Snapshots from a few ‘Experiences of a Lifetime’ I’ve already had, as determined by others.
Here I find myself about to embark on what many people would describe as an ‘experience of a lifetime.’
And, true, canoeing 700-miles down a wild, western river is an experience. Perhaps an experience of a lifetime for many.
But by my estimates, in my one lifetime, I’ve already had at least five ‘experiences of a lifetime’ as determined by other folks. Most of those experiences have been trips I’ve taken. Some of them have even been paying jobs.
There is a typical conversation I’ll have with strangers who ask what I’m up to. This conversation goes like this:
Stranger: “What kind of trip are you doing?”
Me: “I’m canoeing the length of the Green River, through Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. It’ll be about 700 miles and take 35 days.”
Stranger: “Wow…that sounds like an experience of a lifetime.”
When people learn about another person’s epic trip, it does seem to warrant a response of an appropriate scale. But often confounded about relevant things to say, these people will frequently fall back upon the old ‘experiences of a lifetime’ cliché. They mean well in saying it, though, as a way to be simultaneously wowed and encouraging.
But every time I get the old ‘experience of a lifetime’ line, I think privately to myself ‘but I don’t want this to the experience of my lifetime!’ After all, I just want this trip to be an experience, not the experience.
When I think about past trips that I have been on, it would be disappointing for me to look forward and to know that I have already had my singular experience of a lifetime. And, if I’ve already had my one experience, then what more do I have to look forward to in life? None of my future endeavors could ever be as good. All I would be able to do is look back at my experience of a lifetime instead of looking forward to more adventures to come.
Fortunately enough, I have found it possible to have more than one ‘experience of a lifetime.’ And I’ve even got more in the works. Why do we so often limit ourselves to the thinking that we can only have a few adventures in life? Why not be able to make it a lifestyle? Why not collect ‘experiences of a lifetime?’
So that’s what I’m up to right now. Making a few experiences of a lifetime for myself…first by canoeing the Green River in September and October, and then by working as a dogsled musher in northern Minnesota afterward in the winter (and although mushing will be a way to pay the bills, people would still often consider that an ‘experience of a lifetime’ as well).
So I’m happy to have you join along on one of my (hopefully many) experiences of a lifetime, a scenic adventure paddle down the magnificent Green River. And I’m happy to live vicariously through your experiences of a lifetime too. Who says you can only have just one? And by sharing our adventures, we can experience so many more journeys—some in person, some vicariously.
I will (ideally) post pictures and updates of the journey as I progress along the river. But, as you know, digital technology and wilderness are often not found in the same place.
Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Where are you? Do you feel connected to the place you find yourself in this current moment? Do you feel an encompassing sense of belonging here?
There are some places that give you that special feeling. Places that feel qualitatively different to the individual. Places that feel alive and electric, a kind of synchronicity between person and place. Places that are energy-giving. Magical, almost.
I like to refer to these locations as ‘deep places.’ The adjective deep is used to describe the immensity of the feeling the individual has towards the place. It is something felt on a higher level, different from one’s experience of everyday locales. These deep places may be spots you already know, or the feelings may arise the first time you step foot into a new environment. If you’ve ever experienced these magical feelings, then you have discovered a deep place for you.
The North Shore of Minnesota, along the edge of Lake Superior, has been one of those deep places for me. Starting in Duluth and heading northeast towards Thunder Bay, the north shore follows a rocky, rugged, forested line for more than one hundred and fifty miles. Along the coast it is a vast forestland wilderness, punctuated only by small settlements and scattered tourist outposts. It is a place where land meets water, where human meets wild. It is a deep place for me.
My first real venture to the North Shore came in May of 2016, entering Duluth from the south just past sundown, being greeted to the sweeping vistas of the big lake in the fading daylight. The northern drive to Grand Marais that night was illuminated by the blood-red full moon rising to its own reflection on the calm surface of Superior. That night was crisp and cool. The moon was out. The stars were shining brightly. The scent of the boreal forests and the water encompassed my nostrils. It was an entirely magical entrance to the place known as the North Shore.
Could the magic of my first experience on the North Shore ever be repeated? I have since returned to the North Shore many times, and have found that the magic was not a one-off experience. The feelings I have towards the region have not been diminished through growing familiarity. Every time I return to the North Shore, I am still astonishingly impressed by the astounding physical beauty of the environment. Jutting rusty-color basalt outcroppings, small rivers torrenting their way through deep overlooked canyons, pocket beaches cobbled with a mélange of surf-smoothed rocks. The cultural resources too—lighthouses, cabin complexes, mining history. There is so much to do here—and to keep coming back for more. Every time I would grow claustrophobic from my land-locked residence in inland Minnesota, even a short visit to the shore—to the great lake vistas—would always be the cure I didn’t even realize I needed. My deep place has also served as a restorative space.
