Twenty-Somethings and Why The AT Tastes So Sweet
I am in my twenties. I just graduated from college. I’ve got two failed relationships under my belt, a dozen failed friendships, a beautiful binder full of opportunities I’ve missed thanks to my own mistakes, and hopefully many years ahead of me to learn from them. I also have a handful of things that other people tell me look like wins, but they don’t feel like wins to me.
For the last year and a half, none of it has felt like wins. I was checking all the boxes, nodding my head at the right times, and working towards the beautiful life I’d laid out for myself, carefully guarding and fighting for the steps I thought needed to be taken to get to my dream destination. My life, like communism, looked magnificent in its controlled experiment, but it crumbled when faced with external factors that were not predicted and couldn’t be controlled for. I was sitting in my personalized and painted lifeboat, guaranteed much like the Titanic not to sink, watching water pour in through all the tiny pinpricks holes that had been made by myself and others as I’d dragged it down the path to my destiny.
I know for a fact I was not the only one sold one of these faulty lifeboats. Most of my colleagues heard the same rhetoric growing up. People who lived outside the lines, who weren’t living (read: working) for retirement and for climbing the ladder were painted into the images of our future as suffering for their actions. We were living for our resumes, for bullet points and dashes and titles that sounded slightly more elite than they actually were. For experience, and not for experiences.
My favorite word in the English language is probably, “why.” There’s this quintessential childhood image of a toddler carefully peeling back the layers of the world around them, repeatedly asking their parent why, why, why, why, until all possible answers have been exhausted either by the limit of intelligence, the current depths of knowledge, or sanity. Only, I don’t think I ever outgrew that phase. I’ve always wanted to know more and challenge the status quo. It’s probably what drew me to study science, and it’s definitely what caused so many fights with my mother as a pre-teen. Yet, there came a point in my life where I stopped asking why. I was seeing the world in a haze, a blur of other people working on their own roads as I dragged tired legs and feet down the path I’d decided I needed to take. I was laying pavers for my own little avenue, but I had stopped being critical about why or where each one went, and whether they were worth the sweat and the sunburn to make them.
I had a moment, sometime last winter, that was like falling asleep at the wheel, hitting the rumble strip, and narrowly missing the swipe the guardrail took at your life. I finally looked up from my pavers and realized I was not where I wanted to be. Worse, I could finally see over my horizon, and it dawned on me that I was building my road in the wrong direction. I was finally forced to ask myself why again: why was I so unhappy with where I was and where I was going? Temporary discomfort is often necessary to achieve long term goals, but what if I was only building myself a monument to this discomfort? A little temple where I got to feel this anguish, this loss of purpose, for the rest of my life?
College is absolutely a place of growth. I aggressively consumed materials on infectious pathogens, lapped up the details of cell necrosis and apoptosis, and otherwise thrived on just about anything that wasn’t Organic Chemistry (I would rather break all my toes than suffer through those three semesters again). I lived and breathed for the things I learned inside the classroom, but I think along the way I managed to learn more outside of the cramped desks and projectors. From my friends, from my jobs, from the clubs I joined and the opportunities my majors and my contacts opened me up to. It had occurred to me sometime when my face was buried in a textbook that personal comforts, like meaningful relationships, a good glass of beer, or making just enough to feel financially secure and be debt free, were more important to me than a high salary and speaking engagements and multiple diplomas on my walls screaming “successful” at my dinner party guests.
I’d wanted to be a veterinarian since I was gifted a “let’s play doctor” toy set and immediately put it to work on my stuffed animals and the family dogs. But when reality started to dawn on me — the weight of student debt I’d carry after vet school and the inadequacy of veterinary salaries compared to others in similar lines of work, the distaste I had for actually practicing medicine (especially small animal), and the fact I didn’t have the stamina for 8 more years of school to get my PhD in Pathology afterwards — that dream started to seem unpleasant. I was offered an interview at a beautiful school. I scheduled the plane ride and booked the hotel with my dad and felt the existential dread set in. This was not normal interview jitters, it wasn’t social nerves mixed with constant reiteration that you can, in fact, speak English and that your interviewers are, in fact, just other people. Instead, I was overcome by discomfort and by fear about attending this interview, potentially being accepted, and marching off to vet school in August.
I have learned through many trial and error situations to trust my gut, so I cancelled the interview, and I put aside my notions of attending vet school. The city on my horizon seemed overrated and unattainable now that I could see it clearly, but I had no idea which direction I needed to march in. For at least a decade, my every move had been with vet school in mind. I didn’t even know what other options I had. Fortune, thankfully, had rolled the dice in my favor this year. It was like the universe was screaming at me to apply the brakes and turn on my headlights. My aggressive work ethic afforded me two things: I was able to take less credits in my last two semesters at college and thus started treating the burnout I was feeling, and I got to graduate a semester early. March, April, and May were suddenly wide open to begin the trip I had fantasized about and told so many people I was “going to do that someday.” Someday turned out to be March 17th, 2017. I was both a) officially going to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, and b) taking a year off to work using my undergraduate majors and with them pursue a passion I’d found in research laboratories.
