The Locked Door: Krakauer, Seneca, and the Challenge of Coming Home

Deep in the heart of the Swiss Alps, overlooking the Oberland villages of Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen, there lives a giant. Six-thousand vertical feet of imposing black rock and ice, edged by glaciers, and buffeted by winds that are said to drive people beyond the brink of insanity. This is the Eiger and its north face is the stuff of legend.

It rises straight up for more than a mile; up, up out of the surrounding landscape, reaching out to scoop the clouds from the sky and hold them in its arms like a child’s stuffed toy. Dozens of the world’s greatest climbers have died in those arms, earning the North Face the nickname of “mordwand” — murder wall.

In the side of the mountain, looking quite out of place thousands of feet above the valley floor, there is a small wooden door. This unlikely hatchway, which is never locked, is known as the stollenloch and leads off the menacing face into a train tunnel, offering deliverance to stranded climbers.

In the opening pages of his book, Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men And Mountains, Jon Krakauer mentions the door, saying that it reminded him a little too much of:

“…a scene from a recurring dream I’ve been having for years in which I’m fighting for my life in a storm on some endless climb when I come upon a door set into the mountainside. The doorway leads into a warm room with a fireplace and tables of steaming food and a comfortable bed. Usually, in this dream, the door is locked.”

Something about this passage grabbed my imagination and wouldn’t let go. For who of us has not felt at some time like we were stumbling through the very same stormy climb, with happiness and warmth on the other side of a door we can’t seem to open?

In my life it has often manifested as a restlessness. Behind the door is a place called “home”. A settled life with a loving partner and people who know my name at the local coffee shop. It seems nice. I think to myself that I’d like to go there. And yet, for whatever reason, the door is locked, and I’ve misplaced the key, and somehow continuing to climb seems easier than knocking.

I’ve written before about why people choose to venture. But what about the challenge of going home? What about the challenge of staying home? When that particular door seems locked, journeying can quickly turn into drifting and a darkness gathers — a darkness like that of Krakauer’s unending climb.

In his interview with adventurer and extreme endurance athlete Ross Edgley, Joe Rogan once said:

“There’s something about a lot of these endurance people… I always consider [them] like dark… They’re running from some darkness. You know what I mean?”

This was shortly after Edgley finished The Great British Swim. For one-hundred and fifty-seven days he swam day and night, in six-hour shifts, through thousands of miles of cold, dark, jellyfish-infested waters all the way around Great Britain. He used neither fins nor snorkel, his wetsuit chafed the back of his neck into a deep, raw gash that regularly re-opened in the salt water, and constant exposure led to continual exhaustion and such unpleasantries as “salt tongue”, a condition in which one’s tongue literally begins to disintegrate.

For five months he endured this. He has also endured such harrowing feats as pulling a car the length of a marathon, completing a triathlon whilst carrying a hundred-pound log, climbing up and down a rope for a total of 8488 meters (the height of Everest), running thirty marathons in thirty consecutive days, and many others.

“You seem so normal,” Rogan said. “That’s what’s so confusing to me.”

Indeed, aside from the fact that he’s built like a Greek statue’s idea of what a Greek statue should look like, Edgley does seem exceedingly normal. He is warm, hospitable, cheery, and uplifting with an easy smile and the natural movements of a lifelong athlete. One of the mottos of the Great British Swim was “swim with a smile,” and he commonly sites research about how even forcing a grin can release biochemicals that aid in muscle recovery and boost immune function (both critical under such trying conditions).

And yet when he met with Charlie Pitcher, a fellow adventurer who rowed alone across the Atlantic in 2013 setting a new world record, Edgley didn’t ask about endurance or mental toughness. Instead, he asked Pitcher for advice on how to transition back into the civilized world. Proof that, even for those who swim with a smile, the door back to everyday life can sometimes be difficult to open.

“Do you think it is unusual,” Edgley asked Rogan, “or do you think that we now think it’s unusual because society has got real comfortable?”

