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Because every second you’re not living life to the fullest is an opportunity missed—and the clock is ticking. To get you going, we’ve handpicked a no-regrets, full-throttle, see-the-world list of 50 things to do before you die—from climbing an 8,000-meter peak to making the perfect martini. Pro surfer Kelly Slater kicks things off with advice on how to set a goal and achieve it. Plus we’ve got 15 essential fitness tips so you’re ready to seize whatever adventure comes your way in 2006. This is your year to make it happen.
Live It UpVisit Outside Online’s collection of life-list goals from Dean Karnazes, Brad Ludden, and more—and share your own must-do adventures.
Kelly SlaterRETURN OF THE SURF GOD: Kelly Slater, pictured here in Malibu, California, won his seventh world title on November 8, 2005.
There’s no time like now to start living large, and we’ll show you how: 50 feats, quests, and random acts of adrenaline that are guaranteed to blow your mind. Highlights include:
Make a Comeback
Kelly Slater knows how.
Kelly Slater Photo Gallery
To view more photos of Kelly Slater, click here
Kelly SlaterTHE AWAKENING: “I made a choice to take a different path.”
Kelly SlaterCOMPETITIVE EDGE: “I’m as relaxed as I’ve ever been.”
Kelly SlaterKelly Slater in Malibu, California
It's a cool SoCal summer night, and I'm squished beside world-champion surfer Kelly Slater in the backseat of a BMW SUV, rolling north on L.A.'s perpetually clogged 405. On my other side is Slater's publicist, Shelby Meade. Up front, Slater's manager, Terry Hardy, is driving, and Hardy's girlfriend, Lenore Marusak, rides shotgun. Slater has gotten us all riffing on “the Hoff”—the popular Web moniker for David Hasselhoff, whom Slater got to know while portraying surf bum Jimmy Slade during his one-season gig on Baywatch, in 1992.
“Those waves were going Hoff!” says Slater.
“Turn up that hip-Hoff!” I suggest.
“Dude—get Hoff this subject!” offers Hardy.
Admittedly, the jokes are working better than they should, but we're all feeling a bit giddy after having spent the evening at a Colplay concert and an after-party attended by the band and lead singer Chris Martin's wife, Gwyneth Paltrow. In the far back of the Beemer is an acoustic guitar that the singer gave to Slater at the party—a return gift for the surfboard Slater gave to Martin. As we drive on, Slater gets a voice mail from actor Adam Sandler, who wants to play golf. So this is how life works when you're a surf god: The stars call you.
At 33, seven years after collecting his record sixth Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) world title and retiring from full-time competition, the chiseled five-foot-nine, 160-pound waterman is once again ruling the waves. In November, he will capture a Lance-like seventh crown at Florianópolis, Brazil. When he grabbed his first ASP title, in 1992, he was the youngest champ in history; when the 2005 season ends in December, he will become the oldest—completing one of the most inspiring comebacks his sport has ever seen.
Staging a world-beating return is never easy, but Slater's has been particularly challenging—and it didn't hinge on a new training regimen, secret diet, or radical board shape. Rather, he credits hard-won personal growth that's helped heal some important relationships.
In his 2003 memoir, Pipe Dreams, Slater recounts how his dad, Steve, who owned a bait-and-tackle shop in the washed-up town of Cocoa Beach, Florida, would frequently pass out drunk to a tirade of obscenities from Slater's mom, Judy. In 1983, Judy kicked Steve out, and they officially divorced in 1986, leaving her to raise Slater, then 11, and his two brothers—Sean, 14, and Stephen, five. The young surfer's troubled home life was exacerbated by Sean, who turned everything from fishing to car rides into a contest—and made sure that Slater always finished second.
The domestic strife forged Slater into a tenacious, fire-eyed grommet. Surf competitions helped him dodge family dysfunction and provided an outlet for his rage. In 1980, at age eight, he won the first surf contest he entered, standing on a body board. At 18, after a slew of authoritative victories, he turned pro and signed an exclusive sponsorship deal with emerging surf-wares goliath Quiksilver, embracing the peripatetic life of the ASP international tour. Two years later, he won his first world title.
Slater lorded over his sport with a brash new style made up of flashy aerials and skate-park-style tricks. He could show up almost anywhere and see possibilities on waves that others couldn't. “I don't think of a wave as a curved surface,” Slater explains. “It's an infinite number of flat surfaces that link up at different angles. When you're on your board and it's pushing against one of those flat surfaces, it makes a plane. You want all your energy to be pushing 90 degrees to that plane.”
Thanks to the Baywatch stint and his on-and-off relationship with superbabe Pamela Anderson, Slater was also becoming a media darling at the time. As his success grew, his inner turmoil and outward isolation increased as well. “I had great years on the tour,” he says. “But I was a competitive machine, and my friends hated me. I'd win 25 grand in a contest and wouldn't buy anyone dinner.”
By 1998, having achieved every surfing goal he'd ever had, Slater found himself “totally bored with life.” Though he was bringing in around $1 million annually from endorsements and prize money, he showed up at the ASP awards banquet the night after he'd won his sixth world title and announced his retirement from full-time competition.
Slater continued to compete in a few ASP events while exploring other activities. He scored several acting spots on HBO; toured with his rock band, the Surfers; opened a Kelly Slater–themed surf shop; and launched a video game, Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer.
He also began addressing the problems he'd ditched in Cocoa Beach. For the first time since high school, he spent a few months out of the year in his hometown, seeing Sean almost daily, visiting his mother twice a week, and getting to know his daughter, Taylor, born in 1996 to his girlfriend at the time.
Then, in the fall of 2000, while Slater was surfing at an event in France, his father, a lifelong smoker, was diagnosed with throat cancer. The illness led to a reconciliation between Slater and his dad. Steve flew to Hawaii to watch him compete at Pipeline in December 2001, while Slater helped arrange and pay for aggressive treatment for his father's disease. In 2002, going stir-crazy watching the battle for the world title from the beach, Slater rejoined the ASP tour, only to be called home soon after the first event when his dad's health began to rapidly decline. Steve Slater died that April.
Losing his father paved the way for what Slater describes as an expanded “awareness.” Then, while taking an early-season break in 2003 between events in Australia, his adopted second home (he's owned an apartment in Sydney since 1992), a close friend challenged him to lead his family's emotional recovery—not be victimized by it. The words were penetrating, and Slater, with his friend's encouragement, enrolled in a series of local therapeutic workshops that helped him identify troublesome behavior patterns and emotional sand traps.
“At first I thought, This sucks—now I know I can help, and that's work,” Slater says. “But I realized I could change my family's life, and that makes you want to get up in the morning.”
He began to examine his life in and out of the water and look for connections. That May, Slater broke his foot riding waves on an afternoon off during a contest in Teahupoo, Tahiti. “I thought about all the things that were going on around the injury: I drank two beers right before, and flirted with this girl who had a boyfriend. Then I go for a surf and bang!” he says. “The injury symbolized a lot—I had to make a choice to take a different path.”
Slater decided to compete the next day, his foot numbed by lidocaine, and won the event. He realized that if he approached his personal problems the same way he tackled tricky waves—by breaking them down into subtly interconnected parts—surfing was transformed from an escape to a means for balancing his entire life.
