The eve of another new year on the Jewish calendar is hours away, a time that beckons one to look forward in hope and prayer for health, happiness and prosperity and to look back at what one can improve upon. Judaism often goes big and the new year blessings are one example. Just this morning however, I was reminded that it’s okay and maybe desirable when wishing for the future, to go small.
I was leaving a store in an industrial area and was taken aback to see a man on a corner near the main street sitting in a wheel chair with a hand written sign. He must have driven there. There are no homes nearby and no bus service that I’ve seen. The man has no legs, neither a right nor a left. He was smiling and his face looked happy and healthy. This was not a homeless man but probably a veteran I considered who was very healthy with two legs until he was not.
His sign said “Be happy, you’re alive. Jesus loves you”. I could quibble with the end of his message but I can not argue with his premise. I froze, locked eyes with him, smiled and he smiled back and waved. I wanted to rush out and speak to him but traffic was building behind me. He was a man with a message important any day but resonant on the eve of Rosh HaShana. As I drove away I wondered about the days after he lost his legs and whether he had a positive outlook from the beginning of his tragedy when the doctors delivered the terrible news or whether he grew into his happiness with years of therapy, battling anger and depression.
He reminded me of a patient I was asked to see in the hospital, a large man, paralyzed from the neck down, breathing through a permanent tracheostomy. That man, in middle age, had also been able-bodied until he was in a car accident and became a quadriplegic. He lay there and breathed and spoke a bit. He wanted to give me encouragement. He recited the final sentence in the final chapter in the book of Psalms, “Let all that breathe praise the Lord, Hallelujah” and he shared the Talmudic explication: Praise God and be grateful for every breath you take.
It takes a man who lost all his abilities save the ability to breathe to proselytize about the gift of breath. It takes a man who lost his legs to proselytize about the gift of life. It takes someone who has healed in some fashion after suffering a searing personal tragedy or an unthinkable loss to look around with a sense of awe at what remains.
“Be happy. You’re alive”.
There exist rare moments in our busy lives when that slimmest glimmer of light cracks through the thick wall that separates reality and hope, where the mundane and holy bump against each other in the darkness and where the person we are and the person we can be come so close to each other they can almost kiss one another. But never do. These are the moments when for the briefest moment we appreciate just being alive.
One of my sons was out for a walk this week in a forested area and met a seasoned birder. She was spending the morning peering into the trees. It is the fall migration of warblers, the small colorful songbirds that fly thousands of miles back and forth. The birder had binoculars. He didn’t. It is Corona times so not the time to ask to borrow a stranger’s binoculars. He strained to see the warblers with his naked eyes and decided to return soon with his own binoculars. He will need them to see these birds that are quite small, what the woman called “our tiny travelers”. When you begin to celebrate just being alive, seeing a “tiny traveler” is a moment of pure joy.
While in these Corona times we need to hope and pray for health for ourselves and for peoples around the globe, we hopefully can also learn to appreciate and find deep joy from the uncelebrated moments of life, a painless footstep, an easy breath or a chance encounter with a tiny traveler.
“Born to Run” is one of the most successful and influential books ever written about running. More than a decade since publication I can make that declaration for three reasons.
First, some of the people featured in the non fiction account of the arcane world of ultra long distance running still promote their association with the book as an important part of their credentials. Second, according to author Christopher McDougall’s web site, best actor Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey is scheduled to star in a film version of the book.
And my third reason is the most convincing evidence of this book’s outsized influence. During the current COVID-19 pandemic quarantine, my wife and I have desperately searched the house for new books to read. I found and re-read “Born to Run” and loved it all over again. I urged my wife who is an adamant non runner and lover of fiction books to read this non-fiction book about running. She read it in one day. The very next day, she laced up her vintage white Keds sneakers and went for a run!
“Born to Run” fueled greater interest in running and a new curiosity about running barefooted or in minimalist shoes. Minimalist running shoes were marketed nationwide in the years following. The book’s popularity also probably helped at least a couple of careers and shined light and Ivy League caliber research on an indigenous people for whom running is a preferred mode of transportation.
