April 20, 2024 1:03 PM

Lost in the Woods; A journey to getting here

Benjamin Smith
Written by
Benjamin Smith

I heard a radio documentary a little while ago about a long distance swimmer who had fallen out of love with her craft but eventually found her joy in it again.  She said people would often ask her how far she swims and why, she said she would always answer, ‘I don’t know.  I just keep swimming until I find my bliss.’  That thought inspired me so much that I felt I needed to write some things down and share them.

You see I have been going through some things lately. For a little over 10 years I walked the same trail on the back of our property virtually every day.  It is a winding trail through an Acadian forest that shoulders a freshwater stream spilling out into the tidal portion of the Pugwash river. Everyone in our family used it and loved it.  Both of our two children walked the dogs there and many days it was the one place in the world each of us was sure to find peace and quiet.  There were iconic trees that served as our landmarks all along the route.  There was one particular spot about halfway down the trail where we would often take photographs capturing all of the subtleties that are exposed during each different season.  We call it the picture spot.  When hurricane Fiona hit so much of the woods around us was impacted.  My first concern was cleaning up debris around the house, the roads, and the main trails where the public walked.  Eventually I began (modestly) cleaning up our disc golf course and after a long while I decided it was time to face our private walking trail.  It was exactly 560 days after the storm hit that I finally walked into the woods with my saw to reclaim our old pathway.  In the end it took 5 tanks of gas to free the debris and get back to the picture spot.  As the crow flies it is a distance of roughly 700 meters or so from our house.  The physical demands of cleaning the downed trees paled in comparison to the metal fortitude it took to face the forest itself.  There were paper birch and maples that were well over a century old thrown about like discarded straws.  There were entire sections that were unrecognizable from their previous state.  I would argue that for the first 550 days I couldn’t even bear the thought of what I was going to see once I got back there, but eventually something shifted in me and I knew I wanted to face whatever it was.  A few days later I fired up the saw and started cutting.

The picture spot after the storm

It continues to surprise me on exactly how much of an impact one storm made on my life.  It has changed the way I view the forest and how I approach my work.  Before the storm I was optimistic, now I am something else.  I haven’t fallen victim to the dark side and full pessimism but rather some mix of trepidation and uncertainty.  I still have a deep belief that things will work out but I am just less certain of what ‘working out’ looks like.  

For the last few months I have been lost in my own thoughts.  I have been experiencing what some people probably refer to as a ‘mid life crisis’, although that’s not what I would call it.  It is nowhere near a crisis, but rather a profound shift towards self acceptance of my lack of direction.  For much of this winter I have just felt….. Nothing.  It is the first time in my life I can ever remember such a feeling of emptiness.  It is a very peculiar emptiness, not the one you experience when you lose a loved one or your partner tells you that they no longer love you.  Nor is this the emptiness of losing a big game or getting passed over for a promotion you felt you deserved.  There is no sadness attached to this emptiness, just a void of feelings.  I have sat with this for months now and have been constantly surprised at how comfortable I have been with it, but in my constant desire to understand myself fully I have been poking around in the corners of my mind to discover the source of this feeling.  For the first time I think I may have stumbled onto something.

Before I get to my great revelation I want to shed some light on the path I took to actually getting here.  For more than a decade after playing my first round I searched for ways to make disc golf my job.  There was no industry there to plug myself into, at least not in Atlantic Canada.  Although I built a private course in 2007 (Gogans Greens) it wasn’t until 2015 that any client ever hired me to build a course.  That year I built two courses (Beech Hill Park and Hammonds Plains) and for my time and effort I was compensated a whopping $240 over the cost of baskets, minus the rest of the expenses it took to get the courses ‘open’ which were in excess of $600 of gas, food, and chainsaw supplies, my labour was still unpaid at that point.  So if you are keeping score at home all it took for me to create my first two public courses was about 100 hours of my time and $360 of my own money.  Still I was thrilled to do it.  

