Twenty eight isn’t a particularly old age, but as a pre-teen, it was an age I never thought I would reach. I wasn’t an adventurous or fit child—a topic I stress during my hiking presentations in an effort to inspire the inactive—yet, I was sure that I would die at 27—or younger. I had no real justification for this premonition. I was plagued by no major health problems. Perhaps it was because Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin snuffed it at 27, or because I’d be that age at the Mayan’s predicted apocalypse. My rapidly approaching demise continued to be a belief I accepted as fact for the next 15 years, and as my hobbies became more and more dangerous, it seemed like my premonition had become merely a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Despite rock climbing falls, vehicle collisions, numerous strolls above treeline during lightning storms, and biking a LA highway at night without a headlight, somehow, I survived. One year ago today, as I celebrated my 27th birthday in Denver over vegan Chinese food, I knew my days were numbered. The idea that I would live another year, or another 70, was inconceivable.
For nearly two decades, dying before 28 was a tenet of my existence. As a teenager, I was consumed with dreams of freedom from school and parents and of the epic adventures I wished to do in my remaining decade and a half. I had never heard of thru-hiking or even considered that long distance walking was a thing people did, but my teenage self was fixated with capturing a feeling which I could not describe in words, a feeling that many years later, I found by thru-hiking. Now, I would describe that emotion using words like: flow, freedom, self-sufficiency, mind-body-place connection, and elevated heart rate—but even those descriptions don’t seize the true meaning. We use words to communicate ideas to other people, yet, in the case of this emotion, although words fail me, I’ve still been able to communicate it with a few people. When I describe this feeling to other thru-hikers, they know what I mean, even if words fail them, too.
With the knowledge that my trips around the sun were limited, I spent my time in college seizing opportunities that maximized my immediate happiness while also providing financially for medium term goals. By this time, I had learned what thru-hiking was and walking the PCT was on my ever-increasing bucket-list. During my summers in college, instead of pursuing a job-ensuring networking internship at Goldman Sachs like my colleagues, I lived alone at a research station in the Sierra, sometimes going days without talking to another person. The job put me in a place I loved where I could hike and climb, but it also provided a moderate income that allowed me to squirrel away for my big hikes.
As a hiker, I’ve heard the whole round of criticism from friends and family wondering what I will do about retirement, how I will manage to get enough funds together to buy a house, and when I will have kids. They say I’ve been so busy hiking and living in the moment that I haven’t saved for the future. Sometimes I would respond, “What if I don’t make it that long?” Instead of worrying what will happen to me decades from now, I’ve lived for mid-term aspirations. Living in the day can lead to recklessness, but living in the decade—living as if the next decade is all I’ve got—has taught me to live a goal-oriented life. I’ve been more places and seen more things in my 28 years than I ever would have had I thought I’d live longer. An imminent death motivated me to do all that I could ever want to do such that, when I finished the Triple Crown weeks after my 25th birthday, I wondered what could occupy the rest of my existence.
To my failure, finishing off my bucket list—which included walking the Triple Crown—became such an obsession that I sometimes made poor decisions in its pursuit. I surrendered a social life in the now to save money for walking. I compromised the quality of my hikes so that I could hike this summer instead of waiting for more favorable hiking situations. I hiked with people who made life difficult because I didn’t think I could achieve my goals alone, and if I didn’t walk now, then when? I sacrificed the quality of my life—arguably, my reason for living—to knock a goal off my list, and am ashamed of it. This is the danger of rushing life’s goals.
As years pass and I continue to breathe, I have learned to add to my bucket list and revise and amend it as my interests change and as I meet my old goals. Even though I’ve made it to an age I never thought possible, I could still die at any moment. Yet, there is some security it knowing the old omen was wrong. I’ve spent my first 28 years learning about the value of living in the relative moment, but also the danger of focusing on narrow goals. Instead, perhaps, I will spend the next 28 aiming for a broader mission, this time, striving simply to live well.