Friday, January 30, 2015

The Year of the Thru-Hike

I often like to reflect a little around my birthday, which was a couple of weeks ago.  I've been known to do a little year in review post just to check in with my goals, my achievements, and areas I might want to work on improving or changing.  Last year, I was a starry-eyed bride to be just three short months from my purple wedding in the meadow, so I didn't even think to write anything around my birthday.  This year though, I am just 6 weeks away from the start of an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, and though that endeavor will be a far shorter adventure than the marriage, I'm feeling the need to be a little externally reflective.

I'm 38.  I like getting older.  I always have.  The childhood excitement of getting a bigger number every birthday never wore off.  I often still refer to my age with the fraction tacked on. . .  Last July, I turned 37 AND A HALF!  I also have a policy of celebrating half-birthdays, because January babies never get pool parties or picnic parties or BBQs, and I want those in addition to the ice skating, karaoke, spa-day, indoor parties.

I don't lament getting older, and I haven't experienced that sense of loss that a lot of people refer to with an increase in age.  Maybe that's because I almost lost it all when I was in my mid-20s and was diagnosed with that debilitating horror of a disease, dermatomyositis.  Maybe that experience gave me the gift of increased abilities as I get further away from the experience of illness and infirmity.  Maybe having that experience so young gave me an experience of aging backwards to a degree.  Whatever the reason, I feel younger, happier, more confident and more at ease with myself with each passing milestone.

I marked my journey away from dermatomyositis with athletic pursuits.  I started running, because barely being able to walk had given me new appreciation for the ability to run.  Running opened my eyes to triathlon, and before I knew it, I had a collection of medals commemorating some 40+ triathlons, three marathons and 4 Ironmans, hence my trail name, Ironjen.

I was starting to train for a 5th Ironman when I met Muskrat, the ultra cyclist, in the spring of 2012.  I had been losing sight of the "why" that had driven my endurance pursuits.  Dermatomyositis was fading into the past, and was starting to feel as if it had happened to someone else in a whole other life, and the challenge of racing Ironman, though slightly different each time, was beginning to feel less impressive with each repeat.  What I once looked back on with the awe of "Holy crap!  I DID that!" was becoming "Yeah, I did that.  Can we talk about something more interesting?"  The new relationship proved to be just what I needed to shake things up a bit!

Muskrat and I both backed off of our endurance activities, though we still enjoy a nice long bike ride or run together!  It's just not the obsession that it once was for either of us, and that actually makes our plan to do an Ironman and some long distance bike races together in the next few years a lot more exciting!

Even though we had this awesome new life together, and we were sure very early in our time together that this was going to be a marriage, we were both looking for the next challenge, the next big goal to shake up life in DC.

Colorado was on our minds, and we made exit strategy plans, but walking away from the security of good jobs, good networks, a great neighborhood, and awesome friends was pretty daunting.  Then there was photography school, then there was Muskrat's Colorado job search, then there was a road trip to NC where I read A Walk in the Woods out loud to Muskrat as we drove.  Then there was the seed of an idea that had been planted in my mind when I was 12 years old and had first heard of the Appalachian Trail, the realization at 22 that I had made decisions in my very young adulthood that made a thru-hike a near impossibility, and the idea that maybe now was a good time to make the leap.

The next big challenge is the 2,189.2 miles of the Appalachian Trail.  It's carrying our gear over mountains, rivers and streams between Springer Mountain Georgia and Mount Katahdin Maine.  It's living in the woods for half of 2015 while the rest of the world goes about its business.  It's our Walden, our reset button, our escape, and our doorway into whatever is next, and it's exhilarating and terrifying, and we are going to do it anyway.

On our shakedown hike/honeymoon in August (which I still promise to detail here before we depart for GA!), we were zipped into our tent in a very remote area near the boundary of Shenandoah National Park with a creepy deer camp, a hugh no trespassing sign, and a derelict bulldozer just 100 yards away in the dark woods.  I asked Muskrat if there was something wrong with me for always having to pursue such big wild goals.  Why couldn't I be content with something more conventional?  Why did I always have to choose these experiences that push my body to painful extremes and didn't really bring any tangible results?  Why am I not driven towards more conventional and useful goals than these finish lines that I keep pushing further and further away?

My sweet wise husband said that there was nothing wrong with me.  He said that sometimes you just have to do what is in your heart so that you become who you are supposed to be, and that there are doors on the other side of experiences like these that you not only wouldn't be able to open without having taken the journey, but you wouldn't even know that they were there.

So, as I embark on my 39th year on the planet and on a long ass walk and on a leap into the Rockies without a net, I am trusting that the journey that I have held in my heart since I was 12 years old will bring me to the next door and drop the key to it in my hand.

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