“The waves have been Kelly's teachers,” adds Danny Kwock, 44, a former pro who's mentored Slater for 15 years and is now president of Quiksilver's entertainment division. “It was a subliminal education, but it led to epiphanies about who he wanted to be.”
In mid-September, I join several thousand spectators in San Clemente, California, at the eighth contest of the ASP's 11-event 2005 season, and the only stop on the U.S. mainland. Slater is still two months away from reclaiming the title that Hawaiian Andy Irons has held for the past three years. “I'm as relaxed as I've ever been,” Slater told me earlier. “The last few years I was trying to find my bearings. I had to figure out how I was going to reapproach competition, because I didn't want to do it like I did before.”
I watch from an elevated platform, standing several feet from supermodel Gisele Bündchen, who is almost as excited to meet Slater as the guys on the beach are to see her in snug jean cutoffs and a tank top. In the finals, Slater is up against Australian Phil MacDonald, who dispatched Irons in the quarterfinals. With just three minutes left, MacDonald appears to have Slater beaten. Slater needs an 8.7 to take over the lead. He paddles into a wimpy roller far inside the takeoff zone. Everyone thinks it, and some say it: How can he win on that?
But Slater strings together a series of elegant, corkscrewing maneuvers, spinning against the push of the water and skating along the foaming lip. The judges' score: 9.1. Dozens of rowdy Aussie pros and fans, who have been drinking beer all day, crush their Foster's oil cans in disappointment. Slater, meanwhile, coasts to the beach smiling, at last as happy to be ashore as on a wave.
Climb an 8,000-Meter Peak
Go for ItClimb 26,906-foot Cho Oyu or 29,035-foot Mount Everest with International Mountain Guides. $12,000 (Cho Oyu); $36,750 (Everest); 360-569-2609, www.mountainguides.com
I’VE STOOD ATOP 8,000-meter summits—26,247 feet above sea level or higher—20 times, and it’s always a challenge. You need to be physically prepared, of course, but at that altitude climbing becomes mostly a mind game. You’re pushing your body where it was never meant to go. However, the payoff is unmatched. At the summit, the sky seems almost black, and the view is amazing: All those 20,000-foot peaks you walked past in the valley look like tiny bumps from 26,000 feet. Any 8,000-meter peak requires a huge commitment of time and money: six to seven weeks minimum to climb and at least $12,000 for a guide up an easier peak—like Cho Oyu, in Tibet. For Everest, plan on ten weeks and about $35,000.
SKILLS & TIPS: Don’t rush your apprenticeship. If you really want to be smart and safe, you’ve got to work your way up the ladder. Try a mountaineering seminar on 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, in Washington State. Move on to one of Mexico’s volcanoes, like El Pico de Orizaba or Iztaccihuatl (18,700 and 17,342 feet, respectively), then hit 22,834-foot Aconcagua, in Argentina, and finally Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet. This could take you three to five years—you’ll need it. Even on a guided expedition, don’t expect to have your hand held every step of the way. You need to know things like how to climb with ropes and crampons, the basics of crevasse rescue, and how to put up a tent in extreme conditions.
TRAINING: If you can exercise for one or two hours a day, you’ll get where you need to be and stay strong throughout your time on the mountain. To build endurance, I run about seven miles a day, going up and down hills, trying to maintain a steady push the whole time. I know successful climbers who do stairs in an office building—up and down, up and down.
When you’re climbing an unstable talus field or a snow slope with a load on your back, you rely on your abs and back for balance as much as you work your legs. In the gym, you want to simulate those movements made in the mountains. Stand on one leg or balance on an unstable wobble board while doing squats or curls. Do forward and backward lunges carrying up to 40 pounds in each hand. Carry 30-pound dumbbells, stepping up onto a bench and off the other side. Do pull-ups using every possible hand position. Do three to four sets of each exercise, with eight to 12 reps, four times a week. Afterwards, run or do an hour on a StairMaster with a 50-pound pack on your back. These gym sessions hurt, but not as much as having to walk away from a climb because you weren’t fit enough.
—As told to Dougald MacDonald
Race Hawaii’s Ironman
Go for ItTake your bike, running shoes, and swimsuit to camps run by Multisports.com. The three-day clinics, conducted at each of Ironman’s five racing sites in the lower 48, will have you swim, bike, and run the entire course, then glean training and racing tips from Ironman Triathlon pros Paula Newby-Fraser, Paul Huddle, and Roch Frey. $695; 760-635-1795, www.multisports.com
COMPLETING AND IRONMAN, with its 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run, is definitely doable for any fit athlete. But completing the Ironman, in Kona, Hawaii—the gold standard of endurance events and the official Ironman Triathlon World Championship—is truly worth the effort to get there. On race day, you’ll swim the 80-degree crystal-clear waters of Kailua Bay, cycle through Kona’s legendary lava fields, and get a final emotional push while running down Alii Drive during the last half-mile as the huge crowds cheer you on. There are almost no rank beginners at Kona—only 150 spots are available by lottery for U.S. citizens, and the rest of the American field must qualify by finishing a half Ironman or longer race. But getting across the finish, no matter what your time—I placed 159th in my first one—is a milestone you’ll never forget.
SKILLS & TIPS: Practice “T2,” the bike-to-run transition, which will hit you hard after a 112-mile ride. Do it at least once a week; even if it’s just a short run after a bike ride, you’re conditioning your legs to get used to running after biking. Train solo sometimes, as it prepares you for the solitude of the race. Ride challenging routes on windy days, because race day is always windier than you expect. When racing, don’t push too hard on the bike—that happens even at the pro level—as it leaves some serious carnage on the road by the end of the marathon. Similarly, hold back for most of the run; if you feel good with 10K to go, then pick it up. Don’t speed through the transitions: If you forget a hat or sunglasses, or leave with a rock in your shoe, it could ruin your race. Finally, eat often. Even a 100-calorie deficit can affect your performance.
TRAINING: Before you tackle any Ironman, you should have worked your way up through three half Ironmans in a year and be able to easily ride 100 miles and run for two hours straight in the same day. Four months out from the race, set up a weekly training plan, with 20 percent of your time spent swimming, 30 percent running, and 50 percent on the bike. The bike is the best place to build endurance—it doesn’t beat up your body, like running does, but the muscles you strengthen while cycling also help with running. Your biggest training week is five weeks before the race, when, at a minimum, you should spend nine hours on the bike, 5.5 hours running, and 3.5 hours swimming. Then taper your workload by 25 percent each of the following weeks. During the final week, do very little, as an injury or overexertion at this point can hurt your race. Arrive five days before the event, to adjust to climate and time changes.
—As told to Dimity McDowell
Love a Dog, Plant a Tree, & Drive Great Roads
Great Ocean RoadPush the speed limit on the world’s great coastal highways: Australia’s Great Ocean Road
Love a Dog
By Ann Patchett
I did not rush into getting a dog of my own. Despite the happy dogs of my youth, I wasn’t sure about the commitment. What about those spontaneous trips out of town? What about vet bills and sleeping late and going for walks in the pounding, freezing rain? It seemed like a level of adulthood I wasn’t ready for yet.
