Is Escapism a Bad Word? || Acadia National Park

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I shirk at the word escapism, though my counselor has encouraged me increasingly not to attach pejorative connotations to things just because some other people do. So, if I want to escape the heart-pounding stress of angry drivers and overcrowded streets, to say goodbye to the towering steel and glass and find somewhere that I can sit with my thoughts until they get quiet and follow a linear narrative, then I should. We all should. Driving away from unpaid bills and unmowed lawns is, perhaps, unwise. But handling the basics and then heading away to find a deep peace and clarity is wise indeed.

Exploring Acadia reminded me of all my best moments, where my fears are drowned out by my curiosity and simple joy. From my formative years spent teaching myself how to fly fish in the warm, waist-deep water of Possum Kingdom Lake to biking across the country with faint traces of mechanical knowledge and bikepacking knowhow to taking on an Ironman as my second-ever triathlon, I’ve always enjoyed biting off more than I can chew. But I am not particularly brave. It is easy to give this impression with romantic tales of snowy shorelines and casual moments of locking up the hubs to claw my truck out of icy slush, but these are simply the things worth remembering and the things that people want to hear. I enjoy comfort as much as any other human; we were created and refined to live lives of luxury with warm beds and delicious, ample food and more entertainment and distractions than hours in the day.

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What people do not want to hear is that all of these things are hard. There is pain, physical and psychic, and exhaustion, and time upon time to think. I am not magically gifted with Bear Grylls Skillz or the ability to photosynthesize or fall asleep wherever I lay my head. I was given the decidedly mixed blessing of having an active and curious mind, one which scans the horizons and its own depths with equal rapid-fire acuity, which thirsts for the stories of others and new, blank pages to rewrite its own stories of self. I have always been violently torn between laughing at childish things and being sickeningly serious, between wanting nothing more than to find and hold a salamander on a moist climb in Oregon and wanting nothing more than financial stability and the trappings of an ordinarily successful life in 21st Century America. It seems an increasing amount of people feel this way, or at least are getting better at articulating it.

As I waited to fall asleep in the Bar Harbor Inn, I was squinting at my phone screen browsing the online stats for various hikes in Acadia, thus spoiling all of the fun for everyone. Not only are there no more surprises, the digital rendering of a topography map or a distance/time estimate is a sobering and unappealing thing indeed. When I read that a hike is 6 miles and will take 4 or 5 hours to complete, I am tempted to give up before I’ve even started. If I show up at an intriguing trailhead with no preconceptions, I might hike a dozen miles before I notice time has passed at all. The same is true of driving. With Google Maps displaying your ETA every second of the way, you are painfully aware of every slowdown and stop, every interruption of your LED-simulated progress towards your destination. There is much utility and beauty in such tools, but they must be wielded responsibly, lest they rob our ability to enjoy where we are instead of fretting about where we’re going or where we’ve been.

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This is a mighty struggle and theme in my life of late—finding the ability to fall asleep without thinking about the feeling of being hit by a car or a sense of failure for not already being a place that I know I’m going. And that is why jumping in an old truck and seeing new sights with a loyal dog is so therapeutic. Old cars are mechanically tactile and designed to work faithfully with minimal sensory stimuli. There is no satellite radio or industry-first 27 inch LED display. They make no pretense about arriving first or most efficiently (and indeed, sometimes, about arriving at all). They force us to enjoy the journey and encourage us to take interesting looking roads and stop at everything that piques our interest. Hank and the Land Cruiser are perfect role models and travel companions, because they are lighthearted and humorous and literally always ready to try something new. They care not about things I’ve done in the past or things I failed to do. They respect my sovereignty and harebrained ideas and are loyal companions to the ends of the earth and the coffee shop down the street alike. So when I struggle to relax or maintain forward momentum, I know that so long as I get off the couch, I can find peace and realignment somewhere.

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Sometimes it’s spending a little too little time getting organized or planned for a quick road trip or overnight camping expedition, sometimes it’s just loading up in the car and heading to hike and take a swim in some water that makes you pucker as soon as you wade out to your waistline, and every once in a while it’s a drive to Alaska or a home in a new state. If my thinking has been rendered erratic and scattered by a few knocks to the brain (and it seems that it has, because I’m trying to write about Acadia National Park), then quiet cabins and the sound of lapping or babbling water and low density areas full of warm people are a fine medicine. Perhaps your medicine is the hustle and stimuli of Manhattan. Or it’s a burning sun setting behind blood-red mountains in the desert Southwest. And likely somewhere in between.

