When I tell my friends and family what I’m doing after I graduate, they all seem to react with a bit of confusion. Go walking in the open wilderness of North Dakota grasslands and over miles and miles of rarely-travelled back roads. Okay. Be walking an average of more than 12 miles a day. Alright… Turn it into a 2-3 week trek that spans the Western half of the state. Uhhh… It’s maybe not what you would expect from someone who moved to New York a year and a half ago for a degree in European Studies and Library Science. Yeah – it’s not exactly what I expected either.
The general idea was my Tyler’s (my older brother): to go hiking for a time in the backcountry of our home state. At some point, however, I think he might have accidentally tossed out the idea of hiking across the whole state, probably as a joke, and by the time I had decided to mention this big idea to my high school buddy (and informally-adopted brother), Richard, The Walk Across North Dakota was firmly lodged in my consciousness. Richard was my hiking buddy when we moved out to Minneapolis a couple years ago, and another fanatic for fantasies of epic adventure. During our time in Minnesota, we went on a few hiking/camping trips. Of course, our longest had only been 8 days on the Superior Hiking Trail – although, we were attempting to keep a pace of 20 miles a day – and it was in preparation for an immense journey to circumnavigate the Great Lakes of North America. It was just going to be the practice run.
Don’t tell me you are starting to get worried too? Well, I guess I don’t blame you. Sometimes I’m not really sure why I feel compelled to do these things; rational answers all pale in comparison to the Real itself, to the indescribable experience. But did I inherit some mad ideas from my reading? Did Richard brainwash me with all his talk of “becoming TRULY HARDCORE“? (just imagine someone impersonating Darrell Hammond’s impersonation of Sean Connery – yeah, it’s about that weird) We didn’t end up completing that trip, but maybe it whetted my appetite (but not before the giardia had passed from my system).
Are we North Dakotans especially prone to this sort of absurd challenge? Perhaps there is something in the water – in 1930, Eric Sevareid of Velva, ND, completed an insane 2,200 mile canoe trip from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay – or even better, something on the wind – in 2008, some friends at 2XTM (To Cross the Moon) traveled from the Canadian border to South Dakota on snow kites…in the months of JANUARY AND FEBRUARY no less!
Whence comes this fascination with crazy? A friend of mine, Adam, when I told him about my plans, noticed this deeper urge in me. He asked me if I’d ever read Into the Wild – I said I’d seen the film. (He’s forcing me read it now – and it’s great, as it turns out – Jon Krakauer is easily becoming my new writing hero – and I’m hoping to write an article based on this whole adventure for Outside magazine, where the book got its beginnings.) But then he asked me, “Is this supposed to be a spiritual journey?” Now that might sound like a strange leap – to be fair I was telling him about it at the same time as my new year’s resolutions: go vegetarian for a month, and not drink alcohol for a year. And I’m sure it all smacked of some attempt to “purify my body” or whatever, but that wasn’t it at all. I just had this impulse to start challenging myself, physically and mentally, as part of my preparation for the much more serious challenge ahead.
But I have to say, there was some truth in his assumption. I’m not seriously affiliated with any belief system right now, but I don’t think that it’s out of any lack of spirituality. In fact, I would say it’s specifically because of a deep concern with questions of faith that I am unaffiliated at the moment. I grew up Christian as a Methodist, but that specific designation never meant much to me. And over the years, I’ve tried to explore many different religious systems, often discovering that the one of the elements I find fascinating is the awareness that life is essentially ephemeral, passing, temporary. Christianity has some of this element certainly, but its been obscured by the milieu of contemporary American Christianity and I find it best emphasized for me in the ascetic tradition within Zen Buddhism. But whatever spirituality one puts it in – I even found it in the Sioux religion of Lame Deer – I realized that Adam was right. Like the moment in religious stories and myths, when the character must pass through the desert or wilderness and learn something about himself or herself, this walk will be more than a mental and physical test, something more akin to a vision quest.
Aren’t I coming to this a little late though? By this summer, I’ll be 26 years old, I’ll have 2 Masters degrees, and I’ll have been living away from North Dakota for at least four years and from home for nine. Isn’t it traditional for us to go through this rite of passage stuff when we hit puberty? I suppose I wouldn’t be the only case to suggest that individual development in Western culture is spiritually retarded. And here I am, having spent the last year and a half in New York as a sponge, soaking up all the great things that abound – philosophers and social revolutionaries, sights and tastes from infinite seas, odd movies and new ideas, anything that you damn well please – all the people I have met, all the experiences that have been offered to me, all the knowledge that I have gained – I had never imagined in my life that I might end up here and have experienced such things – my leap into the unknown has fulfilled dreams that I never even dreamed of dreaming! But shouldn’t I know where I am going by now??
That’s not really a question – just a feeling. But I’ve begun to tell myself that this voyage undertaking, this quest I am on: this is my attempt to get back to zero. I’m not even sure what that phrase means yet – I just get this image of squeezing out all the contents of this sponge and seeing what’s left behind, to discover all the things which were really important things and which will remain to define me for the rest of my life. Now, that is going to sound like I want to get sack all the great experiences I’ve had, but that’s dumb, that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m not thinking about this trip as an attempt to escape something. All I can tell you is that not all quests know their ends – you don’t always get to know what you’re looking for until you’ve gone through it. That seems to be a good reason for not answering the “whys” of my parents and friends. It’s especially true if this is to truly be a spiritual journey – it wouldn’t be a journey of the spirit if you knew what it was or where it was going to take you.