On Wednesday, July 29th, the Coloradoan newspaper sponsored a storytelling event at Jax Outdoor Gear in Fort Collins. The topic was “outdoor misadventures.” I was one of six storytellers invited to tell a story. This was so much fun! And, a delightful way to spend a summer evening in Colorado. And terrific stories!
Here is the text of the story I told, entitled A Backpacking Epiphany.
When I was 19, I decided to go backpacking. This was odd, because I lived in Phoenix, Arizona and I didn’t know anyone who knew anything at all about backpacking. But I read a National Geographic article about the Pacific Crest Trail, and I decided I would hike the Oregon section of this trail, 400 miles. It didn’t occur to me that 400 miles was a little ambitious for a first backpacking trip.
I did what any aspiring backpacker would do and started to purchase the best equipment money could buy from the local JC Penney store. I bought a bright yellow backpack and a neon orange nylon tent, the sort of thing you would buy the kids to pitch in the backyard for an “adventure.” It was not waterproof, but — you know, it didn’t rain much in Arizona. It did, unfortunately, rain a LOT in Oregon.
I packed 10 days of food for a 20-30 day trip, and I didn’t know how I was going to get more. I think I assumed there would be grocery stores along the way. I had never been in a “wilderness” before.
As you can imagine, nearly everything about the hike was a disaster. I wouldn’t have keep going, except that I met Larry, a dope smoking, drug smuggling, draft dodging hippie on the lam from the FBI. He was hiking the trail to avoid being thrown in jail. I was a squeaky clean, church going, student body president. There couldn’t have been two more different people in the world. But Larry took me under his wing, and taught me a number of essential backpacking skills—swearing and panhandling are two that I used extensively most of the hike. I wouldn’t have made it if Larry hadn’t been there to get me out of bed every morning of that first week.
Eventually, I began to feel more confident about what I was doing. The final test came at the end of the month as I walked around Mount Hood. It rained for three straight days. I was wet and cold and miserable. I spent my final night on the trail in the only dry place I could find: an outhouse in an empty campground. I wrapped myself around the toilet of that outhouse and went to sleep. Among backpackers, this is known as having Type II fun, which is distinctly different from the Type I fun you are expected to have on a backpacking trip.
This trip, which had started off as a disaster, had turned into something completely different for me by the end. A life-changing experience. An epiphany. I realized I could take whatever misfortune came my way and deal with it. It is not an exaggeration to say it changed the course of my life.
Several years ago I had need of a similar epiphany. For over twenty years I had worked with a scientific programming language. You are familiar with this language if you have ever seen an image created with the Hubble Space Telescope. These images are created with this software.
Software, like people, grow old. This particular software was ancient, measured in the dog years of software development. I traveled around the world, teaching scientists how to use it, and I had grown weary of apologizing for its obvious age and shortcomings. I was looking for something else to do with my life. I was looking for another epiphany.
As it happened, the 40th anniversary of my Oregon hike was approaching, and I began to wonder if lightning could strike twice. What if I did the hike again? Would it have the same profound effect on my life? The more I thought about it, the more I thought this idea was perfect! I could have another epiphany and a new direction in life!
I started to prepare for the hike by listening to music from the 60s and 70s. I copied meaningful poems into a large notebook I planned to carry to record the profound thoughts I would have as I walked along. What I failed to do — and in retrospect this seems a glaring omission —is to get in shape for a long hike.
To say this hike didn’t conform to my expectations is to be wildly off the mark. It was nothing like what I had imagined!
For one thing, I didn’t really have any profound thoughts. It was a slog. At the end of the day, I would sit down and think to myself “What did I think about today?” The answer was always the same: “Not one damn thing!” I couldn’t recall a single thought. All I had done all day long was put one foot in front of the other and curse the weight on my back.
I soldiered on like this for a couple hundred miles, before I got sick on the trail. An intestinal bug of some sort. The following day was a long one. I had to walk 23 miles to a place where I could come out of the mountains. To eat, or even to drink, was to invite disaster. For the entire day I had nothing more than a couple sips of water. In early evening, I finally made it to a church camp near a road. I headed straight for the bathhouse and toilets, almost without dropping my pack.
The folks at the church camp were wonderful. They allowed me to camp nearby and the camp nurse even gave me some charcoal pills to tame my wild bowels. I spent the next day on a chair near the bathhouse, trying to eat a little. By evening, I felt better.
When I woke in the morning, however, I realized my bowels were still in revolt. I dressed quickly and headed toward the bathhouse. I don’t think I had gone 50 feet before all hell (and I mean that word!) broke loose. Wow! Talk about disaster. This was way beyond Type II fun, into a realm I had never ventured before. I decided to end my hike and leave the trail.
I was incredibly disappointed. I hadn’t had an epiphany. The only real insight I had gained was how next time I would be carrying about half a pound of Imodium in my First Aid kit.
I went to my son’s house to recover. I tried to quiet my mind and listen to that still voice that would reveal what I should do next. What it whispered to me was just about the worst advice I have ever heard. It wanted me to write a book about this ancient software I was working with. This was crazy. Yes, I knew more about how to create pretty pictures and images with this software than just about anyone alive, but NO ONE CARED! Seriously! No one was going to use this old stuff. This was an epiphany!? I don’t think so!
But it was a persistent idea. I couldn’t shake it. Finally, I rationalized it by saying that it would be a brain dump. I would write down everything I knew about the software. I didn’t care if anyone read the damn book. This was an exorcism, getting it out of me would—hopefully—allow me to move on with my life.
When I got home, I started writing this boring, boring book. It was awful. Truly awful. But, about six weeks into the project, I was taking a shower when all of a sudden I realized I knew how to make that old graphics system act like every new system I had seen. In an instant, the path was laid out before me! A true epiphany if ever there was one.
I don’t think I even dried myself off. I just threw on a pair of shorts and ran to my computer. In about two hours time, I had a simple prototype of this new graphics system working. It was the most surprising and miraculous thing I had ever experienced professionally. This new graphics system began to sing and dance in ways no one who had ever used the old software could believe.
I spent the next six months developing this new system and writing a book to explain it. I worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week. And not one moment of it felt like work to me. I was in a flow in which every idea I had worked and was easy to implement. I tried my best to put some of my excitement and sense of adventure into the book.
When the book was published on Amazon, the first reviewer remarked “This technical book reads like a novel.” Damn straight, I thought. And all because of an outdoor misadventure!