In the Field: From backpacking Summit County to Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, we learn to embrace the unknown
February 20, 2017
On a recent backpacking trip I asked myself why it was I'm addicted to going into the unknown. On this specific trip, I was actually walking along the Bay of Pigs on the southern coast of Cuba with only an old leather backpack. I had little money and no real means of securing a place to sleep. After contemplating why I found myself in these self-imposed predicaments quite often, I only had to stop and acknowledge that even in the lingering fear and uncertainty of not having all the answers, I felt more alive than I had in a long time.
Bound for Cuba
Weeks before, I had intentionally thrown myself into the unknown by buying a plane ticket and putting certain affairs in order before leaving. What was most important was that I was traveling almost completely blind, in my typical fashion.
Also, traveling through Cuba turned out to be some of the most difficult traveling I have done thus far, which had a lot to do with the country's last 58 years of financial constraints.
I arrived on the island with only a basic knowledge of geography and a somewhat respectable education of the country's history. I knew which way was north, the route to Havana and had a working knowledge of the language. Other than the basics, I knew nothing and had nothing, and yet I dove headlong into this world.
Habit of the unknown
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I have a tendency to do this often in life. It could be something as simple as taking a different route home or choosing an unfamiliar trail, or it could be something as complex as traveling blindly to some far-off land. It is the thwarting of routine. I find the foreign to be refreshing, cathartic even, in a raw, seeing-things-for-the-first-time way.
Summit residents know well this desire to engage in the unknown. They would not be residents if they did not have a yearning for adventure, and what is adventure but a visceral confronting of the unexplored, even if only unexplored by the adventurer?
The raw wonder is something we appreciate every day. Anyone who lives in Summit County can appreciate even seeing the same valley he or she has lived in for years from a new peak — this is one of the pleasures of life here.
The Gamma Frequency
I did not know (and only recently discovered) that this attraction just might be based on primal physiology, something innate to our beings long before we ached for the outdoors from within our cubicle walls.
Several months ago, The Picower Institute published an important study by an MIT doctor, Li-Huei Tsai, who discussed something known as the Gamma Frequency. In brief, it's the frequency at which our neurons fire when we are most alert, lost or focused on the intensity of the moment. The frequency is around 40 beats per second.
Tsai was studying Alzheimer's and found that flashing an LED light at the Gamma Frequency helped break down a protein, Amyloid-B, that sadly creates cerebral plaque related to Alzheimer's. These findings are groundbreaking in the field of Alzheimer's. Getting brains to function at this Gamma Frequency might be essential to healthy brain activity, and it might someday contribute to Alzheimer's treatment.
Adventure in our neurons
This made my mind race, and I began to reflect on one thing in particular: This frequency — the frequency that helps clear garbage from the brain — occurs during higher-order cognitive functions, specifically when we need to be most alert. This means it happens when we are outside our comfort zones, when we are in survival mode or when we are somewhere foreign, like when we travel — even if it's only to a new ski resort.
We may not know it, but our neurons are firing away at a very specific frequency and our brains are functioning at their best. I imagined how our long-dead hunter-gatherer ancestors would have lived: at this level every moment of every day, from collecting berries in a grove in the morning to cooking a piece of meat over a fire in the evening. Every action for them was purposeful, the importance of every act weighed to determine its worth in a life-or-death environment.
And this acutely present existence — everything foreign all the time — has been lost to us.
Back to basics
Our world is a safe world. What good does living at the Gamma level do for us now? Our brains evolved to help us survive, to adapt and be self-sufficient, to protect ourselves from threats, but just watch the different ways a hiker walks through the woods with a dog. The latter remains alert, with ears perked to every noise, while the human stomps up the same trail with heavy feet, distracted by life's trivial burdens: what to get at the supermarket, when to reschedule a haircut, why a coworker spoke rudely.
Traveling into the unknown matters. The familiar is complacent, even to the brain. Perhaps the familiar is even a slow death — a muddling of the mind over time. If we were meant to live at the Gamma Frequency and yet enjoy the comforts of the modern world, then we also need to get out, get lost, break trail and see the world through the eyes of the traveler: the one who takes risks and embraces the fear that comes with the unknown.
A sublime science
Science suggests that living at the Gamma Frequency is good for the brain, but many in Summit County already feel that finding in their hearts. Maybe they would never state that living an adventurous life "helps break down cerebral plaque made by the protein Amyloid-B," but they know what it feels like to live intensely in the moment.
I didn't need a scientific breakthrough to prove the unknown is good for me, but it reinforces something that I already felt. It doesn't have to be something as foolish as backpacking broke on a Caribbean shore, stumbling for words in a foreign tongue. It doesn't have to break down mysterious cerebral plaque (but that's nice to know). What matters is that we live rich lives, knowing our brains were designed to be tested, scared and taxed every day, even if it's as simple as stepping outside.
Mark Palz teaches writing and literature at Colorado Mountain College. He is an avid outdoorsman who has also taught fly-casting for over 10 years, starting at the Orvis School of Fly Casting in Manchester, Vermont, briefly at Colorado Mountain College, and presently with Breckenridge Outfitters. He lives in Frisco.
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