TEDxUCLA 2016: Push. Pull. Stretch.

Hike your own hike


About Tara 

Dr. Tara Prescott is a Lecturer in Writing Programs and Faculty in Residence at UCLA. She is the editor of Neil Gaiman in the 21st Century and her research interests include poetry, comics, popular culture, modernism, and James Joyce. Dr. Prescott serves as a Volunteer Exhibit Diver at the Aquarium of the Pacific and is currently planning her second solo backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail.


When I was in kindergarten, we had an assignment: draw what you want to be when you grow up. Some kids drew firefighters, police officers, baseball players. I drew a big bright fish.

Now this concerned my teacher. And when my mother came to pick me up, the teacher took her aside: “The children were drawing what they want to be when they grow up, and your daughter drew a fish.”

My mother looked her straight in the eye. “So what?” she said. “She can be a fish if she wants to.”

That was an important lesson. What you want to do doesn’t have to make sense to other people.

It’s been a few years since then. I went on to become a college professor, and when my mother, the woman who allowed me to become a fish, went on to get her Associate’s degree, I was able to hand her her diploma at graduation.

It’s been a few years since that graduation, and many more since that kindergarten class, and I still haven’t become a fish, but I’m about as close as you can get. I spend every Friday morning in a fish tank. I am a volunteer exhibit diver at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. I clean tanks, feed animals, and best of all, interact with the public. It’s amazing. Little kids lose their minds when you swim up to them.

I first got my diving certification as a gift to myself for my 30th birthday. I’d always liked snorkeling and fish and it seemed like the next logical step, and I just kept going. When I heard about the position at the aquarium I thought, “I like education. I like fish. Let’s put these things together.”

And it’s made for some pretty good stories. A few weeks ago, I was in a tank feeding and I got bit in the neck by a fish. As you can see, it looks exactly like a hickey. I got a fish hickey. Imagine having to explain this to your students. “Oh, this? I got bit in the neck by a fish.” It sounds like the worst excuse for a hickey ever.

So I continued to go diving as part of my life whenever I was travelling. Recently, I was in Iceland and I went scuba diving. It was snowing at the surface. When I got out of the water and I leaned up against a piece of plywood to take off my gear, my butt froze to the table. There’s not a slide for that.

So yes, I have a lot of random adventures from feeding sharks in an aquarium to diving in Iceland to being a 40-year-old faculty member living with students in the dorms. These experiences make sense to me. They use different parts of my personality, different parts of my body and mind.

Now when I was in college, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but my friend Shinobu was hiking the Appalachian Trail, or the AT. I admired her so much! It just seemed so adventurous. I followed along in her online blog, but I never thought that I could do anything like that. I’d always liked hiking. And the idea stayed in the back of my mind.

Listen to those ideas that stay in the back of your mind. Let them come forward.

It took a long time for the hiking to come forward for me. I kept looking for more and more ways to be hiking without realizing I was doing it. And then last spring I just decided, “You know what? I want to hike the AT. The way that Shinobu did.” I knew that this would entail sleeping in a tent every night. So I bought a new tent and I did a test run on a grassy slope behind Hitch Suites here at UCLA.

And it went pretty well! Until 3 am when the sprinklers went off. And all the water ran down the hill and started filling up the tent and I thought, “Okay, I can do this. I’m going I’m gonna go back to sleep.” And then the sprinklers went off for the second time.

By then, the water had come up to here and it looked like a scene from Titanic. But I learned a really important lesson: Don’t pitch your tent on a slope or next to sprinklers.

Emboldened by my first night behind the dorms, I went off to Catalina Island and did my first five-day backpacking trip. That went well. So then I went off to the AT. First few days the AT went really well, and then it was my first night completely alone.

The fierce wind was whapping the sides of my tent and the flickering moonlight made every sound and shadow seem like something out to kill me. And then the ground started vibrating because something was running towards the tent! And my heart was beating and my skin was sweaty and I was lying wide-eyed with my glasses still on because I wanted to be able to see when the thing came in to kill me.

And the thing is? There was nothing out there. It was all in my head. And even if there were? My freaking out about it was not going to make me any safer. I could spend all night like this and be miserable the next day, or I could just stop. Just turn it off like that and go to bed.

It was a fear switch I didn’t even know I had until that night. You might have that fear switch, too. Look inside the next time you tell yourself you can’t do something.

So having survived that night, I walked from Georgia up through North Carolina and Tennessee and into Virginia. My hips were worn raw from the pack straps and my legs were hairy, dirty, bee-stung, mosquito-bitten. I was ravenously hungry all the time and scavenged for berries like a wild animal. But I felt alive.

I walked for 600 miles before I had to stop and come back and teach my classes. And the thing is no one will tell you that you can do this. In fact, most people will tell you the exact opposite. “You’re going to do what? Is that safe?”

And the thing is, we need to allow ourselves to have these experiences. We need to put ourselves into positions where we might be failing and be okay with that.

This was one of the most formative experiences I’ve ever had. I learned how to keep myself company during long hours of walking alone. I learned how to start a fire when the wood’s all wet. I learned how hard it is to sleep when the forest is loud. Pro tip: earplugs. It was amazing.

There’s a saying among AT hikers that I think is really good advice for the rest of us: Hike your own hike. It means don’t be too concerned about what other people are doing, how much further they are, how much faster they’re going. They’re doing their hike. You do yours.

There’s this common perception that there’s only one right path that we’re all supposed to be on, and I hear this from my students all the time, especially when they’re thinking about choosing their majors. There’s this belief that if you only choose the right major and have the right life and find the right partner and live in the right city that you will have the right life and be happy and successful.

But it’s just not true. There are many, many paths to get to the destination you want to reach, and no single choice defines who you are.

Kids know instinctively that it’s okay to be into everything. But somewhere along the way we lose that. We’re told we have to specialize, and if you are good at one thing you’re not supposed to play around with those other things.

Think about what you really long to do. What’s stopping you from doing it? What if you gave yourself permission to try it? What if you gave yourself permission to be bad at it and do it anyway?

My hope for you today is that you will take one of those ideas that’s in the back of your mind and make a plan for making it happen. Because our experiences, like the wetsuit that I wear every Friday, are made to stretch. Thank you.