It’s a good question. Anyone who’s tossed their life into a backpack and stepped out onto the road has had similar misgivings about society. We take to the road, we think, to get away from here and to find more of what we’re looking for out there.

This is not new though. For as long as there have been societies, there have been men and women who wandered away from them in hope of finding something more. Seneca spoke of this two-thousand years ago, warning about something that sounds uncannily like the darkness that Rogan mentioned.

“All that dashing about turns out to be quite futile,” he wrote in a letter, going on to say:

“And if you want to know why all this running away cannot help you, the answer is simply this: you are running away in your own company.”

Socrates put it similarly nearly five-hundred years earlier when he said:

“How can you wonder your travels do you no good when you carry yourself around with you? You are saddled with the very thing that drove you away.”

If the ancients are right (and let’s face it, they often are) then perhaps the door we face is not locked at all. Perhaps it is us on both sides of the door, at once trying to pry it open, and simultaneously pulling with all our might to try and hold it closed.

It is this struggle against ourselves which makes it seem as though the door is locked, and for as long as it continues, we are trapped, like Krakauer in the stormy endless climb.

The key to opening it, according to Seneca, is not found out in the world, but rather by turning inward. “You have to lay aside the load on your spirit,” he says. “Until you do that nowhere will satisfy you.”

The good news is that, if we can figure out how to do that, the future (both on the road and at home) looks pretty damn bright.

“…every change of scene will become a pleasure. You may be banished to the ends of the earth, and yet in whatever outlandish corner of the world you may find yourself stationed, you will find that place, whatever it may be like, a hospitable home. Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there… the thing you are looking for, the good life, is available everywhere.”

-Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

I can’t tell you how to lay aside this load. It’s something I’m far from figuring out myself. But maybe it’s enough to remember that way up on the Eiger’s murderous north face, amongst rockslides and avalanches and maddening foehn winds, the most unlikely door in the world, the stollenloch, always swings free.

Mark Twain and the Value of Journals

“If you wish to inflict a heartless and malignant punishment upon a young person, pledge him to keep a journal a year.”

-Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

For anyone who has ever been frustrated by their inability to keep a journal, or, after keeping a journal, by the surprising gaps and useless information one finds upon revisiting those pages a few months or years later; For anyone who has ever known this frustration, we have Mark Twain.

When we think of Twain, most of us think immediately of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. But during his lifetime, The Innocents Abroad sold more copies than any of his other books. A humorous account of his travels through Europe and the Holy Land, it is one of the bestselling travel books of all time.

Among the many observations he made during the trip, one that will likely resonate with writers of all kinds is that of the difficulty of keeping a journal…

“At certain periods it becomes the dearest ambition of a man to keep a faithful record of his performances in a book; and he dashes at this work with an enthusiasm that imposes on him the notion that keeping a journal is the veriest pastime in the world, and the pleasantest.

But if he only lives twenty-one days, he will find out that only those rare natures that are made up of pluck, endurance, devotion to duty for duty’s sake, and invincible determination may hope to venture upon so tremendous an enterprise as the keeping of a journal and not sustain a shameful defeat.”

-Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

Starting a journal is easy. Finishing it is the hard part. What’s more, all the value of the thing is pretty much bound up in the finishing of it. As Twain wryly points out to a young shipmate in his book…

“Yes, a journal that is incomplete isn’t of much use, but a journal properly kept is worth a thousand dollars — when you’ve got it done.”

The same can be said about writing projects in general. They are easy to start, hard to finish, and not really worth anything until you’ve got them done. So the question naturally becomes How do you go about finishing a journal? What is the “right” way to do it?

As with so many things, the answer seems to be “It depends.”

Twain himself tended to keep a single notebook in which he wrote everything from fictional sketches, to shopping lists, to accounts of his travels far and wide. During a single month-long voyage from San Francisco to New York, he filled an entire notebook with his thoughts and observations (the seventh of forty-nine surviving notebooks which scholars still study and transcribe to this day).

