On or about April 5, Roz Savage will engage the next of her single-handed rowing challenges when she sets off in a fancied-up tin can of a rowboat to travel 5,000 nautical miles across the Indian Ocean. Her original intent was to cross between Freemantle, Australia and Mumbai, India, but concerns about piracy have led her to select a different and undisclosed destination. Those who like to categorize call her an “eco-adventurer”, and surely she is both: a former investment firm manager who decided to take on a few physical and mental challenges, and a passionate advocate for the oceans of the world.
She’s set a number of records since beginning her voyages in 2008 – three years of rowing from San Francisco to Hawaii, to Tarawa and on to Madang, Papua, New Guinea. Now she faces more than wind and waves as her next trip will cross the Indian Ocean, home to increasingly aggressive and nasty pirates operating off the eastern coast of Africa. As Roz says, these pirates are far from the romantic, Johnny Depp sort. Despite adjusting her course in order to minimize the possibility of contact and establishing new communication routines, she confesses to some anxiety. Still, even without piracy concerns this new journey would raise again the question asked of her innumerable times in the past as she covered her watery miles: “Why do such a thing at all?”
Roz has answered that question with honesty and eloquence in a whole collection of books and blogs. Today, I’m less interested in her response than in the question itself. In a variety of ways, the same question is asked of every adventurer, every off-the-beaten-path traveler, every perfectly ordinary 9-to-5 sort who suddenly pushes back the chair and heads off to trek the Annapurna Circuit or move to Provence and paint en plein air. “Why in the world would you do such a thing?” we ask.
Answers vary as much as the adventurers themselves. Some exploits seem born of pure, astonished curiosity about the world around us. Others reflect commitment to a larger cause. Sometimes the decision to row, climb or trek pushes the discussion toward the realm of values, that tangle of “shoulds” and “oughts” that can slow even the most intrepid explorer.
Whatever the answer, our questions indicate a longing to understand the attraction and anxiety of adventures – even those which are not freely chosen but are thrust upon us by life. The machete-enabled trek through the jungle, the indefinite voyage on stormy seas, the desire to reach the other side of the mountain are more than realities for a chosen few. They are metaphors for life.
Today, while Oklahoma fire victims begin the climb up their own slopes of devastation, legislators face a mountain of debt, Arab-world protesters face a mountain of resistance and Japan stands before a seemingly unscalable trio of disasters.
We pay attention to these mountains because they are so large, so insistently a part of the landscape. But the truth is that everyone is called to climb at one time or another. Illness, death, job loss, self-doubt, fear and financial difficulty come to us all. When they do, the value of the real climbers, rowers and explorers of the world is made clear. They inspire, direct and encourage us as we begin our own journeys, just as Charlotte did for me.
Gap-toothed and restless
you were our childhood courage.
More timid than nestlings
we followed in your steady steps up the apple tree,
across the trestle and over the fence
to sweet-faced kittens
dripping with milk and purrs.
Tucked closer than your shadow
we pumped bicycles and swings faster
faster still and higher until speed
or sudden slackened chains
thrilled our hearts with fear.
We were the walkers, the strollers,
the dawdlers of the world.
You were our mountaineer.
Feet flying, mind leaping like a stag across
you entreated and called,
enticed with visions of columbine and cloud,
creeks and coppered carapace of long-forgotten nights.
Your stories of the summit -
the rush of wind, the singing stones,
the silence breathing tribute to the stars -
were they true?
We never cared.
We only knew your steady steps,
your compass true,
your reaching hand to guide us on to snow-fed lakes
and the blooming of our lives.
It never changed.
At each of life’s new summits our slowness made you smile
but never slowed your pace.
Inching up in silly, senseless caution
we’d meet you racing down,
your out-flung arms dispensing daisies,
clutching air or reaching with exuberant embrace
to gods who knew you as their own.
Chosen by today’s new mountain
you are our courage still.
Unafraid, you test your footing and shrug away the cautions,
anticipating vistas rarely seen
by walkers of the world.
Below the fear line, peering through love’s
underbrush of longing and denial,
we watch your eager scramble toward the summit,
envious and awed.
And when you stand alone,
when at last you see the future laid beneath your feet -
will we hear your laughter tumbling down
and dodge your awkward, skidding slide
back into our lives?
Or will you be compelled to stand
and look and leave
for realms beyond our knowing?
You must climb, but we must wait.
We hold our breath, contain our fear
and pray for long-loved courage to return,
for if we turn to find you gone
who will lead us home?
Charlotte’s Mountain by Linda Leinen
Excerpted from Prayers for Coping with Cancer: Marking the Journey,
edited by Diana Losciale and published by Liguori
Used with permission