Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Telluride Effect

Out on a walk from my house.
"Figuring out who you are is the whole point of the human experience." 
- Anna Quindlen

About a month ago I packed into the northern terminus of the Colorado Trail (CT) in Denver with the intent of backpacking the 485 miles to Durango over the ensuing four weeks. It was the culmination of months of dreaming, planning, gear testing and conditioning.

Up until a year earlier I hadn't been backpacking since the Boy Scouts, 20 years ago. Then I met a girl (isn't that always the way it happens) who enjoys camping and inspired a rekindling of my love for the outdoors.  Over the July 4th weekend last year, while hiking near Kenosha Pass we met a guy who was thru-hiking the CT. He joined us at our campsite for dinnertime. We shared a grape soda with him and he shared his experience and intention with us. 

I was fascinated. Though I'd lived in Denver for ten years, I don't think I was even aware of the CT at that point. I'm sure I'd heard of the Appalachian Trail and people spending months of their lives thru-hiking it, but I was totally unaware of this gem in my own back yard.

Upon returning to Denver after that trip, I started exploring backpacking on short one- and two-night trips. This reawakened a desire I had in my late teens. Back then I'd met a guy at a chamber music camp, a cellist, who was a true adventurer. He regaled us with stories of packing into the wilderness, a la John Muir. I wanted to do that. I wanted to live like the kid in My Side of the Mountain, a favorite book from childhood. But alas I never did... 

I grew to my enjoy solo walks in the backcountry, a perfect escape from my urbanite existence. I told myself, "Someday I will thru-hike the Colorado Trail."

Someday came in the form of a decision to resign from my career in financial services and move to Telluride with that girl; to trade the white bread Denver existence for lifestyle prosperity that can only be found in Telluride. With no immediate job prospects in Telluride and a little bit of savings scratched together from selling my new car and buying an old Jeep Cherokee, an extended sabbatical was in order. It was the perfect opportunity to take four weeks and walk the CT.

We moved to Telluride in late May and I was immediately swept up in the friends, adventures and culture that abound. In the first week, I knew more of my neighbors than I ever knew in Denver. I went on my first river trip - four days on the Green River in Utah. There was Mountainfilm. There was Bluegrass. There was Musicfest. There was Wine Festival… There were free and amazing happenings virtually every day that filled me with delight. I started playing my violin again. It was virtually nirvana.

Then, in early July, I mailed off food to my resupply stops, packed my bag and started walking from Denver to Durango. The first day was exciting just being out on the trail with all those miles ahead of me. On the second day I had an epiphany. Now I know that 36 hours is pretty quick to be experiencing poignant insights. But, by that time I'd been on sabbatical for a couple of months at that time and I'm sure it'd been brewing since arriving in Telluride.

The final seed was planted the night before packing in while half-watching TV in a motel room. In a piece about endurance athletes tied to the Tour de France the interviewee commented about super endurance athletes like Tour riders that they were "all running from something."

Well, the rain and sunshine of those first two days on the trail were perfect to cultivate the blossoming of that seed and I ultimately wondered to myself "Why am I walking this trail?"  When originally conceived, while I was a working stiff traveling two weeks a month and trying to run up the down escalator of life, walking by myself in the backcountry was cathartic and a four week solo trip seemed an impractical fantasy. But after six weeks living in paradise and two days on the trail I realized, "I am not running from anything anymore." 

My driving force on the trail became a desire to get back home as soon as possible; where I could experience all the trail had to offer and more with my girl and her dog. Ego was present though, so I kept walking. Everyone I knew was aware of my hike. What would they think? Would I be labeled a quitter? Would I lose the little credibility I had with my new friends? 

I walked to Frisco, a walking meditation on ego, ultimately realizing it was a vestige of my old life and not a concern now. I wasn't bailing because I couldn't do it. I was course correcting my life. So, five days and 100 miles into the trail, I turned a corner and returned to my new home - Telluride.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Super Sabbatical

So, I quit my job and moved to Telluride. I am taking a sabbatical from the "real world" for a deliberately indefinite time period. To fund this adventure I sold the A4, which was paid for, and bought an old Jeep Cherokee with the intention of living on the difference until the money runs our.

This is an exciting time for me, with a bit of "holy shit I just walked away from a huge paycheck and I don't know what I'll do to replace it in the future."

