Hello dear readers. This is a post I have been itching to write since back in the Sawtooth. But it has taken many more months of reflection before I felt I could do it justice, and present my thoughts constructively. There is a lot of discussion of self care circulating these days, the radical idea that you need to devote time to healing within yourself in order to devote time and energy to external problems. While this is not a concept we should find revolutionary, doing work on yourself is something we are not often given time for. In fact some self care (when not explicitly labeled as such) is seen as lazy, self-indulgence. But the work must be done. This is equally important on a trip. When you are out in the woods for days, weeks, or months at a time you have some unique stresses and opportunities that will broaden, illuminate, intensify, but perhaps at times darken your natural state of mind. You are not a different person when you walk off the sidewalk and into the trees. You carry your whole person with you through the adventure and there are things you cannot and should not ignore. So now I am going to talk about mental health in the wilderness. Specifically my mental health, since I cannot speak for anyone’s inner dialogue but my own (please excuse my overuse of qualifiers). Who wants to go down the rabbit hole?
Listen to your body: Hanger and Bonking
Person 1: I am struggling
Person 2: Should we stop for lunch?
Person 1: The way I see it we can stop for lunch now, or wait an hour, have a fight and stop for lunch then.
Person 2: LUNCH TIME
Well actually this was only after the first couple weeks. In the beginning we did not listen to our stomachs and muscles the way they needed to be heard. We were still trying to find our limits and so we pushed ourselves and each other past the point of civility fairly regularly. This was a mistake. While on the road, the trail, the river, wherever your adventure setting of choice may be I invite you to be self-aware about your mood. When you feel yourself beginning to struggle, your morale beginning to deteriorate and your love for the trip you worked so hard to plan and make happen is slipping from your grasp, think about when you ate and drank last. Now as I will elaborate on later in this post, it IS INDEED POSSIBLE to have a bad time on a trip you love. You should not think that just because you are out on this wondrous adventure, all emotional dips and lows are artificial. Your emotions are real even when caused by hunger. I just had to learn that when you wake up every day to the progressively harder, hardest day of your life sometimes you need a snack before you decide the world is closing in around you. Or at least I did. Whenever the clouds roll in, stop and eat a snack before getting soaked through in the storm.
This is traditionally called “bonking.” In endurance sports (long distance biking, running, hiking, etc) this is what they call “hitting the wall.” You reach a point in your day when your reserves are depleted and your progress is obstructed by your own power/lack thereof. Symptoms of bonking can include:
- sudden tiredness
- muscle ache
- blurred vision (if you get to this point STOP IMMEDIATELY)
- trouble thinking straight
If you are experiencing these things it is not a symptom of your weakness, it is just a notice that your body needs to refuel. If you notice these symptoms in yourself or one of your travel companions find some shade and suggest taking a snack break. Just getting off the bike, sitting in the shade and eating a goddamn cookie can put you right. And then you can begin to wade through what emotions are still there and which ones were smashed against the proverbial wall. Sometimes when I was bonking I got to the point where I thought it was a personal failing and so I wanted to push through and keep going. This is a bad idea. I did myself a disservice by thinking things like “You can’t stop until we get to the top,” “you’re not tired, we just started,” or “you need to be able to do this, otherwise you won’t make it through the trip.” Those kinds of thoughts while bonking will poison you against fixing it. Don’t go down with the ship my friends.
There is also bonking’s more undefinable cousin: hanger. This elusive beast is not necessarily linked to physical exertion and so can creep up on you when you least expect it and ruin your rest days. It is important to keep a running count of the last time you ate and think about how much you are eating on the trip. This sounds like some weird diet plan thing but in fact I mean quite the opposite. If you haven’t eaten in 2 hours, you probably need a sandwich. This is also important to know for budgeting purposes. Buy more food. Hanger is sneaky and it is strong.
Existential Crises and Being Here Now
As many of you know, one of my stated purposes in this trip was to figure out what I wanted out of the next stage of my life. You know this because I told you. I wrote a whole post about it and any of my travel log posts from the depths of the bike trip have allusions to my personal journey to that end. I am here now to tell you that I WAS WRONG.
