Thoughts of Aragon + Local Maxima

Thoughts of Aragon + Local Maxima

So why do we travel? Why is it that we all do not seem to have wanderlust? Is it really just genetics?

I had a conversation with my son before leaving on the desire to travel, and if it is something that will bubble out of those predisposed after they leave youth and nest behind. With this brief conversation and these thoughts of travel in my mind, I found myself on the trail to Gavernie in France…

So briefly to the practical and physical – Gavarnie is tremendously beautiful, and features one of largest waterfalls in Europe: Grande Cascade de Gavarnie (which must be spoken in French, for full effect). While on the hike, I took a few moments to jot down some thoughts, and took a bunch of photos. The area is just butting up to the border with ancient Aragon, with lineage to Ferdinand (of Columbus’ Ferdinand and Isabella) and his daughter Catherine of Aragon (famous for keeping her head together with Henry The VIII). To depart from other posts, though, I decided to temper my awe of the beauty in this place by choosing only a “few” photos that best capture the essence for me.

The most painful part of a long hike (and sadly short ones too) is never the part where your muscles are aching and you are struggling against endurance… those times are tough, but you are buoyed by the potential of accomplishment in knowing you are overcoming pain by every step. Each of these steps tears you down with exhaustion and brings you back up with pride, with each step you manage  you get a high that counterbalances the pain, and the mental see-saw of those two states seems to be sustainable. Any one who has done endurance sports knows this lesson.

No, rather, the hardest part of the journey to me is always at the beginning  – or to be more exact – during the second mile. Here is after you have burned through that fleeting first mile jolt of energy of being on the trail in the first place. Here is where your flabby muscles begin rebelling over every minor incline, your knees complain about every minor rock and barrier in the way, and your mind is too flabby to defend against them, being equally weak. There is no rhythm, there are no victories with your steps.

While this lesson is taught to me on every hike, it also extends to our journey for the summer. We are not there now – but no doubt, we will hit our own second mile in Spain.

Alright, back to the intangible, and the discussion of why we travel. There are the obvious things gained when we travel – but yet still important and worth codifying:

  • The adrenaline pump of situations unknown
  • The calming of sensitivities that comes naturally with the exposure to foreign cultures
  • The sense of pride that comes from discovery
  • The satiating of wanderlust, scratching the itch on the heels of one’s feet
  • The resilience in the soul to uncomfortable situations (one Lenka donated for this blog entry)
  • The guidance on our daily lives from analogies discovered in distant places that force us to use fresh eyes (per previous post)

I’m sure there are 15 more items like this if I had a moment more. In fact, it would be a more challenging exercise to come up with a list of reasons why NOT to travel beyond monetary.

But my time on this hike was more spent on one particular concept not listed above – the concept of local maxima. It is a natural thing to think of with the vistas as shown above. We travel to forcibly escape the local maxima that we have grown comfortably numb in the safety of our daily lives. To excessively expound on this:

I always savor the moments when I can teach my kids the lessen that the shortest way home is often to head in the opposite direction, because you can get trapped in a well of local maxima. To take the analogy of life being a goal to climb the highest mountain, a local maxima is a peak that you think has a great view, but only to be blinded from a much larger peak behind you, but cannot see it because you are looking down and falsely believe the true peak is beneath your feet. To escape, you must go down from that false peak before you can head up again, which is unnatural for body and mind.

At times in our lives, and more frequently when we are struggling with an issue, the best thing to do is head the opposite direction of what is comfortable, in order to escape a local maxima.

And like a pebble on the shore line caught in a small pool on top of a much larger rock, that grinding away can great a small hole that is oblivious to the power of the river just beyond the small pool. This analogy of a pebble grinding a pool in a rock alongside the river is prominent in my walk right now given the tremendous macro view in contrast to the micro view of the pebble.

So how do you escape the local maxima? The real problem is recognizing the existence of the problem in the first place. And that is where travel comes in. That list of obvious reasons why we travel are all picks and shovels in removing the peak of a local maxima.

Plus we have distance to view our daily lives sufficient to easily spot this false peeks. Traveling is a way to abstract yourself and view the mountain of your day to day from a distance, a viewpoint not possible when you are scaling the cliffsides and viewpoints of everyday challenges.

Before we left, my wife and I got into a frenzy over securing the house. Cameras, motion detectors, alarms, automated lights with randomness, blinds closed, garbage can movement instructions, cars in the driveway, threatening signs on windows. It got to the point where we were having an argument, er.. debate… over whether or not a set of blinds being open two inches at the bottom would be inviting a burglar to come in.

Clearly, we were in a highly optimized local maxima. We were winning a battle at the expense of losing the war with sanity through self-feeding fear, like that pebble grinding away in that little pool of water.

So in our viewpoints from a distance through traveling, we see the analogies of local maxima in the mountains, and the analogies of second miles on the trail with our broader travel.

Another is to see all these graduations we (myself, my kids) have been going through as mini culminations of packing.  My two eldest children are both setting out on new journeys with their graduations, and our experiences on the trail – or with this expedition – is a good reminder for them and the struggles they will have ahead of them. They too are about to have their own “second mile” as they enter their new stages in life. They too will have some blind that is refusing to close the final two inches with disastrous concern. They too will have local maxima where they rut themselves into an easy solution only to find that they must kick themselves out of that comfort to reach a much higher peak. So, get ready!

I’m keenly aware that I have many red flags built into my psyche to warn me of places of trouble, particularly of trouble that is otherwise not apparent. Local maxima are a great example, recursively so. The second mile red flag is another.

These red flags are cordoned away in my brain to be ever vigilant for me, driving a paranoia with the aim for survival, to channel Andy Grove.

And I only seem to gather more, making me wonder – is this perhaps what wisdom is? Knowing the unforeseen and non-obvious problems not after – or even when you are in the thick of it – but before you hit them because it triggers a red flag?

…  Ah, but I have returned now to my car and must rush back down the valley. I know that there is a most impressive dinner experience waiting for me.

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