But What If It’s Good?

It’s been a quiet day at Barr Camp on the side of Pikes Peak in Colorado. Yesterday’s weather was quite mild, but this morning we awoke to a fierce wind and temperatures in the teens Fahrenheit. Typically we would see Nicole Norton, a local Colorado Springs resident, but we knew straight away that the high winds might change that. Sure enough, Nicole didn’t come and neither did her hiking buddy Kevin. After breakfast, I went for a short run up the Barr Trail. When I came back, I asked co-camp caretaker Scott if anyone had stopped in and no one had. Later that day, Scott hiked up to treeline and back. Still no one visited while he was out either. As the day wore on, we acknowledged that we might be in for a ‘zero.’ In Barr Camp speak, that’s a day with no visitors.

With evening settling in amongst the trees, I relaxed by the fire and gazed out the window. As the sun sank behind the peak, it sent waves of color across the sky, starting with yellow and giving way to pink. The change occurred quickly and before I knew it, darkness had engulfed the cabin. Lying in the dark, I thought about the future. I thought about this place, how I plan to leave it in the next season, and what that means for me.

A beautiful winter day at Barr Camp in 2017. All photos courtesy of Zach Miller.

Yes, I’ve told the powers that be, the ‘bosses’ of Barr Camp, that come spring I intend to move on from my caretaker role. This is a big decision. I started caretaking at Barr Camp with my sister Ashley in 2015, four-and-a-half years ago! Somehow I’m still here, though I’m not the least bit surprised.

I’ve talked about leaving for some time now, but not because I don’t like what I do. I’ve loved–and still love–my time at Barr Camp. Part of me feels like I could stay forever. I can picture it in my mind, me 50 years from now, a grizzled mountain man sitting on the front porch, making small talk with the passersby. Think of all the stories I’d have to tell! I’ve got so many from just four-and-a-half years. Heck, I have so many from 2019.

I’ve got stories of bears, moose, elk, bushy-tailed rats, spotted skunks, pygmy owls, and the pesky ground squirrels that everyone thinks are cute little chipmunks. I have tales of late-night rescue missions, ice battles with the creek to keep water running to the cabin in winter, after-hours door-knockers, forest-fire scares, and end-of-season poop scoopin’ in the compost toilet.

Then, there are the people. There’s storm chaser Tom and his wife Linda; early morning Nicole; sweet, sweet Ann; usually Tuesday Kathy; no-salt-in-my-coffee Craig and his lovely wife Hae (whose name is great because if by some chance I forget it I can just say, “Hey!”); Nutella Mike; Pat from the back; Paperboy Pete; Centennial Peak Tim; “Less Yachts, More People” Tom; biker Gardner; Ling and Larry the dynamic monthly summit duo; Pastor Kevin; beard man Jason; no spice Chris; Katie and her right-hand woman Tracey (two of the most baller women on the mountain); “What a day!” Linda; Sunshine Dave; and last but certainly not least, Craig the Walker. And that’s not nearly everyone. The list goes on, and on, and on.

Caretakers Nathan, Ashley, and Zach pose with Santa, er Brandon Stapanowich, after he ran spinach and ice cream up to Barr Camp for Christmas in 2016.

So, why leave? When a place and its people are so great, and the work so fulfilling, why give it up? That’s exactly why this decision has felt so hard.

I’ve gone through plenty of change in the past. After high school, I left Pennsylvania for college in New York. Pennsylvania was great but familiar, and New York was something new. Then, after college, I left the land for the sea as I took a job working on cruise ships. The sea was vast and intimidating, a gateway to unknown-to-me cultures and continents. After a year and a half on ships, I went to the mountains of Colorado, first to the base of Pikes Peak and then halfway up at Barr Camp. All of these changes were big and they all involved an element of risk. And yet, they were pretty easy to make. This one, this time feels different, I think because this place and its people are so, so good.

In 2015 and 2016, my sister Ashley, her then-boyfriend and now-husband Nathan, and I all served together as caretakers. For those two years, Barr Camp was a family affair. Then Ashley and Nathan left the mountain so that Ashley could pursue a master’s degree in social work at the University of Denver. I remember her seeming uneasy when she made that change, and I realize now that I was probably less understanding than I could have been. In the past, my view of change has been more like this: You make decisions. They aren’t necessarily right or wrong. They are just decisions. Things change, we move on, and our decisions become what we make of them. Perhaps now I am a bit more in tune with how Ashley may have felt. Some decisions are, indeed, simple, but once in a while a place, person, job, or passion carries so much significance that changing it feels scary and uncertain.

