Following your dreams is like walking into a crater. It’s all fun and games at first, but then, things start to get weird.
I spent an afternoon with a small group in a crater called Caldera de Bandama. There were seven of us: three from the United States, one from Austria, one from Bulgaria, and two from Colombia.
The mission was simple.
Step 1: Take a bus through the mountains in Gran Canaria.
Step 2: Walk down a crater in the middle of the island, and then walk back up again.
Step 3: Own bragging rights of having walked down the crater of an extinct volcano.
But simple doesn’t mean easy.
I think our goals have to look glorious before we embark on them. I think we have to idealize the trophies of our hearts to some degree.
Why else would we continue to push forward when everyone else throws in the towel for something that is more “realistic” and “reliable”?
And why would we purposely plunge toward the unknown, knowing (or sometimes not knowing) that once you dive in, there is no turning back?
The bus ride to the crater took us through the interior of the island. I still find it captivating that an hour journey can take you from white sand beaches and coral reefs, to roads that slither through jagged mountain ranges and remnants of once-active volcanoes.
The bus dropped us off in what looked like someone’s front yard. The entrance to the crater was what looked like someone’s driveway.
This is not the first I’ve seen these narrow streets. The more I travel through the interior of the island, the more I’ve come to see an affinity for these tiny entrances next to people’s homes that make me feel like I’m about to walk in to someone’s barbecue. (Actually, that wouldn’t be the worst of things.)
Before you start walking down the crater, there is an informational board about its history, geology, and safety warnings. And by warnings, I mean these:
“The caldera suffers from TOTALLY UNPREDICTABLE and HIGHLY DANGEROUS rock falls and landslips.”
“STAY ON THE PATH. If you leave the path, you will only get MORE TIRED and you will deteriorate the soil and the vegetation.”
“A FIRE in the crater is THE GREATEST DANGER for all living creatures. . . . THERE IS A HIGH RISK OF FIRE. Lighting fires is NOT RECOMMENDED under any circumstances.”
These are direct quotes from the board, emphasis mine. If you don’t believe me, here it is:
Basically, don’t be careless, don’t get lost, and don’t have a gender reveal party; actually, don’t have any parties that require candles or pyrotechnics.
On that note, off we went!
I wasn’t expecting an afternoon in a crater to teach me so much about following my goals. I just wanted to hang out with new friends, go somewhere interesting, and write a blog post about it later.
But walking down a crater turned out to be a moving experience. Literally (and painfully, as you will read), and figuratively. And this learning experience started even before I got on the bus.
Lesson 1: Be persistent, and have faith that you will arrive where you want to go in perfect timing.
(Scene: a government office 25 minutes before the bus left . . . )
“I have an appointment today at noon. I know it’s not for another 30 minutes, but would it be possible to be checked in earlier?”
I had an appointment at what I thought was nine, but was really noon. The bus left at 11:50. My theory was, if I arrived earlier, the office would take me in, I could turn in my documents, and hopefully catch the bus to the crater.
But this man wouldn’t budge.
Or would he?
“Do you have your appointment confirmation page?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, showing it to him.
He read it for a moment, and then pointed to the date. “Your appointment is for tomorrow.”
He even pulled out his cell phone to show me the date. “Today is the 26th. Your appointment is for the 27th.”
I promise I teach English. But when you’ve had so many appointments over the past month, everything turns into a blur.
So, I did have time to catch the bus.
But I’d have to run.
The amount of cities I’ve ran in to the bemusement of passers-by to catch buses, planes, and trains is ridiculous. But I no longer have shame. This is simply my lot in life.
Against all odds, I made it. I ran to the nearest ATM, and then the bus station, got a very healthy breakfast of pineapple juice and M&Ms, and still arrived to the bus stop before anyone else in the group.
Point is, somehow, you will make it. You may make it in the nick of time. You may make it while making a fool of yourself. But you will make it in your own perfect timing.
One of the best pieces of advice comes from one of my favorite authors, Ally Fallon: “There is no such thing as missing your own boat.”
(Or bus, or train, or what have you.)
Lesson 2: The path toward your dreams has many twists and turns.
Now, when one embarks on a crater, you assume it’s like climbing a mountain, except in reverse.
But things got strange very quickly.
