Simulating the Future

Fiction is a type of simulator, much like a flight simulator, where we can experience life at one remove. Just like a flight simulator, the situations we encounter in fiction (particularly fiction that poses dilemmas) seem real, and they have real effects on our minds. Although this is recent research, I have known it since I first learned to read. I never read fiction just for entertainment. It was more real to me than that — like practice for life. I didn’t see myself as the main character, rather I read myself into the story, trying to figure out how I would act in a similar situation. Unlike many of the youth of my generation, I never had to use recreational drugs to understand what could happen. I knew secondhand through books the possible consequences. I also knew the consequences of teen-age pregnancy, drunk driving, and whatever other trouble kids my age could get into, and it made me cautious. Maybe too cautious. Still, I never got into a mess I couldn’t get myself out of.

As I grew older, potential problems became more serious, and again, books simulated various scenarios I was able to sidestep. I might have continued to be too cautious, but I never saddled myself with avoidable problems such as overwhelming debt. (I was going to change this cliché, but I got an image of debt as a saddle with a banker as the person sitting on the saddle riding me, and I thought it was an apt image, so the cliché stays.)

Popular books, easy books, happily-ever-after books, books without major moral dilemmas never did much for me. In fact, if I read too many of these “junk food” books, I’d get depressed. Oddly, all books now depress me the way these books once did, perhaps because the situations in books no longer act as a simulator. I know I will never be an unwed mother, a single mother, or a woman struggling to handle a family and a career. I know I will never solve a murder, either as an amateur or a professional. I know how it feels to love. I know how it feels to lose the one man who made life worth living, know how it feels to take care of an aged parent, know how it feels to be the subject of a brother’s rage.

But I still have a “flight simulator” — my imagination. Although imagination isn’t as good a simulator as fiction since we tend not to be able to project our true feelings into the future, a life time of reading and living has trained me at least in a small part to imagine how I would deal with certain situations.

Pacific Crest TrailI’ve been writing lately about my idea of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I have been hiking small sections of the trail (some of my typos crack me up — I just wrote “trial” instead of trail, and that is apropos at times of hiking the PCT — a real trial). These Saturday hikes give me a small taste of the dream. But more than that, talking/writing/thinking about walking up to Seattle expands my mind the way reading a good book used to.

If it sounds as if I am backtracking (instead of backpacking), the truth is that as much as the idea intrigues me, I really don’t think I could do it. It’s way too dangerous for someone who isn’t fit and has no camping experience. Besides, I cannot see me wielding an ice axe to keep from falling off a narrow icy trail, cannot see me coming face to face with a grizzly who wants to wrestle me for my scant food supply, cannot see me “out packing” bags of used toilet paper, carrying the stinky package for hundreds of miles until I came across a place where I could dispose of it. Nor am I interested in doing something that takes such massive planning — the preparation takes longer that the 2650-mile hike itself. I want to be spontaneous, just take off walking and keep on walking, and that is so not possible on the PCT. It’s also expensive — hikers typically spend $4000 to $8000 for the 5-6 month jaunt.

Still, I want an epic adventure someday, and I want it for real, not second hand from books — if not the PCT, then perhaps something that stems from this particular simulation. I’ll keep imagining, keep throwing myself into the future, and see what happens.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

Sometimes I have to laugh at my pretensions. Yesterday I half-jokingly told my sister I was thinking of walking up to Seattle to visit her, a mere 2,500 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail. She, like almost everyone else to whom I have talked about my dream of hiking the PCT, mentioned Cheryl Strayed’s book.

I’d never heard of the book before the idea of hiking the PCT took hold of me and I started telling people about my dream, and I must admit, I was disappointed to discover how much of a bestseller Strayed’s book was. I’d planned to keep a journal of my adventure, posting it to my blog when I reached the major towns along the way (El Cajon, Idyllwild, Big Bear, Aqua Dulce, Tehachapi, Kennedy Meadows, Mammoth Lakes, South Lake Tahoe, Sierra City, Chester, Burney, Mount Shasta, Etna, Ashland and White Pass). And perhaps, someday publish it as a book. A bestselling book, of course.

But, as I told my sister, since Strayed’s book is already published, on bestseller lists, with a movie about to come out, my book would merely seem a “me too,” as if I were as if I were riding on her coattails.

And here is where I had to laugh at myself. What does her book and her success have to do with me? I have never written a single word about my journey because, of course, there is no journey. I haven’t walked a single step on my way to Seattle. I don’t know if I will ever walk a single step. (I have hiked approximately 14 1/2 miles of the trail, but I wasn’t going anywhere, just walking with a group of Saturday hikers.) Unlike Strayed, I am not a young woman. I don’t know if my body or any parts thereof would hold up to such a grueling feet. (I know that’s a misspelling, but I kept the typo because . . . how perfect!) Even if I were to hike to Seattle or at least a part of the way, I don’t know if the story of my travels would lend themselves to a book — you need more than just a recounting of adventures to be readable. You need heart, soul, uniqueness, growth.

