Ithaka

            “Tonight,” the professor was saying, “I’m honored to speak to all of you who are on the verge of graduation. I don’t have much to say that is my own. Rather, I have the words of another that I’d like to share with you.”

            It was my senior banquet; I was sitting at a table with some of my dearest friends, eating a fine meal and preparing to listen to a speaker before heading to a formal dance. The only downside to the whole evening (apart, of course, from the prospect of dancing publically) was that I was wearing a suit and had realized, moments before when I’d slipped out to use the restroom, that my fly had been open for the previous three hours. Thoroughly embarrassed and a little insulted that no one had even said anything about my new briefs (they matched my tie, for goodness sakes!), I returned to the table right as the evening’s speaker took the stage. He was a theology professor at the college, greatly admired and respected within the community, and I was excited to hear what he had to say.

            “It’s a poem,” he continued, “and I think it speaks for itself.” Then, without another word, he began:

 

As you set out for Ithaka,

hope the voyage is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery…”

           

            A year ago I graduated from college. In front of my family, friends and fellow classmates, I paraded across the stage, shook a hand, took a small case I believed held my diploma (only to find out later it was actually a slip of paper saying something along the lines of “We are holding your real diploma hostage, ransom amount is your outstanding bill.”) and then concentrated four years of higher education on not tripping as I finished walking across the platform. Later, I swapped hugs with classmates, took pictures with family and then joined some of my best friends at a barbeque. 

            It was one of the best days of my life, but it was also a little terrifying. Truth be told, I had good reason to be scared.

            I was twenty-one years old and had just turned down the only career I’d been offered. I owned an old car, some books, an envelope of cash and some far off notions of adventure. I was moving across the country, green enough behind the ears to earn me a free beer on St. Patrick’s Day, had acquired only temporary employment but seemingly permanent loan payments and (just to complete this picture) 2012 was just around the corner.

            Yet here I am a year later, alive and well…against my best efforts.

 

“…Cyclops and angry Poseidon- don’t be afraid of them:

you’ll never find things like that on your way,

as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body…”

 

            Granted, it hasn’t been the smoothest of roads. I’ve had high’s (like standing on top of a 14,000 foot mountain) and lows (like capsizing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean). I’ve had a job I loved (“Hello, my name’s Bryn and I’ll be your kayak guide today…”) but even that was trying at times (“NO! For the last time! It’s Bryn! B-R-Y-freakin’-N!”).  I’ve been broke (“woops, that whole monthly payment on college loans thing starts now, you say?”), and I’ve found myself with, well, not excessive amounts of money, but enough to take my girlfriend out on dates (and “what the heck, let’s splurge and not order off the value menu!!”). I’ve been lost on the top of mountains, stranded and injured in the middle of the woods and exhausted by the side of the road. But I’ve also reached summits, finished races and, for the most part, emerged in one piece, better for the experience.

           

“…hope the voyage is a long one.

May there be many a summer morning when,

With what pleasure, what joy,

You come into harbors seen for the first time…”

                       

            And all this brings me to now. One year after graduation, after I walked across the stage and, with a sense of mystery, excitement and fear stepped out onto a road named “future”. Now, as I look back, I have to smile when I think of where that road has taken me.  Now, as I sit at my computer, typing away and banging my head against the desk, I arrive at the oh-so-familiar point of being at a loss of words.

 

“…Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you are destined for…”

 

            Then I think of how, just a couple days ago, I saw a movie about a young man who was diagnosed with cancer and given a few weeks to live. Distraught with the news of his impending doom, he decided to drop everything and drive across the country to the Pacific Ocean. I can’t really remember what happened at the end, though I’m sure it was touching, and I vaguely recall something about a surf board and a whale, but I remember having one thought as I watched: how sad.

            Because I don’t want to wait until my life is almost over to realize it’s an adventure. I don’t want to put off the things that are important for the ones that aren’t. I don’t want to sacrifice idealism for realism and find that somehow, my soul was slipped into the deal. I’m young, I get that, but if wisdom constitutes resignation to “the way things have to be”, then I find wisdom to be somewhat overrated or, perhaps, misunderstood.