Oh, nobody’s ready. It’s just that one day you’re walking through the park not even thinking about a dog, but there she is, the giant ears, the bright eyes, the tail that wags a full 75 percent of her body. In an instant, all those solid reasons become nothing more than a collection of flimsy excuses. The girl who is trying to give her away (she found the puppy by the side of the road in a snowstorm) gives her to you because this is Your Dog.
Or that’s how it was for me and Rose.
Like any love, it was giddy at first. I couldn’t get my work done. I kept having to stop and roll around on the floor with her. She followed me from room to room, licking my ankles. She was small and white, maybe a cross between a Jack Russell and a Chihuahua, without the deep neurosis of either breed. If shedding were an Olympic sport, she would have brought home the gold. I was besotted.
This is not to say that I didn’t know love until my dog came along. I’ve loved plenty of people. I’ve loved plenty of dogs, for that matter. But Rose is my dog, and I am her person. Our commitment to one another is unshakable. She would throw all of her 17 pounds in the path of any pit bull to protect me, and I would do the same for her. Dogs know something about love writ large. The rotten part is that their life span is so much shorter than ours. Barring some seriously bad luck, I will outlive Rose by a large margin. She is 11 now. She has cataracts, and her back legs are weak. When we take long hikes, I always wind up carrying her home on my shoulders. Rose has taught me how to be a better person. I’m not sure I’ve taught her anything, except how to tell me when she wants another biscuit. Rose could not be a better dog. When she dies, I imagine I will howl like her ancestors, but the inevitable end of a relationship is no reason not to go there in the first place.
Ann Patchett is the author of Bel Canto and four other books.
Plant a Tree Each Year on Your Birthday
A single tree removes 685 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere over a 40-year period—enough to offset 550 miles driven in a car. Check www.treelink.org to find native tree species in your area.
Push the speed limit on the world’s great coastal highways.
The Great Ocean Road, Australia (www.greatoceanrd.org.au): Master the left lane, then gear up for 219 miles of salty air from Torquay to Warrnambool, along the southwest coast of Victoria. Better yet, do it in a Ferrari (www.touristaustralia.com.au). Pacific Coast Highway, USA (www.bigsurcalifornia.org): Drive south from San Francisco on Highway 1, a mainly two-lane paved road that hugs central California’s rugged coastline past the village of Carmel and the redwoods of Big Sur. The Garden Route, South Africa (www.gardenroute.co.za): Head east from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth on this 490-mile coastal drive rich with white-sand beaches and a year-round Mediterranean climate.
Know your constellations.
To see all 88, you’re going to need more than one hemisphere. Start by memorizing your first few at the Star Hill Inn, near Las Vegas, New Mexico. Owner Phil Mahon takes his guests on hour-and-a-half star tours where he introduces the major constellations, like Orion and Gemini, then helps illuminate the fainter ones, like the elusive Lynx. One-bedroom guesthouses from $170; 505-425-5605, www.starhillinn.com
Write a Fan Letter
Climb El Cap
Go for ItLearn to climb with the pros at Yosemite Mountaineering School, which offers one-on-one guided climbs of El Cap for $3,198 per person (six days). 209-372-8344, www.yosemitemountaineering.com
Yosemite's El CapHit the Wall: Yosemite’s El Cap
I FIRST CLIMBED YOSEMITE’S El Capitan with my father, when I was 16, ascending the 35-pitch, 5.9c2-rated Salathé Wall over four days. Since then I’ve climbed El Cap 25 times. When I’m up there, I feel like I’ve got three times as much energy as I do anywhere else—like I’m living at a whole different level. Every big-wall climber aspires to do El Cap; it’s like passing the entrance exam to climbing’s graduate school. It’s a huge endeavor. Everything feels awkward, your hands and feet swell, and you get all these nasty cuts and scrapes. To succeed, you have to be willing to look past that to the amazing things, like waking on a ledge 80 stories in the air. Prepare well and you’ll have a great time. There’s nothing better than looking back up at that enormous cliff from El Cap Meadow after you’ve just climbed it.
SKILLS & TIPS: You don’t have to be an elite climber to scale one of the standard routes, like the Nose (5.9c1) or Lurking Fear (5.7c2). But you’ll need at least a couple of years of practice on traditional climbing routes, where you place and remove your own gear. Once you’re comfortable free-climbing 5.9-rated trad routes, you’re ready for the basics of aid climbing, where you use nylon ladders called “aiders” attached to temporary anchors in the wall, which let you climb rock that may be too steep or smooth for free climbing. Crack climbs the length of one rope are also good for honing both free and aid techniques, but make sure you also do some routes with at least five or six pitches, where you’ll need to set up multiple belay anchors and get comfortable with big-time exposure high up on a cliff’s face.
Before attempting El Cap, do at least one wall like the 11-pitch, 5.8c1-rated South Face of Washington Column, in Yosemite; this route takes most people a day and a half, compared with the three to five days it takes to get up El Cap’s easier routes. The Column will help you dial in your systems for hauling gear, jumaring up a rope, and managing ropes and huge racks of gear slung over your shoulder.
TRAINING: Stamina is the key fitness requirement for big-wall routes; you need to be able to sustain a moderate level of exertion all day, with periodic bursts of intense power. Foremost, you need to get mileage in on long pitches. Recreational climbers should climb from dawn to dusk whenever they can and put together at least two long days in a row before heading to Yosemite. No crag near home? Combine several sports for an all-day workout. I often do a two-hour trail run or bike ride before starting a three- or four-hour bouldering or rock-gym session, and I’ll end with an hour of weights.
You’ll need plenty of upper-body strength on El Cap, so close out sessions at the climbing gym with three sets of pull-ups and crunches, doing as many reps as you can while maintaining good form. Do pull-ups by holding the bar with your hands six inches wider than your shoulders to better simulate climbing. In the weight room, emphasize squats, leg presses, and calf raises to build leg muscles for standing in aiders and hauling up the “pig”—the bag that holds all of your water, food, and sleeping gear.
—As told to Dougald MacDonald
Watch Children, Take an Epic walk, Travel in India, & Crush Grapes
Watch a Kid Do Something Great
By Ian Frazier
It doesn’t have to be your own kid. It can be a niece or nephew, a younger colleague or neighbor—someone whose parent you could have been. When we lived in Missoula, Montana, a local boy named Eric Bergoust competed at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics in the freestyle ski jump. I got caught up in watching him on TV, particularly after a Montana paper reported that when Eric was little he used to pile mattresses on his lawn and jump onto them from his roof. Unexpectedly, he won the gold medal. In an interview afterwards, at a momentary loss for words, he blurted out, “Missoula rules!” I was transported, inspired. I felt personally implicated, as if I were watching not only him but me.
The pleasure is admittedly even sweeter if the kid is yours. It’s an emotional fact that seeing your kid in pain hurts a lot more than experiencing the pain yourself. But the other side of that empathy is even more dramatic: Witnessing your kid’s triumph is gigantically more exhilarating than enjoying your own. To give one example (and only one; parents can be boring about this) from my own life: I was hiking in Glacier National Park with a friend who is an expert on plants and gardening, and she asked me the name of a yellow wildflower along the trail. My son, following along behind, said, “That’s arrowleaf balsamroot.” My son was eight at the time. Had the flower itself spoken, my friend could hardly have been more surprised. He had learned the local wildflowers in second-grade science, from a teacher named Yarrow. We looked up the flower in the book, and he was right; the moment is still glorious in my mind.
