Daunting Terrain

The sandy landscape of eastern Utah rolls by the car window in a blur of beige. We should be able to see for miles but dense smoke from nearby wildfires obscures the horizon. Gazing at the monochromatic scene, I lean my head against the seatbelt strap and exhale a long sigh. Today marks the 20th day I’ve spent on the road with Jon Haas. We’ve driven thousands of miles across California, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and now, as we zoom across the desert, I should feel carefree. But my stomach writhes with knots of tension.

Jon can tell I’m in a funk. “What’s up?” he asks.

“I’m stressed about going home.”

This summer has been the most epic season of my life: back to back expeditions on a research vessel in the Pacific Ocean, followed up by a month-long road trip with my best friend. By the time my plane touches down at RDU next week, I will have traveled close to 15,000 miles—by land, sea, and air.

 Driving across California on the first day of our road trip

Driving across California on the first day of our road trip

It’s not that I don’t want to go home—being back in North Carolina will mean spending time with dear friends and family, hiking, rock climbing, swimming, and cooking homemade meals in my own kitchen.

What makes my stomach clench is that I don’t know what is next. As a newly self-employed individual, I put an immense amount of pressure on myself. The weight of not knowing what my next big expedition or project will be only adds to that pressure.

When I elaborate on these insecurities, Jon doesn’t attempt to assuage my fears with empty platitudes. He hits me with the hard truth.

“You know, that’s a thing you’re going to have to get used to,” he says. “This is your life now.”

As a professional explorer, friends and family members often remark on the “extreme” nature of my work, bewildered by how I routinely venture to remote environments like the summit of an ice-covered volcano, the middle of the Pacific Ocean, or the top of a glacier in Antarctica.

 Climbing Mt. Shasta in white-out conditions | Photo by Jon Haas

Climbing Mt. Shasta in white-out conditions | Photo by Jon Haas

But the most daunting terrain I ever encounter resides in my own mind—a sprawling landscape of potential pitfalls and hardships and what ifs. What if I don’t get another expedition this year? How many small projects can I do instead? Will I make enough money?

“Look at it this way,” Jon says. “If you don’t have anything planned, you can be spontaneous. You can say yes to whatever comes your way in the next few months. You can do anything.”

True. With great freedom comes great possibility. But I still have to pay my bills. I stare at the open road, trying to shift my stubborn thoughts away from my bank account. In the place of anxiety and uncertainty, I need to envision positivity and possibility.

It is a task much easier said than done.

A week later, I wake up in my own bed, exhausted and unsettled. My alarm, which I regularly set for 5:30am this summer, now goes off at 7am. I silence it and burrow deeper under my comforter, unable to conceive of getting up.

I long for waking up to the zipper of a tent, or waves slapping against the hull of a ship. I miss waking up with the first light of the day, with the wind in my face.

 One of my favorite sunrises of the summer—during my 60th day at sea.

One of my favorite sunrises of the summer—during my 60th day at sea.

On the other side of my dark bedroom, my phone and laptop light up intermittently, emitting notification sounds for all the texts and emails I haven’t answered yet. On my dresser is a stack of unpaid power bills, a notice for my overdue car inspection, and a long to-do list scribbled on a post-it note.

On my desk is a book I read last year (Found: A Life in Mountain Rescue by Bree Loewen), flipped open to a pagewith a few underlined sentences.

Maybe it’s as simple as, if you have to keep moving, even when you’re exhausted, at least you don’t have to stop.

I wish I was still moving. I wish I didn’t have to stop.

For the better part of two decades, I have relied on running to soothe my troubled mind, and now is no different. In between unpacking and answering e-mails, I run. I breathe in the thick humidity of late August and breathe out the self-doubt. I run my favorite hill, again and again. As I run, I think about all the friends I made while living at sea. I think about climbing mountains with Jon. I think about my beautiful community here in North Carolina. I think about how lucky I am.

Whether I’m on an expedition, or a road trip, or at home, I always have a multitude of reasons to keep moving. A few weeks later, my anxiety and unease has dissipated. I have paid the bills, gotten my car inspected, and scheduled a meeting with my accountant. I have hiked my favorite trail at sunrise, and swam in the ocean, and spent a weekend camping and rock climbing. I have scheduled a handful of local photo shoots and video projects.

 A final salute to summer on the Outer Banks with some of my favorite women.

A final salute to summer on the Outer Banks with some of my favorite women.

Then, exactly one month after returning home to North Carolina, I receive an email.

Are you available for an expedition departing from San Francisco in two weeks?

Jon’s words echo through my mind: You can say yes to whatever comes your way in the next few months.

I respond to the e-mail immediately. Yes!

Save the date for Adventure Friday with Marley sponsored by Arc’teryx on November 16th at 6:30pm at TB&C. To see more photos from Marley's adventures, follow her on her instagram. To check out the latest from her current expedition, follow the Schmidt Ocean Institute. For more posts by Marley, explore her website.

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