           

“… do not hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

So you are old by the time you reach the island,

Wealthy with all you have gained on the way,

Not expecting Ithaka to make you rich…”

 

            Because when I really think about it, I realize that I’m not looking for security; I’m not searching for a future. The desire of my heart is not in a bank account, corporate building or even a spouse and family.

            What I’m looking for is God.

           It can be easy to conclude from the adventures I’ve had this year that the mountains, the oceans and everything in between are the true desires of my heart. But to say these are what I’m pursuing would be akin to declaring a love sonnet as the final aim for the poet. To some, adventure may be the ends, but for me, it’s a sonnet I’m crafting for a God I love because, frankly, I know no other way. Rest assured, there are other methods, of that I have no doubt. But, for the time being, adventure is the pen with which I craft my poem to God, and I will do so until I find another. With every mountain I climb, every ocean in which I paddle, every slope I descend and every race I run, I will seek to write that poem to Him. For these adventures are not my desires; they’re just the song I sing on my journey to Ithaka.

 

“…Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her you would not have set out…

 

            I often receive the question, from friends and strangers alike, of “so you graduated from college a year ago? What are you up to now?” I’ve given up trying to explain. I’m a kayak guide; I’m bike shop mechanic. I’m a ski bum and I’m a mountaineer. I’m an administrative assistant and I’m an awful cook. I’m a boyfriend making long-distance calls and a limping thrill-seeker grateful for every second I’m alive.  I’m a sinner and I am, through grace, made a saint.

            I don’t know what exactly I am; I just know what I’m looking for.  

           

            “…if you find her poor, Ithaka

won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so

Full of experience,

You will have understood by then

What these Ithakas mean.”

 

            With that, the professor finished the poem bowed his head slightly before thanking us and walking off the stage. I lowered my eyes from the podium and looked down at a candle in the middle of the table.

            “Wow,” a friend said next to me. “I really liked that,”

            I nodded but didn’t look up from the light of the candle dancing it’s own poetry across the table.

 

          So when people ask me that question “what are you doing now?” I don’t try to explain. Instead, I smile, doing my best to make the next line sound as authentic and heartfelt as possible. As I say it, I can only hope to sum up everything I’ve learned in one, six-word, sentence:

 

            “What I’m doing,” I tell them, “is finding Ithaka.”

 

           

 

Thus ends my first year of life in the real world.

For those of you who have been with me at any point this past year, I thank you so much. Your support and readership are my motivation for writing. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate you putting up with my antics on the paper (well, computer screen, I guess…you get the point).  

 I am currently in San Antonio (“deep in the heart of Texas…”) conducting training as part of my military obligation. Brace yourselves and even warrant a smile, because I’m excited to share some of that life with you (think Catch-22 meets M*A*S*H meets…a kayak guide wondering how the @#%! he wound up in Texas).  I will be in down south for a few short months, before returning to a summer of kayaking, hiking, adventuring and general shenanigans in, you guessed it, Maine. Also, not to get your hopes up or anything, but there may even be some lobster fishing thrown in the mix. In short: the journey is far from over.

 

And, just so you know, I’d love for you to tag along.

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Believe

April 12, 1934 

6:38 PM

Mount Washington Summit Observatory

 

“It has been quite a day,” Sal Pagliuca, team member in the Mount Washington Observatory, wrote in the daily logbook. “I still cannot take in what we have been witness too. This afternoon, we registered a wind speed that, indeed, was not of this world. I can still remember the sound outside the building, one that I could not describe were I to try for a thousand years, and watching the dial on the instruments, climb…it went beyond what anyone had ever heard of or witnessed.”

Pagliuca stopped to take a sip from his water bottle, his lips pursed in thought. Outside, the storm had died down but he could still hear a relentless wind plummeting the side of the observatory.

“ ‘Will they believe it?’ was our first thought. I felt then the full responsibility of that startling measurement. Was my timing correct? Was the method OK? Was the calibration curve right? Was the stopwatch accurate?”

Pagiluca paused again before writing his last line.

“I just don’t know if people will believe what we’ve seen.”

He put down his pen and took another sip of water. His lips pursed again, this time, not in thought.

“Hey Wendell!” he called, “Does your water taste funny?”

