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Monday, December 3, 2018

The Southwest, 2018 (Part 1): A Vision Quest

Scene Setter:

In early 2018, I was nearing the end of a six month long divorce that would end up costing me nearly $50,000. I'd worked the first decade of my adulthood away, madly trying to change my station in life and provide lifelong stability to my beautiful daughter, who was two at the time. I'd been married for almost seven years - had gotten married at 19 for all the wrong reasons. By my understanding, it was a man's role to sacrifice, provide, and protect. Life was duty, honor, and chivalry - nothing else. It was pain, in other words, with no comfort or reciprocation. I won't mention the causes of my divorce in any detail, except for to say that I hold my head high knowing that I acted with the same honor mentioned above throughout the marriage. I endured things that most people would never imagine and never gave up until it became a life or death decision on whether or not to move on.

I still carried the weight of guilt from that survival based decision when I first heard about my community college's Southwest Field Trip. The husband of one of my professors (a professor himself) had spent five minutes in his wife's classroom before one of our classes began, and without knowing the true significance of it, had picked me out of the crowd and asked me to talk in the hallway. I was intrigued and found his mannerisms to be knowing and empathetic, so I placated the conversation knowing that I wasn't in anywhere near the life-space I needed to be in to go on a trip like that. It would be three weeks long, would cover more than a dozen national parks and historical points, and would be spent entirely in campground conditions. It sounded like something I desperately needed, but couldn't allow myself to experience. 

I had just watched my child move away from my home and was trying (and failing) to rid myself of two mortgages, one of which was in Hawaii. The financial pressure alone was crushingly overwhelming. I was watching my father battle stage four cancer and watching my mother process that after my grandfather had died of the same terrible disease some years prior. I had been the foster parent of two neglected children in Hawaii (where I was stationed in the Navy) when I got the news about my father and had to make the difficult decision to pass those children to another foster parent while I went home to support my family. I had just taken over the lead position for a site of 30+ government cleared security officers. After months of working between 50-85 hours a week and attending college full time, I had to make the conflicted decision to bail (temporarily) on my college degree. The three hours of sleep I was getting on the average day just wasn't going to cut it anymore. As a night shift security officer, I had fully devoted myself to my education in the humanities, and I had learned so much from people who had been dead longer than I'd been alive.

It was a desperate time. I got out of the military in mid-2017 and had used my education to help myself overcome some pretty serious PTSD, paranoia, depression, and anxiety. Internally, I would repeat the mantra: "It's not post-traumatic stress; it's just a post-traumatic test."

I was resentful toward the military and didn't want to talk to any of their therapists or accept any government stipends or disability. I'd seen what that same government had accomplished around the world and wanted nothing to do with their blood-money. Still don't. Near the beginning of my education, I decided that the campus of that community college would be my safe place. I wouldn't hold anything back during my studies or pull any punches in my writing assignments. It was for me. It was my mechanism of healing, and I eventually found a real sense of community there. A group of intellectuals and seekers who wished to overcome their problems by learning about the universe and its nature; a group of professors who had the education to be able to relate to my experiences and guide me toward others of a similar mind. I learned about the Greeks' Arete and sought it in every moment. 

Giving up that education was a tremendously difficult decision - one brought about by the need to spend more time with my daughter following the divorce. The supervisory position allowed more control over my own schedule, but it was too taxing to provide 30 people with work/life balance while also attending college. I received a small pay raise associated with the promotion, which would help to overcome the $800 a month in child support that was so recently a part of my budget - money that I'm honored to give to help my daughter with what she needs. In short, when I departed on Roane State's Southwest Field Trip (SWFT), I was two different things. On the outside, I was a lighthearted young man who liked to help break the ice and make other students comfortable within the group dynamic. I like to think that I was something of a mentor for the younger crowd. On the inside, I was borderline suicidal, hanging on by a thread, and determined to keep fighting no matter what. I was desperate to find peace in nature, and then subsequently within myself. I was on both a public journey and a private one.

As I got to know some of the other students, it struck me that most of them were running toward something. Experience. Natural beauty. An Instagram photo op. Some time away from their parents. There were a few though, who were running away. I was one of them, and honestly I would have never gone on that trip if the professor leading it hadn't been aware enough of his surroundings to see that I needed it and might be able to add something to the group dynamic. I'd told him about my mental state before we left - that I was really struggling. I promised him it wouldn't become an issue on the trip, and that it would be entirely internal. He had me research John Wesley Powell (JWP) for a pre-trip presentation, and I was disappointed that I couldn't put my full effort toward it because of what was going on in my life. Still, I learned that he was a Civil War veteran who had lost an arm in battle.  He'd had it amputated (with no anesthesia other than some whiskey) and had proceeded, following his time at war, to lead the first documented expedition into the Grand Canyon (a name which JWP himself coined). After his own misfortunes at war, Powell overcame one of the greatest obstacles in his day: rafting down the Colorado river absent one arm. His crew nearly starved to death, yet carried on. They were battered and broken and some even died, but still they carried on, and eventually JWP climbed out of the Grand Canyon with the one arm he had left.

