“Oh. Sorry. You’re on the wrong side of the mountain.”
That was the response I got when I called the park ranger help line. The number was conveniently posted on a big “You Are Here” board which I got out of my car to examine because it happened to be right next to the “Dead End” sign that marked the end of the road.
This new information presented a problem because my wife and I were planning to climb Mt. St. Helens and we needed as much daylight as possible to do it.
It was 10 am and we were at the aforementioned dead end, staring at the familiar crater in the distance of the mountain that erupted in 1980 with the force of 21,000 atomic bombs. We spent the previous night at Paradise Inn on Mt. Rainier and got up early for the trip to St. Helens. It’s only 35 miles as the crow flies, but three hours for any non-bird transportation that needs to follow the winding roads. Unfortunately, my poor navigation skills would now add another hour and a half to that.
Oh well. Back in the car. If it sounds like we didn’t spend much time planning this excursion, it’s because we didn’t spend much time planning this excursion. We didn’t even know we’d be climbing it until the week prior. The park service only allows 100 people per day to climb the mountain and all of the required permits had sold out months earlier. I found a website where people sell or trade permits they can’t use and kept checking for sales that matched our dates. At the last minute, an engineer from Nike decided that climbing an active volcano with his kids might not be as fun as it sounds, so I bought his permits.
We made it to the other side of the mountain by about 11:30 and found Climbers Bivouac, which is the beginning of the Monitor Ridge Route that leads to the top. As I put our information into the book at the trailhead, I saw, not surprisingly, that everyone else on the mountain that day had left hours earlier. “We won’t make it to the top,” I told my wife. “We’re starting too late. Better that we get that through our heads now.”
But as we started through the forest, I kept checking my watch and realized that we were making great time. The hike is 10 miles round trip and the first two miles of that are fairly easy. Then you break through the tree line and come to a boulder field that slows things to a crawl. Literally. We spent much of the next several miles and 2,500 vertical feet on all fours crawling over boulders the size of Volkswagens. I quit checking my watch because it was too discouraging.
The boulder field
At one point, we crossed paths with a climber on his way down and I was bemoaning our late start. He assured me that we were almost to the ash field. That’s the last mile and 1,000 feet of vertical. As a veteran of the St. Helens climb, he said we were lucky today because recent snow melt had compressed the ash and we would only sink to our ankles with each step. “Lucky us,” I said. “How far do you normally sink?”
“Sometimes shins. Sometimes your knees,” he said. “It’s usually one step forward, sink, slide back a half step.”
I tried not to make eye contact with my wife. When the climber moved on, I suggested we stop for a snack. “This is usually the part of the trip where I apologize for getting people into this,” I said. I told her if we tried for the top, we’d be coming down in the dark and then we had a four hour drive back to home base in Sequim. Best case scenario, we get home really late. Worst case scenario, we spend the night sleeping in the boulder field.
“It would stink to get this far and not see the view from the top,” she said. On we went.
We made it through the boulders and, sure enough, the ash was only ankle deep. Normally, that would have been a discouraging development, but now that I knew how much worse it could be, we were happy. Perspective is a funny thing. Unfortunately, there were no switchbacks on the route so the climb was very steep and slow.
Going down looked much more fun. The trail was bracketed in by two snow fields and several people who had summited earlier were glissading down the snow pack, using ice axes to slow their descent.
The ash field.
We kept on and finally (FINALLY!), the terrain leveled off and we were at the summit. It was a clear day and the views were incredible. Mt. Hood was visible to the South and it felt like you could almost reach out and touch Mt. Rainier to the North. Inside the crater is a bulging dome that is growing every year as the volcano below churns.
After taking some photos and enjoying the view, we donned our packs and started down. The descent went much faster, but the sun had set and it was nearly dark by the time we reached our car. We made it home in the small hours of the morning and crawled into bed still covered in sweat and ash, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Beautiful scenery. Time with my wife. A sense of accomplishment. A fun memory. Those are some of the things that make life great.
Want to climb St. Helens? Here are some of the details:
Distance: 10 miles round trip
Average completion time: 8-10 hours
Summit elevation: 8,363 feet. It was 1,300 feet higher before the blast.