McDougall introduced his readers to a running niche unknown to the general public and not well known even to most recreational runners in May 2009 when “Born to Run” was published. While most people were familiar with the New York and Boston marathons, fewer people knew that runners were meeting almost every weekend somewhere around the country to run 50 and 100 miles races some lasting more than 24 hours. During these ultra marathon events runners made brief stops to shovel food in to their mouths, change out of blood stained socks and have their weight checked to make sure they were not dehydrated and risking kidney failure. Runners were lining up in California, Colorado and Tennessee to name a few, not to mention at Badwater 135, the self proclaimed “world’s toughest foot race” starting in Death Valley and crossing through places like Furnace Creek. The asphalt along the route was hot enough to melt the rubber off your sneakers.
But that was not even the most interesting part of “Born to Run”. The primer on the world of ultra marathons was merely a necessary backdrop for the true crux of the book. McDougall takes us on a wild ride to a place most of us have never heard of to meet a motley collection of colorful eccentrics. To tell his story he introduces us to a middle-aged lanky bald runner who Hollywood could never have made up: Caballo Blanco, the White Horse, also known as Micah True.
And that was just chapter one.
“Born to Run” brilliantly weaves together the true story of how the enigmatic Caballo Blanco, an American who re-located to be able to live and run in the Copper Canyons of Mexico, created one of the great running races you never heard of. The book deftly tells the story that brought together the Tarahumara Indians, an indigenous people who use running for transportation, recreation and sport and a disparate group of American runners, including a professional with product endorsements, some relative unknown college students, personal trainers, the author and someone who actually defies categorization, Barefoot Ted.
Along the way, McDougall introduces readers to an assortment of physical therapists, athletic trainers, renowned running coaches, a Harvard evolutionary biologist and a New Zealand professor all of whom have devoted themselves to the study and art of running.
The story follows McDougall’s quest to finally resolve his own struggles with recurrent running injuries and his attempt to train and run a 50 mile race through the Copper Canyons. But the book is not an ego trip for McDougall, as many books written by runners turn out to be. In fact, McDougall’s running plays a minor role since he shines the light on those who have mastered the art. He brings us as close as he can to Micah True. He introduces us to the world of the Tarahumara which leaves you kind of flabbergasted that this community lives about 270 miles south of El Paso, TX and is not a lost tribe in the middle of the Amazon.
Much of what makes “Born to Run” inspirational is the author’s uncovering of how running is innate to humans and the role it has played in our development as a species. And for that he cites Daniel Lieberman a Harvard professor who studies human anatomy with a focus on anatomical features unique to humans that allow us to run distances longer than any other species. He tells the story of David Carrier, now a professor of Biology who with his brother tried to prove the ‘Running Man’ theory by attempting to run down an antelope to exhaustion over the course of several days. We are also introduced to a South African mathematician who became so obsessed with the idea of humans as persistence hunters that he left college to live with the Bushmen of the Kalahari to learn exactly how they used running as their primary hunting tool.
As McDougall discovers that the Tarahumara, the Bushmen and even Barefoot Ted can run just fine in flat sandals or, in Ted’s case, bare feet he questions the need for our modern over engineered running shoes and the multi national industry behind them. McDougall proceeds to take down modern running shoes and in the process the industry leader Nike. He draws support for the idea from physical therapist Irene S. Davis who’s treatment for injured runners evolved to recommend that they strengthen their feet, not their shoes. Cushioned over built shoes have existed only since the 1970s when Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman brought the world cushioned Nike running shoes. Nike provided their shoes to competitive runners than marketed them to a growing number of recreational runners as the jogging boom began to ramp up.
The story concludes with an epic ultra marathon pitting modern running technique and technology against an ancient one as Caballo Blanco managed with difficulty to bring together some of the best ultra marathoners in the United States to race against the best of the Tarahumara runners over 50 miles in the Copper Canyon.
“Born to Run” has not only inspired people to run and still ranks among the best selling running books but the book likely had an influence on the running world. Barefoot running had a moment after the publication of the book with introduction of stripped down shoes which tried to mimic the unstructured sandals worn by the Tarahumara. I saw a young man trail running in New Jersey with a home made version of the ‘hurrache’ sandals the indigenous runners would make themselves and I saw a woman hiking steep terrain in the Catskills barefooted. Even today running races of various lengths and terrain will often have at least a couple of barefoot runners.
Corporate money capitalized on the barefoot running phenomenon too. Vibram, an Italian leading manufacturer of rubber soles for shoes and boots, launched the Vibram Five Fingers, a ‘shoe’ that looks like a glove but for the foot with shaped toes. The rubber bottom provides some protection for the sole of the foot. Vibram was sued for allegedly making some claims that running in Vibram Five Finger shoes “reduces running injuries” based on how the shoes changed a person’s gait. Vibram settled the lawsuit putting aside up to $3.75 million but denied fault and liability. The shoes are still sold. And as for Nike, “Born to Run” did not hurt the world’s leading shoe brand. Nike has gone from selling shoes that give you more support to their now famous very engineered Vaporfly that give you even more cushioning plus a carbon fiber plate to propel runners faster.