The North Shore, for me, is one of those places where I always find more to discover—and upon discovering, find it imperative to come back and revisit again later. Even before I began to explore the region, I had this convincing sentiment that the North Shore would be a special area to me. It is a psychological wonder, how, even upon a first glance at a place, one can feel the initial intimations of inherent belonging and connection to that place. The newly entered deep place is a landscape ever so tantalizingly unknown and discoverable, yet undeniably comfortably welcoming. It’s a place that beckons you to linger on in its space. This sense of fitting into the place is preordained, not earned. You don’t grow to love deep places through familiarity, though they will become increasingly familiar with time. Instead, there is an instinctual, primitive gut feeling that you are part of the place; that you already know and love the area though you have recently arrived.
Everyone has, or should have, a deep place of their own. Maybe you know where it is. Maybe you have one but don’t know that you know it yet. Maybe you’ve revisited your place multiple times, or have even come to live there. Maybe you’ve only ever visited once. Even if physical visits are infrequent, even just thinking about those deep places can still conjure those magical feelings inside of you.
It is possible to have multiple deep places too. How many places exist out there in the world where you would feel this distinct connection if only you could visit? Though the North Shore of Minnesota is perhaps my most apparent deep place and the one I’ve revisited the most, I have others places where I have experienced similar sentiments—the Owens Valley of California, or the island of Tasmania, Australia, for example.
The remarkable thing is that while some deep places are shared with others, a deep place isn’t universal. Everyone will find a different space or landscape that speaks to them so clearly. These spaces are simultaneously yours alone and are shared by a community of others. But no matter how many people claim the same deep space, it always feels unique, as if the area were speaking directly to you.
Find your deep place.
“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”
You cannot stay on the summit forever. You cannot live in the wilderness eternally. So why even venture off into wild places to begin with? Why put forth the effort, go through the hassle, and willingly subject yourself to hardships, privations, and lack of modern amenities? The reason is simple—what is gained from the experience changes you. The wilderness, though it physically surrounds you only for a fleeting moment, influences your character persistently.
This summer has been one of wilderness travel for me. From the canoe country of the Boundary Waters and the Quetico, to the backpackers’ paradise of the Rocky Mountains, I have spent countless hours leading others through wild places. Each trip I led, though some of them were lengthy, had to come back eventually. We couldn’t stay out there forever. Food, shelter, medicine, modern conveniences, human connections, and societal obligations all dictated that we must ultimately return. We live lives incontrovertibly connected to the civilized world. We are now dependent on technology and society to meet our daily needs. Though wild places may sustain us spiritually, mentally, and emotionally, few of us are truly prepared to have the wilderness provide all our physical needs.
But it is the non-physical lessons we learn in the wilderness that might be the most powerful. Wilderness travel lies in contrast to our otherwise ordinary lives in the front-country. The wilderness is a place to break out of our comfort zones, a setting where we are forced by necessity to be different, more capable human beings. Out in the wild, you survive on your own wits, or with the companionship of traveling partners. You learn to make do with what you have, or you learn to do without. You begin to realize that small things can lead to big consequences—and, instead of procrastinating, you learn to check problems before they become too big to handle. You become more organized in your daily life, more resourceful with what you have on hand, and you become adept at recognizing cause and effect. You become better at planning ahead. You are forced to live in the moment; foul weather can either foil your prior plans or fine weather can just as much beckon you to linger on. You learn to embrace and deal with the uncertainty of changing plans. And the people you travel with—whether you chose them or not, you will learn to entrust your life with those people, and you will take risks and grow close to them too.
All of these things are lessons we can learn and take away from experiences in the wilderness; because, we cannot take the wilderness itself with us—we can only take the memories of our time spent in the wilds. And all of these lessons transfer quite readily to life in civilization, because, you don’t necessarily even need the wilderness to learn these lessons in the first place. But in venturing out into the wilderness, you learn these lessons quickly, and you learn these lessons more thoroughly. Every time you venture out again into the wilds, you are reminding yourself of what you’ve already learned. Though you cannot bring the summit with you, the knowledge and skill of being the person the wilderness made you out to be is something you can carry with you indefinitely. This is the art of living that Daumal was referring to. But you needed that summit first to get there.
And what better place to learn these important life lessons than the wilderness. In wild lands, where nature lies stark and beautiful, “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain (1).” Beauty in the wilderness is intrinsic, and the feeling of remoteness is simultaneously intimidating and enlivening. Endless summit vistas and labyrinth-like waterways have an inherent value of their own. It is worth visiting these wild places regardless of any life lessons gained there. But critically important is the knowledge of who we can be that we take away from wilderness experiences. It took the summit to get there, and once there we could not stay forever. But we can keep the memory of the summit, and we are better people for having gone.
