By George Brown
The reflections I share here are inspired by two books I recently read. One was about hiking the Appalachian Trail, (the AT) and the other about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (the PCT). As some readers may know, the AT extends 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine, passing through 14 states along the way. The lesser known PCT only passes through three states but covers roughly 2,600 miles as it rises from the Mojave Desert in Southern California to the high ridge trails of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, eventually connecting to the more forested trails of the Cascade Range in Oregon and Washington before ending at the Canadian border.
The first of these books, “A Walk in the Woods,” by Bill Bryson, is a hilariously humorous and occasionally contemplative story about his adventures on the AT. “A Walk in the Woods” is more about the trail, his hiking companion, Katz, and other characters he met along the way than it is about Bryson himself.
The second book, “Wild,” by Cheryl Strayed is the polar opposite. It is intensely introspective and only occasionally humorous. It includes interesting descriptions of the trail and the characters Strayed met along the way, but, mostly, “Wild” is a deeply raw personal reflection of Strayed’s childhood and young adulthood, and her search for new beginnings while solo hiking the PCT. In some ways, especially about childhood, Strayed’s story resonates with my own; different verses of the same song.
I could fill a volume with chapters about my childhood and perhaps one day I will. For now it is enough to say that my older brothers, my sister, and I more or less raised ourselves in the midst of, and in spite of, the raging inferno we called home. In a sense we were on our own and our time was our own, as we navigated our way through school and spent weekends and every summer day roaming through the woods, fields, and streams around us from dawn until dusk, and sometimes by moonlit night, as well. Although I did not think of it as such at the time, those childhood years were a sort of “self-guided hike” – a journey of self-discovery along a pathway that eventually led to a destination called adulthood.
Ah yes, adulthood, that place where we discover time is no longer our own; when the hourglass flips and we watch as the minutes, hours, days, weeks, and months of our lives slowly fill to the brim with obligations of family, community, and career. This is not to say adulthood cannot be an enjoyable time of life, and lucky is the man for whom it is because it continues unabated for at least 40 to 50 years.
Then, finally, at long last, and almost unexpectedly, the hourglass flips again and we arrive at that destination called retirement. Ah yes, retirement, that place where we discover time really can be ours again, if we choose to make it so. Maybe this is why they call it a second childhood.
Now two years into retirement, family and community remain important to me. I’ve even decided to allocate some time to a part time retirement career, but, as I consider how I will spend my remaining days, weeks, months, and years (not anticipating but knowing the hourglass of life will flip again), I cannot ignore that voice calling from deep within. The AT, the PCT, and ten thousand other trails both far and near are calling, urging me to come and discover them, and perhaps in so doing even to discover yet unknown things about myself and life.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day.”)
George Brown is a freelance writer. He and his wife, Yvonne, live in Jackson Township.