I have wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail for a long time. Until recently, none of the reasons I had for heading out on this adventure looked anything like the wanderlust travel-inspo Pinterest boards, or any other pretty, inspirational quote from a manic pixie Tumblr blog with the realities of life hidden by a surprisingly effective Instagram filter. I am not disillusioned enough to believe that all of my problems, and especially all of the problems I have with myself, will be solved by marching off into the woods, but I was blindly seeking a life that looked great on paper and simultaneously didn’t feel so great inside — much like the bloggers I so disliked. I needed to do something for me, something to make both my heart and my legs stronger, and heading off into the wilderness feels like this magical escape.
I am hoping that my hike will serve as a reminder to myself of many things.
A reminder to take my time. Every step will get me closer to my goal at Katahdin, but I don’t need to rush there. There are so many things along the way that I need to see, to smell, to taste, to experience. There is so much beauty in the tiny things, and the trail has a way of pointing them out to you. I hope I can appreciate a stranger’s smile or a cup of coffee shared with a friend the same way I appreciate a sun-bathed rock just perfect for a lunch break on the trail.
A reminder that there is worth in pain. There will be bad days. There will be days I want to quit. There will be days, like on the Long Trail, where all I can think of is my couch and Netflix. There will be days that, pushing through the pain in my joints and back, trail magic or a gorgeous sunset or a summit will reward me. I want to carry that reminder and others through to my future heartbreaks, my future loneliness, my future trials where I want to give up.
A reminder that I am strong, and not just callous and stubborn. The last few years chipped away at my resilience, and numbed me in ways I can’t describe or put a finger on. I am burnt out and a little lost and definitely a lot confused. I don’t expect my hike to bring me answers, but I do expect it to renew my trust in myself and embolden me in the struggles I know I will face in the near future. Certainly, if I can navigate six months on the trail, I can navigate graduate school and my love life and how the frick being an adult works.
I know for a fact that I am not alone in these post-graduation realizations. My own roommate was as equally set on vet school as I was. She’s now pursuing a Masters. There are an overwhelming amount of recent college graduates on the trail, and sure, many of us are free from marriages and children and a career that we cannot yet part with, but I think many of us are also struggling to make the same discoveries. Nobody is going to hold our resumes high at our funerals and laud the fact that we so aggressively worked our way through a company, and somewhere inside of us we know that. If they talk about our work at all, it’ll be about our ardor for our career, about the way we touched our coworkers lives, or helped the community with our efforts. Every other line of our eulogies will be about the places we traveled, the experiences we shared and savored, and the way we shaped the people that came in touch with us. It should ring about our zest for every day and not fall flat because we lived most of our lives in contempt of a nine to five. The people that shine the brightest in our lives turned to their passions to define themselves, and not to their surplus of money compared to their neighbor. Our epiphany has come, and the Appalachian Trail has answered our call for a teacher.
I am young, and I am dumb, and in ten years I will probably read my writings just like this one and laugh at my naivety, but at this point in my life I’m discovering that the secret to life and to happiness lies somewhere in between the lines of living for your resume and living for yourself. I am learning that you must ask why and at what cost for every paver you lay down on your own individual path to success, that your pavers and your paths are different colors and shouldn’t head in the exact same direction as your neighbor’s, that no path is worth building if it cannot be shared with people that make you laugh and that ignite spark somewhere between your ribs, and that there is no harm in putting down the mortar for a moment, walking off into the woods, and conquering a sidequest.
Maybe I’ll even come back with some incredible loot to make the main storyline that much easier to beat.
Image credit goes to my incredible backpacking partner, Amy.
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YES. Thank you, so true. Will be two days behind you, hope we bump into each other. 26 and feeling all the same things… here’s to finding what we need in the woods! Best of luck.
Good for you 20-somethings who have realized this! I’m 40-something now and fell into a 15-year career that I found rewarding for about the first 10 years, but I don’t think is the path for me now. Most of what you wrote rings very true in my life. I hope you find what you seek.
Your story is so eerily similar to mine. I, too, lived for my “resume” (or, vet school application) for a solid decade before I began questioning that career path late in my undergraduate career. I, like you, developed a fondness for research (which I haven’t turned into a career, but did turn into a masters degree) and a distaste for the idea of student debt, long hours, and a low salary compared to other professions with similar educational requirements. I applied to vet school during my senior year of college and was denied admittance. I worked odd jobs for a year and applied again – at my dad’s request (he was heartbroken that I was giving up on my dream) – and was again denied admission. But by that second application cycle I’d already decided I didn’t want to do it. I’d made up my mind that I was going to find an alternative – thus began “life after pre-vet” which has been a long, rocky learning experience. I went to grad school before my Appalachian Trail trek, but it was much needed after the burnout I was experiencing from 6 years of college. I still don’t know what I want to do, but like you said – I trust myself to make the right decisions when the time comes, I’m confident in my abilities, and I’m most proud of the experiences I’ve had on trail and beyond than I am of the titles and diplomas and jobs I’ve held. PS: you’re an incredible writer! I really enjoyed your post and look forward to following your journey. Best of luck! This will be the best decision you ever made.