My Unlikely Hero

I have found a role model. She isn’t fast or renowned. She’s old. And slow. And arthritic. She’s got bad knees.

It's never too cold for this lady!

It’s never too cold for this lady!

Every day I see this elderly woman ride her bicycle through town. Rain, snow, cold, wind, heat – they do not stop her. Gaze forward, dauntless and stoic, she grinds through the slush, while I drive past in my SUV and urge my blasting heater to warm up.

For years I have seen her bicycling through the streets of Moab, and always I wanted to know why. Why was she out there? Why did she never take a break?

I wanted to know so badly, I decided to ask her.

Suddenly it became difficult to catch this silent cyclist of the streets. There she was! But I was late for a meeting. There she was! But I had promised my wife this trip to the supermarket would be quick. There she was! But once I’d found a place to park, she was gone, vanished up the bike path along Mill Creek.

Finally, one sunny day in late February, fates aligned. I stopped and hailed her, standing astride my bike. She stopped too. “Hello,” she said.

“Hi. I see you riding out here all the time. If you don’t mind my asking, what’s your story?”

With a smile and a humble shrug, Julie Podmore invited me over to her house to talk. Apparently her ride couldn’t be interrupted.

Her story was more magnificent and far-reaching than I could have imagined.

Mont Blanc and the Auguilles above Chamonix.

Mont Blanc and the Auguilles above Chamonix. (1957)

Born in Toronto to a free-spirit father who flew dirigibles in World War I, Julie was given an early taste of the outdoors. They camped and hiked. He told stories of his adventures in the cavalry and in China and in Alaska living with the Eskimos. She was encouraged to seek a path to the places that breathed life into her soul.

The Matterhorn before traverse of the Smott Ridge to Hornli Route. (1957)

The Matterhorn before traverse of the Smott Ridge to Hornli Route. (1957)

Julie’s path would lead across North America and throughout Europe and Asia. In 1957, at a time when few women rock climbed and even fewer attempted alpine peaks, Julie found herself in uncharted territory. She said, “This was a man’s world. When we did a traverse of the Matterhorn, we were up there for 28 hours, up one ridge and down the other. We met a group of Germans on the way down, and they asked me if I had climbed it. They looked absolutely amazed because they have never known a woman to go up there.”

Julie Podmore, Bill Chaplin, and Bill Briggs crossing a Norwegian Fjord. (1957)

Julie Podmore, Bill Chaplin, and Bill Briggs crossing a Norwegian Fjord. (1957)

England, Norway, France, Mexico, Nepal, India – she traveled in search of the sacred. “I loved the mountains,” she said. “When you start climbing, it’s like having a relationship with the mountains. You feel closer to nature, and, I think, closer to God. To me, there’s more spirituality in that than in going to church.”

Bill Briggs on lead with Julie seconding on Jaegervasstind, above the Arctic Circle. (1957)

Bill Briggs on lead with Julie seconding on Jaegervasstind, above the Arctic Circle. (1957)

From a first ascent above the arctic circle in Norway to ski instructing at Sugar Bowl in California to picking apricots in the Okanagan Valley, Julie’s route directed her everywhere there was anything to climb. She knew many legendary climbers before they became legends. We shared stories of obscure crags in the Adirondacks where we both had serendipitously climbed, separated by only a half century.

Julie climbing with Dr. John Turner at Mt. King, Quebec.

Julie climbing with Dr. JM Turner at Mt. King, Quebec.

Sitting in Julie’s home, surrounded by her stunning oil paintings of the Tetons, shocked by a lady who had been a pioneer for women in the Golden Age, I still wanted to know: why ride?

“I moved to Moab in 1988. I would get up every morning and put on my boots and hike up on the cliffs. My knees finally gave out on me. I thought, I’ve got to do something for exercise, so I started cycling instead. I’ve always had a bicycle. When I lived as a secretary in Toronto, I didn’t have a car, so I used to ride my bicycle to work. I had grease all around the bottom of my dresses.”

“I see you out there in all kinds of weather,” I said. “It must be hard sometimes when the weather’s bad.”

“This arthritis gives me a lot of pain. And if I don’t get the circulation going, it gives me more pain. So I will go out when I’d much sooner crawl back into bed. When I don’t do it, I feel really decadent. Sitting around won’t do me any good.

Julie in Moab, UT. (2014)

Julie in Moab, UT. (2014)

When she couldn’t climb any longer, Julie took up hiking. When she couldn’t hike any longer, she tuned her bicycle. Every day I see Julie pedal through my neighborhood, and I celebrate my new role model, someone who has quietly persevered through a broken back and over snowy ridgelines and despite arthritis. Julie Podmore is a hero, and she reminds me to appreciate the stories hidden behind people we see everyday.

