Metaphors: the 'Life Path' and Denali

For nearly two years, I worked every day, seven days a week, with no vacation.

On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays through the weekend, I worked my full time job as a reporter at the Albuquerque Journal, showing up to work around 10 or 11am and often working through until the newspaper’s 10:30pm deadline.

On Mondays and Thursdays, I went to classes for my graduate degree at St. John’s College. Those mornings, I usually had around a hundred and fifty pages to read before classes started at 5pm. When they ended at 10pm, classmates and I would often go down the hill to Del Toro for a beer and to decompress.

When I graduated in 2006, my dad offered me a graduation present, and asked what I wanted. I told him: I need a break.

So, he bought me an airplane ticket to Alaska.

The problem with the “Life Path” metaphor

There are a thousand guides to help you figure out your purpose in life. And they all use some version of the same metaphor, from “What Color is Your Parachute” (the cheesy career guide it seemed everyone my age was handed upon College graduation) to the long blog posts from life coaches about how to find your life path, always with a stock image of a wood plank path stretching in to a lush green forest.

If you are religious, perhaps you were taught to find your calling. In one of my favorite movies of all time, Tom Skerrit asks his son, newly returned from attending Dartmouth, what he plans to do with his life. It’s a charming scene of what happens a father’s expectations run up against a son’s uncertainty (just watch until his priceless “deer in the headlights” face at 3:48):

Ah yes, your “calling,” or your purpose, or perhaps your “Ikigai,” roughly translated as your “reason for being.”

All of these are all some version of the “life path” metaphor. Some times we come to forks in the path. And some times we read with pleasure classic poems about forks in the path, and how we are to choose between them, and roads not taken.

But with all due respect to the great master Robert Frost, I think the metaphor itself has led us astray. The problem with a “life path” is the suggestion in the first place that life has paths.

Most of us are trained from a young age to look for our purpose, to search it out, to find our path, as if we are wandering in the wilderness and need only to wander until we find the road, and when we find it, the way forward will be clear. But what if there are no paths and no roads? What if life isn’t some forest with futures laid out that we only need to search for and find in order to move forward? What if there is only… life?

I say we need a different metaphor.

Hiking through Denali

After graduating from grad school, I flew to Anchorage with my hiking backpack, my tent, ten days of food, and a lot of bug spray. Anchorage feels like a frontier town, founded only in 1914 and still a gateway to vast wilderness.

My first night, I walked from the hostel to the downtown and had the best lobster chowder of my entire life, served in a perfectly baked bread bowl, along with a crisp, perfect Alaskan beer. I stayed up until 2am watching the northern sky, and then, it finally got dark.

The next day I boarded the Alaskan Railroad en route for Denali National Park. The park encompasses 6 million acres of wilderness - an area the size of New Hampshire - and nearly all of it accessed by a single, lone road.

After taking my required bear awareness course, the park official gave me a hiking permit and a topographical map of the park, and assigned me to a zone where I wouldn’t run into other hikers (they do this to lessen any collective impact on the land).

Next, I boarded a bus loaded with senior citizens in retirement. The bus took the one road into the park, where it deposited me and my backpack in the wilderness. I remember the senior citizens were looking at me like I was crazy. After all, they had just seen a distant bear from the bus window. What was I doing, hiking off into the wilderness, no trail, no camp in site?

In Denali, there are no paths

That’s the thing about Denali National Park. There are no hiking trails, and no campsites. There are mountains, wildlife, glaciers, rivers to cross, dense brush to bushwhack through, valleys, and scree fields. But one thing there is not are paths.

As I started walking away from the road, the faces of the senior citizens in the window still staring at me as I trundled out into the vast emptiness, there was no particular direction to head, except away. There was no campsite I had to reach that night. There was no trail to follow. Just the wilderness in front of me.

If I wanted, I could hike up one valley toward a glacier, and spend the next ten days camped there doing nothing at all. I could spend my time searching for wildlife - I did come across several caribou as well as the remains of some beautiful Dall sheep, their large, curled horns and skulls scattered about a hillside. Or, I could spend my time following a river, or hiking through the lowland brush. Or, I could explore several valleys, turning back on myself whenever I pleased. I could do four miles a day or twenty. When it came time to pitch my tent, I could do it anywhere, whether on a hill with views in every direction, or tucked into a mountainside.

The world was open.

And now you see what I’m getting at.

A new metaphor

Life is like hiking through Denali. Whether you stay in bed all morning doing nothing, or get up to water the plants, commute to work, see your kids, play video games, or whatever else it is that you choose to do that’s in front of you is completely up to you.

If you are wondering what your path in life is, or what your purpose should be, perhaps you should rethink the metaphor itself: life doesn’t have paths. We are not on a road to Damascus; we are wandering through the wilderness, and there is no promised land on the other side. We are not choosing the road less taken; we are simply choosing how to spend our time, and there are infinite possibilities.

This way of thinking about the time ahead of me is lonesome and at times scary, like sailing through an unknown tempest in the middle of a vast ocean with no thought that land even exists. If there is no path, then I will never know whether I’m on it, or on the right one, or whether there is a right or a wrong one. There will only be the direction I choose to go.

As much as I love Robert Frost, it’s always been this way for me. I’m not religious, but my religious friends have sometimes asked me how I could go through life without that feeling there is a path God has chosen for me, or without the comfort of a higher power, or without the guideposts for action that are laid out by moral dictates like the commandments, or Jesus’ teachings, or any number of great books through the times.

And I say in response that I don’t know: it’s frightening and uncomfortable to believe that there is no path - and no amount of searching will get you to one. But of course it’s also liberating.

Sometimes I wish life did have paths, and that I could find the right one, and know that I was on it. I hiked up to a new climbing crag a few weeks ago and along the way I found those comforting rock cairns that signal: this is the way, you are headed in the right direction.

It’s always nice to come across those cairns. But the truth is, ultimately I prefer a hike through the wilderness. Maybe that’s a false sense of power, a mistaken belief that I am in control of more than I am. Maybe there really is a God and a path and a purpose and a plan for my life.

But I doubt it. Regardless, whether there is or isn’t, I’m sticking with my Denali metaphor. There are no paths - at least, no predetermined ones. There is only how you choose to spend your time.