I celebrated my birthday earlier this month; I turned two! Well, twenty-two. But this was only my second time celebrating my birthday. This wasn’t something I ever did growing up. In a lot of ways, having left a way of life behind, it does feel like I’m a young toddler sometimes. The sometimes-scary feelings associated with young adulthood, that of finding purpose, developing an identity, and building a foundation of belief are compounded by the fact that I’m now doing so many things for the first (or second) time. I’m no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses; now, I’m just, me. Something I become more unapologetic about as time goes by. So, to kick-off a new year of life, literally and figuratively, I decided to take a solo trip off into the hill country to do some self-exploration.

I booked a beautiful tiny home Airbnb that backed up to a dry creek, just outside of Marble Falls. Besides the few other tiny homes spaced out on the property, it was extremely secluded. I had been to Austin before and the drive was never spectacular, so I wasn’t expecting much. But, once I made it west of Austin, the drive became so different. Driving along the hilly roads, full of twists, turns, ups, and downs was quite nice. Once I arrived at the Airbnb, I ordered some Italian food to load up on carbs ahead of the hike I planned to take the next day.

The next morning, I drove to Balcones Canyonlands, Doeskin Ranch, to hike the outer rims of all the trails they had. When I arrived, just before noon, the weather was cool, and the trails were empty. Without realizing, I ended up starting my hike on the most difficult trail they had. I found this out quickly since the first half mile was a journey 300 feet up. The twists and turns along the hillside whooped my ass. By the time I made it to the top I was surprised at how winded I was, and I started to regret my decision to hike at this moment. But, after a drink and a small break, I carried on until I found a bench at an overlook area. For about ten minutes, I sat. I enjoyed the sun, the cool breeze, and a wonderful view. I spotted homes on every other hill or so, they looked small in the distance. I saw no roads, only land and trees.

I recognized that a moment like this was exactly what I was looking for. I started to reflect on the past year, thinking about all that has occurred. I reflected on the relationships that have started and ended, the career moves, academic successes, and the creative pursuits I’ve begun to explore. I then thought about the pandemic, the rollercoaster of emotions that the past few months have been, the political and social changes looming in the air. I paused; grateful that I was breathing, that I had a job, and my needs were met. I sat for a moment and acknowledged everything that was and began to think about what is to come. I attempted to toss away the feelings of inadequacy, fear, and minor bouts of psychosis I have been struggling with. For a moment, I made my mind as quiet as my surroundings. Then, I just sat there, eyes closed, content. I had to frequently pat away the thought that I needed to get back on the trail or needed to be thinking. For just a few minutes my only goal was to be. I enjoyed a silence like I had never experienced before, one that I hope I continue to find and never take for granted. 

That silence was so different compared to the months and weeks prior to that moment. My life typically consists of five consecutive days filled to the brim. I spend around 18-20 hours a day awake during the workweek, most of it spent in front of a computer either at work or at home doing schoolwork. Monday through Friday melts together with short 5-hour naps in between, and fluorescent light fills up the rest. I don’t mind the heavy workload, but I’ve begun to realize that this lifestyle is only sustainable if I take ample opportunity to do nothing.

Once I soaked up as much of the quiet as I could, I shifted my focus towards the future. I pondered over my creative pursuits, finetuning plans for the blog, my career, and my life. When thinking about all of this, three words came to mind: empathy, equity, and excellence. I whispered those words to the wind, hoping she would carry them with me as I got back on my feet and started to hike again. After a while, the trail transitioned from a green and rocky landscape to a burnt and recovering forest. As I walked for a mile or so amongst the charred stumps I thought about all of the things I’d left behind, and felt a sense of connection to the forests remains, knowing I too would grow back in marvelous new ways. Finally, the trail began to return to its green and rocky state, and for a moment I grabbed a bit of the earth and ran my fingers through the grit and sand. I took a small sip of water and thought to myself, “Okay, keep going”. After a while, I realized I was approaching the downhill portion of the same trail that so graciously handed my ass to me in the beginning. There was a sense of relief that swept over me knowing I had gravity on my side this time. On my descent, I stopped at a couple more benches that were placed on the trail, briefly taking in the scenery. Once I made it to level ground, I knew my time on the trail was ending, and I took no rush in returning to the parking lot. Before getting into my car, I turned around and took in the view one final time. From where I was standing, I couldn’t even see how far back I had gone. I took a deep breath, thanked the trail for the silence, the smells, and the views. “Not bad for a first hike.”, I thought to myself as I drove back to my weekend home.

