Each step becomes more difficult. I still haven't acclimated to the elevation, but I'm not far from the top of Mount Elbert, the tallest peak in Colorado. I have to catch my breath every 20 or 30 steps. And I got a late start, leaving at 3 p.m. when everyone else was coming down. It seems like a relatively easy 4.5 miles to the peak, but making it back before dark could be tight.
“Are you going to the top?” one asks.
“Yeah, I’m hoping to catch the sunset.”
“Well, good luck,” they answer, with a funny look, as if they thought I was just a little crazy for what I was about to do.
I'm starting to know that look well. It's the same reaction family and friends gave me when I told them I wanted to walk away from a successful office job and head out on a cross-country adventure for the foreseeable future.
The look says: Wait, are you sure you know what you’re doing?
It's not that I had a bad life in Bryson City, North Carolina. I've just felt a little restless the last few years, as if I'm always waiting on something else to arrive or I'm not quite sure where I'm supposed to be. My one solace has always been exploring the outdoors. I seem to find pieces of myself when I travel-it unveils little insights that point me toward who I am and who I want to be.
As a web developer, I'm lucky in that I can work from almost anywhere, using my phone as a hotspot. So two weeks ago, I said goodbye to my family and friends. I packed up my camper-topped pickup with hiking gear and some minimal essentials. This was a trip I needed to make for myself, so I didn't think to invite anyone else except for my dog, Bobby.
A Google Maps search revealed the northernmost place in America that you can drive to: Deadhorse. Located in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, Deadhorse is an oil town with a booming population of 25. Yes, 25 people, though at any given time there are about 2,000 to 3,000 contractors and oil rig workers passing through.
My path would wander but Deadhorse would be my north star, my goal.
“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” —Henry David Thoreau
Ten days later I'm catching my breath on Mount Elbert, questioning whether my impulsive ascent has been a wise thing to do. Small marmots chirp at me as I rest on a rock. I pull out a granola bar and gaze down into an amazing valley.
Hiking helps me decompress. It's like hitting a restart button. It makes me feel alive and free from everyday worries, like they're not as big a deal as I've made them out to be. The low oxygen and dwindling daylight also seem more manageable, and I stand up to continue toward the peak.
As I reach the summit, the sun still hangs high in the sky. I am the only one here and it feels like I'm the king of the world, surrounded by quiet, colossal giants.
Looking around, it's suddenly sad not having someone to enjoy this with, not even a stranger. I pull out my phone and notice I have a great signal. I decide to FaceTime some friends.
"I'm the tallest man in Colorado," I say, sharing the view with them. Oohs and ahhs chorus from the speaker as I spin around with the camera.
I'll be the last person on the trail tonight and will have to walk down in the dark. But this is a sweet moment, and I'm glad I can share it with friends.