“I wish I knew where I was going. Doomed to be ‘carried of the spirit into the wilderness,’ I suppose. I wish I could be more moderate in my desires, but I cannot, and so there is no rest.” (J. Muir)
150 years ago today, John Muir set off on his 1,000-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico. He had taken a train from Indianapolis to Jeffersonville the day before, and then began his walk by crossing a river, ambling through Louisville, and setting southward through Kentucky. He was 29 at the time – the same age that I am now. Although I’m not embarking on any literal 1,000-mile walk today, in a figurative way I feel that I am.
I am nearing the start of my second year in the Environmental History PhD program. The “trail” onward to the PhD’s completion feels at least 1,000-miles long. It seems a distance so vast that I can’t even conceive it. I know that others have gone that way before…I know that Muir went a literal 1,000 miles…so, of course, it is possible to go the distance. But it feels that it might not be? At least not for me?
The first year of the PhD is a somewhat of a honeymoon affair, all leading to the First Year Progress Review. You ride on the thrill of beginnings. You’ve gotten this idea for an adventure – a long walk into the known. So, there is a focused task at hand – to prepare for the walk. The thru-hiker-to-be researches routes, commits to a “start” date, and gathers supplies and gear to enable a successful venture. Similarly, the history PhD student researches context and sources, is committed to a “Due” date for a Progress Review essay that synthesizes a literature review + ideas for a thesis (called a “dissertation” in the U.S.) topic, and gathers a lot of primary sources to enable a successful venture. Then the start date arrives. All things going well, the thru-hiker gets to the trailhead without trouble, presents himself to trail with everything needed for a long walk, and the trail presents no barriers to beginning. So, there you have it: time to ramble on. All things going well for the PhD student, the student arrives at the essay due date without trouble, presents his ideas to the reviewers with everything needed for the development of a thesis, and the reviewers pronounce the idea as sound, leaving no barriers to begin the work. And there you have it: time to get writing.
Except, it is not so simple as that. A thru-hike is not (despite what you might have been told) as simple as walking. There is unpredictable weather, unanticipated illness, sore muscles, accidental injuries, encounters with other walkers, mental fatigue, distractions to side-trails, and the occasional losing of the main route. Writing a PhD thesis is not (despite what you might have been told) as simple as writing. There is unpredictable daily life, unanticipated short-term job opportunities, archival visits, secondary and primary literature to read, encounters with other students, mental fatigue, distractions to related (but perhaps not relevant) ideas, and occasional losing of your main idea. In short, going 1,000 miles is not a linear affair.
I almost didn’t write on this because I don’t want to complain – privately to myself, let alone to anyone else. I have this incredible opportunity to wander off after a dream. But I’m also trying to be more honest in all arenas of my life. And (despite what this might seem), this is not my attempt to fish for reassurance. I just feel that too often we (myself included) each present only the highlights of our lives under the presumption that we are always supposed to be positive, rather than just real. I just feel that too often we (myself included) too often believe that our “problems” aren’t the weighty, more important challenges most others face, so shouldn’t be shared at all. But this just seems to then leave others that feel similar to us, similarly closed and quiet. And then no one has any chance for finding that others relate.
Anyways, too often my response to inquires of “how’s it going” regarding this PhD business come off sounding as if I have it all figured out – I have nothing figured out.
Well, I take that back. I do have this figured out: venturing down the trail towards a dream is a wayfaring exercise. You have to be moving in order to figure out where you are going – you can’t wait to figure out where you are going before you start moving. Sometimes you find you’ve gone slightly off-trail, and then you just have to do your best to re-orient and get back on it. Mostly, however, you just got to accept that you are not entirely sure where the trail is leading, but, gosh, it is going somewhere new…and the scenery so far isn’t so bad – pretty incredible in fact.
It is strange to think so fondly of another, with the deep affection of a friend, when that person was dead long before you were born. I feel this way about Muir. I am platonically smitten, and perhaps a tad obsessed? (Scratch “tad”). I literally get giddy at the chance to talk about him with others – a warm upwelling of sentiments in my chest, fluttering butterfly wings, frantic to break free into the open air of conversation. It is not just because I admire his life and legacy, and not just because it is the kind of life and legacy I’d like to leave myself one day (I only inspire to be fractionally as impactful as him, I’m not setting myself an impossible task here), but he is continuously proving to by my PhD “trail guide”. Many of my ideas surrounding my thesis stem from what he expressed in his writings, things he learned about the wilderness by exploring the mountains and woods on foot.
He would say later that this 1,000-mile walk was when his “long, continuous wanderings may be said to have fairly commenced”. He, of course, couldn’t have known that at the time he began the long way. However, after this thru-hike, he ended up getting passage on a boat to California, where he’d not only live out the rest of his life, but where he would find his true calling, and make of himself a life that has led others to falling in love with the wilds. So, here’s to hoping my 1,000-mile “walk” through this PhD process will be a similar sort of wanderous (and wondrous) beginning, and that this is a continuation of my adoration for the wilderness, walking, and words.
Right now, however, it mostly just feels 1,000 miles away. But, I’ll keep booting onward (because, what else can one do?).