Because It Is Still There
by Thomas Day
George Mallory, the British mountaineer, supposedly told a reporter that he was compelled to climb Mount Everest “because it is there.” Later, he simply said his was the logical response to a reporter’s stupid question (or a stupid reporter’s question). For most of my life, when asked why I have taken on (or want to do) some of the nuttier adventures of my life, I’ve tried to avoid that simple “because it is there” response. For good reason. It seems like an exceptionally lame justification for risking life, limb, property, and security. And, honestly, I didn’t get it. Alabama and New York are “there,” but the existence of those places does not inspire me to experience them. Likewise, I have no particular desire to visit prisons, mental institutions, an IRS office, or Haiti.
Early in the summer of 2007, I took a 10,000 mile motorcycle “trip of a lifetime” through northwestern Canada and a little of Alaska. I’ve wanted to see Alaska since I was a grade school kid who escaped to the cold, harsh, exciting worlds of Jack London and Mark Twain. Alaska seemed as far from western Kansas as any place on earth and that was a good enough reason to want to go there. One of the few country songs that has stuck with me since childhood is Johnny Horton’s “Way Up North.” I’m pretty sure that I’ve watched every Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and Public Television show on Alaska and the far North American northwest. If I’ve missed one, it wasn’t because of disinterest.
Alaska and the Canadian northwest turned out to be everything I imagined it would be and more. A little too much more, in fact. About 20-40 miles south of Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories, Canada, I lost a wrestling match with my heavily loaded V-Strom, a deep-gravel-coated Dempster Highway, and a strong crosswind. In the end, I was bruised, slightly broken, and so was my motorcycle. A few hours earlier, back at the Eagles Pass fuel stop, I’d heard that the road north of Fort McPherson was mostly paved. If that’s true, I was less than a hour from something more identifiable as a “highway” when I crashed. Of course, a character in a Canadian Highway Patrol uniform told me that the road from Eagles Pass to Fort McPherson was in better condition than the 250 miles of the Dempster I’d just traveled. He couldn’t have been more misinformed (or misinforming) if he were from an alternative universe.
After picking myself and my bike back up and assessing the damage to the two of us, I decided to turn back while the turning was still good. Knowing my old, busted up body as well as I do, I suspected I would be a physical wreak after the shock and adrenaline wore off. It’s not like this is the first time I’ve mangled ribs, maimed a shoulder, or busted a finger. It might have been the first time I did all of those things at once, though. With my first northern target almost in sight, I reversed directions, heading for the relative safety of asphalt, approximately 350 miles south of the crash point. I chose the devil I knew vs. the one I had yet to meet. In turning back, I gave myself a target destination: a hot bathtub in Dawson City. Likewise, that provided me with a goal I had failed to reach and a reason to do it again; “because it is there.”
While I was on the road to and from Alaska, my 90-year-old father was wringing his hands and asking anyone who would listen, “How did I manage to raise such a dumb kid?” He’s always suspected that I was dropped on my head in the hospital, which would explain my motorcycle and bicycle racing, backpacking and canoeing the wilderness, and wildly erratic employment history. So far, this chronicle of irrational behavior has peaked with me crashing a motorcycle on an isolated Canadian highway and going on to ride another 6,500 miles before returning to the safety of home. The next year, I rode 10,000 miles in the opposite direction. The year after that I explored the back roads of North Dakota, going places that aren’t even on Garmin’s maps. I think my father is convinced that I have some sort of death wish; or I am simply stupid. A few other family members agree with that assessment, as do several of my work associates and a few friends.
They are wrong about the death wish, but I might be stupid.
Stupid or not, I am enjoying the hell out of the tail-end of my life. After an adventure, I have a renewed appreciation for my “normal” life with my family and my work. I have no shortage of places I want to see and adventures I want to try out. I expect my father will be even more confused next year.