My Midlife Crisis, Ahead of Schedule

It’s possible I’m going through a midlife crisis.

I’m only 35, but I’ve always been precocious.

There’s this sense that I’ve missed my chance to do something grand, something a little bit crazy. Sure, I gave birth to my son in my dining room and that was amazing and transformative, but it was just a few hours. (Well, it was 27 hours, but who’s counting?) I want more of that kind of thing, but without adding children to my family. I want the challenge and the reward, I want the intangible benefits of testing myself nearly to breaking and coming through the other side changed.

Shenandoah National Park, June 1994

From the moment I heard about the Appalachian Trail when I was 13 years old, I wanted to hike it. I hiked bits and pieces in Shenandoah National Forest as a teenager. I went on one very memorable day-hike with some friends at the end of our senior year of high school. We hiked the Stony Man Trail in Skyland where it converged with the AT. I think we hiked maybe 5 miles and took salad as our trail food. The views were incredible.

A year or so later, I hiked the same section with my future husband. From the ledge, we watched a thunderstorm rolling in. On the next ledge up the trail, the storm engulfed us. My husband loved it. He stood there with his arms outstretched as the lightning flashed around him. When I finally got him to stop trying to be the highest point in a thunderstorm, we ran down the mountain, the backs of our necks and our bare legs pelted by hail most of the way.

Long Trail/AT, Gifford Woods State Forest, Vermont, September 2012

This weekend, my husband, the kids, and I hiked a wee tiny section of the Appalachian Trail as it ran through Gifford Woods State Forest in Vermont. We—the grownups, the 7-year-old, and the 3-year-old—hiked a steep, rocky, one-mile section out and back from the park visitors center.

I spent our return hike calculating distances and paces, trying to figure out a way, however unrealistic, that the kids and I could thru-hike (or at least section hike) the AT now.

Last night I watched the movie, Trek: a Journey on the Appalachian Trail, which is about a group of hikers who completed their thru-hike in October 2001. The film gave a more in-depth look at the hiking life than any other AT movie I’ve seen, including an exploration of the emotional aspects of the hike. There was a lot of discussion about how the hike and the hiker’s perception of it shifted as they got farther along on the trail and farther from the off-trail life back home.

The film included the “how did you get on the trail?” stories of several hikers. Many of them boiled down to, “If not now, when?” One hiker, a man with the trail name “Sheriff,” talked about how he’d thought for years about hiking the AT. Then one night he had a dream. In it, a guy pulled up next to him in a pickup truck loaded with camping gear.

“Going camping?” Sheriff asked. The man answered that no, he was going to hike the Appalachian Trail.

“I’ve always thought about doing that,” said Sheriff.

“Well, why don’t you come along?” the man asked.

And when he woke up, Sheriff started planning his trip.

I worry that I’ve been handed opportunities to do something bold multiple times in my life, and I’ve let them pass by unheeded.

I was at loose ends after college, and that may well have been a good time to go hiking, but I was deeply in debt with student loans and the credit card I’d used to buy food my last year of college. I compromised and worked at a conference resort south of Lake Tahoe for a season, which was awesome, but I was 20 and too self-conscious to allow myself to embrace the experience.

I picked up a backpacking book in a used book store in Asheville, North Carolina, in the late 90’s. The Backpacking Woman, it was called, by Lynn Thomas. It was written before the availability of tech fabrics and chances are the 20-year-old advice was fairly outdated, but it made long-distance hiking seem doable and fanned the AT flame in me. My husband was in grad school at the time, and I said, “Hey! When you’re done with grad school and have a post-doc lined up, we should take some extra time and hike the AT!” But when the time came, he was nervous about taking the time off and I let that be my excuse to give in to my own fears and doubts, and we made a bee-line from North Carolina to California, only stopping to sleep (and accidentally find a beer fest in Salt Lake City).

When my husband got laid off last year, I saw another opportunity to do something bold. With two young children in tow, I wasn’t really thinking that the AT would be a reasonable option, but the idea of selling everything and living in an RV took hold. (I’ve had an infatuation with RVs ever since kindergarten when the neighbors across the street bought a behemoth motor home and we neighborhood kids got to tour through it.) I thought it was the perfect solution. We knew we would have to move anyway. We could sell our stuff, sell our house, downsize into an RV and stretch the severance package even longer than we could in Salt Lake City. We’d be ready to move anywhere the right job presented itself, and in the meantime, we could travel the country. We could drive to Alaska if we wanted to, so long as the gas money held out and we were near enough to an airport that my husband could fly to interviews.

But we didn’t do that either.

And now here I am in the suburbs of Boston with a mortgage on a split-level home that’s bigger than I need or want in a neighborhood a sidewalk-less 2.5 miles from an inconsequential downtown that’s just barely walkable during the best weather (and just about impassable during the winter), watching movies about Appalachian Trail thru-hikers or dreaming of living in an RV with no fixed address.