Perhaps it would be a good idea for me to read Strayed’s book, but the truth is, I want my own epic adventure, not an echo of someone else’s. Still, I have been doing research for the journey. And what I’ve been reading has given me pause.

Some of the worst weather in the country can, and does, occur on the Pacific Crest Trail, so you always have to carry equipment for foul weather, even during the summer. You need an ice axe, and knowledge how to self-arrest to keep from sliding into oblivion. Waterways can be too swollen to cross. (My feet got soaked last weekend just from trying to cross a tiny rivulet, not much more than a puddle.) Long stretches of the trail have no water source at all — none — though it is recommended that hikers drink a gallon of this non-existent water a day. And even where water is plentiful, you need a water purifier that is effective against giardia and bacteria. You need wilderness permits. You need a bear canister to protect your food in bear territory. (Yep, long sections of the trail wind through bear country.) And you need food, lots of food — a through hiker, one who travels the whole trail or long sections of it, needs up to 5000 calories a day, and you have to be prepared since there are few places to replenish supplies — sometimes you have to hike more than 200 miles in the wilderness before crossing any sort of road.

Yikes. No wonder more people have scaled Mount Everest than have through-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail.

And yet, the idea still appeals to me. So what if I have to hole up in one of the few towns along the way until the snow melts? It shouldn’t be a problem for me since I wouldn’t even attempt such a thing as walking to Seattle until/unless I were completely free, and I’m not. I still have responsibilities.

But one day, when I have nothing else to do . . .

Perhaps.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Logistics of a Life on Foot

Although I’ve been Dreaming of Life on Foot, hiking around the USA on the National Trails System, the logistics seem unmanageable. To hike just the Pacific Crest Trail would take a minimum of six months, assuming I could walk 10 to 20 miles a day through often-rugged terrain. And that assumption is very optimistic. I get exhausted just walking a mile or two up steep hills. Still, if walking were a way of life, I could walk a mile, rest a while, walk another mile since there would be no reason to hurry to finish the trail. Well, that’s not true. There is one reason — winter. People try to finish the trek in six months so they don’t have to deal with inclement weather — neither the heat of desert summer nor the harsh climes (and climbs) of mountain winter.

Like other through-hikers, I could probably send food ahead so that I wouldn’t have to cart a wagonload of provisions. I could probably map out the watering holes (and from what I have heard, some of these holes are little more than stagnant puddles). I could perhaps even get in shape for such a trip (though the trip itself would get me in shape). But so many other problems seem insurmountable. For example, what would I do with my car? Do I park it at the trailhead and hope it is still there (and the battery still charged) when I return? And if so, how do I return to the car? Would it be better to put the vehicle in storage, and hope I can find a ride to the trailhead? Or do I sell it, and use rental cars in between jaunts? (Since I don’t have a charge card, renting cars isn’t really an option.)

And what about connectivity? I suppose I could just take off and forget about computers and phones and such, but this blog is important to me. I could write my blogs on the trail, and then post them when I got back to civilization, but that could be many weeks, or even months. I could get a solar charger, which would probably be necessary since a working phone would be nice to have in an emergency, but I have a hunch most of the trail(s) would be off the grid anyway.

And what about mosquitoes? Mosquitoes love to feast on me, but my body hates them. I get sick from even a single sting. And I’m allergic to mosquito repellent, even — especially — citronella oil. Until my current (temporary) relocation to the desert, I have always had to be careful to be inside by dusk. It’s only because this seems to be a mosquito-free area that I’ve been able to go walking at night with the Sierra Club. So the idea of camping out in bug season is a bit ludicrous. Can’t you just see me, trying to hike, swathed in yards and yards of mosquito netting?

And what about my eyeglasses? Do I need to have extra pairs with me or stashed in my sent-ahead supply boxes? The same with shoes. Do I break in two or three pairs of shoes, and have those packed in the supply boxes, too? I am not on any medication, but I do take supplements to keep me healthy. Do I forgo those and hope I don’t get colds or allergies or pains that don’t go away?

I thought my original idea of living on the road — perhaps sampling the trails or visiting all the national parks and in between staying at motels or extended stay hotels — was complicated, but that plan seems simple in comparison to a life on foot. I would be out in the wilds for just a few days at a time, I would be not too far from my car (which would provide emergency shelter or an emergency getaway), and I would be able to access my blog and recharge my phone every few days. I could even pass out gifts with information about my books to everyone I see. That was the original purpose of an extended trip — to promote my books — but the idea seems to metamorphose the more I think about it.

And there is a lot to think about. Of course, since my current responsibilities might not end for several years (I am looking after my 97-year-old father, and there is a good chance he could live to be 100), I have plenty of time to wonder, and dream, and prepare for whatever the future might have in store for me.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.