Through Julie, I understand the courage it takes to see out your wild life in this wild world.

Julie on Sweet Dreams at Bon Echo, Ontario.

Julie on Sweet Dreams at Bon Echo, Ontario.

Julie and Dr. JM Turner at Bon Echo, Ontario.

Julie and Dr. JM Turner at Bon Echo, Ontario.

 

 

 

(Original published in the Moab Sun News, April 2014)

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A Year On the Farm

It nearly killed me.

The human mind at thirteen years is uniquely impressionable. I proved it while working on a dairy farm for one year in northern Vermont. Getting kicked, bulled over, swished in the face with nasty brown tails, and sandwiched between heavy cow bodies became normal. Milking another species’ mammary glands went from weird to conventional. Throwing hay bale after hay bale turned so routine I didn’t need gloves to cover my calloused hands.

DairyCowThe unfathomable idea that I could learn a hundred cows’ names, that I could distinguish in a herd between the short and tall, broad and skinny, all those black and white flanks, became fathomable. Their physical markings took shape, and so did their personalities.

There was Claire, a proud registered Holstein from Canada who never kicked. There was Bertha, a bulldozing behemoth respected by the herd (and the farmers) for her penchant for careening through bodies and buildings in a dash to feed. There was Babe, sweetest cow in the barn who always turned in the stanchion to lick at your shoulder and ask for a head scratch.

Only when I look back do I recognize how different this life was, how I became accustomed to a mode of existence worlds apart from where my path would lead. A thirsty teen mind had me following the farmers around pastures and through barns as if they would eventually reveal the big secret and guide me to Shangri-La.

Barn

The farm where I nearly passed out from exhaustion stacking hay in the 105-degree loft. Also, a fence line the farmer’s son hit at full speed when his brakeless bike didn’t make the corner off the hill. Strung up in the barbed wire and electric fence, that boy got a hefty taste of farm suffering.

Now, I did learn some handy things. How to drive a tractor. How to mend a fence. The signs of an infected udder. How to pump a zerk full of grease. Painting. Animal husbandry. Foretelling rain. Investing: I bought a pretty little golden Jersey cow and a piglet to be sold off later at a profit.

They taught me a lot, those tough hick farmers of the northcountry. Dillon, the foreman, showed me how to bob a cow’s tail using a strong rubber ring, and he warned me with a grin to behave myself with his daughter, my girlfriend at the time, or I’d find myself getting the rubber band squeeze. He said it with a smile, but it was only half jest.

Yikes.

Meanwhile, as we milked the cows, Dillon’s eighteen-year-old son regaled me with tales of adventure in the nightclubs of Quebec, where he would pick fights and head-butt people. He proudly instructed me how to grab a man by the lapels and use the peak of one’s forehead, hardest part of the skull, to crack him right in the face, to break open his nose. Even at thirteen, I wasn’t comfortable subscribing to a head-butting lifestyle. But I nodded along and took it as fair warning like his father’s.

Double yikes.

OSullivan-Cows_7567Patrick, gentle vegetarian owner of the farm, taught me death was part of farming. When calves would perish inexplicably or were stillborn into the gutter as sometimes happened, he told me to drag their lifeless little bodies to the woods where hungry coyotes waited on margins of human society. While walking the fence lines far out in the summer pasture one afternoon, we found a dead heifer. How had she died? Patrick didn’t know, but he said it was statistically normal.

I also learned how dangerous a farm can be.

I plummeted through a trapdoor while running through the loft. A pipe clamp in the milk room went through my palm. An electric fence powerful enough to cover forty miles of wire dropped me to my knees.

Other dangers were easy to avoid. Every farmer can tell stories of a tractor’s PTO (power-takeoff, a spinning drive shaft used to charge mowers and balers) tearing off limbs and scalps, killing people. It was one of those obvious hazards like the cancer hidden inside the cigarettes Dillon smoked, easily avoided.

One thing, however, I discovered alone. Thankfully I managed to do it without dying: one of the most dangerous things in the world is a human being.

BRAZIL500Dillon and I had gone out to collect the herd from pasture for dawn milking. The cool fields were heavy with dew not yet burned off by the rising sun. “I’ll go around back and push them,” Dillon said. He set off across the neighboring paddock. As always, I slipped through the gap and shooed the herd, asked them for a bit of room to unlatch the wooden gate.