Maybe it’s because, since this crater used to be part of a volcano, the vegetation and geology will be different.
I’m so glad that when I bought new shoes the day before, that I was able to find hiking shoes. I was this close to buying running shoes. Thank goodness I didn’t. Because imagine wearing light and airy running shoes with no grip while walking downhill – downhill! – on many small slippery pebbles, on a suspiciously narrow trial without railings.
But wait! There’s more!
After the pebbles subsided, and we found some nice lookout points to take some incredible pictures that will continue to make my friends and family jealous of me, in which conveniently I hide both my face that shows how terrified I feel, and me crab-walking while trying to not fall and make a McKenna pancake on the bottom of the crater.
No one needs to see that. The fact that six other people had to see that in person was enough.
Ignoring my crustacean crawl, we got to see some cool vegetation. The last time I saw plants this beautifully weird, I was in Ecuador. The Caldera de Bandama may rival Ibambura in terms of vegetation.
But wait! There’s still more!
Then the temperature started to change. Which is expected when you’re changing altitude. But this wasn’t a gradual change; it was as if someone turned on a light switch that changed the temperature ten degrees warmer.
Let me remind you about welcome board’s unwelcoming warning of fires.
Basically, when you go toward your goals, there can be many sharp twists and turns along the way.
The terrain and atmosphere can change at a moment’s notice.
There may be a risk of embarrassment (actually, there is a guarantee of embarrassment).
There is a risk that you could fall splat on your face and lose everything.
But keep going.
The way you get to your goals may be different than you could have imagined. You may come across things you didn’t know existed. You may even have to do a silly walk from time to time.
But you will get there, and the feeling of joy is something words can only go so far.
3. Achieving the goal is only half the battle. Maintaining it is another mountain in itself.
Something I failed to consider when hiking down a crater:
You have to walk back up.
Walking down may feel like all fun and games. (Or maybe not, considering the slippery pebbles and risk of FIRE). “Oh, that only took 30 minutes!” I said, once we got down there.
When you achieve your goal, you may have a moment of glory. We sure did, eating sandwiches and sharing snacks with one another.
We also checked out the ruins of the houses that look like a very pleasant place to visit during the night, and would not be haunted at all whatsoever.
Some of my new friends even enjoyed climbing on them.
But eventually, we had to climb back up.
Many people think that when you achieve your goal, it’s all smooth sailing. It is not. If anything, things get harder, and you get more challenges that hit you like a curveball on fire (while standing in a canyon that’s prone to fires).
When I graduated university, I decided to volunteer and teach in Colombia for a year. After working for over a year to save money, I finally made it. I arrived in Colombia, completed the three-week orientation, met my host family, and got my schedule to start teaching.
I thought getting there was the battle. I thought that the moment I stepped into the university, I could bask in my glory, after all my hard work.
Ha ha ha. How young and naive I was back then.
When I was saving money for my trip, I had no idea how hard it would be to be a first-year teacher,let alone the first native English teacher a university campus has had, in a foreign country.
I had no idea how I’d spend hours making a lesson plan, and then feeling like a failure when it fell through because it was too hard, or the projector didn’t work, or only a few students showed up.
I had no idea how hungry I’d be the first year, or how much the heat would affect me, how badly my skin would break out, how the relationship that was hanging by a thread finally fell apart, or how much I’d be questioning if this was my path.
Eventually, things got better, and now I realize that all of this had to happen.
The point is: achieving your goal unlocks more challenges. But those challenges will lead to more opportunities, and more joy, and even more goals you will be excited to achieve.
So keep going. Keep climbing your mountain, even if you feel blindfolded.
4. Sometimes, you’ll end up on a path completely different than what you anticipated.
“How do we get back up?” someone asked.
“Well, the only way to go is up,” I said. “It’s not like we’re going to get lost in a crater.”
“Famous last words!”
In The Alchemist, the main character, a shepherd from Andalusia, is told to go to the Egyptian pyramids to find treasure. When he finally does get to the pyramids, he realizes that his treasure was buried in Andalusia all along.
The path he went on ended up taking him back to where he started.
Such was our path to climb back up.
One of the girls had noticed an alternate route that supposedly led us back up the crater. We all followed suit.
Meanwhile, I’m thinking of the scary sign in the beginning that warned us of straying off the path.
