Blood or blisters. Either of those on my hands at the end of the day means I’ve earned it. Earned my sleep. Earned my right to call myself a man. It sounds like macho posturing—believe me, I know it does. The feeling is primal and deep, pure and unfiltered. It is not an emotion I gleaned from reality television or the newest lifestyle magazine. It cuts through the everyday bullshit and reminds me that I did something today. Something real. Something that left a scar.
I’ve worked in offices. I’ve made phone calls and balanced spreadsheets. But I’ve also ripped tree stumps out of the ground with my bare hands. I’ve helped to carry the bloated carcass of a twelve foot alligator, the scales sloughing off in my hands with each step. I’ve moved boulders.
After which of these do you think I felt the most alive?
Nobody tells you how to feel after a day spent truly earning your breath. It’s a wellspring of satisfaction that transcends modern media’s ability to define our lives in sellable terms. There is no equivalent quick fix; no lottery ticket that awards the same feeling without the real work.
When you look down at your hands after a day of pulling weeds or chopping wood or pouring concrete, you see the signs of your labor. You have physical proof that you altered your world, or by experiencing it more deeply than your peers, somehow altered yourself.
I recently returned from a two day, twenty-five mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail near Big Bear Lake, California. The blisters are still fading. A different toenail is turning purple every day. I thought both of my big toenails were going to pop right off, but it was only the blisters underneath making them swell. The limping has stopped, thank God, but the farmer’s tan lingers.
Proof, proof, and more proof that I did something. I earned the right to be alive, and I felt like more of a man because of it. Macho posturing, yes indeed. There’s a whole other discussion to be had about whether or not one should suppress such shun-worthy emotions in this enlightened age, regardless of their authenticity. A case could be made either way, but I’ll leave it alone for now.
I’m a writer. Typing yields no blisters, so occasionally I have to go climb a mountain just to remember how hard it is to breathe thin air. Without such excursions, I feel I would lose touch with my core; my essence. Perhaps it’s just millennia of DNA telling me I shouldn’t sit in front of a computer all day. All I know for certain is how good I feel after an honest, hard day’s work—self-imposed or not.
My friend Jimmie and I only saw three other hikers on the trail, and we encountered all three of them within the first half of the first day. The rest of the time it was only us in the wilderness—tromping, tromping, forging ahead. I went out there determined to come back having suffered even just a small amount of pain. I knew it would make the experience real. I knew it would make me remember.
‘The wild’ is a broad term. It can be anywhere humans aren’t. Someplace quiet, devoid of the machinery of our modern world. It is the perfect place to test your limits and see if you still remember what it feels like to go to bed knowing you did something—even if your bed is a thin air mattress on the cold, hard ground, and even if all you have to look forward to the next day is more of the same: one foot in front of the other, blisters and all.
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