Elevation gain from trailhead: 4,500 feet
Gear: Good boots, poles, food, water, layered clothing, sunscreen, etc.
Planning Info: Here
Permits: Get one here
If they’re sold out: Try here.
A panoramic of my wife at the crater rim. For scale, there is another person on the far right of the pic.
Last year I read a book called The Power of Habit that gave me some insight into what happens in our brain when we develop habits or get into a routine. I’ve thought about this topic before and had the sense that, while some routine is often necessary, too much routine can make life feel dull and short. It turns out that research backs this up.
In the book, the author talked about an experiment that the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department at MIT did on rats. They hooked their brains up to a bunch monitoring devices and then put them, one at a time, into a simple T shaped maze. At one end of the maze, behind a partition, was a rat. Down the hall and around the corner was some chocolate. With the flip of a switch, the researcher would drop the partition (which made a loud click) and the rat would be standing there staring down the hall.
Slowly, it would start to sniff. It could smell the chocolate, but didn’t know where it was, so it would wander down the hall, stopping, sniffing, scratching and looking around. When it got to the end, it would usually look to the right, sniff, look to the left, sniff and then follow its nose to the left where the rat would discover the chocolate.
The more they did this experiment, the more the rats would hear the loud click, the partition would disappear and they would go straight to the chocolate. Once the rats had figured out the maze and developed a routine for getting the chocolate, the researchers compared the before and after brain scans. When the rat was new to the situation, his brain exploded with activity when he heard the click and the partition disappeared. Each time it scratched, sniffed and looked around the brain was buzzing with activity as it analyzed the sights, sounds and smells.
After repeating that experiment hundreds of times, however, the way their brains reacted started to change. Once they had the routine down—walk down hall, turn left, get chocolate—their mental activity started to decrease. The more automatic it became, the less the rats had to think. Almost every area of their brains quieted down. Even the part of the brain responsible for memory went quiet.
The only part of the brain that was still active was the basal ganglia, which is this ancient part of the brain that, up until then, scientist didn’t understand very well. What they learned from their experiments is that the basal ganglia is responsible for identifying the habits and routines that we have. Once it recognizes those patterns, it takes over and allows the rest of the brain to pretty much shut down.
The basal ganglia is your best friend when you’re trying to form new habits like going to the gym or eating healthy, but it’s bad news if life becomes so routine that your brain basically switches to autopilot. In that case, you’re not really creating new memories or being an active participant in big chunks of your day because major parts of your brain are switched off. If you do the same thing every day for a year, you don’t remember a bunch of unique days. You basically remember 1 day that you lived 365 times. The entire year kind of feels like it took 24 hours.
So if we want time to feel as if it’s passing more slowly and we want our memory banks full of unique experiences, we need to find a good balance between routine and novelty. Yes, we want a good exercise routine, but we also want to steer off the well-worn path of life once in a while. Especially in retirement. We need to find ways to break up the routine. We need to try new things and seek out new experiences. How can you do that in your life? What can you do this week to break routine? Experiment and see what happens.
Here’s a short video for inspiration. It’s by Jed Jenkins where he talks about coming to the realization that routine is the enemy of time so he quit his job and took a thousand-mile bike trip from Oregon to Patagonia. Some of you may remember the video from our Facebook page a while back. If you haven’t seen it yet, it will likely be the best 4 minutes of your day. Enjoy.
Note: Retirement is more than just a math problem. Yes, money is important, but you need meaningful activities and relationships too. When money and meaning intersect, you have the chance for something special. With that in mind, I’m starting a new periodic series called “aMUSEments” that will focus on a particular trip, activity, idea or adventure. Each article will be packed with links and resources to help you dream, plan and do. I hope they act as a muse to stir your imagination and help you plan your own adventures. Enjoy!
America’s Best Idea
Writer and historian Wallace Stegner called the national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” Filmmaker Ken Burns summarized this sentiment when he named his wonderful national parks documentary “America’s Best Idea.”
