This is a time for reflection, reinforcement, and renewal. It’s the end of one chapter and beginning of another, and most of us leading even a semi-conscious life are thinking about the successes and failures of the past year and looking forward to a fresh start in the new one. For me, this season has been particularly introspective, and I find myself remembering an exercise I conducted 15 or so years ago, where you write down what you would do if you knew you had a year to live, then six months, then a month.
I wrote down all manner of adventures I wanted to pack in before I packed out. Sky diving. Visit Antarctica. Feel the wind sweeping across Patagonia. There were nods to time with family, especially in the “one month” version, but mostly it was a life list of self-gratifying outdoor pursuits. Ski deep powder, ride mysty singletrack.
A decade and a half later, that exercise would produce far different results. I’ve ticked off many of my goals, and funny enough, the list of what I’d like to do before I die has grown longer, but what I actually would do has changed fundamentally. Yes, I’d want one more top to bottom blowerfest of sweet and deep, but all I’d really want is to be with my family and friends, doing what they love and, if possible, taking them to the places and pursuits I love with the hopes of sharing my passion and hunger for all things outdoors.
Fifteen years down the road, I realize that this isn’t just an idle intellectual gymnastics session.
2010 has not been the best of years for yours truly. My employer, National Geographic Adventure, went out of business a little over a year ago. A nagging knee injury severely diminished my ability to run and ride. A house remodel has dragged on for an eternity, a challenge when both of us work from home, we’ve slept on the floor for much of the time, and been without heat for months.
Worst of all by far, however, was that someone very close to me was diagnosed last spring with an extremely rare and aggressive form of cancer. If you’ve been through this, you know how draining, bewildering, and emotional it is. The roller coaster of hope and despair, the frustration of impotence, the inability to wish it, pray it, or take it away.
Throughout all of this, I have spent much of the year thinking about Aron Ralston, a man who was trapped in his own struggle over life and death, due to my work on the production of 127 Hours, the movie about Aron’s experience in Blue John Canyon, Utah, and I have asked or considered the question “If your arm was pinned by a boulder and your only hope of survival was to cut it off, could you do it?” many times. It’s an essential, existential question, but I realize, too, that thinking about it isn’t just an idle intellectual gymnastics session, either. Even if not immediately visible, we all have points in our lives where we decide to suffer or to give up, and being clear headed about it makes the path more manageable even if not particularly palatable.
Chemotherapy…it is, as you likely know, a scorched earth attack on cancer, and it leaves you sick and exhausted, your beautiful hair gone and your spirit pummeled. I watched as she cut away parts of herself with the hopes of survival, and only now, as I look back at year’s end, do I see the parallels with Aron trapped in a canyon and only one way out. I say the answer to the question almost universally is “yes” – or maybe “YES!” – yes, I would cut my arm off to live. Yes, you would cut your arm off to live. The spirit to survive, to continue on, is the most powerful force we have. There is nothing more precious than life, and threats to it bring out unimagined strengths. A person will endure almost anything. I know this because I’ve seen it.
The question, of course, is what you do with the time you’ve been given. That’s what the year to live exercise is all about and that’s what’s so potentially motivating about the turning of a calendar page. And so as I look forward, I also look back for perspective. 2010 was a tough, tough year, but even within the challenges and uncertainty and sadness, there was joy and laughter and adventure. My kids, who are beach rats, got to swim in mountain lakes, scramble on the flanks of Mt. Rainier, and play in summer snow. We surfed. We slept outside, made smores, and counted shooting stars.
Last month, my son and I went with friends aboard their boat and spent a few days and nights scuba diving, kayaking, and fishing. On the return, we passed through a huge pod of dolphins, hundreds of them surfing in our wake and leaping from the ocean with what looked to us like curiosity and happiness. I wanted to get in the water with them, but if we stopped the boat the dolphins disappeared, diving into the depths or passing us by out of sight. So I had an idea: I scrambled into my wetsuit, put on mask and snorkel, jumped into the Pacific, and had the boat pull me with its tow rope. Sure enough, those beautiful swimmers came back. They porpoised in the wake just a few yards away, and a half dozen swam just a few feet below me, rolling from side to side to look up and check me out. It was so cool.
It was cool, but it wasn’t what I remember best, nor was it what was most important about the experience. Rather, it was the unselfconsciously overjoyed shouts of my 13-year-old son as he watched them surround us and the warmth of his shoulder as we pressed against each other at the bow for a better look. It was seeing the light in his eyes and the awe on his face and then later hearing him gush to tell the story to his mother and sister.
It is our nature to think we’ll live forever – our “endless numbered days” as Iron & Wine puts it. That indomitable hope is one of our great strengths, and I don’t spend my time in maudlin despair that I won’t actually live forever, nor am I trying to be a buzz kill for you. But an eye to the end is a strong motivator for the present, and that’s not such a bad thing. For most of my life, my priorities have revolved around fresh air, motion, and chasing snowflakes, singletrack, waves, and finding lines up rock. It’s no exaggeration to say that adventure saved me, and I have faith that the next year will be filled with unexpected delights in the outdoors. But as I think about how I’ll be spending my time, as I think about the will to survive and the things we give up to move forward, as I think about what they’ll say after I’m gone and what’s on my list, I’m driven by the knowledge that it isn’t what you pass through in life that matters, it’s what you pass on.
Peace, best wishes, and happy new year,