If you've spent any time on outdoorsy websites, Twitter accounts, or Facebook pages (and since you're here reading this I'll assume that you do), you've probably come across your fair share of gorgeous outdoor images emblazoned with inspirational sayings from Thoreau, Muir, or the infinitely quotable Abbey. They're a staple of adventurous news feeds everywhere. And if you've spent enough time in their company, you'll have most likely come across a quote from author Neale Donald Walsch - "Life begins at the end of your comfort zone."
The original quote is written from a spiritual perspective, but the line itself has become its own motivational meme on the web, gracing everything from hand-drawn cartoons to pictures of people diving off cliffs to - let's face it - probably your aunt's Facebook profile.
Even though Walsch wasn't intending that line to be taken in a literal, physical sense, it's still a fair way to read it. As children, we learn almost exclusively by trying new things - the idea of a comfort zone doesn't even exist in our heads yet. But when we enter adulthood most of us come to look on that youthful exploration as recklessness and, well, that can be pretty limiting. Who wants to try new things when you've got rent, student loans, or a family of your own to worry about?
As outdoor adventurers of varying degrees, we tend to end up on the child-like side of that dividing line. I'm sure we've all had the experience of talking about a recent hiking, camping, or climbing trip with friends or colleagues only to be met slack-jawed expressions and reactions like "you're crazy!" or "I could never do something like that," even though most of the people telling us those things could easily do what we do if they just gave it a go once in a while. And even we, who may roll our eyes at the equivalent of the internet's bumper stickers, we could still take that message to heart once in a while.
A few years ago, I was hiking a long trail in the northern San Gabriels a week or so after a winter storm. The days had been warm so I wasn't expecting to encounter much in the way of precipitation but after about 6 miles of hiking up a long and isolated trail, there it was. It wasn't much, but the 3-4 inches of snow was slippery enough to give my hiking boots pause - and it was on slopes steep enough to give me pause, too.
I could handle a little bit of snow along the way but I was definitely not prepared for slick ice on a steep slope - I was wearing the summer boots that are great in 95% of conditions here in Southern California and only had on a few top layers for the cold - I didn't even have gloves on. I thought about turning back but I pushed past my initial nervousness (and OK, maybe I had a bit of summit fever, too).
I continued as the trail became more and more difficult to stay on. The untouched snow on the way up became littered with my ungloved-handprints every time I lost my balance and hit the ground, but I kept going and eventually reached a saddle about 7 miles into the mountains. From here, the plan was to scramble up an unofficial use-trail to a ridge where I could bag three peaks - but after taking a few steps up and sliding down about twice as far each time, I decided these particular peaks could be summited on another trip - maybe one where I came with some snowshoes or crampons.
For a while when I would tell people about this trip, I thought I hit my comfort zone boundary was on that final ascent - and I always told the story with just a tinge of disappointment in myself. Only recently have I realized that I actually pushed past it when I first encountered the slippery snow on the way up. Now when I think of this trail it's not disappointment I feel, but inspiration to push past the next boundary - whether it's a distance marker, an elevation record, or a trail blocked by a massive rockslide. You never really know what your limits are unless you push past where your brain's self-preservation instinct tells you they lie.
So who cares if Walsch's quote is being used for a new purpose, or that it's applied to everything from skydiving to meditating? If it gets you out and trying new things, then all the better ... just so long as you keep another quote from Ed Viesturs in the back of your head on your next adventure - "Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory."
-Casey Schreiner writes Modern Hiker, Los Angeles' oldest and most-read hiking blog. Casey's been encouraging Angelenos to explore the world-class hiking beyond the Walk of Fame since 2005. When not exploring trails, he acts as the series producer and head writer for Pivot TV's live, late-night show, TakePart Live. Keep up with Casey on Twitter: @ModernHiker.
Comfort Zones: Where Does Adventure Begin
By Casey Schreiner
February 05, 2014
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