Cheating Death

From the May 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

When I finally got back to the car, I telephoned Rach. “Iʼm still alive,” I said to my best friend.

Which was a bit surprising; I hadnʼt fully expected to survive the trip. Four months after getting out of a wheelchair, a couple of weeks after Iʼd ceased fainting when I did something ambitious, like stand up, I had decided to hike into the crater of Haleakala Volcano, on the island of Maui.

Iʼve been traveling against all medical advice since 1990, when I collapsed down the stairs of a Japanese train station—and began my first conversations with medical professionals wearing serious expressions. Twenty-plus years later, I have a medical chart that comes with its own forklift. Details arenʼt really important, and besides, everyone has something; mine just includes lots of surgeries and repeated suggestions about the importance of funeral planning.

“The hike took seven hours,” I told Rach, my hand a little shaky holding the phone. “Slipped and almost fell a few times. But thereʼs this plant down in the crater, like a yucca dipped in silver. And itʼs so quiet there, you canʼt tell if youʼre hearing your heart beat or the sound of ocean waves moving up through all those miles of Earth.”

My friend was not having a good year. Fifteen months earlier—when doctors told me I probably didnʼt need to plan for my next birthday—a different batch of doctors told my friend her husband wasnʼt likely to last a lot longer than I.

So, from the rim of Haleakala, feeling considerably better than I had in a very long time, I did the only thing I could think of to help my friend. I told her the story I wished somebody had told me. The story that would have made my life—and the lives of the people who cared about me—easier.

The story about how every place I travel to comes down to how Iʼm going to live. Forget the bucket list. Itʼs the travel that, very literally, keeps me alive.

All of American Samoa is pausing for sa, sacred time, when I carry my supper down to the beach in Pago Pago, the territoryʼs capital. Green turtles bob up, as if asking for a bite. And why not? Savor every sandwich, live each day as if itʼs your last.

My problem with that idea, good as it seems at first glance, is that I long ago lost track of how many days were supposed to be my last. And do you even get a last day? Or just a last smile, a last touch? Science says the smallest meaningful measure of time is

10-43 of a second, and Buddhists will tell you the snap of a finger holds at least 60 separate moments. Which one of those should I aim my life for?

Or, looking at the turtles, should I go for the other extreme measure of time, a kalpa? As illustration, picture a turtle that surfaces to breathe only once every thousand years. Next, picture a small wooden ring floating on the ocean. A kalpa is how long it will take for the turtle to surface with its head through the ring.

Kalpa is closer to the understanding of time that I got from a hero of mine, Francis Cowan, whom I met once on Moorea. In 1956, Cowan and a friend built a boat and, using traditional Polynesian navigational techniques of observing stars and wave patterns, sailed toward Chile. Took “200 days exactly,” he said, as his puppy barked either at me or at the waves that splashed dragonʼs-eye blue. Over those 200 days, the two adventurers never knew for sure what they were sailing into. But it was okay. Because when you feel lost, Cowan told me, when all reference points have disappeared, “the ocean is great, and you can wait for another day.”

That is the first way travel keeps me alive. Because the world is great and incredibly generous with time.

I canʼt worry about my days being numbered when I know Iʼve already lived forever over a lingering breakfast in Venice with the woman who keeps my heart beating as I stare at her, framed by a view of gondolas bobbing in the Grand Canal and sextons rattling keys in front of the gray dome of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute.

When I saw him, Cowan was more than 80 years old and not healthy, yet he was working on a new canoe. As the poet Frank OʼHara said, “We fight for what we love, not are.”

Which is the second way travel keeps me alive. I am, my doctors tell me, what my friendʼs husband has decided he is: somebody who probably should stay

home. And Iʼve had times when Iʼve done that. At home, I have my books and my comfy chair, and in my yard is a lake where bald eagles cast their shadows, where bats pull twilight down with each flap of their wings. Not a bad place to be, even if all Iʼm doing is popping pain pills like Pez and watching lousy movies and gasping for breath. Even if all Iʼm doing is waiting for the days to go away, saying “No, not again” to every sunrise.

Saying no is the easiest thing in the world. But who loves no? If youʼre going to fight for what you love, donʼt you have to say yes?

Which is what got me into that volcano when I could barely walk. Which is what got me on that plane to Pago Pago.

In Pago, I say yes to a smaller plane to a smaller island, yes to people who offer me a ride to that islandʼs far side, yes to the captain who then takes me across the sea in a boat with an engine barely powerful enough for a model car, yes to the dot of jungle we reach, where the flowers are bigger than Frisbees and fairy terns swirl the air like smoke rings.

Say no, and all youʼre doing is waiting for time to finish. Say yes, yes, and itʼs the spell that opens Ali Babaʼs cave. The riches never run out.

