It’s been almost a month since I’ve returned from my three-week trip to Jordan and Israel, and even longer since my last post. I knew there was going to be a gap in entries due to the trip, but I didn’t expect it to take me so long to post something after I made it home from the Middle East. I’ve been hesitant to write about it the adventure, and I haven’t even begun to download the thousand plus photographs from my camera. The trip was amazing and life-affirming; a journey to a place I had dreamt about visiting for much of my life. Jordan and Israel didn’t disappoint, and I should have been riding an emotional high, instead of the depression I’ve been suffering.
There is often a letdown after a long trip, but this was more than that. While I was in Jordan, I received a message that a close friend, Tom who, along with his wife, basically adopted me into their family, had suffered a heart attack and wasn’t expected to recover. I had rented a studio from this couple in Costa Mesa for over fourteen years (and where I would probably still be if I hadn’t married). They are wonderful friends, and we’ve stayed close over the decades.
I received notice that Tom had finally succumbed when we landed at LAX. Tom’s passing was a heavy burden on me. I wanted to be with him and the family, but there wasn’t an easy way to get back home. When I first spoke to his daughter, she didn’t expect Tom to make it through the first weekend. I was happy for the opportunity to speak to Tom on the phone, knowing I probably won’t hear his voice again. He hung on for more days than the family thought he would, which added to my guilt in not jumping on a plane, even though there was no way of knowing if I could have made it back to see him in time.
Just as I was starting to process Tom’s passing, I opened a letter from a loved one in the large stack of mail that had piled up while we were away. I was stunned to read her husband had died. A couple of days later another friend let me know his only child has a life-threatening illness and the prognosis is dire. Later the same week there was news of another unexpected death. Then there was the funeral, phone calls, mailing condolence letters and cards. Hardest of all was the guilt of once again being away when someone close to me died; of not being there to offer support, or to say ‘good-bye.’ There is no cookie cutter method of dealing with grief and loss, and I’m still muddling through things.
I relish the idea of going from Adventure to Adventure, but is it worth spending so much time away from family and friends? I’ve struggled with this question in the past, and again since being home, where, for much of the time, I’ve holed up and felt somewhat adrift.
I don’t pretend to have a great answer to my question; or even a good one. Everything I come up with feels like a rationalization. Long ago I accepted mountaineering was, at its core, a selfish pursuit. Yet, some of my fondest memories, and closest friendships, were forged pursuing summits. Today I listened to a podcast where one of the climbers spoke about the changing phases of climbing. We first focus on objectives and pushing ourselves. Then we use climbing as an excuse to see new and faraway places. Lastly, relationships and self-discovery are the primary drivers. This, of course, is a simplified version of a complicated and varied process, and all these factors are almost always present to some extent, but the primary emphasis of climbing does shift over time.
Thankfully there were things which did get me out of the house. One was a CPR and First-Aid class sponsored by Gear Coop in Costa Mesa. At the session was another Sierra Club leader who was also getting her first-aid credential so she could lead trips, and she had an infectious enthusiasm. And, as it so often happens, we have a couple of common friends.
Fast Forward a week. The North Face athlete, David Allfrey, stopped by Gear Coop for a Beer & Bouldering and Slide Show presentation of his rafting and climbing trip in Canada’s remote Northwest Territories. Earlier in the day I was feeling dispirited and almost didn’t go to see this, but I forced myself out the door. As is almost always the case, I was very glad I made the effort. David’s description of the rafting trip down the South Nahanni River, making the first free ascent of the Tara Tower in the Cirque of the Unclimbables, followed by the first rafting descent of Britnell Creek awoke something in me: a desire, no, a need to get out. One of the great things about the climbing community is how open, friendly, and grounded people are. After his presentation, I was able to talk to David, as well as his delightful wife, Carmen, and discovered they live in the Las Vegas area. It turns out David guides at Red Rock Canyon, a place I had recently visited and one where I like to climb at in the future. Thanks to David and Carmen, I left Gear Coop energized and ready to get back on the trail.
