Age looms. What should we have done? What shouldn't we have done? What should we do now?
A few years ago when we were negotiating a new contract with Ed Cervenak, the long-time general manager of Channel 5, we were facing some choices. The Morning Exchange was still hot as a fox and the station was making a lot of money on it. Some other opportunities were on the horizon for us, and Ed was told by his boss to make me comfortable, make me stay.
He did. He knew what would work. If he had offered something as intangible as a generous deferred comp package, my eyes would have glazed over. But when we started talking about how he would be willing to back some exotic travel, he had me.
I am poorer, but happier, for that.
By the time we had that meeting with Ed, I had already become bi-polar. Bill Baker, our first producer, and I were among the small number of people on earth who had stood at the exact North Pole and South Pole. I went to the Knesset when Jimmy Carter spoke there. I walked on the north slope of Alaska in the dark and cold of winter before the Sohio-BP drilling venture was approved. I literally hitchhiked there, finagling a ride on a corporate jet with a guy from a British news magazine.
Later we stood out on the frozen tundra and the other guy, wearing street clothes and without a clue about climate, said, "Christ, it's cold." It was. It was minus 40. And it doesn't matter whether it was C or F, since that is the only place on the thermometer where the two systems numerically agree.
We had flown over Mt. McKinley in the haze of an invisible sun, and later I would be a part of a very cold spring expedition to try to climb that baby. We didn't make it, but then neither did anyone else. Six Japanese climbers with whom we had shared tea at 30 degrees below zero later died in two separate mishaps.
And a team called the Adventurous Christians from Minnesota got caught in a savage storm and only survived when they remembered that one of our teammates had buried a two-way radio as they fled down the mountain with one of our buddies who had gone into a diabetic coma. As it was, most of them lost fingers and toes.
I couldn't do that today. (Ronny Bell and Bob Griese might, but then they are younger than I.)
Linda and I were so broke when we got married twenty years ago, that our travel consisted of backpacking in the Dahle Sods of West Virginia or Potter County, Pennsylvania, sleeping on the ground and eating granola. Then, in the early 80s, Linda developed some trips to China and Africa for us.
Those journeys hooked us; there was no turning back. So we seized the chance offered by Ed Cervenak. With the station's support, we went to the Sepic River and the highlands of Papua New Guinea. We hiked in Ecuador and Linda wondered why she couldn't breathe. (We were at 13,000 feed above sea level!) We did a three-week tour of Galapagos Islands. I achieved my third 90 there, crossing the equator at precisely 90 degrees west. We went to east Africa again, and to the far northwest of China, so far off the beaten path that we were true curiosities to the local people.
As foodies, we became infatuated with both the three-star meccas of cuisine and the earthy cooking of the provinces. And we went to France anytime our credit cards could handle it. (And sometimes when they couldn't.)
Our first two books made us change the focus of our travels. We wrote about the best restaurants we could find in the Midwest. In fifteen months we ate over a hundred times in restaurants scattered over ten states. And then came the richest intellectual adventure of our lives. We traveled 40-thousand miles in the United States, calling on the farmers and fishermen who were struggling against odds to keep quality alive.
Later books kept us on the road, too. We have been to the wonderful Filaree Farm in the Okanogan Forest of Washington State. We know Gilroy. (Head south on route 101, and when you smell garlic, turn left.) We have been to Walla Walla and Vidalia.
Did it make economic sense for us to go to California again to do nut research for our new book? Or that week in Italy's Piedmont to learn more about the world's greatest hazelnuts? Probably not. But we did it anyway. And how about a summer trip to cashew and coconut plantations in India? Forget about it. But then, we'll probably do it anyway. And why not?
Linda and I just took note of our 20th anniversary. And I think often about how these twenty years have gone. Our kids were all through with college and all were starting their own careers and families. When we started doing all of this stuff, we had no obligations. And we have gotten to know some of the best people in the world.
Could this house have been paid off by now? No doubt about it. Could I have stepped away from daily television grind a decade ago? Sure. Could we be spending winters in a glossy paid-off condo in Florida with a speedboat tied up outside? No question.
What if we get sick and need help? We'll be OK. We have some of that end-of-life insurance.
So, should we have lived these years as we have?
I will always remember kneeling quietly on the edge of a cliff, a hundred feet above a rocky shore. Not ten feet away was an albatross. The only other person there was an elderly man. A widower, it turns out. A retired teacher. We watched the bird for the longest time. Then quietly, it stood up, spread its wings and stepped forward. For a moment it was out of our sight. Then suddenly there it was, several hundred feet away, wings not moving, and being carried aloft by the air currents. It would be out for a long time, days maybe. Playing the currents and sweeping the surface of the sea for food.
"Just before I die," said the old man after the albatross had disappeared, "I want to have spent my last dime seeing something like this."
That is how I feel these days.