Community

To be honest, most of my thoughts on the word ‘community,’ prior to moving to the Adirondacks, related to a sense of obligation. Community service. The word didn’t hold much significance in my day-to-day mindset.

Growing up in the relatively large Richmond suburbs…we knew our neighbors. Some were cool. Some sucked. Occasionally you’d see someone you know at Ukrops.

College. My sense of community was my immediate, and often changing, group of friends. Neighbors? If it was junior year, they were friends who, like us, were usually down for a party. If it was grad school, it was surly locals in the house next door who got perturbed when we left our garbage can out for collection more than one day a week. (I’m sorry I spend 18 hours a day keeping busy BUILDING A HYBRID CAR, what’d you do, FILE DOCUMENTS AT A DESK!? Ahem.) And there was always a bit of an ‘us vs. them’ mentality towards professors, even if you loved going to their particular class.

Chicago…forget about it. It was impossible for me to feel any sort of connection to 6 million other numerical bar codes walking around, existing in the sprawling metropolis for an almost infinite number of different reasons. People were more concerned about beating you to the next stoplight than anything else (…guilty). There was a reasonable enough bond with some of my more favorite coworkers and a handful of friends I met along the way…and as far as my neighbors during the time I lived in the Chicago suburbs…well…yeah.

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In the three months I have lived in The Adirondacks… The North Country… The Ausable Valley… whatever you want to call it… I have made more meaningful connections than in three years in the Second City. I’m still learning why, but my current hypothesis is as follows. People want to be here, and it’s hard to live here year-round. This is a place of spectacular beauty, worth maintaining the protections it has enjoyed for decades and decades. People come here because they want to be in the mountains. They don’t come here because of a promotion to senior VP of marketing.

But it is hard to live here. You have to earn it, and people respect that fact. Population density is low, people are spread out. The Adirondack Park Agency prohibits sub-dividing less than 6 acres on any parcel of land. (TAKE THAT Chicago suburban cookie-cutter nightmarish over-crowded hellhole! Ahem.) Beyond that, much of the land around here is public and will never be privately held or developed anyway. So people reach out to and rely on eachother. People give to the community without asking anything in return. They know somewhere down the road it will probably get paid back at the right time. But they don’t care, because they all see this as a community worth investing in … trusting in it.

Perhaps what above all tickles me most about the people here is their connection to the land. People here don’t avoid and complain about nature as if it were an inconvenience. They flow with it. Their lives operate at nature’s cadence without imposing a will on it. They take care of the land that takes care of them. And they deal with a very brutal winter with a smile by asking you when you’re going to get out on the trails and take advantage of the fresh snow. People strive to get to the point where they can heat just with wood… be that a wood stove or a rocket mass heater.

It dawned on me that, for now, I have everything I could ever want here. What was drawing me away from the Adirondacks and towards Asheville was the initial lack of connections I made to people. The lack of an ability to walk down to a bar, restaurant or coffee shop and hang out. (Tends to happen when you live on 23 acres on the edge of town with no cell or internet.) With the move to an apartment in the heart of Keene Valley, the making of what will for sure be lifetime connections, and the ‘bring it on, Old Man Winter!!’ spirit that’s been brewing ever since WinterFuck 2014…I’m saying to Asheville “Thanks, but no thanks.” Here I have the distilled essence of the life I want without traffic, concrete jungles, shitty roads, pollution, noise…any of the extraneous tat that comes with living in a relatively built-up area.

There’s not currently a coffee shop here to go hang out in and drink the best coffee possible…but I intend to address that in due time.

Change of Course. Change, of course.

A more rustic life in the mountains still calls for a daily cappuccino. I'm not a bloody savage, after all.

A more rustic life in the mountains still calls for a daily cappuccino. I’m not a bloody savage, after all.

So… about that whole…”PCT” thing…

Amongst some completely unexpected thoughts and feelings I experienced after moving back to the mountains, was the elephant in the room staring at me. I had made the PCT a defining part of my life without ever really setting foot on it. It was my driving force for a couple of years as I ached to get out of Chicago and away from the crappier parts of my job. Now though, it seems like the end goal of hiking the PCT, to give myself a natural reboot and figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life, may have already happened much more quickly than I had expected. I’m more relieved than disappointed with myself. Weight: lifted.