While mass enthusiasm for barefoot running has waned, the notion that our feet are stronger than we realize lives on. Physical therapist Irene S. Davis who was at the University of Delaware at the time of the book and now heads Harvard’s Spaulding National Running Center encourages patients to strengthen the muscles in their feet through a series of exercises and not to rely on over built shoes. Daniel E. Lieberman, at the time of publication already an established professor at Harvard and author of the idea that humans are anatomically adapted for long distance running, began studying the running biomechanics of the Tarahumara in 2012 adding to his research on natural barefoot runners in Kenya and attempt to fully understand just what our feet are capable of.
Some of the runners featured in the book went on to further success. Jenn Shelton who was in the early days of running ultras at the time “Born to Run” was written went on to compete around the world and win various marathons. She now is a running coach. Scott Jurek was already one of the most winning ultra marathoners at the time he was featured in “Born to Run”. He went on to set a fastest known time running the 2, 190 mile length of the Appalachian Trail and for running 167.5 miles in 24 hours. Jurek’s bio on his web site proudly proclaims in large font Born to Run.
Other runners featured in the book openly promote their association with this juggernaut of a running book more than 10 years after publication. Eric Orton, the author’s running coach during the build up to the first ever Copper Canyon ultra and an author himself advertises on his coaching web site that he was “a featured character in the worldwide best selling book Born to Run”. Barefoot Ted mentions his “Born to Run” bonafides in the first line of his web site and he mentions his appearance in the book multiple times. He also sells his own line of minimalist running sandals and leads running trips and races in the Copper Canyon. For that matter, Christopher McDougall’s web site also mentions “Born to Run” in the first line above the titles of his more recent books. But he is the author after all.
And the Tarahumara continue to live and run in Mexico’s Copper Canyons, with their health and safety challenged by environmental threats and the risk of violence from drug cartels. The first ultra marathon organized with great effort by Micah True featured in “Born to Run” continues as an annual event, drawing runners from around the world. And as for the Caballo Blanco, several years after publication of the book he collapsed while running in his beloved mountains where his body was recovered. His spirit runs on.
I cued up ‘Classical Essentials’ on Spotify to help while away an hour exercising indoors during another day of the Corona Virus Pandemic of 2020 Great Lockdown. The complete 15 minute Overture of 1812 resonated as it led me musically through a dark period of history over two centuries old.
The piece by Tchaikovsky starts slowly and humbly enough, almost dirge like, evoking the tortuous pain of forgotten soldiers dead and dying on a battlefield of long ago. What was the Franco-Russian War of 1812 (this overture is not about an American-British war which also occurred in 1812)? I struggled to remember even the most salient facts about a war so popularized in our cannon of classical music, yet so forgotten among the many other calamities that waft over our history like smoke from smoldering embers.
Two minutes into the Overture, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky picks up the meter of the piece and adds in brass and louder wood winds to take us back in time to the battlefield before all went to hell. You can almost feel the soldiers running for position, taking aim and firing, but within less than two minutes the dirge tone returns albeit briefly before it gives way to one of the popular themes you will instantly recognize. The gaiety of the light motif is almost jarring; it mocks the death and destruction of war itself.
The triumphal theme plays over and over again. If we hear it enough perhaps we will believe it.
Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write the Overture of 1812 in 1880, years after the Battle of Borodino, Napolean’s campaign against the Russians to capture Moscow. While the French troops succeeded in reaching the treasured Russian city, they ultimately could not hold it and retreated to devastating consequences. The battle resulted in over 70,000 casualties by many estimates and included direct wounds of war as well as slow death from infection, starvation and cold exposure.
Tchaikovsky captures the urgency and adrenaline of war and at six minutes cymbals clang over the recurring theme now played by the horns. At seven minutes you might begin to think all is well at what sounds like a Sunday picnic, mellifluous strings playing long whole notes in wavy measures and than in a slow reduction, only the tone of a single reed instrument is left until it fades away.
