Years ago, I read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. It was the historical account of Christopher McCandless, a young man who graduated to great promise from Emory University in the early 1990s only to abandon any semblance of identity (he literally burned all forms of identification) and left his home and family behind to hit the road on a cross-country trip. Chris ultimately ended up living out of an abandoned bus through a snowy Alaskan winter north of Denali National Park and, while incredibly resourceful, he ended up making one tactical mistake–he ate poisonous berries–and ended up perishing shortly before the spring thaw. His journey, both physically and psychologically, was introspective and meditative.
I saw Krakauer read at a bookstore in Denver in 2009 and he explained that he received mail from some readers who thought that McCandless’ story was one of tragedy and other, less sympathetic readers, who thought the kid just needed to get his head screwed on straight and get on with adulthood.
After graduating from the State University of New York – Binghamton in 1994, I ended up working at Wal-mart for a year. Then I headed to Alaska where I landed in a fish processing center, working 16-hour shifts cutting up sockeye salmon in Naknek. I almost stayed following the summer season, but I had gotten an acceptance letter to graduate school in the Bronx so I headed back to the Lower 48. Not long after graduate school started, I decided to join the Peace Corps so it was off to Sri Lanka. After getting back to the States a year later, I quickly finished my Master’s degree then decided I didn’t want to become an English professor. So, with about two weeks’ advance notice of a job opportunity as an editor, I packed most of what I owned into two bags and took a bus down to Washington, DC.
No Rites of Passage: A Confused Introduction to Adulthood
All of which is, to say, that after I graduated from college and faced a future of adulthood, I found myself so mixed up and without direction that I was willing to try (and pretty much did) anything! Eventually, I settled down and found a path. I was fortunate to catch a professional work break from a mentor at the Peace Corps and that first step helped me figure out which way to go.
But for myself and McCandless and, no doubt, for thousands of other Americans, the journey into adulthood can be a challenging one. This is a core theme of Green Bay Outsiders. Carl Daniels, the protagonist, realizes shortly after graduating from the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, that the cookie cutter promise he’d been living with doesn’t quite settle the churn inside him. He wants to see more. He wants to experience more. And this is a guy who studied business!
Years ago, too, I read a book called Grand Canyon Celebration, which is the autobiographical account of Michael Quinn Patton who took his son traveling through the Grand Canyon following the boy’s graduation from high school. Recognizing the lack of rituals and rites of passage in the United States, Patton introduces his son to a wealth of history and tradition in one of nature’s most astonishing creations.
His son, Brandon, is one lucky guy. Most young American adults are either bred by the university system or bypass it all together, rudderless, unsure, wondering what’s expected of them now that the time for them to be cared for by adults is at an end and it’s up to them to find their own way. The United States is not the most community-oriented country in the world and it’s not even close. We are descendants of Pilgrims who fought a hard-won existence based on self-subsistence and grit. While many other nations take a decidedly more holistic and less linear approach to life’s stages, and both adults and communities in those countries get involved in the lives of their youths who are passing into adulthood–making the experience, I should add, a whole less lonely–the United States offers little more than economic training. Learn a skill. Get a job. Settle down.
Life Gets in the Way – How to Find the Path
That works for some people. Some people are really good at it. But as with McCandless, as with me through my early and mid-20s and so too for Carl in Green Bay Outsiders, that sensitivity to the phenomenon known as life can be at least a distraction and, at most, a genuine threat to existence. What does it mean to have a non-economic identity? What is it to feel the depth of personal experience in a journey, to release the trappings of civilization and attachment, and to go forth with nothing but the eyes in our heads, the breath in our mouths and the hearts in our chests?
Whether for good or worse, the lack of rites of passage into adulthood can be a sore test to many young adults. The draw of the open road, which promises a freedom of unknown possibilities, can be an addictive draw and one which many cannot resist. Ultimately we learn to support ourselves and our families, to be responsible and settle down, and to find a path on which to walk.
But finding that path is an effort of patience, fear and of occasional exasperation. And man, oh man, wouldn’t it be nice if someone could just be there and help us understand what it is we’re going through?
Leave a comment below the subscription form about your first years of adulthood, whether you consider that your late teens or early 20s. Was it an easy time? Or did you face a lot of difficulties? If the latter, what were they?