There was a recurring conversation that Duncan (Flickline #2) and I would have where we would talk about the day when there would be too many courses for us to play, or when we could just roll up to the course and not be the TD for every event.  We would joke about what it would be like to not know everyones name on the course or any of the other things that might happen when disc golf really took off.  About 2 months before the pandemic hit I sold my landscaping company and went all in on disc golf.  That decision turned out to be one of the most fortunate things I have ever done.

When we ran our first ever B tier event we invited some of our friends and players from Maine, Quebec, and Ontario to play.  Luckily many of them did show up and despite the total number of players only being 55 that event had a huge impact on the next 8 years.  The people who came were rightfully blown away by Hillcrest, and pleasantly surprised by our hosting capabilities.  So were we.  This event was the precursor to our hosting 5 straight National Championships, which was the foundation to us hosting Canada’s first ever Pro Tour Event.  During each of these events there was a fire in my belly about what we could achieve.  There is something you should know about Maritimers (or Atlantic Canadian’s as I have come to realize) : we are driven by a deep seeded need to be validated by outsiders.  Maybe it’s because we lose so many of our youth to perpetual outward migration, or maybe it stems from the fact that there are no pro sports teams in the region and very few of our things ever seem to be deemed the ‘best in the world’.  For whatever the reason it feels like we are constantly seeking the approval of come-from-aways while simultaneously discarding their opinions.  It’s a weird one for sure.

During the lead up to all of these events I always had a quiet belief that the traveling players would come here and be amazing at our quality of life, our beaches, and our overall friendly nature.  I had also secretly hoped that the locals would come out from all walks of life and see these disc golfers being completely submerged in their bliss and wonder what all the fuss was about.  I idealized both groups of people which inevitably leads to disappointment.  I have written about some of the high points of each of these events that brought me deep satisfaction but there is one low point I don’t think I have ever spoken of that I return to often.  During the playoff between Eagle and Isaac, two of the best disc golfers in the world at arguably the pinnacle of each of their careers ( I know it is early for each of them yet), I looked out and saw a sparse crowd at best and realized that even though I had given almost 2 decades of my life to creating this tournament, advertising it to the general public, and doing everything in my power to draw the eyes of the world to it, I could only manage to get a few dozen people in attendance to witness history.  It was a bleak reminder that even though I tried my best I couldn’t live up to my own expectations.  I felt too many emotions to dwell on that one in particular so I moved on and focused on the positive but every so often I remember that moment and sigh.  I have also seen plenty of other Pro Tour events to know that attendance isn’t always as strong as we all want it to be so it is not entirely our fault, nor is it completely unique to our part of the world.

Each of these events brought with them an incredible amount of focus.  During the 10-12 months leading up to each of these tournaments almost every single decision I made about work or life was framed around the idea of how it would impact the event.  Should we go camping this weekend?  Maybe, but will I have time to get those tee pads done for the Pro Tour? Hmmm maybe I should stay home and work.  Should I go to Nationals and support my friends?  I don’t think I should as I really have to get hole 16 ready… Etc etc….

I also made a huge push inside the industry to be noticed. Not in an egotistical way (at least I hope not), but more like I was trying to show companies that I could be useful and that our region could matter.  I had thought at the start of my journey that at least one major disc golf company would notice my efforts and reward me with a contract or a steady salary.  I was developing my own style of course building and I had stumbled upon some key principles that set me apart from the majority of designers.  As it stands right now I have completed 40 permanent disc golf courses from design to installation and another 10 semi-permanent ones.  Despite being close I was never given an actual offer from any company.  I was not, nor am I currently bitter about this as I understand the market better now than at any other time in my life and I don’t fault any company for their financial decisions.  There have been times where others in the industry have tried to undermine what I have been doing just like there have been times when other industry professionals have recognized the amazing things we have been able to accomplish and promoted us.  Overall I have come to see my own achievements as something I should be proud of.  Which leads me to my big revelation:

I don’t need anyone's approval anymore as I no longer feel like I need to accomplish anything.

