There’s a great line by comedian John Mulaney that goes: “Growing up, I always thought that quicksand was going to be a much bigger problem than it turned out to be.” It always makes me laugh because the statement is weirdly accurate; I did worry about quicksand as a kid. In fact, just the other day I read about someone having to get rescued from some quicksand in Zion National Park, and it freaked me the fuck out.
Now, the odds of that happening to even the outdoorsiest of people are still negligible, but I think everyone who has ever watched Artax the horse traumatically die in The Neverending Story can relate to the fear of the futile struggle of being stuck in quicksand. I think it’s the idea that the harder you fight, the quicker you go down that makes it so scary. While I think I’m pretty safe from that reality in a physical sense, there is an emotional quicksand that poses a very real danger in my life, and that is the sinkhole that is falling too deep into My Comfort Zone.
I end up writing a lot about the path that has lead me to traveling and climbing as much as I do these days, because it has been one of the scariest and most challenging (and thus rewarding) things I’ve ever done. It’s a dream I’ve been working up the courage to follow for pretty much my entire life. I like being comfortable, as most people do. I like routines and fall into them easily, and they bring me comfort because when there are no new variables to add some spice to any given day, you know things are usually going to work out okay. Probably not great, but probably not terrible either. That security and predictability offer stability, and for those of us that are as terrified of the unknown as me, it’s easy to think that that’s good enough.
That was my life for a very long time; working full time and filling the non-working hours with gym climbing or movies, board games, video games, whatever. I had a good life, but if I look back on it, all of the days pretty much blur together. All of them that is, except for the ones that I spent outside on weekends. Those ones actually meant something, but if only two out of seven days a week were ones I cared about, that leaves the other five as simply filler. I don’t want 70% of my days to be spent pining after the other 30%; no matter what grading scale you use that’s a fail. I knew that finding a way to climb full time would bring me happiness, adventure, freedom, and life that I was otherwise missing out on, but it took me a very long time to work up to it. Doing so meant taking my comfort zone, that easy place full of familiar, safe things, and shoving it into a corner of Eric’s basement with the rest of my non-essential belongings where the sun never shines. After a lifetime of following the status quo, I did finally work up the courage to leave city life behind.
While I’m extremely privileged to be able to follow this path at all, I still do work part time to support myself. I’m employed at the amazing organization Girls Rock Math, which lets me work remote most of the time at a job that truly makes a difference in the lives of many, many young girls (check us out here). My job brought me back to Seattle for several weeks, and in that time I found myself repeating the same habits and patterns I used to when I lived in the city year round.
At first, when my most recent adventures were fresh in my mind, I was able to fight the quicksand and focus on my goals, plans, and dreams, and train hard for the moment I could pursue them once more. The more I fought it though, the more I seemed to slowly sink, until suddenly I hadn’t even been to the climbing gym in four days. Work made me tired, commuting was a hassle, and I just didn’t feel like doing anything. Now I can deal with a little apathy and loss of motivation, but there was another element that crept into my psyche unexpectedly that proved far more problematic.
The more time that passes since I last climbed outside, the more I can feel the fear of the unknown returning. I get anxious for no reason, I get angry or annoyed at everything, most of my days feel meaningless, I feel my self-confidence weaken, and I feel intimidated by and unworthy of my dreams. Yet the real kicker is that, despite being consciously aware of my own unhappiness in this lifestyle, I am afraid to leave once more. All the people around me working their 9-5 jobs seem to be fulfilled and content, so maybe I could just get used to it, a voice in my mind says. It’s a pretty stark contrast to the real happiness I get in the outdoors, when I can feel it deep in my bones that I am living my best life.
All of these feelings tell me the same thing: that the quicksand is sucking me back to The Comfort Zone, saying that fighting for the things that matter so much to me is not worth the risk. It wants me to settle for good enough, and the more separation time puts between me and outdoor climbing, the more I forget just how big the difference is between good enough and as absolutely fucking electrifying life can really be. The more I sink into the sand, the harder it is to remember why I should fight it at all.
Now, I really enjoy a good thought provoking ‘Would You Rather’ question. In Mexico a few weeks ago, someone came up with a great one: Would you rather be able to climb as much as you want for the next ten years, but get a letter grade weaker every year, or only be able to climb once a year, but get a letter grade stronger for ten years? I didn’t have a good answer at the time, because think of the possibilities! By the end of ten years I would be the strongest climber alive, putting up grades that currently don’t even exist. The caveat of only climbing once a year would be an extremely high price to pay however. The alternative seemed equally double-edged, since by the end of those ten years my climbing level would be so low I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d even still feel passionate about the sport at all.
I didn’t have an answer to the question at first, because I had forgotten how big of a difference there is for me between being able to climb as much as I want, and not being able to climb at all. It would be pretty great to progress dramatically for ten years, but if I were truly faced with that ultimatum, at the end of the day the choice would be easy. Nothing in this world makes me feel alive in the way that climbing outside does, and I would climb 5.7 every day for the rest of my life if the alternative was to never touch real rock again.