Kick Your Own Ass
Frozen in a catcher's pose in the middle of Romania’s Faragas mountain range. This is where I experienced my loneliest moment. I was blindly planted in a sprawling mountain marsh… but it felt a helluva lot like rock bottom. Dense fog compressed around me acting as an impenetrable thought barrier - Doubt and self pity narratives dominated my fog-shrunken world until the echoing mental cacophony reached paralyzing volume. What the hell are you doing…. Why in god’s name are you here… just what are you even playing at??
Isn’t it fun when your mind viciously turns on you? When the conviction you felt for a master plan is near obliterated by a sudden turn of events? Hindsight tells us that these are the moments that build character resilience...which, is what this Impression is all about. By the end, I hope to have motivated you to kick your own ass occasionally. But why, you ask? I certainly didn’t know it at the time, but finding an answer to this question is the exact reason why Bucharest inexplicably called to me last Fall. Now, back to the mountains...
The fog wasn’t always the villain. Far from it. In fact, it was the star of nature's spectacular beauty contest prior to my melt down. Let me set the stage. The Faragas range is an epic network of jagged ridge lines that cut from east to west through the heart of Romania. Visually speaking, it's as if Scotland and Iceland ran away to Transylvania and Faragas is their stunning love child. The ridge lines culminate in a central peak, called Moldoveanu, the highest in Romania. Its summit was my goal over the next two days. Per usual, I was exploring solo… turns out it’s difficult to find a stranger that wants to drive 8 hours, hike 26 miles, and stay in a candle lit mountain hut with me. Odd, right?
Anyways, back to the fog. From the trail’s perspective, it appeared out of thin air on the run up the northern bank of the ridge, gaining speed and density until reaching the precipice. Then, magic. The fog, like water, would cascade elegantly over the ridge line and rip and curl around jagged peaks. An endless parade of spectacular visuals every step of the way. This was all stimulating enough to distract me from yet another hiking footwear fuck up. My hiking boots were in Croatia, hidden strategically behind a printer, so I was in my Adidas trainers in a land of shale, snow, mud and dust. If every hiking adventure I embark on is a burrito, I liberally add ghost pepper sauce to each one…. Sure it’s fun to spice things up, but unnecessarily so? You'll understand soon why I'll never switch to a milder Chalula. In any case, my soaked feet will dry, onwards…
3.5 hours in, I reach my first real trail sign and there’s an issue. “4 Hours to Podragu Hut” (This is my 4 Seasons for the night). Google Maps royally screwed me - It had reported a sub 3 hour affair...in total. I had planned around this. Suddenly it was a race against sunset… thank god I was in running shoes.
This is where shit gets real. Naturally, there's a fork in the road… err, trail. Left it is, as instructed by the rickety rusted sign, but against my gut feeling to stay right along the ridge crest. The trail turns the corner and immediately descends the north facing slope - this is concerning, but I trek on deep into the fog bank collecting in the abyss below. Eventually, I dip so low into the valley that I'm forced to seek directional answers from my pixilated Google Map (right, of course I don’t have a proper paper version). The dense fog engulfs me. Two things are immediately certain. One, I’m now far off my anticipated trail, hundreds of meters below the ridge line. Two, a sequence of 3 ridge-valley-ridge combos lie between me and the Podragu hut... aka extremely difficult hiking terrain and true to the sign's word, at least 4 hours of grinding. I’ve already hiked about 7.5 miles.
But I’m not one to back track, so I press on. The grade steepens, the fog suffocates, and the trail all but disappears into a marshland of meandering mountain streams. Now I’m soaked and cold. I slip, twist my knee, slip again, this time flat onto my back. On the brink of defeat, I struggle to prop myself up into that catcher's pose. Despair sets in hardcore. I’m helpless on this booby trapped slip n slide slope, blinded by the sheer density of the fog, lost without a clue where I’m headed. I'm painfully alone, 4+ grueling hours from an entirely foreign civilization. All confidence and motivation that has led me to this position evaporates.
