September 24, 2001: two days after setting my PR for the marathon in Logan, Utah, I wake up in a tent at Bryce Canyon National Park, and hike every trail in a day. This despite my body needing weeks more more recovery time and having given myself a huge blister the night before walking half a mile to a viewpoint to see the moonrise in cotton socks. The damage I do my body will permanently take me out of running marathons. What am I, stupid or something?
I'd put it down to the folly of youth, but I was 40 at the time; but midlife crisis probably applies: I was between careers, between relationships, driving a bright red Celica, living in a commune. It was also just two weeks after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, an event that affected me deeply. Life seemed terribly fragile to me and incredibly precious all at once, something to be seized, embraced, experienced. What was the point to keeping a bucket list when life could be cut short randomly, abruptly, without regard for how much I had left to do?
I had made my reservations and travel plans months earlier, but now that extended weekend took on a deeper meaning, and I adopted a new creed for myself: Do it now. Long term plans could, would be preempted by random events beyond my control. I might never make it back to Bryce Canyon, so I had to see it from every viewpoint, explore every trail, do it all in the single day I had allotted myself. I finished that day sunburned, sore, limping, dehydrated, exhausted, astounded at what I had accomplished, the future an open book. No more dreaming for me, no more fantasies about what I'd someday do; I was going to do it now.
Despite that intention, there was not a lot of day-seizing ahead of me. Far-flung adventures require resources, and I was not then, nor would I be anytime soon, in a position to afford the travel of which I dreamed. Nor would my body permit me to engage in the necessary preparation for one of those things I wanted so badly to seize: more marathons, in more states, setting even faster records for myself until the curve of my potential intersected with that of maturity-induced physical decline. I had no way of knowing that, as far as running is concerned, that marathon was my peak, and I would never again run that far, that fast.
But for those three glorious days, I really lived, absolutely present in every moment, embracing the chill of the pre-dawn marathon start, the exhilaration of racing through thirteen miles of descent through picturesque foothills, the ways in which my fellow runners paid tribute with flags and signs both carried and worn to the victims of 9-11, or made appeals to sanity ("Give the Hague a Chance" really struck a chord), and then as the heat and distance began to get to me, as my body crashed through the wall, in the discipline of keeping myself moving, even as I took walking breaks at aid stations, until finally I was back in the city limits of Logan, picking up my pace, and the anticipation of finishing mingled with the sadness of this profoundly spiritual experience coming to an end to move me finally to tears as I reached deep into myself for a final kick, sprinting across the finish line. Two days later, I was in the same spiritual present, sun, shadow, heat, aridity, every turn of the trail revealing a new vista, climbing up to the rim, then back down into the hoodoos and arroyos, the blister on my foot bursting, the skin on my arms and shoulders, even coated with sun block, turning lobster red, pressing myself to be present in every step I took until finally I reached the top of the final trail, the Fairyland Loop, set my camera's timer, and captured the picture above: me, victorious!
That trip was my final exam in tenacity. Everything I have done since then has been informed by it, whether it was retooling myself for reentry into education, staying optimistic through a series of failed relationships, hanging onto my teaching career as jobs were eaten away by budget cuts, staying connected to my children even as they moved 700 miles away--or future physical feats. Ironically, only the last item on that laundry list is directly related to the subject of this blog: doing it now.
I'm sure a large part of the disconnect comes from the company I kept. Until recently, I have not had a partner who shared my love of extreme outdoor adventure. In Amy, I found that partner, one who had also fostered a desire to get out and see the world beyond the pavement, but had lacked the right companionship for such an endeavor. Together, we have equipped ourselves for hiking, backpacking, skiing, snowshoeing, and have again and again just gone out and done it.
We do have a mutual bucket list, though we do not often refer to it. It's better just to say, "When are we going to climb a mountain?" or "When is our next backpacking trip?" Just this week, the question was "Where shall we go for an end-of-the-summer trip with the kids?" The answer, very quickly, was southern Oregon. Within minutes I was online, looking up bed and breakfasts in the Rogue Valley. We dithered for awhile on price and location, settled on a horse ranch in Jacksonville, and in a few weeks--in fact, just three days after we come back from backpacking in the Sawtooth Mountains--we'll be driving down for a final summer getaway that will include, for the first time in my life, a Shakespeare play in Ashland. And I expect to love every minute of it.
I do have long-term goals: I want to get back to Britain, see more of Europe, explore Alaska, revisit Hawaii, and do all of them right, with hiking boots and a backpack. More achievable goals are through-hikes on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails and the Wonderland Loop Trail around Mt. Rainier. These will happen when they happen, possibly as soon as next year. I'm cautious about the long-term goals because I'm well aware of how easily reality can take bites out of bucket lists, and I'd really rather not be in the business of crossing off dreams. It is far better, I have learned, to find something achievable--the Olympics rather than the Alps, for instance--and do it now; and as I'm doing it, to fully, from head to toe, let myself be enfolded in the experience, breathing, hiking, climbing, thirsting, aching, seeing, living.
Life's too short to postpone living it. Do it now.