(1) Wilderness Act of 1964
√ Make Bucket List
I’ve heard it been phrased once before, quite interestingly, that the more items a person has on their bucket list, the less satisfied that person is with their current life. If that’s the case, then I myself must be quite dissatisfied with my own life, for not only do I have an extensive bucket list, I have also made multiple iterations of a personal bucket list over the years. How deeply dissatisfied I must be to have made so many lists of all the cool things I’ve never done! And all the other people out there—the abundance of bucket lists everywhere must indicate that the mass of people live lives of quiet desperation (Thoreau must have been so satisfied with his life because no record of him making a bucket list exists). But, in a way that line of thinking makes sense. What is a bucket list, after all, but a visual record of all the things you still haven’t accomplished in your life, and perhaps never will? When viewed this way, having a long bucket list indeed is a sad thing.
If you are, in fact, looking at your bucket list and fantasizing over all the things you haven’t yet done or the places where you haven’t been, it may indicate a longing for something different than your current life. Maybe you are actually dissatisfied with your life in the fact that you aren’t going scuba diving every single day or that you haven’t visited every single foreign country. That’s probably a few folks out there. But for the rest of us, not accomplishing a bucket list item doesn’t even break a sweat. The bucket list, as it is used most beneficially, is a tool to help in defining and pursuing goals. It is a creative and fun way of imagining all the possible things you could do in your life, with the added oomph of some motivation and satisfaction from checking off a box.
I hate to think of the bucket list as a measure of how we are performing in our lives, in terms of whether we are satisfied with them or not. Instead, the bucket list is more a grab-bag of fun and adventuresome activities that you’d like to at least try once. At least for me, most items on my bucket list are dreamy and tend to be long-shots at best. Skydiving? (check!). Go diving in a submarine? (uncheck). Why would some activities, such as skydiving, even exist if not for the sole purpose of being checked off bucket lists?
Though I have long been a fan of making lists, the very first ‘bucket list’ I ever made was for a school project in seventh grade. In an elective class, we learned about the man with perhaps the most famous bucket list ever. His name was John Goddard—and he didn’t refer to it as his bucket list either. John Goddard was a man of life, and instead of thinking about all the things he wanted to do before he died, he thought of all the things he wanted to do while still alive to include on his so-called ‘Life List’ (perhaps that’s only a rhetorical difference, but it changes one’s perspective nonetheless). On a rainy day in 1939, at the age of 15, Goddard wrote down his initial Life List of 127 goals. Most of them were very difficult or lofty, encompassing explorations into uncharted lands or a desire to set the record for speed in an airplane. Lofty goals can often fall by the wayside, but young Goddard didn’t just tuck his Life List away and forget about it. The most exceptional thing Goddard did was not to make his list in the first place, but to actively pursue his goals after the fact. With his list in mind, Goddard found a path to accomplishment, attending college to become a traveling anthropologist and joining the US Air Force to fly planes. Throughout his life, Goddard continued to add items to his Life List—and yet he was a man who was not dissatisfied with the life he lived, becoming one of the greatest adventurers of the 20th century. In 2013, Goddard died at the age of 88 having accomplished many, though not all of his initial 127 goals.
The greater purpose of learning about the Goddard list, I believe, is not to marvel at the man who accomplished all this in his lifetime. The greater purpose is to show that not only are far-out goals attainable by average people, but also that it is still very acceptable to not accomplish all of your goals in your lifetime. John Goddard fell short on many things, but he is still highly regarded as a successful person.
Even though I have made a ‘bucket list’ of sorts, I don’t like to think of it as such. The items on my list, for the most part, are not things I’d feel like a failure if I didn’t accomplish before I “kick the bucket.” That’s why I refer to it as my ‘Non-Bucket List.’ Crossing things off the list before I die will be appreciated, but is not the point of the exercise. My list is more about things I would enjoy doing than a to-do list which I am obligated to complete. I would much rather walk away from the goals on my list rather than let them consume me.
Unlike Goddard, I don’t really refer to my list frequently and check off my accomplishments. My latest list was made in a short bout of inspiration. And then, instead of printing it off and following along with my goals, I largely ignored the list, losing it instead to the recesses of my hard drive. Much to my delight when I looked upon my list more recently, I had found that I had in fact unknowingly accomplished a few of my goals! But then there are some goals on my list that can never be checked off, because they are fundamentally immeasurable. I’ll never know if I accomplished them even when I die. Some of my loftiest goals relate to fundamental questions of life. Was I a good person? Did I live a good life? Some goals you can never cross off a list, but you just have to keep striving towards nonetheless.
