Sunday, October 21, 2012

How A Living Legend Keeps Me Up At Night

It is a perfect picture.

From afar, it looks as if a brightly-festooned paraglider has just landed in the middle of Palisades Park during the most beautiful day of Autumn.

 I briefly wonder if Felix Baumgartner made a wrong turn.

Then I see the beautiful blond Labrador retriever sniffing about, and, further away, a ski pole stuck in the ground with a piece of surveying ribbon serving for a windsock.  It's definitely a paraglider.  I tell my father to park the car nearer to this person, and when we come to a stop I set off in search of an explanation...

The explanation I will eventually get is so compelling, it makes me just want to hold my woman tight in our bed.  It's keeping me up at night, the image I keep replaying through my head.  Some sort of late-night indulgence into the meaning of mortality and old age has me out on the couch writing a blog instead of sleeping.

Today, my father and I decided to ride our bicycles to the top of Bear Mountain.

This 1,300' (or so) flagship of the Palisades Interstate Park System has a winding depression-era scenic drive that ends in splendid views of the Hudson River and a 50-mile vista over the Hudson Highlands all the way to Manhattan.

We started our day with breakfast at a local 50's theme diner.

We ordered hamburger-steaks and talk about health in diet, aging, and getting the most out of your time and your mind.

My father talks about how he is always thinking and planning, and how he doesn't see himself as a genius.  His business is finally successful, and is growing at a prolific rate, and he can finally take a moment to think about his accomplishments- ones worth being proud of.

I mention he is very good at personal efficacy, at geting the results he wants out of himself, but not as good at getting that from his employees and other people he works with.  He has a hard time knowing how to give over responsibility.  He is so effective at what he does that he often can get away without passing the responsibility over to anyone but himself.

This is all in a larger context: I am working for the family business with an ulterior motive.  

I believe my father, who has dedicated his life to this company, deserves more free time.

We finish breakfast, and start to take some of our precious time driving to the hiker's lot at the base of Bear Mountain.

 Unfortunately, it's the peak of leaf-peeper season and all the city folk come upstate to remember what a tree looks like.

The Palisades Parkway was a zoo for Oktoberfest, and we found ourselves mired in endless traffic the likes of which we'd never seen.

When we finally arrived at the exit for Bear Mountain, it was closed off.  At the encouragement of a wage-slave park worker, we ended up having to ride the grass and pull a marginal u-turn across the median, with the bikes on the back of my dad's sedan bouncing precariously.

We worked our way back to a parking area the next exit down, which is predictably empty in stark contrast to the frozen bumper-to-bumper madness on the parkway only 3/4 of a mile away (Pareto's Law).  This is where we see the colorful airfoil fluttering provocatively in the wind.

This is where I approach what I assume is yet-another-extreme-sports-geek.

I walk up and greet the dog, who accepts and nuzzles me, kind and gentle.  The man is clearly attuned to his task and I notice two things about him:

1) This guy is really old!

2) This is a very small paraglider, in a most odd place to go gliding!

We strike up a conversation.  Eventually my father comes over, after unloading our bikes.

I ask,"Are you practicing your pop-ups?"

The man responds; "Yes. Do you do this?"

"I've done it a couple time before, in New Zealand".

He looks at me slightly more, replies "...Ahh, I go to France every year to climb and hike and I see these things soaring over my head and I finally decided I am getting too old.  I don't have much time left to try this and I am losing my agility for climbing."

I ask "You rock climb?"

He says "Oh yes."

I ask him,
"You climb at the Gunks?"

He takes a deep breath,

"I was climbing at the gunks in the 1940's. I'm the oldest member of the American Alpine Club."

It's my turn to take a deep breath.  I think for a moment of how to respond.  So far, we have been playing each other, feeling eack other out to see if I am a yuppie tourist and if he is another over-rich crackpot finding hobbies to try reclaiming his youth.

I finally say "Not a lot of people climbed there back then."

It's the only thing I can think of to say.  I am awed.  This man is living legend, and I don't even know who he is.  His full-face helmet distorts his features and hides his jawline.  I don't know his name and it might not mean anything to me if I did.

My father asks some questions about flying, and micro-meterology.  I idly mention refill recovery times or somesuch.  My father says he is worried about breaking bones at his age.

Matter-of-factly the man gestures at the pack on his back and replies,

"Well, that is why this has so much padding, and I wear the helmet.  And with a good gust, this thing will just drag you along the ground."

I find I really like this man.  He feels like a kindred spirit.  I don't want to interrupt him any further.

We chat awkwardly a few more moments, my father and I looking for beta on how to get our bikes to the next exit without getting jammed-up in traffic and without cycling on the Palisades Parkway.  With brief description, as if he had confidently memorized this unusual route, he tells us the trail will get us close, and I confirm on the map.  At a lull, I say:

"Well, we'll let you get back to it.  I'm Brad."

He says "I'm Fred."

I shake his hand.

My father and I walk back to the car, get our helmets out.  I say:

"This trip was worth it, even if it was just for that and the bicycling turns out to be a bust.  That guy is a living legend.  He's probably done crazy shit you can't even imagine!  He's from the old-school of climbing, and he was probably doing crazy routes, like the hardest stuff in the world."

