Oliver Sacks died a couple days ago. Who? I didn’t know much of him at all until about a year ago, when he wrote an article for the NY Times on the Joys of Aging (when he turned 80). If you know me, you know that I love to think about this, imagining a kind of wisdom as we age, where we can look back on what we did right, what we would have done differently, ways in which we are proud of who we’ve been, and regrets about goals and qualities never reached. As if in the thinking about it, we can plot a better path through life. I absolutely loved his article. It was funny, thoughtful, not shying away from regrets, but filled with acceptance and excitement for what lay ahead. He became an inspirational figure to me.
So I was fairly well shocked about 6 months later when he wrote another article upon learning that he had terminal cancer. Oh no! There go those joyous 80’s. But this article too, was extremely thoughtful and eloquently written, and I loved it as well. Then I went on a bit of an Oliver Sacks kick in the last few months. I watched his TED talks, read his recent memoirs (which he finished just before finding he had cancer), was inspired to go back and watch “Awakenings”, an incredible (and true) movie of his experiences with encephalitis patients who had been locked away in a sort of catatonic state, sometimes for decades. And he continued to write in the NY Times, sometimes humorous articles (like Mishearings, which I can relate to very well myself), up to his final article just 2 weeks ago, Sabbath, in which he signs off, talks of achieving peace, of living a “good and worthwhile life”, while still leaving the space to wonder, “What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been?”. I find him to be something of a tragic figure in many ways, but also an inspiration for his thoughtfulness and grace, his engagement with life and friends and family, and the way he was able to share that journey through his writing.
Well, I had a long hike around Zermatt yesterday with just myself and my thoughts (I was checking out changes to trails and mountain huts in the area, but there is a lot of time to think in between). Since Oliver Sacks is on my mind, and the mountains always make me thoughtful anyway, I’m reminded of why guiding has been such a great career for me in the first place. I might have gotten into it originally thinking it’s just great to be hiking in the Alps (and it is), but the most enjoyable aspect of course has been the people that I’ve met along the way. I suppose we get a self-selected group of people who are active and healthy and interested in travel, in meeting new people and hiking around in a foreign country, but I feel I’ve been lucky to have met so many incredibly inspirational people over the years. I find our older clients are usually my favorites, with a store of experiences and ideas, and a very keen appreciation for all that they are able to see and do. But there are many.
Some of my favorites haven’t necessarily been clients, but other personalities I’ve met in the Alps. Kev Reynolds is undoubtedly the premier English-language hiking guidebook author in the Alps, with a great eye for detail and unique ways of describing each walk which make you want to do them all. He’s also an unrelenting optimist who even now, with health problems making it a struggle to hike, will wax lyrical about the light shining through the trees, or the fresh mountain air, and will exclaim that there’s beauty everywhere in the world if you just remember to look. He always has a twinkle in his eye and is not above a little ribbing (“sleeping bags are for sissies… when I was young we slept out in our rubbers”). Rubbers are raingear, by the way, and I guess he didn’t think I was old enough to need a bag. But he’s sent me to new valleys I never would have found, opened my eyes to things I might not have seen, encourages me to keep doing what I’m doing (loving and sharing the Alps), while at the same time warning not to get too successful. Lest I forget to enjoy it. If there’s anyone I know I most want to be like, it’s Kev.
Then Marc and Di at the Alpenhof need mentioning. Many of us talk about living a simpler and more honest life (or maybe it’s mainly me), but few of us are able to pull it off in the way that they do, and I’m not even sure they’re aware of it. They own a simple inn at the end of what may be the most beautiful valley anywhere, and they run it with honesty and integrity. They could charge much more than they do (but they don’t), and are incredibly generous with their time, their attention, the meals they share with people, and much more. They don’t own cell phones, take their free time when they need it, but are always there when a guest or a friend or a neighbor needs help, which seems to be often. As a result they are cherished friends to literally hundreds of people who keep coming back over and over again. They live a beautiful life because what they give is reflected back to them, and I always come away inspired to focus more on the important things and less on the noise.
And it’s not just the people that I find inspiration from. It’s the mountains also. The lifestyle, the culture, the exercise, the time to slow down and reflect, the satisfaction of getting over the next ridge, the sore muscles, the sunrise from your bedroom window in the morning, the fresh air, the cowbells. It’s a wonderful mix here in the Alps, and I love coming back year after year. I’ve seen quite a few people transformed, or at least certainly inspired by their time here, and that’s perhaps the most satisfying aspect of organizing these trips… sharing the inspiration. I feel like I know what it’s like, because I’ve been there myself. And am happy to be there again.