Sunday, October 17, 2021

Solo Fast III - Keep it Warm

During my Fellowship Training sabbatical in Steamboat Springs, I'm privileged to take weekend trips back to Eugene to treat a small number of clients each month. As autumn began to descend upon the Pacific Northwest, memories of my favorite "Fall in Oregon" activities came bursting back into my memory.

The memory that struck hardest: The Solo Fast.

From my 2012 experience,

"The idea behind a solo fast – truly, sitting alone in a remote area of the wilderness, no work, no communication, no technology, no food, and – if you’re die-hard – no fire – is equal parts mediation and strength through deprivation.  I like both those things about running, so why not try it?  Moreover, unlike running, you can’t out-run your “issues”: if there’s something going on in your life, chances are good you’ll be mulling it over, given 40+ hours.  There’s nowhere to hide from yourself."

I've done two, but not since 2013. For reasons both palpable and not, I yearned for another go, this time amidst the brilliant Aspen Yellows of Northern Colorado. 

Craig Thornley, a key running mentor and teacher of the Solo Fast, told me in my first year, that one (or more) of three things may happen after a Solo Fast:
  1. If you’re running from something, you won’t be able to hide from it out there.
  2. Whatever you “crave” when you’re out there is what you’re looking for in normal life.
  3. Every time he’s done a long solo, something big has happened in his life.
It was time for another go. Thankfully (or trepidatiously) my wife Callie decided to also take part. While initially concerned for her safety, I realized this worry was selfish (and, based on her inherent strength, largely unfounded), and that this could be an equally powerful experience for her, too.

So, on the third weekend of October, only 48 hours removed from a significant early-season snowstorm that still blanketed much of the Routt National Forest area, we embarked with full packs, empty food rations, and a lot of excitement (and/or dread) of what lay ahead of us.

The Friday Night Hike-In. Lots of fresh snow.

Below are the peak thoughts, feeling and emotions that bubbled up over that 40+ hours of fasted, alone time in the woods: 

Exhaustion. There's an inherent fatigue to the solo fast experience. Sleeping, then hanging out, for multiple days outside, most of the time in the cold, wears on you. But the lack of food (even if you're an experienced faster) magnifies it. By mid-day Saturday, about a day into the fast, there's not much energy to do anything. 

Moreover, the spirit of the solo fast is to "do nothing": no distracting activity, physical or mental. This lack of activity, ironically, increases that perceived fatigue. You sit. Then you get tired, so you lay down. And fall asleep.

This forced inertia is actually a tremendous side benefit to the solo fast: rest. To finally drop everything, and turn everything off. 

This year? It was quite a crash.

I've been exhausted. It's been a long year (or two). I haven't slept well in a long time. And now, in Fellowship, I'm working longer and harder than ever. I longed for a Solo Fast just for the sleep!

And that's what I got.

Callie and I left the trailhead a few miles north of town not long before sunset. I dropped her off a mile up the trail, then forged onward to find my own camp, a mile farther. After some scouting, I found a nice, secluded spot above the trail and near a high point on the ridge overlooking the Yampa Valley: a little spot I nicknamed "Tres Aspens", where I pitched my tent meticulously in the six inches of fresh snow. 

My wintry home at "Tres Aspens", overlooking the Yampa Valley.

(Side note: here are some keys for selecting a primo spot for Solo Fast, which is very important since you spend literally all day and night there:
  • Solitude, but relatively close to a trail and trailhead
  • South-facing: to get as much heat as possible during the morning and evening (for cool-weather outings)
  • Above the trail (more solitude and privacy)
  • Affording some cover from wind
  • Near a forested area (for firewood))
The temperature took a nose-dive after sunset. I lit a warming fire and hung out for bit, which allowed me to enjoy the last slivers of orange over the west horizon.  

I crawled into the tent and bundled in the zero-degree bag at 8:30...and remained there until 6:30 the next morning. I awoke several times, mostly due to freezing parts of my face, as the temps likely dipped into the low-teens. The performance blanket I brought served as a clutch face shield (that froze solid with my breath vapor by morning).

I awoke, lit another fire, boiled some water for instant decaf, and sat - on my Amazon cardboard box for a "chair mat" - and thoroughly enjoyed the sunrise over the Yampa Valley. 

Saturday morning sunrise fire and coffee at Tres Aspens.

After a couple hours of sipping coffee and feeding conifer branches to stoke the flames, I let the fire die down. I sat there, staring at the coals as they turned to ash, while the bright sun rose overhead. After that, I puttered around Tres Aspens, assembling some firewood for the evening fire ("You can never have too much!").

Then, I got tired.

I napped. Inside the (now solar-heated) tent, I snoozed for over two hours, 'til past noon.

By then, it was downright warm in the clear sky and calm air. Time for another tradition: solo-fast sunbathing! I took my air mattress outside and laid in on the melting snow and...well, laid around. I didn't completely fall asleep, but I dozed in and out of thought and semi-coherent dreaming, rotisserie-ing enough to avoid a serious burn.

