As I prepare for the six month expedition that is the Pacific Crest Trail, I find myself increasingly asked the question, by friends, family, and coworkers; “Why would you do such a thing?”
There are always a few answers I give them; to see the country as I’ve never seen it, to experience this unique and amazing opportunity, to test my mettle against nature and my own self doubts… None of these answers tells the full story, however, none of them really gets to the heart of why I’ve chosen to step away from my life for six months to attempt something so far beyond the limits of anything I’ve ever thought myself capable of.
I love the outdoors. I love the smells, the physicality of it, the sights and sounds. To be immersed in nature is, quite simply the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience, and yet that also fails to totally explain why I hike.
The simple fact of the matter is, I both cherish and fear solitude, and hiking, particularly long distance hiking, is the surest way to chase the loneliness and emptiness that I’ve always had such a complicated relationship with.
As a kid I moved around a lot. I have always compared my childhood to that of an “army-brat,” though my father worked in academics not the military. As he took jobs at University after University, all over the U.S., I found myself never forming the kind of friendships others I’ve met seem to take for granted. My imagination and creativity were often my closest companions, and though I had good friends everywhere I lived, I always knew in the back of my head that such friendships were ephemeral, fleeting.
When I moved to Iowa in the 8th grade, that changed, and I met a few close friends who have stayed among my closest to this day. We met through shared classes or common interests, we played the same sports and even pursued the same dreams of making films, and over the years I have come to cherish each and every one of them.
Amongst all of my friends, however, I felt closer to no one more than Erik Lemke, my best friend, my confidant, my brother.
We met in the cafeteria of Northwest Middle School, me an awkward nerdy new kid, trying to develop a new personality that would help me find a place in my new home (I often tried to reinvent myself with each new school, looking at each move as a reset and a new beginning instead of holding on to the persona I’d had previously), and Erik a quiet, long-haired and way-too mature for his age outsider, more comfortable with his books than in social situations with his peers. He sat next to me one day in eighth grade, introduced by another dear friend, Bart, and we immediately found common ground, not in the books, or movies, or sports, which we shared affection for, but in the jokes and ideas and debates that became the framework of our friendship. I would always joke that our friendship started when we spent an entire lunch hour making fun of french fries, but it was the fact that I found someone who would challenge me, push me to be better, smarter, more articulate and well-read.
He was one of the few friends I invited to hang out at my house, and he shared that privilege with me. Our friendship existed almost entirely outside of school, as he seemed to exist somehow removed from school. We rarely shared classes, rarely had the same schedule, but we always found time to talk about the books we were reading, the things we were writing, the ideas that inspired and tortured us.
Erik graduated high school a year early, and met a girl who would one day become his wife. We saw each other sparingly the next few years, as I became consumed with making films, and he focused entirely on his writing. It was not until our sophomore year at the Iniversity of Iowa that we really reconnected, but our friendship had not faded. We spent entire nights without sleep, playing poker or video games, or wandering the streets of Iowa City, discussing life and ridiculous ideas, philosophizing and making fun of drunk college students. Ours was a bond born of talking, and we never once ran out of things to talk about.
My first serious relationship started my last year at the University of Iowa, and when it started to break down, Erik was the one who was there to hold me up. When I made stupid decisions, he was the first to put me in my place. He was the rock I could always lean on. When he got married, I spoke at his wedding, and called myself his best man, even if I technically wasn’t.
As people do, we eventually went our separate ways. He moved to Canada, I went to New Zealand. He had children, I went to film school. We still kept in touch, talking while playing video games online, or on the phone, though I never talk to anyone on the phone. We had our separate lives, but he was always my best friend.
In January of 2012 I spoke with him for the first time in a few months, and talked at length of my breakup with my girlfriend of three years, a girl I’d thought to build a home and career with, but who didn’t want the same with me. I told him how I had rebounded with a girl ten years younger than me, who I didn’t care for beyond the transferrence of my feelings for my ex, and for the physical relationship which I thought I needed. I told him of my feelings of stagnation and unhappiness with my job as a production assistant, and my doubts as to whether I’d be able to have the career I’d spent my entire life chasing. He offered to have me come back to Iowa and visit, and I thought I would have a chance that summer.
It was the morning of April 15th when I got a call from his wife Cait, telling me that he was in critical condition at the University Hospital in Iowa City, and that they weren’t sure how bad it was, only that it was indeed bad. I left work early, and spent the day distracting myself with video games and movies. I went to a special screening of the Princess Bride that night with my closest friends in LA, worried but not wanting to dwell on what couldn’t be dealt with from 2000 miles away.
I got the call halfway through the movie, and stepped out to hear from Cait’s cousin that Erik had been declared brain dead. I was devastated and bought a ticket back to Iowa at the first opportunity. I called all the mutual friends I knew, backed out of a job with my mentor, and went home heartbroken and feeling entirely alone.
Loneliness, it seemed, was something I’d forgotten about since I had moved to Los Angeles. In film school, I was surrounded by my peers and colleagues at all times. After school I’d started working. On film sets surrounded by people working feverishly for up to 16 hours a day. My personal life was entirely taken up by the presence of my girlfriend. As I flew back to Iowa, I found myself alone, truly alone, for the first time in five years. I had lost the relationships, walked away from most of my friends, disconnected with work, and lost the person I’d always been able to turn to in the darkest times.
There is a popular series of fantasy novels called the Wheel of Time, which I started reading at Erik’s suggestion shortly after we first met back in junior high school. Together we read every novel in the eventual 14 volume epic multiple times, discussing ideas and philosophy, style and substance. I oddly was rereading the series when he died, and even referenced one of the core concepts of the books at his wake, the idea that life is a tapestry, and each persons life a thread woven amongst the tapestry. It resonated with me at the time, and still does, but there was another concept that was needling me subconsciously, an idea referred to as embracing death.
The concept is simple, because we all fear death, a source of power and strength can be found in embracing that fear, and turning it into something you have control over. I found myself confronted with my own mortality for the first time in my life, but found it was not death that I feared. Yes, the death of my best friend spurred in me a desire to experience the world fully before my time came, but the greater drive was to conquer that which I feared most, without knowing it.
And so it was that I chose to embrace loneliness.
Over the next few months and years, hiking became the reason I worked, the thing I pursued, because it was the thing that made me feel most alone. I used photography as a creative outlet, and sank my energies into capturing the beauty of empty places. I would wait for hours to get a shot of a place with no people, and hike long distances just to feel alone in the wild.
At the end of the day, above all else, that is why I hike, and why I have chosen to start this particular hike on April 15th, 2015, three years to the day from the day I heard Erik had died, three years to the day from the moment I felt my life truly shifted into a new direction.
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