Early the following morning I woke long before dawn and drove out to Devil’s Punchbowl to hike to Devil’s Chair. Unlike the May gloom plaguing much of the LA Basin, Devil’s Punchbowl was sunny and clear. Being early on a weekday, the parking lot was almost empty, as was the trail. Devil’s Punchbowl is an area where two earthquake faults collide, making for some spectacular scenery and magnificent rock formations. It is also a place, I’m embarrassed to say, I had never visited.
The day did not disappoint. A bobcat crossed my path not more than 10 yards ahead of me, but disappeared into the chaparral too quickly for me to get a shot of him. Deer were out grazing, quail scurried about, and hawks soared high overhead. At the aptly named Devil’s Chair, the sound of falling rocks alerted me to the presence of big horn sheep. No one else was at the Devil’s Chair lookout, so I took time to reflect on adventure, and why it is important to me at this point in life.
The stark and rocky landscape reminded me of my trip to Jordan. Memories of my time in the Wadi Rum with Mohammed came flooding back: experiencing a new place and a different culture, setting aside my preconceived ideas, being a humble traveler, the goodness of people, being open to learning other ways, sharing a summit with a new friend, and simple acts of kindness and generosity.
Jordan and Israel changed me. Adventure can do that. I thought of a recent hike with my grandnephew Kevin, of how excited he was, how much I enjoyed hiking with him, showing him a waterfall, of wanting to spend more time outdoors with him. Yes, a lot of adventures are self-indulgent, and writing about them can be a bit narcissistic, but at the root of what drives me is the desire to grow, and to share. And I never feel more alive than when I am outside.
Later in May, I drove up to Adventure-16 in West LA to hear John McKinney (The Trailmaster) talk about his journey hiking the coast of California from Mexico to Oregon back in the 90s, and detailed in his book A Walk Along Land’s End. (Long story, but the original book was titled A Walk Along Land’s End, the current edition of John’s book is Hiking on the Edge: Dreams, Schemes, and 1600 miles on the California Coastal Trail.) I had hoped to hear John speak about his very personal story Hiking the Holy Mountain back in March, but I had a schedule conflict and couldn’t make it.
Following John’s presentation, I told him how much I enjoyed his book Hiking the Holy Mountain and what an inspirational story his trip to Mount Athos in Greece was. We also talked about my pilgrimage to Jordan and Israel, and John encouraged me to write about it on my blog. Up to this point, I couldn’t think about describing my adventures in the Middle East until I could put into words my struggles after coming home, and I wasn’t quite ready to do that. Still, it was quite motivating to have one of my hiking heroes, and an author whose books I’ve enjoyed, telling me he wanted to read about my pilgrimage. John gave me the nudge I needed to attempt to express the disquietude churning around inside my noggin.
The next day I headed up Mount Baden-Powell, my first visit here in nearly a decade. It was ‘thru-hiker’ season on the Pacific Crest Trail, and there were more thru-hikers, young and old, than day hikers. Talking to a few of the backpackers on their way to Canada, I realized they were on a grand adventure, a pilgrimage of sorts for some of them. The PCT would change many of them, as my journeys have molded me.
At the end of the day, and the end of this article, I’m still left struggling with the question of whether adventures are worth the sacrifices we make, and our loved ones endure. It rather obvious that I haven’t come up with any new insights, and my justifications ring hollow, but that does not quell my desire to venture forth and explore. Thankfully, Ruth understands adventure is a part of what makes me the person she loves. Perhaps the best answer I can offer up for now is the ending of Robert Service’s poem A Rolling Stone.
Oh, I love each day as a rover may,
Nor seek to understand.
To enjoy is good enough for me;
The gipsy of God am I;
Then here’s a hail to each flaring dawn!
And here’s a cheer to the night that’s gone!
And may I go a-roaming on
Until the day I die!
Then every star shall sing to me
Its song of liberty;
And every morn shall bring to me
Its mandate to be free.
In every throbbing vein of me
I’ll feel the vast Earth-call;
O body, heart and brain of me
Praise Him who made it all!
Notes: To get more information about hiking Devil’s Chair or Mount Baden-Powell, click on the links and it will bring you to the Modern Hiker webpage for that trip.
You can find out more about David Allfrey and John McKinney and John’s books by clicking on the links in the article.