Like hiking the Pacific Coast trail...only not
November 10, 2014 12:49 PM   Subscribe

A massive, difficult undertaking. A once-in-a-lifetime experience. A commitment to something big and challenging. What is it?

I'm reading Cheryl Strayed's Wild and I'm at a point in my life where, next summer, I might be in a place where I'd need & want to do something big and life-changing; something I can look forward to that would mark the end of a difficult year. Something that would mark a major life transition. The kind of thing you'd remember until you died. Something that would feel like an accomplishment. I could take the summer off of work to do it; I could save up some money & spend some on preparation/classes/training.

Do you have something like this you dream about doing? What is it? Examples I can think of include: hiking the PCT, joining the Peace Corps, training for a marathon, and some kinds of very ambitious travel plans...although a pure vacation lacks the challenge aspect I'm hungry for. Ideally would involve a fair amount of preparation and learning and planning between now and then.

All kinds of ideas and brainstorming are welcome; I'm interested in off-the-wall suggestions & pie-in-the-sky ideas...I need something to daydream about.
posted by pretentious illiterate to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (31 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, and actually, for the purpose of this exercise, assume I could take a lot more than a couple of months off, assuming it'd be possible to work remotely part-time or have some other kind of income flowing in (as in the Peace Corps example).
posted by pretentious illiterate at 12:51 PM on November 10, 2014

Diving, Sailing, and skydiving certifications come to mind for me; they not only give you skills and a measurable goal, but will open up other adventures down the road. Ditto for a private pilot's license.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:56 PM on November 10, 2014

Build a house.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 12:56 PM on November 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

I've always had a hankering to ride the Trans America Trail.

And drive the Pan American Highway.

And climb all the 14-ers in the lower 48. Alternatively, climb each state's tallest peaks.

Hitchhike across the country. Or through Canada to Alaska.


In terms of long trails, there's also the Continental Divide Trail and the Appalachian trail, of course! And about a million other long distance hikes.

Ride the Trans-Siberian railroad.

Canoe or Kayak the Mississippi.
posted by Grandysaur at 12:59 PM on November 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

Hike the Chilkoot Trail in Alaska! I've hiked the first part and it's beautiful.
posted by notjustthefish at 1:02 PM on November 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Long-distance cycling would certainly foot the bill. The Adventure Cycling Association has routes all over the USA on both pavement and trails.

Live abroad and learn a foreign language by immersion.

If I had the kind of time you're talking about, though, I know what I would do. I would sail, by myself, around the world, across an ocean, or following the path of some historic voyage of interest to me, depending on the time available and how confident I was in my skills and equipment.
posted by richyoung at 1:07 PM on November 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh! If climbing mountains isn't your thing, pick your favorite sort of thing: pizza parlors, weird museums, libraries, ice cream shops, train stations, KOAs etc, and visit the Top Whatever in each state. A roadtrip with a purpose!
posted by Grandysaur at 1:08 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Replicate William Least Heat-Moon's Americana road trip on the Blue Highways. Blog it!
posted by Scram at 1:08 PM on November 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

Take TESOL classes and classes in a language foreign to you. As the last step, move abroad for a year and teach English, finishing up the TESOL certification. Bam--professional certification, income, and a hugely life-changing experience of living alone abroad.
posted by Liesl at 1:08 PM on November 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

On the other coast, the Appalachian Trail is the big thing that people around here plan to do. There's some delicacy around the timing if you want to do the whole thing, because winter.

A work friend recently used his gap between jobs to drive up the East Coast, across the northern US via Chicago and the Dakotas, hit the Pacific Northwest, drove all the way down California via the PCH to Mexico, then looped back along the southwest and deep south, hitting as many National Parks as he could along the way. That sounds incredible. It took him some number of weeks; he came back with a beard and a lot of stories.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 1:12 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Earthwatch Institute Expeditions? Shorter than what you're looking for perhaps, but pretty cool.
posted by scorpia22 at 1:12 PM on November 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Many people do the Camino de Santiago as a secular pilgrimage. You can do it by foot, bike, or horse / donkey. There are typically hostel and / or B&Bs you can stay at each night. Sort of like the PCT / CT / AP, but a little less aggressive. If you're looking for something a little shorter, consider just doing the JMT (some consider it the best of the PCT) or the Inca Trail.