Then it happened. A sound like a gunshot rang out from behind the herd. As a joke, Dillon had thrown a long-lost piece of cordwood high overhead onto the steel roof of the lumber shack. The sound broke through still morning air. Bang!

The herd moved as one. They surged away from the sound and directly at me. Suddenly I was pinned against a gate that bent under their collective weight. My feet off the ground, my breath gone, I tried to beat them back. All that kept me from being trampled to death under four hundred hooves was a brittle old piece of  chain looped around a fencepost.

rusty-chain.jpg?w=593

And over their heads I saw Dillon. His smile disappeared and his hands went to rest on top of his hat as if he were witness to calamity. Then he took off running, trying to get around to help, to push them back.

By the time Dillon reached me, the cows’ panic had eased. I had squeezed out the gap and stood on wobbly legs, gasping for breath. Dillon grabbed me by the shoulders. “Are you alright?” he asked.

“I– I think so.”

“It was an accident,” he said. “I didn’t mean to hit the roof. Damn it, I’m sorry.”

I knew he was lying. He’d intended to spook them, maybe not quite so bad. But I hadn’t died. “It’s alright,” I said.

Today I remember my time on the farm – hundreds of days of shoveling crap and stacking hay and milking cows and feeding pigs – as an ad hoc study of the breadth of human experience. That year was the first to truly grab me and thrust me into a new world. Since then, I’ve won my fair share of weird and wonderful adventures thanks to one peculiar piece of luck. I carry it with me everywhere, in my heart. It’s a lovely length of rusted chain that saved me from becoming a statistical casualty in a life as unpredictable as yours.

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JUMP

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I live to see new places. Usually that means rock climbing, swimming, or hiking into the wild. But sometimes it means coiling up, pressing hard, and leaving our planet. About seven years ago my wife and I found a fun … Continue reading

A Story of Honor

Gear

Yesterday, 22-year-old Zach Taylor, a graduate of Grand County High School and student at the University of Utah, died in a rappelling accident. Zach’s kind father happens to be a volunteer for the mentoring program I oversee. I know nothing about the circumstances of Zach’s death, except what his mother shared in a public Facebook update:

“I had the most amazing day with my son, Zach Taylor on Saturday. It was just the two of us, and our dog Ubu, going on an adventure. I didn’t realize it would be part of a goodbye. He died yesterday while hiking and rappelling with friends, doing what he loved to do most. Anyone who knows me personally knows that I call him, unabashedly, my favorite child. And his siblings handled my favoritism well, because they admitted that he, too, was their favorite sibling. Zach was pure energy. May he continue to be so in this next life as well.”

Many people decry risky pursuits as selfish (such as canyoneering deep in the backcountry). Yet Zach’s mother handles the circumstances with utter understanding. In fact, her online elegy flies in the face of a recent blog post by Steve Casimiro. In this post, Steve wrote:

“‘Hey, Glenn,’ I said to my partner. ‘If anything ever happens to me out here, make sure my mom knows I died doing something I loved.’ He nodded gravely, a solemn promise made.

“Today, with many years under my belt and the loss of too many friends in falls, avalanches, and accidents, I cringe at the memory. It sounds like one of the tritest, most self-absorbed, and most post-adolescently melodramatic comments I could make. What a tool.

“Of course I would have died doing something I loved. That was self-evident. My parents knew I loved climbing, skiing, mountain biking. But as I consider it now, I realize that I didn’t actually intend the comment as an explanation, as solace for a grieving parent to help them better understand their son. No, I meant it as a justification for a selfish act and a mistake made, as if screwing up doing something fun made it okay that I screwed up.”

Meanwhile, Zach’s mother seems to take solace from the fact that her son died doing something he loved, even if that act resulted in disaster, possibly from a mistake. And why shouldn’t she? Naturally, life is preferable, but isn’t it better that her son died in a climbing accident rather than from, say, a random dose of food poisoning? He died in the pursuit of his dreams, in the wild canyons of adventure. Regardless of whether the accident was preventable or not, Zach was doing something he loved, probably riding high.

CanyonEvery adventurer who knowingly (but not recklessly) risks the ultimate cost has earned my respect. So too have hobbyists of mellower pursuits. They have all chosen causes that transcend the mundane requirements of life through bowling and playing music… or mountains and big waves and dirt bikes and BASE jumping and riding horses, because life would otherwise mean too little. I honor their selection of the right tools to make meaning for themselves. I honor them by calling death untimely but not tragedy. Sad? Yes. Are we bereft of good people like Zach? Yes. But I will not dishonor my friend’s big life choice that put her forever under an avalanche in the Himalaya or Michael Reardon’s soloing pursuit that put him under the cold waters of the North Atlantic. Their decisions did not end in senseless deaths. No, they resulted in lives powerfully lived, albeit shorter than most.

