In 2004 I took a job as an intern at the Voyageur Outward Bound School near Ely, MN. I spent the summer lugging aluminum canoes and portage packs around the Boundary Waters, and I learned the subtle psychology of running Outward Bound courses.
I also learned about living in dog years.
Living in dog years is what happens when you’re having an experience that is so all-consuming that your sense of time is distorted. You don’t realize it, but the tempo of your life has accelerated far beyond normal. Your days are so packed that they flow together. Your weeks are so packed that after seven days it seems like a month has gone by. That’s where the dog years part comes in. When you’re living in dog years you do a month’s worth of living in a week. A year’s worth in a month.
You have to take a step back from your daily experiences to really appreciate the sensation. Back at the Outward Bound School, and later on the tall ship Lady Washington, I would break out my long distance calling card and check in with friends or family back home. On the phone I talked about the things that had happened over the past couple weeks and realized that life was clipping along at a terrific rate. New places, new people, challenging situations. You have to talk it all through to get a sense of scale.
Calling cards are long gone and we’re all more connected that we’ve ever been before. This makes it a lot easier to catch the feeling of accelerated motion.
How do you know if you’re living in dog years? One clue is that you don’t stop at some point during the day and think, “I can’t wait until this day is over.” You don’t think about how happy you’ll be when you get a couple days free on the weekend. Without a repetitive daily grind the days flow by, even the tough days. There are challenges, but they are novel. It’s different than the challenge of working the same job day after day.
A second clue happens whenever you have a chance to talk through your experiences. The other day Cristi and I were talking about the time we spent in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. “When was that?” I asked. “Tuesday,” Cristi said. That’s a dead giveaway. When you’ve done so much in a handful of days that Tuesday seems like it was a long time ago.
Last week Cristi and I started out in North Dakota at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, got our second flat tire of the trip, bought a new tire, visited friends at their ranch, drove halfway across Montana looking for a spot to camp, got shut out and spent the night at Walmart in Bozeman, rolled the dice and got a campsite in Yellowstone, dumped over our tea kettle on the bed in the Casita soaking everything, drove down to the park and spent four days exploring. Bison, waterfalls, geysers, hikes. Now we’re parked in a National Forest campground just north of West Yellowstone on the Madison River. That was a week.
We’ve been on the road for a month now and the tempo of our lives has accelerated to the speed of dog years. It’s an amazing feeling. One that I haven’t had for a very long time. And I feel extremely fortunate.
How long can a person live in dog years? Dogs make it about 15. Last time I tried, I lasted a year. That year was fantastic, but it was exhausting. I went from northern Minnesota out to the Pacific Northwest, spent six months sailing up and down the West Coast and stepped off the boat in Oakland completely fried. A year of living out of a bag was too much. There wasn’t enough stability.
This time, I’m not a single guy living out of a backpack. Cristi and I are sharing this adventure together. It’s different living in dog years with a partner. Better. It’s better to have someone you love to share your experiences with. It feels more stable. Accelerated, but not flying off the rails. More sustainable.
Who knows how long we can keep it up? At some point I’m sure we’ll be ready for a break. We’ll need to recharge our bank account. But for now it’s nice to have that old feeling again. Settling into travel and adventures. Feeling like every day is a fresh start at life. Not dreading the alarm, or the end of the weekend.
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