My Ulysses Factor, Suborned by Domesticity, Given New Life In Maine
“There is some factor in man, some form of special adaptation, which prompts a few individuals to exploits which, however purposeless they may seem, are of value to the survival of the race.” – J.L.R. Anderson, The Ulysses Factor
There’s a long title on this post. I’m not sure thru-hiking or section-hiking the Appalachian Trail or ranging the backcountry of the world on foot or in a canoe is a driving force in the survival of our species. Maybe in combination with others who share this same urge, we’re good for the human race with our “can-do”, forward-forging spirit.
If this factor is real, I believe as a compulsion that drove my disdain for “car camping” in my youth. While we passively soaked in a semblance of wilderness, with loud fifth-wheel generators and store-bought firewood, at the DMZ buffer zone between wilderness and civilization, often from lawn chairs, I fantasized journeys through the wild, the kind lived by Shackleton, Bob Marshall, or John Muir.
I joined the Army as a paratrooper in part to satisfy this drive. This drive has always been with me. Thanks to that drive, as I stood in the Brooks Range in the park Bob Marshall named, Gates of the Arctic, or on the Savage River in Denali National Park on a sojourn in the Alaskan Range. Climbing Mt. Wrangell, with it’s incredible, snow-filled caldera, was the adventure of a lifetime. I’ve climbed red rock mountains in desert landscapes. I’ve cut my way through the tropics.
Returning from Alaska and the active duty Army at the turn of this century, I always worried that living in a land of superlatives would stunt my regard for the natural world in the Lower 48. This was true, for a time, but you can be tested anywhere, to the same degrees, when you detach yourself from civilization and force near-complete self-reliance or reliance on a small group of people. While the likelihood I could receive aid on a ridgeline in Pennsylvania was far higher than if I became lost in the Alaskan wild, a rain-slicked, rocky precipice still holds satisfactory peril for someone with a high Ulysses Factor.
My only complaint is that domesticity has killed the ability to break away for adventure—for now. The scope and assumed risk increases in my trips as my children grow, and especially since we moved to Maine.
I celebrated the completion of my new book, The Kosher Backpacker, by leveraging an incentive deal I get for some side-work to buy a new ultralight 60 liter backpack from Granite Gear. Now that we live in Maine, I have long-trail desires I haven’t had in years. I’ve been content with section hikes along the Appalachian Trail since moving back east from California in 2002. After my oldest and second oldest children were born, the longest trips I’ve been on are two or three overnights in what “wilderness” you can find on the East Coast. My trail name, “Strings Attached,” is a reference to my free-flowing tzitzit, a name given to me on a long Virginia section hike by some stinky thru-hikers. It replaced my older, less apropos moniker, “Meatsack,” especially since I’m a pescetarian. But it feels like a multi-dimensional appellation. I’m bound to G-d and the mitzvot, I’m bound to work, I’m bound to the National Guard, and I’m bound to family. I’ve got strings on me, and I’ve got them in spades.
Now, I know that once I leave the Guard in 2020 I will likely have the time and financial resources for another thru-hike. I’m also commoditizing the glut of other content that just couldn’t reasonably fit in my book into a shomer mitzvot-centric website and thru-hike guide app. I hope to a) increase the presence of observant Jews with the Ulysses Factor on the trails and b) provide a hub for Jewish (of all walks of Judaism) outdoor content. I’m also putting together a business plan for providing a mail service of hechshered foods for observant thru-hikers. I know it won’t be a booming business, but it’s a value-add that I hope will get Heebs on the trail or on the waterways. I can turn a small profit, but I can also ensure it’s easier for Jews to keep kosher on a thru-hike, and put them in touch with Chabad Houses and synagogues along the routes.
I wonder how many of us start off with a strong calling to live a life of adventure, but suborn it as life goes along. As we enter the last days of Passover, I realized, we’re mostly still enslaved with chains of our own making. Cubicle farms, wages, conventional thinking, adderall, “toxic masculinity,” our continual frustration with social justice issues, etc. After recent events, I’m deliberately detaching from the political sphere and concerning myself with an individual formula for life as it ought to be lived. This isn’t “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” It’s just that for all of us, our jailers can be found in our reflection.
This doesn’t preclude doing good work for others.
אל–תמנע–טוב מבּעליו בּהיוֹת לאל ידיךָ ידךָ לעשוֹת
Observant Judaism is deliberately community-centric, and assumes proximity to Jewish community life. It imposes constraints that make wilderness travel complicated. An observant vacation invites neurotic obsession with candle-lighting times and finding a hechsher label on our food. Perhaps our explosion of intellectual growth in antiquity through to recent days has been fostered by the convergence of fences (rabbinical- and host-culture-imposed) and that percentage of our population who have this Ulysses Factor. We’re pioneers in multiple STEM disciplines, in the arts, in music, but our list of Jewish explorers is leaner than the pamphlet of Jewish sports heroes.
The number of Israelis on the global trail says perhaps there’s hope. I hope we can influence religious Diaspora Jewry to expand their wilderness horizon beyond the metric of how far we are from the eruv.
My larger goal with wilderness travel is selfish, though. I never want to miss an opportunity to be in the woods, on the coast, or on a mountain. My best memories with Amelia are our experiences in the Adirondack High Peaks or on Pennsylvania ridgelines. We’re building new memories in the tranquil (and not so tranquil) woods and waters of Maine. Nezzie already exhibits a toddler’s love of adventure and a curiosity of what awaits over the hill. I hope that also translates to a disdain for the kind of sedentary, canned “experiences” that seem to define vacation for so many Americans.
Every day I want to explore. Every day I want to discover. Even if what I find has footprints in the dirt, it’s new to me.
If life isn’t a revelation, it’s not worth living.