The pace quickens at 12 minutes and begins a steady march toward a stunning conclusion. At 13 minutes a series of arpeggios begins and than repeats again and again for almost 40 seconds until the cymbals and bells break through in ever increasingly ebullient tones. In the final seconds of the Overture, a full on explosion of sound breaks out with triumphant horns and percussion leading to the final trumpet blasts that end the piece.
Ironically, the war of Borodino was a disaster for both Napoleon’s soldiers and the Russians. Tens of thousands of young men lost their lives, were wounded or maimed and the arcs of so many lives were thrown asunder, plans delayed or never resurrected, dreams of men shattered.
Yet time does march on. That is one irrefutable fact of our fragile lives. And time will march straight through the Great Pandemic of 2020 which unfortunately will leave some lives broken and some lives lost. But like the Battle of Borodino retold through the Overture of 1812, our resolve as individuals, families, communities, towns, cities and countries will be recorded in the annals of history yet to be written. Hopefully our epic battle will not only be successful but remembered with jubilation and ultimately come to illuminate the best of what humanity can achieve when we come together to care about each other.
Neither “sunset” nor “twilight” adequately describes the crepuscular time of day, that time when the sun has dropped below the horizon but still sends forth just enough of a glow to make your way home. In this dimming light one can just discern the path, but can not see what lives in the shadows.
The only true light to be seen in this liminal twilight zone is the flashing abdomen of the firefly, Photuris lucicrescens. I spotted my first firefly this summer just a few days ago. In the ebbing light the number of people outside was inversely proportional to the number of flashing, flying insectivorous abdomens. Almost no people. Lots of fireflies. They flash near eye level, staying close to the path or hovering over the grass where they can be spotted, staying out of the dense woods or thickets.
I immersed myself in the twilight several times this week. The first was in a swamp rehabilitated with hiking paths surrounded by phragmites and weeping willows, while dozens and dozens of fireflies lit up the trail like silent fireworks, no two flashes in the same location. The second time was in an urban park which hugs a tributary of the Hackensack River, with fields of yellow trefoils, butterfly weed, lavender clovers, daisies and purple asters, the petal colors all a shade darker in the low quality light. And the third time, tonight, during a run around the neighborhood, crossing through another park, the looming oaks blocking the day’s last rays of light. The bright green of the leaves faded to dark as the twilight zone drew closer to night absolute, shifting from lime green to emerald to hunter green, and finally to a deep brown-green, barely green at all.
We humans have traditionally not embraced this transitional period of dusk. When kids still played outside, the specter of the coming dark could send kids racing home as the sun set. We are not totally comfortable with this dim light of twilight, unlike the fireflies and other crepuscular creatures such as skunks and deer. This time is their time, the low-quality light the time when they shine.
We on the other hand struggle to make sense of what is neither day nor night, our eyes struggle to adjust, our pupils open at full bore yet not open enough. And religions that base their calendar on the sun and the moon struggle to categorize this ambiguous time as well. If the holy day is slated to begin at nightfall, an indeterminate time is of no help. If a fast from food and drink is decreed to end at nightfall, an approximate time is not helpful. When does one end and the other begin?
In the Jewish religion much is discussed about twilight and dawn in painstaking attempts to delineate one day from the next, night from day and day from night. When can you begin praying? By what hour must you finish? Precisely when must all work cease for the Sabbath?
But all is not knowable. There is no precise moment when the illuminated day time sky morphs into night, just as there is no exact moment when a child becomes an adult. And twilight will never resolve into nighttime with clarity. We must do the best we can to make sense of dusk and remember that at least some species flourish in the haze of the dimming light. The fireflies are one species that have adapted to use this period to search for a mate and live to illuminate another fading twilight with a final flash of light.
Who is Otho Rogers and why should we care? Rogers, a 73 year old cowboy and preacher in Melrose, New Mexico has plenty of advice for living to whomever may listen. Author Andrew Forsthoefel met Rogers during his walk across America.
“And time goes by like, like cross ties on a railroad track just chh, chh, chh, chh. These days are gone. So while you got it, use it. Your mind. Your strength. Your agility. Use it.”
But you and I would never ever cross paths with Otho if it were not for first time author Andrew Forsthoefel who met and recorded dozens and dozens of conversations like this one with Mr. Rogers during a 4,000 mile cross country ‘Walking to Listen‘ journey in 2011. Forsthoefel began his odyssey about 6 months after graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont with a degree in environmental studies and just after getting fired as a deck hand on a lobster boat.
“A week after I got fired I hatched a desperate plan. I started wondering what it would be like to walk out my back door and just keep going.”