I salute also those who recognize in others the primacy of instinct. Apparently Zach always loved to climb. His mother, still perfectly unapologetic about her son’s native spirit, went on to share a Facebook link to this story of his childhood:

“A couple of months into school I was asked to visit with his teacher. It seems that Zach was getting in trouble for climbing. He climbed the fences. He climbed the walls. He climbed onto the roof. He climbed onto the top of the swingset. He climbed onto the top of the slide where you’re not supposed to climb.

“The teacher told me all of this very emphatically with a scowl and furrowed brows. I nodded, listened. Inside I was thinking how incredibly adventurous my son was and was giving him a mental high five. Perhaps reading my thoughts, she decided to scold me like she had been scolding him, ‘Don’t you know how dangerous that could be? He could fall!’

“I said I would talk with him. And I did.

“‘Don’t climb at school.’

“And then I bought him a membership at a local climbing gym.”

I’m glad Zach’s mother hasn’t dishonored her son by labeling his passions selfish. Every pursuit (and every act) is fundamentally selfish, unless it happens to coincidentally benefit others. It’s nobody’s fault that some hobbies are more dangerous than others. I can blame nobody for the fact that beach volleyball doesn’t tickle me. And therefore, I allow others to chart their crazy courses as best they can without my passing judgment on the roots of their desire.

While some may argue about what is or isn’t an acceptable level of risk, I hope the people who love Zach will do his memory the courtesy of recognizing his decisions as central to the tenets of the person he was. I will celebrate the life he lived even though I didn’t know him.

BoulderingAnd if I die rock climbing or mountain biking or on an adventure, I hope my family and friends take comfort from the idea that I died doing something I loved. It will require a big mistake or an act of god to snuff out this life – which, by the way, could also occur on the interstate – because I do want to live. I am careful out there, by my definition of the word. I want to climb and laugh and hug another day. But if some hazard, whether objective or subjective, takes me out, please be consoled by the fact that it happened when I was seeking that which makes life meaningful.

If I die from botulism, though, feel free to call it tragedy.

So yes. I ask you, those whom I love, to take care while in pursuit of your dreams. I want to share in future adventures. I want to hear about the meaning you’ve made using the tools and variables at your disposal. And I hope you will forgive me if I judge your life well lived regardless of how it might end but rather by the light of your inspiration.

Mountain

Haunted Landscape

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Above my hometown beside the Colorado River, lies a beautiful trail with a history dark and true. The Portal Trail climbs nearly 1,000 feet, starting riverside and ending atop Poison Spider Mesa. From the alluvial plain, hikers and bikers ascend … Continue reading

An Argument for Turning Off the News

The amount of misery in the world remains strikingly steady over time. People around the world are maligned or even destroyed because of their religion, skin color, gender, size, sexual orientation.

What can the average person do about the overwhelming pain and strife riding with us through time? Yes, a special leader can step up and make substantial changes. Yes, we need to work together for a better society. But do we need to know about every atrocity, every crime, every time human depravity wells up from dark places?

Our media – sensationalist, rooted in human instinct, and efficient – broadcasts injustices over our shrinking planet for all to see. Nicholas Kristoff, my favorite columnist, travels the globe to report on humanitarian crises, human rights abuses by governments and nations, domestic crimes. Exposing vile circumstances helps us cap the quota of pain on Earth. But how much can you or I do about the fact of human suffering?

Though I disagree with Mother Teresa on some fine points (like women’s health and theism), I agree with her here:

“What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.”

– Mother Teresa

In fact, this post will be peppered with the sister’s jewels of wisdom, because she spoke robustly on the topic: ACT LOCALLY. We cannot save every little boy and girl from starving or suffering. We cannot prevent every rape. We cannot guarantee that every human brain is wired without glitches that might create sociopaths. But I can watch out for my friends. I can lend a struggling family a little support. We can embody upright values in our community.

Action

Sometimes I ask myself, how much of my life should involve the contemplation and absorption of foul narratives? Never before has so much information been so readily available. According to some calculations, we’re inundated by more than 174 newspaper’s worth of information every day. As pointed out in this article, a hundred years ago, an individual would have been lucky to read fifty books in a lifetime. Now news streams to us via telephone and TV and computer at ever faster speeds. Those innumerable horror stories aren’t a world away, they’re staring at us from a smart phone. That’s a good thing insofar as we can do something about it. But we can’t do something about everything. Mother Teresa knew it. She said, “If I look at the mass I will never act.”

