THROWING OFF THE BOWLINES


“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Mark Twain

But be rational about it, remember to pay your debts, carry some form of health insurance, fund your retirement, and give back to society.

I admit it.  I’m jealous.  I’m jealous of the young guy with whom I hiked who had time and money to hike the three main N-S trails in the US: the Appalachian, Continental Divide, and the Pacific Crest Trails.  I’m jealous of those who have the time and money to travel the world, seeing places I will never see, doing things I will never do.  They have caught the trade winds in their sails, and they have explored, dreamed, and discovered.  I just wonder where they got the money and the time, how they are going to pay medical and other bills, how they are going to retire, and whether they are giving back to the world.  I never ask them, however, for it would be impolite. Besides, I might not like the answer.

Two years ago, I backpacked with a group in western Alaska.  One, 32, was a nurse who had been all over the world.  She made good money.  I made more at her age, but I back then didn’t feel then I could afford long trips.  Still, I knew almost nothing about her.  Another was a man who had a two month old back in England, and he was flying around the world alone, stopping at various interesting places.  After the backpacking trip, he was going to canoe in southeast Alaska. I needed to get home.

I didn’t ask where they got the time to throw off the bowlines.  I threw mine off for the first time in 1975 when the Navy ship I was on backed away from the mooring, turned the bow westward, and started steaming across the Pacific.  I saw a lot of things, mostly water, a young doctor—the only one on board—with a lot of responsibility and not nearly enough knowledge.  Back then, we had to serve in the military, and I was one of the fortunate ones who avoided combat duty.  But I still served, making good money, about $11,000 a year.  It wasn’t enough so I could bicycle the Silk Road, hike the Appalachian Trail, camp out on Easter Island, or take a year off to see Europe.  We had to serve, period.  Taking a year off cost money back then.  I think it still does.

Two decades later, a friend of mine was jealous of my traveling to South Africa for the 2001 eclipse.  I was 52, hardly young, and she and her daughter had not traveled much after they both had a month-long trip to Europe when her daughter was 21.  Why be jealous?  When I was 21, I was in college.  It would be eleven years before I saw Europe, and I was then in my first year of private practice.  First year.  At 32. I had debts to pay and a retirement to fund.  I couldn’t afford to stay long, and it would be a quarter century before I went back.

My generation didn’t have the chance to throw off the bow lines, except when the 1MC intercom on board blared, “Underway, Shift Colors.”

I didn’t have the opportunities that so many of the young today have, for I had to save enough, pay off debts, pay a mortgage and buy-in to the practice I had joined.  I was lucky.  I had no student loan debt, and the practice buy-in wasn’t onerous.  I was dealt different cards.

I was fortunate to live long enough to discover that I needed to get back into the outdoors more, so in addition to yearly trips to Zion NP to backpack, I started doing the same at the Grand Canyon.  In 1981, I took my first trip to the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota, not returning for 5 years, but returning every year thereafter.

Most don’t get the breaks I did.  I took a leave of absence when I was 43 and volunteered for the Forest Service.  I didn’t go until I paid off the house, was debt free and had my retirement under control. After I returned, I slowly added each year to my portfolio of canoe trips in the US and Canada.  Along the way, I started chasing solar eclipses, the phenomenon’s dictating where I was going to visit.  I tried to see as many national parks as I could, one here, one there.  I discovered Alaska.

If you live long enough doing this, you see a lot of places in the world.  But you have to be fortunate.  You need a decent job—at least most of us—so you can have the money.  My philosophy is first things first:   We drove old cars, and our house, with all our cats, was not a place we invited people to visit.  We chose to have animals, but we chose not to have expensive toys.  Memories matter, so while I could have made more sooner,  I waited.  I wonder how many do that today.

Having voluntary military service helps.  Except not the country.  It is disturbing that a few serve multiple deployments and only one in eight of 25-34 year-old men is a veteran.  Half the men my age are.

As I entered into my 50s and 60s, I realized that my legacy to myself might be the places I had seen and camped, but my legacy to society was what I gave back.  Volunteering became important.  Still is.  I do have some skills that are useful at the Community College, so I help with math.  The hiking club needs leaders who organize hikes, the local planetarium occasionally needs somebody to do a show.

Explore.  Dream. Discover.  Yes, do all that, and do it when you can while you can, for there are no guarantees.  But remember that you also have to take care of yourself when you get old.  Many can’t.  I can afford to do this, and I can because I stayed in school a long time, worked long hours at a good job for which I was trained, and saved money.  I had the right genetics, too.  When I had time and sufficient money, I took it and used it.  I did what I could.

Every week, I update the calendar  with how many hours I volunteered.  I don’t know how much is enough, but I do what I think I can.  It’s my job to donate money, too, because I can, although I’d rather donate my time and my mind.  Few want the last.  Only the money, please.

If I live long enough and become crotchety enough, I may ask one of these younger folks how they got the money to travel and how they are going to fund their retirement.  But not now.  It would be impolite.

But I am quite curious.

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