“Setting Out for the Territory Ahead”

March 15, 2017   Every year there was a trip. These small journeys had outsized meaning. I would gather Tim or Greg, my traveling partners/guides and we would plan a trip via bike, paddle, or foot. We hit the Grand Canyon, Verde Canyon, San Juan Canyon, San Juan Mountains, Bigelow Mountains, White Mountains, Blue Mountains, Green Mountains, Rangeley Lakes, Saranac Lakes, Great Lakes, and other rivers, trails, canyons, and long blue highways. Normally, the list of places yet to explore elongates. But time is no longer elastic. A destination unvisited conjures a sense of loss. It is an unfilled promise, the door not opened, a memory not captured. Time to cut off this hydra’s head.

The idea is to plan a small adventure each month. There will be no epics, just something rich in meaning and imagery with potential for sustaining memories. The strategy is immersion not schedule. Yes, there will be a physical push. I will be self-powered, often by myself, and in wild places. But it is more an exercise in revealed emotions and stored memories. In Friday Night Lights, Coach Taylor exhorted his team with the mantra “Full heart, clear eyes. Can’t lose”. Sounds like the right idea, my heart will be full, eyes will be clear, and body will be tired. But in the end, I will have a sense of completion. Memories of these journeys will hold dominion over the possibility of future regrets.

It is April, the planning month. Tim and I are thinking Vermont by gravel bike. An Adirondack canoe solo sounds good. I’m in Northern Idaho for Lyndsay’s 40th so mountain-biking nearby Montana is plausible. Greg and I are discussing sailing Lake Michigan. (Allison vetoed a San Juan River trip. This probably saved two lives and much aggravation for the Search and Rescue folks.) It is also a false spring. The promise of airy warmth is beaten down by days of rolling gray cold. Still, time to get moving. Best to start local, Vermont by bikepack. An easy three-day trip will shake down gear and legs while taking in some great scenery. And it was easy to pre-run the framework via car. On this small journey of exploration, Allison advanced an interest in joining up. Hell, yeah, let’s do it. Together.

Out of apprehension, love or curiosity, Allison signs on. This will be the first chapter in my Journey of No Regrets. And it feels more than right to have Allison alongside. There will be bugs. And spills, perhaps with blood. There are hills to climb and stones to sleep on. Complaining and f-bombs are likely. All good, this is her journey too.


The Things We Notice

An unexpected event and a pause….

March 1, 2017   In April of 2015 a glass slipped through my left hand, fell to the floor and broke. Consciousness paused while I searched for the broom. Once the kitchen was tidied I explored a connection between the broken glass and the awkward dance between my left fingers and the computer keyboard. This was two months after I fell off the roof, broke two ribs, received a concussion, and inflamed my left AC joint. Cause and effect, perhaps? The dropped glass, awkward typing, and other small lefty quirks would go away as my body healed itself.

Two years after dropping a glass there is a general unsteadiness in my gait, moderate dysfunction in left hand motor skills, and severe weakening in my left arm. Regardless of a full diagnosis, this is a progressive, irreversible decline. And now, many past events are re-rendered. Over the years there were frequent trips and stumbles, courtesy of a dragging left foot; many falls off my mountain bike, always to the left side. Is it possible that this condition lurked unobtrusively for years, even decades?

A Walk Beneath the Great Trees

“…it is clear that the runway no longer reaches a far horizon.”

February 8, 2017   I love trees. “Together we will walk beneath the great trees” is tattooed on my left arm. It is from our wedding vows. The marriage is great. The arm is failing. The bad arm is also part of this story. But back to trees. It is February 2017 and I am in Big Basin Redwood Park to see some giants. I am new to the park and discover that some  groves are deep within. They are found on an 11-mile circuit. This is a fair hike for someone who has a dysfunctional left leg.

Bad arm, bad leg, bad hand, bad balance. The neurologists are still reserved in their assessment. Until symptoms emerge more clearly they are calling this mess Motor Neuron Disease. ALS is “possible”. Other neuro-muscular ailments are also considered. It is likely a condition that is untreatable and incurable. One Neurologist kindly suggested that I avoid the web pages. No finite answers but good counsel.

The decline is as steady as my old Timex. I don’t see change through days, weeks, or even months. But when I roll back a year the decline is clear as day. A year ago, I would be down that trail. But today, I have a decision. Do I take the eleven-mile trek? The disquieting sense of constraint is fed by physical fallibility. The liberating freedom to plunge forward, burning the fuel of strength, resolve, and skill is fading into a gray apprehension. Now I am on the slippery slope. Optimism always overshadowed fear. But now, optimism has to be tempered with judgement. Where is the sweet spot?

I take the hike. I feel great and it should have been easy. Instead, the weather created an epic, unforeseen maze of challenges. It was the winter of drought-breaking rain. The trail, hugging steep hillsides,  was washed away in places. Many a naked traverse crossed a 60-degree slope of loose stone and soil. Small plants and tufts of grass provide tenuous handholds. It’s a long way down. The saturated ground caused a number of trees to fall. (A fallen redwood is no small obstacle.) A bridge was askew. Each obstacle was a test. I was mud-covered and afraid. After seven miles I turned back, opting to deal with known problems. Ultimately, it was a challenging fourteen-mile hike. Taking stock, I feel strong but recognize a growing set of limitations. And fear lingered as though atomized behind my eyes.

For the first time, it is clear that the runway no longer reaches a far horizon. A simple walk might be a blessing in a year.  A transition plan is needed. This plan could be a collection of journeys. Taken together, they will enable a great letting go, a sense that I’ve done what can be done. It is the journey to a realm of no regrets.

The context to this journey is deeply personal. It is a new consciousness nurtured by physical reduction.  Mindfulness takes center stage. Guiding values are clarified: independence, compassion, doggedness, optimism, reverence. These values will sustain me. But they also have to grow for the journey beyond this journey.

I have a comfort in ignoring advice, refuting medicine, and testing limits. I am pretty adept at assessing risk, predicting problems, devising workarounds and enduring some hardship. But I do this through my own filters, experiences and values. I anticipate the reservations of others. Ultimately, I form a response, “Why the hell not?”

My last “good year” beckons. I consider my physical loves: mountain-biking, hiking, paddling, and camping. These interests interweave into mountains, rivers, forests, grasslands, lakes. There will be a series of trips. Each will be an exploration, a contemplation, and a physical stretch. Most of all, these journeys will feed the medicine of memories.