(Un)familiar – iRunFar

(Un)familiar – iRunFar

I’ve been traveling a lot this summer. Austria, Pennsylvania, Oregon, California, Alaska, and Colorado are where I’ve spent my time thus far. About a week ago I returned to my old stomping grounds: Manitou Springs, Colorado. I arrived very tired. I had been traveling all night and was desperately in need of sleep. Hence, I laid down in my bus and took a much-needed nap.

After a few hours of sleep, I woke up and went for a run. There were a great number of places I could have gone, but I chose one of my favorites, Cameron Cone. I’ve been in and out of Manitou for the past few years, never staying for too long, but after spending six years of my life in this area, it’s one of the few places that feels like home to me. The run on the cone that day was no different. It was like catching up with an old friend.

After spending a few days there, I made my way to the San Juan Mountains of Colorado to hang out with friends and spectate this year’s Hardrock 100. While there I ran a mix of both familiar and new-to-me trails. As usual, exploring the San Juans was great, but when we returned to Manitou a few days later, it once again felt good to be back in such a familiar place.

Zach Miller - running in the San Juans

Zach Miller exploring the snow-speckled San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Photo: Morgan Elliott

One day, while out on a run with my friend Majell Backhausen, we talked about the attractiveness of familiarity. As two people who do a lot of traveling, we agreed that there is something really nice about knowing where you are going. It seems a funny thing to admit when we both spend so much time in a space that raves about exploration. Not that either of us dislike exploring new places, but it’s almost as if the more time you spend exploring, the more you appreciate what is already known.

Don’t get me wrong, discovering new places is great. I love getting out there and seeing things that are new to me. I enjoy figuring out a new-to-me line or picking my way across a ridge. I like topping out on a peak and dropping down the backside to see what’s on the other side. I enjoy studying maps, venturing off trail, and figuring out loops and connections that most folks don’t bother with.

And yet, even the greatest of adventures can leave something to be desired. Familiar places have something new ones don’t. They have memories that give the place a certain vibe. They have a sense of security. They enable you to feel confident in your steps. They require less planning. They allow you to turn off your brain and just be.

In familiar places you don’t have to question if you are going the right way, or if the line you are on will cliff out or the trail you’re following will dead end. You generally know which rocks will probably hold and which creeks are good for refilling water. In some ways this may sound less fun, but there is something very nice about the efficiency, comfort, and sense of security that it brings.

When I think about life, I notice a similar theme. There are times in life when I long for things to be exciting and wild. I want that wild ridgeline and mysterious peak. But a lot of the time, I find myself wanting the familiar trail. Not because I want life to be boring, but because I want to know that I’m going the right way.

Zach Miller - Alaska

Zach Miller breaking new ground for him in Alaska. Photo: Jess Schueler

Like the mountains themselves, life is full of choices. We are constantly trying to decide whether to ascend this ridgeline or descend that gully, whether to take that job or buy that house. I myself am no exception. Sometimes I feel like I can hardly pick out a tub of yogurt at the grocery store, let alone make a major life decision. I fear that I’ll make the wrong choice and descend a ridgeline that eventually cliffs out.

In these moments of uncertainty, it’s easy to long for the familiar trail, to want the reassuring path with all of its little indicators telling you that you’re headed in the right direction: that rock you’ve stepped on a thousand times, that corner you like to zoom around, that creek you love splashing through, and the log you always hop — usually off the left foot. Yet as I go through life, I find that the trail of life is not always so familiar. In fact, oftentimes it’s quite the opposite.

Time and again, life feels like descending an unfamiliar ridgeline, unsure if it will go through or cliff out. Sometimes the line is good, and you make it, other times you have to backtrack and find a different way. What it lacks in comfort it makes up for in thrill. While it can feel intimidating, this is what makes life fun. With time, you become more familiar with the terrain. You get better at navigating it. The unfamiliar becomes familiar. The scary becomes fun.

As I go through life, unsure of whether or not I’m making the right decisions, I have to remember these lessons of the trail. Uncertain terrain, though intimidating, can also be invigorating. And familiar terrain, though less thrilling, is enjoyable in its own right. But for me, the goal is not to have just one, but both — for one leads to the other, and each brings life in its own way.

Call for Comments

  • Do you crave familiarity after some time exploring new-to-you places?
  • What are the trails that feel like home for you?
San Juans - trail

One of many trails to be followed through the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. Photo: Zach Miller

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