A tale of white whales and evolving bucket lists


Chasing life's dreams

By Steven Law
Lake Powell Chronicle

It feels quite surreal when a moment you’ve imagined happening hundreds of times finally happens. Especially when it’s scratching off an item from the bottom-most depths of your bucket list.
I created my bucket list during a senior literature class in college. Back then, bucket lists were called Life Lists or simply, the Things I Want to do Before I Die. The class was Literature four-hundred something, an advanced-level literature appreciation class. We had previously read “Moby Dick” and I had thoroughly enjoyed it. If you’ve read it, you know that it reads more like a dense travelogue than a novel, and I was enthralled as Melville’s narrative and description carried me back to a time and a way of life long since passed away.
Then for three days the class very carefully and thoroughly dissected it, then further filleted it into ever thinner layers and finally on the third day boiled the last morsels of fat in the literary tri-pots. By then, it was impossible not to stare out the window of the Braithwaite Building and daydream. It was a day in mid-November. Outside the sky was matte gray. Someone in a class before us had opened one of the windows in the back of the classroom a few inches and every so often a breeze blew in the smell of damp, decaying leaves and caused the fingers of one of trees to tap against the window, as if it was trying to get my attention. Hey, look out here!
Due partially to the boredom that had fallen over me and partially from imagining the adventurous life aboard a whaling ship, I turned over a blank sheet in my notebook and started writing out my Life List (I prefer that term to Bucket List).
The prime message of “Moby Dick” – as we all know – is the futility of pursuing an unobtainable goal. And yes, I was aware of the irony that even as we discussed pursuing the unobtainable goal I began creating a very ambitious list of life goals.
The list included the places I wanted to visit, the adventures l wanted to have, as well as my professional aspirations. My Life List contained many large-ticket items, such as raft down the Amazon, bicycle across America and spend a year touring South America. And since I was only 25 years old when I created my list – and still convinced I was immortal – all of those impossible possibilities still seemed possible.
My favorite season has always been autumn, with its crisp air that invites me to work and play all day outside. My second favorite season is winter: Because of the snow. I love snow. I have always loved snow. So it was only natural that several of my Life List items included some snowy pursuits, such as dogsledding, ice skate along a frozen river in Finland, ski Chamonix and watch the Northern Lights from a far north winter cabin.
And several items on my list that day included a simple list of the places from where I’d like to watch it snow: from an Alta hot-tub, a tent in snowbound Yellowstone, a Yukon yurt, and a New York City hotel, to name a few.
In December 2014, I found myself poised to check one of them off: Watch it snow from a New York City hotel. This had been one of the easier goals on my list to attain, yet it kept getting passed over for more romantic items, more exotic destinations on my list. For the same amount of money it would take to fly to New York and get a hotel for three or four days, I could fly to British Columbia and spend a week sea kayaking in the Broughton Archipelago.
It happened like this: Through my connections as a Grand Canyon river guide, I was able to give a friend of mine a deeply-discounted Grand Canyon river trip. To show his appreciation, he booked me and my wife three nights in the Waldorf Astoria. In December. This watching-it-snow-from-a-New York-hotel thing just might happen.
My wife Dana and I were going to visit as many of New York’s museums, theaters, restaurants and numerous other attractions as we could during our whirlwind visit, but what I wanted to do more than anything was sit in a chair in front of large window and watch it snow. Preferably while drinking some nice coffee.
On our second day in New York, while visiting Times Square, it started snowing! Small, sputtery flakes. They were hesitant, shy, non-committal. My wife and l paid for our discount “Phantom” tickets and started walking back to the Waldorf. Along the way, we passed an Irish restaurant and stepped inside for dinner. When we emerged from the restaurant 90 minutes later we discovered, to my great joy, that it was snowing in earnest. Big flakes, clumped together, the size of dimes and quarters, floating and flitting, illuminated by New York’s endless lights.
“Holy cow!” I said to Dana. “It’s gonna happen!”
On our way back to our hotel, we stopped at a Starbucks and got some coffee. Then back in our corner room high up in the Waldorf, Dana and I faced our chairs towards the windows looking down Park Avenue. We turned off the lights to better see the snow falling outside, and sipped our coffee while we watched it snow. It was beautiful, serene, surreal. By now it was dark, so we could only see the snow when it passed a lit window, but since it was New York it passed thousands of windows within our view, and it looked like moths swarming a thousand summer porch lights. Could make a man wish for some dandelion wine.
The surreal part of the experience was this: Yes, I always figured I’d one day check this goal off my list, but, since it was so far down my list, I also figured that when that day came, I would have by then also checked off more of the bigger goals from higher on my list: Hike Machu Pichu: not yet. Raft the Amazon: not yet. Bicycle across America: not yet. But many others, to my great satisfaction, I have checked off. Sea Kayak in British Columbia: check. Learn to surf: check. Spend a summer as a river guide: check times 8.
And since that autumn day in 1995, when I created my original Life List, it has taken on a life of its own. It has continued to grow and grow. As is the case for most of us, it grows faster than I have time to pursue the items listed on it. And because of that there are numerous more adventures, feats and proud accomplishments that weren’t on my list that day 20 years ago, that I’ve checked off as well.
Checking off an item from my Life List isn’t as easy as I thought it would be when I was 25.
The mere realities of paying the bills and helping support a family (on a boatman’s, and then a journalist’s pay) create challenges enough that stand between the dreaming of the thing and the doing of the thing. Ah, but that’s OK. I’ve made my peace with it. Do I wish I had the time and the means to just light out and spend my life going from one big, daring adventure to the next? Of course. But reality’s a bitch, and she ain’t got a trust fund.  
But because of the challenges, the work, the sacrifices involved in checking off an item from my Life List those rare days when I do check off an item from it is a very sweet, satisfying, notable event. And the working for it adds a deep layer of appreciation for the experience when it does occur.
Even as an “immortal” 25 year old I knew enough to know that the last thing I wanted was for my Life List to turn into a dry to-do list, or a “Keeping up with the Joneses” score card. The last thing I wanted was to rush from one adventure to the next with such speed that I didn’t have time to enjoy it, appreciate it, revel in its deliciousness. To absorb meaning from it.  No, I wanted to be awake for each one, excited for each one, and savor each one, learn from each one.
Now, every time I check another goal off my Life List, I can’t help but think back to that late autumn day at Southern Utah University, looking out an Old Main window, through bare tree branches, on a gray autumn sky and for a brief moment I recall the amazing feeling of optimism when every possibility was still a possibility. It’s a great feeling to once again remember how it felt to be 25 years old and immortal, but it also carries with it a sadness as I realize that I’m no longer 25, no longer immortal and many of the items on that list will never be realized.
In pursuing my career, I may have missed out on some travel and adventure opportunities but in the end, I think I’ve come out ahead. When traveling as a journalist or travel writer, I don’t travel as often, but because I’m usually writing a story about the experience I stop and take notes; I’m more aware, and observant. So even though my travel writing prevents me from traveling as much as I could, the travels I have taken have been much deeper, richer, more contemplative, more appreciative.
Sure, I’d still love to spend a year traveling through South America, I’d still love to raft down the Amazon, I’d still love to ice skate down a frozen river in Finland, and if I sat down today and wrote a new Life List those items would still make it in the top 10. But the older, wiser me would add some addenda to that list. It would no longer be a list of the things I wanted to do but would include a better way to do them. It would have just five items: 1. Stay curious. 2. Be spontaneous. 3. Pause and stop and look around. 4. Appreciate life’s many beautiful, amazing, miraculous moments from the big ticket items to the small, yet equally awesome moments. And number 5: to really make those moments shine, do them with my wife.
I didn’t meet my wife until I was 42 so the majority of my adventures and travels were without her. The ones I’ve done with her have been way better. Almost any experience is made better if it’s shared with someone else. And my wife is also observant and reverent. She often points out things I don’t catch, which haunts me more than a little bit because it makes me wonder what amazing things I’ve missed on the adventures I took before her. For instance, while sipping our coffee, watching the snow fall on Park Avenue, my wife turned to me and said, “I like it when the wind changes direction and all the snow turns with it,” Dana said. “It reminds of that thing birds do when they suddenly change direction in unison.”
“I think it’s called a murmuration,” I said. “And you’re right. It looks exactly like that.”
I consider myself to be very observant and mindful, but still that’s a detail I wouldn’t have caught. Such is the value of one adventure, two minds.
Four months after that wonderful night in New York when my wife and I sat transfixed sipping coffee and watching the snow falling outside our hotel window, Dana and I are back in Page.  
Saturday. I returned home from a fishing trip on Lake Powell with Breck and Don and find that my wife has left a gift for me on my desk. It looks like a pen.
I’m a writer and I love pens. My favorite possession in the entire world is a Mont Blanc fountain pen. But the pen my wife has left for me is the ugliest pen I’ve ever seen in my life. But as I get closer, I see it’s not a pen at all. It’s a pregnancy test.
And it’s positive!
I turn around and find Dana watching me from the threshold. She nods and smiles.
I run to her and we hug and kiss and gush over our good news.
A few days later, my wife and I sit down at the kitchen table and begin a new Life List. A new life, after all, calls for a new list. Which begins by taking out a blank sheet of paper. So blank. So beautifully blank. Just waiting to be filled in with amazing new discoveries, new adventures, new stories. We will soon have another Law explorer with whom to share our amazing journey through life.
In my life I’ve been the fool, I’ve been the dreamer. I’ve been the hero, I’ve been the explorer. This time I get to combine the lessons learned from my days as a fool, a dreamer, a hero, an explorer and be the guide, the adventure mentor, the exploration consultant. The dad. Sounds like the perfect job. I can’t wait to start.
The new Life List my wife and I write down is not her life list, that, of course, will be for her to create when she’s an adult. No, the list we create that evening will be a shared Life List for my daughter’s first 18 years. It’s a list designed to prepare her for the day when she creates her own Life List. The travels, adventures and explorations we list on the shared list are items we hope will form our daughter into a strong, intelligent, brave woman. Someone who’s curious and engaged with the world. Someone who is observant and thoughtful. A woman who will walk into the world armed with intelligence, wit, strength, confidence and the character to pursue her dreams.
It’s a list meant to prepare her for the day when she sits down and writes out her own Life List. When that day arrives, we want her to feel that same invincible optimism I felt the day when I wrote my list: everything is possible!

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