In some small way we all want to do the impossible, test the limits of our courage and stamina, our intelligence or physical grace, our ability to adapt to changing circumstances or to look failure square in the face. It’s no small wonder that so many people idolize or seek to emulate great athletes or explorers, legendary entertainers or artists, world leaders or creative geniuses, outstanding educators or religious saints. People who change the world or redirect our definition of what’s possible, who inspire us to do the same.
All too often, though, such heroic figures make the impossible seem out of reach, and we settle for complacency or living vicariously through others rather than making our own way. The heroes I admire, however, are more everyday, those who live and give of themselves fully, without pretense or need to take center stage. These are people who live “deliberately,” to use Thoreau’s terminology. People who do “not wish to practice resignation… to live what (is) not life.”
Such everyday heroes raise families, fight illness, risk falling in love, find meaningful work, contribute to their communities, overcome loss. They do not seek accolades. They are not interested in fame. They solve problems. They combat ignorance. They stand up for the helpless. They believe in purpose and the potential for joy, no matter how difficult the circumstances. In the end they desire simply to be or do something beyond themselves and their individual needs. No small task!
Recently I had the good fortune to meet an individual who has managed to bridge the gap between these two classes of heroes, though he is more the latter than the former, unpretentious and yet bold, open to and appreciative of the support of others, yet determined to fulfill his own self needs. Rob Edwards came to Stony Brook because he had just finished a 6000 mile bike ride and wanted to return to his boyhood home visiting family, friends and reconnecting with the place where he first discovered the allure of the natural world.
Just by chance I engaged him in conversation as he checked into the Nature Center, then met him on the trails later to get more information. His bike ride first took him 2500 miles along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, from Antelope Wells, New Mexico to Roosville, Montana, a route which crisscrosses the Continental Divide. He then rode back to Whitefish, Montana and headed east to Lake Champlain. He rode for 108 days, carrying everything he needed in 4 panniers attached to his bike frame: his shelter, his food and drink, his stove, his sleeping gear, his clothes – a total weight of 75 pounds which he pedaled along the road for about 50 to 70 miles each day.
He had worked for Terra Nova LLC of Utah, a zipline construction company, but left his job at age 55, looking to make a change. There was “nothing holding him back,” no family, no job, no obligations, and so he set out to realize a life-long dream. His motto: “Never take life for granted.”
I wondered what he had learned along the way. He told me that he discovered he “had more patience than he thought,” adding that “amazing things happen if you have patience.” You see things, the sites, scenery in whole new ways. You discover the ease of Nature and “get away from the noise we hear in our everyday lives.”
He also talked about the “remarkable” people he met on his journey, one couple in particular who were riding their bikes from Fairbanks, Alaska to the tip of South America. He cited his family, his friends, the many strangers he was grateful to have developed relationships with. Specifically he wanted to thank his Mom “for her independence,” Dirk Heffelfinger (the childhood friend who introduced him to Stony Brook) “for his friendship,” Angie Domenegat “for her perspective,” and Margaret Morris “for her guidance.” Even the tone with which he spoke of these people revealed a basic truth to me about heroic quests: there’s always a support system for which we have to give thanks.
Dirk Heffelfinger, in particular, was the man Rob came back to this area to visit. “He introduced me to another world,” Rob told me. “He opened my eyes to an entirely different perspective.” We’d go out fishing at Stony Brook and he could spot a snake a hundred feet away and pounce on it, then serve it up for me with his bare hands. Rob was spell-bound and learned to love Nature in those early years. And now, “Whether it be the immensity of the Grand Canyon or a small pond in Borderland State Park, the environment offers amazing rewards” for him every day. From here, Rob was headed out the door for a couple days of exploration in the Quabbin Reservoir area, by “Subie Outback, bike and foot,” he told me, in his own inimitable way.
When I reflect upon my conversation with Rob, I’m struck by a few basic revelations. One is that there is something about Stony Brook that attracts people who are “finding their way.” I can’t tell you how many visitors I speak to who have a similar story, though not so dramatic or compelling as Rob’s. I think nature sanctuaries are important spaces. They provide solace and inspiration. They provide mirrors into which beholders can take the measure of themselves, again to paraphrase Thoreau.
I think, too, that we do not always see how making a life, developing a self, connecting to others and making sense of the place we hold in the universe is a challenge equivalent to any of the heroic quests we see on the screen or read about in our various texts. Ultimately we all must come to grips with what it means to be human and whether there’s any way for us to appreciate or understand how we came to be in the vast emptiness of space.
Finally, I think it’s good to be reminded that there are people like Rob who are capable of extraordinary things. I think it’s the teacher in me, but I have always maintained that we can do anything we set out minds to if we are patient and are willing to fight through the setbacks that always come our way. We create our own lives. Reality is, in some ways, mere pedagogy: an idea we can learn to create.