Then, more firewood collecting.

Mid-afternoon, it was back to the mattress in the sun. I crashed out for another two (or was it three?) hours.

Six-plus hours of daytime napping (after a ten-hour sleep). I was wiped out.

"Achiever fatigue" is championed as the badge of honor for the high-achiever class; you're doing it wrong - or clearly not enough - if you aren't relentlessly on the go, or don't present with a constant, low (or medium-plus) level of working fatigue. 

While I agree that periods of heavy fatigue mark the "periodization" of personal and professional development: college, grad school, raising a newborn... training for a hundred-miler, I'm wholly against the idea that high achievement requires a lifestyle that features constant fatigue. In fact, my metric for wealth is "money-per-unit free time", which for me was very high, pre-Fellowship, in my private practice.  

Too often, the real source of fatigue - and impending exhaustion - is carrying a burden that is too heavy, and/or for too long. If you're carrying something, or ignoring a pain, or a void in your life, it begins to weigh on you. And often, that burden grows like a snowball in sticky-powder day.

I felt a bit of that going into this weekend. And, wow, did it feel great to put it down - and simply take a goddamn nap (or two) - for a while!

Fatigue is the brain's way of telling you something is up; it's intent is to implore you to slow down, that something needs to change. True exhaustion means you need to stop.

It was great to have true rest

Nausea. Interestingly, I got a bit nauseous on Saturday evening. I'm not sure why (it could've been from the decaf coffee, or the half-allergy med I took - but those are typical for me). Given how my gut behaved thereafter - in the absence of any food (or tainted water!) - I suspect I might've experienced a minor "die-off" in my gut. I've experienced these before and - given that I'd eaten zero food for a day, this seemed most plausible. 

I like the idea of The Die-Off: to kill something, you simply starve it. Quit feeding its (negative) power. And it dies. Let it go, and its gone. It's easier said than done. But that's part of the beauty of the solo fast: it's a forced letting-go. Whatever negative things were in my system (digestive or otherwise), I take solace in the idea that the solo fast helps dispose of them. 

Restlessness. It happens every time: you sleep long on Friday night, then Saturday, drift in and out of sleep, literally all day. Come Saturday night? Sleep is a little tougher to come by!

Saturday night twilight fire. Lots of stars, early. 

Even with the nighttime conditions generously dispensing an extra ten degrees, it was tough sleeping Saturday night. It didn't help that one or more of the moose friends that stopped by at dusk, returned (them, or different one) around midnight, snorting and moaning maybe ten yards from my tent. 

After that, sleep came in 20-30 minute bits, punctuated by bizarre dreams and semi-coherent thoughts resembling a series of bewildering sitcom pilots. In between, a great deal of restlessness

Restless literally means, "unable to relax or rest due to anxiety or boredom". But another component is an inherent dissatisfaction. A missing element. A void

For me, that night, a few degrees centigrade (or some sort of nasal-specific warming patch), and more than two inches of pressurized mat between my backside and the snow, were logistical deficits, no doubt. 

But I've had a sense of restlessness for a while now; it's what brought me to Steamboat, but in a cruel twist of irony, that sensation seems to be growing. As I mulled over this sensation, it became clear to me that one aspect of restlessness is the frustrating combination of energy - motivation - coupled (or really, stymied) by an inability to act: a barrier

Those energies and barriers are in abundant supply in our lives. Some are external, but more often than not, those barriers are internal: a deep-seeded fear, stopping us in our tracks, preventing a forward movement toward "satisfaction" (which, to me, seems more like a mythical mirage than a real destination). 

But what I know for sure: Passion + Energy + Action = Joy. And while some restlessness may be a good thing - a damming up of energy that, like water toward an earthen obstruction, magnifies its force - relentless restlessness is the souring of joy. A lost opportunity. A wasted life.

As someone who has experienced acute loss from a young age, I experience this cruel duality of "fear of missing out", while at other times, being frozen in inaction: being unable to act when I see something I want, or feel something is missing, out of fear (of failure, rejection or otherwise), or shame, or some other concocted internal barrier. 

Restlessness, like fatigue, is a normal and acceptable sensation, but only if transient. Relentless restlessness? Something needs to change.

Warmth: Passion + "Bringing Your Talents". The first year of solo fast, I did not intend on making a campfire. According to Thornley, in its purest form fires aren't allowed in Solo Fasts because they represent a distraction (and, dare I say, a "luxury"). That year it meant that, whenever it was cold (which, in October anywhere in the northwest, was all but a few hours), I had to retreat inside my tent. 

By Saturday night, shut inside my tent and swaddled deep beneath a sleeping bag, semi-conscious, I was going stir-crazy. I lit a fire. Those flames - that heat, the warmth - made a tremendous difference. 