Although exactly what those riches are has rather changed for me over the years. In my 20s, I trekked the Himalaya and watched prayer flags flutter in the heat from a single candle. In my 30s, I camped in the Arctic and ate squirrels weʼd trapped, because the elders I was with were getting sick from store-bought meat. In recent years, my cane has traveled more miles than my hiking boots. Which can be really frustrating. If I were healthy, where couldnʼt I go? Do a Buddhist kora— pilgrimage—around Tibetʼs revered Mount Kailash. Ride camels across the desert. Even in my shape, why canʼt I still trek the elf-haunted backcountry of Iceland—besides the fact that Iʼd probably keel over from a heart attack if I did, and elves are not known for their paramedic skills? Still ...

Which is exactly when I run into the fact that Daz, my travel companion of choice, is a beautiful, highly trained psychologist and Buddhist meditator. “Youʼre thinking that how things used to be is normal,” she says. “But theyʼre just how things used to be. What does that have to do with now?” Impossible to argue with. The late jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt reinvented his technique when two burned fingers gave him no other choice, while Claude Monet depicted flowers in a way no one had before when he had to peer at them through cataracts. I may suck at playing musical instruments, and I canʼt paint even a crooked line well, but I can travel. By doing so, I meet the world on its terms, which teaches me how to be honest with what the day is, instead of what I think it should be. And by doing so I find the best way to make now work no matter what then used to be.

This, then, is reason three: I learn itʼs not a matter of better or worse, but simply this or that. Imagine your house is on fire, somebody said to the artist Jean Cocteau. Whatʼs the one thing youʼd take out? The fire, Cocteau said. Every time I board a plane, Iʼm taking out the fire, all that noise of daily life, and keeping only whatʼs necessary:hope, amazement, love. When Iʼm home, I want to be that person who travels, the one who smiles at a stranger rather than retreats into a very familiar shell of distraction and pain and “No.” Heʼs a much, much better version of me than the one who picks up the pain pills and TV remote at the same time, the one who wouldnʼt leave the house for days if the dog didnʼt need to be walked.

Which means that, to make the travel possible, I do all of the things my doctors wish Iʼd do because they tell me to—though, frankly, their advice doesnʼt have nearly the same pull as, say, the possibility of swimming above a Samoan reef, its coral like fireworks. Where Iʼll float and look until I have the entire seascape memorized, from the octopus turning invisible in the sands to the way fish the size of birthday candles dart and pause, dart and pause. As if, like me, they donʼt want to risk missing anything.

Because how many genuinely undistracted moments do we really manage as adults? I mean the kind of complete being that, except in odd instances like floating over a coral reef, we left behind upon forsaking childhood, when weʼd ride our rocking horse, needing no world farther away than where the front hooves reached.

The fourth way that travel keeps me alive takes me back to Japan. When I lived there—and before that whole train station pratfall—my friend Atsuko would perform the tea ceremony at the Daitoku Temple in Kyoto every summer. The templeʼs worship halls were huge and lovely and held the scent of 700 years of prayers and candles.

I would sit enraptured as Atsuko, her kimono folded round her like brightly curved origami, worked through the most drawn-out way to make a simple cup of tea: turning the cup just so, taking the split bamboo whisk and churning the matcha into a froth. Full attention to every single breath and motion, as if she were on her rocking horse again.

When, at last, the tea ceremony ended, Iʼd bow to Atsuko and leave along dark boards polished by generations of shuffling monks. Just outside the tearoom was a small Zen rock garden known as Totekiko. In it were five rocks set in gravel. Around three of the rocks, the gravel was raked in a circle, like water reacting to dropped pebbles. Totekiko offered no single point where I could see everything at once. I had to move around to get it all in—an illustration of the fourth reason I leave home: So often travel confers the gift of a perfect day in a perfect place solely because we moved a little to the side. Depart crowded Venice for the quiet hill town of Asolo, where the hills trill birdsong like a music box. Share sunscreen with a stranger by the Dead Sea and make a friend for life.

Descend into a volcano and realize that Iʼve missed the most obvious point of all.

“So here is what I want you to know,” I say to Rach. After 20 years of hearing doctors say that Iʼm about to drop dead, this is the one thing I really want her husband to grasp. Because it took me a stupidly long amount of time to figure out for myself.

I was on my way to Inuvik, a town on the northwest edge of Canadaʼs remote Northwest Territories. Like everyone who drives the Dempster Highway, I pulled my truck over at the big sign that announced the Arctic Circle, an arc of wood reading “LAT 66° 33ʼN.”

I lined myself up with the sign and walked into the autumn tundra. Willows smaller than pencils hugged the ground for warmth, spreading around reindeer lichen, saxifrage, and Arctic blueberries as sweet as my momʼs cure-all kiss when I was a kid staying home sick from school. I walked until I found a little patch of flowers. Picked two, pressed them in my notebook. Pieces of the world.

A couple of weeks later, visiting Rach in Arizona, I fanned back the pages to offer her this moment when I was far away, yet thinking of her. And somehow, in the dark, closed notebook, those Arctic flowers had gone to seed like dandelions. As I brought them out, the fluff blew across the Arizona desert, looking for a new home—that incredible optimism of life that it can adapt and thrive in more places, in more ways, than we ever usually bother to realize. Even when itʼs our own lives. Maybe especially when itʼs our own lives.