With spring in the air, now is the perfect time to begin planning an adventure in one of the parks. Incidentally, I’m eating my own cooking on this recommendation. In about a month, I’m heading to the Grand Canyon to hike it from one side to the other and back again. Rim to Rim to Rim. My family and I will also be hitting a few of the other parks this year to do some hiking and camping. Assuming I survive the GC, I’ll let you know how it goes.
What they are
There are 59 national parks that cover 51 million acres in 27 states and two U.S. Territories. They contain some of the most beautiful scenery and natural wonders anywhere in the world. The first National Park was Yellowstone. It was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. President Theodore Roosevelt established more national parks (5) than any other president. California has the most (9) and Alaska has the biggest (Wrangell-St. Elias) as well as the least visited (Gates of the Arctic). The most visited parks are the Great Smokey Mountains and the Grand Canyon.
List of Parks
Here’s a list of all 59 parks.
It’s fun to visit exotic, far flung places, but let’s not forget that we have some pretty incredible places right here in the United States and the national parks are the crown jewels of that collection. They are relatively inexpensive to visit and because they’re spread out across the states there is a variety and selection that is tough to beat.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. There will be special programs at the different parks to celebrate the milestone and there will be 16 days where entrance fees will be waived in order to encourage people to visit. Throw cheap gases prices in the mix and this is the perfect year to plan a road trip to one or more parks.
Why retirement is the ideal time to visit
Retirement is the ideal time to visit the national parks. Why? For starters, you can get a lifetime annual park pass for $10 once you hit age 62. That same pass is normally $80 per year. Also, because you have a flexible schedule during retirement, you can visit the parks during the off season when things are less expensive and there are few crowds. Finally, there tons of volunteer (or even employment) opportunities geared towards seniors.
If you’re planning on visiting a few parks each year, it’s probably cheaper to buy an Annual Park Pass. The pass is normally $80, but is only $10 for a lifetime pass for those 62 or older and free for current members of the military. In addition to the pass, some parks require you to apply for permits if you plan on camping or staying in the backcountry. You can find specific requirements at the NPS website for the park you’re considering.
Best time of year to visit
This depends on the park, of course. If you’re visiting Death Valley, best to go January through March before the heat becomes unbearable. If, on the other hand, you’re heading to Glacier National Park, go in June when the weather is warming and the park is in bloom. Just Google “best time to visit <park name>” or visit the park’s official website to get recommendations on the best time to visit. In my opinion, the worst time to visit many of the parks is when the weather is the hottest and the crowds are the biggest. That means June and July for most parks when school kids are on summer break. Thankfully, one of the benefits of retirement is the flexible schedule so you can avoid peak crowds and visit in the shoulder seasons (just before or after peak season). September and October are often ideal months because the crowds have gone and the weather is mild.
What to do
Each park has a unique list of things to do and see like Old Faithful in Yellowstone, Half Dome in Yosemite, giant Redwoods in Sequoia and the Grand Canyon in…well…the Grand Canyon. In addition, there are plenty of other activities in the parks like hiking, camping, horseback riding, rafting, spelunking, snorkeling, kayaking, fishing, swimming, rock climbing, wildlife watching, sandboarding, hang gliding and leaf peeping. There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to things to see and do.
There are tons of volunteer opportunities in the parks (usually in exchange for free lodging). You can get more information about the Volunteer In Parks (VIP) program here or find specific volunteer opportunities here.
Most of the official park websites have Trip Planner pages. Just visit the NPS site for the park you want to visit and look for the link that says something like “Plan your visit” or “Trip Planner.” Here’s the Trip Planner page for the Grand Canyon so you can see an example.
Can I take my pet?
Most National Parks don’t allow pets, but there are some parks that do. Acadia (Maine), Shenandoah (Virginia) and Cuyahoga Valley (Ohio) have hundreds of miles of hiking trails open to you and your pet. Other parks, like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, don’t allow pets in certain areas of the park, but do have limited trails or other parts of the park where you can take your pet as long as they’re on a leash. If you want to take your pet, do some research before you go. The NPS website for each park lists their official pet policy.
There are thousands of videos online about the national parks, but I wanted to highlight a series by Jim and Will Pattiz called More Than Just Parks. They are brothers and filmmakers and have set a goal to create a short film using time lapse photography for each of the national parks. The videos are amazing. Click on the Zion video for starters. That 4 minute video will do more to convince you to get out and enjoy the parks than anything I could ever say.