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* * *

I tried to describe the perfection of crouching on the rocky beach in Acadia to my counselor, in some effort to tease out what about it is so good and if there’s a chance to replicate that feeling elsewhere. And all that I could summon was misty-eyed reverence for the eye-watering wind and biting cold, for the minuteless moments when Hank and I skipped and tripped from bowling-ball-sized-rock to bowling-ball-sized-rock as waves crashed in front of us and nothing happened behind us. The air stung, but I could feel it. And it wasn’t the heart-pounding, bone-crushing feeling of stress or PTSD. I was plenty up to date on my bills so there was not even a hint of Lotus flower in my self-indulgence. Instead, I wanted to feel painfully cold, to find one surface on which I could outpace Hank (the irregularity of those stacked rocks confused his four skinny dog paws), to sit on a beach that nobody else was on, and to know that if they arrived, we’d know so much about each other before a single word was spoken.

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We got in and out of the truck countless times, hiked in the snow, wondered at the dozen different beach surfaces in twice as many miles, and forgot all of the stats and maps and suggestions I’d read in bed the night before. By the time I reached the trailhead that I vaguely wanted to hike that day, I had no idea what to expect and no sense of discord between my present progress and some nagging external clock lodged deep inside my consciousness. I parked and we started walking. I quickly escaped cell range and soon thereafter forgot what time I’d parked. I listened to the crunch of snow beneath my feet and began writing songs to the rhythm and singing out loud. I watched Hank sprint a half mile ahead, then return to me before zigging a hundred yards into the woods and zagging a hundred fifty back out of them. I forgot about structured exercise and the need for any sort of measurable accomplishment. We came to forks in the trail and chose whichever one was nearest Hank’s current heading.

This was the spot the bartender at the Thirsty Whale had recommended, and though there was no way to know which specific trail he’d had in mind, it didn’t really matter. A human interaction led to this solitary bliss. The woods were resplendent in the way that only pristine snow and blinding sunshine and stubbornly evergreen needles can be. And after what I can only guess was two or three hours, we finally crossed paths with the only person I saw on the trails all day. A man who was as Downeast Maine as I could’ve possibly imagined and then some, looking equal parts Hagrid and Grateful Dead fan, quite underdressed for the weather (though, admittedly, by my eighth day in snow country, I was adjusting and feeling smug about it), out romping with three Italian Greyhounds wearing cable knit sweaters.

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Our interaction was brief and canine-centric, and laden with a deep understanding. We were both in the woods, unaware of the time or day or temperature. We were walking with our dogs, pondering our thoughts and successes and failures without extraneous distractions that push our ambitions and failures into the shadows. By escaping from the things that overwhelm the senses, it’s possible to let the more nuanced and complex thoughts that define humanity take center stage. The complicated places built by man may be terrific at facilitating our survival and keeping us entertained, but they’re terrible at allowing us time and space to think. It is possible to stimulate oneself so thoroughly from the moment the alarm clock goes off until the moment eyeballs can no longer strain against the LCD screen in the dark that nary a deep, wordless thought is ever allowed to take center stage in the brain. But in the woods, the songs in our hearts and the thoughts in our heads can take center stage and be granted permission to stand in the spotlight.

Acadia in the snow was one of the most tranquil and beautiful places I’ve ever seen. It was so unfamiliar and empty that I never fell into an idle autopilot or began to count the passage of time or the number of footsteps back to the car. The same bitter chill of the 8 AM air turned into a triumphant sweat sometime in the afternoon, and I began to feel like I belonged in the gritty, spacious woods of Northern Maine. My bills and thirsty garden were still waiting for me in Texas, and my friends and family were all exactly where they were. I hadn’t escaped them in any permanent way, nor did I want to. But I had found a place where I could outpace the gnawing in my brain by not rushing at all. With nowhere to go but Bangor, Maine of King of the Road fame and onward to Portland once more, I resolved to simply follow the road signs and not even open Waze or Google Maps. When I set my sights on escaping, it is with the full self-awareness that problems and payment plans are inescapable. But, external stressors and overwhelming circumstances are encouragingly easy to put in the rearview mirror, at least for long enough to ponder the thoughts that hide in the shadows and to let the song in your heart sing its way out. There’s no ETA for that.

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4 Comments

  1. As I read this, the beginning got me thinking: the part where you talk about phone and Google has ruined the surprise.

    Yeah it usually has, but at the end it is upto you how much you can enjoy around you. For example, driving using maps. Look at where you need to go and then turn it off trying to remember the directions in your mind as you drive.

    Maybe that changes things?

  2. “But I am not particularly brave.”

    Well yes, yes you are. You go on to say that it’s not always easy for you… and that’s what makes you brave. There’s no bravery required when things are easy. Bravery gets added to the mix when facing into something is a challenge, but you do it anyway. John, you have grit. It would have been easy for you to pack it in and go home countless times since you started this trip, but you’re still going. That’s brave. You push yourself into new adventures even when you feel doubt. That’s brave.

    No selling yourself short. Not on my watch!

  3. This was really well done. You sound strongly like you feel what you’re expressing, authentic and filled with assurance and confidence. Keep doing this. It’s great!

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