Before we get started, take a moment and think. What adventure story comes to mind? It can be a book, a movie, some tale from real life. I’m being vague here on purpose. Don’t think too hard — what pops up?
I’ve asked this question for over 25 years. In my psychotherapy practice, in my workshops, in the kitchen — basically anywhere I’ve had the opportunity to query another person. What is Adventure? What is a story? And why are they so important?
In 1999, I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. A thru-hike is a continuous traverse of about 2,181 miles of trail along the eastern mountains of the United States. Actually, I attempted a thru-hike. But, I’ll get to that in a moment.
I’d just spent a year living in rural New Hampshire working at a residential treatment center. We were in the middle of nowhere, on a beautiful 400 acre setting. The kids that we served lived and went to school onsite. Interactions, activities and experiences were intentionally designed as therapeutic growth opportunities. Daily group therapy, point charts, behavioral contracts and structures were the foundation of our work. It was intense. The kids were beyond challenging. I loved it. The routines we created became a holding environment for everyone, including me. It was a wild and formative time. You could almost hear people growing as human beings. The staff, the kids, everyone worked with grit and played with passion. At the end of that contract year, I chose to take a break. I went out to the woods. As my parents like to share, “We drove Jason 12 hours north into the woods of Maine… and left him there.”
Preparing for the Appalachian journey was an education. I dried, prepared and packed most of my own food. I organized supply boxes to ship. I poured over maps late into the night. When I got dropped off in Northern Maine, I was free. I had no idea what was ahead. It was a risk, and I was ready.
At first, it was amazing. New people, new vistas and amazing encounters of all kinds. I’ve always loved the woods and this was it for me. I geeked out on gear. I read books. I ran around naked on top of mountains. I made coffee at sunrise while my breath ran towards the clouds.
This is what most people expect to hear when I share my Appalachian Journey. And I can come through with tales, large and small — all true. It was an amazing trip. And then. And then, it became something both more and less than amazing. It became ordinary.
It became ordinary to get up, make coffee, notice the beauty of nature, and then do my miles. If you are going to hike the Appalachian Trail, then you’ve got to hike the Appalachian Trail. You’ve got to do your miles. This means you have to consume calories. You have to take care of blisters, and crotch rot, and infected blisters. You have to replace gear, and nurse a fever in a lean-to in a hurricane. You have to learn the best leaves for wiping. You’ve got to get comfortable with all of the ordinary, mundane moments of living. Just like when I was living in New Hampshire, teaching those kids and myself the importance of a schedule, it made sense to schedule my hiking days and my rest days.
I came to embrace the beautiful mundane. It was certainly a struggle. I often wondered why non-hikers were interested in hearing about the hike. “It’s just walking,” I’d always reply, “The biggest challenge is finding the six months to walk around in the woods. The second biggest challenge is choosing to walk around in the woods for six months.” I landed comfortably into the rhythm of my hiking days and then got excited for the ‘adventure’ of sporadic town days . In my mind, I struggled. Something felt different. My love of the trail remained, but the intensity waned. I’d lost a lot of weight, I was hungry all of the time, and I needed something more.
One morning, I awoke in the clouds on top of a mountain in southern Virginia. My closest friend had come to join me for a month and was hiking about 3 days behind me. We were to meet in the next town to hike together for 2 weeks. After a particularly poignant moment on the mountain, above treeline and directing the weather like a god (in my own mind) I found my mind wandering back to rural New Hampshire when we’d cook amazing ‘family’ meals with and for the kids and staff. The bickering and laughing of toil from the kitchen and warm smells of tasty, simple comforting meals wandered into my memories while gazing out into the mountains. I awoke to the most intense sunrise that I’ve ever seen. In my sleeping bag, crying into black coffee, I decided that it was time to come off the trail. I was done. I was about three-quarters of the way. I’d been on the trail for about 18 weeks. The decision was made before my coffee was gone.
That was a Wednesday. The following Monday, I was working in some of the toughest schools in Boston, MA and living with a stranger in a big house. I was offering psychotherapy services to really tough, amazing kids from truly difficult circumstances. And I’d discovered something that had forever changed me. My career, my personal life had been deeply altered.
I had fallen in love with the mundane, the ordinary adventures of life.
This idea rocked my world. I had studied adventure; I lived adventurously. I had a Master’s Degree in Adventure Therapy! I completed my Doctorate by writing a dissertation on using the Adventure metaphor in Narrative Therapy to create life changes! For the first time, I questioned the Hero’s Journey. I questioned the sagas and epics. This was the beginning of an amazingly deep dive into the metaphor of adventure and what I’d begun to call the Adventure-Journey Perspective. There was something there. Not all adventures need to be extraordinary, not all journeys require grandiosity. In fact, ordinary and mundane adventures were likely essential, foundational elements to achieving extraordinary stature. And yet they were maligned, neglected and minimized — most blockbuster movies relegate the mundane (and necessary) elements of the quest to simple three minute montages.
If we could elevate the status of the mundane and the ordinary, even a little bit, perhaps people could achieve more. Maybe, we could ‘achieve’ less, but with more joy and contentment. Where were the stories of Ordinary Adventure? Where were those tales?
For about 7 years, I continued to work in Boston schools and community mental health organizations (and a restaurant, but that’s a different story.) I learned as much as could about the processes of therapy, social work and community building. I returned to the treatment center in New Hampshire and worked in all sorts of other settings. This led me to a doctorate in Psychology where I focused on Narrative Therapy and the narrative perspective. As I learned, received training and deepened experiences, there were obstacles. Challenges and bumps along the road distracted and slowed progress. Ordinary life has it’s own conflict and climactic moments, of course. Insurance companies, regulations and bureaucracy in organizations, and limited resources were only some of the road blocks. Those were more easily identifiable. The sneakier ones were those of self-questioning, insecurity, and self-imposed limitations.
I was driven to learn more about the stories in our lives and how they create our realities. More importantly, I wanted to know how we could author our own stories; I yearned to discover how to return vitality to stories of everyday adventures. This could change people’s lives!
Twenty years later, I have come to see everything as a form of adventure story. After working at that residential treatment center in New Hampshire, hiking a lot of the Appalachian Trail, and finding myself enmeshed in a major city’s public school system (and numerous adventures since then), important themes have emerged. I now carry, “Curiosity, Compassion, Commitment and Connection,” as guiding values. I see the transformative power that comes from authoring your own story and the power of the Adventure-Journey metaphor. Everyday, ordinary life holds the captivating potential for epic encounters and it hides possibilities within the magical mundane. In order to discover these connections, we must deepen the rhythms of practical routines like sharing meals or maintaining the household or practicing new skills.
When we explore and understand this complete adventure in our lives, we increase connections to ourselves, our friends and family, our community and to the world around us. We feel nourished to the core.
That’s the vision of Nourished Connections, LLC.
With Nourished Connections, I am excited to bring over two decades of work in offices, institutions, kitchens, farmer’s markets, woodlots and boardrooms to a wild new venue. New offerings include individual and group online coaching programs, workshops and trainings, community building, facilitation and education/activism.
So what was your favorite Adventure Story? These days, mine involves chopping and stacking firewood for my family. Ask me about it sometime, it’s a wonder full tale!
If you’d like to learn more about programs and offerings from the JourneyMen, please email me at jason@JourneyMenFoundation.com or join the journey at http://www.journeymenfoundation.com