If you’re thinking of visiting a park you might want to pick up a book or guide to help supplement the information you get from the park’s website. Lonely Planet makes great guide books and they have guides designed for many of the parks available at Amazon. Also, on April 19 they are publishing National Parks of America: Experience America’s 59 National Parks. It will be packed with photos as well as information, tips and sample itineraries for all 59 parks. If you’re looking for amazing photos, Ansel Adams in the National Parks is also a great option.
There is a new IMAX film called National Parks Adventure that is narrated by Robert Redford. It not only provides a history of the parks, but follows modern day adventurers as they explore some of the best things the parks have to offer. Here is a list of cities and theaters where the film is playing.
As I mentioned earlier, Ken Burns has a wonderful, six part documentary on the parks. It used to be available for streaming on Netflix, but I don’t see it there currently. You can try checking out a copy from your local library or it’s available for purchase at Amazon if you’d like to buy a copy.
Photos by Jeff Gunn, Srini Sundarrajan, Michael Balint, Arches National Park and Tupulak. Used under Creative Commons License. Note that several of the Amazon links in this post are affiliate links. That means Amazon will pay me a small commission (at no additional cost to you) if you make a purchase using one of the links.
Sleeping bag? Check. Tent? Check. Pocketknife? Check. Horse? Wait, what? For years my father-in-law has invited me on a cowboy camping trip that involves a four-hour horseback ride into the Wind River Range in Wyoming. It’s never quite worked out in the past, but this year I was determined to make it happen, which is how I found myself on the back of my trusty steed (a.k.a. El Diablo) riding into the mountains on the Friday before Labor Day.
It wasn’t just me. My father-in-law was there, of course, but also his brother-in-law Rusty (the organizer of the annual trip) and Rusty’s three sons. We were each riding a horse and then we had three packhorses that were carrying all of our gear. We made it to our remote campsite, unloaded the horses and began setting everything up. What followed was four days of hiking, riding, fishing and telling stories around the campfire, all while miles away from the nearest cell phone signal. Needless to say, it was a great time.
When the trip was over and we got back to civilization, I took a much-needed shower and started the long drive home. I had plenty of windshield time so I thought back on the trip and a few takeaways came to mind.
There will always be reasons to say no. As I mentioned earlier, my father-in-law has been inviting me on this trip for years. As much as I wanted to go, I had just as many reasons to say “no” this time as I had previously. Life is always busy. There will always be schedules, commitments and to-do lists. If you wait for the stars to align perfectly, you’ll never do anything.
“Yes” is more complicated than no, but much more rewarding too. It can often be complicated and costly to say “yes”, but that is usually the price of admission for doing interesting/fulfilling things. I had to take several days off work. The drive was 11 hours each way. And did I mention the horse? “Yes” gets you out of your comfort zone. It costs time and money. It takes effort. But to summarize Mark Twain, someday we’ll all regret the times we said “no” much more than the times we said “yes.”
Opportunities are finite. You and I will only have so many chances to say “yes.” To take the trip. To mend the relationship. To embrace the new opportunity. Even if the world were perfect, our opportunities are finite and—newsflash—the world is far from perfect. Case in point. Both my father-in-law and uncle-in-law are battling cancer. They’re doing well, but illness is always a good reminder that you won’t always have the opportunity to say “yes.”
Your body is in a constant state of entropy. The horseback ride up the mountain was difficult, but the horseback ride down the mountain was one of the craziest things I’ve ever done (think “The Man From Snowy River”). I managed it in my 40s, but I don’t think I’d want to attempt it in my 60s. As we get older, things change. Our bodies start to break down (entropy) and doors begin to close on certain opportunities. I wrote about this concept in The Funny Thing About Time. Take a minute to read it because it’s a good reminder.
Routine is the enemy of time. A guy by the name of Jed Jenkins said that and he is so right. When you’re stuck in a routine, time flies by. Getting out of your routine slows things down. It helps you look at things differently. It refreshes and makes you better when you get back. Four days in the mountains seemed like a really long time. Not because it wasn’t fun, but because I was doing something different and new. I had fresh eyes. I was having new experiences. Rather than my brain being on autopilot, I was aware and focused and present. If you regularly fill your life with new experiences, it won’t seem so short and hurried.
