Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Uncertainty is our Trail....

It is easy to think that it is Covid that has been the main scourge of the past 15 months, or that the Lockdowns have crippled our spirit and economy…but, it seems more likely that the chief disruptor over the last two years has been the uncertainty, anxieties, and frustrations that have arisen that have hindered and hurt us the most.  As we sit here in quarantine (our third quarantine this year) preparing to head back out, I cannot deny that I am excited to get back onto the trail, to camp in nature again, and be free of the daily pressures that we have all experienced for so long now.  However, I also cannot deny that it is unnerving to step out the door, not knowing what is coming, what the trail will be like, what reception we will receive and what people’s reactions will be.   Like everyone else we have spent far too long watching too much news, listening to too many Covid updates, and being given too many warnings about impending dangerous everywhere.  Because of this I feel like the fears of so many others have become mine simply through shear repetition.   In so many ways after months of news and updates I have forgotten to trust those things which I had once come to know to be truth through experience.  Because of this it is oddly hard to head back out. 

Yet, ultimately we all need to find a way to move forward one step at a time.  The same is true in life as it is on the trail.

Not all you carry is in your backpack

Anyone who has travelled or thought of travelling has confronted the same central challenge – what do you take, what do you leave behind?  When hiking and backpacking these questions define not only your initial decisions, but also your daily choices too – what gear do you invest in and carry, what your route it is, where you stop each day, what type of food you have on you, how much water do I need to have each day?  While these are important questions the simple fact is that, not everything we carry with us is the physical stuff that goes into our bags.  Sometimes, we carry a lot more inside and that weight can be much heavier and harder to handle. 

A lot of conversations on thru hikes and on pilgrimages like the Camino de Santiago – consciously or not – revolve around the stuff we carry with us inside.  Our thoughts, our memories, our regrets, our fears, our pasts, our hopes, and our prayers.  The simple fact is, that we all carry these things with us, we are all navigating through life trying to deal with our own baggage, and we are all trying to make sense of things.   Those who are lucky are the ones who can more easily sort things out, deal with or dispense with the burdens, and keep on moving.  Some however, find themselves stuck in a moment, trapped in their memories, or constantly navigating through the challenges of their past and the world and are unable to bring things to a resolution - and so they continue on carrying a load that never seems to lighten.

As those who know us or who have followed along know that Sean has been ill for the past few years. At times his hands start shaking for no reason, or he collapses with severe abdominal cramps, gets blinding headaches, crippling chest pains, the blood vessels in his left eye will often burst and more recently in the past year his teeth have become horridly sensitive to the point that he can’t eat and even the feeling of breath can be painful to him.  To try to find out what is wrong we have spent years bouncing between emergency rooms, hospitals, walk in clinics (we have never been able to get a family doctor), and more recently medical specialists.  Each of whom have provided differing, conflicting, and sometimes terrifying diagnosis without any consensus or any means to resolve the situation.   He has been told that that these issues are everything from simple food poisoning, to a pulled muscle,  to stomach cancer, to MS, to needing several root canals, to recently being advised to exercise and walk more (heaven help us).  Several weeks ago however, he was sent to a new specialist who was kind enough to listen, review all the information and who came to a single, simple potential conclusion.  Namely given the breadth of tests Sean has been put through there was and is – thankfully - nothing physically wrong with him which means that it is entirely possible that all of these rotating ailments are instead result of stress, anxiety and his own uncertainties.  As the doctor wisely noted, ‘where the mind goes the body soon follows….”.

Uncertainty and finding Common Ground again

While his direct challenges and anxieties are his own particular obstacles to deal with, his general situation is by no means unique.  As recent as 14 months ago (pre-Covid) each of us had a distinct purpose, a rhythm to our lives, and daily routines which often relied upon what could be expected, what we took to be ‘normal’, and what we felt we could rely upon as ‘certain’.  Since then many of our expectations and our perspectives have changed dramatically over the course of the global pandemic and the resulting lockdowns.  About all any of us know for sure was that at one point we knew our way and then at another very little seemed certain.

Adding to the immediate situation many of us began working from home or lost our jobs and so were given a great deal of time to reflect, to wonder, and to be honest with ourselves.  In the process so many people seem to have become increasingly frustrated and anxious about the world, what others think or do, how things are done, and their place in it.    This isn’t surprising, given the tensions of the pandemic and the constant bombardment of news and online commentary which make it very easy to doubt even the most self-evident of truths, and question what we hold in common. The world seems to have transformed (as a fellow hiker recently shared) from ‘I think therefore I am’ into ‘I believe therefore I am right’.   The online world in particular seems to be a feeding frenzy of vitriol, frustration, and unproductive commentary – which seems to be increasingly wearing off on each of us.  

It has gotten to the point that we have divided ourselves and our communities into set camps of thought with little room for differing voices or opinions.  We must now be all one thing or another and most of all we must distain at the top of our voices those who hold any opinion other than our own.  So many think that it is perfectly reasonable to utter hatreds, to wish violence on those whom they don’t even know, or undermine the hopes of those just setting out by sending threatening emails. Because the commentary continues it is easy to think that we now live in a world of all against all.   But the simple fact is that in the real world – the world not online and that is face to face – isn’t actually like this.   Despite our doubts, hesitations, and critiques, the fact is that our common ground is still there.  It just needs, once again, to be experienced and remembered.  Something which I think (and hope) is now much easier to do away from our screens, 24 hour cable news, and wifi connections.  

If the past year has taught me anything it’s that our greatest concerns and personal anxieties often stem from, and reflect, the manufactured frustrations of the online world.  Perhaps the most dangerous part of the present moment is not another wave of Covid, but the possibility that the temperament of the digital world and online forums will begin to indelibly shape how we perceive and interact with the real world.  That we will come to believe that “all is known” because “everything can be Googled”, or that because some believe one thing it means that one view is absolutely right and that all others are wrong, or that there is no room for another perspective. 

The reality is however, that this can only happen if we allow ourselves to set aside the common sense and wisdom that each of us regularly gain from lived experiences – those moments we experience for ourselves in the outdoors, in nature, working in our trades, and physically being with our friends and family.   It is in the doing and living that we are reminded of our common ground as caring, supportive and empathetic Canadians.  

In a comment which seems well suited to the post-Covid world, I am reminded of a quote from John Muir when he observed that at present, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease.” (Our National Parks)

As our final days of our third quarantine come to a conclusion, now that we have gotten our vaccines, provincial borders are reopening and people are beginning to return to the world I have the sense many of us will find that getting back outdoors and into nature will restore our sense of common purpose, reaffirm our feelings of mutual respect, and affirm the common ground which we all hold sacred.  In spending time away from our screens – those digital bastions which we have come to consult daily during the pandemic – we will find that “in going out one is actually going in" - and that all of those fears, frustrations and anxieties which have built up in each of us will dissipate in the face of lived experiences and the sounds of the woods. 

It is time to spend more time wandering and less time wondering.

Here is to hoping that things get better as we again set out - hopefully were the body goes so too can the mind follow, and find peace.



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