When planning a trip like this it is not fair to you, the people you are going with, or the trip itself (which I believe takes on a life and personality of its own) to try to live in the future. I engaged in self care for the wrong part of my life. I wanted to solve all my wider problems and ended up ignoring the new mental anxieties and challenges that the trip brought up. That forward looking mentality wreaked havoc on my experience. I was constantly thinking of what I was going to write in the blog, how I was going to spin my “summer off” to employers or grad school application committees and generally devaluing my experience in my own mind. This line of thinking put me deep into an existential hole. Why was I doing this? It couldn’t possibly be because I just liked it and it was a good time. By trying to assign meaning to every moment for some future use I missed out on a lot of actual happiness on the trip itself. There is no way to actually enjoy what you are doing if you are not thinking about what you are doing or letting your mind wander naturally. The days that I did not blog, the weeks at the end of the trip when I swore off my forward thinking to truly participate in our grand adventure were the happiest times of the summer.
For this to be constructive I think it is necessary to examine my motivations for the trip in general. As stated in my post on why we weren’t riding for charity, this trip is about closing one chapter of our lives and starting another. I think that this is still a fine reason to do something of this scale, providing closure to one part to start another. Also, it was a way for me to reconcile quitting a job that didn’t really have much objectively wrong with it, but wasn’t what I wanted in the long run. But the problem became that I put all of these goals onto the trip that had absolutely nothing to do with it. And they were big goals; find happiness, know myself better, get fit, write something worth reading, conquer the world. This is unreasonable and I set myself up for inner turmoil by not prioritizing the trip itself.
While there are some things you can make yourself think about while on a bike on the side of the road for five hours a day, all your inner problems don’t really make the list. Maybe it is a lack of will on my part (here we go with the self-deprication) but I could not force myself to answer those questions in my own head because I wasn’t doing anything that would logically bring me closer to the answers other than wishing I was closer to the answers. Most often my body was working so hard I could only think of the most frivolous things outside of what was happening in the moment. One cannot force answers to existential questions while engaging in such an earthly pursuit. I did not answer my big questions, I did not solve all my problems, instead I thought of alllllll this:
- Will my high school have a 10 year reunion?
- Would I go?
- EVERY EMBARRASSING THING I EVER DID IN HIGH SCHOOL
- Who got fat? (I thought of people I wished got fat, but I won’t air that dirty laundry here)
- Will this hill ever end?
- I bet bears love it here
- Would anyone from my high school even recognize me now, I was mean then
- Why am I thinking about high school?
- Maybe its because I can’t think about college anymore
- Do I wish I was still in college?
- what would I do if a bear ran out of the woods right now
- I should sing the bear song
- This hill is long
- I haven’t been chafing as much lately
- Is Ru having a good time?
- What can we eat for dinner tonight
- What can I eat RIGHT NOW
- Thats a cool rock
- I wonder if the girls at my old office miss me
- Do I miss them?
- We should get some speakers
- I can’t wait to go to sleep
- I need a new book
- This would make a good book
- Nahh then I’d have to write my character truthfully
- Am I depressed?
- Why am I depressed, people would kill for this trip?
- But would I?
- Why am I doing this?
- To prove I can? Or just because I said I was going to on the internet and now I’m too embarrassed to back down
- Embarrassed……back to high school
- What about Middle School?
- gahh not opening that can of worms
- Do I even remember middle school? Why is my memory so bad?
- I know the answer to that.
- I miss TV
- Will Ru snuggle with me tonight or be a big tent hog?
- I wonder if he understands the trip
- Do I understand the trip?
- Do I understand myself?
- WHAT WILL MAKE ME HAPPY
And round and round we go. I could not focus on those questions I imposed on myself because you cannot force an ah-ha moment. I would touch down on something substantial only to be snapped back to reality and the road under my tires. I wanted to know the answers but I did not have the bandwidth to focus long enough to get out of the gate. This isn’t a bad thing. I wish I had not reined myself in so much and let my mind go where it wanted. That stunted train of thought was what drove me to the edge of unhappiness and left me on the border. High and unrelated expectations are a cruel prank to play on yourself.
So my friends, my conclusion to this post is to give yourself space for your mind to wander. Don’t set mental expectations for a trip that will push you physically to the edge. Be gentle with yourselves and remember that snacks are the root of happiness.