One thing I always envied in other people's stories was the big post-high-school trip. Honestly it was probably a more common thing in my mind than in reality, but whenever I heard someone's tale of hitting the road with their buddies for one last adventure before adulthood, it made me a little sad, and part of me always craved that experience of friendship and adventure.
It took me a while to see that the picture I had in my head of what my adventure should look like wasn't really helping me, because the picture was of a life that wasn't really mine. One where I didn't move to another city right before my senior year of high school, or struggle with depression, or get left stranded by a misguided career pursuit. One where the unpredictability of life was more manageable (in other words, not unpredictable at all). This illusion, while desirable, was still an illusion, and it disqualified me and made my hopes needlessly unattainable.
Then one Spring, with a short break in my undergrad classes coming up I decided if I wanted to go on adventures, I was just going to have to be a good enough companion for myself. It was a big moment of acceptance, which I was still pretty new at.
I secured the time off work and set my sights on Mammoth Cave National Park. Coming from my then-home of Orlando, an interesting spot that was (sort of) on the way was Providence Canyon State Park in Georgia. I got up in the still-dark hours and hit the road, which is something I've always loved to do. Probably because whenever that happened as a kid it was the start of a vacation to Disneyland or a camping trip.
First Stop, First Frustration
Vacations and holidays, however, share that unique mix of expectation and chaos that causes the worrisome corners of our hearts to come to the surface. As I rolled into my reserved campsite in Georgia, I was greeted by pouring rain.
Disappointed, I sat in my car and waited for it to die down to a drizzle. When I eventually set up the tent, it was quickly apparent that what it had saved me in price was sacrificed in water resistance. Disappointment became dread, and the little naysayer in my mind started speaking up.
What a lousy planner you are. This whole trip is stupid.
Now that voice had grown up out of my story for a lot of reasons which I was still just coming to terms with. But despite struggling with this negative side, I was determined to do what I could. Instead of calling it quits, I sucked it up and passed my first restless night with water dripping on my face.
Thankfully morning brought a second wind, and I rediscovered my drive to get out and explore. Though the endless clouds were already drizzling, I got my camera stuff and headed to the canyon, which was beautiful and actually held a few surprises. The trail led deep into the forest where a gathering of old automobiles lay abandoned for several decades.
With nature having so thoroughly absorbed these old relics, the parks department has decided it's better for the environment to just let them be. To this day these images spark a contemplative streak in me.
There was also a delightfully spooky graveyard with headstones dating from the early 1800's, crawling with noisy cicadas and enormous (but harmless) giant wood spiders.
The critical, pessimistic voice in my head would've had me turn right around the night before had I given him power over my decisions.
But as I took in the unexpected sights of my hike through Providence Canyon, I began to form one of my first rules for adventures: Make your preparations, but let it be what it is. You can bring your sunblock and water, you can reserve your space or your tickets, but you can't control the weather, the crowds, or whether you'll be able to get to what everyone wants to do.
A famous Hobbit once complained that adventures are uncomfortable things. But once he learned to accept their inconvenience and unpredictability, he couldn't live his life without them any longer.
From there I headed north, and after a stop in Nashville to see friends it was off to Kentucky and Mammoth Cave. By this point I was energized and ready for anything. The wet weather was behind me and the sun was shining.
The first thing that really struck me was the entrance. The first tour guide informed us that caverns like Mammoth remain at the annual average temperature of the region all year round. Which meant that while the air was hot and humid outside, in the cavern we'd enjoy a cool 55 degrees. This made entering the cave an interesting experience.
The opening sat in a recess in the ground, over which hung a weird mist that was hard for me to capture on camera. Passing through that hazy barrier was like getting into a pool of cold air. It was a pretty surreal sensation.
During a guided tour through the caves, one ranger who noticed my camera walked with me, giving me extra tidbits of history and pointing out details of import. He was an African-American whose great grandfather had actually been a tour guide here, only as a slave. The ranger showed me the hilltop where he lived today, as well as where his ancestor had marked his name on the cavern wall as many people did in those days.
The national parks have a way of reconnecting us with history. Gazing at the names on that cave wall, invited by the ranger's story into a deeper connection to the ages that have played out there, was a humbling and very special experience.
Since this trip I've made a few more, and have my sights set on other national parks and areas of interest around the country. The hope of seeing more of the earth and connecting with more of our human story is some of what fuels my drive to grow and expand.
But it is, of course, just part of the story.
Mike Ensley is a Professional Counselor in Loveland, CO.