Travels with a Seiko

I’ll be honest, when I first unwrapped the shining silver spectacle that was my Seiko Chronograph, I didn’t like it. I appreciated it — a gift from my parents given on the day I finally earned Eagle Scout — but I didn’t like it.

It was beautiful; sleek midnight-blue face-plate punctuated every twenty degrees with golden slivers that glittered in the sun. A shimmering clasp-closed stainless steel wrist-band and hands that were visible by day or night. No alarm, no beeps or boops, just twelve hours and the date laid out in a way that was elegant, but functional. It was a man’s watch, and it was given to me as a symbol of my having reached adulthood.

But of course, it was only a symbol, for a boy has not become a man until he’s able to recognize the wisdom of his parents, and sitting there in the early morning light I thought there’d surely been a mistake.

The watch was beautiful, but it wasn’t for me. I didn’t live a life with room for beautiful things. I was an adventurer. A swashbuckling, bear-fighting, road-tramping dirtbag, or at least, that’s what I aspired to. In two weeks’ time I’d be embarking on a four-hundred mile kayaking journey. There would be rain, and mud, and blood, and hillbillies. Certainly no place for such a fine watch. And so while I appreciated it, I didn’t truly love it. Not then.

But my parents told me to hang onto it, for the day would come when I’d need to dress and act like an adult. I had my doubts. But of course, they were right.

It was two years before I had it properly sized; two links removed in preparation for a job I’d taken at Yale. Three months in, the timepiece, and the job, felt more like a shackle than an opportunity, and it wasn’t long before I left to pursue work as an adventure filmmaker.

In 2012 I nearly hawked it to buy a dive-watch. I was headed for a new life in Hawaii, and everything I owned needed either to fit into my backpack, or be sold, donated, or thrown away. The far-flung pacific islands seemed once again like no place for such a fine piece of craftsmanship, and after nearly half a decade of limited use, I was almost convinced it was time to part ways with the old Seiko.

But then, it surprised me. I noticed something I hadn’t seen before, printed right there on the face of it. A tiny inscription; 100M. Could that possibly be meters, I wondered, and sure enough I flipped it over to find  Water Resistant 10 Bar stamped into the back. A quick Google search revealed that 10 Bar water resistance is quite suitable for swimming and even light snorkeling. I cracked a little smile. It wasn’t a dive watch, but my little Seiko was better suited to me than I thought.

We started hanging out more often.

Life continued on, and I started a business. Girls came into the picture. The way I dressed got smarter and smarter. My watch and I became pretty good pals.

It’s been nearly eight years since I first caught sight of how the hour markers glittered in the sun, and today  both the watch and I are very different than we were when we first met. We’re both a good deal smaller in circumference, it by three links, I by more than twenty pounds. We’ve both got our scars too. The second hand on the chronograph doesn’t reset perfectly to twelve, an injury sustained during the one and only battery changing the watch has needed during our time together. The clasp is scratched and marred from reaching into my pocket for the keys to the four cars, five cell-phones, and countless dollar bills, movie tickets, pocket-knives, packs of gum, pens, notebooks, and house keys that have come into and gone out of my life over the last few years.

But each scratch is in some small way a reminder of the adventures we’ve had. The time we navigated a sailboat between reefs out in Kaneohe Bay, dinners with friends aboard the Queen Mary 2, stowing away on the Coast Starlight Express to San Francisco, and many more. And the watch still surprises me to this day. Indeed, the reason I sat down to write this was because I found a new feature just this afternoon, a tachymeter used to measure distance and speed, staring me right in the face all these years but completely unnoticed.

I still fight bears sometimes. But mostly I wrestle words onto the page. Bears, in many ways, were easier. At this point in time, I’m living out of a backpack, traveling through the south of England while reconnecting with what it is I truly love to do. It’s not a big backpack, and I can’t fit a lot into it. But there will always be room for my trusty little Seiko.

 

A Case for Short Term Goals and Un-Planning

Today’s December 2nd, which means today marks exactly three months since I put my business on hold, and set off on the Appalachian Trail.

My, how things have changed.

In August, I lived in my parents’ basement in Connecticut. Today, I live in a finished attic on a rural English estate with a walled garden and an indoor pool (and in a week I’ll live somewhere else entirely). Could I have seen any of this coming? Could I have planned it?

In his interview with Derek Halpern, three-time best-selling author Tim Ferriss says that the key to his shocking success hasn’t been strategic planning, as many might first think. Instead, he lives by a series of three to six month goals and micro experiments. There are at least two major benefits for doing this.

First, he says, it lets him treat the projects in his life as tests, rather than major life decisions. If you launch a podcast, or open an online store by saying to yourself Okay, this is what I’m doing for the rest of my career then you face a tremendous downside if it doesn’t work out. You’ve failed.

The mere threat of failure is what keeps many people from trying things, and so this idea of committing to some long-term goal or plan can sometimes keep you from ever getting started.

