One night, while working my late-night shift at the copy desk, I came across the Dear Abby column. A 25-year-old had submitted asking about her problems with nostalgia. When one dwells in the past, going to remembered places and seeing old friends all in an attempt to resurrect an idealized past. You can’t quite seem to enjoy the moment without bleakly knowing past times were better, until it’s been a year and you’re looking on all those moments when you were feeling nostalgic and feeling nostalgic about them, too, even though you probably weren’t as delightful as you think they were.
I am especially prone to languishing in the past, weak that I must nurse upon the sweet nipple of nostalgia’s teat long after I should have been weened. I play The Legend of Zelda, I visit my old college campus, I visit my parents’ house — but there has been no time this year I have realized nostalgia more strongly than during the family trip to Allegheny State Park.
For the past decade, we partition a week out of our schedules and rent cabin No. 24 on the Macintosh trail in the Allegheny wilderness. Mornings are for sleeping in. Sunny afternoons are spent at the Red House beach, rainy ones we play board games in the cabin. Nights we spend around a campfire, the endless forest brooding at our shoulders, roasting s’mores while my father recounts the latest Dean Koontz book he has been reading. Many a war has been waged with raccoons over our marshmallows. Behind that cabin, there lies a cracked pit of cobbled concrete, which my older brother once said was Count Dracula’s tomb. These are just a sampling of that cabin’s many cherished memories.
I love to hike. It’s the only part of camping, save perhaps the camaraderie around a campfire, I find authentic to the tradition of being outdoors. As long as I can return to the luxury of my cabin each night, I would travel the trail from dawn until dusk. I become an increment of something vast, a stranger in parts unknown to man. Just don’t make me poop in the woods.
Hiking affects me the way most forms of locomotion do, such as long car drives, bus rides, biking, and walking. It provides me with an illusion of progress. Physically moving, I’m gradually introducing my eyes to new sights, drawing the geography of my world inside my head, driving energy through my body. If my attention is not marveling at the majestic countryside, the shifting nations of trees, the fantastic boulder formations, then my gaze shifts inward to imaginations of everything I’ll do with my life. Or I wield my invisible sword and shield, a green tunic and cap, and fashion myself on the path to some forbidden temple. All I need is a pair of earbuds, and I’m totally off in Adamland, a magic place of rainbows and fields where I write metal operas and books, where I wage swordfights on the soaring parapets of my worst enemies, and I have a million adoring fans.
Mind you, it isn’t true progress — that would look more like me writing a short story, or sending a submission to a magazine, or actually creating something rather than musing and dreaming about it, as is my accursed tendency. It’s a wonderful excuse to go on a hike when I’m too afraid or lazy to write anything — which is just about always. I experience a nebulous high while moving, and that appears to put me in the frame of mind to be creative. Ironically, by the time I actually sit down at my laptop and brace myself, my body says it’s time for a nap.
It’s a shame that the things which seem to make happy are just illusions. It’s also the biggest revelation of my adult life that, for virtually anything you want in this world, you must fight for it through thrashing ranks of personal demons and mediocrity. If you do not wake up every day to wage this eternal battle — for me, this is sitting in this chair for insanely long periods of time, making things and feelings that don’t exist exist with words — then you will quickly be lost in that dark forest that is nostalgia, full of evil trees that will eat you and elves that will drag you into their lairs, doomed to never come out.
Once this week, my mother, father and I were trekking forth on a particularly long trail. It was supposed to be five miles, but we agreed the park’s measurements were screwy, because it felt like eight. We wondered if we’d struck out in the wrong direction, missed a crucial turn, or misread the map. If I gain nothing else substantial from a hike, it is that trite metaphor for the path of life in which everybody walks. People throw down measurements — five miles to walk, 100 years to live — but there comes that hour when you have no idea far you’re in and how many more steps you have to go, and you can grumble and bitch all you please, but you won’t get anywhere unless you just keep trudging.
When my family drove away from the cabin for the last time that year, we would all wave and say goodbye. When I left alone this year, I actually whispered a farewell under my breath.
By the time I hitched onto I-86, I was a blubbering mess in the merciful privacy of my vehicle. I nearly pulled over. Just look at me. Never would I have guessed in a vigintillion years that I would have become so drippy and sentimental over a simple camping trip. In the days I’m now wishing back, I thought I would be springing forward, embarking on adventures, composing music for Hollywood, writing great books, something … just something. Not stuck, not grasping uselessly at memories like butterflies around my head.
Then what sharpens my anxiety is another nightmarish thought: what if all this nostalgia is actually God, my Higher Self, or whatever, giving me a clue to the answer to my problems I’ve been begging for? What if the nostalgia isn’t some psychological trap, but that truer yearning for what I was really meant for? It would fit the typical irony of my life — the most vital truth of my life tends to be the one thing I don’t ever want to hear.
Yet if I were given the opportunity to live in cabin No. 24 at Allegheny State Park forever, no way would I take it. That would ruin its the magic. It is only because such a brief time is spent that makes such an occasion special. One can’t distinguish happiness without the hedge of suffering surrounding it.
So what was Abby’s recommendation? Spend a few minutes before getting out of bed, mentally reviewing your goals and those things you have to look forward to. Sure thing, Abby. If that doesn’t work, see a licensed therapist. I wonder what a therapist would tell me.
Next year, if I’m still living in New York, if I’m still alive, I’ll probably be looking back on this year’s camping trip and missing it. I just keep living, brightly or dismally, hopeful that my head will filter only the positives of every moment. If not that, then a week of camping sure as hell beats a week of working. If that is all there is to life, I’ll take it.