There is a great myth about life reaching a plateau. You go through childhood, create memories that are mostly fiction but hold your identity up like marionette strings. You make your mistakes, or painfully pass through your teenage years. You enter into adulthood only according to law, because you spend the rest of your life searching for it. Maybe you go to college, make more mistakes, meet people as brainwashed as you, and tell yourself that you are on the right track. Whether it is right after high school, or you prolong the engagement by going to college, you enter into the "work force" with the idea of a "career". Here you have reached a plateau; by this point you should have “grown-up”. You have climbed your way up, paid your dues (dug yourself into debt), and life is flat for once. You work the rest of your life until you die. You buy a house, build a family, and go through life changing only in age. Education and learning is behind you. Personal growth is suspended as you try to remember your childhood to help you raise your children.
This plateau does not exist. Growth is not reserved for children and adolescence. Education is NOT a means to an end. It is a life long endeavor (if you allow it to be). It is not defined by pieces of paper that hang on your walls or the high-paying job you land, but by how you interact with the world. What is really sad is seeing what happens when someone believes this myth. Thirty-years later, laid off from the career that was supposed to take him to the end, he finds himself lost in a landscape full of mountains and he's at the bottom again.
Ever since middle school, I have had an issue with this misconception. I never wanted to believe it. I would sit in class gazing out the window, dreaming of a time when I would no longer be spoon fed this regimented ideology about life. I did this especially in the honors classes. What I looked forward to took the shape of a goal: after high school graduation I intended to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, Georgia to Maine. All the way through high school I held onto this goal. It was going to be my way out. I wanted to escape. Senior year, as my peers experienced stress applying to colleges and attempting to determine the course of the rest of their lives, stresses they neither understood or were prepared for, I had peace of mind. I knew what I wanted to do. My life after the trail would be determined after the trail.
Somehow I was able to push past the guidance counselors, the grandparents, even my friends, who thought postponing college (or, gasp, not going at all) was an ill-advised idea. I was supposed to be deciding on a career, getting serious about my life, getting on a path towards professionalism. I held firm to my plan, even though I really did not know what I was getting myself into. I wanted the trail to be an escape from people and responsibility. I thought I needed time alone.
It turned out that what I wanted was neither what I really needed or what I ultimately received. I did indeed follow through with hiking the trail. After a year of doing stone work to safe money, I headed down to Georgia with a pack and my doubts. It was nothing like I expected. Instead of escaping from people and responsibility, the six months backpacking only brought me closer to them. A cross-cut through the Eastern United States, the A.T. experience is a cross-section of American counter-culture. Among the many lessons learned, my doubts about life reaching a plateau were fortified. I did not encounter a swathe of hopeless hippies; at least not entirely. Most of my fellow hikers were older; some with children, many defining themselves by a career. The ages ranged from eleven (a son, thru-hiking with his family) to seventy. Seeing such a variety of people sharing in an experience outside of the standard ant-like lifestyle confirmed to me that life really doesn’t need to be so ordered.
Those six months, five years ago, still define my decisions and my outlook on life. My introspective tendencies were thrown into countless fire-side conversations and walking wonderings. When it came time to return to school, taking up Philosophy as my major seemed like a logical progression. It is a degree where the expected career is as ambiguous at graduation as it is freshman year. I would like to think that my time on the trail helps me be comfortable with that fact. I do not expect a plateau. I may graduate this year, but my education continues.