone always said the same thing, and it was something that I experienced also. The start of the trail is often the worst. Your feet get blisters. Your back aches from carrying your pack. Your body is simply not adjusted yet.
In my particular case, the straps on my backpack were digging into my shoulders and rubbing them raw. On my second night, I accidentally set some clothes on fire while drying them. I used the burnt but semi-salvaged hiking socks as extra padding for my shoulders. Felt great … but I never stopped smelling that burnt sock smell those last couple days.
All that to illustrate again that sometimes the greatest challenge is not the road but ourselves. And no matter the comfort and security of our cage, no matter the fear of the unknown or the expectation that things are going to hurt at times — we have to take the risks. Because if we learn to stomach the risks, and take the road — we discover the joy that we can go anywhere.
I can take the road back to where I accidentally set my clothes on fire. I can take the road out to LA, or to New York City, or anywhere in the world (and if you ask how to take the road across the ocean, then I’ll respond that you could always walk. People are going to say “what the hell just happened?” and “I’d better say I like it” because nobody wants to seem stupid! Yes, the ocean walker. Holy crap, that’s gonna look good on a hat!)
We can go anywhere, especially the places we thought impossible. Even places we never imagined.
And from my experience so far, the happiest part about staying on the path is not just the wonderful places I go. More, it is who I become, and the people I share the journey with. It doesn’t always have to be a solo hike.
How do I know dreams are real? I step out onto the road, and now we’re connected.
So, I pose the question to you: If you didn’t have to worry about how to get there, where would you want to be?
I remember what Charles Bukowski said, “My dear, find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain you of your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness. let it kill you and let it devour your remains. For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but its much better to be killed by a lover.”
Take the road, stay on the path. So what if it hurts? What do you love? Find it. The road is there.
Bilbo had no idea what the road would entail. And yes, the road was difficult sometimes. Sometimes he went hungry. Other times he encountered orcs, goblins, and riddles in the dark. And in the end he faced a dragon. But this hobbit went through all of it, and at the end sings beautiful verses about traveling the road.
So I’ll end as I began, in verse. And in light of the thrush, I feel like it would be appropriate for this poem by Erin Hanson to perch here:
“There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask “What if I fall?”
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?”