White bellied birds swooped low over the tall grass fields of Massachusetts as if in some elaborate dance passed on generation after generation.
Walking through fields of cattails, I smiled as the sun beat down on my face. It was one of those moments when everything came together and felt just right. A moment of reassurance that the path beneath my feet was the right one to be walking at the time. Moments like this often come with a foreboding feeling that it’s all bound to fall apart just around the bend.
One of the most potent memories of a moment like this took place on my 2015 hike of the Appalachian Trail on a dirt road as the sun was setting. It was one of those perfect movie scene moments and it all felt too good to be true. Shortly later, my hiking partner and I learned his mom’s cancer had become increasingly aggressive. I could never have imagined what the next 12 months would bring if I had tried at that moment.
These days I try not to let my mind get ahead of me.
It was after a few rough days of walking alone that I met a bespectacled bearded section-hiker named Benjamin. A pair of whales inked one forearm while a mermaid with voluminous twisting hair marked the other. He was a young public speaking professor based in southern New York finishing up a section hike. He got the whale tattoo years ago after working with the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd photographing whales being slaughtered by Japanese whalers -- an experience that stayed with him long after returning stateside.
We talked about higher education and about the merits of documenting the truth even if it has the potential to hurt the ones you love. We talked about the creative power of the dark corners of one’s mind, and how your work changes when light is shone on those shadows. We talked about whether you can really trust someone who has nothing hanging, taped or tacked to the walls of their home. He agreed bare walls are a definite red flag.
We shared a pound block of chocolate Benjamin had been carrying around the whole week. Yes, a pound.
Just as every stumble is countered by a hand to lift you up, the story works both ways. You might go on an adventure of a lifetime with an old friend, grow closer than ever before, whoop truths from mountaintops and flash desert sands together just to have it all crumble over something insignificant within months. You could meet someone and instantly know your hearts understand each other, just to have them kicked out of the country just as your friendship is beginning to bloom.
It’s an equation with unquantifiable variables -- a constantly evolving balancing act with no way of predicting what will fall into your hands next. The only constant is the thin wire you must continue to walk if you hope to lead anything but a life standing still.