Now imagine this pleasure publicly multiplied in the world, big time. The boy you coached in Little League grows up to become Alex Rodriguez; the girl whose violin lessons you paid for plays Carnegie Hall. It can happen. Seventeen years ago, the photographer Sylvia Plachy took my picture for an interview. She mentioned she lived in Brooklyn and had a son in junior high. When I saw her again recently, that son, the actor Adrien Brody, had just won an Academy Award. Telling me about it, she was quietly incandescent with pride. Middle age, as we know, offers a diminishing portfolio of thrills. Thankfully, the possibility of a kid you love doing something completely great, and the thrill of seeing it, remains.
Ian Frazier has written nine books.
Take an Epic Walk
A profile of the 211-mile John Muir Trail looks like an EKG of a heart attack, but your reward for all the ups and downs is a best-of tour of the Sierra Nevada. The route crosses three national parks and summits the tallest peak in the lower 48, Mount Whitney (14,494 feet). A less strenuous choice: northwestern Spain’s Camino de Santiago, a 90-mile pilgrimage to the grave of St. James.
Travel around India for a month—without once consulting a guidebook.
Crush grapes with your bare feet.
Savor the squoosh of a ripe grape beneath a purple-stained toe, like Italy’s winemakers used to do. Old-fashioned wine-pressing barns, called palmentos, can still be found in Sicily. During the harvest in October, take part in a ceremonial crush with outfitter Lost in Italy as part of a nine-day tour of Sicily and the Aeolian Islands. $2,495; 888-522-5678, www.gogetlost.com
Sail in Odysseus’s wake.
Stage your own reenactment of Homer’s legendary king’s journey—sans cyclops and sirens—by chartering a yacht in the Aegean from the Moorings for about $450 per day (888-952-8420, www.moorings.com) and reading Hal Roth’s book We Followed Odysseus (Seaworthy Publications, $28). Or hop aboard a 114-passenger yacht on Travel Dynamics International’s voyage, the Hero in History, in September 2007. From $7,965; 800-257-5767, www.traveldynamicsinternational.com
Cross the Atlantic
Go for ItLearn the basics at Steve & Doris Colgate’s Offshore Sailing School. Their ten-day Fast Track to Cruising course in the British Virgin Islands will certify you to skipper your own 50-foot yacht, though you’ll want to practice in the Caribbean’s calm water before tackling the Atlantic. From $3,150; 800-221-4326, www.offshoresailing.com
FOR AN AMATEUR SAILOR, navigating the Atlantic Ocean is a huge achievement. When you don’t see land and just a few ships for days, there is a great sense of freedom and adventure out there on the sea. If your aim is to maximize pleasure, set off in a bareboat setup with a four-person crew, minimum. The three-to-four-week crossing is a challenge, for sure, but it’s also very possible to do if you prepare both your skills and your equipment properly.
SKILLS & TIPS: First, solidify your sailing skills in a dinghy, a small boat that’s usually shorter than 15 feet long. Being in a small craft forces you to learn how to balance a boat, as well as get a sixth sense for the wind and how it affects the craft.
Once you’re proficient, look for your oceangoing vessel, something around 40 feet long; this will provide a relatively sturdy, safe, and comfortable ride. Regardless of length, you want a monohulled boat, not a multihull. If you get knocked down in a squall in a multihull, you can’t right it, and your trip is over.
When organizing your boat, make sure to have a replacement for every part—with the possible exception of the mainsail. Then take apart every piece of equipment you can and learn how to reassemble it; you’ll inevitably have to fix something at sea.
Usually, the best time to set sail from the U.S. is from mid-June through the end of July. You’ll avoid the stormy winter; iceberg season, which runs from April through the beginning of June; and hurricane season, from the end of August to September. If you’re sailing from Europe, go anytime from November through April, as you’ll travel with the trade winds that bring you south to the Caribbean Sea.
Avoid sailing too close to a storm because you’re greedy for speed. Not only is it dangerous; you risk running into a headwind, which will force you off course. The other mistake is the opposite: being paranoid of the gales and sailing into a windless high-pressure area. You’ll have to use your motor often, and you may run out of fuel—and a no-wind/no-fuel combo is worse than facing the gales. Stay on the northern edge of the Bermuda high, a subtropical high-pressure system in the North Atlantic, and it will carry you along in good style.
TRAINING: You don’t need to be in killer physical shape to sail across the ocean; if you can easily move and raise the sails, you’ll be fine. But practice climbing the mast while the boat is tied to the dock. Going up and having a look around at sea is one of sailing’s hardest tasks. Being familiar with it will be an advantage.
—As told to Dimity McDowell
Compete in the Olympics
By W. Hodding Carter
“You can’t do anything violently or suddenly in water. It even takes time for a stone to sink,” Johnny Weissmuller’s swimming coach once said. “Things must be done with relaxation and undulation, like that of a snake.”
That’s me these days—an undulating, relaxed 43-year-old snake slipping my way toward the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Like many people, I dreamed of being an Olympian as a kid. I slept with Heroes of the Olympics. I worshiped my sister’s life-size poster of Mark Spitz. I drank Gatorade like a hungover frat boy. I memorized all the quotes from Rod McKuen’s 1971 classic The Will to Win. Muhammad Ali: “I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.” . . . Sonja Henie: “Winning is like taking a vacation.” . . . Joe Frazier . . . well, you get the picture.
I started swimming when I was 11 months old, got second at state so many times I lost count, and eventually became an all-American and Division III national champion in 1984, my senior year in college. Although I’d finally found my stroke, I had to stop right then “to get on with your life,” as my dad put it. I was just over a second off the Olympic-trials qualifying time in the 200 freestyle, and I believed that with more training I’d make it in 1988. Instead, I went off to the Peace Corps. As a result of quitting then, I never stopped dreaming. I simply put my big splash on hold for a few years. Today, not only am I stronger than I was back then; my stroke is better, my heart, contrary to all principles of aging, is still as efficient as a 20-year-old’s, and I’m training faster than I ever have.
Just because I ended up puking on the deck of the Harvard pool last spring at a masters race and my feet turned a sickly yellow from lack of circulation and I cried in my hotel room all that night because my times were only equal to what I did when I was 15 doesn’t mean a thing.
Why am I doing this—setting myself up for such an inevitable (and now public) fall? Because I can’t just sit on my ass and do nothing. I’ve done that long enough. When there’s a big thing that you feel you can do and you don’t try for it, it’s a slow, painful life. Trying is the one thing that raises me above my baser self. It’s where greatness floats, waiting for me to surface.
I am a snake.
W. Hodding Carter’s book Flushed (Atria Books) is due out in May.
Swim with Sharks
get chummy with the ten-ton whale sharks of Belize, which feast on snapper spawn each spring in the Caribbean’s Gladden Spit Marine Reserve, off Placencia. The Oceanic Society offers two-week trips. $1,890 plus airfare; 800-326-7491, www.oceanicsociety.org
Go Deep in the Big Five.