Zach taking one of many ‘long ways’ to town from Barr Camp on Pikes Peak in 2018.

Four years ago, Ashley dove into that uncertainty. She and Nathan moved to Denver and she earned her degree. Then, they leapt again, back to Lancaster, Pennsylvania where Ashley and I grew up. And this past September, Ashley and Nathan welcomed their son Ansel into the world. A lot has changed for Ashley in the past few years.

At the turn of the new year, Ashley shared the following thoughts: “Maybe it’s still postpartum heaviness, but sometimes a new year feels daunting. It’s easier to fear the unknown than to hope. I find myself quickly jumping to worst-case scenarios these days. But last night, as the anxious thoughts started settling in with the sunset, as they began unfolding their chairs and settling down in my mind for the night, quietly reminding me of all the things that could go wrong, I found another thought sitting among them, a different one. One that whispered, but what if it’s good? So I let that thought speak for a change. What if Ansel starts sleeping through the night and somehow becomes even more pleasant? What if Mom retires and Zach’s foot heals? What if I work less? What if no one I love gets cancer? What if our winter weekend away has snow? What if we make it to Mont Blanc? What if I figure out where I stand on atonement theories? Or what if I learn to rest in mystery and grace? What if we make more friends and feel more connected in Lancaster? What if I stop having the Sunday scaries? … But what if it’s good?”

Zach in Barr Camp mode in 2018, washing dishes and icing his leg at the same time.

These thoughts–from the very sister with whom I got into this whole wonderful mess–ring so true. As I prepare to leave Barr Camp, I will remember Ashley’s words: “But what if it’s good?” What if I leave Barr Camp and get even more connected to my community? What if I see my town friends more? What if I visit family more? What if I travel more, run different mountains more, and explore more? What if I volunteer more? What if I write more, read more, and sleep more? What if I build an A-frame in the forest?

Even if we don’t have a looming life change, turning the calendar to a new year makes it easy to feel uneasy. But why? Why feel just the Sunday scaries when we could also feel the 2020 hopefuls? Looking back, there was one other decision in my life that has felt like leaving Barr Camp, shifting my main athletic focus from soccer to running. It was hard, because like Barr Camp, I loved soccer. I had done it for a long time, I worked hard at it, and it was part of who I was. And yet, running tugged at me. In the end, I left the good for the unknown and made the leap to running. And you know what? It was one of the best decisions I’ve made.

So, as I look ahead to 2020 and all that it may or may not hold, Ashley’s words fill me with hope. Sure, my injured foot is still trying to heal. Yep, I’m planning to leave all the goodness of Barr Camp. And yeah, I’m not sure where I’m going or what I will find myself doing next. But what if this is like leaving soccer to find running? Or Ashley going to graduate school to pursue another passion? What if I’m on my way to something better than I can yet imagine? But what if it’s good?

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you recently made a life choice that was particularly difficult? Either because what you were changing from was really good or what you were changing to totally unknown? Can you walk us through how the process went?
  • Do you have a change waiting in your future that looks or sounds like Zach’s move from Barr Camp? Can you share more about it?

Zach digs out from a spring snowstorm in 2017.

From left to right, caretakers Zach, Mike, Guillermo, and Jonathan pose for a picture at the start of 2020.

Zach Miller

is a mountain runner and full time caretaker at Barr Camp in Colorado. As caretaker, he lives year round in an off-the-grid cabin halfway up Pikes Peak. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.

There are 37 comments

  1. olga

    I guess I better get there to actually meet you in person before you leave.
    As far as leaving…yesterday was 5 years since I left a 20-years long “career” in biochemistry research and completely switched fields to become hands-on massage therapist. 27 years ago I left my home country to come to US – not by desire, but somehow stuck around. And then there are moves inside here, coast to coast and stuff. Gotta believe it’ll work out and for the best, and make it happen, I guess. Simply put, life.

