My Adventures in Monotony
By Charlie Engle
As the intrepid Arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton famously noted,
“OPTIMISM IS TRUE MORAL COURAGE.”
It takes true courage to be optimistic and for me, as for you, every day this year has been an exercise in summoning up the courage to sustain optimism. It’s just as much a daily battle, a choice by choice, decision by decision effort as remaining sober. Anyone can be optimistic when things are going your way. But who we are when life is uncertain is what really matters.
This is my third article weighing up my thoughts and responses to this pandemic year. While my overall intent is to use my personal experience to (hopefully) provide some measure of insight, motivation and reasonable actions to follow to confront the challenge we are all facing, I also have to acknowledge and share my own depth of frustration with how the year has panned out. So be warned, what follows is really a pep talk to myself, a meditation on monotony and an encouragement to press on.
As I write, I’m 2,000 miles away from home in a featureless Airbnb, exhausted at the end of another 14-hour day pushing dents out of a similarly featureless four door sedan. I’m lonely, I’m tired, I’m confronted by another month of the same routine, doing work that in some way is an affront to my current sense of self. I worry about Astacianna because she is fighting her own health issues, but we need the income. So I am here in Wyoming chasing hailstorms, the kind of work I was doing years ago when I was younger, fresher and had yet to discover the world of expeditions and adventure that I’ve been living in for the past 20 years or so. Am I really here again?
This was not supposed to be how this year played out. This year was meant to be the culmination of 8 years of really hard work and a fuller realization of the next stage in my life. Doing speaking gigs, being hired to write and taking on another big adventure; The next 2 legs of my 5.8 Global Adventure Challenge . . . and then COVID-19 happened.
The feeling reminds me of how my stint in prison played out nearly 10 years ago, in that just as things were really coming together, I was dealt a blow that seemed tremendously unfair. And just like that time, my appreciation of what was coming was initially slow to sink in, but the consequences came very quickly and with their own certainty and finality.
Initially, just a couple of speaking gigs were postponed, then they were cancelled outright and then within a few weeks everything I had planned for the entire year, all 20 speaking gigs, plus events and expeditions, were cancelled. All gone. And along with them went my line of sight to any kind of income.
So, with that self-pitying whine set aside, as I’m pulling these dents out of these cars in a windswept tent in Wyoming, I have plenty of time to reflect on what I chose to do next and why. Why?!
What I did next was almost second nature. I hit the phones and made calls to any and every person that I had ever worked with back in the day when I was running around the world chasing storms, repairing hail damaged cars. The economics of repairing hail damaged cars are pretty simple. When a car has 500 hail dents in it, its value drops from $30K+ to near nothing.
Regardless that it drives as well as ever and is mechanically sound. The car is good only for scrap, but with a few tools, a little bit of knowledge and a ton of patience, the car can be returned to cosmetic perfection and to its KBB value in about a day. For that little piece of magic, a technician can earn upwards of $1000. Many of my old friends are still in the business and several of them were eager to help me find work. But the "finding" and the "doing" are two very different things. My speaking on big stages was traded in for hard physical labor all day, every day.
COVID-19 may have brought the world to a near standstill, but hail storms are a constant, and there are always hail damaged cars to repair somewhere in the world, and so within a few days and after a lot of humbling calls, I was heading out to San Antonio, Texas for six weeks of non-stop, back breaking work…not what I had planned and certainly not what I wanted…but at least I had an income in 2020 and that felt like moving forward. Again.
Hail damaged cars have 100’s to 1000’s of dents. Some are pebble-sized and take super close inspection in bright lights from a myriad of angles to make sure that none are missed. You check, double-check, triple-check, then say a little prayer (!) take satisfaction in a job well done. It’s never perfect, but there is an undeniable reward to working laboriously with your hands and simple tools to turn a pock-mocked vehicle into a product good looking enough to make the customer/car owner say WOW!! when they come to pick it up.
In truth, psychologically and physically, there is not that much difference between running Badwater and pulling dents. When I start on a new car, it is strangely exciting. I have no idea what unforeseen problems await, or how I’ll overcome them. I only know that they are there and that, like COVID-19, they aren’t going to magically disappear. I’m reminded that anything can be overcome by constant application, moving forward, making the next right decision and next right effort. I don't have to do everything, I only have to do this one thing right in front of me. Physically, it's uncomfortable, grueling, painful and stressful. But it is also weirdly satisfying, knowing that I will always try to adapt to the changing landscape. What happens to us in life isn't nearly as important as what we do about it.
But the similarities to Badwater end right there. It may be similar in application, but pulling dents certainly isn’t the same inspiration as a long run through the desert! I wake up every day now, fired up, because that’s who I have to be in order to provide for my family. I do a good job talking to myself, and I take a few quiet minutes to be grateful, but how do I hold on to gratitude as the day goes on? I work on vehicles that don’t cooperate, with customers that are demanding and with co-workers with their own issues.
And while there is some genuine satisfaction that comes from a vehicle reinstated, and a boost to my bank account, if that had been enough, I would have stayed with that business. I wouldn’t have traded out my adventures of the last 20 years for the comfortable retirement that I would have had if I just kept at this work for these past years.
So, what keeps me going, aside from the necessity of meeting everyday expenses and obligations. Simply put, dollars in the bank now are adventures in the future. Every day I do this, I am literally buying weeks of adventure. In the future. I don’t know when specifically, but I do know that there is a future and that it does contain the adventures I live for. I will run again. And I will always give my best effort to provide for my family.
Therein lies my sense of optimism. My hopefulness for the future.
Optimism, like sobriety, is its own reward. And like sobriety, it is a gift but not a given. It must be fought for. With patience and tenacity. Shackleton knew that if he was to survive the wreck of The Endurance he would need to put the
“. . . FOOTPRINT OF COURAGE INTO THE STIRRUP OF PATIENCE.”
So it is with 2020! And this pandemic. Optimism will keep us all focused on the wrap-up of this phase and the start of the next adventure. But, it will take courage to remain focused on that. And . . .
ONLY PATIENCE, WITH THE HERE AND NOW, WILL SEE US THROUGH.