Fires have been a central part of my solo fast experience ever since. In fact, most of my (waking) hours were spent around a fire. Was I distracted? Maybe, but it also became a focal point for my thoughts. And as I dwelled upon the importance of the fire, the first thought that came to mind was, "This prevents me from slinking away" - into that tent and bag, alone. 

The campfire is an amazing game-changer, but it doesn't come without a price: it takes a lot of time and energy to build and maintain, and - occasionally - you get burned. At the time of this writing I sport a small blister on my index finger, presumably from getting too close to the flames, or handling dangerously hot coals (as I often do). My favorite sweats now have a couple more holes, thanks to the many exploding embers discharged from the burning conifer branches.

But are those little wounds worth the warmth? Hell yes, they are. On solo fast, that warmth, the aliveness of a dancing fire, is the sole difference-maker between joy and peace, and cold misery. 

This Fellowship training, this move to Steamboat, has been a tremendous education on the power of warmth: the end result of the assembling of a group of passionate, energetic, positive people united under the same values and goals. Apart, singular dry sticks we might be, but coming together, in this "ring", and adding our energies under "sparks"? Magical things happen.

Before the Fellowship, and CFMT, I constantly felt like "a man without a country": working in conventional practices, or with coworkers (usually bosses) who - at best - tolerated how I practiced and at worst, criticized it. So to be working with a group of people that - while still unique - share the same values, commitment to excellence, an open mind to learn new (if not weird or crazy) things, and - best of all - bring tremendous passion to everyone in the clinic, each day? What a gift it is that warms me!

And it stokes my passions! Like flames to adjacent tinder, you can't help but express your passion, as well. 

(And the students! Talented, and so hungry, positive, committed, and passionate! How they've motivated me and stoked my own passions proves that you needn't be a seasoned clinician to "bring it"!)

Conversely? Before the fellowship, I certainly had a lot of freedom and (money/time) wealth: I worked a lot less, made a lot more money, and had a lot of free time. But was I living passionately? Putting in the hours, alone, then otherwise laying low, "relaxing" in the comforts of home? 

It reminds me of a story I've shared with my former high school athletes, that I first gleaned from "Season of Life": a biblical story from "The Parable of the Talents", (in Matthew 25:14–30 of the Bible:)

"...tells of a master who was leaving his house to travel, and, before leaving, entrusted his property to his servants. According to the abilities of each man, one servant received five talents, the second had received two, and the third received only one. [...where a talent was a significant amount of money.]

Upon returning home, after a long absence, the master asks his three servants for an account of the talents he entrusted to them. The first and the second servants explain that they each put their talents to work, and have doubled the value of the property with which they were entrusted; each servant was rewarded:

'His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.'

The third servant, however, had merely hidden his talent, burying it in the ground, and was punished by his master".
The take-home: bring your talents. Work them, invest them, give them away: even if you risk losing them. The only way to grow them is to do something with them. To bury them in the ground, however, is a tragic waste of ability. 

Bringing your talents - your passion (however bountiful or scant they may be from day-to-day) - fuels your investment, but - akin to a community bank - also bolsters and supports others. 

I feel like, for years, I've been burying my talents: hiding away in the corner of a cold house (or tent, if you will), rather than taking the bit of effort - and risk - to give them and grow them. 

Was I afraid of getting burned? Of rejection? Or simply frustrated from getting nothing back? I'm not for sure, but I know that I'd been holding them back. 

This fellowship - and my time thus far in Steamboat - as proven the tremendous power of Bringing Your Talents, wearing your passion on your sleeve, and how warming, energizing, life-giving, and life-changing that can be. 

It's informed me of how I want my future to look. As did this weekend: 
  • Occasional (productive, nurturing, collaborative) fatigue - counter-balanced by restoration.
  • Occasional (self-cleansing) nausea - counter-balanced by nourishment
  • Limited (and only productive) restlessness - counter-balanced by more action, trusting my gut and following my heart
  • All the warmth, passion and joy! (Bringing my talents every day)
I pushed-off the emergence from the tent until 5AM (squeezing in a few additional "sitcoms", fitfully, in those pre-dawn hours). I began to pack up after igniting one more fire, heating one more coffee, and enjoying one more sunrise. The fire - and the coffee - warmed me as I took down the tent, deflated the pad, stuffed the sleeping bag in its sack, and jammed things into the packs. 

I was grateful for the rest, the reflection and the true gift such time can truly be! 

When can I do it again? 

Sunday sunrise over the eastern slope. 

The traditional "Break-Fast" of the Solo Fast: Espresso Stout!

Round 2!

Round 3!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Joe, thanks for sharing this.

    I have never done a Solo Fast, but maybe I'll have to try it some day.

    Over the years I've done quite a few long backpacking trip with my family. I haven't experienced the depletion and isolation that occur in a Solo Fast, but after each trip I always feel that I have a bit more purpose in life. I have never had any kind of revelation while backpacking, but life always seems to hold a bit more meaning after a backpacking trip.