Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"My name's Forrest Gump. People call me Forrest Gump."

"Everybody's talking at me,
I don't hear a word they're saying.
Only the echoes of my mind.

People stopping staring,
I can't see their faces.
Only the shadows of their eyes.

I'm going where the sun keeps shining
Through the pouring rain.
Going where the weather suits my clothes.
Banking off of the North East wind,
Sailing on summer breeze…"

- Harry Nilsson

One of my favorite movies is Forrest Gump, not just for the long run he makes, but the story it tells of a man. Forrest was special - not too bright, but he understood life. He held onto the things he cared about and let go of all the rest. Life took him on a grand journey, a journey of great joy and success, grief and failure. Through it all, he held onto what he knew - that "life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gunna get." 

Life is an adventure, a journey, an undiscovered territory just begging to be explored. Sometimes the journey is of your making. Sometimes you are just there for the ride. As Forrest said, "I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time."

Forrest's long run was certainly a favorite of ultra runners, myself included. Saddened by Jenny leaving once again, Forrest needed something. So, one day, he just got up and ran. He ran to the end of the drive, the end of the town, the end of the state, finally to the end of the continent. He was not done, so he ran back. It was just him and the road. As he said afterward, "When I got tired, I slept. When I got hungry, I ate. When I had to go, you know, I went."

I want some of that.

In the summer of 2010, I witnessed what was a real Forrest Gump like run. Danny Westergaard did not one, not two, but an incredible six crossings of Death Valley to the Summit of Mt. Whitney. Having recently lost his beloved father, Danny started with the race and just kept going, and going, and going. With only the support of his most generous cousin, Danny slept when he was tired, ate all the time, and went, well, you know. His achievement helped motivate me as I made my attempt at a double crossing not long after Danny finally stopped.

Bill and Danny Westergaard 2010

Last summer (2011), Lisa Bliss showed us another most incredible thing. She became the first woman, and second person only, to cross Death Valley from Badwater to the summit of Mt. Whitney completely self supported - no help from anyone anytime all the while pushing and pulling everything she needed in a cart. Lisa asked herself the question - "What would you do if you thought you were very likely to fail but stood just a chance in hell that you wouldn't?" Her answer - take the chance. The payoff was huge. I was on the course to see her achieve this fantastic journey, and I could not help but be powerfully inspired. 

Lisa Bliss 2011

But, such a journey was more than this man's aging and broken body could manage. 


The thought of such a journey for myself did not leave me. Maybe it was because of the question Lisa had asked herself. When I asked it of myself, the answer scared me - take the chance. I had learned a hard lesson in Death Valley in 2011. I did not finish my quest for a second crossing. Not through any fault of my own. It was what can happen to anyone when they go looking for limits. Sometimes your body and mind just say, "No more." 

I also have the very real issue of a bad back. I will not let it hold me down or keep me back. But, I have learned that it can slow me and make my training very erratic.  This is reality. If all goes well, and I never inflame my back during my Death Valley training, then there is little I cannot do out there. But, it has never given me three months, much less six, of uninterrupted training. Accepting the challenge of a fully unsupported crossing just feels like a step too far at this point. After all, only two people, two very capable people, have done it.


I took a step back and asked myself, "Why does such an adventure appeal to me so much? Why is the risk of failure so worth the attempt?"

It comes back to Forrest, Forrest Gump.

In my last post, I mentioned that a significant part of my life has been kept in a mental box, never to be opened or recalled - until now. That part of my life just happened to me. I was a passenger on a train that was not in my control. The ride was miserable and frightening. Everything that happened to me could easily have ruined everything that followed. But, as Forrest so clearly reminds us, you cannot sit and wait for life to happen to you and grab at the good things as they go by. You have to make the good things happen. You have to do it for yourself, and by yourself if so necessary.

Last summer, as I was heading into the sunset, my crew was doing everything for me. Every mile they were there for me. Yet, even with all that support, I got sick. They worked their hearts out for me, and there was nothing they could do. Not really. And, in spite of having the best support anyone could ever ask for - true friends giving fully - I still just wanted to be alone. The solitude in the desert I so craved was being lost in the shuffle of supporting me. I was feeling a bit selfish for a time. But also, I felt just the opposite, too. Here are these people in the heat of summer in Death Valley suffering and working so that I could live a dream. That is how it must be done, so I will ask them again, and hope they find as much joy in what they do for me as I get in the receiving.


The fact remains, I love Death Valley. I love being in it, working hard there, and doing something special there. Do I need to do something extraordinary to find what I am looking for there? Is there something I can do that, while still hard, somewhat risky, and a unique solo challenge, will give me the thing that I want. 

Yes! Yes, indeed, there is....

And, so that is what I will do. 

It is called a self-supported solo crossing. For those not familiar with the route through Death Valley, please see the maps here. There are several "oases" between Badwater Basin and Mt. Whitney -- Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, Panamint Springs, and finally, Lone Pine. I will take with me only enough water, food, ice, TP, that I need to get me between oases. I will resupply, rest as needed, and continue - alone. At the most, this will be about 70 pounds in a somewhat modified baby jogger. 

To be sure, I will not be totally alone. I will have a couple of "watchers" who will see that I am safe. While likely not totally necessary, I have had enough trouble in the valley to know that anything can happen, and it is better to be safe than that other thing. Besides, I am not in this life alone, and I do not want those people to worry any more than necessary.

If you are sitting there and asking, "Why?" then you likely still need to understand the entirety of the experience in a way that I cannot explain. If you have read the other parts of this site and about my other attempts at crossings and remain perplexed, then you are not alone. That group includes me. 

But, I know what I want, and right now I want this. Freedom. Freedom to be who I am, to challenge myself, to take myself beyond. I have taken my life into my own hands, and I will use it. Through this solo test, I will again come to know a person I have been trying to know something about for 55 years - myself.

"The shortest answer is doing the thing." - Hemingway


"Badwater" Bill
Tujunga, CA