I’m sharing my own non-bucket list here because it is helpful to see other people’s list when you make your own, just like how John Goddard’s list served as the inspiration for my seventh-grade project long ago.
“The Summer Day”
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Outdoor trips into the backcountry are special for a multitude of reasons. Some of those reasons are for things that are in the wilderness itself—like pristine vistas and contact with primeval nature. Other reasons to go to the wilderness are for what’s not in the backcountry. In the wilderness, the ubiquitous conveniences of modern life are stripped away, and we enjoy for a time a life more rugged and simplified. One of the most impactful conveniences that goes missing in the backcountry, for instance, is Wi-Fi and cell service for our smartphones and internet devices.
Now, in our everyday modern lives in civilization, we get accustomed to having this technology omnipresent, and internet access is only ever a few swipes and clicks away. This access to instant information has changed the way we live and relate to each other. For example, if we have a pondering or a debate with someone over a fact, we can easily whip out our phones and fact-check via the internet. Swipe, click. Information accessed. Case closed.
But in the backcountry, we don’t have this luxury…or, maybe this curse. Without ready access to the internet, countless intellectual debates of ours remain unanswered while on trail in the wilderness. And without on-screen entertainment to control our minds, we find plenty of time to banter with those around us. Quite naturally, a lot of questions will arise and small arguments will develop as to which certain facts are true or not from such conversational chitchat. On the trail, we find ourselves thrust back into the dark ages of when all we had available for the reference of knowledge was our own mere speculation on the subject.
But the speculation is often the funnest part, even more so than finding out the answer. Such speculation forms much of the conversation building among a group, especially in wilderness travel. Without a definite answer available immediately from the inter-webs, we are free to sit around and banter without fear of the subject being put to rest definitively and prematurely. The point, after all, is not to figure out what is the technical difference between a fruit and a vegetable, if water is wet or not, or if ‘funnest’ is actually a word. The point is to use these meandering conversations to build rapport with your fellows.
If you come across a burning question on your backcountry trip, you’ll just have to delay the satisfaction of finding out the answer until later. Delayed gratification in finding out an answer can really build the anticipation of finally knowing. Or, maybe you’ll just forget the question entirely by the time you emerge back into civilization. And just maybe, when you do find out the answer to that question you’ve been wondering about for so long, you will all of a sudden be flooded with nostalgia for the trip and all the conversations that occurred on it.
But then there is the realm of ponderings beyond what the internet can prove to be true or not. These ponderings arise on wilderness trips, but also in civilized life as well. We as a culture have become so accustomed to having our questions answered so quickly and easily by a quick Google search that we take knowing things with certainty for granted. But on some matters, the internet just has no say whatsoever. It remains silent, no matter how much you Google search. Some parts of life’s mysteries just have to remain unanswerable. This is myth. This is folklore. And this stuff is interesting. While on a wilderness trip, or in everyday life, the speculative conversation may turn towards the legendary side of things. This is where tall-tales really take off. Why doesn’t Camp Widjiwagan, for instance, travel to the Sturgeon Narrows anymore? Are they haunted, as some say, or just patrolled by unwelcoming locals? And is Nye Cabin really haunted? Have spooky things happened in that cabin, caused by the lingering ghost of old-timer Bud Nye? Or is it just your imagination? Either way, the internet remains silent.
As much as you’d search and search, the internet will provide no information on the matter. These fables are folklore only. Unprovable, but still growing more magical and mysterious by the speculative banter and hearsay surrounding them. They are the stuff of myth and legend. And I remain very happy that in some parts of life, there are places where the internet can’t touch.
As an outdoor educator, I get this interaction all the time with school children. A child in my study group will see something very enticing in nature, be it a rock outcropping to climb or the edge of the water to explore, and they’ll look at me imploringly and ask ‘am I allowed to do that?’ They ask permission for they come from a world of rules and expectations enforced by supervisory adults. But in the realm of outdoor education, of course you’re allowed to do this, kid. You don’t need my permission to explore and wonder. The outside world is so full of fun and interesting things to interact with, and it’s my goal to encourage you to explore what’s there of your own volition. Boundaries about what you’re allowed to do or not only come into play when safety is on the line, and quite frankly, you can be very adventurous outdoors while still being safe.
