Monday, November 14, 2016

A Change in Trajectory

Each day is filled with decisions, some more important than others. Sometimes we don't realize that choices we make may cause our situation to head in an entirely different direction. A tiny shift can totally change the trajectory of our lives. These pivotal decisions may be part of our daily routine, which can alter our lives and what we contribute to the world.

The musical performer Sting had one of these simple, yet life-changing experiences. As a young boy, he lived near a small port in England, in the “shadow of a shipyard.” It was a town that had built some of the largest sea going vessels in the world. For generations, the people living there did the same thing: they worked in the shipyards and struggled to make ends meet. Once an important ship was completed it was christened, and usually members of the royal family attended the celebration. On one such occasion, Sting’s small town hosted the official gathering. He had attended these events before. As usual, his mother made him wear his Sunday best and stand on the sidewalk waving the British flag in his hand. As a young boy, Sting sensed the excitement in the air and watched as the motorcade steadily approached, carrying the Queen Mother. As her vehicle drove by, Sting waved with enthusiasm and smiled. Just as he did, the Queen made eye contact with him and smiled and waved back. He said at that moment he was infected with the idea that he wanted a bigger life. One that was out of the ordinary and different from what his family had known for generations. Because he attended that one event as a young boy, Sting was introduced to an idea that altered the rest of his life. He began to think outside of the box on what he could do with his life and his trajectory changed from that day forward.

Neil deGrasse Tyson also had an experience that adjusted the direction of his life. Today Tyson is a well-known astrophysicist and the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. When he was first getting started as a young man from the Bronx, Tyson was interested in astronomy and applied to attend Ithaca at Cornell for his first year of study. Carl Sagan, then a successful astrophysicist, noticed Tyson’s application and invited him to spend the day with him. What an opportunity for Tyson! The two of them spent the day touring astronomy faculties, and that evening, Sagan gave Tyson the book, “The Cosmic Connection” and signed it, “to a future astronomer.” It was a cold, snowy December evening in New York when Sagan drove Tyson back to the bus station to go home. Sagan wrote his phone number on a scrap of paper and gave it to Tyson telling him to call if the bus couldn’t get through the storm. Tyson already knew that he wanted to study astronomy, but something changed during the day he spent with Carl Sagan. The kindness and interest Sagan showed Tyson, changed his idea of what kind of scientist he would be and he recognized the importance of including people in science and not just facts.

Russell Shorto is a journalist, best-selling author, and historian who had a question that changed his life. He lived in New York and routinely took his daughter to an old churchyard at St. Mark’s-in-the Bowery. It had a lawn filled with large sycamore trees, a perfect place for a young child to run and get some fresh air. Each day as his daughter played there, Shorto looked at the tombstones that filled the old churchyard. One stood out more than the others; it belonged to Peter Stuyvesant one of the leaders of the early settlement in New Netherland in the 1600s. Shorto’s mind began to question what the original settlement was like. He followed this idea, which led him to a man named Charles Gehring. Shorto learned from Gehring that where his daughter played each day was once the Dutch Colony of New Netherland and Peter Stuyvesant had been one of the directors there. This meeting with Gehring led Shorto to an obsession to learn all he could about the colony and he eventually wrote, “The Island at the Center of the World” about this location.  Shorto also became actively involved in the New Netherland Institute (whose director is Charles Gehring), and has taught the public about New Netherland ever since. Shorto’s solitary question led him to an area of history he knew little about and now he successfully shares that knowledge with the world.

I could go on with examples of people who have made a drastic change in their lives because of one small decision. In many of these instances the people ended up being successful in their individual lives, and then sharing their newfound knowledge with all who would pay attention. Their change in trajectory ended up being a chain reaction, which led others to alter their paths also. As you go about your normal day be aware of questions that come to your mind or ideas that you have. Keep them bouncing around in your head and see if they eventually become one of those pivotal decisions which will send you in an entirely different direction.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Ultra light Hikers from the Past

If you follow trends in backpacking you are aware that ultra light backpacking is what many hikers are trying to achieve today. To accomplish this, hikers bring the lightest possible backpack equipment so they can journey longer and faster. As a result, backpacking equipment is made from lighter materials and hikers often use tricks to take weight from their packs such as drilling holes in the handles of their forks and making stoves out of soda cans. Today people work extremely hard and go to great expenses to earn the designation of being an ultra light backpacker. Looking to the past, it is interesting to see that people moved about the world as ultra light travelers without quite so much expense, planning, and preparation as we do today.

One example is Otzi the Iceman who was an ultra light traveler from Europe. He crossed the Austrian Alps but was killed on his journey by other travelers in the area. In 1991, his 5,300-year-old body was discovered on a glacier by some hikers. Otzi’s gear included a few tools and weapons, a piece of fungus on a leather string (his first aid kit) and two birch bark containers. One of these containers was blackened inside and had the remains of items that had been burnt. This was Otzi’s charcoal, which he carried around with him so he could easily start fires when he set up camp each night. Otzi traveled across extremely difficult terrain with only a few items carried on his belt and across his back because that is all he really needed to survive. The only expense for these items was the time and effort he put into crafting them.

One of my favorite ultra light explorers is Ernest Shackleton. His story is one too amazing to be believed. He and 27 men left for Antarctica the day after World War I began. Their ship, The Endurance, was trapped and later crushed in the Antarctic ice and they were without any communication from the outside world because of the war. To rescue his men, Shackleton and his crew sailed to Elephant Island where he left most them under the care of his trusted friend, Frank Wilde. While these men were left at Elephant Island, Shackleton and five of the men sailed 800 miles across the ocean to South Georgia Island. They went there to find a whaling station to acquire a ship large enough to rescue the men left on Elephant Island. However, once they reach South Georgia Island, they landed on the opposite side of where the whaling station was located because they had survived a hurricane the previous night in their small boat. After setting up a makeshift camp, Shackleton and two of the five men, left at 2:00 a.m. and made a 36-hour journey across the island to reach help. They traveled ultra light through crevasses, up and down mountain ranges, and endured extreme cold because they were too exhausted to carry much and were nearly out of supplies. In the end, they repelled down through an icy waterfall to get to the area where the whaling village was. On this short but grueling journey Shackleton and his two companions only brought a pickax, a small stove, a logbook, a rope, and some powdered milk. This incredible ultra light adventure has not gone unnoticed by climbers and adventures today. A few teams have attempted to humbly recreate the lifesaving journey that Shackleton and his men took. They were successful but had to use a lot of climbing equipment to make it.

Another traveler, John Muir always comes to mind when thinking about ultra light backpacking. When he took off across the country, he put bread, tea, sugar, and a tin cup in a blanket and set off. Muir mainly ate bread on his hikes, which he dried so it would not get moldy. He never brought a gun on his wilderness excursions and did not hunt so he often hiked with a calorie deficit. Today the trail that John Muir often hiked is 210 miles long and has an elevation change of 80,000 feet. This would not be a journey to be weighed down with too many supplies, however Muir’s provisions seem a bit scanty.

In today’s busy world, looking to the past gives us critical insights as to how we could be more minimalist and ultra light in our lives. Many people from long ago did not plan out carefully what they would have with them on their daily journeys, they simply used what was available to them and they survived. Technology and inventions are wonderful but sometimes the best option is to grab what you have, put it in a blanket and enjoy an adventure.