(I should say first that 9 months is quite a time to go in between blog posts. I didn’t intend on that. Maybe I’m too anal about quality of posts to release them at a regular rate. I have about six on deck that I’ve been toying with here and there, always thinking about how I want or need to spend the time to write more. This one is going to get posted today partially because it was written on a whim and partially to capture the current wave of energy in this new and interesting chapter of life.)

I don’t want to hike for the rest of my life. I don’t want it to be my job. I love backpacking, but like everything else, I like it best in moderation. I now have a place in the heart of the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. Some of the most stunning vistas I have ever seen are literally 30 minutes from my front door. I’ve taken on more manual labor and responsibility with this house/property than at any other time I can remember. I’ve grown into my own skin quite a bit in just over two months, and continue to learn immense amounts of new things on a daily basis. Things you don’t learn in engineering school. But the objective of that 5-month hike was to make time for the last 5 years of grad school and work to fall away and think about what is next. Whilst seeing some fantastic scenery, of course. And having some fine coffee on the journey.

Ah…right. Coffee. Creeping up in the background since around five years ago has been that coffee. I hated it for the longest time in childhood largely because my dad drank unholy amounts of it (black) at all hours of the day, and as a result I got to experience ‘second-hand coffee’ whether I wanted to or not. I experienced my first cappuccino at some point several years ago (which, today, I’d probably turn my nose up at like the snobby snob snob some of my friends frame me as, in good humor of course), and amidst the engineering projects, the relationships, the hiking, the music, the cars, the friends, the other diverse aspects of life, my interest in coffee gradually got stronger and stronger on a daily basis. What is it about this world and beverage that fascinates me? That’s for another post.

The point here being thus: two things which I have devoted a significant amount of my life to, engineering and the PCT, are fading away as a much clearer vision comes into focus. Never have I had a more singular, laser-focussed viewpoint on the path forward. The more I talk about it to other people, the more things come out of my mouth that I’m not expecting to say, but make total sense and are exciting in a way I haven’t experienced in a job or career yet. A strong force, maybe my final settling into my own skin and doing what I want to do, is ushering me forward into a world that is in some ways totally new, but in others, like going home. Also, it took me some time to admit to myself that, when all is said and done, I never particularly enjoyed or felt good at engineering. It did teach me critical thinking and gave me a great understanding of how systems work together, though. But where the rubber meets the road, I do not want to spend all day sitting at a desk or in a conference room. That’s a “quality of life” thing I will never compromise on again.

What I do know is that later this fall, I will finish the Counter Culture barista certification in Asheville, NC, and dive head-first into what may be my defining career: chasing the dragon that is perfect coffee (understand you’ll never reach perfection and relish the chase), and doing my best to bring it to fine people with a genuine smile and a passion for the craft. The craft…the vocation. Coffee, for those that drink it, is a daily driving force. It is even more special for those that are really into it, learn about it, buy, make and drink the properly good stuff. Not to get too deep, but, all we have in life is today. Every day. Thinking about life as a series of days, coffee is such a fine way of celebrating or starting a day. It never gets old. It conjures people together, sparks conversation, and energizes the working world to do what needs to get done. It is an institution, a ritual, an art, and a science. It brings about change in the world, and every day, that constant ‘rock’ of coffee helps people get through their own change. The specialty coffee world is still in its infancy (I may have a thing or two to add to machine design somewhere down the road), and I can think of nothing that I would enjoy more than to become part of and add to this emerging narrative. The numerous articles I read, this being particularly poignant today, encourage me to jump in. Whether it will be a career as the World’s Best and Most Knowledgable (and Anal) Barista, or as an owner and ‘brewing specialist’, remains to be seen. It can’t be anything other than exciting though. I want to be a career man, but not in my former life. In this one.

Keene and Asheville. Both fantastic places to live. So I think I'll choose both...for now.

Keene and Asheville. Both fantastic places to live. So I think I’ll choose both…for now.

If it flops…hey, always have those two engineering degrees to fall back on!! But this is about having the courage to abandon things that aren’t working for you and the humility to make a life-altering change of course regardless of how much time you have put into something. Quit while you are ahead, and know when to fold your hand.

TeaTime!

The PCT

Before we get started, I want to list and thank the three people who inspired me the most to get some of these thoughts into and now out of my head: Johnny Kilroy (www.fightthepants.com), Leo Babauta (www.zenhabits.net), and Mike Rigney (www.lifewithlindy.com). Without these examples set forth for me to enjoy and think about over the years, this blog would probably not have come to fruition. So, THANKS, and let’s go. 

