Adding meaning to Life


This summer, on the Juan de Fuca Trail on Vancouver Island, I found something that I didn’t even know I was looking for.

My 38- and 34-year-old sons wanted to do some major hiking when the youngest finally got to the island for a vacation. The eldest suggested this trail because we could do it in three nights and four days. While I normally prefer my food prepared and brought to me as opposed to carrying it around for several days, I thought I could do this.

I purchased the necessary tents, air mattresses and food. I did not realize that living a simple outdoor existence could be so expensive if you need the least bit of comfort and intend to cover some hiking distance.

This food also required a great deal of self-examination about how much two young adults might eat versus their 65-year-oldfather. Three meals a day, multiplied by four days, multiplied by young adults needing 2.5 servings per meal divided by each food package serving two people equals the need to find someone else to do the necessary algebra.

I procured four days’ worth of freeze-dried food that, unbeknownst to me, contained eight days’ worth of sodium (16 days if you go with most health practitioners’ standards).

I also purchased a small one-person tent for myself. One of my sons is renowned within the family for nocturnal sound effects, so I purchased a two-man tent for them to share. This gave my grown boys a great opportunity to know each other and an even better opportunity for me to get a bit of undisturbed sleep.

When we finally set off in late August, we arrange for a car to be left at the trail’s end, and my wife drops us off at the trailhead.

Our entire family embraces the outdoors and I read up on a few famous works to prepare me for this trek. Thoreau wrote that he went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if he could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when he came to die, discover that he had not lived. He intended to reduce life to its lowest terms and find if life was mean or sublime.

But I find the writings of Joseph Campbell to be far more in line with my way of thinking. The American author wrote that we should not be asking about the meaning of life, but rather, what does it mean to be truly alive?

I reflect upon being truly alive while not falling off into the deep ravines along the trail. Although I trained with a weighted backpack for three months before the trek, walking up and down the Juan de Fuca dirt and mud-filled paths while avoiding tree roots did not fall within my cross-training regime. At the top of each hill, of which there are many, my boys wait. Their mother gave them strict instructions to watch out for me. And to bring me back.

I thought of this as a reversal of roles, much like how my wife and I looked out for our children when they were much younger. The boys even help me pack my backpack correctly, with the sleeping bag at the bottom and the heavier food items toward the middle and closer to my back. This reminds me of when we always made sure they had their lunch before heading off to school.

Now, instead of juice boxes, they pull out their filtered or sterilized water. While they are busy hydrating, I recover from my falls and wash my bleeding wounds. Whenever they stop to catch a breath, I stop to hopefully coagulate further.

After a few hours, we look like a scene from The Lord of the Rings: I resemble Gimli. attempting to keep up with Aragorn, the ranger, and Legolas, the elf, while chasing down a horde of orcs. My boys ask me if I want to join them in playing 20 Questions. I cheerfully decline – I am saving all my breath simply for breathing. Talking has become a luxury.

At the top of the next hill, I ask the eldest if we are making good time. He just smiles and says, “No, Dad, but we are making good times.” I smile and realize he is right. We are making memories. Getting ready for this hike, I had focused too much on the logistics, and I’d lost track of the meaning of our venture together.

Over the next four days, we set up camp and use our stove to boil water. We can’t gather around a campfire because of a fire ban but we do spend time huddling over herbal tea in the evening and cups of coffee in the morning. Most of our campsites are close to the water’s edge and one evening I come across my sons sitting on a log by the ocean sharing a moment. I let them have theirs, while mine becomes simply watching them together.

At the end of the trail, we take celebratory pictures and my youngest takes a quick shower under the closest waterfall. On the drive out, we find a great place for cold beer and deluxe hamburgers. The boys treat me.

We had made new memories together as grown men. I realized the meaning of life is not found externally, but by strengthening the bonds with those closest to me.