Happy travels and good luck!
posted by sk8ingdom at 1:21 PM on November 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

A friend and I are noodling over a canoe trip from Buffalo, NY to NYC next summer. We figured, hell, we're not getting any younger.

I would find myself a position as a deckhand on an icebreaker for a season.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 1:22 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Are you looking for an actual physical challenge that must involve travel? Because quilt making or furniture making or remodeling came to my mind as something to mark a transition: repurposing of old into new, the meditative state of the process, the challenge of design, etc. I think too it becomes a remembrance piece that may harder to create from a purely physical experience.

Or make many small quilts/carvings and take them to Burning Man to give away.
posted by beaning at 1:32 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Walk the Camino de Santiago. If you have a month, start at the French border. More than a month start from further in France. More than that? Start in China (I met few people who did this). That'll change your life perspective.
posted by Toddles at 1:38 PM on November 10, 2014 [7 favorites]

A roadtrip with a purpose!

I had a longer-term goal of going to all the towns in Vermont in order to get a better feeling for my adopted state. There are 251 of them. It took me several years (of doing it in dribs and drabs) and now I'm going back to take photographs of all of them. Some people have gone canoeing in every town, or done the trip by motorcycle or whatnot. For someone who is motivated by gamification type of stuff and likes completing checklists, this was incredibly fun for me and had a bigger purpose AND was something I could fold into my larger life. It's challenging in more of a logistics way than in an actual physical exertion way, but it worked for me.
posted by jessamyn at 1:47 PM on November 10, 2014 [10 favorites]

I thought of climbing Half Dome at Yosemite. Depending on your current level of physical fitness, this is something that could take quite a bit of preparation to get ready for (I know I could not do it in my current state!).
posted by rainbowbrite at 1:58 PM on November 10, 2014

Barque Picton-Castle
posted by rhizome at 1:59 PM on November 10, 2014

I'm planning to bike coast-to-coast next year to Do A Thing for moving from one side of the country to the other. From what I hear, the more you prep, the easier it is, but even unpracticed people can do it - it just takes longer. And no matter how hard you work ahead of time, you still have to bike every mile in between.
posted by you could feel the sky at 2:25 PM on November 10, 2014

Response by poster: These are wonderful, you guys. Just reading through them makes me feel like there's something to look forward to in life. Keep them coming! And to answer beaning's question - they definitely don't need to be travel-related (though the ones that are, are lovely).
posted by pretentious illiterate at 2:43 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]


I agree, build a house. I've built two.
posted by humboldt32 at 2:45 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I once hiked the north shore of Lake Leman from Montreux to Geneva on footpaths and back roads. There were detailed walking maps but I was too cheap to buy the complete set (hey, just keep the lake on your left) so I got lost a few times and finding cheap places to spend the night was a challenge. After that, I learned there was a series of trails that connected the north coast of France to the south coast. Now that sounded like fun.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 3:11 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Peace Corps has a program called Peace Corps Response, which are shorter volunteer positions, as opposed to the two years required for regular Peace Corps. You could check out the eligibility requirements. Peace Corps is nice because you get a little bit of money, exposure to a different culture, free healthcare, and feel like you're doing something useful.
posted by Lingasol at 3:43 PM on November 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

TWinbrook8's suggestion made me think of the GR 20, a hiking trail that runs along the backbone of Corsica. It's said to be challenging in spots, accessible in others, and gorgeous all the way through.
posted by Liesl at 4:01 PM on November 10, 2014

Climb The Nose on El Capitain or The Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome. These routes are considered some of the easier big wall aid climbs, which are more about training and general physical conditioning than raw free climbing skill. It's physical, takes mental/physical stamina, and it has a high first-time bail rate.

If that sounds appealing, this is a good place to start.
posted by strangecargo at 4:54 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

While many of these sound like wonderful experiences, I wonder if you would end up getting more out of something tailored to your personal interests. I can't really help with specifics, since I don't know what your personal interests are. I did see that you recently finished up your PhD; maybe you could visit the birthplace of someone you researched, or something along those lines. Or visit the cities that each of your grandparents grew up in. I don't know. I just suspect that you might get more out of an adventure that has some deeper connection to you and what you care about.
posted by girl flaneur at 6:04 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you like housebuilding ideas, build your own Tiny House. Motorcyle down to the tip of South America. Visit every national park. Drive the entire length of one of the cross-country interstates (alternatively, drive I-80 using John McPhee's Annals of the Former World as a guidebook). Visit every UNESCO world heritage site on a continent. Visit every continent. Spend the night in every major mountain range in the world. Go trekking in the Himalaya or Patagonia.

