by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – Some years ago I was lucky enough to be standing on a beach in the ancient town of Nettuno on the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was dusk – the sun had just gone down – and the sea was glassy calm and silvery gray. There was no horizon; the watery surface merged seamlessly with the sky. The town behind me was still noisy with the games of a festival honoring “La Madonna della Grazie,” The Lady of Graces, but the sound seemed distant, muffled by the ponderous silence of the sea.
Nothing moved in my view. I knew that somewhere out there lay land, not too far away – Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, North Africa – but if it was ever visible from where I stood, at least it wasn’t then. I’m fairly sure the denizens of that old seaport, Roman resort, and fortress give little thought to the romance inherent in their view – later in the evening, my wife and I watched a Mafia collector driving a white Maserati visit the booths of the vendors and game operators for a share of their earnings – but I was hopelessly smitten. I could feel totally, perhaps for the first time ever, the impulse that drove the ancients to, as Tennyson, puts it, “sail beyond the sunset.”
Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” has been an active part of my consciousness ever since we were assigned it as juniors in secondary school. I can recall bits of it popping up as when, for example, breaking out of the trees, I can see for the first time the summit cone of a mountain rising into the sky; or, entering the last leg of a long ski marathon, I fancy myself the mate on the bridge of a ship calling down to the engine room to see if he has enough left in the hopper to make it; or, paddling a river in what the British explorers called “the Great Barren Lands,” I hear the faint roar of an unseen rapid beginning to fill the valley. That last circumstance invariably summons the line, “It may be that the gulfs will wash us down…”
At the start of each great (and some not-so-great) adventures of the Geriatric Adventure Society, we recited that monologue of the agéd Ulysses, on the beach of his home island at last, but yearning to return to the exciting uncertainty of a chartless voyage of discovery. Helen Mirren read it a few months ago to Stephen Colbert, who grew weepy as he listened. Outward Bound, founded during the Second World War by the educator Kurt Hahn, adapted as its motto its last line – “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” – to read, “To serve, to strive, and not to yield.”
The image of the old salt “on the beach,” spending his last years smoking his pipe and telling tales to youngsters is picturesque, and seems perhaps a fitting end. But, Ulysses says, “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! as tho’ to breathe were life!” As long as any capacity remains, and the mind remains at least fairly sound, I think we need to make the most of it. I’ve climbed Mount Katahdin, and perhaps even Mount Moosilauke, for the last time; but a volume titled, “Fifty-Two With a View,” suggests some satisfying alternatives.
Our Geriatric Adventure Society, a loosely organized band of outdoor enthusiasts, lasted some 35 years, its members growing slowly into their advertised status. Several have even gone on to adventures on an ethereal plane. So the group is quiescent now, like a bed of coals, and only a few old hot spots flare up now and then.
But I’ll never forget the enthusiasm of the responses to the annual invitation to the Grand-Subarctic Bushwhack or the biennial canoe trip to northern Canada. The best men, the ones you could count on to dig down deep and remain cheerful in miserable situations, to remain calm in the face of problems, to soldier on as melting sleet ran down their faces, always answered with a swift, simple, “I’m in!” Those who wanted to know who else was going, what we were going to eat, and how we would deal with wind and bad weather, were probably going to be poor fits.
“Old age hath yet his honour and his toil; death closes all,” the poem continues. “…but something ere the end…,may yet be done.” Whatever our current limitations, there are hundreds of adventures waiting – a new country and language, a new love, a small mountain disdained in our youth, but now waiting to be climbed. Just last evening an old friend called with an invitation to fish a big river in early summer. What do you suppose I said? There was only one possible answer.