Life is an adventure. Live it well.
Life is an adventure. Live it well. This is how I remember my Dad, even as he laid on his deathbed, too weak to lift his head, muscles locked in a fight against time. After struggling with Parkinson’s Disease for nearly fifteen years, my Dad finally lost the battle one morning in September, 2015. I thought it would be easy to come to terms with his death, especially after he had been suffering for over a decade, but this was a loss my system simply couldn’t handle. My Dad wasn’t just my father, he was my best friend, my partner in crime, my companion in the great outdoors. He was the man I turned to throughout my life, from the time I was an infant until his final day.
While my mother raised me to be a thoughtful and independent woman, my father taught me that life is an adventure. Live it well. He taught me to appreciate nature and to look for the good in the bad. When I was in first grade and we went camping in northern Wisconsin in January — even though it was so cold our toothpaste froze in the tube and our damp towels cracked in half — we still found laughter and warmth. When I was a teenager and my Dad decided it was time to teach ourselves how to kayak through whitewater rapids – even though I immediately found myself crashed up against a rock and my kayak lost to the river – we came home with valuable lessons in survival. In nature, we grew together, we learned about each other and ourselves.
Shortly after my Dad’s diagnosis with Parkinson’s Disease, we secretly started to plan an epic adventure in Alaska. Deep in my soul, however, I knew our plan would never come to fruition. Maybe he sensed this too. My Dad was losing control over his own muscles and struggled to walk. I was watching my healthy, athletic father slowly deteriorate and become a shell of the man I once knew. I was angry and depressed. I no longer wanted to hike or go camping. What was the point if my best friend couldn’t accompany me? I decided to set nature aside and focus on my education and career. I moved to the east coast and spent the next eight years building my career. I came home to visit my parents as needed, but I continued to obsess over where my career was taking me and how long it would take me to accomplish my goals.
One day, after returning from a visit back home to Chicago, I realized I needed to move back. Something in my father’s eyes told me he wouldn’t be long on this earth. As luck would have it, several months later, the career opportunity of a lifetime appeared and I found myself loading a moving truck headed to Chicago. The day before I was to start my new position, my father died. I had just moved halfway across the country to be with him, and suddenly he wasn’t there anymore. I was lost. I cried. I focused on my work. I cried some more. I worked some more.
Within the first few weeks of my father’s death, I started hearing stories about him from family and friends who knew him before I was born. My Dad had an amazing life, a life full of adventure. Even when he was in college or trying to build his own career or support his family, he still took time to travel and experience nature. He lived life well. Well, what the heck was I doing? I was so focused on my career, and my books, and being the most successful woman I could be that I lost track of what mattered to my Dad and me so many years ago. I lost track of the most inspiring, the most healing place on earth: the outside.
Life is an adventure. Live it well. These words kept creeping into my brain at night, in the shower, at work, for weeks and weeks.
Finally, I decided I needed to make that epic Alaskan adventure a reality, even if my Dad couldn’t join me. It had been about a year since I did any hiking at all, and about a decade since I attempted any serious backpacking excursions. But, life is short, and I want to live it well. Three months after my Dad’s death, I booked myself on a guided backpacking expedition in Alaska. It was an impulse decision, but it seemed like a wise one. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, although I did receive a 10-day packing list from the tour company and was advised to train for a minimum of three months in preparation for the trip. Long ago, I had backpacked through the Colorado Rockies and had spent some time on the Appalachian Trail, but I didn’t remember training for these excursions. I knew I had to break in my boots and my backpack, but other than that I had no clue what sort of training was involved.
Six months before embarking on my expedition, I joined a gym and started working with a personal trainer. I spent every weekend hiking trails around the Chicago area attempting to break in new hiking boots and a 70-liter backpack that I filled with 30 pounds of books. The closer I got to the date of my flight to Anchorage, the more excited I got, and the less angry or depressed I felt. For the first time in nearly a decade, I was striving to grow for myself, not my career. Spending every weekend outside in nature was teaching me to find peace from within.
After arriving in Anchorage and meeting up with our group of six backpackers and two guides, I immediately felt ill-prepared and afraid. The majority of the group consisted of men who were experienced backpackers, and our guides were in the military. Then there was me, a shy Midwestern girl who was extremely rusty in her backpacking abilities. I’m terrified of flying, and I soon discovered we would fly on several bush planes to reach our destination in the backcountry. We would also ascend elevations over 3,000 feet each day. None of my training in the flat Midwest allowed me to practice ascending over 500 feet. I wanted to turn around and head back to the airport, but I kept hearing in my head . . . Life is an adventure. Live it well.
Our first day would be spent on two 4-seat bush planes to Lake Clark, one of Alaska’s most remote national parks. It’s the least accessible park, as there are no roads, and the only way to enter the park is via bush plane. The winds were high and the visibility low, so I spent the entire first flight with my eyes shut and my hands gripping the sides of the seat. When we landed on a gravel runway tucked between the mountains, I opened my eyes and realized I was still alive. I wouldn’t let my fears get the best of me, so I forced myself to enjoy the second flight.
The next several days involved ascending thousands of feet, getting eaten alive by giant mosquitoes, and shivering in the rain. My ankles hurt from climbing mountains every day; my body developed bruises in places I didn’t know could bruise; and I was always hungry even though I was constantly snacking throughout the day. Each morning I packed up the tent and prepared for our journey, I was also thrilled to see what our day would bring. The air was crisp, even though it rained so often; the gorgeous butterflies were larger than the overly aggressive mosquitoes; and the sun shined at the tops of every mountain we climbed. I was beginning to see the good in the bad. I was inspired. I was living life well.
I wrote a letter to my Dad in my diary every evening, although I felt his presence hiking along next to me every day. There were times I would struggle up the side of a mountain, and I swear I could feel my Dad’s hand gently touch my shoulder, but it was always just a butterfly. Those butterflies gave me the strength and determination to continue.
By the end of my Alaskan backpacking expedition, I had lost ten pounds and ripped my pants after a fall down a steep incline, but I was happier than I had been in over a decade. I was no longer afraid of flying, and heights just didn’t bother me anymore. Most importantly, I was no longer angry or depressed. I came to Alaska for adventure, and I left feeling at peace. I learned that no matter where my life takes me, my Dad will always be hiking along next to me in spirit.
It’s almost been a year since I embarked on my Alaskan adventure, but I’ve had many adventures since then. I’ve camped out in northern Wisconsin once again, and I even spent a few nights backpacking the AT. Regardless of the unpredictable Midwestern weather, I make it a point to spend a day each week outside. For me, being outside can be anything from taking a stroll along Lake Michigan to packing up the car and camping somewhere outside of the city. It is outside where my father first taught me to live life well, and it is outside where I continue to grow and heal after his death. Where will my next adventure take me? I don’t know. Greenland?
About the writer
Britta Keller Arendt is the head of museum artifact collections at the Chicago History Museum. When she’s not working to preserve thousands of historical artifacts for future museum goers, she’s taking a hike through the woods, monitoring butterflies for citizen science, or planning her next adventure. Wherever she goes, her dogs are by her side.
You can follow Britta on Twitter.