I never planned on living this long. As a young adult, I estimated a personal life expectancy of 40 years maximum. I was reckless and carefree while often displaying destructive behavior. Summit or die was my go-to mantra.
In my twenties I focused predominantly on alpine climbing. Every aspect of my life revolved around this objective. It began by leaving the flatlands of Michigan and relocating to the west slope of the Teton wilderness for proximity to technical mountaineering.
In the Teton range and its surroundings, I was able to develop alpine and traditional rock climbing skills. This often included scary, run out pitches and free soloing to increase my comfort zone in marginal situations. During this phase I began honing my backcountry skiing and winter camping prowess, while often ignoring likely high avalanche conditions. My goal was to eventually explore bigger more challenging peaks around the globe.
In my thirties, I made trips to the Pacific Northwest to climb in the Cascade range and summit Rainier multiple times to familiarize myself with glaciated peaks. I wandered up to Alaska to test myself on Denali. I hitchhiked to Yosemite when I couldn’t afford the expense of driving. I often lacked the financial resources needed for travel, and sought sporadic work to buy food and gas when needed. This was long before “dirt bagging” was a thing. Sometimes I went days without proper nourishment or a proper roof over my head. I was even approached by a homeless person for a handout. I pulled out my wallet to show him two bucks. At the time, it was all the money I had. He felt sorry for me and wished me well! My full focus was climbing, so hunger be damned.
After surviving too many years of living on the edge, somehow escaping the grim reaper, I eventually came to the realization that I might actually live to see an age older than 40. Factor in multiple injuries, along with the stress of continued uncertainty, and I had a revelation to effectively seek change in life’s direction.
Words of wisdom from my long-deceased mother began to echo in my subconscious, “Charlie, you need a backup plan.” My mom died at age 38 from a rare genetic blood disorder known as acute intermittent porphyria. I was 18 years old when it happened and I learned that it was a common genetic defect in our family history. Porphyria lead to the demise of a maternal grandmother and great uncle as well. It was also a contributing factor in my carefree and often reckless lifestyle, and reason to believe I would be lucky to live past age 40 regardless of lifestyle.
Suffice it to say, here I am at age 67. Perhaps on borrowed time, but extremely thankful that I took my wise mother’s advice regarding a backup plan. Maggie and I have enough resources and wherewithal to last as long as life will allow, barring a major catastrophic event. We’ve developed the resourcefulness and savvy to live well within our means. I’ll attest that I cannot think of a better existence. A richness that no amount of money could ever provide. Moreover, while we continue to focus on living in the moment, we have a backup plan for an unknowable future.
Below are a handful of my personal insights, garnered from 67 trips around the sun. Please feel free to adopt to your own personal existence if you find any of them helpful.
- Live in the moment.
- Follow the four agreements; be impeccable with your word, never make assumptions, don’t take things personally and, always do your best (Don Miguel Ruiz).
- Adopt a dog, but, be forewarned, life is a series of dogs (George Carlin).
- Follow your bliss. If you follow your bliss, you’ll always have it (Joseph Campbell).
- Never stop learning. Engaging in a continuous lifelong learning process helps the mind remain youthful and elastic. Where the mind goes, the body follows.
- Keep challenging the body physically. A healthy body helps the mind stay engaged.
- Learn how to rest. Both mind and body need a break occasionally. It’s okay to periodically do absolutely nothing.
- Practice compassion. This is perhaps the toughest advice for me to follow. That’s why I practice! I know that I’m inherently selfish, so it takes extra effort on my part. I am cognizant of the fact that when I do help others who are genuinely in need, I feel happier and healthier as a result.
- Enjoy the aging process. Like the weather, you can’t change it, so embrace it. I like to think of it as renewed opportunity to challenge my existence daily.
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