I’m going to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT.

For the first time since deciding to do so over a year ago, I said those words out loud to myself recently. Ideas seem to take on a different face to me when said out loud and not in conversation. This idea of an epic journey full of pain, challenge, terror, wildness, and elation is going to be reality some day. That’s scary. Good scary.

In 2015, I am going to walk 2,650 miles from the California/Mexico border, through deserts, sub-alpine meadows, the Sierra Nevada, thick volcanic forests, and hitch-hike in and out of trail towns, all the way to the Washington/Canada border. Conceived and put into motion in 1968 and finished in 1993, the PCT is what I consider to be the ultimate expression of American wildness. Every year a few hundred hikers attempt to finish the whole thing in one ‘season.’

This undertaking has been in development in some way or another for almost exactly five years. In a way it has been creeping around inside my genes for all 28 years I have been on this planet. Long story short, I *knew* I wanted to go on some sort of epic, life-changing trip after finishing grad school at Virginia Tech. But for several reasons, including just being not ready for it yet, I put the idea on hold. For over a year the hazy idea stirred and stirred around, a murky stew of what-ifs. Eventually the idea developed into the notion of doing a thru-hike of one of the National Scenic Trails. An entire trail, all at once. It was then a battle between the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. In fall of 2012 I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, on loan from my sister. When I came to the last page, I closed the book and said “Yep, that’s it.” It was decided then and there. I’m going to thru-hike the PCT.

Why?

That question has been asked of me by one or two people in the past couple of months. And really, if you have to ask and are genuinely befuddled, you’re not going to understand; at least not from one quick answer from me. I’d love for any and all of my friends I have met over the years to come with me on all or part of this journey, but I know it doesn’t appeal to everyone, and I know that it wouldn’t have the same impact for everyone. This will be an important journey to me for all of my own reasons, and I would be happy to list them all out to a genuinely interested pair of ears; but I’m not going to convince anyone that they should do it, or even that it’s a good idea.

Covering 20-ish miles per day, give or take some lazy zero-mile days in trail towns and Oregonian hippie hot springs, this will be a 4-5 month commitment. That means I’m quitting my job. In an era where in some circles careers end up being more important than (and occasionally ruining) family, friendships, one’s own physical and mental well-being, and good old-fashioned fun, this choice I have made is hitherto a rare one. I have a damn fine job with plenty of “industry connections” and “networking opportunities,” unbeatable benefits, a perfectly agreeable salary, and some pretty rare perks for someone the ripe age of 29. And I will be giving up that comfort and job security.

Why am I OK with this? Why sully an otherwise streamlined, continuous career path with this interruption? The answer is a combination of knowledge of my own mortality, being in desperate need of a fundamental and radical ‘natural overhaul’ of my life, and finally understanding that the future doesn’t exist anywhere but in my own head. If I don’t take the opportunity NOW, then when else is there?

I have had friends die young. I have seen people go through entire careers they hated. I have also heard too many wistful responses to this announcement that go something like “oh if only I did something like that when I was young” or “college was the best time of my life, now I’m tied down with a mortgage, car payments, a family to support. I wish I had time for that” … Bullshit! A big part of my motivation here is giving a big middle finger to the ‘accepted path’ that we have created for ourselves in our own heads and rarely question. But another part of it is the realization of the notion that we really can do whatever we want with our lives. If that’s true, why settle for something that doesn’t serve, excite, and challenge you?  I won’t be young and limber forever, and I have a lot of missed wilderness time to make up for. Wait to do a thru-hike when I’m 65 and retired? Like hell.

Why do a thru-hike? To start living life.

The next several months will involve fulfilling the commitments to my job as best I can, enjoying Chicago for what it is, then on June 30th moving to the 23 acres in the Adirondacks co-owned with my sister and brother-in-law, and preparing myself mentally, logistically and physically for the task ahead. In April of 2015 I will set out. I have skills to learn, fat to lose, muscle and endurance to gain, and geeky ultralight gear to test out. While this blog site will not be solely about the PCT, I’m sure I will have plenty to write about as I plan and do it. I hope you’ll come along with me for the ride.

To sum this first post up:

Stay wild, friends.

Patrick

P.S. – Welcome to the blog!