It is sometimes in the strangest moments, during the course of the most conventional tasks, that drastic change is initiated. Choosing to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, taking on a six-month, 2200 mile journey through rain and sleet, through cold winter nights as well as hot, humid days, spending each night in a tent or occasionally a half-shelter doubling as a gathering place for mice, might, on the surface, seem like a drastic change. However, given that this was an exciting conquest I had wished to take on for some time, that it was scrawled in my poor penmanship in a notebook labeled “bucket list,” I’m not sure finally embarking on such journey is truly that drastic. Rather, the right set of circumstances to allow the fulfillment of this desire simply happened to occur in that moment.
The true change, the change that has been boiling up in me for years, the transformation that would make such a wild endeavor even appear desirable to me, did not boil over until this very afternoon. The incident was innocuous enough, routine even in my line of business, yet it became the final push I needed to understand, and more importantly, take action to change my environment.
It was a 3-day holiday weekend, and I definitely had the blues. Winter tends to depress me, at least when it keeps me locked inside, and there was also a sense of anticlimax in terms of my AT thru-hike. I had already weighed all the current equipment I owned, made a few small purchases of new equipment I would need, and after much research begun a list of the additional items I would need to buy before I hit the trail. I was ready to GO! I was spending a great deal of time reading about the Adirondack Trail, including many autobiographical accounts of successful thru-hiker’s own experiences, but this just made me more anxious to get on my way.
It was in this state of mild depression and boredom that found me this afternoon, lying in bed under the guise of an afternoon nap to “relax.” Then the email came through: my account had been charged for a rather expensive service that I had recently canceled because it had been an epic failure, and investing my time and money in this service almost single-handedly took down my business. The service, in fact, whose cancellation in large part gave birth to my choice to make this year the year I thru-hike the AT. This service involved a part of the business that only I was capable of running, and in its absence two things would happen: I would no longer be indispensable, and all the money I had been throwing at a bad investment would stop going out the door.
So I see the notification on my iPhone that this charge has been made, and I become enraged. As a small business owner, I deal with incorrect charges all the time. In many cases, I even deal with inscrutable businesses who intentionally try to charge me after a service is canceled, I suppose in the hopes that I won’t notice. Yet for some reason, this particular time I was furious. Perhaps it was because of the weight that had been lifted from my shoulders when I ended this unprofitable relationship. Perhaps it is because, as bootstrap entrepreneurs will understand, sometimes it comes down to pennies, and since making an investment in this particular service I had been losing money fast, all with the promise of a return on investment that seemed farther away and less likely every day. This unauthorized charge meant legitimate bills would go unpaid, more of my time would be wasted, and dinner would consist of ramen noodles.
As I said, I had been through all this before, but today it was my breaking point. I walked through my apartment-slash-warehouse and I could feel the walls closing in. I was surrounding by all of this garbage. Boxes everywhere, shelves and shelves full of merchandise, recycling containers packed to the ceiling. Tables for packing orders, tables for taking pictures. I realized I hadn’t done yoga, one of the secret elixirs to my mental health, in months because I didn’t have enough space to roll out a yoga mat!
How did it come to this?
I began to realize that thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail was more than just heading toward nature, it was about running away from the clutter of modern life. Even my attempts to generate some sense of sanity into my work-life balance seemed to backfire. When I first moved in, fresh off the terrifying breakup of a relationship which, among other things, caused me to rid myself of my bed, I found myself bed-less. So, for the first few months in my new apartment-slash-warehouse, in order to let my fledgling business recover from an unexpected move, I slept on a $40 air mattress.
There is something that only a select few get to learn about air mattresses: they’re not meant to be used more than a dozen or so times. After a few weeks of sleeping on the floor of my office, the first night on the air mattress was utopian. Within two weeks, I was waking up three times a night to refill the air mattress. I ended up patching the mattress three times in at least five places, just to keep enough air in it to allow me to sleep through the night, even if by morning I had sunken to the floor.
