My close friend Catherine spent several summers after college guiding land tours around Alaska. She adored the job and suggested several times over the years that it was a perfect fit for me. I listened intently to her exciting stories of life on the road and her excursions in the Alaskan wilderness. I scrolled through pictures of breathtaking natural beauty, hoping to one day see the sites with my own eyes.
But as well as Catherine sold me on the idea, and as much as I hungered for a pulse of adventure in my life, a decade passed without lifting finger to explore the prospect further. I wouldn’t (couldn’t?) allow myself to admit how much I wanted it. It can be scary as hell to shine light on a desire out of immediate reach. I had a reliable stream of excuses letting me off the hook. I was gaining momentum in my career (sometimes true, sometimes based on a true story). My ex-husband and I were building our life together. It sure sounded like a lot of logistics were involved in a temporary move to Alaska. Etc etc.
Basically, I couldn’t justify myself “taking time off from my life” to go for it. I’ve used similar semantics when explaining my thru hike to people. I was lucky to have scheduling freedom because it’s so hard to “put your life on hold” for something so massive. I’ve spoken with many people interested in a thru hike and a perceived lack of available time is the overwhelming reason they have yet to take the leap. Think about something crazy you’ve always wanted to do, something requiring sustained, thoughtful effort. Has the currency of time held you back?
This may sound forehead-slappingly obvious, but it has been a vital, slow burning revelation for me: No matter what you do, you cannot take time off from your life. There is no pause button. Every single moment you’re awake and alive, every choice at every fork in every road, every seized opportunity and wasted moment, all of it is your life. Time doesn’t give a shit about your dreams; it’s flying by no matter what. Far too often I’ve felt like a passive observer to my trajectory, only making decisions in service of a rational (re: safe) next step.
When I was profoundly lost in the miasmic mess of divorce, my friend Gina* off-handedly suggested that I hike the Appalachian Trail. Saying Yes to the hike was the best gift I’ve ever given myself, aside from coming out. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was more than just a commitment to 6 months of challenge and triumph. My thru hike redefined how I value and evaluate my time.
Every single day on the trail, I was fully living my life instead of anxiously waiting to see what happened next. Thru hiking taught me to accept each day, regardless of trail conditions, as an opportunity rather than a means to an end.
I kept in touch with Catherine throughout my hike. Wouldn’t it just so happen that applications for the Alaska tour director job were set to open soon after I arrived home. Did I want her to put me in touch with a friend still employed at the company? For the first time, I answered honestly. I said Yes. Yes, Absolutely, 150%.
In October, about one month post-hike, I applied for the job. I wouldn’t have made the leap without that AT. I’d worry it might me lead me off course, distract my attention from the acting career I hugely miss and “should” be focusing on. But there is no correct path, only my agency to pursue whatever really gets my blood pumping. And after a recent period of life spent wanting very little for myself, on a basic level, it simply feels good to desire things again.
In mid December, right before my birthday, I was offered a position as a tour director (Journey Host, to be specific) in Alaska from May through September!
The job merges several major personal and professional threads and gets more exciting with every detail I learn. I’ll be leading groups of 30-40 guests on weeklong land tours around Alaska and into the Yukon, occasionally taking part in side excursions like whale watching, hiking tours, maybe even a helicopter ride or two. I hope to learn how to fish and clean my catch. Never have I been more prepared to live on the road, out of a backpack. I will be sharing a monthly hotel room in Downtown Anchorage with two fellow guides, though I will only be in Anchorage a handful of days every month between tours and we will likely not run into each other often. I plan to backpack, camp, and explore as much as humanly possible in my free time.
I leave for Alaska mid May. I wish I could start tomorrow, but even still, so much can happen in that time. A lack of commitments outside of driving for Lyft (definitely bringing up the AT with captive audiences as much as possible) and helping paint my parents’ house makes it oh so easy to get internet rabbit hole’d by whatever new tragedy befalls the world. But I remind myself that if I’m capable of hiking through rain for days on end with blistered feet, surely I can stay informed and be productive.
Before the AT, the value I placed on the solitary pursuit of writing was intrinsically tied to any future potential of the material. I’m now trying to appreciate the act of writing itself, rather than seeing the process as a means to an end. This has led to a greater enjoyment of the craft and more patience with myself when I’m feeling stuck. I’m working on two very different plays–one of which is a horror script I’ve been ruminating on for years and feel super energized about–and organizing trail journal notes. More than anything, staying active prevents this time span between the AT and Alaska from feeling like a waiting period. I may be still be in transition, but I’m not calling a time out.
When my contract is up this fall, I may very well return to Chicago to start the next phase of my artistic career, ready to hustle my ass off. After 2 years away from my favorite city and so many wonderful people, it is relieving beyond belief to a have financially stable path back after Alaska.
That said, I plan to keep my eyes and ears open in a way they weren’t during my first 30 years. You never know when an exhilarating, challenging, piss-your-pants-intimidating new opportunity will come knocking, and I remain poised to say Yes.
*Listen to your friends. They know things about you that you’ve yet to figure out, and if they’re truly meant to be part of your chosen family, the only motive behind their guidance is your happiness and well being. Ask, listen, and take their words to heart, especially when you’re lost. Except for that one friend, who, bless their beautiful soul, couldn’t advise their way out of a Ziplock bag.