  2. Will

    Love this! Whatever Zach does is bound to be pretty rad and adventure filled. I have just left my career as a teacher after working in a really unhealthy, but secure (financially) environment. I’m developing a vegan, wholefood gel and doing some tutoring to keep things ticking over. I left my first teaching job for the best job I’ve ever had on a bit of a whim. Sadly I couldn’t take that job with me when my wife and I moved and the job I took on our new town was truly souls destroying. Good will come, for sure. Great article.

  3. James Hitch

    This is a great article Zach. Prodding at the idea of challenging the negative thought processes we all experience at some point is a fundamental approach to being that I try to explore regularly. I really appreciate your vulnerability and all your thoughtfulness in these pieces you write, as I too deal with regular foot issues and pain in my running. My general sense is that if one endeavors to plunge into the unknown with an open mind and a resilient disposition, often times the byproducts are personal growth and a deepened appreciation for the present. Always rooting for you, Zach.

    1. Zachary Miller

      Thanks Sabrina! Sweet Ann, whom I mentioned in the article, read your comment and started reading your column as well. She seems to really like your writing!

  4. Raymond Wright

    As we said in the Navy: Fair winds and following seas! If for some reason you find yourself in the DC area, you have a place to stay with us. Would love to hear the Barr Camp stories.

  5. Kerry

    Zach, this piece was so beautiful. I hope you continue to find peace in your decision, which must have been so difficult to make.
    A couple of years ago I made a similar change that your sister did. I left a perfectly comfortable job in pursuit of a masters degree and an about-face career change. It was so terrifying at the time because there were an overwhelming number of uncertainties. What helped me keep moving forward was thinking about 10-year-old me. Would 10-year-old me be proud of who I am and the decisions I’m making? Would I be betraying the promises I made to myself when I was younger (perhaps idealistically) if I didn’t take this leap?
    What was terrifying then indeed turned out to be the single best decision I’ve made for myself.
    Good luck on the next adventure, Zach.

    1. Zach Miller

      Thanks Kerry! Glad you enjoyed the article. I try to think about decisions like this in a similar fashion, “10 years from now, will I look back and regret my decision?”. In this case, I imagine not.

  6. Linda & Tom Jagger

    thanks for great article. You will be missed. Im concerned about future of Barr Camp, would love to talk to someone re the camp. They could email me. That cabin is 100 yr old ?(almost?) We’ve been coming to Barr camp since 1989, & seen many changes. 1989 we left my home state of NH to come to CO, it was a big step into the unknown, but it has all worked out. Lived in 3 corners of USA since. Tom doesn’t get up quite so much since there’s no Cog and its winter. Trust your instinct.

    1. Zach Miller

      Linda! Thanks for reading and commenting! I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you and Tom over the years. As for the camp, it should be in good hands! Barr Camp works hard to find the right people for the job.

  7. Amy

    Good with your future! Two years ago (almost to the day) I left my hometown for a new job and state about 5 hours from everything I knew. I knew if I wanted to grow and get more out of life that I had to take the jump as scary as that was. I have had so many opportunities come my way that are helping me grow in my career and life. It has also showed me that I want even more out of life. that living other places are such a learning opportunity and adventure! This year I feel everything coming together. Just remember, it may be a struggle at first, but keep grinding and you’ll make it to the top.

  8. Shae Comstock

    Barr Camp without Zach…seems weird, but I’ve only been running Barr Trail since 2016 so it’s all I’ve known. =) Best wishes on whatever and where ever your travels take you Zach. Thank you for taking such good care of Barr Camp all these years. We all appreciate you.

  9. Megan

    Thank you for this. I am beginning grad school this year and feeling anxious about the uncertainties ahead and the changes that will take place – the new commute, less running, no income, another useless degree? I keep thinking of all the things to be anxious about, and am forgetting about all the new doors that are opening when change occurs and we leave our comfort zone. Thank you for the wonderful reminder. It was perfect timing!

  10. Kevin Mays

    I know your trepidation Zach. My careers have changed several times over my years, and every time I faced them with those same feelings. But what I’ve learned through each of them is that it’s all by design and for my betterment. No one can perfectly envision their future, but we are all blessed by the experiences we can look back on, and those experiences are meant to be built upon. Enjoy & embrace whatever comes next!

  11. Jay L

    As usual, great article. Thanks for the positivities of making a jump. So many of us need to hear that, 95% of the time, it’s for the better.