How about you? What travel plans are on your to do list? What have you wanted to get around to “someday”? What can you do today, this week or this month, to make those plans a reality? Don’t keep putting it off. Just go already.
When I was in college, I wanted to take a photography class as an elective. Unfortunately, I was required to take “Fundamentals of Drawing” as a prerequisite. I can’t draw to save my life, but I gave it a shot, assuming that the teacher would grade according to the “finance student who wants to take the photography class” curve.
On the first day of class the professor said, “I know many of you are here because you need this class to take the photography class. I am not an easy grader. If your drawings are bad, you will fail the class.” And that’s the story of how I ended up not taking a photography class in college.
Thankfully, we live in a completely different world today. Most of the rules, roadblocks and gatekeepers are gone and you can learn just about anything you want online, often for free.
Want an example? Just a few weeks ago I learned how to tile a floor watching a 5-minute YouTube video. Then I tiled my floor. It turned out great. I learned how to adjust my sprinkler heads the same way. Ditto with how to play new songs on my guitar.
YouTube is great, but sometimes you want a more formal learning process so you can take a deeper dive into a subject. For that, I’ve been experimenting with three companies that provide thousands of interesting online courses.
What it is. Coursera is an online education website started by a former Stanford professor. The company has agreements with more than 120 top universities (e.g. Princeton, Yale and Stanford) to make their most popular and interesting courses available free of charge to anyone who wants to take them.
How it works. Courses are a combination of videos, assignments and tests and usually take four to six weeks to complete. You study at your own pace and can go back to review material if needed or pause the lecture if you want to look something up, do further research or cook dinner.
What it costs. The courses are free for anyone who wants to take them, but you can pay a nominal fee (usually between $50 and $95) if you want to receive a course certificate that you can show a potential employer or list on your resume.
Types of classes. Imagine a college course catalog and that’s what the list of Coursera courses looks like. Want to take a nutrition class from Johns Hopkins? Check. How about a music class from the Berklee College of Music? Check. Computer programming at Stanford? Law at the University of London? The history of Beatles music at the University of Rochester? Check, check and check.
What it is. CreativeLive was founded by the super talented Chase Jarvis. If you’ve ever seen an ad or commercial for Nike, Apple, RedBull or Starbucks, chances are you’ve seen Jarvis’ photography and video work. The idea behind the company is to bring together some of the top creative minds in the world and do live classes in their areas of expertise.
How it works. Browse the list of upcoming classes and sign up for whatever sounds interesting. The live classes are often free, but if you miss the class or want to browse the catalog of hundreds of past classes, you can take those for a small fee.
What it costs. Again, the live classes are often free, but if you sign up for a past class from the catalog, they usually cost anywhere from $29 to $99 (some are more) depending on how in depth the class is.
Types of classes. There are classes in areas like photography, videography, design, music, money, travel and life. For example, I recently took a class on travel hacking (taking great trips for less money) taught by a guy who just finished visiting every country in the world. I’m also signed up to take an upcoming class on travel photography in July. Those are just a few examples, but there are hundreds of others to choose from.
What it is. Like the others we’ve discussed so far, Udemy is an online learning platform. Rather than providing just college courses (like Coursera) or focusing on a narrow range of topics (like CreativeLive), Udemy offers a broad range of skill building classes in a ton of different areas.
How it works: Sign up by creating a user name and log in and then start browsing courses to take. And if you have a particular area of expertise, Udemy makes it easy for you to create your own course and sell it on their platform.
What it costs: Some classes are free, but most cost between $29 and $99.
Types of classes: There are more than 30,000 courses in areas like business and entrepreneurship, academics, the arts, health and fitness, language, music, and technology.
One of our core beliefs here at Intentional Retirement is that curiosity and a willingness to learn will often result in an interesting and rewarding retirement. The resources discussed above make that easier than ever.
