“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau
The last day of school is joyous.
No more teachers (“They’re like, so lame and bossy, and, like, where does he buy those scruffy clothes —-I am, like, sooo tired of listening to you drone on about whatever!”). No more tests (“Why do we have to learn this stuff, anyway, you know, cuz when am I ever gonna have to know what a Python Theory or whatever it is anyway?”).
Your locker door stands open in a row of locker doors, like soldiers at attention. The inside compartment has your initials plastered on the back wall in blue Sharpie marker, but it is now emptied of all contents. Final exams and projects are completed, for better or for worse, and there is the overwhelming sense that you are free. Summer looms ahead with promise-filled days.
For teachers, it is even better. No more students (“Bratty, spoiled, mouthy, rude little creatures with nothing between their ears but dead gray matter that has been pounded to mush by loud rap music gushing from the headphones cemented to their heads—-I am, like, soooo very done with you this year!”) No more tests to grade (“Bureaucratic, state-mandated drivel filled with ivory tower curriculum objectives measured by stanines and median thresholds—I just want to puke on the teacher test booklet and go to Test Irregularity Prison already!”)
Your classroom is cleaned out, the backseat of your car is full and there is the overwhelming sense that you are free. Summer looms ahead with promise-filled days that you feel you not only deserve, but desperately need.
For me this year, it was way better than anything any students or even teachers were experiencing. I was retiring. Or at least I thought I was. It was so hard to decide. There were pros and cons, as always. The list of reasons to stay included great people to work with, who cared about education and students. There was the important work being done to make a difference in their lives. And, a free lunch from the school cafeteria whenever I wanted one, well . . . Hmmmmm.
I had grown increasingly restless, however, in a new job assignment that I didn’t really enjoy doing and was not what I had been hired or wired for. Either way, though, it was ok because no one knew and I didn’t want it to be a big deal. No PowerPoint presentation with embarrassing pictures from my first years, where I looked younger than some of my students. No obligatory “Congratulations Cake,” with pats on the back and jokes about sitting in a rocker on the porch and with concerned colleagues leaning in to inquire in hushed tones:
“You’re still pretty young to retire. Isn’t this all sort of sudden?”
And, “Is everything ok, you’re not sick or something awful are you?”
No, better to go out quietly without all the hoopla and fanfare.
“What does all of this have to do with a book that is supposed to be about hiking across Michigan?” I can hear you asking. Nothing, and everything.
In my final administrative job as a high school principal, I had told students in my address at their graduation:
In May of the year I graduated, Alice Cooper had a hit single called, “School’s Out Forever!” I’m sure all of my fellow senior classmates across the country were singing along with us:
No more pencils,
No more books.
No more teacher’s dirty looks.
School’s out for summer.
School’s out forever!
I learned pretty quickly after graduating high school, as will you, that Alice Cooper’s view of education was flawed. The secret is that graduation from high school does not mean that school is out forever. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s the beginning of a whole new schooling process—that’s why we call it a “commencement” ceremony. The truth is that you are graduating from high school into the bigger school of what everyone calls the “Real World.”
What I realized as I closed my office door for the last time was that I, too, was graduating this year. My march down the ceremonial aisle, however, is often seen as a withdrawal from the “Real World” to an insulated, cocoon-like world called “Retirement.”
In Retirement World the bluebirds of happiness chirp all day in a safe haven of comfort and relaxation. The rocking chairs are all lined with tweed wool blankets and slipper-shod members trundle from serenity to tranquility and back again. The best days on this planet can only be described as uneventful. This is a place of ending.
That’s not what I pictured.
Retirement to me is like a commencement ceremony is to graduates. Certainly, it is the end of one thing, but, just as certainly, not the end of everything. In fact, it is more about beginning than about ending. It is more about the future than about the past. It is celebrating what you have accomplished, but only in the sense that now you do something else because of what you have learned or want to know.
For me it is not the epilogue of the story or even the last chapter, but rather the beginning of a new story; a new phase of life where every day begins with the question, “Whatta ya wanna do today?”
My first answer to that question is, “I want it all!”
“I want to live the rest of my life deliberately. I want to do the important things, to make valuable contributions that will make a difference in the world and leave a lasting legacy for generations to come. I want adventure and excitement, enthusiasm and passion. I want to pursue that bucket list like a man with his hair on fire and wring the neck of each item on it like it was a Sunday dinner chicken. Ride the bull, or at least run with them. Grab for all the gusto I can get and then some.”
Calvin always captures it best for me:
Not only was I retiring, but I had turned 60 in the spring. I had managed to not kill myself in a hundred different ways growing up, including stunts like shooting arrows straight up into the sky with our bows to see how high they might go —–DO NOT DO THIS!—-you can’t see where a skinny arrow goes after just a couple of seconds of flight and you won’t know where it is until it —thwwwwicks— into the ground, an eternity later, somewhere nearby! Now, the curtain comes down, the scenery changes and I make the transition from Act II of my life to Act III.
Six decades of Will, with retirement to boot, were cause to somehow indelibly mark the beginning of a new era of life in an epic way. Old testament characters sometimes heaped up mounds of stones to commemorate epic events. The book of Joshua, for example, records eight separate occurrences where the Israelites piled up stones to memorialize events on their journey through the desert to the Promised Land. A similar pilgrimage seemed appropriate.
What I decided on was a return to the woods, like Thoreau, “. . . to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Unlike Thoreau, however, my going to the woods would not be a stationary quest, but a trek worthy of the occasion; I would hike from one shore of Michigan to the other. Travel is a great teacher. Creation is a master teacher. Combining the two by embarking on a journey into the great outdoors seemed to me to hold the promise of great insight and learning.
Perhaps you stand at a similar crossroads in life. It could be that you’re contemplating some kind of change or monumental event that has occurred or is looming over you like a cliff. Or maybe you are like me and just love to tag along as a book stowaway on adventurous expeditions. There are all kinds of reasons why you may have picked up this book. Whatever the motivation, this is my invitation to enlist in our little band of vicarious pilgrims and join us as we go for the gusto. I promise we’ll have fun and I’ll keep you safe.
Grab your pack and let’s go!
Want more of A Walk Across Michigan? Click Here