Happy 30th Anniversary!
I pitched the trip to my friends as a “bucket list” type of trip. Fly into San José, Costa Rica, rent dual-sport BMW touring motorcycles from Elephant Motorcycle Expeditions, and experience the country in a way that only riders can appreciate. I promised them it would be epic.
When I first mentioned the trip to my friend Mark, his eyes lit up. He is a cancer survivor who loves the adventure of the open road on a motorcycle, and Costa Rica is on his bucket list. His enthusiasm spurred me to set the trip in motion, but then a couple of months before the trip, Mark’s doctor discovered a tumor on his liver and he had to drop out to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatment. In spite of this, he encouraged the rest of us to go and embrace the adventure. He only asked that we keep him in the loop via text and email as we traveled so he could enjoy it vicariously.
Pura vida is the national slogan of the people of Costa Rica. Literally translated it means “pure life,” but in reality it means so much more. It is an expression about how they embrace the excitement and adventure of life. It symbolizes how they feel about the goodness of the earth and everything it provides us. It represents a sense of wonder found in the natural beauty of the forests, mountains, and beaches of their land. It symbolizes gratitude for what is, and hope for what is to come.
|Markito Flaquito at the beach|
The first night together in San José we discussed the schedule over dinner. The husbands would pick up the motorcycles and make their way through the mountains up to La Fortuna. The ladies would embark on their own adventure whitewater rafting on the Balsa River, and then we would meet at our hotel in the afternoon. In order to keep Mark involved in the fun, my wife, Britt, suggested that we fashion a photo of Mark after Flat Stanley and take pictures of him during the trip. We affectionately dubbed our traveling companion “Markito Flaquito” (little skinny Mark) and our adventure began.
After seeing the wives off on their own adventure, we picked our way through traffic and out of the city with the help of Henry, our motorcycle guide. We traveled through Alajuela and up to the waterfall of La Paz passing fields of coffee beans and traversing misty rainforest valleys. Each sweeping turn brought another breathtaking vista and the smell of tropical flowers. Each switchback filled us with the adventure of the open road. The chatter over our headsets included a lot of “wow” in the vocabulary. We took pictures of Markito Flaquito along the way and ended the day with our wives in the hot springs behind our hotel bubbling with excitement.
The next morning we went rappelling down waterfalls in the rainforest with Desafío Tours. We climbed on to the metal benches in the back of a truck and jostled our way up the rocky mountain road to the starting point. After a safety briefing and getting geared up, we hiked to the top of the canyon and began our rope-sliding adventure. One by one we traversed the waterfalls of the canyon dangling on ropes and scrambling through muddy pools. I was more afraid of slipping on the rocks than falling. By the time we finished the course and hiked back to the start, we were soaking wet and grinning from ear to ear.
After the ride, the ladies relaxed at the hot springs while the guys rode the north shore of Lake Arenal on Highway 142 which winds around the largest man-made lake in Costa Rica. At the end of the ride, we were meeting at the Tabacón hot springs restaurant for dinner and relaxation. Highway 142 has everything an adventure rider could want—curves, light traffic, and beautiful views. We made our way to The Macadamia Café at the northwest corner of the lake before turning around. Brian led on the way back, and with the sun going down and some water running over sections of the road, we slowed our pace on the return in spite of possibly being late for dinner.
I entered into a left-hand turn about thirty yards behind Brian focused on the road, but thinking about getting to dinner on time. By the time Brian told me that the road was slippery, I guess it was too late. The next thing I remember I was sliding across the asphalt.
My mind kicked into overdrive. How close are Greg and Scott? Far enough back not to be a problem. Was there any traffic in the other lane? No. Get away from the bike. Relax. Slide. Tumble. Stand up and get off the road. After sliding I popped up and scurried off the road as the bike slid into the muddy ditch on the opposite side of the road.
The headsets got busy. “Someone’s down! Someone’s down!” “Are you okay?” “Get your hazard lights on.” “No traffic.” “Brock are you hurt?”
“I’m okay,” I answered when I found my voice. “But my wife’s going to kill me.”
Somebody said, “Who says she has to know?”
As Greg and Scott helped me pull the bike back onto the road and cleaned the mud off, I said, “Well guys, I think this trip is over for me.”
They told me, “These bikes are pretty rugged. Let’s get it upright and I’ll bet it’s okay.”
After a quick inspection, we started it up and finished the ride to dinner. My mind raced as I replayed the accident searching for clues about why it happened. I wondered how I was going to tell my wife. I decided not to tell her until the trip was over. I didn’t want to ruin her vacation. The guys didn’t think I would make it through dinner without telling her what happened, but I focused on the fun we were having and managed to keep from spilling the beans.
I woke up in the middle of the night with my mind racing. I replayed the accident over and over again. What did I do wrong? Why did it happen? What was I doing riding motorcycles in Central America? What if I had been hurt or killed? What was I going to say when I told my wife? Should I continue riding? Fear lingered and kept me from sleeping.