 

 

December 21, 2011

11:35 AM

Lion’s Head Trail, Mount Washington

 

Emerging from beneath my protected location, the wind bowled into me once again. I had spent less than two minutes sheltered between the rocks, and yet I felt remarkably refreshed and energized. I stepped into a snow bank up past my knees and strained my eyes into the haze ahead of me for some sign of the next cairn.

Nothing.

I took a few steps forward, looking for any sign of a direction all while being careful not to lose track of my last point. I scanned the area in front of me. Finally I saw something, although at first I wondered if I imagined it: a large shadowy figure, in the shape of cairn. It had to be it.

I moved towards it at full speed. Well, full speed for climbing through snow and ice without crampons that is; it was rather like the football drills you see on TV in which athletes have to do knee-ups, through two rows of tires laid side by side. Except it was much less eloquent. I’d take a step, fall through a drift, use my ice axe to pull myself back up, take another step, hit an ice patch, slide back…and you get the picture…”full speed”. But slowly, like a picture coming into focus, I came upon what was, indeed, the next cairn.

I wasn’t lost.

I let out a sigh of relief, as another gust of wind ripped past me. I stopped behind the cairn for one second to catch my breath, and then took off again.

The route turned steep and I pushed ahead at my fastest speed yet. I was relieved to have found my way, but all I wanted to do was get to the summit and head down. With something akin to reckless ambition, I climbed from cairn to cairn, not even allowing myself to acknowledge when I slipped or fell through the snow. The summit had to be close; I felt as though it’d been hours since I’d seen the sign indicating it was .9 miles away.

I reached another cairn and took a breath. The wind seemed to lull for the briefest of moments as I approached a small plateau. I came towards it and suddenly found myself in a very flat, slick area covered with snow. It looked almost like…like…

“It’s the auto road!” I yelled triumphantly, although what actually came out was “iiiiiizzzzz dddddaaaaassssssss aaaawwwttoooeeeee rrrrrroooowwwddddd!!!” My trail didn’t intersect the auto road anywhere except right at the top, where it ran into the summit observatory. I had made it; I was at the summit.

Or so I thought.

But I still couldn’t see anything. All I had in view was the road headed uphill and disappearing into the fog two paces in front of me. I was standing at the entrance to the Lion’s Head trail, my route back home, and I didn’t know if I’d be to find it again were I to take off into the fog.

I took a few steps forward and found the edge of the road. I decided my best bet would be to follow the edge and hope (emphasis on hope) I would be able to follow my tracks back to the trailhead when I returned in a few minutes. I wouldn’t be long; I planned on simply touching the summit and turning around. Well, that and taking a picture of the amazing view. Oh, wait.

I followed the summit road a few yards as it took a bend upward and to the left. It widened into what I assumed was the parking lot, and I could see a large building up ahead, which, following suit, I assumed was the summit center.

I’d been to the top of Mount Washington once before. It was on a summer’s day and the temperatures at the peak were in the fifties, not nearly as challenging as my winter endeavor. Nonetheless, reaching the top of Mount Washington still required a good hike and I remember my sense of accomplishment dwindling rapidly upon arriving and finding civilization at the top. There was a summit center, a gift shop, even a café as well as a hoard of tourists who had driven, yes driven, up the same mountain I was risking life and limb to climb (according to Darwin, my gene pool doesn’t stand a chance).  On that day, I’d arrived at the top with two friends and we had spent a good fifteen minutes sifting through toddlers and senior citizens with walkers before we found the actual summit: a small peak of rocks with a marker on top of it.

Now, there were no tourists, no signs of life anywhere. The center and auto road were closed for the season, and since that time the only people that had been up here were masochistic thrill-seekers that probably wrote boring blogs about the occurrence afterwards. I wasn’t even sure if the observatory was manned during the winter, and if it had been the scientists weren’t exactly waiting by the window to invite passing climbers in for a cup of tea.

I stumbled up to the building; all I had left to do was tap the summit sign and then I was done. Problem was, I couldn’t remember where the actual summit was in relation to the center. Visibility was as poor as ever; I couldn’t see but five feet from the building. With the mountain’s reputation for bad weather and frequent winter climbing, I figured there might be some indicator of where the actual summit was amidst all the clutter. I tried to navigate away from the center and look for some sort of sign, but with such poor visibility and no trail leading back, I worried I’d get turned around and lose my way. It was like an adult version of “Pin the Tail on the Donkey”, although I think more accurate depiction would be “Where the $@$!% is the Summit!?!”