We may receive the equivalent of 174 newspapers of information every day, but much of this news is bad news. And we are missing out on two things. First, we too often fail to see good news. Second, our local problems are overridden by more shocking developments that are not only out of our reach but unrelated to our lives. Meanwhile, that local youth program lost its funding. A homeless person froze to death in the slues last week. That neighbor kid went hungry all weekend until he could get back to school for state food.

A Hero in my House

My wife recently inspired me with her embodiment of Sister Teresa’s suggestion: “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” You see, we work in a school district, matching at-risk youth with volunteer mentors who boost these kids’ self-confidence, social skill, and school attachment. Each day, Megan supports these matches that, as one mentee put it, gives kids “a reason to get up and go to school, and a reason to feel better at the end of the day.” Still, Megan identified one kid to whom she could give something extra. This kid had been truant 75% of the first month of school. He never exercised. He was bullied for his weight. He was depressed and lonely and without hope.

Megan started exercising with him, taking him on walks around the school. She began pumping him up with a mantra: Come to school every day – I can do it, I know the way.

She would start: Come to school every day. He would finish: I can do it, I know the way. Rain or shine, she’d walk laps with him. Busy or tired or stressed, she always made time.

John’s class was scheduled to go on a field trip today, a hike to Delicate Arch. It’s a mile and a half uphill climb to the most incredible vista in Arches National Park. A month before the hike, it became obvious; this field trip would defeat John. He hadn’t ever been on a hike up steep slickrock. He hadn’t walked even a mile before. Chances were good that he’d have to stop with an aide and wait for his class to come back down. He wasn’t going to make it.

Over the last four weeks, Megan upped the length of their daily walks. She started talking him through visualizations of what the trail would be like, the terrain, the rock formations, his progress. They found games to pick up his pace, chasing each other’s shadows, playing tag, letting other kids join in, asking a friend to bring her dog for a walk. John loved Maya, and that happy dog pulled him by her leash, running through campus and over to the church lawn and across the nearby park, leading the panting kid toward better health.

Field Trip

The big class trip. Megan and John left early in our car, to get a head start. Megan talked with John about pacing, and she agreed to carry along his golden Pokémon card so he could hold it during their breaks. Half way up the big hill, John and Megan watched the bus pull into the parking lot below, the kids stream out into the morning sunlight. John climbed to his feet and started going again, remembering from their visualization exercises, “We’re more than half way. Soon there will be a ramp of slanting rock.”

They took a few more breaks. They carefully navigated an exposed ledge. Megan watched John’s face as they rounded the last bend and got a look at the iconic vision of Utah, the most spectacular rock feature of the West. John stopped. “Oh, WOW!” He didn’t think it would be so big. He didn’t realize he’d be so close. Visualization hadn’t captured the improbability of this rock formation.

John, left, enjoying the view of Delicate Arch, Arches National Park.

A little while later, his class showed up, kids panting. “Wow!” a girl exclaimed. “How did you get up here so fast, John?” He just beamed, the happiest kid on Earth.

A Cup of Light

John hasn’t missed a day of school in months. His mom reports, “This is the happiest I’ve ever seen him.” His grades are up. He’s gaining more friends in his class. A few days ago, John said, “School is better now, because Megan walks with me every day.”

Where will the average, extraordinary person do the most good? Locally.

I vow to read a little less bad news. I vow to be more like my wife. I vow to live more like Mother Teresa:

“Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”

WHY RISK?

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Horseback riding. Ski jumping. Motorcycles. These are the avocations of my immediate family members. My mom began riding horses as soon as she could walk, and at sixty-five, she still loves to gallop through pastures and over rough logging roads. She … Continue reading

Pilgrimage

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Freshman year at the University of Vermont tried to stomp on me, but I found ways to compensate for my new memory deficits. My desk was Post-It note central. I studied hard. I found tutors and tried to relearn all … Continue reading

Bidder 70: Tim DeChristopher’s Address to the Court

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On July 26, 2011, Tim DeChristopher was given a two-year prison term for bidding on oil and gas drilling leases to protect public lands from exploitation. This is what he said to the court after conviction. It’s long, because it speaks … Continue reading

Honoring What We Eat

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In spite of my fondness for the Jason Bourne movies, I am a gentle person, averse to violence and like most people, ill at ease when faced with suffering. I don’t want to see an animal die. Yet I’m an … Continue reading