“I go to seek the Great Perhaps” are the reputed last words of French writer Francois Rabelais who died in 1553. The phrase was later co-opted in John Green’s award winning novel, Looking for Alaska. In it, the protagonist, Miles, memorizes famous last words. When his mother asks why he wants to leave home for boarding school, he responds:
“Francois Rabelais. He was this poet. And his last words were ‘I go to seek a Great Perhaps.’ That’s why I’m going. So I don’t have to wait until I die to start seeking a Great Perhaps.”
Miles finds his Great Perhaps when he meets Alaska, a wry, wayward girl that “smokes to die.” Through Alaska the coming-of-age book explores themes of suffering, death, and redemption.
I don’t think I can say definitively what the Great Perhaps means, or what either Francois Rabelais or John Green meant by it, but I think I found my own Great Perhaps on a mountain in Ecuador.
I pursued an undergraduate degree studying zoology at the University of British Columbia with the hopes of becoming a conservation biologist. As my degree drew to a close I was confronted with a stark reality: saving animals isn’t tied to a lucrative industry that could offer many viable careers, and I felt no doors open for me.
Feelings of futility were exacerbated by the fact that I spent four years inhaling whole textbooks of information — learning every muscle of a cat, how to identify insect taxa based on mouthparts —only to be faced with never applying this knowledge, and the fact that when it came to practical research skills, my resume amounted to next to nothing.
Relief came to me when a privately owned organic farm and nature reserve named La Hesperia was looking for a volunteer coordinator. I had visited La Hesperia on an educational trip in high school, and now I told myself to take deep breaths as I packed my bags for eight months in the jungle. I stuffed my backpack with new hiking boots, plenty of rain gear, and a mosquito repelling lotion with an amount of deet that the vendor told me was illegal in the United States.
La Hesperia boasts nearly 2000 acres (800 hectares) of cloud forest sprawling across a mountain, ranging from 3600 to 7875 feet (1100 to 2400 meters) above sea level. Being an extension of the Andes mountain range means that moisture transpiring from lowland vegetation condenses along the mountainside, shrouding the jungle in an eerie mist. Cloud forest.
It’s so wet that plants grow on top of other plants, drawing their moisture from the air instead of the soil. An estimated 320 different bird species call La Hesperia home and 63 genera of butterflies. The whole of the United Kingdom contains little more than 63 species.
On special evenings thundershowers mercilessly consumed the mountainside while blinding lightning and the downpour of water prevented me from falling asleep. I thought it unfathomable how any bird, squirrel, or bat would escape its relentlessness. Yet in the morning, the birds proved that they not only survived but were thriving as their cacophony arrived with the morning’s light.
Days were spent tending to the vegetable garden, planting coffee saplings, or clearing the overgrowth encroaching on our farmland. In the evenings the volunteers and I gathered around a card table, and weekends were left open for hiking. My co-worker, David, tricked new volunteers into eating lemons that looked like oranges. On lucky days, rufous-tailed hummingbirds visited the heleconia flowers surrounding the volunteer house and iridescent morphos butterflies feasted on fallen oranges (or were they lemons?)
In the early months of my stay I co-led the volunteers on a camping trip to the top of the reserve — a three hour uphill climb. Pots and pans were saddled onto a donkey, and we ascended a tawny dirt path.
As we climbed higher I felt the air moisten and skies darken with cloud cover. The trees themselves appeared darker for the heavy woolen coat of mosses slouching from their branches. You know you’re close to the top when the misty forest gives way to a leafy pasture at the mountain peak.
Decades ago property owners wanted to transform La Hesperia into a ranch. Subsequently, patches of the forest were leveled, including the top of the mountain. Without dairy cows regularly traversing its slopes, the grass grew taller than me.
Finally reaching the top, I dropped my bags in exhaustion and peered over the valley. Looking out over the vast mountainside I felt a sense of humility as clouds drifted on below and became entangled in the heavy vines of the jungle. The tallest of trees peaked out of the mist like ghostly spirits haunting the forest. It was as if the condensation had drawn out my own breath. This was my Great Perhaps. The reason I traded in high heels for hiking boots, why I left a life of shallow preoccupations to be sweaty and dirty in the jungle. To feel a sense of awe that finally tamed a restless soul.
The purpose of travel is to discover. To live everyday wondering what views the mountain top will hold or what tropical bird might perch overhead. The gift of finding the Great Perhaps is a perpetually galvanized spirit. It’s my reprieve from the burden of societal expectations, and it let me shed the complacency molded from routine. Living a different life gave me an appreciation for the simple necessities and a new perspective on society’s material excesses. But living in the Great Perhaps doesn’t warrant heedless romanticization. As there’s crests, there are also troughs. Times have been inspiring, exhilarating, and breathtaking, but also lonely, sick, and heartbreaking. But that’s also why I seek a Great Perhaps—to feel the turbulence of living.
Have you ever come face-to-face with your “great perhaps?” Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!