Glacier National Park: Cross the Continental Divide on the Gunsight Pass Trail and camp at Lake Ellen Wilson. Great Smoky Mountains NP: Cast for browns and rainbows on Little Cataloochee Creek. Rocky Mountain NP: Snowshoe to Lake Helene from the Bear Lake trailhead. Yellowstone NP: Count the waterfalls along the Bechler River. Yosemite NP: Climb 11,180-foot Forsyth Peak, on the park’s remote northern edge. www.nps.gov
Listen to hippos laughing.
OK, so they’re not really laughing, but the odds of a sighting—or at least a hearing of the guttural har-har-har—are excellent in Lower Zambezi National Park, where CC Africa Safaris spends two days boating through prime hippo country during its nine-day Zambian Spice Trail trip. $3,893; 888-882-3742, www.ccafricasafaris.com
Get a Six-Pack
Sculpt washboard abs by combining short, high-intensity cardio exercise (to fry unwanted body fat), fiber-rich meals (to replace saturated and trans fats), and core-building drills. Our suggestion: Try three sets of ten stomach crunches while holding a medicine ball above your head and twisting your torso at the top of each rep.
Kayak the Grand
Go for ItEvery September, Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School offers a 15-day guided trip through the Grand Canyon for skilled Class III+ kayakers, complete with motorized raft support. Guests must provide their own kayaking equipment. $3,100; 530-462-4772, www.otterbar.com
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN PUTTING IN on the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry and emerging from the Grand Canyon at Diamond Creek Road, something will have changed inside you. While 4.5 million people each year come to gaze at the most epic piece of geography in the United States, only a lucky few see it from the inner gorge, paddling the full 226 miles through the red-rock chasm. Raft trips are terrific, but for a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment, run the GC in a kayak. You’ll churn through legendary whitewater like Class IV–V Lava, Crystal, and Granite rapids, earning every paddle stroke of the way.
Do the Grand Canyon right by planning the longest possible trip you can—two weeks or more (commercial trips range from six to 21 days). You’ll want to really get the most out of the experience by sinking into the landscape and soaking up the river. Second, be ready for the white-water, lest you spend those 14 days scared and exhausted. Every day you’ll be arriving at a new horizon line with pounding whitewater lurking below—Class IV washing machines like Hance, Horn, and Upset. But hone your kayaking skills beforehand and you’ll be in good shape to master the rapids, not just survive them.
SKILLS & TIPS: You want to be a solid Class III whitewater kayaker with some experience in Class IV. Beware: The high-volume Colorado in the Grand Canyon can flip you over at any time. You’ll need to be comfortable upside down in your boat, because you’re going to be spending a lot of time that way. To develop a feel for GC-size rapids, get experience on quality Class III–IV runs like those on Wyoming’s Snake, the Lochsa or the South Fork of the Payette, in Idaho, or Montana’s Kootenai or Alberton Gorge in the spring, when the rivers are thumping. If you live in the East, Ontario’s Class III–IV Ottawa River has big water all season long.
TRAINING: Kayaking involves short bursts of high-intensity output accumulating over the course of the entire day. Circuit training, with its functional, full-range movements completed at high intensity, is the best solution to get you in shape. Two or three times a week, follow 20 minutes of running or biking with any three of the four exercises below. Do a set of 5 to 15 reps of one exercise each minute, on the minute, for 30 minutes (for example, 15 overhead squats in minute one, ten dips in minute two, and five pull-ups in minute three; repeat). As your strength grows, increase the difficulty and number of reps of each exercise.
1) OVERHEAD SQUATS: Hold an unweighted barbell overhead with arms slightly bent. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and squat down until your thighs are parallel to the ground. For more difficulty, add weights to the barbell; for less, hold a broomstick overhead.
2) DIPS: Lower yourself between a pair of dip bars while squeezing your elbows toward each other. When your arms are bent 90 degrees, press yourself back up until they’re straight. Keep your knees bent to engage your core. To make it easier, put your feet on an exercise ball behind you; for a harder lift, hang weights off a weight belt wrapped around your waist.
3) PULL-UPS WITH BENT KNEES: Hang from a pull-up bar and pull your knees toward your chest, then start doing pull-ups while holding your legs in place. When you tire later in the circuit, hold yourself for 15 seconds in a bent-arm hang with knees drawn up. Advanced option: L pull-ups, done with your legs held straight out and rigid in front of your body.
4) ELEVATED PUSH-UPS: Assume a standard push-up position, with your legs elevated on a bench, chair, or large stability ball at a level higher than your head. Holding your torso straight, lower yourself until your elbows are bent 90 degrees, then push yourself back up. Later in the circuit, substitute normal push-ups (feet on the ground).
—As told to Frederick Reimers
Explore 100 Countries, Fight for a Cause, Swim a Bioluminescent Sea, Cannonball a Cliff, Make a Martini, Circle the Earth, Run for Office
Explore 100 countries. (Sorry, airport layovers don’t count.)
Pick a cause and fight for it.
Swim in a bioluminescent sea.
Taking a nighttime dip in Puerto Rico’s Laguna Grande is like shaking a glow stick from the inside. This tropical alcove near Fajardo, on the island’s northeast side, is swarming with dinoflagellates, single-celled critters that produce a burst of bluish light when they’re bumped by a moving boat or a flailing arm. Yokahú Kayak Trips takes groups of two or more in sit-on-top kayaks for $35 per person, including 15 minutes of swim time. 787-604-7375
Cannonball off a cliff.
Make the perfect martini. “A great martini is anything but easy,” says Dale DeGroff, the celebrated mixologist who honed his skills at New York’s Rainbow Room before founding the Museum of the American Cocktail, opening soon in Las Vegas and New York. Pointers: Chill the glass, not the vodka; use French dry vermouth and premium vodka or gin; and—with apologies to James Bond—stir, don’t shake. Dale’s Perfect Martini (www.kingcocktail.com) contains three ounces of gin and a quarter-ounce of vermouth, garnished with chilled Spanish olives without pimento, plus a twist of lemon.
Circle the Earth from Space
Virginia-based Space Adventures (888-857-7223, www.spaceadventures.com) offers eight days—that’s about 128 orbits—aboard the International Space Station for $20 million. Pinching pennies? The successful launch and reentry of Paul Allen’s SpaceShipOne has experts projecting $100,000 low-orbit flights by 2008.
Run for Office
Get Fit for a Lifetime
To help prepare you for going big, we’ve pulled together 15 essential tips from award-winning writer Paul Scott’s new book, Outside Fitness. Whether you run, bike, swim, climb, or simply want to keep yourself in peak form, follow these fundamentals to stay primed for action.
Kelly SlaterTHE SHAPE OF YOUR LIFE: Kelly Slater believes the key to success is a sound body and mind.
1) PERIODIZE YOUR WORKOUT. Systematically increase volume and intensity over three-week periods; on the fourth week, cut the workload by half. This pattern of stress and recovery will maximize your training and prevent your body from becoming unresponsive to stimuli.