After a quick shower and a light lunch, I took a well-deserved nap. Naps are rare for me, but I have begun to appreciate them more, taking them where I can. Once I woke up, I lounged around for a bit. I had a few hours before I was going to leave again to watch the sunset, so I decided to watch a documentary and snack on some fruit. Then, around 30 minutes before the set time, I drove along the same curvy roads to the other side of Balcones. Once I arrived, I put my mask on and walked out on the wooden observation deck, joined by a handful of people who’d spend the next half hour watching the sunset with me. Although it wasn’t quite as silent as my lone hike, the view made up for it. To our right, we stared in awe as lightning struck and rolled around in the dark clouds. To our left, we saw a winding lake turned all sorts of shades of red, pink, and yellow. In between all of this was a clear image of the setting sun. I took my phone out briefly, snagging a few pictures, but for the most part, it was a no technology kind of evening. Once the sun wished us all a goodnight, I headed back into town to pick up a meal and head to sleep.

The next morning, it was time to check out of my beautiful tiny home. But, before I would head back home, I made a pitstop at Longhorn State Cavern to tour their cave! I, along with a dozen or so others, ventured off with our guide, taking brief pauses to learn about the formation of the cave and to look at crystals buried deep under the earth. I couldn’t tell you much about how the cave formed, or when it was discovered, but I can tell you about the very last thing our guide showed us. The area was called “the hall of diamonds” (even though all the crystals were calcium-based). After a brief explanation of how the walls became covered with crystals, our guide asked us if we would like to experience complete darkness. After our mutual agreement, he turned the lights off, and black was all I saw. He then asked us to wave our hands in front of us and asked us if we could see anything. I saw nothing. He explained to us that the shadow some of us thought we saw, was simply our brain tricking us in to see what we know should be there. Then, he stopped talking, he waited for the children amongst our group to quiet, and for a moment, there it was again. Complete silence. We were over 300 feet underground, and I heard nothing. With the cool, damp, cave air on all sides of me, in those two or three seconds, I felt like I could take on the world. And before he turned the lights back on, he shined his green laser into the wall of crystals, and we collectively “oo’d” and “awed” at the amazing light show we were seeing. Hundreds of tiny green dots surrounded us, and I don’t think I’ll forget what I saw for a very long time. Then, with a quick lever switch, the lights were on and back to the real world we were. After a quick trek back above ground, I bought a mug and a shirt to commemorate my visit and headed home.

The drive home, like always, felt shorter than the drive up. But by the time I walked back into my apartment, I felt better than I had in months. Who knew spending some time alone with dirt and rocks would give me such joy.

The week after my trip I spent some time with my dad and stepmom. We had dinner together (of my choosing), and it was followed by a delicious homemade cake. Having only celebrated now two birthdays, I realize how much more cake I need in my life. I got to blow out some candles, make a wish, and even take a few slices home for the following week. Even though the birthday traditions and such still feel a bit odd, mainly because it’s so new, I can get behind the camaraderie (and cake) that a loving family provides. To all my friends and chosen family who’ve reached out and talked with me, I can’t thank you enough. I am eternally grateful that I have a life where you all are in it.

I can’t say I figured out the key to life, or even developed a master plan for my success on this trip. But I can say that I’ve fallen in love with silence. Not the kind of silence a single man living alone experiences on the daily. I’m talking about the almost deafening quiet, where you experience existence at its core. On this trip though, I did set a few goals related to what I hope to accomplish before we make another rotation around the sun, and I’m excited to start the journey towards those things. When I got back to work, I told my boss I planned to take more trips like this, and he reinforced the importance of rest in a high functioning lifestyle. I don’t think we need a birthday as an excuse to celebrate our existence though, we don’t need an excuse at all. This trip has helped me become grateful for who I am, and what I have, and has also helped me focus on how I can better serve others. I’m excited to go touch more rocks, walk on more dirt, and see more things… Since I’ve returned, I feel more connected to my writing and I’m proud of the ideas that are to come. I hope that my genuine desire to live a purposeful life is palpable when you read my writing.

With that said, go touch some dirt, whether above or below ground; It might make the world around you feel a little bit more pleasant.

Thanks to you, 22’s going to be awesome.