Though unemployed and basically directionless, Forsthoefel’s plan to walk across America does not come across as a desperate plan by a desperate man. Rather, it seems like the inspired idea of a new college graduate who lives life seriously and thoughtfully with enough empathy to imbue his trek with a noble theme boldly written and hanging from a sign on his backpack: Walking to Listen.
Andrew Forsthoefel started honing his listening skills as a college senior interviewing people about what it means to “come of age”. His walk was just an extension-an 11 month extension of that deeply seated need to listen and learn from whomever he could.
Forsthoefel’s empathy for others, his ongoing struggle to find meaning in his own life together with his fluid, light and insightful prose are the three ingredients which make this debut work of non fiction so much more than just another cross country adventurer’s travelogue.
Indeed, Forsthoefel does not hover on the details of his backpacking gear (except for a jogging stroller he eventually used to transport his pack-he named the stroller Bob). He carried the essentials, mostly, a tent, clothes, food plus a mandolin. He camped wherever he could, often in people’s backyards with their permission and he bought food often in gas station mini marts. Frequently however, Forsthoefel found himself the guest of people he met on the way, people who opened their homes to put up and feed a complete stranger.
And it is the writing about the people he meets and how that experience shakes his consciousness where Forsthoefel’s prose shines the brightest. Many folks he met briefly and recorded them on his Olympus LS-10 audio recorder, like college seniors at Sweet Briar College in Virginia or a grandmother working at a gas station who also belongs to a nudist colony or an artist in Cerillos Hills, New Mexico recorded in her kitchen. But the author often spent several days with some of the people he met, people who took him in, fed him, showed him around their communities and shared their stories-of joy, of sadness, of dreams realized or broken and always, the simple day to day stories that begin to give some definition to what it means to be human.
Walking to Listen is poignantly written. In addition to short one page vignettes that separate chapters, Forsthoefel treats the reader to full course servings of some of his more memorable and life changing experiences. He spends pages sharing his experience as a white man walking through Montgomery, Alabama where he met and listened to the descendants of slaves. He recounts over several pages his walk into and out of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, his memorable walk across Texas including a brief meeting with a former president and perhaps the longest section devoted to his time trekking through the Navajo nation reservations in Arizona.
Forsthoefel refers frequently, perhaps too often, to his two muses, Walt Whitman and Rainer Maria Rilke, quoting lines from Leaves of Grass and excerpting long paragraphs from Letters to a Young Poet, two books he carried on his walk. But even his frequent citations only underscore the young author’s fervent searching for a universal truth he hoped to find on his walk, an inner North Star he could use to navigate his life.
So who is Otho Rogers and why should we care? Not the most memorable character Forsthoefel brings to light, Rogers’ sagacious advice none the less is just one reminder that everyone has something to offer if we only take the time to stop and listen.
The speed record for the fastest known time on the 2,190 mile Appalachian Trail has been broken by ultra marathoner Karl Meltzer, who chopped an impressive 10 hours off the previous record for a supported thru-hike of the trail. He went through 19 different pairs of shoes during the 45 days, 22 hours and 38 minutes on the trail, according to crew chief Eric Belz, power hiking in more than twice as many pairs of shoes as the previous record holder. Meltzer, who’s nickname is Speedgoat, wore only the Hoka One Speedgoat shoes and Drymax Speedgoat socks, two products named for himself. Crew chief Belz said on Facebook Live that the shoes were still in good condition even when the runner moved on to a new pair. Meltzer changed shoes as frequently as some professional basketball players, Belz and Meltzer joked. Actually, even at that rate the new record holder wore his shoes for about 122 miles, more than the distance run in a basketball game but less than the 300 or so miles most runners get out of their shoes.
Karl Meltzer resting, elevating and icing his legs during his AT record hike. Credit: atrun.redbull.com
Meltzer praised his shoes for having “grip like fly paper” but he heaped the real praise on his father for making sure the ultra runner took care of his feet every night. “My feet were money all the way” Meltzer said in a Facebook Live chat hosted after reaching the Appalachian Trail terminus in Springer, Georgia. He began his journey at the northern terminus on Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Meltzer explained that he checked his feet every night and made sure his feet and lower legs were clean, even when he couldn’t shower for almost a month. “I had no blisters” Meltzer said, “Keeping your lower extremity good is really really important” he stressed during the on-line chat.
