My friend Aaron is a pretty normal guy, by most standards: High school math teacher, homeowner, happily married, good hygiene, pays his bills, et cetera. We see each other several times a year, and almost every time we get together we talk about one of his recent vacations with his wife, Krista. Without fail, this happens at least once in the conversation:
1. Aaron tells the story about some part of the trip that includes one or more of the following: altitude sickness or other illness, monsoon rain, equipment failure, freezing cold, high winds, darkness, constipation, the opposite of constipation, saddle sores, mountain storms, and flesh wounds.
2. I listen, while making a face that is half-smiling, half-cringing, wanting to hear more heinous details, but not wanting to hear more. Sometimes I interject things like, Oh yeah, that’s the worst place for a saddle sore, or Oh, I had that happen with a blue bag one time, too.
3. We shake our heads and laugh.
Things just happen. These are the potential side effects of ecstasy.
Aaron doesn’t get lost. He doesn’t go into things unprepared. But sometimes, when you get halfway around the world, or you’re in the wilderness, or on a bike tour, things just happen. These are, as a friend says, the potential side effects of ecstasy. Among all the collateral damage of the vacation, there was a sunset, or a summit, or an opulent meal after hours of near-starvation, or all of those.
I saw a bumper sticker a couple weeks ago that said “My best vacation is your worst nightmare.” I was sure I could have a good conversation with the owner of that car.
Pretend you are Bob. Your co-worker asks you how your vacation was. Pick answer #1 or answer #2:
1. Oh, it was great, Larry. I spent Monday through Friday trying to sleep on a thin pad next to two other people in six-foot-wide tent in the snow. We wore three-pound boots with crampons on them, and by the third day everyone smelled like a dead deer. We walked uphill on hard snow, uneven rocks and ice every day and carried 40-pound backpacks. On the fourth day, the sun came out for a few hours, so we woke up at 1 a.m. and walked uphill at high altitude, and at 11 a.m. we turned around and started walking downhill. Oh, the best part is we pooped in blue plastic bags every day and carried the bags of poop in our packs the entire time.
2. Oh, it was great, Larry. I sat on the beach and drank mai tais for five days. Got a massage, slept til noon every day. Oh, one day I went snorkeling for a couple hours. It was so relaxing.
Ever notice no one ever uses the word “vacation” when they describe outdoor-centric travel? We substitute “trip.” Taking a trip to Yosemite. A trip to Alaska. A trip to Baja. “Vacation” is more like spa, sightsee, relax, recharge, find the perfect balance between sitting and lying down in a chaise lounge somewhere, doze off in the sand — not endo, poop in a bag, get saddle sores, puke from exertion, get gobies from hand-jamming, explore new frontiers in body odor. Isn’t it?
I did a fundraising climb on Mt. Shasta a couple years ago with my old high school pal Robb and he told me that he explained to his dad what we were doing — getting up at midnight, et cetera — and his dad, a sensible man, said: That is the dumbest. Goddamn thing. I have ever heard.
I laughed, because Robb’s dad is right. It’s absurd what we do for fun sometimes. You could probably say something about the fact that most of us spend 50 weeks a year getting soft behind a desk, and we need visceral experiences to recharge, not more inactivity.
Or you could say people are different — opposites, many times — and in fact, there’s a good chance my best vacation is your worst nightmare. Hell, my favorite pizza could be your worst nightmare, and my best mixtape as well. Some of your friends get you, and some don’t get you.
Aaron and I disagree on a lot of things, but his definition of fun, and “vacation” is similar to mine, which is maybe why we remain friends after seven years. The first day I met him — actually, the first couple hours — I have this memory of getting my face stung with blowing snow on Flattop Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park during one of many 40 mph gusts, and Aaron laughing and yelling back to me, “It lets you know you’re alive!” Indeed, my friend.
Photo by Forest Woodward Photography.