“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are built for” – William Shedd
A few years back I rode my bike up the Dempster Highway in the Yukon and Northwest Territories (you can read about it here if you like). That trip through 500 miles of wilderness was a life changing experience and has forever altered how I view the world, especially when the topic of “risk” enters the conversation.
I was extremely apprehensive before undertaking that trip as I’m not a risk taker at heart. Granted it was a relatively short distance, but I tend to calculate my risks very carefully – I look before I leap. Setting out on my own for the first time in grizzly country to cross mountains and tundra with over 250 miles between towns was a daunting undertaking no matter how prepared I thought I was for the challenge. It left me feeling very exposed. I’ve since moved on to other activities that might be deemed riskier, but my benchmark remains that first trip up the Dempster. It holds a special place in my soul and a part of me remains in that magnificent, relatively untouched landscape. As strange as it may sound, the path of my life forever runs up a dead end road in northern Canada. It is also a link I share with others.
A few days ago, I came across another cyclist’s journal about a trip he took through Western Canada culminating with a ride up the Dempster: Pat Rodden’s “Searching North of 45”
In it he writes eloquently on the topics of Comfort and Security in our modern society. As I read through his journal I could see the changes he underwent during his trip and recognized the same metamorphosis in myself. A few of his photos were taken standing at the exact same spots where I had stood to do the same. In a strange twist, he slept in the EXACT same campsite that I did my first night on the Dempster. I was unaware at the time but I had followed in his footsteps. Reading his story was like following that of my own but with a step to the right into some alternate reality. Just as we follow in the path of our ancestors, I was (and remain) a ghost rider to him – shadows and dust – inexplicably linked by a road relatively few people have traveled.
There is a sad postscript to his story, however. In 2009 Pat was working in his home, fell from a ladder and suffered a traumatic brain injury. I refuse to find irony in the cold fact that a man who had persevered through a tougher journey than my own was felled by such a mundane act as falling from a ladder, but I do find that circumstance as haunting as the long open vistas of tundra that I shared with his ghost while pedaling along the Dempster. His long road to recovery continues to this day, and I wish him the best in his new journey.
Before his injury Pat wrote of how he would always cherish the memories of his trip, his joy of the “pure unadulterated living” he had experienced. Knowing how dearly I hold on to my own memories of similar experiences, I find it hard to suppress my sadness to learn that after the injury he has been largely robbed of those memories. I do not seek many material possessions in this world. Sure, I own a bunch of bikes and skis, but I do not aspire to park some shiny new vehicle in a quiet cul de sac so the world can see that I am successful by their standards. However, I do seek a life rich in moments like those Pat and I had seperately shared on the Dempster and losing my memories would be like having a backpack full of (for the lack of a better term) “life” stolen from my backpack while I slept on the bus. Since my ticket had already been punched I would eventually get to wherever I’m headed, but I would be penniless and lost upon arrival.
If a silver lining can be found in Pat’s story, I do find some solace in reading that a persisting confabulation of his (according to his wife), is that every morning he wakes up with the desire to prepare for a long, endurance bike ride. His brain may have suffered a terrible injury, but his spirit lives on.
The longer I live, the more I understand that there is no safe harbor. But attempting to insulate oneself from all risk is not the answer, it is foolish to even try. The most mundane of daily tasks require taking a risk, be it getting out of bed in the morning or climbing a ladder in your home. We are each given our ship to captain – get out and use it.
I think I’ve just made my first New Year’s resolution for 2012. How about you?
“From far across the hospital room one might mistake the signal on the monitor as a flat line. Come closer. Ever so slightly you’ll see the life support signal trending up and down. There is still life there. Resuscitation. For me this trip was just that. Cycling day in and day out amongst the best the world has to offer is a gift I’ll always treasure. From a distance one might easily mistake this simple act as foolhardy. It was not. It was pure unadulterated living” – Pat Rodden