I Said I Would, and I Did
Ian was a sweet-natured Brit, one of those barstool boys who could tell stories better than anyone else I knew. He was a sportsman, a lover of dark, rich British pints, and had earned a PhD in Sports Medicine.
I’d met him on Match.com. He was younger by about five years. There was enough there for us to connect. It was 2001, newly into the new century.
Ian was a sky diver, pilot, scuba diver. In fact, an enthusiastic cave diver, which for anyone with knowledge of the sport knows can be terrifying. He was a bona fide expert at all of them. The real deal.
Ian was also a damned good photographer, talented writer, and immensely fond of extreme adventures. It suited him perfectly.
He could regale people for hours in that self-effacing, charming way of the great tale-teller. His stories hardly needed embellishment, for what he did for a living was plenty enough.
And he smoked like a chimney. He had a smoker’s cough like a backfiring Buick.
“I’ve got to quit,” he said, eyes watering. “I really must.” And he would light up again.
When I met him, Ian had recently returned from a trip to South Africa where he had been scuba diving the Sardine Run. The man who took him out, Mark, had just been profiled in National Geographic. Their outfit was situated in the northern part of the Eastern Cape, just south of Kwa-Zulu Nataal. It was remote, only accessible with 4WD. The only folks who went to that kind of trouble to film the Sardine Run were professional outfits like the BBC and National Geographic.
I was entranced, like everyone else. Ian and I realized that we were better off friends than lovers (the smoking really got in the way). His adventures fascinated me. Spoke to my soul.The hook was set. I told him I wanted to dive the Sardine Run.
He gave me that yes, of course you do look that real adventurers give to those who stand on the ground while others jump out of airplanes (we call them whuffos).
At the time he was living in the Colorado foothills and I was still living just outside Durango. In between trips to visit my mother in Denver, I got busy. I pulled my scuba gear out of storage. Bought flights to Johannesburg. Researched South Africa and arranged a rental car. For seven weeks. I organized safaris and hostels and a trip to cage dive with Great White Sharks near Gansbaai. It was a busy time, with lots of gym training and scuba work.
Meanwhile, Ian had scored a professorship at the University of Denver. I could only imagine how he was inspiring all those young people.
Ian and I had a lunch date a few months later. I had just finished my third pool session to re-familiarize myself with my scuba gear.
I was a month from departure, and told Ian about my plans.
Ian’s eyes got big. He leaned back in his chair and looked me over approvingly.
“You’re really going to do this. Bloody hell. I mean, you really ARE going to do this.”
I smiled at him. Of course I was. To me it wasn’t some brag-in-the-moment, Yeah boy I’m gonna do that someday.
Ian threw himself into setting me up with friends, photographers, fellow adventurers. That trip would eventually entail not only my diving the storied sardine run, the cage dives with Great Whites but also many solo trips into some of the most magnificent wild animal country left on earth. I would drive within inches of rhinos, zebras, giraffe, elephants. Sit quietly and just….absorb.
That trip was a life-changer. Ian knew it would be.
While not my first adventure, that was the one that sold me on adventure travel as a way of life. Whatever it took, I would find ways to save pennies, scrape together the gear and develop the know-how to be able to do more of it.
Some years later I climbed Kilimanjaro at sixty. Then I finished the Everest Base Camp and had begun packing out three to four big trips a year. I’d moved back to Denver, and Ian came to mind.
We’d lost touch. Last time we’d talked, he was dating someone back in England, and I assumed he had moved back. His numbers had been shut off. There was nobody at his mountain house. I called DU.
It didn’t take long.
Ian had died. At 54, tragically young. He had never been able to quit, and cigarettes had cut his remarkable life far too short.
Part of me wanted so badly to have been able to share stories as almost-equals. Selfishly, I missed him. I wanted his approval.
But it was much larger than that.
The larger loss was to all his students at the University of Denver. Those friends who, like me, would be so deeply moved by his tales that we would carve out our own lives of adventures. The joy we all felt in his ability to weave us into his world, a world that I had now entered, never as an equal, but certainly as a fellow traveler.
I left a heartfelt remembrance on the page to his memory.
Ian had been a massive gift. While I know he was aware that his influence had caused me to leap back into diving in one of the toughest places on earth to do it (it’s 40 degrees F, deep, and full of bull and hammerhead sharks, just to give you an idea), he never knew that his gentle, lively influence was just the spark this author needed to springboard into a whole other life.
Since the very first time I ever set foot on an airplane to take my first trip, which ended up being a four-year expedition across three countries to include diving the Barrier Reef and flying ultralights over Geelong and getting my spin certificate in a powered glider, people have gotten excited about doing the same thing. They all say,
I’m going to go do that someday.
To a person, not a single one of those folks ever has.
I don’t doubt for one second they were perfectly sincere.
I was perfectly serious.
In one hour, one of my best friends is taking me to the airport where I am boarding a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt. From there, to Addis Abbaba. What’s in store? There’s an agenda, and then there’s what really happens.
That’s the very definition of adventure.
This is my sixth trip back to Africa, always a new place. Always plenty of surprises.
Ian’s gift to me was in weaving such an irresistible tale that the bird in my chest leapt up and took notice.
You and I hear lots of things every day that sound cool. I want that, I want to do that, I need that….and yet, we don’t go there.
There’s a really good reason you didn’t. We can argue fear, which is perfectly legitimate. You and I can come up with a thousand reasons why we didn’t do X, which, in the moment, we most sincerely wanted to do.
The question I have for you is where your investment lies. In being right about all the reasons why you couldn’t (try out for the team, take your college entrance exams, ask the guy out, ask her to marry you, take that trip to the Azores, learn to ballroom dance).
It doesn’t matter what you sincerely want to do. Frankly, we’re all sincere about a shitload of things, which is why most of what we do is put out a meme on Facebook. Offer an opinion, rather than go out and do.
When you’re serious, you buy the goddamned ticket.
You find a way to pay for it. You never, ever, ever let some “reason” get in your way. Write the novel, hike the PCT, makes no difference. You’ll know it when you hear it because it appeals to your why, not just bragging rights. You’ll sacrifice comfort and time and effort and sometimes, friends, to what speaks to your why.
Because when you’re serious, you’re unstoppable.