My last day of work was April 1, no fooling. Since then, I've sold a lot of my stuff including my beloved Audi. I have traded money and stuff for:
   1. Experiences
   2. Culture
   3. Friends

Definite short-term plans:
   1. Re-establish a yoga practice (in the process)
   2. Move to Telluride - done (mostly... still a few boxes to unpack)
   3. Enjoy the Telluride Bluegrass Festival (coming soon)
   4. Hike the Colorado Trail (launching in July)
   5. Run my first 1/2 marathon (the Goldenleaf from Snowmass to Aspen on Sept 24th)

We'll see what happens then...

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Happy Consumption-less Christmas

I recall Christmas Eves past, when I was a kid, as sleepless nights spent anticipating all the cool stuff I would get my grubby little hands on the next morning - from a stocking full of candy (and the obligatory orange) to a load of toys that would meet my most recent fancy. I remember studying the Sears Christmas Catalog to concoct the list of what I wanted the mother-load to include. And I vaguely recall the post-Christmas letdown as, having received all that great stuff, nothing seemed to live up to the hype I'd created leading up to the big day.

I don't remember exactly when it was that the anticipation dwindled. But, I know it is just in the last couple of years that I've ultimately become disgusted with the holiday as the ultimate reflection of American hedonistic consumerism. This year I completely boycotted.

It was my first ever consumption-less Christmas and it was fantastic. The weather was perfect for a late morning hike into the wilderness with my girl and her dog. We ate a simple lunch of summer sausage, cheese, crackers, an apple and a banana on top of a mountain as the wispy clouds whisked across the sky above us. It was the happiest of holidays and a blue-print for years to come.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Monday, October 4, 2010

Stop Trying to Keep Up with 'The Joneses'

Last week 'The Joneses' was the feature film on a flight I was on. I couldn't help but watch after reading the synopses. SPOILER ALERT. This is not a movie review. This is an extension of the commentary that the movie encompasses so I will share more than you might want to hear if you haven't seen the movie and intend to do so.

The Joneses appear to be the perfect family of four - successful businessman, gorgeous wife, 2 beautiful teenage kids. They move into a fashionable suburban neighborhood and immediately become the neighborhood trendsetters. Everyone wants to be like one of them. Dad has a stunning bride who clearly keeps him happy in the sex department, a beautiful McMansion and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cool toys — cars, golf clubs, watches, stereos, etc., — all the stuff every guy wants. Mom is super stylish, always wearing the latest designer label, practically right off the catwalk, house decorated just so. The kids reign over their new school with cool clothes and cars and the latest cell phones, games and makeup.

The deep dark secret is that they're not really a family. They're a marketing team that has been strategically positioned in this well-to-do neighborhood to increase the sales of all "their" cool stuff. Looking like the perfect family with all the latest gadgets is their job. They are supposed to influence their neighbors' buying habits — to literally make them want to "keep up with the Joneses". Subtle title huh? Dad, at one point actually says to his cadre of wannabes "He who dies with the most toys wins." The whole movie is a bit heavy handed.

Think about it though. Why wouldn't marketers go to such lengths? We are already completely surrounded by marketing in our daily lives. You can't pick up a newspaper or magazine that isn't 50% or more advertising. Radio has become one big commercial with a few musical interruptions. TV is rife with commercials and ridiculously obvious product placement. Everyone uses Google, which is just a big marketing conduit. Why not direct sales from sales people in our social circles? The entire western culture is about consuming. 

But does it make us happy? The movie is not subtle about this message. The neighbor, who hasn't gotten laid in ages, learns the art of creating a happy wife from Dad - an endless flow of gifts. And it works. The neighbor finally gets laid after buying all kinds of stuff for his wife. But unlike Dad, he has to pay for all the gifts, not to mention the new car, TV, golf clubs… you get the picture. And like so many people in the roaring 2000s he put it all on credit. "60 days no payments" for a houseful of stuff and gifts for the wife becomes an insurmountable mountain of debt. He got laid, but he's not happy. He misses house payments and then his wife has trouble using a credit card to fund one of her fancy parties. Next thing you know the neighbor is found at the end of a trail of unpaid bills, floating dead in the backyard swimming pool. The moral of the story is, in my own words, "Don't get caught up in all the consumerist bullshit."

Stuff doesn't lead to happiness. Case in point, I once went on a mountain bike ride with a friend who owns a bike shop. He rides a heavy old mountain bike and one of the other riders asked him why he didn't have a newer, lighter, cooler bike. His response was that he enjoys the riding regardless of the bike he is riding. Even though he can outfit himself at cost, he rides his heavy old beater. It's not about the stuff. It's about the experience. This is becoming a key tenet in my quest for success and happiness. I know that success is not defined by what I accumulate in money or things. It is about what I do and with whom I do it. It's about the collection of memories of those times, which I will carry with me. He who dies with the most memories is the real winner.