A Workaholic Walks Onto a Trail…
Burnout or Bust
Ask any of my friends, coworkers, or even acquittances from the past 8 years, and they’ll tell you without pause how much of a workaholic I was; how many nights I forwent sleep to pick up a shift or two; how many plans I cancelled because of work conflicts or burnout; and how many customers thought I actually lived at my place of work because they saw me more than they saw their own family.
For me, working was something that I understood. If I worked hard enough and long enough, eventually I would be able move up the social ladder, become the Executive Director of some nonprofit, and… well, probably continue to overwork myself until I’m forced to retire. I also thought about my 5- and 15-year plans without asking myself “why” – “why is my only focus the end goal? Why have I focused on work so much that I haven’t been able to have a hobby since grade school?”
Even when I moved to Chicago from NYC and took a “break” from my career path of Education Policy (taking a large pay cut to do so), I still continued to work multiple jobs at the same time and reach the tip of burnout only months after escaping NYC for the same reason. And then BAM – the world ground to a halt in March of 2020, and my own world began to crumble around me. My job leading an after-school program in a homeless shelter had to end because ‘nonessential’ programs were canceled for the foreseeable future. My position as a full-time barista was whittled down to a mere 4 hours per week. Most opportunities to volunteer in person were limited or unsafe. I immediately had to ask myself – “who am I without my work?” It’s been more than a year and I still ask myself that question from time to time, but the answer is now usually, “I am a thru-hiker.”
A ‘Natural’ Solution?
When the lockdown hit last spring, my vagabond heart began searching for a way to further explore these newfound questions about myself. This led me deeper into the world of taking really long walks – a.k.a. thru-hiking. Since high school, I had planned to “eventually” thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Appalachian Trail (AT); but because of my workaholic nature, “eventually” never seemed to come. I’d done shorter hikes before – like the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland in the midst of moving from Minneapolis to NYC – but I’d never committed to a length of trail that would coincide with my career path or opportunity for a job. 2020, however, was the ultimate sign for me to actually thru-hike one of these ‘Triple Crown’ trails.
Having been a child raised in Minnesota – the land of standing water and humid as-heck summers – it instilled in me a great hatred for mosquitos, so the Appalachian Trail was further down my list of top thru-hikes to complete. That left me with the decision to hike the PCT and explore the west coast for the first time in my life. I began binging YouTube videos of thru-hikers’ accounts of the trail, spending my waking hours researching and purchasing gear, socializing with other hikers on social media, and training on forest preserve trails near Chicago. No longer did I work just for the sake of working, but instead I worked solely for raising funds for my thru-hike. I had a purpose outside of my workaholism. I was a thru-hiker, and this identity was my answer to the question that I’d subtly asked my whole adult life but which had greater importance in the year 2020 – “who am I without my work?”
Fast-forward to April 2021, and here I am turning down salaried jobs in my career field after a year of side-gig work to go walk in the woods for half of a year. I am so looking forward to this new period in my life where work is nonexistent – where I instead worry about the day-to-day tasks of packing up my campsite, calculating miles for the day, walking endlessly, setting up my tent, and getting a good night’s sleep. The simplicity will be quite a foreign concept to me, but I know deep down that this is my saving grace.
Who am I without my work? I am a thru-hiker, and I ready to hit the trail.
On Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo) land.
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