The name Fred also sticks with me.  

I can't put a finger on it, but I have a waist-high stack of Climbing magazine going back to 1998 that attests to countless hours of a younger me poring over pages in search of lore.

My father and I mount up, and ride off.  We are trying to ride to the top of Bear Mountain, right at the peak of leaf-peeper season, and I am soon lost in the joy of sharing a spectacular fall day with my dad.

We make one wrong turn, quickly remedied, and happily find the feeder trail (an old access road) is bikeable.  A brief technical-on-a-roadbike downhill section full of thorns has my dad walking, and me grinning.

In no time, we emerge into the shoulder of the Parkway.  Usually, people fly at terrifying speeds on this stretch, often upwards of 70MPH.  Today, we are cruising past every type of imaginable vehicle, all mired in the same misery.  I take smug satisfaction in beating the game.

We ride up the closed on-ramp and suddenly it is silent but for the wind rushing past our faces:

We have the road to ourselves.

Many more smiles ensue.

The Park, bless them, is only allowing a quota into this area, controlling traffic for Oktoberfest, and it has deterred the vast majority that usually throngs in dense droves to the top of Perkins Drive, the only paved route to the top.  We are occasionally passed by a car, but mostly we can talk and revel in the splendor of our precious Hudson Valley, passing unforgettable views of Peekskill and the Bear Mountain Bridge.

We hear babbling brooks, our faces are caressed by shimmering waves of falling leaves.

The trip is, generally speaking, wonderful.

We arrive at the top to no fanfare.  We suffer the one disappointment of the day- usually there are a lot more motorcyclists riding interesting machines, we settle for chatting up a couple women on CBR-600's.  They gave us the dish on the traffic, and I asked them where they were riding from.  When they replied Westchester, I figured they wouldn't be much help in getting J (my partner) riding, so we wandered around a bit.

We did all the touristy things, walking down the path the where the viewers are, climbing up the tower (a somewhat tragic massacre of ladybugs under impatient tourist's feet) and taking a few pictures of  the view.

When we are ready, it is only a five minute ride back down the 800 vertical feet of Perkins Drive.  I take video on my cellphone the whole way.  The rest of the ride back is pleasant and uneventful.

When we return successful, Fred is still there.  He has been standing in the same spot for hours, doing a most improbable thing for an 89 year-old.  He is meticulously practicing his technique for popping up his paraglider.  It confirms what I already knew:

This guy has some serious dedication.

Burned into memory: I see Fred Beckey hunched over in the middle of a big field, looking old, tired, and vulnerable, waiting for the wind to blow the right way.

He is a perfect metaphor for aging.  

Back at home, I look Fred up.  Turns out, at least for a climbing geek like me, that yeah, he's kind of an anti-hero- my favorite kind of hero, and he's definitely a world-famous climber.  His name is Fred Beckey.

“If Thoreau and Emerson describe the transcendental American theme, then Beckey — after Ahab, akin to Kerouac — describes the oddly manic drive to scale and map and detail the wilderness in a modern way,” said Steve Costie, executive director of the Mountaineers, which eventually accepted Beckey as a member. “Almost adversarial; never transcendental.” -NYT

"The current crop of the world's best climbers waited in line to have their picture taken with Fred, so they could post it on their Facebook pages," she said. 

Fred Beckey is this sort of role model for the alternative lifestyle, like Yvon Chounard.  He's the epitome of doing what you do because of what you love.

It's funny; here my father and I are trying to find our way. We want to have more time to do the things we love . 

I think back over our breakfast conversation.  My dad in his golden years, with many passions unfulfilled, and myself a consummate dropout somehow finding myself in the world of business. We need to be able to do good work, and stay financially independent, while living full and rich lives.

And here we ran into an expert!

Beckey has a degree in business administration from the University of Washington and had a career in marketing, though he chose to work part time seasonally.  
"That was the way I could get enough time off to climb," he said. "I don't know where I got the reputation for being a climbing bum."  
Beckey said a famous photograph of him standing at the side of a road holding a sign reading, "Will belay for food," was staged as a joke. 
"I have a car, a house and a money market fund," Beckey said. 
Reisner, his climbing partner from Portland, has been inside Beckey's house in Seattle's Lake City neighborhood. The walls are decorated with mountain photos taken by Beckey, and also by Austin Post, the USGS aerial photographer who made classic images of the North Cascades and southeast Alaska.  

"It's like walking into the throne room of the mountain god," Reisner said. -T.R.

Unfortunately, that god, at least today, looked very tired, stubborn, 

and alone.

Yet, I still would be honored to be his friend.  It's his drive and passion and dedication and accomplishment that have made him so admirable to me. 

 I just don't know how to reconcile that with a rich family life, with a deep immediate personal connectedness to other people.  I am scared of this feeling that I am disconnected from my immediate world, despite all the zen vibes I get from climbing and playing music, and despite all my best efforts to foster closeness in my relationships. 

Am I strong enough to be great?

 And that's what keeps me up at night.  That's what makes me want to hold my woman tight.

1 comment:

  1. Turns out, it wasn't the right Fred, after all! And the relationship I was in was deeply flawed! But we learn from such things all the same.