But neither shoes nor socks explain Meltzer’s string of ultra marathon victories or his newest record on the AT. The man is simply fast, strong and determined- this was his third attempt at breaking this record. Speedgoat is Meltzer’s nick name for good reason and now it is the trademarked business name for his line of product endorsements. He is one of the most if not the most successful ultra marathon runner ever. Sponsored by several companies most notably Red Bull he is also closely identified with the ultra cushioned shoes made by the up and coming shoe company Hoka One One and he has the eponymous Speedgoat model named for himself.
Until now the record for a supported thru hike of the AT was held by ultra marathoner and author Scott Jurek who hiked for 46 days. Jurek in turn bested the previous record by 3 hours set in 2011 by avid hiker, back packer, author and guide Jennifer Pharr Davis who shattered the previous record by 26 hours. Pharr Davis who hiked without major retail sponsorship wore Salomon Synapse Natural Motion boots, according to an interview that appeared in Backpacker magazine after her record. She still holds the woman’s supported record on the AT.
I have been a fan of the lowly lichens for some time but have found studying them in any detail quite daunting. Now it turns out that even the expert lichenologists have been stumped, according to a new paper just published in Science. The paper, which I read about in the blog Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Chicago, explains the new research in his blog post, including his pictures from Wikipedia, linked below.
Briefly, it turns out that some or possibly many lichens are not just a symbiotic relationship between fungus and an algal species, cyanobacteria, but also include a third partner- yeast. This finding will explain why researchers have not been able to grow lichen in the lab, as they were leaving out a key ingredient.
Dr. Coyne does a good job of summarizing the findings in his blog post below. But, even if you do not read further, hopefully your interest and respect for these quiet members of the great outdoors will only grow.
One of the classic stories of biology, taught to virtually every student, is the fact that what we call “lichens” are actually a combination of two very distantly related species: a species of alga and a species of fungus. (Sometimes the “alga” is really a species of cyanobacteria, formerly called “blue green algae” but not really […]
We are all quants now. Like the Wall Street analysts, we quantify everything that has a number associated with it. We can track our steps, our total distance covered, our sleep, our heart rate. We can track our pace or our speed. We can track our rise and fall in elevation, our calories burned, our daily, weekly, monthly and yearly accumulated mileage, or, switch to kilometers to really up the numbers. We can get the information on a gps watch, a black bracelet, a fancy watch, a smart phone or tablet or delay the gratification and wait to get back home to check out the stats on a desktop. Now with wearable technology, even our shoes and socks can log our data.
The quantitative analysts on Wall Street can do what they do because business is described in numbers-the quarterly profit and loss numbers, the numbers of widgets manufactured, sold, not sold and sold and returned and of course the stock price and dividend. But now quantification is becoming firmly embedded even in the trail under our feet not to mention in our daily lives. The proliferation of tracking devices reduces a post hike recap from a simple ‘wow’ to a “wow, did you know we just logged 1,854 feet of elevation change” and a simple sense of exhausted exhilaration following a hard run is replaced by poring over the stats, the list of mile by mile times and a careful evaluation of the pace. Was it better or worse than the day before, the week before or the month before. And these tracking devices now add the daily temperature and wind speed to their reports as well and even leave space to add a few comments like, “felt pretty lousy” or “sore left knee”.
I know about this because I have succumbed to this practice. Immediately after a run I immediately check my tracking app. And I actually find the information quite useful, interesting and even actionable, especially if I have a goal in mind.
But what are we not measuring and not communicating? My running app has no happiness metric or pure joy tracker. It has no early morning dew on my shoes alarm, or sunlight shimmering on the water detector. It does not have an amazement meter that goes off when watching acrobatic swallows diving through the air or an “oh wow” tracker when I spot a cormorant surfacing in the river with a fish in its beak or spot a yellow warbler amongst the leaves. And my running app does not tabulate how many times I started out in a so-so mood and ended up pretty happy, or, vice versa.
I submit that what we can not measure gets lost and subsumed in the massive data which we can measure. The intangibles like joy, freedom, inspiration, accomplishment, overcoming adversity and other critical elements that constitute the human soul are lost as the fleeting moments that they are and perhaps, that they are supposed to be.
We truly have no language to quantify the most valuable of our experiences and this is certainly true when out in nature, pushing our physical limits or simply enjoying the time out doors. Art and music strive to capture out deepest emotions at the most ephemeral moments of life but they can not quantify our experiences like a gps watch can track our miles, pace and elevation changes. Our time in the woods, by a lake or in a meadow, will remain what it is – a transcendent moment. And our memory of that experience with nature will leave us as it should. Speechless.
