Six years ago, three friends and I spent a week paddling fifty miles in canoes on the Green River. The stretch of water winds through the Utah desert and eventually merges with the Colorado River. On the final day we arrived at Spanish Bottom, the designated pickup point nestled within a sharp bend of the Colorado. Miles from civilization, we sweated in the late afternoon sun to pitch tents amidst the tamarisk shrubs by the water’s edge. As the campsite began to take shape, movement from the corner of my eye turned my head toward a young man approaching. My body tensed when I saw his outfit.
“Excuse me, sir,” the young man said, stopping a reasonable distance from me. The tie that had been swaying across his dress shirt as he walked now came to a standstill above his belt buckle and khaki pants. “My group is a ways back,” he continued. “I’m scouting campsites. Do you mind sharing this one?”
I appreciated his politeness, and my tension eased somewhat. “We don’t mind,” I said. “Plenty of room.”
He thanked us and then disappeared beyond the brush, leaving the four of us puzzled. We’d known other campers could join us at the pickup point, but nothing prepared me for business attire in the Utah desert.
As we continued working, the conversation turned to the past week: fifty miles of phenomenal beauty, water-sculpted canyons, long-abandoned cliff dwellings. We’d emerged unscathed and reverent from a furious thunderstorm that had swept in quickly to hurl lightning bolts into the ridges surrounding us. Somehow, we’d avoided the numerous rattlesnakes that populated the area, but were surprised by an encounter with wild mountain goats, trapping them accidentally in a dead-end canyon. Thick horns curved over their heads, ones that could have left any one of us in need of medical attention had they charged through. Instead, they proved we hadn’t boxed them in at all by ambling up the steep slope to disappear over the other side.
By the time we finished the campsite duties, the churn of paddles drew our eyes to numerous canoes rounding the bend. Bows dug into the sandy beach and we watched the travelers disembark, one woman lifting the hem of a long evening gown as she stepped into the water. More guys in ties and dress shirts pulled the canoes beyond the reach of the waves.
I can only suppress my curiosity so long: “What’s the occasion?” I asked. Turns out they were student teachers on a university team-building trip. Every year the trek ends with “formal” day. Eventually, the group moved inland, pairing up to find their own camping spots.
Circling our campfire later, my friends and I talked as the evening sun melted into the hilltop behind us. Distant campfires lit the spreading darkness beyond, and we hailed the success of the getaway, especially the peace it bestowed. At that, my mind drifted to how tense I’d become when the young visitor had shown. Had the visceral reaction to the young man’s attire been a stark reminder that a closet full of scratchy collars and restricting corporate tethers awaited my return to civilization? Perhaps, but I felt there was more to it than that.
Last week, the image of the young man walking through the Utah desert in business clothes flashed through my head. I hadn’t thought about it for a long time, but once again my thoughts turned to why I’d become so tense at a seemingly harmless event. Society’s rules had chased me far into the desert, specifically, society’s pressure to conform: people aren’t supposed to show up at weddings in cargo shorts and flip flops, and they aren’t supposed to take canoe trips in dress shirts and ties. That pressure to conform is tremendous and subtle at the same time, often hidden in the subtext of conversations or disapproving glances. Yet, to do something great, which often means doing something in a different way, we must resist the pressure to conform. It's not always easy, but I believe it's worth it.
Lately, I've looked closer at my decisions and actions to determine how much they are influenced by outside expectations or by the rules society thrusts upon me. I strive to forge my own path, not the one stomped flat by a crowd. But it's alarmingly easy to switch to autopilot when not paying attention and wake to find I've veered to the beaten path. Nothing a little backtracking can't fix, but I'm learning to become more vigilant and ensure I do it my way. What about you? Is your life lived your way, or to someone else's expectations?
Slideshow-Green River Canoe Trip:
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