Following a recent ride of the Oregon Outback I got to thinking a bit more about something that I’ve experienced for nearly three decades – what I call Post Adventure Blues (or PAB). Recently I’ve discovered that this is a common condition known as Post Event Depression. For me, the feeling has never escalated for full blown depression, but following a big event I nearly always get a bit of the blues. A feeling that something is missing. Jimmy Carter would call it malaise.
In his book Tribe Sebastain Junger interviews survivors of great hardship (such as the siege of Sarajevo), many of whom say that, upon reflection, these hard times were the best days of their lives. I believe that discomfort is healthy, both physically and mentally. All seven billion of us are descendants of humans who had to fight to survive; survival is deep within our genetic code. We’re born to struggle, and modern American suburban life simply doesn’t cut the mustard. Adventure gives us a focus and a sense of purpose; when the experience abruptly ends we can feel adrift.
My favorite aspect of adventure is the preparation. The physical training as well as figuring out and tweaking the gear, the food, the route gives me a great sense of purpose. I’m a big fan of messing with the status quo. Trying new things keeps me focused on the goal. Big trips always end abruptly; one minute you’re one hundred percent in the moment, the next you’re finished. I find that in the days following a trip I have extra time on my hands, the time I had spent preparing is now open. With that open time comes a loss of a sense of purpose. In order to mitigate this loss of purpose I always have another trip, another adventure on the backburner. Folks who know me know that within days of completing one outing I’ll be sending texts and emails drumming up interest in the next big thing. I’ve also realized that while adventure travel might render a sense of purpose it is not a source of enlightenment.
As I approached the finish line of my first Ironman I fully expected to leave the finish chute a different man. Surely all of this focus, dedication and endurance will yield an epiphany; I will now be given the secret knowledge. Obviously this didn’t happen, instead I retrieved my bike, loaded it on the back of the car and together with my wife drove to a Sonic drive-in where I had a cheeseburger and a shake – not exactly a moment of enlightenment. Still that same old Mike. For years I chased what I called “the one great thing,” do one great thing and then spend the rest of my life basking in the glow of my one big accomplishment. I now know that there is no one great thing. A healthy life is not about reflecting on that one great thing, instead it’s about planning that next great thing. This lack of finish line nirvana can make a big event seem anti-climactic.
One thing that experience has taught me is that nearly all big events are anti-climactic, and I no longer expect trumpets and applause. I remember after finishing my graduate degree I simply walked across campus in the rain to retrieve an envelope handed to me by an indifferent university employee. I opened it up, looked at my diploma and then returned it to the manila envelope and closed the flap. To this day that diploma has remained in that envelope. In the thirty years since I’ve come to accept that few people care about what I do, that there won’t be any medal ceremony, no parade, no Wheaties box; I know what I did and that’s good enough.
Many bikepacking races/events focus on the individual time trial, in other words going solo and accepting no outside help (some strict adherents go so far as to deem a friendly face seen along the route as cheating). This isn’t for me. Adventure, in my world, is all about the shared experience. I’m always self-sufficient on the trail and can take care of myself but I have no lone wolf tendencies. For me it’s all about the camaraderie. Hardship brings out the best (and the worst) in people. If you’ve chosen your partners wisely a big trip will yield stronger friendships.
I recently rode the Cross Washington Mountain Bike Race (XWA) with my good friend Mykenna. For seven hundred miles we were always in sync, never a harsh word never a hard feeling. Two days after completion I sent Mykenna a text that simply read: “all I want is to be back on the trail.” He replied with one word: “same.” The sudden disbanding of a “band of brothers/sisters” is for me the one aspect of adventuring that I can’t seem to get used to. On the road/trail you’re in it together.
This level of friendship only comes through the shared experience of discomfort. Modern American society scorns discomfort and thus this type of relationship is either rare or completely absent. I have a wonderful home and I’m always happy to return, but a day or two after the completion of a big trip I feel a sense of loneliness. I’m missing the friendship of the trail. I haven’t been able to cure this one, but I know that the feeling is coming and that helps. It’s better to look back on deep experiences with longing than to never have had them at all.