As a long time follower of mountain climbing in general and expeditions to Mt. Everest in specific I was intrigued by the idea of being able to follow a current expedition on the mountain underway right now as I write this post via the magic of social media. And not just any old fashioned social medial like Facebook, Instagram or tumblr, but rather through the latest social medial phenom, Snapchat!
Three experienced climbers with legit bona fides, Adrian Ballinger, Cory Richards (climber and expedition photographer) and Pasang Rinji Sherpa, are documenting their climb of the world’s tallest and most famous high peak. #Everestnofilter is a response to years of guided expeditions primarily for the wealthy and adventurous where the climbs are super supported by dozens of Sherpas and the climbers are assisted in their own climbing with assistance up and down the mountain and with supplemental oxygen. This expedition in contrast will have some Sherpa support but the climbers are not part of a larger guided expedition. And in distinction to most paying clients who get to the top of the 14 mountains over 8,000 meters including Everest, these climbers plan to join the ranks of the word’s most accomplished climbers and will not carry extra oxygen in tanks but will breathe on their own. This decision makes the climb into the super low oxygenated air much more difficult and dangerous.
Besides the pared down nature of their approach to the mountain and the frequent posts to social media, #everestnofilter is also heralding other nouveau ethics on the mountain, fueling themselves at least in part by eating Soylent a complete nutrient vegan soybean and algae based food available as a drink or powder. The expedition, sponsored in part by Soylent, Strava, Eddie Bauer and dZi is also aiming to raise money and awareness for the Nepali people and Sherpa communities.
Nari Maya Rai, age 56, tends to millet in front of her home damaged home in Kumlu Village, Solukhumbu District,Sagarmatha Zone,Nepalon Oct. 31, 2015. The May 12 aftershock of the April 25th earthquake destroyed thirteen houses in Kumlu leaving many residents in temporary shelters. Photo by Adam Ferguson (https://dZi.org/stories)
Everest has seen much tragedy in recent years with the loss of life during last year’s 2015 earthquake that leveled so much of Nepal and previous years where climbers and Sherpas have died in avalanches, storms and from climbing accidents.
Now using the latest satellite technology, Ballinger and Richards have already started sending live movie updates from base camp which they are streaming on their Snapchat feed, #everestnofilter. Their name, ‘no filter’ is apt. So much of what we see of any mountain climbing expedition is the glory of the summit fist pump and flag waving, except when people die, at which point we see see the distraught faces of grieving climbers who survived. But in this real time documentary, we truly see the experience with no filter.
In fact, yesterday’s short film took us into the climbers’ tents to see first hand the cramped quarters, super insulated cold weather gear clothes, boots and crampons lying about and a 2 liter bottle filled with urine ready to be emptied after serving its duty the night before. (“pee bottles” are de rigueur on these expeditions, saving the climbers from having to exit their tents into the frigid cold during the night).
To follow this expedition, which I recommend if you have even a passing interest in what the world of high altitude mountain climbing really looks like up close and personal, download Snapchat onto your phone and than search for #everestnofilter or take a picture of the expedition’s snapcode to follow this climb.
If activities had an official poem like states and countries have national birds and flags and songs, than Robert Frost’s 1915 poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ could be the patron poem of the outdoorsman. Deep in the woods, the narrator contemplates the two paths before him, “and sorry I could not travel both” he says. But choose he must. “And I-I took the one less traveled, and that has made all the difference” concludes this poem with its two most famous lines. And to the tens of thousands of people who have read this poem’s 20 lines, the credo of taking the road less traveled has become an anthem of sorts, a clarion call for rugged individualism, a recipe to how we can be certain our decisions make all the difference’.
In The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the poem everyone loves and almost everyone gets wrong (Penguin Press 2015), author David Orr, poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review, a teacher at Cornell University and a graduate of Yale Law School, challenges the common interpretations of this poem. He argues in the 172 page book that Frost was not actually exhorting the reader to take the harder or hillier or more difficult path. Rather Frost was exploring what it means for people to have free will to choose.
