When my dad was in his early and mid-forties, George Blanda was the place kicker and part-time quarterback for the Oakland Raiders. I derived endless joy from asking my dear papa why was it that if George, four years his senior, was out there every Sunday winning football games, dad wasn’t suiting up to hurl the pigskin? As a youngster, I was amazed that someone as ancient and fossil-like as Blanda could still be a standout in such a demanding sport.
Now that I’m one year shy of Blanda’s retirement age, in less-than-ideal condition for professional contact sports, and referred to by my daughter as “old man,” my priorities have shifted. No longer are my heroes athletically accomplished elder gents, but rather out-of-shape senior fellows who foolishly attempt brutal physical feats with no training or preparation at all. And then write about it.
A good case in point is Bill Bryson, writer of humorous travel literature. At the none-too-youthful age of 44, he and former school chum Stephen Katz attacked the Appalachian Trail, a hike of more than 2,000 miles. Bryson chronicled the daunting journey in A Walk in the Woods.
To prepare for this grueling stroll, the two hikers did … well, nothing. And, not surprisingly, their lack of preparation did not yield good results. Bryson quickly discovered that he was “hopelessly out of shape,” with his “heart kabooming alarmingly.” But, amazingly, he was the more fit of the two trekkers. Katz’s lack of physical conditioning made Bryson look like Tenzing Norgay by comparison. Yes, these two ill-prepared backpackers, with their dedication to unwise physical endeavors, have securely enshrined themselves high in the pantheon of my heroes.
Another leader in the out-of-shape-old-guys movement is Tim Moore. After bicycling across Iceland with no training (as written about in Frost on My Moustache), Moore decided to attack the demanding Tour de France with a further dearth of preparation and then to write about it in French Revolutions.
It is perhaps difficult for Americans, who typically do not follow cycling with anything approaching enthusiasm, to fully appreciate the extreme challenge of the Tour de France. The event is not only a 2,000-plus mile bicycle race, but, and here is the kicker, it is a 2,000-plus mile bicycle race through the Alps, mountains which make the Cascades look like potholes (more or less).
Moore prepared for this punishing endeavor by enthusiastically shopping for equipment and realizing that he needed to cycle, or at the very least do some “cycling-type exercise.” The somewhat younger Moore had a more favorable outcome than Bryson, but as the Dali Lama might have said at one time or another, “It’s the journey that counts, man, not the end product.”
Armchair adventurers, take the bull by the horns (figuratively please, don’t actually get out of your chairs). Look for your idols not in the young and fit. Rather, bow at the feet of these ill-prepared, long-in-tooth authors of absurd escapades. And read their books while you’re at it.