Externally, it's utterly quiet save for the trickle of the small streams under the marsh growth. Internally, however, I face a barrage of aggressive accusations from that favorite little voice we all know and hate…. I’m savagely forced to doubt my reason for being here, for traveling solo, for distancing myself from friends and family, and for thinking that it's all worth it. Combined, I doubt my life's purpose at that moment on that Faragas mountainside. My ass is kicked.
With all the courage I can muster, I close my eyes and transcend the fog of self doubt. I engage the calm and give myself wholly to the moment and whatever God created it.
The most magical thing happened when I open my eyes a minute later. As if the metaphor had been orchestrated by the universal maker himself, the fog had disappeared, entirely. No gradual lift, just poof, gone, save for a couple resilient cotton candy wisps clinging to the mountains across the valley. The resulting vista is magnificent.... a lush green alpine bowl streaked by streams and waterfalls collecting in the basin below, all framed by a towering mountain peaks and their flanking sawtooth ridges. Absolutely gorgeous and near impossible to believe that it was here, just the way I now see it, all along.
A few words to express my emotions through the remainder of my hike that afternoon - Elation, gratitude, energy, enlightenment. It was a transcendent experience.
Back to theory. Coincidentally, I recently read the hyper-relevant book, David and Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell. I'd recorded notes in my journal about a backwards jealousy I feel towards people who have been forced to endure hardships in their life. My moment in the Faragas mountains, born out of hardship, was so profound that I craved more just like it. I was jealous of people who's life circumstances produced a defining chip on their shoulder. An X factor. Malcolm's findings validated my thoughts. Resilient challenge-tested people are the Davids who achieve greatness and consistently beat Goliaths. They're scrappy, courageous, non-conformist and value driven. I dig that to the max.
In contrast, I've been beyond blessed to have every opportunity afforded to me in terms of education, family support, financial stability, you name it. Great, but according to Malcom's research, that makes people like me inherently lazier than those without the same blessed fortune. Whether I like it or not, that limits my pushing self actualization in the name of overcoming circumstantial odds. My inherited odds simply don't require that level of effort. Unless.... I kick my own ass. Unless... I deliberately insert myself into challenging circumstances that force me to find and prove my own self-worth a la the Faragas mountains. Chips on shoulders cannot be "manufactured", and they must be painstakingly earned... but you can deliberately steer your life in a direction that encourages their manifestation.
The outdoors is my favorite venue for this. It's ideal for a proper ass kicking. A few days spent navigating nature's raw proving ground via long strenuous hikes, rough nights sleeping directly on the earth, and unpredictable weather circumstances is a worthy test of character. The key is that you cannot simulate physical discomfort. Pain is pain. Nor can you hit the bail out button when you're deep in the wilderness feeling helpless. Nature is unforgiving physically, but incredibly fruitful psychologically. Get out there and test your limits!
In closing, I leave you with three important clarifications:
1) Although my perspective may seem self-centered, it's not. I firmly believe that when we are the best version of ourselves, we maximize our positive impact on the world. Face hardships, step your game up, evolve.
2) Although my perspective may seem like another scheme for "the rich to get richer", it ain't. I'm merely suggesting that the "rich" are soft from a coddled life. Their comfort encourages them to rest on the laurels of established societal fast tracks, exploiting exclusive opportunity without questioning the status quo. THIS is what translates to rich getting richer scenarios. An old-fashioned perspective-inducing ass kicking helps flip that script.
3) Although my perspective may seem like I'm undermining the unavoidable challenges that people face, I'm not. I'm applying data points that I've acquired through personal experience and statistically proven research highlighted in David and Goliath to introduce a recommendation. I never actively wish pain, suffering, or hardship on anyone... but there are often powerful "benefits" that come from these experiences, of which are undeniable.