On the Trail: A Walk into the Unknown

adventureblog.nationalgeographic.com

adventureblog.nationalgeographic.com

National Geographic together with The North Face are on an expedition to find the highest peak in southeast Asia. A group of six seasoned adventurers are traveling primarily on foot with some boat and motorcycle assistance deep into the jungle on a trip that will require two weeks of unsupported hiking and travel in each direction. The group is so off the grid they are carrying their own stash of anti venom to treat a possible, or even likely, poisonous snake bite by any one of a kaleidoscope of colorful and lethal vipers, cobras and kraits. Mark Jenkins, a seasoned writer of adventure non-fiction is documenting the group’s trip with regular posts at adventureblog.nationalgeographic.com

This expedition has all the hallmarks of real exploration and is reminiscent of expeditions of  the 19th and early 20th centuries. The objective is vague, the route is potentially deadly and what the outcome will be is far from clear.

adventureblog.nationalgeographic.com

adventureblog.nationalgeographic.com

Below is a link to the first post, including a very closeup picture of Trimeresurus albolabris, the lethal white lipped pit viper, which expedition member Hilaree O’Neill nearly stepped on.

Myanmar Climb: Welcome to the Jungle – Dispatch #1 – Beyond the Edge.

Off the Trail: Marking time.

This weekend Jewish congregations around the globe will once again resume the weekly out-loud public readings of the Torah (Five Books of Moses, aka Old Testament)  from the beginning, Genesis. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” the Torah opens. The statement is simple but jarring. Every year at this time we are confronted with our humblest of beginnings. Not our personal beginnings but the earliest explosive cataclysmic beginnings of a universe so vast as to be incomprehensible.

Geologists estimate the age of our planet Earth as 4.6 billion years old. Yet multicellular life did not make its appearance for almost 4 billion years. John McPhee, pulitzer prize winning non-fiction author of Annals of a Former World, a 660 page collection of five books published under one title for the first time in 1998, writes succinctly: From an interstellar gas cloud, evidently, the solar system began to form about 4.56 billion years ago. The first eleven verses of Genesis cover more than 4 billion of those years – the entire Precambrian and the first one hundred and fifty million years of Phanerozoic time (p. 630).

jpegIn his five separate books written over about 20 years, McPhee accompanies leading geologists along as they explore and explain the geology of the United States. McPhee’s plum line is Interstate 80, which starts near the basaltic columns lining the Hudson River just north of New Jersey’s George Washington bridge and following it as it crosses the mid-portion of the country )what he refers to as “the craton” and continuing from East to West ending in or about the San Andreas fault which runs right through San Francisco. McPhee queried one geologist and asked him how he reconciled his professional work that dealt in hundreds of millions and billions of years with his daily life which operates on minutes and hours, days and weeks. The rock scientist explained that his was indeed a schizophrenic existence.

We focus on the now, because, after all, that is where we live our lives. The present. Our sense of history spans decades, and in some cases, centuries and once in a while, a millenium or two. “Classic rock” music goes back only fifty or so year, making a mockery of the word “classic”. But, rock music is not that old. The rocks that are the actual foundations of our cities, the bedrocks under the dirt holding our homes up, are, however, beyond ancient. I don’t think we have a word to capture the span of ‘billions of years ago’. “Ancient” is lacking. “Old” is not even a consideration.

The woods are an antidote to the “now-ness” of mundane living. In the forest, or mountains, or wadi, whether hiking or running, you travel among the extraordinarily ancient rocks, some sculpted by water running intermittently over thousands of year, between boulders carried and left behind by advancing than retreating glaciers, and summit mountain tops rounded by tens of thousands of years of erosion, shaping the land bit by bit. Out there is where we are confronted with our planet’s unfathomable past. And at least once a year, Judaism reminds us all that our lives area a fleeting nanosecond in God’s intergalactic time scale. But soon enough, within minutes of the opening of Genesis,  we will begin reading about the exploits of Man and Woman, as they begin to build their lives, in the slow motion that sometimes seems so real. In fact, we make our appearance just 16 sentences later, and mankind remains the focus from then on.

Our challenge is to synthesize these two schizophrenic realities, and make some sense of the now.

On the trail: the fast keep getting faster

Much has been written recently about the widening income disparity in the United States. The rich continue to get richer while the poor stay poor and the income of the middle class slowly erodes.

This phenomenon is not limited to the economy alone. The fast get faster, too, while the slow, well, let’s just say they don’t get too much faster.

AP Photo/Andrew A. Nelles, from http://espn.go.com/sports/endurance/index

AP Photo/Andrew A. Nelles, from http://espn.go.com/sports/endurance/index

This past week in the 2014 Berlin Marathon, Kenyan Dennis Kimetto set a new world record for the 26.2 mile road race, completing the run in less than two hours and three minutes, beating the previous record by over 20 seconds, which is a significant improvement. Even the second place winner, Emmanuel Muthai, also broke the previous world record. Both runners are still a long way from crashing through the psychological and likely physical barrier of running a sub-two-hour marathon, though.

Kimetto, Muthai and the two top female finishers all had one thing in common. They wore the same type of shoes, the adidas Boost series “made up of thousands of energy capsules that store and return energy in every step”. I would be interested in running in these shoes to experience the sensation addidas promises.

adidas Adizero Boost

adidas Adizero Boost

I was initially excited about Mr. Kimetto’s finish, foolishly thinking somehow that it augured well for me personally, raising the bar of the possible, dangling a new aspiration. I am similarly excited to read about lightening fast speed records set hiking the entire Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails. Maybe I should buy the same shoes those record setters wore. Or, eat the same pre race meal.

But I have no illusion that Kimetto’s shoes will make me run appreciably faster, just as I have no illusion that driving the “luxury sedan” I see advertised on TV or wearing the very expensive watch mountaineer Ed Viesturs wore on Mt. Everest will appreciably enhance my life.

Most likely, or, shall I say, most definitely, mimicry of the elite is just mimicry, and will not result in significant change. So each year the Kenyans get faster while the middle of the pack runners continue to own the middle. And, the five-plus hour marathon finishers, well, they are happy just to finish.

One reason we humans focus on time and speed is because the discrete numbers are easy to measure and easy to understand.  But we should appreciate that, for the non-elite among us, watching those elite athletes push themselves to run and hike faster and faster, breaking record after record, is really, just entertainment. What happened in Berlin last week says lots about Dennis Kimetto and Emmanuel Muthai as runners, their training regimens and their ability to endure pain, and yes, perhaps something about their lung and heart capacities too. Their accomplishments do reveal something about the potential of the most fit members of our species. But, the new world marathon record, most regrettably, says practically nothing about me as an individual.

But hey, that’s entertainment.

Howard E. Friedman

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