2) REST AND GROW STRONGER. Schedule a day or two of time off each week, an easy week every month, and a solid month of active rest, such as walking, per year. You get stronger when your body recovers; if you keep pushing yourself every day, you’ll quickly burn out.
3) REALIZE THAT 30 MINUTES IS 30 MINUTES. Ten minutes of exercise three times a day equals 30 minutes of exercise done all at once. Just make sure those ten-minute blocksinclude hard efforts like jumping rope.
4) REACH YOUR PEAK BY EASING OFF. If you’ve been training hard for months, taper your workload by 25 percent each week starting four weeks before an event or adventure. During the last two weeks you want to be mostly resting up for your big day or trip.
5) TAKE YOUR EXERCISE OUTSIDE. First, you’ll have more fun; second, it’ll seem easier, because you’ll be visually distracted; and third, you’ll stick with it longer in life, because it’s not dull or monotonous.
6) TRAIN BODY MOVEMENTS, NOT BODY PARTS. In the real world your muscles are used for stepping, squatting, pushing, pulling, extending, and rotating, which requires training with multiple joint movements like squats and standing overhead dumbbell presses.
7) WORK OUT IN THE MORNING. It’ll take longer to warm up and loosen your spine and joints, but an a.m. workout completed before the day’s obligations pile on is the best way to ensure that you exercise regularly.
8) FOCUS ON PERFECT FORM. Three lifts done with good form build more muscle faster and more safely than 30 lifts done poorly. In the same way a perfect stride or stroke makes a faster runner or swimmer, a perfect lift teaches you how to apply your strength precisely.
9) USE DUMBBELLS AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE WHEN LIFTING. They’re safer than a barbell and generally more effective, since they prevent one arm from becoming stronger than the other. They also better replicate how you lift loads in everyday life.
10) LOWER WEIGHTS SLOWLY. In the real world, muscles are most needed when absorbing shock and torque from dynamic sports like basketball, tennis, and volleyball, and descending against gravity while, say, skiing, mountain-biking, or hiking. Train your body for these circumstances by letting the weight down smoothly and slowly after you lift it up.
11) MAKE STRETCHING A DEDICATED PART OF YOUR WORKOUT. Try yoga, or a DIY session involving your own sport-specific routine, for at least 10–15 minutes a day. You’ll improve your flexibility and boost muscle endurance.
12) CREATE A HOME WORKOUT. That way, you have no excuse not to exercise. Whether you start a run out your door or clear space somewhere in the house for a dumbbell-based lifting plan, you’re at your gym the second you leave the bed and hit the floor.
13) STRENGTH-TRAIN AT LEAST THREE TIMES A WEEK. Research shows once is generally too little to effectively build a strong body. Three times a week, allowing at least 36 hours of rest between each weight-lifting session (yoga and Pilates count, too), will give your muscles enough time to recover.
14) MAKE YOUR CORE MUSCLES YOUR FIRST PRIORITY. If you have time to work only one muscle group in the weight room or gym, make it your torso, which includes your back, stomach, hips, and chest. Without a solid core, you won’t be able to excel in any sport.
15) LEARN YOUR LACTATE THRESHOLD (LT). LT is the approximate point where you start to struggle to maintain your effort, and training just above and below that level through brief intervals builds speed and endurance. To find yours, wear a heart-rate monitor during an endurance session and note your heart rate when you start breathing too hard to sustain a conversation. Then, twice a week, mix in several three-to-ten-minute intervals where you hit your LT.
Learn to Fly, Live off the Land, Climb Kilimanjaro
Learn to Fly
September 2004, the FAA has offered a Sport Pilot certification for less than half the time and money (20 hours and $3,000) it takes to earn your traditional general aviation wings. Light sport aircraft are limited to 1,320 pounds and a max speed of 120 knots. Find a class in your area at www.sportpilot.org—because how cool would it be to load your mountain bike into your plane and fly to Moab for the weekend?
Get schooled to save a life.
When your kayaking buddy shows signs of hypothermia, you’ll be glad you took the two-day Wilderness First Aid course ($175) or the nine-day Wilderness First Responder ($695) with Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities. The Conway, New Hampshire– based school of emergency and wilderness medicine offers courses throughout the country. www.soloschools.com
Buy a one-way ticket to a country where you don’t speak the language—and stay until you learn it.
If you’re going to commit, head for someplace beautiful—like the beaches of Brazil. Untie your tongue at Idioma, a Portuguese language center only five minutes from the sand in the city of Salvador. With three and a half hours of language instruction a day, you’ll have time to sign up for their Afro-Brazilian dance classes, too. $485 for three weeks, lodging not included; www.portugueseinbrazil.com
Shoot a Hole in One
Golf Digest reports that the odds of a player making an ace in a given round are a slim 5,000 to 1. Two aces in a round? Sixty-seven million to 1. But getting an ace in a 5,000-round career, they claim, is “almost assured.” At the rate of two games a week, it would take you just under 50 years—so keep swinging.
Live off the land for a week in the wilderness—solo.
Pack your tackle and a mycology text, then commune with the fishes and the fungi. Kluane Airways will fly you and a canoe to Caribou Lakes, in the Yukon, where you can pluck graylings from the Liard River as you paddle more than 100 miles to Finlayson Lake. Then you’ll be shuttled by van to Inconnu Lodge (250-860-4187, www.inconnulodge.com) to celebrate your accomplishment with a real meal. $1,400 for flights, van pickup, and a night at the lodge; canoe, $35 per day; sat-phone rental, $25 per day
Climb Kilimanjaro (without losing your lunch).
Start a new tradition.
Bike the Tour Route
Go for ItDestination Cycling treats riders like pros on its four-week Tour de France Challenge team, June 28–July 24, 2006. Lodging, meals, daily massage, and full mechanical and logistical support allow riders to focus on one thing: finishing the ride. $30,000; 781-990-1486, www.destinationcycling.com
Lance ArmstrongBe Like Lance
IN THE WORLD OF PRO CYCLING, finishing your first three-week stage race is a huge rite of passage. In the world of amateur cycling, riding a course like the Tour de France is one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences you can have. Circumnavigate France over approximately 2,100 miles and you’ll get to take in some of the most spectacular scenery in the Alps and the Pyrenees. You won’t be battling Ivan Basso or Alexandre Vinokourov, but by finishing you’ll have achieved something that puts you in rare company—not to mention acquiring a newfound appreciation for what the pros endure.
Several days before the Tour’s official start in July is the best time to begin your ride; many of the roads will be freshly paved for the race, and there will be other cyclists around to share the fun (and pain). Tour stages average 100 to 150 miles per day. The climbing stages are so difficult that even elite racers take up to seven hours to complete them. Fans camp out on all of the mountain passes a few days before the race gets there, and they’ll cheer for you as you grind past. To experience the true wrath of the Tour, ride the route in 21 days, with two rest days; or do the route in 42 days and you’ll have time to stop and smell the fields of sunflowers and admire the views in the high mountains.
SKILLS & TIPS: You need to be in good enough shape to bike ten hours a week before you start. Practice riding in pace lines on group rides, as the route will be teeming with other cyclists also doing the ride.
