By Richard Bleil
Today, I saw the continental divide. On a (failed) drive for a job interview in California scheduled for Monday, I crossed it on the road for the first time in my life.
For those of you old enough to remember (but not so old as to have forgotten) the movie, no, I don’t mean that I saw the movie. I mean I saw the actual, factual continental divide. In fact, I kind of danced with it, as I seem to have crossed it three times.
This is one of those factoids that I suspect everybody already knows, but for those who do not, I’m going to state it. The continental divide actually is a division, running largely North and South, and is related to flow of river ways and streams. Water to the east of the continental divide flows to the Atlantic, while water to the west of it runs to the Pacific.
As I sit in a hotel room in Wyoming, it strikes me that my life also has a divide. In the continental divide, the geological phenomena is not even. The divide itself lies near the Mountain/Pacific timezone line. A great deal of the continent lies to the east of the divide, with a relatively small sliver to the west.
Maybe we all have such a divide in our lives, at least as Americans. We are born, start school, develop interests, and tend build careers for ourselves. Geologically speaking, this divide is the highest line running the span of the North American continent. Thinking in terms of physics, it is the point of highest potential, and from a perspective of work, it would be the highest point to climb were one to traverse from the east to west to east again. In our life, it is not different. It is the pinnacle of our accomplishments. Traveling from our birth in the east, it is the highest point of achievement within our careers, and toward our death in the west, this climb typically consumes the majority of our time on earth.
There is a difference, though. While the climb up to that divide in our lives is difficult, I am finding the climb back down is equally difficult, if not more so. In our culture, we have a funny phrase, “over the hill”, and the sister comment “it’s all downhill from here.” It sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s all downhill. As a kid, I used to love the ease of running downhill, working with gravity instead of against it. Now, well into my fifties, after the devil has spat me back out three times already, I find it difficult to let go of that crest. Instead of gleefully allying myself in a sprint down the hill, I feel more like I am, again, fighting gravity, sliding down the hill trying desperately to find something onto which I can clutch to slow my descent.
It’s not death. I’ve never been afraid of death, and have stared it in the face multiple time in multiple ways. As a child, my mother made it simple for me. You can’t avoid it, she said, so why fear it? Death is simply a clause in the contract we signed to give us life. What I am trying to cling onto, though, is the glory of standing atop the great divide. I had a position of authority, I had a great income that I squandered and gave away, I had respect. And today? Today I am begging my friends to pitch in, to help me pay to repair damaged tires so I am again mobile.
This trip was to a college for a similar position I had previously, the position of Dean albeit at a different institution. It wasn’t easy at my last one; of the four deans, two were known entities, having worked their way up from faculty positions at the institution. The other dean, like me, was an “import”. He and I both felt our positions were in jeopardy, and we would joke with one another about which one of us the provost would fire. Well, it was me. None the less, as difficult as it was, especially taking the pathway of the unknown person, I made it, for a while anyway. I don’t know if my career will ever ascend beyond that point, if indeed it even can. That may have been my peak.
A friend of mine made the comment, perhaps tongue in cheek but I’m not entirely certain, that maybe this little town in Wyoming is my final port of call. During the great race to colonize the west (over the native population already living there), the phrase “California or Bust” was common (or some other such destination). Well, let’s be honest, I’m not sure if this was truly common, or just a Hollywood portrayal. But the intention is clear; we intend to go (typically as a family) to this destination, or to the point where we cannot proceed further because of some breakdown or failure. Maybe Wyoming is my “or bust”. My friend suggested I look around, and wee what opportunities lie out here for me.
It’s not a bad idea. Currently I’m working to start a consultancy business, and am working online as a tutor to make a little extra money. Both are off to a rocky start, but they are definitely a new direction. The rivers of these efforts are definitely flowing to a different ocean. The interview that I will miss would have been for a position of familiarity. If I didn’t believe myself capable, I would not have applied, but ultimately, it would have been back to the familiar and comfortable world of academia.
Recently I saw a post regarding why people tend to stay in abusive relationships. The conclusion is familiarity. I know this all too well. My wife was abusive, not physically, but emotionally. It did feel comfortable to me, known, expected. Like a blanket surrounding me, sadly, one of barbed wire, but a blanket that I knew well. Maybe this is a sign. Maybe it’s time to start running downhill, rather than fighting the slide.