It’s a little embarrassing to admit that despite everything going extremely well on nearly every front in my life I’m still searching for inspiration. What thing can I work on that really excites me? What will challenge me and force me to learn new things and grow? What will end with a result, be it a tangible thing, an experience, or a transformation that I am happy with?
I’ve been browsing the web these days looking for guidance. How do I find this elusive thing? A few articles suggested a number of short exercises. One of them was deceptively simple: Imagine you’ve got a billion dollars. What do you do now? Easy: I travel lots more, live part of the time overseas, go to random countries because I’m curious about them. I’d donate a good portion of the money and much of my time as well to causes I cared about. It gives a few ideas, of course: Travel and volunteering. But not so much insight in to the means or the why.
There was another suggestion, though, that led to some particularly enlightening results: What did you love to do as a kid? This was a pretty awesome question and gave me some insights and “ah-ha” moments as I see how many of the things I love are the same as those 10 year old me loved.
I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s which was great for me. Helicopter parenting hadn’t yet been invented so I had tons of freedom. When I was 6 we briefly lived in my grandmother’s house while my parents hunted for a house. They lived on a fairly big street with a 50 mph (80 km/hr) speed limit. The town library was a half a mile away – about a 10 minute walk on grown-up legs – and involved crossing that street. Nobody thought twice about my walking there at 6 years old, nor did they bat an eye at my walking three times as far down that road to the municipal pool in the summer for swimming lessons and then to spend the entire day there. I’m pretty grateful for that as it gave me the gift of “independent navigation”. To this day I feel pretty comfortable just going places.
My parents did find a house in a few months. This one was one town over and up a dirt road. There were a couple neighbours that we could see but it was much more rural than anywhere I’d lived before. When my grandfather would visit we would go for walks in the woods together nearby. The land we walked on wasn’t ours but it was pretty much empty – trees, mountains, babbling brooks, fields. By the time I was 7 or so I didn’t need to wait for my grandfather. I’d just go. I’d pick a direction, see what I could find, and then, with my mom’s watch in my pocket, I’d plan to be home on time. I never worried about getting lost. There were enough homes around to ensure that I wasn’t in complete wilderness and my grandfather had also given me a valuable piece of advice that I still use to this day: If you get lost, find a stream and follow it downstream. It will eventually lead out of the woods. That has never failed me.
The older I got the longer I’d be allowed. Sometimes I’d go with friends but mostly it would just be me and the woods. I’d find streams filled with minnows, “caves” made up of ancient rock slides. One of the first things I found was the foundation of a old mill. I later found out it had been owned by Garner Rix in the early 1800’s. The mill itself had been moved to a museum at the other side of the state but the foundation remains there today. As I got older, I would often be accompanied by my dog who loved nothing more than to go on walks with me. As she got older the distance would get to her to where her one bad leg (injured during birth) would bug her after a walk but she’d still always want to go.
Eventually, I got a “BMX bike” and I used that on some logging roads as I also did for a brief time with the four-wheeler my little brother got as a present some time ago. And then I turned sixteen and I went for the rural rite of passage: to get my drivers license. The timing of this couldn’t have been better. As my ability to get myself out of the house improved, my parents alcoholism worsened. And so, if you were to look for me pretty much any time between late 1986 and 1990 I could tell you were to find me. I was in my car, my boom box in the back seat. Next to that was a copy of the Vermont Atlas and Gazetteer – a book with detailed maps of all the back roads in the state. I would ride the roads for hours finding new ways to get from point A to point B and see what I could see. I eventually knew the roads within a 20 mile radius of our house inside and out. Sometimes I might even go on forbidden adventures to the big city.
The travel was calming. Things could be difficult at home, but there was good music, usually good weather and excellent exploration possibilities where I was. I could think about life and the Sometimes I would bring a friend, making my car a sort of portable living room at a time when I was too embarrassed to bring anyone home to hang out in my own living room – never knowing what state I might find my parents in at the time.
Looking at this I see that exploring the unknown is something I crave all the time. It’s what I do when I go on a bike ride or tour. It’s what I did when I traveled to India, and it’s what I do when I go check out a new library in our city. And I’m sure that whatever project I end up doing in the future, it will include an element of “exploring the unknown” in it.
On a side note, just last fall, Daegan and I made a trip back to my home town where I did all of the walking in the woods. A neighbouring farmhouse, which during my childhood had been occupied by two 80-something sisters who I would occasionally stop by to check in on and fill their wood box (they still heated their house with a wood cookstove in the 80’s!) and eventually whose porch roof I would shovel after they died, was now an Airbnb. I asked the owner if I could show my son around and they graciously let us.
One section of the woods had been pretty heavily logged and so my bearings were off a bit at times. But eventually I got past where it had been logged and to more familiar ground. We walked down to the river where I would catch crayfish and minnows and other things to put in an aquarium in my room.
Then we found our way to a ridge where I had found a deer path when I was about 10. The path was still there.
On the left was a forest that would eventually lead to the field across the road from my house. On the right was a brook – one I had followed on many occasions to “find my way back”. We walked down there and found the remnants of a pool. One summer my friends and I dammed up the stream a little – enough to make a nearly waist-deep pool for us to cool off in. It was pretty great. But even greater was the steep rock hill that the brook ran down. It was covered in algae and really slippery. So slippery, in fact, that we could, and did, use it as a water slide. That is, of course, until I had to make not one, but two trips home with no bottom of my shorts because the seat of my pants had been worn away on the rocks.
Not far from this spot was a spot my friends and I made in to a hang out. There was a rock overhang that you could climb under and be relatively sheltered – at least in a light rain. There were niches in the rocks that we could hide things and we did just that. At one point we had a tiny cook stove, popcorn, sardines, and crackers stored there. We’d sit and talk, eat our snacks, and enjoy our lives. That space was still there though it seemed a bit smaller than I remembered it. Here’s Daegan exploring part of it.
We made our way back upstream to the dirt road we lived on, looking to see if the old mill foundation was still there. Lucky us, it was!
Great times were had and memories were made – ones that persisted for 30 years – all from just picking a direction and walking. Clearly, for me, exploration is something that needs to be a regular part of my life.
What did you love doing when you were a kid? Do you still do it?