It’s the bane of hikers, the false summit. You’re staggering up the trail, or a rocky ridgeline, and you’ve been eyeing the peak for hours, only to reach that spot and see that the trail keeps rising, that the rest of the mountain was simply occluded from view.
So you march toward the next peak, believing this one, only to discover yet another false summit.
This can go on so long that when you arrive at the true top, the feeling is one of both immense relief and disbelief. You march the last agonizing steps expecting to be fooled again. And then you want to collapse and kiss the rock that leads upward no more.
For the longest time, turning 40 was my personal summit, the end of my road. My plan was to be dead by June 23rd, 2015. And not in some vague, “If I keep this up, I’ll probably never to live to see 40” kinda way, but more in the tradition of some Inuit tribes, where the elders paddled off in their canoes to make room for a new generation.
I only ever discussed this plan with my best friend Scott and Amber. I trusted the two of them not to have me locked up. And I know the reaction from those who have soldiered right past 40 is that this is a young age, and to stop being histrionic. But that was exactly the point. 40 is young. And if we’re not careful, we’ll twiddle our thumbs until we get there.
Scott knew me as well as anyone has ever known me, and he knew I was dead serious about this plan. He saw me say over and over that I was going to do something absurd, and then watch me go do it (or more likely, be my accomplice). We used to have tearful conversations about the plan. He would try to talk sense into me. But as I explained it to him, planning on being dead by 40 was not an attempt to curtail my life, but a way of expanding it. By planning on being dead by 40, I made my life so much longer.
I’ve always been fascinated with the perception of the passing of time. My earliest powerful memories are of being in the back of our red and white Ford van on the way to the beach. We made the trek every summer, and my brother and sister and I would create a playroom on the folded-flat rear seat, which turned into a bed. The three and a half hour drive was interminable. Time slowed to a crawl. Anticipation, striving, forgoing immediate self-gratification, and the racing mind of youth conspired to turn what I could otherwise idle away with a book on any given afternoon into a savage form of torture for which there was no end.
In high school, years later, I would do the exact same drive, and time would fly right by. Same length of time, two very different experiences.
Being curious about the cause of this, I began paying attention to how different time seemed to flow depending on circumstances. What I noticed was that the first time I drove anywhere with my new four-wheeled freedom, the drive felt much longer than the subsequent trips. Each drive along a route seemed to take less and less time. I realized that the first time I drove to a new place, I was hyper alert for the directions, and I was seeing new things. There was so much to take in, and so my brain would rev up, effectively slowing time down by processing a lot more. As I became familiar with the journey, my brain would shut off and coast. I could zone out, later “come to,” and marvel at the curves I navigated without being aware of them.
Three and a half hour drives today feel like absolutely nothing to me, but only if I’ve done them before.
A similar revving of the brain occurs during life-threatening events. I’ve been in a few car crashes, and time really does slow down. The brain is like a CPU, and it can be overclocked. It’s not efficient to run at max speed all the time, so the brain shuts some cores down and coasts when it can. 30% of our calories are burned by this 5 pounds of our bodies. But when our survival is at stake, it makes sense to dump all resources into calculating some way out of the mess. Newness and fear, then, seemed to be the way to keep life from zipping right by.
Comparing life to a road we travel is so obvious that it’s become cliche. So my revelation from a car crash as a youth and all those road trips was this: The way to make a life feel long was a combination of newness and danger. Seeking danger seemed like a bad idea — more a recipe for a shortened life than a perceived longer one. But what about newness? I decided to explore this further.
And what I noticed right off the bat is that for most people, life is not so much a journey as it is a commute. We like to pretend that life is some open road we explore, but it’s really a path we carve into the pavement, worn there by habit, or the back and forth of routine. I wrote about this in I, Zombie, a horror book primarily concerned with the horrors of a habituated life.
A life of commute scared me. It meant traveling the same road back and forth every day. Wouldn’t my brain then shut off and allow me to coast, managing curves without even thinking about them? Wouldn’t my life speed right by like the drive between my house and my best friend Nathan’s?
I wanted a life that would feel longer, a path that stimulated my mind by constantly feeding it new scenery, new experiences, and new information. This realization hit me like a lightning bolt one day. I was 19 years old, sitting at a lunch table with my Tandy computer repair coworkers, all of us in our white shirts and garish ties, a few pocket protectors scattered here and there. My colleagues were a lot older than me. And I saw, in an instant, that I would be them with the snap of a finger. I would repeat the same actions over and over, and my life would disappear just as surely as those curves that I’m able to unconsciously navigate along familiar roads. I would startle in my seat, glance in the rearview, and wonder where the path went.
Soon after that lunch, I moved to Charleston, SC, to shake my life up a bit. I went back to college, got a job doing something I knew nothing about, and bought a boat to live aboard. I was always an avid reader, but now I read voraciously and far more variously. Before, I’d consumed mostly Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I would read all the Forgotten Realm and D&D books. Like familiar roads, they would allow my brain to shut off and the hours to float by, completely unnoticed. Each book was largely the same. Now, I turned to challenging books by Russian authors and lots of non-fiction about really esoteric stuff. Books that required every sentence to be looked at twice, just like new scenery when we’re afraid of missing some turn.
Any adventure or opportunity that came my way, I said “yes.” A girl asked if I would pose nude for a sculptor friend. Sure. Someone asked if I would help drive their daughter from Charleston to LA. Absolutely. We did the drive in 36 hours. I jumped on a boat once heading for Hong Kong for no pay, and this required finishing my classes in the middle of the semester and leaving a very cushy job driving a water taxi. The more uncomfortable and new, the more likely I was to go for it. Despite my fears. Despite the craving for comfort and ease.
