Temperatures were in the single digits outside. Thick scents of fresh-brewed chai, grinding coffee beans, and flaky pastry cozied up the air inside. Chatting at the central table of our local coffee shop yesterday morning, the Question arose again. The seemingly all-competent carpenter in Carharts broke out of the conversation to skewer me with a look, “How do you stand it?!” he asks. “Aren’t you just worried all the time?”
Instant mental replay of our conversation: flying, photography, rock formations, glaciers…”Um, about what?” I reply, feeling that weird anxiety that comes with knowing some obvious social cue has been totally missed.
“Well, he’s talking about hanging out of an ultralight while flying right next to a cliff face.”
Then the carpenter kind of grins and sort of half-shakes his head. “Oh. I get it now. Okay, that’s why it works.”
Clearly there was something of note in that little scene. “He was harnessed in.” I venture – could that be his concern?
“Yep.” Says the carpenter, now grinning fully. Then he relents. “Maybe it’s just that I don’t like heights much.” He says.
Oh. Safety’s the issue. Risk, real risk, perceived risk. Oh.
That part of the question, coming up that way, I get. After spending my 20’s teaching in the outdoors, I get that people have incredibly varying senses of what’s dangerous and what’s not. Experience and familiarity play a shockingly large role in comfort. There’s an almost limitless set of opportunities to confuse real risk and perceived risk – added on to whatever blinders our egos color the stage with. At least that was genuine curiosity. I’m lucky, my husband and I for the most part have a shared perception of enthusiasm and risk. So no, I’m not worried all the time.
Our society does really weird things to the mother-wife-female side of things though. The Question part 1 is summed up by the most common phrase, “You must have nerves of steel”. The Question, part 2, goes something like this: “Do you ever get to go on his trips with him?” Little old ladies ask. Wiry outdoor dudes ask. 20, 30, 40-something housewives and wilderness women ask. Volunteers, retirees, cutthroat business people, politicians, and doctors ask. Occasionally this, like the encounter in the coffee shop, is genuine curiosity. That’s fun to engage with. With dispiriting frequency, however, that Question is agonizingly and irksomely actually a front for some kind of political relationship question, people projecting themselves into my life. As in Do You Live with God? Or, Who Controls Whom and How?
No doubt a little background is in order at this point.
My husband is a true-life adventure writer, gleaning the wild tales of first-hand scientific reality in all kinds of crazy places. Books, articles, blogs, and adrenaline-jazzing intellect-spurring multi-media presentations are the end products. He’s pretty well-known within his field, so he’s got a following. His stories spur wild fantasies of modern wilderness adventure, of lingering time in urban wild detail. Every tale assails the senses with the fullness of getting out there and living life richly. It’s kind of mythic. Meanwhile, we’ve got two young kids and live off the grid in a somewhat remote part of western Colorado.
Now, depending on how the questioner approaches, that original question can take on a myriad of meanings. From some it’s, “How do you manage? Do you guys ever do things together?” – with tons of presentations and trips into the field, clearly my husband is absent a great deal of the time. He’s also obviously engaging in activities which are far from suitable for children, like first descents of class-5 rapids on a river in Tibet. I don’t really mind this approach, I’d be curious too. Sometimes we get into great conversations. My husband and I met and bonded adventuring in the wilderness, living out of our cars. We now have a family. Truth to tell it’s tough working things out to get all we both want of time alone, time together, time with family, and adventuring while finding enough money to live on.
From others it’s more of a worship question, “Do you ever get to bask in the glory of the iconic figurehead? We’ve put your husband on the pedestal of all-we-wish-we-were, do you ‘get’ to be part of that?” Sure we do things together but, Um, no. Now, my husband is a pretty remarkable and unusual guy. He’s talented and unique too. But hey folks – though it’s all nonfiction, that’s an imaginary person you’ve got up there, in an imaginary world from your head. These questions usually emerge at book tour or multi-media events. Invariably taking a deep breath, sadly I must admit to some sort of banal stock-phrase platitude types of response. I have to wonder, do they feel the husband should be an object of worship? Or do they just not go the next logical step to noticing that I live with the guy? The characters they read represent a fractional set of personalities which support the storyline. Those characters with our names aren’t really us. We fart and snore and get depressed just like everyone else.
And then there’s the most galling of all, the full-on power-struggle voyeurs. The ones who mean, oh my, are you a well-kept pet? Are you obedient to your husband’s wishes and needs, ever-rewarded by getting to be that support in the shadow of his greatness? Or, how do you control him? How do you get payback for his worrying you / leaving you / doing what he does? DISENGAGE shouts my internal dashboard light. Because I’d like to eviscerate these people. Slowly, at the edge of a great height. ‘Cause I’m not interested in a hierarchical relationship. If it were the truly curious person, I’d answer – tell them that neither of us gets all we want, but a foundational thing we share is the desire for a mutually supportive relationship. It was part of our initial agreement, that we wouldn’t stand in each others’ way. Neither of us wants a permission-based or ownership-based relationship. We may not succeed all the time, but we are actually trying to engage to the hilt in life’s possibilities.
I was recently at a film festival watching an ending film which made me sputteringly angry. The guy’s (yes guy) main premise was that life was worth nothing if you weren’t on the edge of death pursuing extreme physical adventure. He made a point of saying the biggest red tape he had to get through was getting permission from his wife, the mother of his young son. I think that’s a bunch of hype and hooey. Disney tells us to make conflict out of that shit. Stereotypes tell us those are the roles we’ll take on, insensate to the fullness of consequences and arguments. Will she “let” him do something. What can he “get away with”. 1950’s era Beaver Cleaver still assumes his mom-now-wife June is going to be home ironing, making dinner, and taking care of the kids while serious work gets done. He still assumes she’s naturally made to just be happy to see him when he comes home, greeting him with a ready drink for him in her hand. Simultaneously he has to rebel against her. Ick. Let’s grow up. And please, don’t project that foulness on me.
The short answer though? Sometimes we travel together, sometimes separately. Writing about experiences has always been a great way to justify crazy travels and adventures. Storytelling is inspiring for him or us as performers, and the audience, and brings in an income besides. Books, articles, presentations are almost all conceived around things we want to learn or do or experience.
We have tried my going on his trip, or his going on my trip. Simply put? Failure. Abject and pouting and overflowing with a daunting amount of resentment, from whomever was supposedly going along for the ride, those trips stank. Neither of us is here for a guided tour of life. In fact, we both met while in the roles of wilderness guides. Traveling, like life, can’t just be any one’s trip. It’s a set of mutual discoveries and movements.
At this point, when the trips are not joint, we divide up by things which just don’t sound like fun to me but he wants to do (Iowa cornfields in July, anyone?) or might cause children to be execrably miserable (carrying infants while on foot through howling winds in sand dunes where it’s necessary to bury yourself for hours each day to escape the sun, hmmmm?). And things I have a more exclusive interest in, like downhill skiing or spending time in a prehistoric women’s ritual cave. After our oldest son drove a leading researcher to the edge of despair with unending philosophical questions, we leave interview trips mostly to my husband, too.
You might ask. You might wonder. If you were a genuinely curious person you might say but hey, what does it mean, that he’s got all these crazy tales continuing to build, and I have stayed mostly at home to be the solidity in our lives, to care for the kids’ day-to-day well being and education? I suppose that’s the subject for another rant.
By foot, by boat, by car or plane or train, wilderness and city are all fair targets. And when we travel together, it’s not any one’s trip. They are our trips.
Regan Choi is a visual artist, mother, wife, martial artist, and explorer. She is married to Bombshell contributor Craig Childs.