Thursday, December 20, 2007

The same, only different

There are times when I wish I could have lived in a different century. Back in the days when charts were drawn by hand on brittle parchment, when the phrase "Here be dragons," lurked near the edges of the paper, when there were still blank spots on the map. I like to think I would have been some intrepid explorer, standing tall like stout Cortez on some wind-blown peak in Darien. Find a river – name it. Alight on some virgin shore – claim it. Those would have been heady days indeed.

I had a little more time today than usual, so my paddle this morning was a trip through the Tacoma Narrows. I started in the starry darkness, but the light of the new day was coming up as I went on. North from Titlow Beach, under the bridges, with a short stop at Salmon Beach. The old neighborhood. After living in that little cabin next to the mermaid for six terrific years, Mary and I moved away about 3 months ago. We left for good reasons… it was time to go, we did the right thing, but I sure miss it. After a few cups of hot chocolate on the bench overlooking our little beach, I got back in the kayak for the return. The wind was rising and the funneling effect of the Narrows made for a gusty, hard slog, but I still enjoyed every minute of it.

I don't know who the first person to paddle around Vancouver Island might have been. As far as I know, it has not been done during the winter, which is part of why I'm going, but that's not the same thing as being the first one to make the trip. Sort of makes me wonder about what it means to explore. Are we late-born, luckless souls doomed to simply go where thousands have gone before? Since we can't be first, is being "next" the best we can aspire to?

It occurs to me that the challenge of exploration, in these days when all of the blank spots are gone from the maps, may not be to do something completely different. Rather, it may be to do something that has been done before, but do it in a different way.

A cursory inspection of Fred Beckey's Cascade Alpine Guide, vol. 1, shows at least 49 different "first ascents" of Mount Rainier. Different routes, different seasons, different something. The people who made those climbs, all of them except Stevens and Van Trump, who made the first recorded trip to the summit in 1870, ultimately arrived at the same place, but they traveled by a different path. Their "firsts" were made with the understanding that it was not necessarily what they did, but the way that they did it that set them apart.

The simple fact of the matter is that I don't get to pick when I live, only how I live. This is my time, and it's probably just as well. As much as I might wish to have been alive during those golden years of global exploration, I would have been just as likely to be a coal miner, a street sweeper or a galley slave as a great explorer. Besides that, even with all the wonders of that time, there's one word that always makes me very happy that I am alive now, rather than back then.