Mr. Orr calls on his own considerable talents of literary analysis to plum the nuanced depths of this poem but he also cites a number of Frost experts and other scholars to help explain the man and his writing as it bears on “The Road Not Taken”. Orr cites the Frost biographer Lawrence Thompson to explain the roots of this work. According to the biographer, Frost and his friend English poet Edward Thomas would often take walks together in the woods. Thomas however was indecisive and, regardless of which path they took would invariably regret that path not taken. Frost penned this poem and sent it to Thomas who according to Thomas’ biographer Matthew Hollis was “troubled and confused by the poem and might even have read it as a goad”. Whether Frost’s poem had anything to do with it or not is beyond knowing but shortly thereafter Thomas decided to enlist in the British army and was killed two years later. Frost meanwhile returned to the United States. “So the confusion embedded in “The Road Not Taken”is mirrored in the love and misunderstanding between its American author and his English friend”, Orr writes, “an ironic parallel for a thoroughly American poem.”
Robert Frost struggled as a writer and a poet from high school until well in his thirties after he was married and had a family. Indeed, “At thirty five he was nobody even to the people to whom he might have been a somebody”. He was publishing short stories in a chicken farmer’s publication called The Eastern Poultryman. But he had commercial success in 1912 with the publication of “A Boy’s Will”. “The Road Not Taken” followed a few years later and his success continued. He read his poem, ‘The Gift Outright’ at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Frost died in 1963. And according to the author David Orr, “The Road Not Taken” has appeared in more than 2000 news stories and as a subtitle in more than 400 books not written by Frost. The poem was even featured in a Super Bowl commercial.
So, what is ‘The Road Not Taken’ really about?
In an almost talmudic analysis Orr writes about the title of the poem, or, that is the title that is popularly but incorrectly typed into search engines, ‘The Road Less Traveled’. The true title however, focuses on the road not taken, and is decidedly not about what the narrator did, Orr states emphatically but about what he didn’t do. Every phrase and sentence of the poem is up for close reading by Orr as he tries to decipher this oft cited yet not clearly understood most popular of American poems.
For example, the choice of the word “roads” instead of paths or trails. Although Frost’s traveler is alone in a forest, “which ever way he goes, he follows a course built by other people” as opposed to following some game trail or haphazard path that cuts it way through the forest. Frost’s wayfarer defines his choices, “one path grassier than the other”, with no mention of his destination. Is he in a rush? Is he interested in scenery or is he looking for a challenge. Does his choice really make a difference? And, does he even have a choice?
Orr titles the next section of the book, ‘The Choice’, wherein he probes the whole notion of free choice and what it means to choose:
‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both’ – within two lines, it feels as if we’ve arrived at the center of the dilemma intrinsic to all dilemmas: the necessity of choice itself. If we were to dream about what it means to choose, that dream would look something like “The Road Not Taken”.
Nonetheless, this poem does not address critical elements of choice, Orr explains with several examples. Frost does not address the affect of this choice on others. The decision does not have anything to do with the culture of the place, a forest. It does not reflect on any moral consequences or even present the traveler with so many options, just two. The narrator can chooses in peace without the distraction of the details of daily life yet there seems to be no chance the walker will fail to choose and simply turn around and go back. “So if all these potential dimensions of choice are missing from the poem, what are we left with? A kind of idealized or “pure” choice,” Mr. Orr proposes.
And so the author concludes his thoughtful discussion of “The Road Not Taken” by focusing neither on the poet nor the poem but on the nature of the chooser.
“One of the less remarked features of “The Road Not Taken” is that it offers a portrait not just of decisions but of deciders-or,to pick a more helpful word, of selves.” Orr brings several examples of how this notion of choice has been embraced by a community of self help authors and valedictory orators, urging us to choose the difficult path and challenge ourselves as a means to discover our true selves. Orr suggests that we can not precisely define ourselves wholly by our choices and their consequences:
“But most of all, we see the centrality of the junction itself. “The Road Not Taken” never mentions what the speaker finds on the path he eventually takes; instead, the poem concludes by echoing its own opening lines, “Two roads diverged in a wood,” as if to return us to the forest in which we started. What matters most, the poem suggests is the dilemma of the crossroads.”
We all make choices in our lives and no one can really ever know what would have happened had we veered onto the road not taken. Do we do ourselves any justice by trying to peer back into a past that never became reality? Frost’s traveler does indeed look back at his moment of decision with a sigh. But in a remarkable poetic irony his thoughts turn not to the road not taken but to the ultimate choice he did indeed select, the road less traveled.
Robert Frost has created a most challenging duality where one can be both “sorry I could not travel both” but assured that his choice “has made all the difference.” Something to thing about at life’s next crossroads.