When I am these children’s outdoor instructor, I momentarily become the supervisory adult figure in their eyes (and for a few hours at a time, I become the actual responsible party for their safety and well-being). As that adult figure, I am often viewed by them as the permission granter. But at my last outdoor education job, one of the program’s main objectives was to teach children to explore the natural world on their own accord. To discover their own limits and abilities. To get wet, messy, and uncomfortable. To understand their own power and agency, all in the context of the natural environment. The limitations for such explorations were dictated by maintaining acceptable behavior, both in terms of environmental Leave No Trace standards and the ethics of belonging to a safe learning community. What these kids often don’t understand is the incredibly wide range of things that are acceptable behavior. It’s okay to climb a tree. It’s okay to pick up insects. It’s perfectly acceptable to get your feet wet and clothes muddy.
The worlds of these children are likely structured a lot differently than at camp. Ours is an age of helicopter parenting and risk aversion, and the kids bring this ethos with them to camp. A lot of their lives are already dictated and laid out by permission-granting adults, and ‘no’ is a word quite familiar in their lexicon. If these children see something that intrigues them, they often look to the adult who is present to gain implicit or explicit permission that, yes, indeed, they are allowed to do this. They do not believe strongly in their own agency in decision making—instead, they are accustomed to following along the path of acceptable behaviors as dictated by adults, unlikely to deviate from that path. Hearing ‘no’ is a response they so often receive that many of these children don’t even bother to try asking if they can do something.
My analogy with children, of course, is not one-hundred percent transferable to adult life (children, after all, need a lot more guidance and boundaries) nor is every child the same, but the sentiment of seeking permission is quite relevant. Even though I’m an independent adult and have been for a few years, I still often feel like a child who still needs to seek permission in life. Somehow it still feels as if there is some authority, older and more powerful than me, hovering above watching me, ready to either grant or deny permission to do certain things available in adult life. As an adult who faces adult-size opportunities, I often have to stop and think to myself ‘am I really allowed to do this?’
Growing up, I was an extremely obedient child—not only to what the multiple adult authorities above me dictated, but also to what I felt was expected of me as a child. Upon becoming an adult, I realized that there really is no one left above me to grant permission to do things (save for legal authority, but that’s a different related subject). After age 18, you can sign on the dotted line yourself. You can grant yourself permission to do the things you desire to do. But becoming a legal adult doesn’t mean that all of a sudden you instantly become your own independent person; you are still subject to the ties of relationships with those who have ethical authority over you. Older adults, parents in particular, are still evaluating your actions with a critical eye. Your employer still has expectations for you to uphold as their subordinate. And most importantly of all, you still have to live within the realm of what greater society deems acceptable behavior and within the bounds of legality.
But even given all that…there is so much stuff that you’re still allowed to just up and do without even asking permission. The most compelling—and also frightening—example of this is that I could chose to create a child. Who granted me permission to have that option, seriously? Procreation is such a weighty decision that it really feels like the procreators ought to first write in to a governing board to get permission to reproduce. But oddly enough you can just go ahead and do it anyway. Exploring relationships is similar too. You don’t have to get your parent’s approval anymore to go out or to be back in time for a curfew. You are free to engage in relationships to the depth and level that you desire. Other, much less extreme examples of what you don’t need permission for exist as well. For example, as an adult you get to choose where you live. Again, there is no governing board that reviews applications for which geographical region you wish to reside in, nor do you need permission from a parent or teacher. You can just pack up and move house. You don’t need a conventional salaried job either—and whatever job you have, you don’t need to keep it forever. You are not an indentured servant to your employer; terminating employment agreements is always an option if the match is no longer right. Your free time is yours to explore your own interests as well. Set your own sleep schedule. Read whatever book you want to…or don’t read at all. Vacation somewhere obscure…or stereotypical, if you will. You don’t need people’s permission in order to determine if eccentric pastimes like playing accordion or LARPing are acceptable. Go ahead and do it.
So as an adult there are not specific people who reside above you with the final authority to either grant or deny you permission to do things. The choices are wide, and the choices are yours. But even then, the freedom to choose certain things still doesn’t mean that everything is a good option. I’m allowed to smoke cigarettes, for example, but I care not to do so because of health risks and a dislike of the activity. Even though we are free to choose, a wide swath of our decisions are nevertheless still based upon the general aura of what is acceptable to do in our society. But even then a lot of what society decries as irresponsible is still acceptable or optional behavior. Dumpster diving is still an oft-frowned-upon choice I will pursue. So is dirtbagging—living out of my car for stretches of time while playing in the outdoors. But so long as what you’re doing isn’t morally reprehensible or illegal, then you’ve got a lot of free reign of things you’re allowed to do.
You don’t need permission to do these things anymore.
Although sometimes it still feels like you need to get permission.
Second batch of time-lapse videos. Enjoy!
Sunrise at Norway House Cabin, Camp Widjiwagan, Ely Minnesota. March 2018.
