The follies which a man regrets most in his life, are those which he didn’t commit when he had the opportunity.
~ Helen Rowland
When I think of crazy, I think of Chris McCandless. He would be almost nine months older than me, and alive, had he been not a little less crazy but a bit more prepared. Instead, he walked into the Denali National Park and Preserve without a compass, without a map, and with a plan incomprehensible to anyone but himself. I can appreciate his passion, the way he made the deliberate choice to abandon the upside of advantage and hit the road in pursuit of something besides what others envisioned for him. But in attaining the rewards that accompany the follies of youth, he paid the ultimate price.
I first encountered his story within the pages of writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book Into the Wild. Still in my 20s and on the verge of major changes both professionally and familial, the story of Chris McCandless struck a tender nerve. Perhaps it was because at that point I knew my chances of experiencing a personal hiatus of the sorts he chose were slim to none. I had a kid and a wife. Doors were opening for the career change that I’d been anticipating. And people in my position didn’t just drop everything and go on a walkabout looking for inspiration. I’d never had the mental and physical resources for that sort of adventure anyway. But a part of me secretly wished that an opportunity to do what Chris did had come along. Without the tragic ending.
The best part of Krakauer’s book, however, is his own account of climbing the Devils Thumb. These two chapters, sandwiched between episodes of Chris McCandless’ unfolding journey, spoke to me for the simple reason that he had survived, and come off the mountain wiser about our primordial hunger for all-things-crazy. Krakauer writes . . .
All that held me to the mountainside, all that held me to the world, were two thin spikes of chrome molybdenum stuck half an inch into a smear of frozen water, yet the higher I climbed, the more comfortable I became. Early on a difficult climb, especially a difficult solo climb, you constantly feel the abyss pulling at your back. To resist takes a tremendous conscious effort; you don’t dare let your guard down for an instant. The siren song of the void puts you on edge; it makes your movements tentative, clumsy, herky-jerky. But as the climb goes on, you grow accustomed to the exposure, you get used to rubbing shoulders with doom, you come to believe in the reliability of your hands and feet and head. You learn to trust your self-control . . .
It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it. When I decided to go to Alaska that April, like Chris McCandless, I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic. I thought climbing the Devils Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course, it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams. And I lived to tell my tale.
Do I regret that I have no such story to share? That I never went skydiving? Never sang before Ed McMahon? Am I sad that most of the crazy things I’ve done occurred vicariously – adventures lived through the lives of others? Maybe just a little. But unlike Chris McCandless, I have lived to tell my tale. If you’re reading these words, then so have you. Crazy is as crazy does. And though my crazy is not terribly exciting, it is my crazy. These are my hands and feet, clinging to the slippery slopes of my pathway up the mountain of life, and yet this mountain doesn’t define me. It’s what I’ve learned along the ascent that matters . . .
Remember my tattoo? Well, I am sad, though not completely surprised, to report that it doesn’t mean what was intended. I did some digging online and came across a Chinese forum with an entire section devoted to translating tattoos. I posted a photo of my tattoo and the moderator very kindly wrote, “Sorry, you’re a victim of the gibberish Chinese font. Interestingly enough, the first two characters (i.e. those corresponding to GJ) are 武術 (wushu) which is a word, and means martial art. Unfortunately though they are badly drawn. The third ‘character’ 氵is actually not a character in its own right, rather it is what is called a radical (a common part of many characters). The radical is known as “three drops of water” and if a character contains this radical, it usually is related to water in some way.“
So I have a poorly-drawn tattoo that means, literally, martial art, hydro-. Sweet!
He continues, “It looks like they were going to write a word related to water like perhaps hydroelectic or hydroponic or hydrate, but then stopped before they finished. And then imagine that maybe all the t‘s were written backwards, or the rt of ‘martial’ was combined into one letter that looked more like a backwards h rather than two separate letters rt, and that the l in martial looked more like a backslash \ than an l. That’s kind of what you’ve got tattooed.” So I think a new tattoo, one that actually means something, may be in order . . .
My heartfelt thanks to Pamela, Sally, Travis, Christine, Ed and Erika for their contributions to the “Just A Little Crazy” series. I hope you enjoyed reading their posts as much as I did, and that you took the opportunity to contemplate your own craziness. So, a question: Would you enjoy reading more Crazy posts? I’m thinking about making this a by-weekly thing and inviting a few more folks to contribute. Let me know what you think by registering your vote below. And if you feel led, leave a comment or send me an email to share further thoughts about the series. In the meantime, have a great day . . .