Work on a trail building crew in one of the national forests or parks. Work on a wildfire crew. Become a summer sheepherder in Wyoming, Idaho, or Montana. Volunteer at one of the smaller, less popular national parks or monuments.

Do something not awesome - if you've never worked a job with physical labor, do that. Ditto minimum wage. Dare to be bored. Dare to go to someplace not cool - spend a summer working at the local Dairy Barn in small town western Kansas. (Or something similar you may not have experienced, those are just examples.)

Hike every mile of trail in one of the major park areas like Yellowstone or Kings-Sequoia. (Although w/ YNP to be bear safe you should have a companion.) Hike every trail John Muir mentioned in his journals/writings. Visit every major Civil War battle site. Go to every city that had a major civil rights moment. Go to every museum in Washington D.C. Go to the Detroit art museum.

Canoe or kayak or swim in every Great Lake or just along the entire shore of one. Make a list of awesome places in one of the categories at Atlas Obscura and visit them. Walk the length of the Iron Curtain. Travel to something heartbreaking and sobering - i.e. all the concentration camps, WWI battlefields, US reservations or Japanese internment camps.

Build your own bed from scratch. Pick a 5 mile square area and get to know it as intimately as possible - the terrain, the flora and fauna, the weather, the stars. Pick someone historical and famous that you admire and visit all the same areas they did that influenced them, keeping a journal along the way in which you "correspond" with that person. Go kayaking in every ocean. Make a list of every geographic unique spot in North America (most southerly, lowest, first spot that gets sun, etc.) and see them. Create a documentary along the way.

Spend a month or three going without: without a phone, internet, a car, a home - something "essential" and meaningful to you. Don't eat anything you didn't raise or grow yourself for a certain amount of time. Learn how to make something - all of your clothes, for example. Make a list of your most prized possessions and give them all away, one week per item. Pick a cause you believe in passionately and spend an entire summer doing nothing else but fighting for that cause.

Do one of the things suggested in these comments without documenting it once - nothing with your camera, on social media, etc. Or keep a journal that is just for you and nobody else. Be as honest as possible without any audience looking over your shoulder, even future you. Go after the thoughts and ideas that scare you or make you want to look away.

Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer: help people.
posted by barchan at 6:40 PM on November 10, 2014 [16 favorites]

Best answer: I'm glad that you posted this question because it is helping me evaluate - things that I put on a list, but why haven't I tried doing them yet?

So I like combining physical challenges with an interest; by combining the two, I also have to accomplish the physical task or goal, too, or it is pointless.

So as an example of something in the past that I was happy with - decided to run a 5 mile race starting from no background in running. I decided to do the final race in a place that I had wanted to visit (Alaska) - so it was a few weeks of doing a coach to 5K, getting to the point I could run a few miles continuously, doing the race in Alaska, and then a few days of kayaking or different things that were interesting to me in Alaska.But I think the race alone, or the trip alone, would not have been the same thing.

As something that I plan to do at some point in the future is a long distance bike ride, combined with an interest in history/historic sites. I've done long distance bike rides, but just as a ride from point A to B even if it is a few thousand miles doesn't mean anything to me anymore. So in the future, I would like to do parts of this route - you can bike the along parts of the historic underground railroad and stop at different sites. You don't have to do the entire thing in one go, it can be broken up by state, mileage, whatever time you have, but it is on my list to do some day. But for me I like the doing the physical challenge, learning, novelty, all together.

I think that if you told us some of your interests, too, then we could come up with more relevant ideas?
posted by Wolfster at 7:06 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

My ambitious dream travel involve a multi month overland journey from China to Central Eruope via the Silk Road
posted by Pantalaimon at 10:29 PM on November 10, 2014

Join a trail crew. You work and camp with a small crew building/maintaining trails for a season. A common schedule for trail crews is 9 days on, 5 days off (9 days camping/working followed by 5 day "weekends") Depending on your age you might be able to join some Crews that are also partnered with AmeriCorps (think Peace Corps only domestic) so you would get all those benefits. is a good place to start.
posted by Deflagro at 11:23 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

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