I tried this for another few minutes and yet I couldn’t find anything. I stumbled under the overhang of the center and collapsed on a bench, safe from the wind.  Despite the shelter, I started shivering soon after I sat down. I realized then that I wouldn’t reach the true summit of Mount Washington; it just wasn’t worth it. The visibility only seemed to be getting worse and the risk of losing my sense of direction simply outweighed any further sense of accomplishment I’d feel by reaching it. I reminded myself that five months from now, Betty Crocker could access that stupid point with her walker. Then I wondered if Betty Crocker was even a real person. But I waved this off. Truth be told, I was too exhausted to care.

I took out a gel pack and gulped it down. I stared out into the fog which stared right back, awaiting my return. I thought about my day: just a few hours ago I’d arrived at the parking lot and begun preparing for my climb. I felt as though a lot had changed since then. Indeed something had.

I tend to be a rather independent and arrogant individual, not with an I’m-invincible-good-looking-intelligent-and-what-the-heck-all-around-amazing-and-I-know-it way, but more like an I-can-climb-a-dangerous-mountain-alone-and-be-fine manner. As I sat at the summit, I had to admit this was not the case. I could throw around all the statistics in the world about Mount Washington not being that dangerous, about how it had killed less people in the last year than rabid poodles and so on and so forth. But the reality was that I had taken on a potentially deadly task and I’d done it alone. Shivering beneath the summit center, a line from a song by the artist Bon Iver ran through my head:

“…and all at once, I knew I was not magnificent”

And that was just it: I am not. I am human. I am weak. I am flawed. I am not perfect and I am not, above everything else, invincible. Everything I am rides on the grace of a God who orchestrates the world in which I live and play and it’s only because of Him that I can do the things I do. It is only through Him that I can attain any level of magnificence, beauty or eternality. Maybe this is all obvious stuff, but it took me a semi-perilous trip up a mountain to be reminded of it. Some people are naturally humble; others have to be near-stranded on the side of a mountain to realize their fragile state.

A wave of shivers hit me, and a familiar question ran through my head: how do I tell this story? How do I tell a story that’s not magnificent, but instead is dismal and foggy and ends not in a grand push for the summit but shivering surrender thirty feet from it?

According to the most recent 20-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (which, I’ll wager, has been purchased by two people…ever), there are 171,467 words currently in use and 47,156 obsolete words. Every time I sit down to write, I wrestle with piles of those words, molding them like clay, attempting to form them into what I am trying to convey. More often than not, I end up banging my head against the desk, but eventually I come up with something that’s worth a moment of one’s time (in which they were otherwise bored out of their mind).

Although I didn’t know it then, the words to describe my experience on Mount Washington would be the hardest to form of any yet. There was no sunrise, no glorious climax or stunning twist. I did not find myself laughing at the end of it, and theoretically, I didn’t even reach my goal. In the end, there was only the fog, the cold and me. And God.

But that’s when I was reminded, shivering and miserable in the state that I was, that my God is not just the God of magnificence and beauty, but He’s the God of loneliness and despair, even when it’s self-invoked. He is the God that carries me through the fog of my own stupid choices, through the low points and over the mountains I forcefully insist I can climb alone. He is the God of my desperation as well as my success, and He is the God who cares about both. He is the God of a 231 MPH wind at the mountain’s summit, and the God of each small snowflake at the mountain’s base.

He is God, and I am not.

I shivered again as I stood up, resolved to start moving. I still had to get down the mountain alive, a task I wasn’t going to underestimate. But I felt a renewed sense of energy. Oddly enough it seemed to stem from a renewed sense of humility. Funny how that works.

A gust of wind pushed against the side of the building as I tightened my pack and picked up my ice axe. With a deep breath, I stepped back out into a world that was exactly as I had left it: windy, blinding and cold. To make a long story short: the weather didn’t improve for the rest of my descent or the five-hour drive that followed. But I made it safely; for that, I was thankful. Furthermore, though I may not have seen much of a view that day, I did, through the fog and haze, see a small dose of God. Now the only question was if I could lead anyone else to believe it.