My friend laughed at her disappearing flowers, confirming to me that the only reason to go anywhere, do anything, bother being alive at all, is to bring pleasure to those who are dear.

Which is exactly why Iʼve been so mad at her husband. Write that bucket list, live as if itʼs your last day, and what youʼre really doing is concentrating on yourself—the easiest, most logical thing to do when youʼre seriously sick.

And oh, I did that. Iʼm pretty sure that every sentence I uttered in the late 1990s—the time between surgeries three and four—was subject-verb-profanity. How I made the people who loved me suffer because I was lost in my anger. My days were numbered, dammit ... never bothering to think it was our days.

All I really did was waste an incredible amount of time and energy paying attention to how crappy I felt when I should have been noticing how wonderful it is, after startling awake in the night, to be soothed back to sleep by someone who is snoring peacefully as a lullaby.

Looking out from the tiny island of Ofu, the tag end of American Samoa, into the ocean where Apollo astronauts splashed down after a trip into the spheres of heaven, I realize maybe the truest thing Iʼve ever written is “Whoever created the world went to a lot of trouble. It would be downright rude not to go out and see as much of it as possible.”

In my case, sometimes whatʼs possible is making it to my porch, where I can spot a kingfisher or a great blue heron, or maybe even a dragonfly with zebra stripes. And sometimes whatʼs possible is standing on a remote atoll in the Marshall Islands, the land so thin that when a storm hits, I can hear the different sounds of lagoon waves and waves in the wide ocean. I will even eat a little bwiro—fermented breadfruit—in the morning, which is not a bad thing as long as the people Iʼm hanging out with have stories to share.

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“The first time I flew over the United States,” islander Ben Chutaro is telling me as the last of the storm carries spume across fallen coconuts, “I wondered why all the islands were so close together.” He was reading rivers—heʼd never seen a river before—as ocean, and the North American continent between as islands.

Isnʼt it wonderful to know, beyond any doubt and with infinite, unearned grace, that the world holds so much, that what we take most for granted in our lives—even the very shape of the land beneath us or the sky above—can change according to how weʼre willing to see it, to greet it?

“And that,” I tell Rach from the volcanoʼs edge, “is what I learned playing peekaboo with you.” Back after surgery number six, after Iʼd acquired a whole new batch of doctors who had a whole new reason to announce my days were numbered, sheʼd come to visit me in the hospital. I was so drugged that I only managed to open my eyes for a peek to see her and be happy. A minute later, I woke again, saw her again, and was just as happy. And a third time. Like waking up to a boundless horizon over and over—the joy of peekaboo, of opening your eyes and seeing absolutely everything you need.

Now, telling her this, that under the fine face of heaven only one thing remains truly important, I realize that there is a second conversation I need to have, with an incredibly beautiful woman Iʼve loved so much that Iʼve been trying to protect her from me, from my impending end and the messes it will bring—when all she wants is a chance for us to play peekaboo together with the world, see whatever it offers us when we open our eyes wide in wonder. To say yes even to the bad stuff.

I could have saved a lot of people a lot of trouble if Iʼd been smart enough to learn this sooner: Your only moral obligation in life is to make the people you love smile, which you do by being the best version of you that you can possibly be. Not the scared, sick, distracted you rushing through the world and trying to get it all in before itʼs too late, but the you that says yes. The you that helps them say yes.

And so, because there is someone else I want to make smile, I say yes. In the deep night, I step outside my room on Ofu. I pick up a seashell, a piece of the world, on the beach lapped

by water so clear that the sand beneath glitters moonlight like the inside of a prism. Above me arc stars in shapes I canʼt name, which means I can wish them into any shape I wish them to be.

Life, the world, are not buckets to fill; they are bedtime stories to tell. The excited whispers of two people saying, “Yes, and then weʼll ...” and the answer “Yes, and then weʼll ...”

So I will go home, put the seashell in lovely Dazʼs hand, and tell her this bedtime story. I wonʼt try to protect her from what is happening to me anymore. I will share that world with her just as we will share the vast Earth when we wake up and walk into some city unknown.

We will cross the great ocean again and again, knowing there is time. Rainer Maria Rilke, in what may be the most beautiful lines in poetry, wrote:

“Ah the ball that we dared, that we hurled into infinite space, doesnʼt it fill our hands differently with its return: heavier by the weight of where it has been.”

That is why I travel. How travel keeps me alive. Traveling teaches us to dare, again and again, to say yes to the moments of wonder, so many of them, blown across the landscape with the generous weight of seeded flowers— and to share them with the people we hold dear.

I travel to live in the answered prayer that is a smile line.

Edward Readicker-Henderson has been to more than 50 countries since doctors first told him heʼd have to scale back on traveling.

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