TRAINING: This 12-week program won’t make you Lance, but it will give you a solid chance of finishing your personal Tour. THE LINGO: EnduranceMiles = moderate, conversational pace; RecoveryMiles = easy pace; Tempo = max effort you can sustain for an hour; SteadyState = max effort sustainable for 20 minutes.
Total Time: Week 1, 17.5 hrs; Week 2, 19 hrs; Week 3, 20 hrs; Week 4, 8.5 hrs
2.5–3 hrs EnduranceMiles with two 10-minute Tempo sessions
3–4 hrs EnduranceMiles
3 hrs EnduranceMiles with two 15-minute Tempo sessions (skip on Week 4)
1 hr RecoveryMiles (skip on Week 4)
3–4 hrs EnduranceMiles with four 4-minute uphill, high-gear intervals
5 hrs EnduranceMiles with hill climbs (skip on Week 4)
Total Time: Week 5, 19 hrs; Week 6, 20 hrs; Week 7, 22 hrs; Week 8, 11 hrs
3 hrs EnduranceMiles with four 8-minute SteadyState intervals (skip on Week 8)
3.5–4 hrs EnduranceMiles with four 10-minute SteadyState intervals
3 hrs EnduranceMiles (skip on Week 8)
1 hr RecoveryMiles
3.5–5 hrs EnduranceMiles with two 15-minute Tempo sessions on a hill climb
5–6 hrs EnduranceMiles (only 3 hrs on Week 8)
Total Time: Week 9, 18 hrs; Week 10, 19 hrs; Week 11, 21 hrs; Week 12, 14.5 hrs
2.5 hrs EnduranceMiles with four 8-minute speed or climbing intervals (skip on Week 12)
3–4 hrs EnduranceMiles
3–4 hrs EnduranceMiles
2–3 hrs EnduranceMiles with three sets of three 4-minute max-effort intervals
1 hr RecoveryMiles
1 hr RecoveryMiles
3.5–5 hrs EnduranceMiles with one 40-minute Tempo session
5–6 hrs EnduranceMiles
—As told to Andrew Vontz
Plant an Organic Garden, Master the Crane Pose, Motorcycle to Panama, Surf Baja, Follow a River
Plant an Organic Garden
Master the crane pose.
Novice yogis know bakasana, or the crane pose, as the pain-in-my-everything position that puts hands to floor, shins to triceps, butt in the air, and toes off the ground . . . and usually ends half a second later with a distinctly unbirdlike collapse on the floor. Consult www.yogajournal.com/poses for help.
Ride a motorcycle to Panama.
Surf your way down Baja’s coast.
Arm yourself with a 4×4, a quiver of boards, and a few spare tires to poke along the Pacific coast of Mexico’s Baja California. The 760-mile peninsula holds a lifetime of surfing potential: point breaks at K38, barrels at Isla Natividad, tequila and tropical water in Cabo. Baja Surf Adventures runs seven-day camping trips from $850. 800-428-7873, www.bajasurfadventures.com
Follow a River from Source to Sea
The 383-mile Potomac River starts as a trickle of water near the Fairfax Stone Site, in West Virginia, and ends in the Chesapeake Bay. Trail advocates are working to connect a network of Potomac Heritage Trails that will one day run along the entire river. But for now you can ride your bike on a flat hard-packed dirt trail along the 185-mile stretch of the C&O Canal from Cumberland, Maryland, to Washington, D.C. www.nps.gov/choh
Go for ItHit the Chugach’s steep and very deep in style with Dean Cummings H2O Heli-Guides, which will drop you up top six times a day. One week, $5,335; 800-578-4354, www.h2oguides.com
Alaska's Chugach MountainsPowder Day: Digging Deep in Alaska’s Chugach Mountains
I FIRST SKIED Alaska’s Chugach Mountains in 1991, and I was so smitten with the snow that I started a guiding company there in 1994. The combination of wet storms coming off the ocean followed by dry cold spells makes the snow this great velvety carpet that sticks to 45-degree pitches several thousand vertical feet long. Maybe you’ve skied or boarded the Rockies, the Alps, Canada, or even South America. But to really go after it, you’ve got to ski Alaska. The verticals are so big, the snow so amazing, you’ll ski things you never thought you could. Everyone remembers every single run. Go during the eight-week window from around March 1 to April 25, and by the time you’re home you’ll have descended at least 100,000 vertical feet.
SKILLS & TIPS: You needn’t be a pro skier to handle the big Alaskan terrain, but you’ll need to be able to ski a black-diamond run—in control, in all conditions—without stopping for at least 1,000 vertical feet, and to have spent 20 to 30 days skiing before you go. When you ski powder this steep, the snow’s going to move downhill, and it can knock you over. (We call it getting “Chugached.”) Avoid these troublesome sloughs by veering left or right off the fall line so you’re not directly underneath your turns. And you’ve got to ski light on your edges and not miss a pole plant. Each plant helps you exaggerate the up and down—”the float and the sting,” as I like to say. Tight slalom turns will wear you out halfway down your first run. To build your technique, seek out a blue groomer at your home mountain and carve fast giant-slalom turns. The pitch and longer turns mean you’ve got to learn to ski 25 miles per hour, instead of ten. Head off-piste and try to maintain the same form.
TRAINING: Skiing 4,000 vertical feet in one run will make your thighs scream. The stronger they are, the better. Prepare by spending Mondays and Thursdays doing six one-minute wall sits (keeping your knees bent at 110 degrees is fine), resting two minutes between each. Add enough time every week to hold each for four minutes by the time of your trip. Those same days, swim laps for 30 minutes, go climbing for a couple of hours, or do an hourlong, six-exercise upper-body-and-core weight workout. Tuesdays and Fridays, trail-run 30 minutes for impact training. Skiing is anaerobic, so one session should include minute-long high-intensity intervals, with two minutes of rest between each. End both sessions with ten minutes of various stomach crunches: sit-ups, bicycle kicks, and leg lifts. Wednesdays and Saturdays are for biking—preferably mountain biking, since it’s reactive, like skiing, and strengthens knee muscles. One of these sessions should be at least one hour, complete with five-minute intervals of hard charging; the other should be two to four hours, to build your endurance. Do ten minutes of light, full-body stretching before and after every workout. Your hamstrings are the most important muscles for skiing, so spend the first and last two minutes of each stretching session focusing on them.
—As told to Ryan Brandt
Cross a Desert, Bike to Work, Road-Trip with a Mission, & Go Out in Style
Cross a desert.
Somewhere in eastern Algeria, where the rolling dunes stretch for hundreds of miles in every direction, you’ll start to feel the magnitude of the world’s largest desert. The caravan of 4x4s on Geographic Expeditions’ monthlong Sahara transect, in late October, runs from Alexandria, Egypt, to the edge of the Sahara in Morocco. From $10,000; 800-777-8183, www.geoex.com
Bike to work.
Learn a new instrument and play it on a street corner until you’ve earned enough for dinner.
Road-trip with a mission.
