This is a story about walking up the side of a mountain, shortly before it blew up.
But it’s really about how you can use a straight line to do anything.
Imagine you’re walking up a steep, winding path, the surrounding forest dripping on you with every step.
They call this cloud forest, and you can see why, because it’s both. Fog clings to the twisted branches, sluggish down here, racing past overhead. Ten minutes downslope and out of the trees, the sun is bright and cheerful, but here it’s gloomy, treacherous underfoot, filled with Tolkienesque menace.
It’s also dishearteningly twisty. It’s hard walking up a path like this, where you perpetually can’t see round the next bend. It just keeps replicating itself, like you’re stuck on some naturally occurring Mobius strip and you’re never going to get anywhere. This kind of walking is miserable. You need to see where you’re going to feel like you’re getting somewhere.
Suddenly, the path opens, and you’re finally somewhere.
This is Lake Botos. It’s cold, beautiful and surrounded by peaceful forest. If it wasn’t so damn cloudy, you can imagine sneaking past the Closed For Maintenance sign and going for a sneaky swim in its enticingly blue waters.
You’d get away with it today. If you tried doing it around 9,500 years ago, you’d be burnt alive.
Botos is the old crater for Poás, one of Costa Rica’s most impressive volcanoes. It’s an impressive view when the sky is clear.
But that’s nothing compared with the view of the new crater.
Your photographs will forever fail to capture the scale of what you’re looking at – but even here in person, your eyes are fooled. It looks like you could stroll down that slope and be at the edge of that lake in minutes.
In fact, the other side of the crater is nearly 2 kilometres away – and once you got to the water’s edge, your shoes would be smoking. The “hot lagoon” lives up to its name, but it’s also one of the most acidic lakes on the planet. Its extreme depths are made of liquid sulphur.
As you watch, steam puffs high into the air.
“Oh, it’s fine,” says someone. “Poás is perfectly safe.”
The last time Poás erupted was 1953, but its destabilizing effect on the region regularly causes earthquakes, including one in 2009 that killed more than 40 people. As with the rest of Costa Rica, safety is a relative concept – but today the National Park is open, and tourists press up against the fences of the viewing gallery, holding their phones aloft to blot out the scrum.
It’s relaxed, up here. There’s a faint smell of sulphur now and again, and a cat’s-hair brush of rain as clouds from the Caribbean side of the country whip up and over the volcano.
It feels like a good place to linger.
This nicely illustrates how useful feelings are when geological activity is involved. In a few weeks, Poás is going to explode – and the park will close indefinitely.
You don’t know any of this yet, of course. What’s really fascinating you is how walkable it all looks – because you can see everything.
Look out towards a distant mountain range and you’ll feel a tug at your soul. Your feet will twitch. You’ll estimate distances and times. Everything looks huge, but you can see the other side, so it feels achievable. All you have to do is just keep going in the right direction long enough.
This is a wonderful, inspiring metaphor for undertaking anything, including creative work – especially in times that are obsessed with overnight successes and “going viral”. If you decide what your destination is, interrogate your Why and pledge allegiance to the grind, you’ll eventually get to where you want to be – and your destination will come out of nowhere, because you’ve got so used to the process, so toughened up to moving forward. And then you’ll suddenly arrive, thinking, Whaaa? That’s it? – and reluctantly move onto the next thing.
But for now, that view, that imaginary but somehow ultra-real line you can draw from here to there – yeah, that really yanks at you. It’s quite a force, coming from that line. Lines are powerful.
Maybe you should draw some more of them across your life and through your work, just to see what happens.
But for now, it’s best you get moving.
Seriously. Trust me on this.
A bunch of days this year, I’m going for a walk to explore the limits of my ignorance and write about what I find. Want to follow along?
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