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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The Dominican Republic: Where Tarzan Is Real

7A while back my friend Simon organized a spring break trip to do community service at an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, a country on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. He planned it for months. Ten people signed up. They were trained at orientation meetings, bought airline tickets, contacted an agency to run logistics with the orphanage. All was set.

Until one of their participants fell seriously ill the week before.

With a vacancy and short notice, Simon asked, “Do you want to go?”

I shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

I soon learned we were going to teach English, math, and reading. We would tutor children because the orphanage didn’t have enough funding for teachers.

I spoke very little Spanish. I hadn’t been to their meetings. Yet suddenly I was in a van with a bunch of college students I didn’t know on our way to New York City to catch a plane.

When we arrived on the island, Orphanage Outreach bussed us an hour outside Santo Domingo. We unpacked our sleeping bags and got a tour of the compound. Curious little faces peeped around the bushes. They followed us to the door of the cafeteria, not saying anything but watching closely.

That first night our conversation began not with words or gestures, not with books or lessons. It began with baseball.

39530_lgWe gathered in the sandlot before dark and split into teams, Dominican children showing us the batting order, pointing us to our positions, clapping when we hit the ball, grinning when we cheered them on. Everybody exchanged tattered baseball gloves between innings. When somebody hit a home run, a little boy scampered over the wall to fetch their baseball from a neighbor’s field.

We became a part of their tradition for the week. Baseball after lunch. Baseball after dinner. They love it. From a tiny nation of 10.2 million, this year they sent 137 people to the major leagues – more than Japan, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Panama, and Nicaragua combined!

I didn’t play well compared to the Domincan teens. They hit and pitched and ran like champions, many hopeful that someday they’d be discovered, they’d be snatched up by a team and make it to the big time.

They had dreams.

IMG_0004-1I tutored two kids: Jesus and Oscar – eleven year olds. They were gentle, kind, sweet kids, thirsty for attention and unmotivated by our lessons. Still, they would try. And they would laugh when I tried to speak Spanish. More affectionate than I had expected, they put arms around my neck, asked for piggyback rides, stood close by to remind me they were my students for the week.

After baseball Wednesday night, all the kids were agitated and giddy and running to get chairs. As darkness fell, one of the orphanage staff people rolled a rickety television stand into the courtyard. Children clambered to get good spots sitting cross-legged, staring up at the blank screen with limitless patience as the tape was found, rewound, queued up.

“What movie is it?” I asked the orphanage director.

“It’s Tarzan night,” he said. “Every Wednesday night is Tarzan night.”

Tarzan_2004_cover

I watched Disney animation tell the story of a family shipwrecked near a jungle. A little boy’s parents are killed. He’s left alone, but a gorilla saves him, raises him as part of the troop. After he’s matured into a man, English explorers arrive. Tarzan falls in love with Jane. Following much danger and drama, Jane and her father choose to stay with Tarzan in the jungle as his new family.

I stood there at the back of the courtyard, reading the English subtitles, looking over a sea of children bathed in that bluish light of movie fairy dust. I looked over a yard full of Tarzans, each one of them dreaming of a family that would love him and want to be with him forever.

Tarzan 2It was one of the most powerful moments of my life. I saw dozens of children wanting what I had so blithely taken for granted. I got an inkling how lucky I was to have a family. I saw every one of those kids inserting himself into the film, into the life of a boy finally found. My heart broke open with hope for them too, the sad kind of hope that knows the odds.

Ten years later, I wonder: where are these children?

I don’t know. But I like to believe that they’ve found someone to whom they can belong, forever.