What I'm thankful for
“All the same don't forget that you're young — blessedly young; be glad of it on the contrary and live up to it. Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life.”
Lately I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Candice Millard, a former National Geographic writer and editor, titled The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. It came out several years ago — so you may already have read it! — but I’ve just been discovering it, so it’s opening up a whole new world for me.
In the book, Millard tells the story of an expedition Roosevelt led to follow the path of Brazil’s Rio da Dúvida (the “River of Doubt” in the book’s title), a rapids-filled tributary of the Amazon River, between December 1913 and April 1914.
Originally conceived merely as a two-month speaking tour for Roosevelt in Argentina and Brazil — both to help him earn badly-needed money and take his mind off his humiliating defeat in the presidential election of 1912 — the trip morphed into something far different by the time he sailed from New York to begin his journey.
Roosevelt had long dreamed of taking a true scientific expedition into South America. In fact, he had little use for anything less than a real adventure, according to Millard:
“The ordinary traveller, who never goes off the beaten route and who on this beaten route is carried by others, without himself doing anything or risking anything, does not need to show much more initiative and intelligence than an express package,” Roosevelt sneered. “He does nothing; others do all the work, show all the forethought, take all the risk — and are entitled to all the credit. He and his valise are carried in practically the same fashion; and for each the achievement stands about on the same plane.”
Well, Roosevelt found his adventure all right. From the time he reached the shores of Bahia, Brazil, in October 1913 to when he finally emerged from the Brazilian jungle in April 1914, Roosevelt would travel hundreds of miles overland across Brazil’s interior and nearly a thousand miles along the Rio da Dúvida.
You, like me, have the benefit of knowing how this age of exploration turned out, and so you can probably imagine the trials he and his crew faced every day for those six months: sickness, starvation, disease and death. By the end, Roosevelt himself would be in a state of delirious exhaustion, near death from a severe leg injury he suffered about halfway through the journey.
Reading this book just over a century after the expedition took place, the sheer volume of detail that piles up about the physical discomforts they experienced — and “discomforts” is putting it extremely mildly! — makes you wonder why anyone would undertake anything like this in the first place.
What strikes me over and over as I read it isn’t just that Roosevelt was extraordinary, though of course he was. It’s that he undertook adventures like the one down the River of Doubt after disappointments and tragedies that left him devastated.
I’ve mentioned his humiliating defeat in the presidential election of 1912; in 1884 he lost his mother and young wife within the same 24 hours — just two days after she’d given birth to their first child. In his diary, he marked the day with a large black “X,” and penned a single sentence: “The light has gone out of my life.”
But somehow, again and again, Roosevelt rallies. He finds the strength to carry on. He turns to physical challenges as a way to retreat and find himself again. As Millard writes, “throughout his adult life, Roosevelt would relish physical exertion, and he would use it not just as a way to keep his body fit and his mind sharp but as his most effective weapon against depression and despair.”
There really is something there in what Millard writes about, I think, and it’s the same thing we all find out there on the roads and trails. Not that we’re going to experience it to the same degree as Roosevelt did — let’s hope not, anyway! — but the same resilience that was in him, is in each of us too.
One of the things I love about reading stories like the one Millard tells in River of Doubt is that they remind us of what it means to be human, what it means to find strength in ourselves when everything seems lost.
I’m reminded of what the author William Faulker once said in a speech, when he spoke about the power of stories:
“I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.”
I’ve bolded the last line above because I get to do that here; I get to explore stories like Roosevelt’s — and Kara Goucher’s, and George Sheehan’s, and Meb Keflezighi’s, etc. — and (hopefully) find what each of us can learn from them and use in our own lives.
Here on this day before Thanksgiving, I wanted to tell you how grateful I am you’re on this journey with me. I know The Half Marathoner has been on a winding journey this year, as I’ve written about lots of different topics than I started with when I began writing it almost seven years ago.
I’m so thankful that you read what I write each week, no matter how strange or quirky or off-topic it may seem (!), that you indulge me the opportunity to find out where my mind wants to go.
Writing this newsletter has been the pinnacle of my writing life, I hope you know. I simply can’t imagine a better audience than each of you, and I treasure the time we get to spend together every week in conversation, in the comments and back and forth in replies to these emails.
I hope each and every one of you has a wonderful holiday tomorrow and gets some well-deserved rest. We’ll see each other again next week — I’m already looking forward to it.
As always, keep in touch and let me know how your running (and life) are going.