You hear a familiar crunch as your leather hiking boot bursts through a thin layer of orange leaves littering the trail below. You look up for a moment, startled by delicate footprints up and to your left, just managing to catch the tail ends of two deer before they hurriedly prance out of view. There’s a chill in the autumn air, and, if you look closely, you can see your breath manifest into a tiny cloud right before your face as you walk. At the next junction on the trail, a small, weathered sign leans squat against a tree. “Monarch Lake 1.2 miles | Crystal Lake 1.4 miles” – Which do you choose?
It’s sunset, and you are watching the last of our star’s orange glow fluoresce against the horizon before it dips out of view. You’re sitting on the stoop of a 400-year-old stucco building in Cinque Terre, Italy, swigging Chianti straight out of the bottle like a college sophomore. A light breeze blows past. Giggling couples begin returning from the rocky shore towards restaurants lit with dancing flickers of candlelight, ready to gorge themselves on fresh seafood. You take a deep breath and exhale proudly, “Now this is living!”
The walls were moving, and I didn’t know where my guide was.
I was squatting, pants-down, over a pit toilet within a crudely constructed turquoise shed somewhere around 15,700 feet in the Andean foothills of Peru, trying desperately not to puke. The walls appeared to be having a rave of their own, swaying rhythmically to and fro like one of those inflatable arm waving men you see outside of used car dealerships. Mind you, the walls were not actually alive. They were static, as ordinary outhouse walls tend to be. I was the one collapsing. I was trapped in the psychedelic hellscape that only severe altitude sickness can bring, and I was terrified.
First, there is water. Air thick with salt sweat and a deep blue landscape dotted with the lacy imprints of coral. There are trees that rise in mounds from the scattered fingers of islands like forest green muttonchops or particularly dense broccoli. Land and sea boast of their fertility; the earth is rich with color.
You inhale. The feeling of new air mixes with unknown space as you first place one foot and then the other onto the path ahead. A lightness tickles your stomach, curling upwards and into your heart. It tugs at the outermost threads of your mind and trembles, massaging the gray area that arises between excitement and edginess. At once delighted and supernaturally aware of your surroundings, you begin to sink into the unfamiliar. The journey is afoot.
The American dream is dead. While still nestled in infancy, star-spangled hopes of anything resembling my parents’ life had pretty much vanished, and a strange subtext for what was to come silently gestated as I grew. The car, the house, and the child before age 30 were all near impossibilities for those of us who inherited the great recession. We were taught to dream small and assign great meaning to the tiny crevasses in which we were held, to play the game the way it’s always been played, though the rules have shifted greatly. Cultural milestones carved deep into society’s structure suddenly feel staggeringly out of reach for this generation of misfits, caught in the middle. So, what are we to do but erupt? To transform? To leap daringly into that which we can hold and experience with the limited resources we have been given? The new American dream will be forged not in matter, but in memory. A bleary-eyed tumble into the ephemeral nature of all things, seen through the lens of conscious nomadism.