Pick a theme, then hit the highway. For inspiration, check out Killing Yourself to Live (Scribner, $23), music journalist Chuck Klosterman’s account of a cross-country journey to explore the haunts of dead rock stars, or Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation (Simon & Schuster, $21), a droll chronicle of her visits to landmarks in presidential-murder history. The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel (Lonely Planet, $18), by Rachel Antony and JoëHenry, is packed with other quirky ideas for travel with a twist.
Build a Tree House
Go Out in Style
By Bill Vaughn
Although I’m not planning to die anytime soon, you never know. So, without kids or a job to distract me, I found time to rehearse my funeral.
I started with some givens—that it should be entertaining and must be held in the open air at Dark Acres, our forested floodplain on Montana’s Clark Fork River. Among the events I wanted to include was a scary reading to get everyone in a nice goose-bumpy mood. And then I wanted live dance music. After that I thought it would be fun for people to step forward and say things. Or they could fish.
Finally, I wanted incense and fireworks and a huge, consuming fire. There’s nothing like a crackling blaze to stoke a crowd’s appetite for the bison-chili feast I envisioned as the centerpiece of the drunken wake to follow.
Designing a funeral pyre isn’t easy. You can’t just pile up a bunch of brush and expect it to reduce a 180-pound man to six pounds of clinker. You need engineering. How big would the pyre have to be? And where do you stick the stiff? If on top, how do you make sure the smoldering corpse doesn’t roll off and frighten people? I Googled the problem but couldn’t find anything like Cremation for Dummies.
Then I remembered that the Hindus and the Buddhists like to torch their dead. I found some revealing photographs taken on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu. These showed the whole process.
Finding wood wasn’t a problem. For a cleansing inferno, there’s nothing like the pine and water birch that are plentiful in my forest, trees killed by bark beetles and drought. I felled a big ponderosa and a smaller birch with my chainsaw and cut them into rounds two feet long. After lunch I split the rounds with a maul into flat slabs. Then I stacked these slabs, alternating their orientation from layer to layer to give the pyre stability.
When I was finished, the stack stood four feet high, eight feet long, and four feet wide. OK, it was a little bigger than the standard pyre, but I was going for theatrical.
But how to get the cadaver the quarter-mile from house to pyre? Because of swamps, the river side of Dark Acres is usually inaccessible by pickup. I considered asking my pallbearers to drive my carcass upstream to a put-in on the river, then float me down by boat. But that would involve carting me out of the house, into the truck, out of the truck, and into my canoe, then out of my canoe and onto the pyre, a spectacle that might alarm other recreationists, who might call the sheriff.
Finally, I saw that the solution was to have the pallbearers splay me across the back of Scarlett, my big palomino mare. Then Kitty, my wife, would lead her through the swamps with Rolex, our paint gelding. Although the drama of a final ride appealed to me, this turned out to be easier said than done. Scarlett’s not a pack animal—she’s trained to compete in rodeos. It’s not that she’s skittish so much as easily insulted when asked to do work she feels beneath her. However, after I heaved myself, sacklike, onto the saddle a few times, she got the point and allowed Kitty to lead her for a few feet before I slid to the ground.
“Tell me you’re not serious about this,” Kitty said.
“You want to blow $6,000 on a boring funeral?”
I don’t object to burial for others—we buried a beloved horse and dog at Dark Acres. But as entertainment, I didn’t think even a homemade, old-timey funeral in the woods would be dramatic enough for me.
“Why can’t you just get cremated like normal people?” Kitty asked. “I’ll spread the ashes wherever you want.”
“You’re going to invite people over to look at an urn? That’s like inviting them to see our new home theater and then showing Gigli.”
When it was time for the dry run, I picked a cool, moody afternoon. Then I arranged some lawn chairs at a distance from the pyre. Kitty sat down to watch. A couple days earlier I’d come across a whitetail doe killed with an arrow to the belly. She now lay upon the pyre, under a bedsheet festooned with incense and wildflowers. To get things off to a roaring start, I emptied two liters of my favorite vodka on the pyre. Then I torched the business end of a broom and began sweeping the base of the pyre with it. As the flames climbed through the stack and the smoke began to swirl, I backed away. Soon the pyre was roaring.
It takes three hours at a temperature of 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit for the ovens in a crematorium to fry an adult. The peak temperatures in my pyre would range from 1,200 to 1,500 degrees, toasty enough to do the job; it would just take a little longer, maybe even overnight. But that was all right—I had nothing but time.
There issued from the pyre a mélange of fragrances as complicated as an old wine: carnation, jasmine, alcohol, grilled venison, and the pungent reek of burning flesh. I opened my book and read out loud T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”
Then I punched the boom box and we listened to a CD made by a jazz band, Cheap Cologne, that had played at our wedding. Although they are disbanded, I hoped Kitty could convince them to reprise their excellent nuptial performance at my funeral. As the final chord faded in a flurry of drums, I used my smoldering broom to touch off my fireworks. First there was a terrific volley of Screaming Busters. Whoosh! they went as they launched themselves out of their mortars, and a second later boom! as they exploded above the river in great spreading bouquets of green and blue. Then the echo rebounded off the Bitterroot Mountains. Next came a fusillade of Cracking Pistols, sticks that rapid-fire a dozen shots each, a relentless chucka! chucka! chucka! that sounded like midnight in Baghdad. Ten minutes later a vast silence fell over the floodplain, broken only by the remote howling of a dog. I made a note to triple the number of Screaming Busters.
Meanwhile, flames had completely engulfed the doe and vaporized the bedsheet. Her blackened skull and abdomen had ruptured, and her jaw had dropped away from her face, giving her an antic mile-wide rictus, as if the moment of death had been hilarious. Her brain was frying, her juices sizzling, her bones popping. Although this was a grisly sight, it had a certain morbid appeal, like something mutant in a bottle of formaldehyde that the eye registers but the mind resists. The images of my own denouement would be even more gruesome—people recoil from the human form on fire because it shows us how fragile is our flesh, how fleeting the physical life. As we shudder with revulsion, our thoughts race anxiously to witches, and Joan of Arc, and flaming monks in the streets of Saigon.
But the longer I watched the pyre, the more I felt at peace. Not only was this the kind of drama I was after in a funeral—a strong narrative with a beginning, middle, and end—it struck me that it was also a moving and emotional way to dispose of the dead. The flames would strip away my layers in the reverse order they were constructed, a poetic return to nothingness. Plus it even had some of the Catholic cosmology I grew up with, although I don’t think Father Todd at St. Ann’s would consider this a very Christian way to exit stage left.
Kitty put away her cell phone. She’d been talking to one of her sisters about horses. “Are you finished?”
“What do you think?”
“If this is what you want, I guess this is what you’ll get.”
“But no sati,” she said, surprising me. Sati is the archaic Hindu custom in which the widow threw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre in the belief that she would go directly to heaven.
“You’ve been doing your homework,” I said.
It would soon be dark, and the steaming pyre was now only a foot high. I could see the doe’s bones glowing in the dusk. By the next morning, which broke with the promise of a storm, the pyre was a low mound, inert and exhausted. A gust swept up the river, throwing around the branches of the trees. A moment later a whirlwind lifted the ashes into the air and dropped them on the water.
Contributing editor Bill Vaughn is the author of First, a Little Chee-Chee.