Clouds along the Lake Superior shoreline, Gooseberry Falls State Park, Minnesota. May 2018.
Circumpolar star trails with tree in focus in foreground, stars out of focus. Video fades to white as night turns into dawn. Ely, Minnesota. April 2018.
Northern Lights dancing near Ely, Minnesota. April 2018.
Flowing water in mud puddle from spring meltwater. Ely, Minnesota. March 2018.
Calgary, Alberta skyline transitioning from dawn to morning. April 2018.
Calgary, Alberta city skyline at night. April 2018.
Traffic on Calgary’s Reconciliation Bridge. April 2018.
Another angle of the Reconciliation Bridge crossing the Bow River. April 2018.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” —Traditional Proverb
It used to be that when I read this old adage, I would favor and emphasize the going fast part of it. Though it may appear otherwise, the proverb doesn’t really offer up going fast and going far as two equal options to be chosen from; in the context it is most often used, there is an open bias towards uplifting as correct the latter as opposed to the former. But the choice is included in the proverb nonetheless, and fair being fair, one could, like me, focus on the benefits of going fast alone versus going far with others.
Most often I think of this proverb in its relation to travel. More specifically, recreational travel. My travel history is one of mostly solo ventures. I used to prefer it this way. I valued the independence of making my own choices. I valued the efficiency of being the only person to coordinate. I didn’t like having other people around to be forced to compromise with, as that might have infringed upon my personal travel desires. In that old perspective, traveling with other people either slowed me down unnecessarily, or forced me to participate in things which I didn’t really care about.
Even though I did favor the ‘fast’ side of the adage, I was never really a fast traveler on my own accord. At least in regards to speed. On my own personal trips, I usually, and predictably, fell further and further behind schedule. I like to take my time, though out of thoroughness and not out of leisure. Thus, I realized that I am a bit slower taking in the places I travel to, but I prefer the relaxed pace nonetheless. When traveling alone, I had the freedom to take all the time in the world to visit a place and not feel pressured to leave earlier because the people I was with got bored and wanted to move on (very true for visiting museums with me). Maybe the proverb should be changed to “if you want to go thoroughly, go alone.”
As a result of these preferences, I took many long trips by myself attempting to see it all, and to see it all thoroughly. I wanted the freedom and independence of travel to be able to follow my own whims instead of making compromises with the desires of other people. My little solo travels gradually got longer and longer until they culminated in my six months spent dirtbagging down under. Australia was a solo venture, and even though in Australian backpacking culture solo travelers frequently coalesce together, the longest time I ever traveled with someone was four days. And I was glad to be rid of him by the time we parted.
But during that time in Australia, my outlook on long solo travels began to change. On the whole, because I was traveling primarily by myself, I don’t think I got as much out of the entire Australian experience as I could, or even should, have. Sure, I did end up seeing more places than the average Aussie backpacker. But in reality, that additional travel looked similar to this: drive alone to a cool place on the map; get out of the van; walk around said cool place; think about all the cool stuff you could be doing in said cool place; do nothing because you have no one to do cool stuff with; repeat. In addition, I just eventually reached a mental space where I began to feel a little bored of keeping myself company all the time.
I began to realize that my preferred style of travel—solo—may have been leaving me short of the deeper gains of journeying. The going ‘far’ part. Reflecting on the most memorable trips I’ve ever taken, I realize that all of them were with people. And on my solo travels, encounters with other people—you know, those really-inefficient, freedom-compromising, dissimilar-interest kind of other people—were usually the most memorable moments.
But it is still hard to deny the benefits of traveling alone—speed and efficiency. I mean, much of my solo travels have been done simply because making solo travel plans is so quick and easy. On solo travels, you only have to consult with yourself. And you don’t have to see if your schedules align with other peoples’, or check in about travel styles or activity preferences. For solo travel you don’t have to wait to find other people to join you either. Seriously, I feel like half the stuff I’ve done in my life I wouldn’t have gotten to do if I had been waiting for people to join me. So, in some respects I have done a great amount of solo traveling and exploring simply because it is so efficient. But, the most memorable trips have always been with people when the inefficiencies and mishaps abound.
Traveling with others, as I’ve found, is a much richer experience. Since other people are just different from you, naturally, they will bring you to unexpected places and force you to do things that you wouldn’t have otherwise chosen for yourself. And, surprisingly, you will appreciate it. For the diversity. For the different perspective. For the opportunity to try something new. Because, traveling with other people is a surefire way to get exposed to a lot more cool stuff than you would have found on your own. Not to mention, you’ll have those memories and experiences to process and reflect on together.
