Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What is Comfort Really?

I'm fifteen miles outside of Pittsburgh. It's my first night on the trail, and I'm trying to sleep under a bridge. Already on edge, each car passing overhead wakes me as it's tires sing across the pavement.

A couple weeks later, I'm hiking down a canal towpath. Festering out of damp woods and stagnant water, mosquitos cloud the air; they greet me with sharp pricks against every inch of available skin. I'm sweaty. I stink. I itch unbearably as I clench my fists against my hips. I wonder at what point do I cross the edge, say I can't take another sleepless night, and leave my journey to go back home.

A month later, it's dark out as I walk alone through the woods. I shine my the light of my small flashlight on trees that all look the same; I'm looking for white blazes that mark the trail. As I turn each corner, I pray that I haven't lost my way.

I lay upon a spire of a rock, unmoving throughout the night; if I roll to my left, it's 80 feet to the boulders below; if I roll to my right, a mere 40 feet into a sharp crack between the rocks. And yet, despite the discomfort, I'm sleeping in a clearing on top of a mountain. Even the darkest recesses of space are speckled with a thousand stars.

Another night, I lay upon a rock that slopes down to the cliff's edge. Each time I shift throughout the night, I slide down a little farther. I am uncomfortable, yet I'm content as I stay up and talk to a hiker named Mystic. We contemplate the complexities of life and the universe as we watch the constellations move across the sky.

The air is quiet. I'm walking on a foggy morning through a forest of gnarled misshaped oak trees. Water drips from the crooks of bent limbs. As a drop strikes the top of my head and coldly crawls down my neck, I stop walking just for a moment. I take a chill and shudder. Goose pimples prickle upon my skin. I close my eyes. The air smells crisp, metallic. I listen for a sound, any sound at all. And then I wonder, when was the last time it was completely quiet? And then I realize, perhaps for the first time in my life, I am exactly where I belong.

As my journey comes to an end, it's 30 miles from the trail to the nearest town. I walk the highway hitching rides from passing strangers. It takes three different rides, from three different locals, to get there. Each time I get into a car, I nervously put my life in a stranger's hands, and each time I get out, I step down from the car having made a new friend.

Hiking has a way of pushing you beyond the limits of comfort. On the trail you accept that you don't have clean clothes, a comfortable bed, an unlimited supply of water at the turn of a knob. You accept the burden of a more difficult lifestyle, because you realize you misdefined comfort all along.

Comfort isn't all of the conveniences that we've accepted as part of civilized life. If I slept in a plush bed of my own making, then I'd toss and turn all night while I merely dreamed of the stars. I'm off the trail, in a new city, in a new apartment, each day becoming more restless. I'm restless because, after walking a thousand miles through wilderness, I now realize that 700 square feet to stretch out in doesn't create comfort, it creates convenience. Comfort doesn't come from the fridge, the television, or the hot water heater.

Comfort is a dramatic realization of contentment. With who we are. With where we're at. Comfort is walking the trail on foggy morning, and even though I shiver against the cold, I smile. For the first time in my life, I feel my soul. It tells me I am exactly where I belong.