I was a wary child.
I didn't like jumping off things, are traveling at high speeds, or ascending to great heights. I preferred to stay firmly rooted to the ground, moving along at a walking pace, stepping carefully over obstacles, jumping feet-first into water. The one time I allowed myself to violate this fixation on safety--standing atop a metal slide one of my brothers was turning into a waterfall with a garden hose--I wound up with a broken arm, confirming the sanity of my cautious approach to life.
This wariness manifested itself in all aspects of my life. Knowing my father's itinerant profession meant moving every three years, I learned not to invest myself in friendships, as the heartbreak of moving might be too much to handle. A couple of experiences of female cruelty, leading me on then dashing my hopes, led me to be so tentative at romance that I was 24 before I went on my first date. A handful of rejections convinced me my fiction writing could never match what editors were looking for, so it all went into boxes rather than submission envelopes. A few bungled solos took me out of serious contention for lead trumpet parts. There's more, but you get the idea.
And there went my youth. During the part of my life when most people are taking risks and learning how much they can overcome, I was back against the wall, politely allowing everyone else to go before me, hoping I wouldn't have to take a plunge myself. I missed a lot. I did manage, as a result, to excel in areas I found less threatening, but since all those pursuits were intellectual, I never tapped into my body's athletic potential, or my interpersonal potential.
Ironically, those experiences in my youth only meant they hurt that much more when they inevitably came my way in adulthood. Unaware of my inherent attractiveness, I jumped the gun on engagement, thinking I needed to lock in the wonderful sensations of first love before they could get away from me; and when that marriage ended, it tore me apart as subsequent breakups would not, because I had never really experienced this kind of loss. Focusing only on the skills that came naturally to me, I locked myself out of becoming an educator and musician, areas at which I now excel but only because of countless hours spent perfecting my craft. And timidly avoiding risky outdoor adventures, I kept myself from physical pursuits that could have empowered my adolescence with confidence and enthusiasm.
I came to adventure decades later than most. I came to it first out of a concern for my health, taking long walks that transitioned to runs and, eventually, marathons. I dabbled in hiking until divorce handed me far more free time than I had ever had. It took a second divorce to teach me how survivable a breakup can be, and to finally learn my inner relational rhythms. And I had to completely leave behind my safety career, ministry, before I could become a professional musician and a teacher, vocations that had been calling me since my youth.
Now I am in the healthiest relationship of my life, with a woman I love who inspires me and finds inspiration in me. We adventure together. And when one of our adventures becomes more challenging than we had bargained for, whether it is a sudden turn in the weather, an equipment failure, or a trail that is more treacherous than we bargained on, we turn to each other and, in our best The Man Who Would Be King accents, shout "Adventure!" Initially we just used this word in the outdoors, but over time, we came to apply it to other parts of our life together: putting both our names on the lease for our home; car-shopping; taking the kids to Seattle for spring break.
We continue to bite off progressively tougher outdoor adventures, too. All my life, I have been a camper. Unless we were staying with grandparents, "vacation" always meant camping. We simply couldn't afford to spend a night in a motel. Instead we slept in a travel trailer. As the family grew, we added a musty old canvas army surplus tent as an annex to the trailer. Once I was on my own, this continued to be my primary way of vacationing, though I also added an occasional night in the cheapest motel I could find. Vacations were about the experiences had during the day, not the level of accommodation enjoyed at night. As a result, camping never felt all that adventurous to me.
By contrast, Amy was new to camping when she met me. She was fond of saying that, to a New York Jew, camping meant "a hotel without room service." After initial nervousness, she adapted quickly to sleeping on the ground, cooking on a camp stove or fire, and forgoing a daily shower. Adventure!
And here's where it gets really exciting: thanks to Amy, I am now exploring an outdoor activity I have coveted for most of my life: backpacking.
As a young runner and day hiker, I began reading about ultramarathons that took runners up into the mountains on hundred-mile treks, into places inaccessible to day trippers, no matter what their method of transportation. As my running and hiking extended to its limits, I longed to take the next step, to venture deeper into the wilderness, to carry with me the supplies and shelter I needed to experience truly wild places. In my Scouting days, my lack of fitness and decent equipment had kept me from exploring this pastime beyond the bare minimum required to earn Eagle. Now I had the fitness, but I lacked the equipment, the know-how and, perhaps most important, the companionship.
And then along came Amy. Once she'd gotten the camping and hiking bugs, she was intrigued by taking it to the next level.
We took our first backpacking expedition three years ago, hiking to a campsite at the foot of the South Sister, climbing to the summit the next day, then hiking out the day after that. We had by then acquired most of the necessary gear, except for one crucial item: backpacks. I had a cheap Coleman pack that had most of the necessary bells and whistles, but was really inadequate to a multiday expedition; meanwhile, Amy used my daypack. Somehow the opportunities to backpack evaded us for the next two summers. Then last winter, I found a sale at REI that would enable us to purchase some excellent backpacks at nearly half-price. They sat in our garage for six months until, finally, we tried them out last week with an overnight on the Eagle Creek trail.
This Saturday, we'll be driving up to Washington for a four-day backpacking trip into the Olympic National Park. Beyond that, who knows? I've dreamed for years of doing the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier, or of through-hiking on the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails; and I'm even more excited about backpacking in the Alps.
If we're going to embark on such adventures, it needs to be in the near future. We're at our peak fitness, but as the saying goes, we're not getting any younger. The time will come when our bodies just can't carry enough of the supplies we'll need to do these things. But because we are doing them--because we are taking risks, testing our limits--midlife is bringing us new experiences. We're at the start of something wonderful, something that can be summed up in the word: