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Essay

Learning routes to adventure by heart

I once stopped my car, got out, and ate a sandwich in the middle of Route 66. The road stretched like a ribbon, waving into a thermal mirage on the horizon. I could see miles in each direction. There were no other cars, only towering orange sandstone pillars in the desert and ravens swirling on their tips — and silence.

Ten years earlier my parents had taken our family to Glacier National Park in Montana. I cast my fly line into the riffles behind the lodge going after cutthroat trout, a species I’d only read about.

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My father was a travel writer, and he had taught me the value of adventure, perhaps too well. Although I wanted to be on the road bouncing from adventure to adventure, I first had to find a career. I studied pre-med at the University of Delaware. Before graduation I had a free summer and headed west to Olympic National Park in Washington, where I worked as a bartender by night and hiked and fished by day.

On my way to Olympic I had passed through the four corners area. I wandered the Badlands and rambled the streets of Missoula, Mont. Route 66 was desolate but as impressively open and vast in its way as the stands of hemlock that line the great rivers of the Olympic peninsula.

My first year of medical school in Philadelphia I cut my first human, learning basic surgery, and felt the first person die under my hands after we failed to reverse the irreversible. I learned that people die all the time. And the clock was ticking.

At the end of the year we were spelled for a few months. Without hesitation I went west toward Montana, skipping through Minnesota’s idyllic Boundary Waters and the glacier-cloaked peaks of the Canadian Rockies before settling into a summer of part-time work at Many Glacier Hotel on Swiftcurrent Lake inside the national park. It was a minimum-wage job far removed from civilization. But I had a car; the lake had fish; and the rock ridges were close. I wanted to climb them all, catch them all. I was content.

Late summer nights in Glacier National Park get cold, a reminder of summer’s cycle. Flashbacks of the Calgary Stampede, weekends in Yellowstone, concerts in Washington’s George Amphitheater came to mind as I packed my bags for the long journey back to the City of Brotherly Love.

I didn’t enjoy Philadelphia. Fishing its streams sent me to the ER on one occasion for blood work after pulling a stabbing victim out of the woods. I snagged a diaper with my fly one time and tore my waders on a rusty, discarded bike another. I missed the West.

When I left Glacier it was early in the morning. I played loud music between stops. I parked frequently to fish the fabled rivers. By the midnight light I pulled fish after fish out of the pool before moving on to the next destination, each decided by impulse, fate, and a sense of unleashed freedom that I have not felt since.

That was 20 years ago. I now have four young children, a Volkswagen van that’s always in the shop, and memories that cluster closer to home. I still strike out on adventures to high peaks in remote corners of the world. And although my soul is stirred, it’s the seed of adventure that is being cultivated in my children that provides the energy, the motivation to keep moving.

Thankfully, for their sake, Route 66 is still piping hot under the high sun. And for long spells, on many days, there isn’t a car in sight.

Brian Irwin can be reached at irwin08.bi@gmail.com.
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