I realize now, my problem was not that I had a leaky air mattress, or that I didn’t have a real mattress; my problem was that I thought I needed a mattress at all! Sleeping on the floor, on top of an old camping sleeping pad, may not have been the most comfortable in the world, but it sure beat waking up three times a night to refill an air mattress. I did not have this insight then, and as cash flow improved, and my need to separate work and personal space became incredibly dire, I eventually rented bedroom and living room furniture, giving myself two small oases amid my 1000 square feet of clutter that (I hoped) would make me feel like I lived in a home, not a warehouse.
Renting the furniture gave me some sense of freedom, given that it could be returned at any time. I will also admit that this was my first “brand new” mattress, possibly an embarrassing disclosure at 34 years old, and the firm, queen-sized, four-poster slice of heaven was wonderful to sleep on. Now, however, as I paced back and forth through my apartment, all I saw was a giant pile of wood and foam where I could be doing yoga. Everywhere I looked, there was all this “stuff.”
This feeling didn’t happen overnight. For years, particularly as someone who has moved almost once for each birthday candle in the cake, I have come to despise clutter. My counters, coffee tables, and desks used to remain completely clear whenever possible (before apartment-slash-warehouse), and I like as much of my possessions as possible hidden in cabinets, drawers and closets. I haven’t owned a microwave in years, for both clutter and health reasons, and despite my occasional desire to reheat coffee or make microwave popcorn, I have never regretted it or been tempted to go out and get one.
For a while I even began reading about minimalism, but I decided that striving to own only 100 possessions was not what I was going for. I love owning and continuing to buy records and used books, I like souvenirs and mementos from all of the places I’ve visited and I treasure sentimental possessions passed down by relatives. I decided I was more of an anti-clutter, anti-strings-attached pseudo-minimalist.
It is not the possessions themselves that cause me such great anxiety, it is the responsibilities that are often attached to them. My records ask nothing of me, except to be returned neatly back into their case after their enjoyment. The same could not be said for much of what cluttered my apartment at the moment. The piles of receipts, the five whiteboards with endless to-do lists that I could never hope to finish, and the boxes, oh so many boxes! I even had a table that spanned the length of an entire room full of craft supplies and tools I had never used, but had accumulated over time with the notion that if I was going to sell craft supplies, I should learn more about crafts. Unfortunately starting a craft supply business doesn’t allow one time to engage in such a frivolous activity.
My immediate reaction, once the rage that spurred this new revelation had subsided, was to frantically begin packing up boxes with everything I didn’t use on a daily basis. I finally understood why I was so attracted to the idea of spending six months on the Appalachian Trail. The idea of having nothing to keep track of other than the possessions on my back, nothing to worry about except where my next source of food and water would be and where I would sleep that night, and little white trail markers every so often telling me exactly where to go next gave me a sense of relief.
Here I was, an individual who had panic attacks several times a week trying to accomplish the simple tasks in life – purchasing food at the grocery store, getting prescriptions at the pharmacy, making a deposit at the bank – and I had to pile onto it all of these new “things,” some actual objects, some items more intangible – which kept me on a leash, locked in to keep moving forward in the direction I was headed, else perish.
Don’t misunderstand me: I absolutely love the finer things in life. I love going out to nice restaurants, staying in nice hotels, and owning cool gadgets – just not at the expense of my sanity, and not if I cannot afford them. I thought I had learned my lesson here a long time ago, but this time it was not overspending on personal luxuries that had recreated an anxiety-filled world I had managed to leave to some degree, but rather my desperate attempt to make a living for myself. Fortunately, I have begun to understand that the way I was trying to do so – and the way society teaches us to do so – is backwards. I will save that for my next over-philosophical post.
For now, this over-stressed unlikely hiker is going to start packing today, and begin living a simpler life long before I start heading up Springer Mountain.
Update (2/2/16): You can now read more about these cultural and philosophical ideas in today’s article: A 6-month experiment in minimalism to culminate in a non-fiction philosophy of the simple life.