I felt a strong connection to the man in a spiritual sense...I'd chosen to let my life fall apart in a search for greater truth. For too long I'd lived a life that wasn't honest. The American Dream was not my dream, it was not my path, and it was not my destiny. The need for authenticity toward my passions had finally driven me insane, and I was so driven toward an uncertain goal that, when not in its pursuit, I pictured myself back in that broken bed with a .45 pressed against my skull. It was truth and wisdom or death and silence. Nobody ever knows what they're searching for, really. Do they? I knew that I had to go on that trip. You can call it whatever you want: discernment...intuition...God. You can call it desperation, projection, seeking, or any number of synonyms. I knew it was my path. I'd been through enough in my life to know how to listen and understand when something is absolutely true. On May 14th, we departed.   

The Trip: 

There were elements associated with the group dynamic that quickly became apparent. 17 students went on the trip, many of whom were in their first year of college and thus, pretty young. For a lot of them, it really was what the name suggested - a field trip. Their initial excitement waned however, when the first leg of the drive was something like 30 hours long. I helped with some of the driving since I was among the older of the group, and the professor (the one who had initially introduced me to the trip) and I enjoyed torturing the younger members of the group by playing Scottish and Irish folk music. They subsequently enjoyed torturing us with such profound lyrics as "Chains hangin' from my dangelang," and, "Do it in the mirror." It was culturally educational that in the 7 years that separated my generation from theirs, music had changed so drastically. They all sang along in sync, and I genuinely found it pretty entertaining and borderline impressive.

There were one or two older students on the trip - one was around 28, and another around 30 - she was providing unofficial paramedic support to the group. Then there was an outside college professor who was pursuing a PhD in religious studies - I had enjoyed a couple of conversations with her prior to the trip and found her pretty capable of cutting to matters of substance. There was also the history teacher who had spoken to me outside of his wife's classroom, and a geologist from a nearby campus of the same college. The rest were pretty much 20 or younger, so I found that I rather accidentally fell into something of an "older brother" style mentor-ship role with them. The first day of the trip was filled with a drive that seemed too long, but featured interesting landscape changes for anyone who could stay awake to see them. Internally, it was nice for me to step away from the complications of my life and toward whatever may come. Many of the students constantly asked questions about where we were, where we were going the next day, or what they would need when we got there. What activities there would be. I honestly didn't care in the slightest if we were going to climb into a volcano or up a mountain...we could've taken JWP's very same expedition and I would've been ready. I was ready to push myself no matter the danger. On May 15th, the opportunity finally came.

The first campsite was comprised of a number of small cabins. We arrived, and after a bit of annoying administrivia the likes of which is standard on such group trips, we got settled. Then the opportunity  for the first hike came. I found myself matching pace primarily with the medic mentioned before - she apparently had another part-time job as a raft guide and was pretty close to my fitness level (active outdoors enthusiast, but not an insane cross-fit junky). She was also going through a divorce and a bit of life restructuring. She was a few years older than me, but with some of my difficult experiences in the military, it seemed we were in a similar life place. My attitude of hyper-authenticity had extended from the college campus to the trip, and I found that we very quickly arrived at conversations of substance, such as why we each were divorcing and what life might actually be about. The air was so much less thick in the Southwest, and the hike was just the sort of physical exertion I'd been searching for.

When we got to the end of the trail, I decided I wasn't finished yet and took off climbing on the rocks. I didn't know how to get to the top, or whether there was a way down, only that I came to push myself and that I needed the solitude that the climb would afford me. I dropped my backpack about halfway up a huge rock face and climbed until there was no visible trail. I reached what I thought was a stopping point, and after a minute or two, heard someone else coming. The medic. Strangely, I found that it wasn't an intrusion on my private moment. My spirit was open and learning - I was scared of heights, and it had been something of a mental obstacle for me to climb that high. When she caught up, she declared the same fear. With a nod of unspoken acknowledgment, we revised our plans and climbed even higher. A few of the other students met us on the middle level, but we soon were alone again and terrified of falling. There was some chemistry there that I couldn't help but acknowledge, but just as when I was initially invited on the trip: "I wasn't in anywhere near the life-space I needed for such a connection. It sounded like something I desperately needed but couldn't allow myself to experience."

The climb down was the scariest part. There wasn't a clear path, and honestly, the way we'd climbed up would not have been safe to climb down. So, we found a way that seemed safe, but soon discovered that we had to straddle between to rock faces, putting equal pressure on both sides, and pretty much crab walk down hill while suspended in the air. You could see where a tree trunk had been washed down and wedged in between the two rock faces, and we weren't really sure how stable any of it was. It got to the point where, out of necessity, we were helping each other climb under things and over them. It wasn't really dangerous per se, but it was beyond my comfort zone. The chemistry I'd tried to ignore before became somewhat more pronounced as we both faced our fears and overcame them, often hand in hand. Honestly, I was just happy in the moment. I'd forgotten about the deeper meaning of life and processing the weights I carried. I was enjoying nature and a new-found companion. I didn't care what preceded the moment or what would come next. A couple of pictures from that first hike are below: for those of you who consistently read this blog, you may well recognize the medic as my Gypsy. On May 15th, and I knew this somewhere in my gut on that very day, my life changed forever because I found my truest companion and soon-to-be life partner.

Grasshopper Canyon outside Santa Fe, NM.

More to come...

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