Off the Grid

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I’m going off the grid for the next three days. My wife got the hint that I need a break from the job – undoubtedly due to my quiet, but incessant whining – and booked us at a cottage on the Washington coast. When I say “off the grid,” I don’t mean to imply any “Greek economic austerity measure”-level of asceticism. I’ll watch a little TV and may look at Facebook, but I’m unplugging from the work matrix: No (annoying) emails, no (unproductive) meetings, no (soul-crushing) bureaucracy. I’m hoping to re-charge the batteries and get excited about work again, but I’m trying to manage my emotional expectations. I know a three-day break isn’t a panacea for my organizational malaise, but I hope to find a little peace by way of my journey into the wilderness.

Yesterday, I took my son to his own journey into the wild. I drove him to a local park where he was to help with trail clearing and restoration. While he is a good kid, I assure you his volunteerism was due to a requirement of his science teacher, who expects the kids to spend 10 hours per year doing community service. If not for the grade, he would have remained indoors on a rainy Saturday morning engaging in more idle pursuits.

As instructed, we arrived at the park maintenance building, stepped out of my truck into the rainy Saturday morning, and looked around for the trail restoration project organizers. Based on previous experience, they would be there to sign-in the kids and arm them with gloves, shovels, and rakes. In this case, however, the only people there were other volunteers: four teenage girls and two moms. I spoke with one of the moms, and she agreed that the organizers should be there to greet us. We saw a dry erase board sitting on an easel adjacent to a trailhead that declared, “Trail Project – Follow the Pink Ribbons.” I doubted we were expected to wander into the woods unescorted, but I chose to press on rather than stand in the rain. Occasionally, I fill a lull with a burst of leadership. My son, four girls, and one mom followed me, putting unwarranted trust in my decisiveness. We trudged ahead with no indication of where we were going or what our destination was aside from the presence of pink ribbons tied to tree branches every few hundred feet. After we had traversed more than a half mile, I stopped, faced my troop, and confessed I didn’t know where we were going and it didn’t look promising to continue. I recommended a return return to the maintenance building in the vain hope that the organizers had arrived and were now waiting for us.

When we arrived back, the mom that had stayed behind told us she left voice mail messages for the organizers but had not heard back. More hopefully, she had heard rumor – from joggers running through the park – of the organizers being headquartered up around the bend at the north end of the park. Desperation and annoyance was settling in, but I decided to follow the wagon train. We mounted our vehicles and drove a short distance, but were forced to dismount when we came to another trailhead. We reassembled in the increasingly heavy rain and returned to our walk in the woods. Another half mile hike found us at a fork in the trail. To the left we saw a pink ribbon tied to a branch, and to the right was a large, official looking, and bright orange sign that read “TRAIL CLOSED. RESTORATION IN PROGRESS.” I wondered if the work party might be found somewhere beyond this warning sign, but, before I could share my idea, one of the moms took the lead and marched us to the left, following the pink ribbons. We made it less than a quarter mile when I said we should stop. I recognized the trail and knew we were going in a circle. I explained that, crazy as it sounds, the work party is likely beyond the “TRAIL CLOSED” sign. It was just a theory based on my certainty that the pink ribbons held no hope. I re-took the lead and guided us back to the orange sign. We would ignore the warning and go deeper into the woods. I was wet and getting wetter, roughly at the same rate at which my annoyance at the organizers was growing.

As we walked, frustrated and confused, the situation became familiar: a group of teenagers and adult chaperones wandering into forbidden areas of the woods. We were walking into a horror movie plot, and there was a good chance we’d start being slaughtered any minute now. That outcome seemed as likely as any, but a quarter mile down the path, we came upon the work crew wearing rain gear and gloves. The female leader asked if we were the volunteers. I said we were, and magnanimously apologized for being late rather than explaining to her, in great detail, how she had failed in their responsibility as work party organizer. Instead, I told her the “TRAIL CLOSED” sign was a bit confusing. She didn’t get the hint, and simply said they needed to keep the joggers out. Whatever. I told my son to have a good day and walked back to my truck. I wasn’t volunteering to restore trails. Rather, I went to the office to review email and update to-do lists in preparation for a three-day getaway.

When my boy got home from his day in the wilderness, he was soaked, tired, and sore. It was a long day of manual labor, hauling wheel barrows full of gravel to re-build well worn trails. I noted the small irony that after spending 45 minutes wandering through the woods, getting wet and growing angry with the lack of clear direction before finding his destination, he spent the next five hours breaking his back. No rest for the weary. Life’s like that sometimes, and it makes me a bit nervous about my trip to the coast. I’m hoping it’s a chance to get reinvigorated, but I recognize it’s never that simple. My son’s walk in the woods pointed out some life lessons:

• Sometimes it’s gonna rain.
• Sometimes signs don’t help.
• Sometimes the leader doesn’t know where he’s going.
• And, sometimes, if you go far enough, you may find what you’re looking for, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a lot of work to be done once you get there.

Wish me luck on my trip off the grid. See you on the other side.

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