With my increasing value on group travel, I’ve got a whole slew of upcoming adventures planned, all with people. A 300-mile bike trip along Lake Superior’s North Shore with a friend from college. A 700-mile canoe trip on the Green River with a spattering of friends and family along the way. And not to mention a whole summer of guiding canoe and backpack trips for summer campers.
When I think about my change in perspective concerning the different modes of travel, what often comes to mind is the scene near the culmination of the film Into the Wild, where Christopher McCandless sits emaciated and alone in his bus in the Alaskan bush, reflecting on his solo venture of surviving in the Alaskan wilds while coming to the sad realization that happiness is only real when shared, and that he will (SPOILER ALERT!) slowly starve to death by himself in an abandoned bus. It’s a true story with a heartbreaking ending about an idealistic young man who valued extreme independence in adventure a little too highly. And all at once but much too late young McCandless realized that real happiness lay with sharing the journey with others. Fortunately I’m not as extreme as McCandless. Some lessons I can learn second-hand.
So perhaps we should change the proverb. “If you want to see a lot of stuff thoroughly, travel alone. If you want to create a memorable and fulfilling experience, travel together.” But, that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily.
There is a strangeness to these folks up here in Minnesota. They say Minnesotans are a special breed, marked by their behavior of being ‘Minnesota Nice’. Well, after doing my firsthand ethnographic research, Minnesota Nice is actually a very subtle way of being passive-aggressive. Minnesotans aren’t very keen on being physically aggressive, as it is. Instead, theirs is a subversively passive method of controlling your behavior with their outward niceness.
Imagine the common scenario of a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies laying out on a tabletop for all to freely grab. At first, when the cookies are plentiful, folks wolf them down like oxygen. Then, as the cookies becomes scarcer, folks start taking the remaining cookies less frequently, until, of course, there is that lonely singular cookie left. That last remaining cookie will sit undisturbed for a while, until someone decides to do the world a favor by taking the last cookie and cleaning the whole mess up. That’s human nature. Except in Minnesota.
If that plate with the one remaining cookie were in Minnesota, Minnesota Niceness dictates that one must never take the last cookie (or the last of anything, for that matter). That final cookie will sit untouched, though lusted after, for perpetuity. That is, until some Minnesotan is brave enough (though always unseen) to initiate the Pandora’s Box of food division. The initiator will cut the final cookie in half, consume one half, and then leave the other half on the plate for an unknown future cookie consumer. The floodgates have then been opened. All the Minnesotans who have long been craving the taste of cookie in their mouth will stop by, cut the remaining fragment in half, eat one half and leave the other ever-decreasing portion. Minnesotans would continue this food division game ad infinitum, I’d theorize, until they start splitting cookie atoms. Thank goodness, for the Minnesotans sake, that there are some out-of-staters living surreptitiously in their midst. As a native Michigander, I grew up with zero qualms about taking the last cookie off the plate. In fact, finishing off a food item was often seen as performing a favor. Now living in Minnesota, my out-of-stateness is my justification to take the last of anything and finally put an end to all this food division tomfoolery. Though getting the last cookie is a huge benefit, it does mean that I’m always stuck with cleaning up the plate. This whole scenario causes me to wonder if Minnesotans are actually nice and are seeking to share with others, or if this is just their way of forcing other people to do the dishes.
Sharing a family meal with Minnesotans is also a foray into how Minnesota Nice can actually be a way to control the behavior of others. Imagine, again, the common dinner scenario where there is only one biscuit left in the bread bowl. By now you should understand that Minnesotans will never, ever, take the last of anything if no one is watching. But in a social setting, a Minnesotan is allowed to take the last of something if, and only if, the Minnesota Nice ritual is performed. Here’s how it goes:
Dinner guest who is eyeing the last biscuit for himself: “Does anyone else want the last biscuit?”
Everyone else at the table: “No, go ahead. It’s all yours,” (while silently whining to themselves ‘but I wanted the last biscuit!’).
The code of Minnesota Niceness prohibits anyone from grabbing the last biscuit outright. Instead, our dinner guest’s general inquiry about anyone else wanting the last biscuit is the very aggressive statement that, in fact, he intends to eat the last biscuit all by himself. In front of everyone else. Everyone else at the table must now politely insist that he indeed take the last biscuit. Not only has he eased his inherent Minnesota guilt about taking the last of something, he has also procured the blessing of all his table mates (though inside, all of his table mates are irritated at his aggressive move).
For someone to respond positively to the dinner guest’s inquiry by saying ‘yes, I would like the last biscuit’ would be a grievous violation of Minnesota Nice norms. Even if another diner had had an eye on the last biscuit too, they must now hold their tongue, for it is too late for them to stake their claim. They will inwardly seethe with rage at the diner who took the last biscuit while their face shows a smile and they pass the bread bowl over with a friendly “okie dokie, you betcha!”