Hemingway, on the other hand, spent more than a month shooting big game in Africa (the trip which eventually became The Green Hills of Africa) and wrote nothing but a few jotted notes and a tally of animals seen scribbled on the end-papers of a bird-book he was reading during the trip. His wife, Pauline, kept a faithful account (which is itself worth a read, and can be found along with Hemingway’s own notes inside the Hemingway Library edition of The Green Hills of Africa) which he used while writing Green Hills.

Perhaps your style lies somewhere in between. Perhaps it’s different entirely.

In the end, it seems that great writing can come from just about any kind of journal, so long as the journal is complete from the writer’s perspective and the style of journaling jives with the mind doing the writing.

Thoughts from the Community…

There are as many ways to fill a journal as there are journals or people to fill them. I’m curious to hear from other writers…

  1. Do you have a favorite notebook which you’ve bought and filled more than once?
  2. What do you usually write in your travel journals?

Leave a comment below if you care to share!

Hemingway’s Kudu and Quitting Your Day Job

Always as a writer there is the question of whether to keep your day job. Successful writers for generations have been telling aspiring writers to keep their jobs and do their writing on the side. Aspiring writers, myself included, have spent generations ignoring this wisdom.

And then there is Hemingway, who found a sneaky way to give new advice on this, then buried it in the pages of an unlikely source: his 1935 safari tale, The Green Hills of Africa. In it, he says…

Now it is pleasant to hunt something that you want very much over a long period of time, being outwitted, outmaneuvered, and failing at the end of each day, but having the hunt and knowing every time you are out that, sooner or later, your luck will change and that you will get the chance that you are seeking. But it is not pleasant to have a time limit by which you must get your kudu or perhaps never get it, nor even see one.

It is not the way hunting should be… The way to hunt is for as long as you live against as long as there is such and such an animal; just as the way to paint is as long as there is you and colors and canvas, and the way to write as long as you can live and there is pencil or paper or ink or any machine to do it with, or anything you care to write about, and you feel a fool, and you are a fool, to do it any other way. But here we were, now, caught by time, by the season, and by the running out of our money so that what should have been as much fun to do each day whether you killed or not was being forced into that most exciting perversion of life; the necessity of accomplishing something in less time than should truly be allowed for its doing.

-Ernest Hemingway, The Green Hills of Africa

It’s tempting to believe that your day job is what’s keeping you from your writing. That quitting it would offer the long open stretches of time you crave to be creative. Depending on your means, it may.

But when you leave a job behind, you turn over an hour-glass. The grains of sand counting down the days before your work needs to begin paying for itself.

It’s impossible to say for certain whether any particular writer should or should not have a day job, or whether they do or don’t stand a chance of making it. But we can comfortably say that no writer should ever do their work in less time than it ought to take.

Most of the time, when we talk about quitting our day jobs in order to pursue writing full-time, the question at hand is “How quickly can I make money at this?”

But another question, the one Hemingway offers, is “How long should this project take, and can I still afford to give it that if I walk away from my paycheck?”

How to (Really) Pack for the Appalachian Trail — A Look at My Gear After One Month of Hiking

“You know, my first time out I learned two things,” a man by the name of Hatchet told me as our cookstoves simmered in camp, “If you buy wrong you buy twice, and expensive gear is cheaper than knee surgery.”

He was certainly one who’d know. He was given the trail-name Hatchet because he began the Appalachian Trail with, among other things, a hatchet, a five-man tent, two hundred-foot lengths of rope, heavy-duty combat fatigues, a lantern, a flashlight, and a headlamp “just in case it got dark”.

This scenario is way more common than you’d think, even among experienced hikers. I spent many weekends backpacking as a kid, and used to sell equipment for a living, and still brought almost twenty pounds too much. The excess weight is killer on the knees, and replacing gear with lighter, more-effective versions is a pain on the wallet. So to help you avoid both I offer a comprehensive guide to my final gear load out.

This is not the stuff I started with, but the stuff I ended with and as such I think it’s a much more useful representation of what a long-distance hike really requires.

Continue reading “How to (Really) Pack for the Appalachian Trail — A Look at My Gear After One Month of Hiking”