P.S. A little weekly inspiration from over on our Facebook Page:
I think it’s fair to say that most of us believe we are rational beings and we make rational decisions. I just finished reading a book, however, that calls that premise into question.
In Predictably Irrational, professor Dan Ariely uses cleverly designed experiments to show time and again that many of the daily decisions we make—from the mundane to the monumental—are completely irrational. His point is that these irrationalities are so systematic and predictable, that we can understand them and then compensate for them so we can make better decisions.
The section of the book that really caught my eye related to the concept of anchoring. Anchoring is our tendency to rely on the first piece of information we are presented with (the “anchor”) when making decisions. As the name implies, the anchor influences all of the related decisions that come after it. If you examine your life—how you spend your money, how you spend your day, where you buy coffee, who you hang out with, how much television you watch—you can likely trace those habits or repetitive behaviors back to some sort of anchor.
What does this have to do with making retirement decisions? Again, our first decisions on a particular matter tend to act as anchors for the subsequent decisions we make in that area. When you enter retirement you make a whole bunch of new decisions. Those decisions—the who, what, where, when and why of retirement—will resonate for years to come. You should be very intentional as you make them. Professor Ariely:
“We should also pay particular attention to the first decision we make in what is going to be a long stream of decisions. When we face such a decision, it might seem to us that this is just one decision, without large consequences; but in fact the power of the first decision can have such a long-lasting effect that it will percolate into our future decisions for years to come. Given this effect, the first decision is crucial, and we should give it an appropriate amount of attention.”
In other words, the first weeks and months of retirement are critical. Many people enter retirement with the best of intentions, but because they don’t understand this concept of anchoring, one of two things happens. First, they are so deeply anchored to previous decisions that when they are confronted with the new paradigm of retirement, they talk themselves out of things, even if it is something that they have been dreaming about for years. For example, “I’d love to travel, but that’s just not me.”
Second, they transition into retirement without a lot of intention or urgency and they assume that they will have plenty of time to figure things out as they go. But while they’re waiting for the dust to settle, they make decisions early on—the first 30 days, 60 days, a year—that end up acting as anchors for years to come and that prevent them from pursuing their ideal retirement. So what are some ways that we can avoid this fate?
Stop. I’ve talked many times before about a “stop doing” list. Never is that list more critical than when you transition into retirement. By cutting out old obligations that are no longer relevant to your new phase of life, you allow yourself space and breathing room to focus on your new pursuits, activities, obligations and commitments and give them the time and attention they deserve.
Shake things up. If you find yourself in a rut and anchored to decades of old habits and routines, it’s helpful to have big, new plans—like moving, traveling, or volunteering—that will force you to steer off the well-worn path you’ve become accustomed to and proactively pursue your new goals. If you don’t have specific new plans, it’s easy to fall into a routine that doesn’t look much different from your working years, save for sleeping in a little bit and having more time to run errands.
Keep a journal. As you transition into retirement, spend a little time at the end of each day journaling. Write about the emotions, feelings, experiences and changes related to the transition. Most of all, write about the decisions you’re confronted with. If you take time at the end of each day to think and write about those decisions in the context of what you want the next 20 or 30 years of your life to look like, then you’ll likely make decisions that put you on the path to where you want to go.
Have a response ready. When you retire, you will be confronted with a number of people and organizations that will want a piece of your newfound time and freedom. Rather than hastily committing to something you might later regret, have a ready response that defers any decision. Here’s the one I suggest: “Thanks for asking. You know, I’m new to this whole retirement thing and I’m still trying to figure out what my schedule will look like, so let me think about it and then I’ll get back to you.” If it isn’t something that fits with your plans, follow up later with a quick call or email to decline.
Remember, the decisions you make in the first weeks and months of retirement will resonate for years. Therefore:
- Have specific plans.
- Be intentional.
- Have a sense of urgency.
- Understand the resistance you’ll feel if your new plans conflict with your old anchors and be prepared to push through it.
- Keep a journal to help you think through your daily decisions
- Cut old commitments that aren’t a fit for your new phase of life
- Be slow to make new commitments.
To all of my readers in the U.S., have a great Memorial Day Weekend! And to those outside the U.S., just have a great weekend. 🙂