By contrast, if you view something as a test, then there can be no failure; There’s only feedback. If it tanks, you take a look at what happened, and incorporate that new knowledge into your next project. You’re not a failure, you’re just learning. That feels a lot less scary.

Second, when you avoid long-term planning it leaves you open to opportunities you didn’t know were waiting. To create long, multi-year plans is to ignore the fact that the future is actually unwritten. It’s to risk being over-committed to a plan that’s not working, or one that only realizes part of your potential.

When Derek Sivers started his company CD Baby, his boldest vision predicted 1,000 clients and three employees crammed into his living room. Reality had more in store.  When he sold the company for $22M, CD Baby had over 200,000 clients, eighty-five employees, more than twenty-thousand square feet of warehouse, and millions of transactions a year.

Staying agile allows you to take hold of opportunities that are even better than you imagined possible.

All of this has been rattling around in my mind today, as I look back on what the last three months have brought. It’s rung especially true as I look forward to the next year, and the resolutions that would typically accompany the changing of the calendar.

This year there will be no resolutions. No goal by which I judge the success or failure of 2016. No grand vision for my life or work.

Just a handful of three to six month experiments that I’m really excited about, and hopefully the courage not to take them too seriously.

The Write to Roam TV: Episode 3

This has been a fun little experiment, and I’m happy to present the third and (for now) final episode of my little cooking-show-slash-small-biz-advice session. In this bit I talk about the power of books, dealing with haters, and the oh-so-important question of whom you need to become in order to have what you want.

Here are links to the resources I mentioned:

This isn’t goodbye forever. I’ve enjoyed this format, and think we may be stumbling towards something cool. I’ve got a couple of changes I want to make to the overall focus, timing, and quality, but look forward to version 2.0

In the meantime, if you got any value out of this, have questions or feedback, or just want to say hey, reach out and find me on twitter @EthanDBrooks.

The Write to Roam TV: Episode 2

For those of you who may have just stumbled across this, this is an experiment I’m doing where — in order to get away from my desk for a little while each day — I drop on down to the kitchen, cook a tasty meal, and discuss facets of travel, entrepreneurship, and small business that are on my mind from the day. In this episode, I whip up a quick favorite from Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Chef .

Here is a link to episode 1 are links to any of the resources I talked about: Continue reading “The Write to Roam TV: Episode 2”

The Write to Roam TV: Episode 1

No, it’s definitely not a real TV show. Just a good excuse for me to get away from my desk once a day or so, get down to the kitchen, and cook a good meal. One part Random Show, one part Wine About It, with a little Ask Gary Vee mixed in, this is me standing in front of the camera cooking, and talking about some of the more interesting ideas, articles, and resources I’ve come across throughout the day.

Links to everything can be found below. Some are affiliate Amazon links, which definitely help to keep this ship afloat. If you’re thinking of buying any of the books I mention (and I won’t mention them unless I’d truly recommend them) it’d mean a lot if you’d do it by clicking the links here. Continue reading “The Write to Roam TV: Episode 1”

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”

The Truth About Isolation on the Appalcahian Trail

 

I never really had what you might call the “college dorm experience”, but I imagine that nighttime on the Appalachian Trail comes pretty close. You’re far from home, the living quarters are small, and the bathrooms (really just toilet seats over holes in the ground) are kind of horrifying. You grow your beard, dress like a homeless pirate, and exist on a diet of Ramen Noodles & peanut butter which you must hide lest your neighbors — in this case squirrels, mice, bears, wild boar, and the occasional hobo — steal it. And of course, most importantly, you share this experience with some of the greatest people you will ever meet, for life on the AT isn’t nearly as solitary as you might first think.

Daytime is much as you’d expect; lots of walking alone through deep shady woods, past rivers and springs, and up over sun-dappled summits. You can go hours without seeing a soul. But at night people tend to congregate, mostly in and around a series of rustic shelters built along the trail by various volunteer groups and government agencies over the last few decades.

The shelters, really just wood floors with three walls and a roof, are spaced roughly a day’s walk apart, and are almost always provisioned with a picnic table, fire ring, and the aforementioned slightly horrifying bathrooms, which are known as privies. The really luxurious shelters might have a loft, or plywood bunks for sleeping in, a roof over the picnic table giving you a place to cook in the rain, and a series of pulleys and cables slung around trees from which you can easily hang your food bag in order to deter nighttime visitors.

In addition to all this the shelters are usually surrounded by a handful of handsome campsites, complete with their own fire rings, and are almost always near a good source of water. And so people trickle in all evening, looking for a place to fire up their cook stoves, grab some much needed calories, and a get good night’s sleep.

It’s in those hours, after the day’s hiking is finished but before drowsiness forces everyone to their sleeping bags, that many of the best memories from the trail are made.

