I didn’t know I was mired in my career until my wife hauled me out. I liked my job. I wasn’t flailing. But sometimes there’s a subtle kind of discontent. Perhaps that’s the most pernicious kind of all.
I grew up in a nurturing home where industriousness was prized, and that ethic calcified around me. When I made the high school tennis team, my parents didn’t take afternoons off to attend my matches, and I didn’t expect them to. Work came first.
Back then, I nursed dreams of adventure — a houseboat moored along the Great Barrier Reef, a cabin on a Baja lagoon where gray whales raised curious calves. When college and then work life took hold, those idylls drifted from view.
I met Karen in 2003, when she was three years into a career in insurance and I was a junior editor at a magazine on Long Island. When she and I married a few years later, we saw a future filled with onesies and toys, field trips and first dates. Then the future arrived, and none of those things appeared.
Alone together, we held fast against grief, and travel became our consolation. We sought places where we felt connected to each other and the world. But each brief excursion — to Bryce or Zion, the Tetons or Alaska — felt like a morsel, not a meal. Retirement became the junk drawer where we stashed dreams of true escape.
Until Karen walked into a maelstrom. In 2020, she took a new role at her insurance company, COVID descended, and everything changed. Procedures needed constant adjustment. Natural disasters intensified their assault on the country and the record books. In an industry built to manage catastrophes, Karen’s work suddenly felt unmanageable. And now her office was a few feet from our bedroom, always beckoning.
Fight-or-flight of the squirrel
The squirrels that frequent our front lawn are a jittery lot. They share the neighborhood with red-tail hawks and bald eagles — fans of furry meals. So our squirrels run everywhere they go, and when they stop to nibble a seed or check their move goals, they look like bank robbers awaiting a getaway car, all darting eyes and coiled muscle.
Which is roughly how Karen felt during the first year and a half in her new role. I couldn’t do all that much to calm her, but YouTube could. Most weeknights as the pandemic raged, Karen disappeared into the cellar, where she found inspiration in videos made by escapees — van lifers, long hikers, citizens on the lam. Some had quit jobs, others had delayed careers. All seemed to reject the idea that work is life and dreams are damned. They were living on four wheels, scouting for the next place to pump their latrines, but they seemed preternaturally at peace, and Karen craved what they had found. Still, good employees didn’t disappear on whims or wanderlust.
Handcuffed by stricture, yet tantalized by thoughts of escape, we sought transcendence in between. We became day-hikers — happy to wake before dawn, drive three dark hours to New Hampshire, and summit a mountain on a trail set by sadists. Despite the precipitous climbs, the peaks were places of peace where work did not intercede.
Stealthily at first, Karen began to wonder if she could stretch that feeling over weeks. She burrowed into videos of the Appalachian Trail, a walk of more than 2,000 miles that takes five or six months to complete. Then she stumbled on tales of the John Muir Trail, a 210-mile trek through the high wonderland of California’s Sierra Nevada. There were mountains to climb every day, in a landscape some called the most beautiful on earth.
During the dispiriting days of 2021, as COVID wore on and job stress mounted, Karen would mention hiking the JMT and I would laugh, imagining the folly of taking four weeks off from work. But she had raced across the lawn too many times, and her outlook had changed. Escape was no longer out of the question.
One night she emerged from the basement with a request. “I want to enter us in the lottery for a John Muir Trail permit.”
I wasn’t foundering; most days at work I felt engaged. But when I dug a bit deeper, I recognized a furtive kind of sadness. The prospect of seeing the world in one-week glimpses for the rest of my working life felt like a blanket on my soul.
Soon, I let Karen’s dream become mine. The career restrictions we had so long imposed on ourselves dissolved. We asked our managers for the time off, and they gave us their blessing. Suddenly the future looked bigger and more fulfilling.
A new reality on the horizon
On our second day hiking the John Muir Trail, we woke at midnight in a veil of wildfire smoke. We nearly panicked, alone there in the woods. Instead, sensing that the fire was a safe distance away, we donned masks and coaxed ourselves back to sleep. In the morning the air had cleared.
At the end of week one, we walked through Evolution Creek, lugging backpacks of more than a quarter our body weight. In week three we slept under the Milky Way on a plateau so high and remote that we felt like sentries guarding the earth. On our final morning, we watched a tangerine sun paint thin clouds from our perch on Mt. Whitney, the highest piece of land in the contiguous United States.
Today, sitting by the window in view of our squirrels, I’ll pull up a picture from the trail and turn my phone to Karen. “Remember?” I’ll say. She’ll smile, tilt her head, and put me at ease.
After a getaway like the JMT, some people might return to work fully charged. Karen and I slumped back to our desks, thinking often of our days on the trail. But like steam rising off a lake at dawn, the pall lifted in time. The pandemic eased, and Karen’s days became more manageable. We reminded ourselves of our fortune — working with good people at companies we admire.
We didn’t need to leave our jobs. What we needed was a reprieve from the demands of adulthood so that we could recapture the wonder of youth. We needed to know that our junk drawer wouldn’t spill over before we could enjoy the places we had tucked inside.
Retirement is a long way away, after all. Life is right here.
Chris Chiappinelli is a writer living in Wrentham.