  12. Todd Burgess

    “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” — Henry David Thoreau

  13. Chris Mattingly

    Zach,
    Making a change in the course of one’s life can bring uncertainty, doubt, and sleepless nights. It is a risk to travel from the comfort and safety of the known to the unreassuring future. We want to know how it will go before we gamble our future away. What fortifies us to make the change and what gives us comfort and hope that the change we make will be good?

    In some regards, we are like trees. Our roots give us a foundation that support our well being. The strength to handle the edges of uncomfortable feelings like the extremes of hazardous weather. We reach to the sky so our souls feed on the sunlight and keep us strong to face the dangers like leaves that make energy and shade.

    You have to ask yourself, who you are. Do you have a strong foundation? Are you strong? How’s your moral compass? Do you have faith in yourself? What do you want to achieve in your life? Do you have faith in a higher power?

    Some people are driven to achieve a goal while others choose to do less with their life. We all have challenges, strengths and weaknesses. How we choose to deal with those challenges says who we are. How we treat others is how we will be judged. What we believe determines our conscience and the outcome of our endeavors.

    Zach, what you are feeling are natural doubts that only make you stronger as you move from a place of comfort, through a zone of uncertainty, and reaching the comfort of the known. I believe you are a strong person and are now ready to make that leap to the next stage of your life. You are growing in the right direction. Have confidence in yourself. Finally, I personally find that prayer is helpful. Best wishes and Godspeed, my dear friend, Chris

  14. Michele

    Loaned 1,000 from my brother to move to Colorado 13 years ago. Didn’t know anyone, last minute found a place to live, persistently pursued jobs and finally got one… now as uroy 2013 4x National champ trail, 2x Olympic trials participant.. mom. And successful business owner of rugged running … I’m happy to say all the challenges were worth it. Including the time I got to spend and compete with Zach in Brazil!

  15. Renee

    As one who also once made the decision to leave Barr Camp I can relate! Even though I’ve made MANY changes in my life, none have been so hard as that decision. We’re literally in the midst of another blind jump into the unknown as we drive across country to start anew in Salida. And the trust and faith is that it WILL be good. Thanks for sharing your experience with leaving but more importantly with being there and connecting to the people and space that Barr Camp is. Sending lots of love for your next “what if!” ❤️

  16. Bryan

    Brilliant. Beautifully written and I loved the expression of your sister’s thoughts “as the anxious thoughts started settling in with the sunset, as they began unfolding their chairs and settling down in my mind for the night”

    Good luck to you Zach from the West Highlands of Scotland…come visit ;-)

  17. Erin

    I was linked here via the Morning Shakeout newsletter, and this is perfect. I love the memories of happy moments from the past with being hopeful about the future.

    My boss is currently trying to move me from the Cleveland to Chicago office. I asked for the relocation, but there have been so many hiccups along the way in the process that it started to feel like it would never happen. Now, I can expect an offer letter for the position any day. The move will be good for me personally and professionally, but it’s a huge change. I’m going to keep the “But what if it’s good?” in my mind every time I start worrying about things that might never happen.

  18. Anna

    Great post. I relate to this soooo much! I am making a big move from North Carolina to Flagstaff, AZ where I don’t know anybody. It is the right thing for so many reasons but a lot of unknowns. It can be so easy for our minds to go to “worst possible outcomes” (I’ll be lonely, won’t make friends, what if I made the wrong choice)….But what if it’s good??? That might be my mantra in the coming months. Thanks for sharing this, and good wishes for whatever is next for you!

  19. Andy Cornett

    Zach, thanks for your humble faithfulness and service at this post. I remember your kind gestures two years ago when I went up and down the trail: I have great affection for that place. Grace and peace in your future endeavors! Like the comment above, I’m adding those words to my list of phrases for “mental fortitude” and ways to speak back to uncertainty that washes up in waves of anxiety or fear.
    Andy

  20. Martin

    Dear Zach,

    thank you for sharing your thoughts…it seems like you are not just an outstanding athlete….I’d buy your book too for sure! I recently read a book of Reinhold Messner, and learned that his true strength was the ability to always accept changes and to transform his doing into something new… all the changes I have done in my life, I today feel that they were not always good, but mostly….and I am grateful that I did it otherwise I would not have known….it made me brave….I wish you the very best for all that might come!

    Greetings from Berlin
    Martin

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