This weekend, I listened to an interview with Tom Hayden, founder of Students for a Democratic Society, on the “To the Best of Our Knowledge.” He talked about how it was easier to be a radical and an activist in the 60’s than it is today because it was easier to step out of and back into the mainstream.

I could drop out of the university and nothing would happen. I could go to jail in Mississippi, nothing would happen. I could return, pay my hundred bucks and get back in. This is a treadmill that today’s students are on that we didn’t face. We thought our life, you know, the future, was a treadmill, the grey flannel suit and all that, but nothing compared to the pressure on this generation of students.

The treadmill image resonates with me, but I feel more like I’m caged. The door is open, but the cage offers protection and security, and that keeps me inside. I reassure myself that once the kids are older, I’ll step out of the cage. Once we retire. Once…I don’t even know what. But with all of the opportunities that I’ve already let pass me by, with all of the times when leaving the cage would have been relatively easy, will I really be ready to jump even when those future chances present themselves?

I know it’s not the right time for me to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (Is there ever a “best” time to hike 2,168 miles?). My kids are great hikers, but they couldn’t carry much gear. The best we could do would be some short backpacking trips and even that would be a stretch, and it would be too great a sacrifice to be away from them for 5-6 months so I could do the trail without them.

But I want to do something big. I want to do something meaningful and life-expanding, and I want to do it now while I’m still young enough to have more adventures afterward and so I can be an inspiration to my children when they’re young and before my knees give out.

I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, it’s big. It’s something that would cause people to say to me, “Man, you are totally crazy for doing that.” I want it to be something scary but exciting, something that I know is right in my heart, but that I still question. Like homeschooling or homebirth, but bigger.

Maybe it would suffice to give myself and the kids a long-term training plan for a thru-hike, get us all in shape for a long-distance hike by taking day hikes of increasing length until we’re ready to move on to backpacking trips. With enough experience and conditioning, we might be ready to thru-hike before I turn fifty.

Or maybe I can talk my husband into the lightweight-travel-trailer lifestyle after all. It would help if I could tackle one of my other deferred “bold plans” and become a working, money-earning writer.

That is, if I can avoid being paralyzed by fear for long enough to accomplish any of these things.

Maybe I should just listen to the messages the college radio station has been trying to send me:

13 comments

  1. CathyT · October 3, 2012

    Charity, have you seen this post? The comment section has some intresting observations about hiking trails. http://outsideways.com/article/dealing-naysayers-negativity

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    • CJ · October 3, 2012

      No, I hadn’t seen that post! Very interesting comments…kind of supports my idea of southbounding it (of course, who knows what it will be like in ten years or so). The main post about dealing with naysayers is a good one as well. Thanks for sharing it!

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  2. Pingback: Playing “Appalachian Trail Thru Hiker” At Home « Imperfect Happiness
  3. CathyT · September 27, 2012

    I plan to hike the Camino some day but I will probably be 60 or very close to it since I am 46 and have a 5 year old. LOL I do not want to do the AP though I know of someone who did it.i heard of a homeschool family that did it, but I can’t recall any details other than the kids were way younger than I expected.

    Life is hard – it is easier to say Later than Now. I hope it all works out for you.

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    • CJ · September 27, 2012

      Thanks, Cathy. I read (on Wikipedia) that the youngest person to complete the PCT was 10. I’m guessing the AT would (theoretically) be doable for a 10yo, too.

      I’m curious…why is it you’re not interested in doing the Appalachian Trail?

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      • CathyT · October 1, 2012

        Hmmm, I guess I am not a fan of bears and carrying ALL that stuff on my back and all that solitude. I saw a movie about the Camino with Martin Sheen and somehow that resonated differently with me. Yes, you still are hiking and perhaps alone but you get to sleep in a bed — albeit noisy and probably smelly — and you walk through towns at times and the lack of wild animals… 🙂 Yet I do like to hike and explore and something about the oldness of that trail interests me.

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      • CJ · October 1, 2012

        I definitely find the idea of the Camino de Santiago intriguing. It goes right through the region my grandpa came from, and I think it would be an incredible way to see that part of Spain. It’s funny, though…I think I’m more nervous about being crowded into a place with a bunch of people than I am of bears. (Although I am nervous about rabid raccoons.) When I watch shows about the AT, it seems positively crowded (except in Maine). I guess that’s the main thing that turns me off about it, although it does lend a measure of safety.

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  4. Victoria · September 26, 2012

    I met Sherriff at my mom’s wedding. She and her husband met on their 2001 AT hike. She is Happy Feet and he’s Tumbleweed. Today they are in Spain hiking the Camino de Santiago trail. Big dreams spur more big dreams. Once you get started anything is possible.