Friends and family used to tell me that strange opportunities like this just seemed to come my way. Curious about this, I took a deeper look at what was happening, and I saw the same opportunities were there for them as well. The difference was that I was actively seeking them and always taking them. I went on church trips to build houses for Habitat for Humanity. I took vans full of kids on Alternate Spring Breaks to volunteer in Bronx shelters. Life was about maximizing my experiences to avoid that very life from slipping away. And it was all fostered by my self-imposed time limit of 40 years to live.
When people tell me, “Oh, but 40 is young,” what I hear is: “Why try to live a full life today? You’ve got time!”
Without a deadline, it would be so much easier to put off bold plans until I was no longer bold enough to tackle them. Or to put off my dreams until the forever-sleep robbed me of the chance at them.
I hated the thought of “having plenty of time.” My plan was to cram in all the things I wanted to accomplish in half the time, and nothing in my life has been a better motivator for getting things done.
When loved ones heard I planned on being dead by age 40, they were sad for me. It was hard to reconcile my active and happy life with such a philosophy. What they missed was that the happiness owed everything to the plan of a curtailed life. I was living a full and happy life because I didn’t assume I had forever.
Something I noticed while in college: Most kids spent the majority of their time doing the same few things. Again, it’s like driving a commute rather than heading to a new destination. After a few nights bar-hopping in Charleston, I realized that my memory of college would be a single memory, an average of all these nights, just a vague recollection of laughter with friends over drinks. Each moment would be enjoyable, but few would stand out over time. My life would be compressed due to lack of newness. This is the same observation over and over: Take detours in order to fill a life with new memories, lengthening the perception of time.
This doesn’t have to mean a lack of family or true and deep friendships, either. My two best friends today are people I’ve known and kept up with for over twenty years. Amber and I moved every few years, taking on new jobs, selling homes and buying new ones that needed more work. We were contributing to society more than we would have if we’d stayed with the same jobs and grown apathetic and bored. Or in the same houses, rather than buying new ones and fixing them up as well. We left behind a trail of improvements, and found ourselves improved as a result.
Rather than have vague memories today of thirteen years in South Florida, where we met, we have all these different stages of our lives that stand out in stark relief. A year in an apartment, two years in our first home in Florida, two years in Virginia together, five years in North Carolina, three years in Jupiter. Five distinct lives instead of one.
When I lived on boats the first time, I met the most interesting families I would ever come across. Parents with teenage kids. Parents with newborns. Many of them stayed on the move, homeschooling as they went. I just spent a week on my friend Terry’s boat, and it’s littered with all the books and supplies for schooling his teenage kids. These kids growing up on boats are the brightest, most mature young adults I’ve ever met, hands-down. They aren’t on a commute; they are on a journey.
Our brains evolved to live a life of constant trouble and danger. Amber and I discussed this a while back, when she had a very restful night of sleep, but said she kept waking up all throughout the night. I’ve always noticed this with nights spent camping or on a boat at sea. You don’t get the eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, instead getting little naps punctuated by semi-alertness.
Well, what did our ancestors do? They didn’t lock the door of the cave, knowing no one would come in and eat them, spear them, or take their things. The only way to get a truly restful night of sleep was to assuage any worry by remaining vigilant. That is: True rest came from the complete lack of stress that anything bad might happen in the night. Shutting our brains off for eight hours at a time is not the goal of sleep but a curse. Shutting off our brains for decades at a time is not the goal of life but a similar curse.
Moving is a pain. Selling and buying homes are a pain. Quitting jobs and seeking new ones are a pain. Getting rid of possessions and living light is a pain. Saying goodbye to existing friends and meeting new ones is a pain. Every one of these splinters of sensation, though, stands out in the end. And the decades of numbness go by like those daydreamed and unseen curves.
And so back to the summit: The march to 40 was a march to a false one, sure. Along the path, people would call down and tell me to go slow, to take it easy, that there’s a lot of mountain left. Along the path, hikers with the full mountain in mind or a trail map would see my traipsing off into the bushes along either side of the trail, trying my best to scout out the entire mountain, to look under every rock and around every corner, and they would say to me, “There’s plenty of time to do that once you get over the next rise.”
Screw that. There’s always plenty of time until there’s none left.
I turn 40 this month. It is an amazingly young age. I’ve never been in better shape, and there’s so much potential mountain stretched out ahead of me. But there’s even more that I want to do. So why look at 70 or 60 or even 50? Why put anything off? I’d rather pick out the first false peak that I can see and assume that’s as high as I’ll ever get. And what can I accomplish before I get there?
My best friend Scott had his first of two kids when he was my age. So even that’s not out of the question. I’d love to have a family, raise them at sea, homeschool them, watch them grow. The idea that a vagabond lifestyle leaves you cut off from people and unable to also have a family is an excuse to commute to work every day, to not take chances, to not live a full life. I’m saying this as someone who feels the urge all the time to settle, to be comfortable, to stop taking chances. I’m not saying the lifestyle I chose is right for anyone other than me, only that I wouldn’t be as fully happy any other way.
We often hear that “age is just a number.” Yes, but it’s a useful number. Age is a mile-marker, those little green signs that dot the interstate. I feel like I have a choice: I can tune out and zoom down the highway, noting those little markers now and then, and peering in the rearview and wondering where those decades of flattop went. Or I can scramble over that berm, peek behind that bush, climb that outcrop, and forget about highways and paths straight to the top and the idea of getting anywhere as quickly and painlessly as possible.