Every summer when I was single, I embarked on a three to four week/over-sixty-mile backpacking or rock climbing trip. And it wasn’t just something to do either. I needed it. The military life I had adopted did not mesh with the soul I cultured by growing up in sedate, rural South Texas. Where, on summer nights, I listened to coyotes and called back to owls hooting in the mesquite trees surrounding my family’s five-acre place.
Working in rotating, 12-hour shifts and living with the speed, aircraft noise, and pressure of life on an Air Force facility set me on edge. I always knew when it was time to go. I would grow steadily more depressed and my right eye would begin to twitch. That was my body’s signal to provide my supervisor with a leave projection and set about planning my annual pilgrimage into the backcountry.
There was lots to do: pick a destination, obtain the necessary maps, plan my meals, etc. But this really wasn’t the beginning. Every pilgrimage really begins within the soul. And I don’t necessarily mean a pilgrimage must be religious. You don’t have to walk the El Camino de Santiago or embark on The Hajj into Mecca to step off into self-discovery and restoration. Those paths, while not magical in themselves, draw power from the traveler’s faith and the history they represent.
A traditional religious pilgrimage possesses a meaning before you have taken a single step. You can tap into the power of those who have traveled before you. Meaning rises from every traveler’s story and the belief that drew them there. Those stories and beliefs, like crumbs marking the way, show you where to walk, which can embolden any traveler. There is an inherent optimism set in the success of those pioneers who trod the path before. However, sometimes the deepest discoveries are made by setting aside maps and their legends to rely on the compass of who you are and what unique understanding you are seeking.
My pilgrimages were always of the second sort. I found that going mapless allowed the deepest personal discoveries. Rather than a religious trek, I let my soul’s needs guide my inner direction. On the trail, every step is a prayer, and the miles, like rosary beads, passed under my feet in a litany of meditations on what it meant to be a modern American man, to be a Christian, to be single, to be searching for purpose, accomplishment, or meaning.
Even though I may have shunned a spiritual map, I was smart enough to carry maps of the land, and I did carry Rainer Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. The mountains, like a library, are deep with quiet surroundings, which lend themselves to thinking–deep or shallow, and Rilke was my favorite muse. As a bonus, it was under a hundred pages and didn’t weigh much. Rilke always provided me with insight about maturing, being creative, or what love is and is not. He had his personal flaws and failings, but the wisdom he chose to write down for public consumption, rarely failed me. To me, such a book is as important as any map I can carry into the wilderness.
Rilke urges us to live our questions now, so my backpack would be stuffed with animal necessities, while my heart brimmed with the unsolved questions I struggled to fall in love with. Questions that arose out the day to day experiences of life as a young man in a world burgeoning forward technologically but seemed to be tumbling backwards socially. Rilke advised not to seek answers, but I grew up in the nascent era of instant gratification, so I was prone to being impatient. Sue me. However, as I walked the rocky trails of America’s and Europe’s wild places, my pilgrimages began to open up what it meant to “live the questions” and to gradually live into answers. Not The answers, but answers that belonged to me.
For example, in July 1998, two months before my marriage, I hiked into Rocky Mountain National Park. As I crossed the Continental Divide on foot, I felt I was crossing another divide, one that parted my life in two. I was 38 and had always been single, never even had more than three or four romantic relationships before. Now, I was about to join with a woman for life, and I was unsure about what the future held. Some of that uncertainty arose from my past.
My childhood family life haunted my ideas of marriage. To say I came from a “broken home” doesn’t capture it, shattered is more like it. I have three half-siblings, all four of us are from different fathers as my mom married six times. I have two step-brothers and a step-sister, but all were distanced by my father’s abuses. My wife, Brenda, says I don’t have a family tree. I have a shrub; it’s been cut back so many times. A successful marriage was light-years outside my personal experience.
But two days deep into Tonahutu Valley, I began to break free of questions or choices that belonged to my family past, but not to me. I slipped into the scenery and the silence and became more able to look objectively at possibility. Still, even as peace flowered within me, more questions buzzed in my head like hungry bees: What was marriage’s promise? Could life alone be as good? Should I look for certainty, or was the bend past this current hour allure enough?
Did my pilgrimage provide answers to those? Well, frankly, no. But it did allow me the opportunity to look at my life from an uncluttered perspective. And now, I have my wife of eighteen years, two teenage children, a personal training business of my own, etc. Many questions have been lived and that living has provided, if not outright answers, at least assurances. And I am well.
Now, more than a half-century into my life, I feel more like every day is a journey into unknown possibilities like loss, failure, and uncertainty. And since I am less of a cynic, there’s also the potential for success, joy, and hope. As I live more in the present the gifts of the future are more of a surprise, which I like, but I also still like going on long pilgrimages into the wilderness. Perhaps I’ll see you out there, or we’ll pass on the street, caught up in the pilgrimage of living.
A little over a week ago people around the world waited with bated breath every evening to see if they had picked the billion dollar numbers of Powerball. Nationwide, the populace went a little crazy as greater and greater numbers of people climbed on the bandwagon of possibility. What was the possibility? Never more than one in 292 million. Not much.
Nevertheless, people played. The thrill of possibility must be pretty strong, either that or the escapism of spending hours dreaming about winning big is more entertaining than I ever imagined.
If people are willing to play the seemingly impossible odds of the lottery, what I’d like them to do is invest in some other long odds activities. For example, the chances of keeping a resolution for losing weight are somewhere around 8 to 1–against. But here’s an important side note, those who make resolutions, successful or not, are ten times more likely to change their lives significantly than those who don’t.
This is an crucial distinction. Those who play the lottery are the only ones who win. Even though the odds are supremely against them, some do win. What are the odds for those who don’t play? Well, their odds of winning the incredible prize are always the same: zero.
The point I’m making here is that sometimes, we have to be Hans Solo and demand that the reasonable C3PO’s in our heads and around us, “Never tell us the odds.” We sometimes need to take our chances and go for whatever drives us. Why? Because we just might win. And if we don’t–we are certain to lose–in more ways than one.
To never throw ourselves headlong into our dreams, despite abysmal chances, erodes our courage, makes us fearful and unconfident. We may tell ourselves the odds will never be in our favor, or employ reason and logic to prove how we will never win, but after a while our voice will start to sound like we have a mouthful of sour grapes. We need to dream big sometimes. Otherwise we’ll miss out on that one chance in a million that we winbig–really big.
And winning doesn’t have to involve dollars and cents. You may be dreaming of lifting or losing a heavy weight or spending more time learning how to code a new video game instead of sitting on the sidelines, playing someone else’s game. Think about it, every week someone posts something on Facebook that goes supernova viral and makes it to the front page of Huffington Post and appears on Good Morning America. Every year, some new, unknown author writes a New York Times best seller. All of these things, and so many more, feel like lottery payouts to me. The difference? The odds aren’t as long.
So, don’t be one of those people who loses all grand ambitions for significant change and greatness by heeding the advice of the “realists” and the fearful who tell us to set our sights low. The resulting wins are almost assuredly going to end up being small, uninspiring, and predictable. They will never take you into the wilderness where real vision and progress lives. Play the lottery. Take a chance. Win big–and “may the odds be ever in your favor.”