    I wish I could transport you to Fiji. We have so much to talk about! Last night we sat at anchor, 100 yards from a reef (and supposedly everyone ends up on a reef once in Fiji), with howling winds and the biggest lightning storm I’ve ever seen or imagined. It was one of those days that made me realize that once I’ve completed this big thing (and for now it’s a Pacific crossing, not circumnavigation), that I will have come out the other side having done something truly extraordinary. An extraordinary life is definitely what I’m after….even if it makes me reach for Rescue Remedy or a bravery potion.

    We made a start date for our dream even though we didn’t know how it would work out. We then met someone who convinced us to go a whole year earlier and I am grateful that we went then. We’re anchored right next to him today. My mom picked a date after her kids were grown up and her cat died.

    Do something amazing*! When?

    *having babies at home is also amazing, even more so then sailing a small boat across the Pacific, or swimming with whales.

    Like

    • CJ · September 26, 2012

      I wish you could transport me to Fiji, too (except that then I’d miss the New England autumn, for which I’ve been waiting since last autumn). It would be great to talk through this stuff with someone who actually took the opportunity to do something bold when it presented itself.

      Setting a date seems to be the consensus, and is likely what I’ll end up doing. I like to have my ducks in a row anyway, and this would give me a chance to do all of those little things (ad nauseum) before taking the plunge. I always hesitate to set a date for long-term plans because there are so many things that can happen in 5, 10, or 15 years that would change that target date, but your situation reminds me that, if I’m prepared and committed, that date can stand a little wiggle-room without being scrapped entirely.

      The other thing that appeals to me is that if we pick a date in 2022, we get all of those years to have tons of outdoor adventures as a family. The “training” for a thru-hike might be just as good (if not better) than the thru-hike itself.

      “Big dreams spur more big dreams. Once you get started anything is possible.” I wonder if my homebirth experience (a “big dream” in its own right, as you point out) is what’s driving me to want to follow other big dreams. It certainly made me feel more capable of amazing things and like I couldn’t just go back to ordinary life afterward.

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  5. Lisa Sylvester · September 25, 2012

    I’d plan it for when your kids are teenagers. That will be here soon!

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    • CJ · September 26, 2012

      Lisa, Do you have an idea as to what age would be reasonable to do a long-distance hike? I’ve not been able to find out much information about backpacking with kids, much less long-distance thru-hiking with kids. I know several families have done cross-country bike rides with even very young children, but I don’t really have a good idea of the unique stresses that backpacking might place on a growing body. I don’t think we could pack enough food to get all four of us through the 100-Mile Wilderness unless the kids carried a good chunk of their own supplies…especially if they’re teenagers.

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  6. Melanie Meadors · September 25, 2012

    If it makes you feel any better, I went through this right at my 34th birthday. I think a lot of people do, from what I heard. I don’t feel that way right now, but that is because I grabbed my writing and totally ran with it (and now i have a bit more than I can chew in that department, LOL). But for a while, I felt SO insignificant. Nothing I was felt like enough. I felt, quite frankly, like a real loser. NOTHING was the way I had planned it, absolutely NOTHING. I felt like I had halfway done just about everything in life, and hadn’t accomplished anything. I had wanted 6 kids, and that was why I stayed home, but i ended up with one, and no luck having any more, and am so frustrating with the foster care system as it is that adoption is not going to happen right now (at least not until my son is grown). I think it might have something to do with being a stay at home mom, but also perhaps people go through this when they have a job or career that isn’t what they intended on doing.

    I can’t tell you exactly what happened to make it “better.” I feel better right now, and I feel like I will be able to accomplish all my goals (including hiking the Appalachian Trail). Not today. But I’m not even middle aged yet. I think being aware that I felt like a failure was part of the solution. Not a failure, exactly, but you know what I mean. Being aware that there was all this stuff I wanted to do helped me to prioritize decisions, so I would do things that mattered to me. I mean, I can’t hike the Trail right now, but I can go on smaller hikes and learn about survival (and self defense…). I am building many connections in the writing world and am making a lot of progress on that front, getting lots of support. I can pay off all my debt so that when I get older, I can do lots of things I’ve always wanted to do. I have a focus. I think that made the difference. I know what I want, I know what’s important to me, and I know that someday I will be able to do it.

    Pick a date ten years from now to start your hike, and mean it. The summer before your eldest goes to college. Just do it. And do everything in your power to keep that commitment.

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    • CJ · September 26, 2012

      I guess it’s not so much feeling like a “failure” for me as it is just feeling like the years have slipped by without my doing much of anything of consequence. I feel bogged down by and trapped in the mundanities of everyday living. I recognize that this is a situation I’ve crafted for myself (largely), but rather than empowering me, that just leads me to feel even more powerless. Not only to I have to change my actions, I have to change my outlook and face my fears.

      I’m starting to get the sense that the transformative part of doing something BIG begins well before the actual doing starts.

      But a plan sounds like a good idea. Break it down into manageable chunks. And that would give me plenty of time to do the ridiculous amounts of research and deliberation I like to do before taking on any new project at all.

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