It was love at first site.
20 years ago in August I was in the lobby of the Radisson Hotel in Denver CO. I was about to meet this group of strangers boarding a bus to Leadville for a week-long Outward Bound adventure in the Rockies. Instantaneously I just knew I was meant to be with these people.
As strong and surprising and visceral that initial attraction was, I couldn’t possibly have known how impactful the relationships and lessons unveiled over the following week would change the trajectory of my life in such a profound way. I don’t want to mince words; along with getting sober and getting cancer, this Colorado Outward Bound experience is in the top three most transformational experiences of my life. 20 years later I’m just as convinced of this and am reminded, “People come into our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime; we never know which.”
There were as many reasons as there were participants to take a week off from family and career to go ‘find oneself’ in the mountains. For me it was cancer. 2000 was the year I would mark the coveted ‘5 years in remission’ from Stage 3B Hodgkins lymphoma. Having been declared in remission in October ’95 and remained cancer free, I set my site on a “Rambo in the woods” type of celebration to commemorate the 5 year milestone. While I was definitely physically prepared for the challenges Outward Bound would present, I was in no way ready for the emotional challenges and spiritual gifts this course, these people, would give me.
I had trained religiously and was very confident in my strength and conditioning, but not so much in outdoor survival skills (i.e. cooking, rock climbing, etc). Although I was already overpacked with too much clothing and equipment, and a small library of inspirational books and a journal, I offered to carry extra food and supplies in my backpack in an effort to skate out of food preparation. That lasted about 2 ½ hours into our back-country trek. Outward Bound is about pushing one’s boundaries and was “voluntold” to help cook the first meal (every time I hear the words dollop or skosh I think of my deer-in-the-headlights look of shock and bewilderment just how little I knew what I was doing in that moment!).
A couple key moments that have endured the test of love and time are cemented in my brain:
Chris and I were unlikely morning coffee buddies. In fact, unlike my initial impression in the hotel lobby, Chris could barely stand my mere presence. Yet, our shared penchant for rising early and looting the course instructor’s secret stash of ‘good coffee’ led to deep talks on life, family, and relationships bonded us in a way neither of us could have imagined. The passionate environmentalist/High School English teacher and single mother from Maryland’s eastern shore has an acute radar for B.S. along with a willingness to call it out. Over the years I have spent more time together with Chris and her son than anyone else in the group. No trip to Annapolis or the Eastern Shore feels complete for Leigh and me without a visit with Chris and Downes. Still today, every early morning coffee draws me back to Leadville.
Paul and I were partnered on the first low ropes course where one was blindfolded and guided by the other. I recall his gentle touch, his calming and succinct guidance, and overall delightful enthusiasm for life. This is the model of which I aspire to make my grandchildren feel when I hold their hands. His passion for music also reignited my own love of ‘tunes’. I still smile every time I hear Tragically Hip’s Vapour Trails; “But there’s nothing uglier than a man hitting his stride”. Although I’m retired, it still resonates as it did as a guide for introspection as I worked my way toward and beyond the peak of my working career.
Marcy was the veteran of ‘intensive outdoor exploration’ having done both a NOLS course (how to climb a mountain) in Africa, and an Outward Bound (why you climb a mountain) sailing course. We were partnered on the high ropes course and, unlike Paul whose helping hand was necessary, Marcy consistently waved off/slapped at my extended hand when I offered to help. Marcy’s campfire chant, Tongo, served as the name for our reunions and as well as my blog. In one of our small group discussions on relationships I had used the word “intimacy”. Marcy commented, “If by intimacy you just mean sex, then you’re just being a pig.” This is where I learned intimacy reimagined as “into me see”. Another Marcy-ism that has stood the test time, (as my family and friends can relate), “I don’t know how your wife puts up with you telling the same stories over and over!”
Rob is the consummate outdoorsman who is generally found hiking, skiing, or fly-fishing. His boundless energy and wide array of outdoorsman skills are pretty spectacular. What I will always remember is the photo when I was 70′ above the ground on our rock-climbing day. Mid-afternoon somebody had the hair-brained idea to scale the escarpment blindfolded and ringing the bell at the top. After some internal deliberation, I strapped on my helmet and buckled up my carabiner clips. A third of the way up it struck me that I had just entrusted my life to strangers I had met on yesterdays bus ride. As I continued my ascent the encouraging voices below faded and I found myself in a bubble of quiet reflection. I morphed back to the cancer-patient, slowly, blindly making my way up the rock face with the objective of ringing this bell. Trusting other people to help me in this most vulnerable place I found myself. As I climbed closer and closer I could hear the bell gently jingling against the rope. The swell of emotion rising from within While these few moments overwhelmed me, the dam bursting when I reached the top. Tears flowed as I repelled down. It was an extraordinarily powerful moment that still brings me chills.
While the entire trip was filled with special people and intimate moments of phenomenal soul-searching, these are the lessons that stand out as freshly in my mind today as they did when they occurred 20 years ago. Sometimes ‘love at first site’ is not just a passing moment or a romantic notion. In this case it was the real deal that continues to put extra z’s in the the jazzzzz of my life.
As memorable and emotional as the goodbyes were at the end of the course, they would not be the last. Over the following 10 years we’d have 10 reunions with 4 or more of the 9 of us. T-shirts, hats, coffee mugs and other commemoratives mark the mutual admiration of the group, but nothing lasts like the memories in my heart and soul. .
The night I arrived home in Pennsylvania, Leigh had made a wonderful home-cooked meal. As I sat there and looked at how fully covered and overflowing my plate was, a stark contrast to the the week of camping meals in the Rockies was dramatic, the thought struck me, “How much of the journey have I missed because I was carrying too much weight?”
It’s been twenty years later I still feel the love at first site I felt in that hotel lobby and remain eternally grateful for the life lessons learned that continue to serve me well. My takeaway: Pack less, enjoy more; Pay attention to the people in your life. You never know if they are here for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.