I looked forward to our yearly trip to the Upper Peninsula for months. We rented a tiny cabin with slanted floors and a fridge that keeps things lukewarm. It’s not nice, but it’s ours. This is the place where my husband’s parents spent many summers. His dad, sitting and drinking coffee most days looking out to the lake. In a way, when we’re there I can feel his presence. Even though I never got the chance to meet him.
Years later it became the place where we got engaged and decided on forever. And it will be the place we bring our family one day. For now, it’s only ours, and that’s perfect too.
The last time we went, we hiked a beautiful trail along the pictured rocks shoreline. It was breathtaking, and I couldn’t wait to hike it again.
Except for this time, it would be different. I had been working on my health and fitness and lost weight. I felt confident and strong. I had pictures in my head of me on the edge of the rocks doing yoga, the wind blowing through my hair, bright blue cool Lake Superior waters painted beyond me with no end in sight. We would sit near the outstretched coastline as a married couple, close our eyes, and feel alive. This time would be different.
She sat across from me, fumbling with her silverware at a tiny restaurant tucked away in a corner of the town she lived in. We hadn’t seen each other for a while and had a lot of catching up to do. That’s what happens when you’re friends for a while. Life carries on and we forget to check-in, but we know we’re always there for each other. It’s easy, but not always the best thing.
“How are things going?”, I ask.
She paused. I could tell that something big had happened and began to brace myself.
“Well, I’m getting a divorce.”
A million thoughts went through my head. But they just got married, didn’t they? I thought everything was good and perfect. They bought a house. They have dogs. I thought they were going to start to try for a family. Didn’t they just go on vacation? I thought everything was okay. Is she okay?
“I was just checking boxes, Vanessa.”
She continued, “Graduate college. Check. Get married. Check. Buy a house. Check. Get dogs. Check. I was so busy checking boxes, I never paused to check in on if I was happy. Things felt off, but I thought that’s how it was supposed to be. I’m just here, going through the motions, and I woke up one day and realized I hadn’t been paying attention to myself. I wasn’t checking my own boxes. The most important ones.” “The ones that make me happy. The ones that make me feel alive.”
We parked at the trailhead. I felt so excited to see the water. I had been stressed and closed off and I had not given myself time to mentally unwind.
This hike was going to do that for me. This hike would make me feel alive.
A new friend wanted to meet me for lunch. We had gone to high school together and mingled in the same circles, but never directly hung out with each other. I am always up for making new friends, and I was excited to meet up. I thought we could talk about fitness, relationships, marriage. “Girl stuff.”
I got there before her and snacked on the chips they placed on the table. She walked through the door, spotted me, and sat down.
Every first interaction with someone new is always a little uncomfortable at first. There’s the initial “Hi! How are you?”, followed by awkward small talk. But this was different.
She sat across from me, and I could tell she was in pain. I could tell something deep inside was eating away at her. She was frazzled, nervous, and falling apart at the seams.
As her eyes slowly filled with tears she said, “I asked you here because I had an ulterior motive. My boyfriend who I thought I was going to marry cheated on me. And he’s choosing to stay with her. I’m about to be 31, and the life I thought was going to happen is no longer happening.”
My heart sank. She needed a friend and not just any friend. A friend who could relate, who wasn’t married with children, who had an outsider’s perspective, who would listen.
She thought she had her boxes checked, the paper held tightly in her hands, and then it all slipped between her fingers.
Ten minutes into the hike, I snapped at my husband. I had slipped on some rocks and he turned around concerned, “Be careful!”.
“I AM careful!”
In preparation for this long hike in the 90-degree heat of July, I wanted to be hydrated and drank water on the drive there. Too much water. We were on this hike and I really, really had to pee. There were no bathrooms to be found. I was frustrated, uncomfortable, and my whole idea of this hike being very zen had gone out the window.
I ended up squatting by a tree, and then we continued on. We hit a point where we felt the cool breeze sauntering off Lake Superior, and I knew the water was near. It was like someone had turned on the AC in the July heat. The worst was behind us and we could finally relax.
Enter black flies. Everywhere.
No amount of bug spray could keep those assholes away. They constantly nibbled at our legs and arms. We learned the faster we hiked, the less they bothered us. Instead of taking our time and enjoying the beautiful views, we booked it. We charged through the hike, practically running, leaving beautiful views behind us in the dust.
I was tired. I was annoyed. I was hot. And I was getting bit like crazy. But I thought if we just pressed on, we would make it to the waterfall clearing and we would have that moment of pure accomplishment.
Six miles later, we made it to our destination. The trees cleared, we stepped off the trail onto a cliff overlooking pure blue waters and a waterfall. Breathtaking.
And then the flies, the flies came back. With vengeance. Swarming. Biting. Buzzing.
I lost it. I screamed at the flies. I threatened to throw my shoe. My anger awakened a wave of anger in my husband, and we were then arguing with each other. A boat down on the water full of people admiring the cliffs floated by, and there we were above them in clear view.
One shoe locked and loaded in my hand, curse words flying, arguing with each other.
“THIS IS NOT HOW IT WAS SUPPOSED TO GO!”
“YOU’RE RUINING THE MOMENT!”
I was right about one thing when I planned this hike out in my head. This time sure was different.
The end of a marriage and infidelity in a long term relationship is miles away in comparison to encountering black flies on a hike.
The point is, when we spend our energy planning and dreaming and checking off boxes in the way we’d like our life to play out, life is still happening without following any kind of agenda. There is no memo to reality. You can’t hold up your piece of paper and ask to speak to the manager.
“Excuse me, sir. This is not how we planned it.”
No matter how badly we would like certain things to turn out, the shadow of reality can creep in, tap us on the shoulder, and wake us up.
That wake up is never pleasant. You thought things were cool, and then they weren’t. This means that everything that you’ve built your foundation upon had slipped out behind your feet, and suddenly you are falling.
Within that fall, you are forced to live with no boxes to check. Only a blank page with a promise of something unknown. It’s scary and uncomfortable. It’s life-changing.
I am here to tell you that my dear friends who thought they had things figured out have found a new sense of peace and happiness. They’ve let go of their first blueprint with a white picket fence, perfectly planted tulips, and a refrigerator that dispenses both ice AND water.
Instead, they’ve found a piece of land, empty, full of promise and opportunity. A place that has no boxes, but instead an endless field beyond what they could ever imagine. A new foundation to build. Hearts full of love. And a reason to start again. A reason to feel alive.
We got in the car after our hike, breathless, frustrated, and relieved that it was over.
My husband looked at me, defeated.
“Well, that was awful.”
“Yeah”, I replied.
Eyes locked. A squeeze of each other’s hand. And the open road ahead of us.
We knew we had an experience that wasn’t what we had imagined, but we had a hell of a story to tell. One we’d remember forever.
Life is not what we’ve planned. It is so much more.