This dinnertime ritual is done to appease the guilty consciousness of the Minnesotans who dare to take the last of anything. For, deep down inside of themselves, the Minnesotan knows that anything that they desire is also desired by someone else to a greater extent (but they don’t necessarily know who else, they just know that someone else is out there somewhere). To take the last of anything would be to deny that unknown someone of the thing which they highly desire. The Minnesotan feels inward guilt that by enjoying something themself, they are taking away such enjoyment from others. Thus, by going through the ritual of asking if anybody else wants that last item, the Minnesotan gains a positive affirmation (at least on the outside) that no one else is hurt by them taking the last thing.
If a Minnesotan becomes quite adept at this game, then the ritual can get quite domineering. They can dictate their wishes upon other people by simply being very outwardly nice. Now, I’m not blaming you for anything, and it’s not your fault, and I know you didn’t mean anything bad by doing it, you know, and I think you’re a good person, and maybe it was the circumstances, but it’s just that, you know, someone else may have wanted that last cookie, possibly.
It’s tough sometimes being a perfectionist. The constant struggle of realizing that everything you are ultimately striving for will fall short of your expectations. The notion that everything, inevitably, has its flaws. That there is nothing in life you will encounter that will match your 100% ideal situation.
And maybe it’s hardest of all to be that perfectionist while coming of age. So many big life decisions are to be made in the process of adulting. Who do I want to be? What do I want to do? Where do I want to live? Who do I want to be with? These are some of the big unresolveds that those who are adulting face. To the idealist young adult, those questions must be answered with only one adjective: perfectly.
But here’s the trouble: perfection doesn’t exist. Or, if it does, I haven’t found it yet. Five years out of college for me now, and I’m still refining my answers to the fundamental questions of adulthood. I’ve still been on a quest to find the ideal situation for me, getting closer and farther away all at the same time.
This search for the 100% ideal situation is part of the reason I have been ambling around all this time with a resistance to settling down to one particular set of answers. To settle down, in a sense, is to accept something that is less than perfect. To settle is to give up the quest for the ideal situation early—to sell yourself short of your full potential. As that strident idealist, I’m unwilling to compromise on perfection. The end result of this, however, looks like I’m aimlessly wandering all over undecided on the big adult questions: where do I want to live, what do I want to do for a vocation, and what people do I want to surround myself with.
In all that time of trial-and-error, I would have thought that I’d have gotten a better definition of what is the one ideal for me. Instead, I’ve found that there are, in fact, a lot of different options that work surprisingly well for all of the major life questions. Each place I have lived has had its pluses and minuses. Each job I have worked has had its positives and negatives. All the people I have associated with have had their good qualities and their not so good qualities. Nothing I’ve found has ever been 100% perfect, in the sense that it was 100% perfect for me, in my characterization of the word. But from what I’ve found, a lot of options, while not being 100% ideal, have been much, much better than I could have ever anticipated.
Nor am I a flawless match for anything either. In my quest to find the ideal situation for myself, I also have to stop and acknowledge (though it can be difficult) that I myself am flawed and imperfect too. I have shortcomings as well. I can never be the perfect employee, the ideal friend, or the flawless member of a community. But it is heartening to know that these things don’t require perfection as a pre-requisite. Friends, communities, and employers aren’t looking for perfection; they’re just looking for your best effort.
So then, I suppose, settling for something less than ideal isn’t selling yourself short of perfection. Instead, it’s a realistic acknowledgement that nothing can ever be 100% ideal, especially from the start. We often take things to be just as we know them in the moment, but forget that everything is slowly growing and changing too. By settling down in a place, or in a job, or with a community, or with a person, you are acknowledging the fact that though the current situation may be less than ideal, in time and with work and effort the relationship between the two can grow and expand beyond any level it is at the start. And everyone’s idea of perfect is different too. Certain situations may match other people’s preferred ideals more than mine match theirs. But that’s part of the beauty in getting things to work—since we’re not all looking for the same perfect as each other, a degree of imperfection is—ironically—perfectly acceptable.
So maybe we should lower our perfectionist standards—not our hopes and dreams for perfection, but what level of idealism we find acceptable to make things work well. As that uptight perfectionist, it’s hard to settle for anything less than 100%. But even 85% ideal is still very high, especially considering that absolute perfection is unattainable. I was a straight-A student in high school. But when things got more difficult (and also more interesting and fulfilling) in college, I relaxed my uptightness and ending up learning to accept a few B’s here and there. And yet, even short of absolute perfection in the grade point average, I still grew incredibly as I found myself in some very imperfectly ideal situations outside of the guise of 100% perfect.