By Tina Currin
I remember the moment when I first discovered paradox. I was nine years old, sitting in bed and frantically turning over what I had learned earlier that day in my first Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) lesson. Despite the program’s intentions, I found the descriptions of drugs—the technicolor swirl of LSD, the heavy languor of marijuana, the pep of speed—endlessly alluring, like a portal into a fantastic grown-up world where adults worshiped at the altar of something other than a bank account or a punch clock. I immediately wanted to try nothing and everything, all at once. Doing everything, it seemed, also included doing nothing; nothing was, by definition, part of everything, right?
The question kept me awake at night. If I did nothing, I was turning my back on the endless expanse of everything—and who knew what I might find there? But if I dipped even a toe into the everything pool, the sanctity of doing nothing would be lost forever. I wanted both simultaneously, ultimate discovery that was ethically pure. My youthful curiosity and magnetic attraction to risk eventually drew me outdoors, where I found a bit of the experimentation that I so deeply craved, while mostly remaining on the nothing side of more obvious self-destructive tendencies.
These days, I lay awake, wrestling with the same feelings all over again. In what feels like an instant, COVID-19 has significantly upped the ante in an economic and social game that never lacked for long odds or high stakes to begin with. The pandemic has effectively requested the ultimate sacrifice from frontline workers, while requiring the rest of us to sit back and take a global chill pill. Now, with buckets of free time, infinite access to the sum of human culture and entertainment at my fingertips, and a lion’s share of ice cream and frozen pizza tucked away in my freezer, I find myself yearning for the silence of a secluded mountain valley, the unflinching expanse of a churning ocean, and the impenetrable darkness of a wide-open sky. Given the option of doing, well, almost anything with my time, what I crave most is to stand in awe of nature’s resolute, mind-numbing nothingness.
Last year, I took my first steps toward this specific strain of simplicity and independence by thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. I spent a sizeable chunk of the year traversing the knobby spine of the East Coast, hiking a dozen hours a day on a narrow dirt track in the middle of the forest. Pure momentum burned away any residual fear I had about such an undertaking, and suddenly my career, real estate, degrees, debts… none of it mattered. For the duration of my journey, my only job was to muster the best version of myself that I could find that day, and then, simply, to move forward. Behind me, the trail flowed like a river, a straight line between my past and whatever the future might hold. The mountains unfolded before me in an endless series of blue-gray ripples like waves frozen mid-flight.
This almost monastic desire for self-imposed toil and strife in the face of a global pandemic (real toil, real strife!) feels again like a paradox, but outside, things are charmingly uncomplicated. The gritty glaze of day-to-day life falls away, swept clear by the almighty task before you. It’s active meditation, complete one-foot-in-front-of-the-other focus, with stakes that you can dial up or down depending on that day’s tolerance for thrill. The AT is basically a high-octane highlight reel of all the odd new realities we’ve now come to know, and the sustained relevance of my journey continues to surprise me.
There’s the obsession with basic hygiene and stockpiling supplies, plotting grocery store runs with military precision, and the appropriate appreciation of every piece of fresh produce like the small miracle that it is. Hikers have long refused handshakes for fear of spreading pathogens and quickly learn to live with a disconcerting lack of toilet paper. Above all else, there’s the shared recognition of the immeasurable beauty of small things, like breaking bread with a loved one, or clawing your way through one difficult day and ending up better the next.
Perhaps this moment of global reflection will shake something loose in our collective consciousness, a little crack from which new or repressed desires can flow. It is in the nature of people to move, but we are now all bound to the same cause-effect relationships found on long distance trails. More than a footpath, the AT is fixed by a sense of stewardship and community, with each choice and shelter and resupply point intricately connected to every other person who shares the path from Georgia to Maine. What happens on one patch of earth may very well affect those who come next.
We are left with little choice but to ride out our current situation as elegantly and safely as possible, and to dream of the future. Those who do will be well-prepared for the next great adventure, to write their own little something upon nature’s blank slate, or, depending on the circumstances, the other way around. So, go ahead. Pull the trigger on that ultralight tent or rain jacket that you’ve been eyeing. When the time is right, you’ve got to be ready to load up the car, drink the ceremonial beer, and hit the trail. Life is short and precious, full of everything one moment, and nothing the next.