My nine-mile hike this fall in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, an hour south of Big Timber, Montana, began with a road closure. Over the whine of my beagle, Foster Wallace, who was anxious to get out of the car after two hours of driving, an employee of the U.S. Forest Service informed me that I could not access the road to my favorite camping spot for another four or five hours. I was encouraged to hang out at the picnic area a hundred yards back while I waited for the road to my campsite to reopen.
I knew there was a trailhead about a quarter mile past the closure point. I had never been on this trail and took it primarily out of convenience. I changed my clothes, packed a pair of waterproof trail shoes and lunch, and set off without a map or any expectations regarding where the trail might lead.
A camping trip in true wilderness should have its share of unexpected challenges. This one included snow and freezing rain, high wind speeds that forced me to relocate my campsite shortly after sunset the first night, and a five-hour road closure. Unlike my anxious beagle in the passenger seat, I was empowered by my willingness to adapt to these challenges, knowing that my experience would result in a far better story if I decided not to simply sit and wait it out.
It is difficult to imagine myself 10 years ago, freshly graduated from Wagner College, working in New York City, contemplating where I’d be today — 10 years in the future. In many ways, the “Last Best Place” is perhaps the last place I would have expected to be at this point in my life.
I have always enjoyed being motivated by whim and chance. My mother, who was an exceptional elementary school teacher, consistently encouraged the exploration of curiosities. I tried everything as a child. I asked questions, and I did not allow for delay in understanding the answers. As I grew older, I was fortunate to find a path of education that embraced and encouraged my curiosity. At Wagner, my desire to be an actor shifted into a passion for directing, and the College’s unique English program allowed for me to turn a love for reading into a career of creative writing, publishing, and teaching. It was by chance that I became editor of Wagner’s literary journal, Nimbus – a role that would define my final two years at the College.
Ten years ago, I had never considered that my experience with Nimbus would be the first step toward publishing a book of fiction (Participants), founding a publishing company (Cobalt Press), or teaching creative writing at a small liberal arts college in Montana.
This is the nature of being guided by curiosity.
Each project, each step in between then and now was fueled by an intense desire to try something.
Six months after I graduated from Wagner, I was writing quarterly real estate investment trust reports in the penthouse office of the World Trade Center in Boston, contemplating the chief financial officer’s suggestion that I should enroll in an MBA program. A year later, I was writing lottery technology proposals for GTECH in Providence, Rhode Island, with a year of graduate business courses under my belt. Another year later, I was living in Baltimore, directing a play, working in public relations for a financial publisher, and enrolled in a master of fine arts program. (Meanwhile, I was writing my MBA thesis about Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reading device, returning to Providence semi-monthly to meet with my thesis advisor.)
That is a rather truncated version of my career before I began teaching in 2012. From one year to the next, city to city, job to job, the summary reads as erratic. However, the result is the same as I had set out for in 2003, when, as a freshman at Wagner, I declared my major and was determined to become an English teacher. Each project, each step in between then and now was fueled by an intense desire to try something.
I met someone in the middle of that brief summary, too. It was at a party on New Year’s Eve, and I was busy convincing people that the painting of Samuel Beckett on the wall was my grandfather. I walked past her and made another non-sequitur joke; she laughed and followed with curiosity. A little over a year later, we were engaged.
Stacie grew up in two small towns in Montana, Hamilton and Belt. She had graduated from high school early and did what many teenagers, myself included, are inclined to do at that point in their lives: She put hundreds of miles between herself and home. Stacie had no plans to return permanently. The Christmas after we married, I visited Montana for the first time, experienced the two hours of driving through nothingness to get from one city to the next. The town in which we stayed for the holiday had a population equivalent to a single floor of Harborview Hall, and it was a fifteen-minute drive to reliable cellular service. The trip ended with an intentionally incendiary joke on Facebook: “I will never live in Montana.”*
But I had fallen in love with her, and eventually Montana, and less than five years after that Facebook post, I was convincing Stacie that we should move.
To most, hiking in unfamiliar territory without a map would seem foolish, even dangerous. However, I have spent my whole life traveling without a map, without certain direction — most of us do, really. And, while I’m not suggesting that we should all traverse bear country without a plan (I did have bear spray and a GPS tracker in case of emergency), I do think it is critical that we allow ourselves to be driven onto new trails by curiosity, whim, or circumstance, from time to time.
*Every year, Facebook’s “On This Day” feature rubs this joke in my face.