Now maybe you read that sentence and say to yourself, ‘big whoop, nobody does’, but for me understanding this feeling and really embodying it is quite profound.  See, when I was somewhere around 13 years old when my grandfather started taking me to work with him.  He was the manager of the parks department in the town that I grew up in, but back then he would take me to some of his side jobs for private clients.  Mostly it was tidying up flower beds and other light yard work for a few clients he had befriended over the years.  During those late spring / early summer days I learned a little about gardening and a lot about how to treat people.  My grandfather impressed upon me that every job he got was a privilege and that a person should never turn down work because you just don’t know when you are going to be in need.  It wasn’t until many years later than I learned that people don’t buy your services, they buy your time.  Treat people well and they will happily pay you what you think you are worth.

Almost 15 years later I opened my own landscaping company working for the same kinds of people my grandfather had as clients.  On the second job I ever took my grandfather offered to work for me and drove the 50 minutes daily from his house to mine to help me lay stone on a beautiful beach front property.  It is a wonderful full-circle moment that I think back on fondly, especially now years after my grandfather's passing.  I think of how privileged I was to have someone like that in my life who guided me and cared about my successes. As far as he was concerned there was no problem that couldn’t be solved by simply working harder.  The simple concept of being grateful and working hard has done more to guide me than anything else in my life.  It also turned out to be a huge lie that has come close to ruining my life many times.  For almost 30 years I have battled with this idea that I have to be working, I have to be moving, I have to be accomplishing something.  If I’m not in a constant state of working then I can’t complain if things don’t work out for me.  I’ve missed so many things with my kids, my friends, and my wife that I wonder if it was worth it.

Ultimately I have decided it was worth it because it got me to this point in my life.  I am deeply grateful for every client who has ever hired me and to every opportunity I have been provided.  It wasn’t until this year, 44 years into living my life that I decided it was ok to linger around the kitchen in the morning and drink an extra cup of coffee, or to sit under the awning and enjoy the evening sunshine.  It took me this long to give myself permission to do nothing.  When I owned my landscaping company I took pride in teaching my employees skills so they could succeed long after their time with me was up.  When I started my disc golf company I wanted to build courses to share the game and so I could play more no matter where I ended up being.  During the last 3 years I have played so little disc golf it was downright depressing.  I created a life that was supposed to be fun and fulfilling but in the end I was working more, and further away from home, than I ever did when I was landscaping.  So this winter I started doing something bold.  I started playing disc golf again by myself, quietly and for no other reason than pure self-satisfaction.  By April 1 2024 I have already played more rounds this year (45) than in all of 2023 (44).  Which honestly blows my mind.  Now I know I said I have been feeling nothing and I no longer need to prove anything and that is almost completely true.  The truth is I do feel one big motivational pull and that is to build the best courses in the world.  I’ve reignited my love of reading this year and have been devouring books on forestry, leadership, and a wide variety of Canadian history, including that of indigenous peoples.  I want to pursue course building with 100% of my heart and I am doing that.  At the same time allowing myself to not feel guilty if I stay home and walk the dogs all day.    I have a clear vision in my mind and I feel I can be an asset to any town, city, or private client who wishes to create a legacy project.  Yes, Fiona changed my entire perspective about the forest, and about what we are ‘owed’ (spoiler alert, we aren’t owed anything) but that doesn’t mean it has to change me for the worse.  I am happier now than at any point in my life because I have found a way to accept myself and the skills I possess.  Having said that doesn’t mean I am satisfied to not do anything else in the industry.  I have a ton more to give and I truly believe I am capable of designing and installing some of the best courses in the world, but if I never get that chance I can still sleep deeply at night knowing I tried my best to keep building until I found my bliss. Honestly, what else can I do except to keep swimming.