Imagine, if you will, that you are the sole survivor of some civilization-crushing apocalyptic meltdown. All alone you struggle to fend for yourself, with nothing but the sound of the wind and the circling buzzards to keep you company. Then one day a couple of well-meaning strangers show up on your doorstep, with news from afar, pleasant conversation, and a bag of fun-size snickers bars that they readily share. That is every evening on the AT.

After a long day spent schlepping alone through endless woods every person you meet becomes a kind of miracle encounter. Strangers take on a whole new significance, and you are even excited to see people you may already know quite well. Conversation flows easily as you all have something in common: you’re all hiking the same trail.

If they’re heading in the same direction as you, you discuss the higher points and moments of intrigue from that day. If they’re going in the opposite direction, you trade tips on the terrain to come. The shared struggle of the trail opens the door to deeper discussion, and it’s not uncommon to forge strong bonds with perfect strangers before the sun goes down.

Then, in the morning, you wake up, pack up, and do it all again. Because everyone tends to walk and rest at different paces, you will sometimes pass new friends from the night before filling water bottles from a stream or enjoying the view after a taxing climb. Other times, you only see evidence that they’ve been there — someone will stand a stray bird feather up in the mud, or thoughtfully drape a red bandana over a tree branch in order to warn others of a nearby bee hive.

You begin to get the feeling that you’re part of a very large, loosely formed community of transients. Each of you facing the same hills and rocks and wind and hunger, and each of you keeping a kind of distant eye on the others. It is very nice.

With this bond there comes a palpable feeling of loss any time it is broken.

The day after we left Hiawassee, while camping at a place called Plumborchard Gap, we met a man whose trail name was Gunny.

Greeting people by their trail name is a jarring, almost nonsensical experience at first, mostly because trail names tend to be jarring and nonsensical. We had, for example, met hikers by the name of Can’t Tweet, ColdieLocks, Smokes, Puffs, and Just Lookin’, and had even heard of a librarian who was walking north under the moniker Thunder Fuck. But gradually you come to see that “real” names are just words, and words with very little back-story at that.

“She was named Gertrude after her great aunt Gertrude”… Boring.
“She was named Thunder Fuck because one day in camp she absolutely blew up on someone and nearly killed him to death with her bare hands”… Now we’re getting somewhere.

In any case you grow to accept trail names as legitimate methods of identification, and cease to notice their strangeness.

Gunny was, like many hikers, immediately likable and easygoing. He was optimistic, congenial, and a great talker which can be nice after hours of woodland silence. We all chatted late into the night, and made plans the next morning to meet up and camp together again at another shelter about eight miles north. I walked out of camp that day, following a zig-zag of side trails and footpaths that lead from the shelter back to the main Appalachian Trail, and wondered briefly if I shouldn’t wait, if only to help ensure that no one got lost. But we were all trail-tested by that point, having already navigated nearly a hundred miles of south-Appalachian wilderness and I shrugged off the thought and pushed on.

That evening I sat in camp, trading stories with two hikers – Squirrel and Zero — whom I’d just met. They had actually started behind us that morning, about five miles further south at a place called Dick’s Creek Gap, and had made good time getting to camp.

“Did you see an older guy out there,” I asked, “big knife hanging on his backpack?”

“Yea, Gunny?” Squirrel said, “I passed him near Plumborchard this morning. Nice guy.”

“Oh, good.” I said, “He’s actually supposed to be camping with us tonight.”

Squirrel paused for a moment, a piece of string cheese half way to his mouth.

“Then why was he headed the other way?” he said slowly, but even as he said it we all thought we knew the answer.

By their very nature, any trail that heads north also leads south and while it’s not easy, it is possible to get turned around on the Appalachian Trail. Without any discernible landmarks you can walk for miles before realizing your mistake. Gunny had likely gotten disoriented in the twists and turns of the trail that lead away from camp, and had hopped back on the AT headed in the wrong direction. If he were lucky he’d see some bit of trail that looked familiar, or have a chat with another hiker and figure out his mistake. If not, he’d walk several miles only to be very confused to emerge out of the woods, after a long sweaty day, back where he’d started the day before.

“Poor Gunny,” Zero said as she glanced back toward the trail. And though none of us had known him more than a couple of hours – some of us only a couple of minutes – we all felt the same way.

This twinge of loss is common on the trail, and I felt it again several days later when Zero caught her flight home, and again a few days after that after parting ways with Squirrel.

Things like Facebook and email can help you to stay in touch. But these, you find, aren’t enough to recreate the sense of community and comradery that’s forged on the trail. No matter how popular or far-reaching it is, the digital world is a poor replacement for the real one.

It is, at the very least, a heartbreakingly funny little lesson in impermanence. Back home, in a world of twenty-four hour drive-thru, on-demand TV, and constant connectivity to friends around the world, it’s easy to forget that things on this planet naturally come to an end.

Easy accessibility can give us the illusion that people and posessions are in our lives to stay. But the reality, the real reality, is that they are only ever passing through.