I mean, it was a path. It just wasn’t the path.
But I did say I wanted an adventure.
Now, this path was an alternate route around the crater. At one point, we ended up on the other side of where we started.
We also saw some caves. I was told there was a large spider in them. And that they smelled like chlorine.
I don’t even watch mystery shows, but immediately, I’m thinking, there must have been a crime in that cave.
I decided to walk closer to the girl from Austria and the girl from Bulgaria, simply because they had bigger backpacks. I figured I had a better chance at survival if I was with them.
In my mind, I was already imagining the two-minute news report about a small group that disappeared in a crater.
Of course, none of that happened, because we were not starring in a mystery Netflix series. Our lives weren’t that exciting.
Finally, we reached the end of the path. Our destination was . . .
Exactly where we started.
Just like the shepherd boy in The Alchemist, our path lead us back to the beginning. At first, I felt relief. And then I found it absolutely hilarious.
It also made me think of this dialogue between the shepherd boy and the wind, which had nudged him to seek the pyramids in the first place:
He thought of the many roads he had traveled, and of the strange way God had chosen to show him his treasure. If he hadn’t believed in the significance of recurrent dreams, he would not have met the Gypsy woman, the king, the thief, or . . . “Well, it’s a long list. But the path was written in the omens, and there was no way I could go wrong,” he said to himself.The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho
“You old sorcerer,” the boy shouted up to the sky. “You knew the whole story. You even left a bit of gold at the monastery so I could get back to this church. The monk laughed when he saw me come back in tatters. Couldn’t you have saved me from that?”
“No,” he heard a voice on the wind say. “If I had told you, you wouldn’t have seen the Pyramids. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”
We ended up right where we started, but we also got to see the crater from a different perspective. We climbed rocks, saw abandoned caves, and had fun conversations.
Sometimes, you may feel like you’re on the wrong path, or the path may take you right back to where you started.
But what if you had to go on that path, because destiny wanted you to see something beautiful?
And what if what you learned on the “wrong” path prepared you for the right path?
I think paths become the wrong path when we lost faith in the process, stop looking around, and stop learning. Eventually, we will get where we need to go.
And we did need preparation for what was ahead of us.
5. Know when to move fast and when to take your time.
A few years ago, I was hiking with a small group at Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados in Colombia.
None of the fellow hikers and I were properly trained for these high altitudes. When we first started going up, a man and I felt winded after about fifteen seconds.
“Go slowly,” the guide told us. “It’s not a race. If you try to go up too fast, you’ll burn through your energy too quickly. We have enough time. It’s not a race.”
Years later, this advice came back to me as I was hiking up a crater in the Canary Islands.
I kept trying to go up at the same speed as when I went down. But these curves were strong. After we’d gotten halfway, I started to feel dizzy and nauseated after each curve.
I started to walk more slowly, even if it meant I was behind the more experienced hikers. At least I knew where this path went (up).
6. Sometimes it’s all in your head.
We were just about to get to the beginning when I felt like my lungs were about to cave in.
One of the girls started talking about running a half marathon. “The best advice I got was that it’s all mental,” she said. “You have to keep going, because if you stop, it will be so hard to stop again. Running is all mental. Even if you feel like you can’t go any more, your body will find a way.”
So, I told myself that it was all mental, that I could see the entrance, and that I would make it. I trudged on the remaining dirt pathway, then wobbled on cobblestones before I finally made it to the top.
I had an empty water bottle, smelled like dirt and sweat, and I felt like a champion.
7. Find your crater.
You don’t need to walk down a crater to find more meaning in your life.
But I guarantee you, have a crater in your life. Or a mountain. Or maybe even a hill. Point is, there is something that gives you purpose, or at least pushes you to move.
The moment we choose to be stagnant is when we need to start questioning everything, and wonder about what our craters are. What do we want to achieve? Where do we want to find joy?
This can be anything as big as getting a book deal, to as small as making the best pumpkin pie that ever was.
Anything that invites us to accept the challenges of being human . . .
That gives us a reason to push through the pain, even when our life is going in circles . . .
And even when that path we thought was the right one, takes us right back to the beginning.
Find your crater. Climb that mountain. Chase that sunset. And last but most certainly not least, take more than 16 ounces of water on a hike.