The Lonely Land of Opportunity

A cold thrust of wind and rain lifted the tent off the ground. I clutched the top with my numbed fingers, finding purchase at the point where the poles crossed in the center. The tent went horizontal in the air, and I braced to keep it from flying into the lake. I wrestled it down when the gust slackened. It had been cold and rainy all day, as I hiked to over 10,000 feet in the wilderness of Ecuador. I managed to fix a broken tent pole that night, crawl into my dry refuge and squeeze some emergency energy gel into my mouth while thawing in my cold-weather sleeping bag.

I’m not crazy. I did not have fun. Yet two more times during my five-week solo trip to Ecuador I returned to the wilderness to revel and roam in mountain landscapes without encountering anyone else for days. Exploring nature wasn’t the central purpose of that trip. It isn’t even the central purpose of this story. What I really want to tell you is how I got there. What made me cut myself off and not look back to safety and comfort when what I wanted to do was out there.

Two years before Ecuador, I disappeared from my family and friends early in the summer. Only a few months out of high school, I showed up to college with only what I was wearing. I waited in line that first day to get my blood drawn, my dimensions measured, and my head shaved. From the first shouted commands of the upperclassmen, I learned how to tune out everything but the information required to stay out of trouble.

I never fit into the military mold. I remained pensive behind the poker face of attention and compliance. Instead of working out or studying, I did just enough to get by. I dedicated myself to personal projects like speed reading, competitive chess, or sneaking away with books that would broaden my perspectives about the military. Although I excelled, I was unhappy that my future purpose was still unknown.

Furthermore, I didn’t connect with the personality typical of the place. I didn’t connect with the military’s escapists either. Escapists have the attitude of tolerating things until the next chance to pretend to be normal; that is, to get out and party. One weekend we were allowed out of the campus gates, but I didn’t have any plans. I still felt the need to get away and I took the opportunity, walking out the gate with a small pack and an extra pair of clothes. We weren’t supposed to roam around town out of uniform, so I used a bathroom in a museum nearby to change. I then slipped under a bridge and along the water’s edge to stash my uniform under some rocks. I enjoyed my weekend: walking for miles, reading Cat’s Cradle and sleeping on the ground. I spent the first night in a park, where I had a surprise awakening when a dog sniffed out my location on his morning walk.

I decided that the military wasn’t the place for me, so I transferred after my sophomore year. Normal college drew me in. I was on board again with a legitimate organization that I had no reservations about. I was doing something valuable and respected by mainstream society. But I was still juggling personal goals. I sped up my goal to learn a second language before graduation. I looked up language schools in different South American countries and organized my own trip. I talked on the phone with the head of a Spanish school in Quito, and booked my flight.

I read up on the country’s politics and history the week before going and made my first friend in the airport, waiting for the flight from Miami. On the flight over, I had to repeat to the incredulous tourist sitting next to me that I was neither sightseeing with a friend nor receiving some kind of institutional support or class credit. I was on my own, pushing myself to learn outside of my comfort zone.

I’ll always come home to recharge, to share ideas with my base of friends, and to build my confidence in more traditionally accepted pursuits. But to really push my boundaries outward I need to take a step back from common experience and venture out into the world with a new vision of what is possible in life. Sometimes waiting for the right opportunity is just too normal to work.