Life never goes as we expect. We make plans for epic adventures and once-in-a-lifetime experiences in far away places, but the truth is that things seldom work out the way we plan them. With each day dawns a new mystery. Each moment teeming with life will develop on its own, in spite of our intentions and desires. Death looms on some unseen, and sometimes unexpected, horizon, but it is always there to remind us that our time here is finite. Yes, we should plan our future and work towards our goals, but we should make room for living, or dying, along the way. We should live a pura-vida life.
In addition to touring the Costa Rican countryside on motorcycles, each remaining day brought its own adventure—ziplining above the rainforest in the shadow of a volcano, watching crocodiles in the river, boogie boarding the warm surf of the Pacific, and walking along a secluded beach. Pablo, one of our drivers, even opened up his home and had us all over for dinner with his family. We snapped pictures of Markito Flaquito and sent them to our friend to lighten his spirit and let him know that we were thinking of him.
Every day of our trip was filled with adventure, friendship, and fun. Every evening was filled with good food and lively conversation. Perhaps because of the accident, or because of the calculated risks, or maybe because of our missing friend, the trip seemed full of life and longing for the excitement of the next day. We soaked it all in like the warm tropical sun at the beaches of Manuel Antonio. We relished in the beauty of nature that engulfed us. We marveled at our wonderful world as we watched the brilliant sunset over the Pacific Ocean.
On the second to last day we were gearing up for a couple’s ride and Britt noticed the scratches on the motorcycle. “Did you lay this bike down?” she asked.
I pursed my lips and took a deep breath, certain that she would be upset with me. “Yes, the other night on our way to Tabacón.” I told her the whole story and explained why I hadn’t told her. She took it all in quietly, asked a few questions, and then climbed on the back of the bike and rode with me all day.
Henry, our guide, picked us up the last day and took us down the coast before turning inland for San Isidro and northbound along the mountainous Highway 2 toward San José. We stopped near the highest elevation and watched the clouds drift over the elevated rainforest. “This is a dangerous highway,” explained Henry. “In the olden days, people traveled it with oxcarts and many died along the way. They nicknamed it Cerro de la Muerte (Hill of Death).”
We descended into San José and followed Henry through the chaotic city traffic and returned the bikes. Indeed, it was an epic, bucket-list type of trip, and I was glad that I had survived it, only losing my deductible on a rented motorcycle.
Pura vida—pure life—is a good expression to live by. Each day is a gift that we must unwrap in our own special way. Markito Flaquito reminded us to enjoy each moment and remember what a blessing it is to live. Fill every minute with a zest for life. Be grateful for the blessings and opportunities we have been given. Lift the spirits of those around you with optimism. Don’t let the certain specter of death keep you from living. Like my friend Mark, I choose to live every day with pura vida.
Recently, I stood in front of a group of Japanese exchange students holding an index card with a question on it. “What has been your most difficult leadership position?”
The answer popped into my head almost immediately. I didn’t think of the many leadership positions I have held in my church. The stressful Air Force leadership positions I once filled didn’t cross my mind. I never even gave my titles as an airline Captain or Check Airman a thought. “The most difficult leadership position I have ever held,” I told them almost without hesitation, “Is being a father.”
Before any of you mothers out there get your dander up, I tip my hat to motherhood as well. I merely stated that being a father is the most difficult leadership role I have ever held, not that fatherhood is the most difficult leadership role out there. I have never been, and never will be, a mother. So, in answering the question, I was limited to the roles I have held. This is an expression about my experience as a father, but it certainly applies to a woman’s experience as a mother. Parenting is the most difficult leadership role in the world.
|Trying to organize the family photo|
Leading a family is the most difficult task in the world for several reasons.
1) Your family knows where you buried the bodies. Remember that time you decided to burn the leftover boxes from Christmas in the fireplace and set off all the smoke alarms after midnight and almost burned the house down? Or how about the time you backed into a telephone pole with your minivan because you were shouting at your boys for fighting? If you have done something in front of your family that is embarrassing, shameful, or might land you in jail, your family will remember. It’s tough to lead a group of people who know how imperfect you are. You can’t pull the wool over their eyes, or pretend that you’re perfect. They know who you really are. They know where you’ve buried the dead bodies of your temper tantrums, your broken promises, your lies, and your failures. It’s tough to lead a family, because your family knows you aren’t anywhere close to perfect.
2) Your children will pick up your bad habits before they develop your good habits. Have you ever had to wash your child’s mouth out with soap because they repeated a swear word they heard you utter? Have you ever put your child in time out for behaving like you? Bad habits will always be duplicated sooner, and more often, than good habits. A child will do what you do long before they will do what you say, even if what you are telling them is better for them. You can put on a good face at work and hide or minimize your bad habits, but not at home. It’s tough to lead an organization that is quick to repeat your bad habits, and slow to develop your good habits.
3) Your children know where you sleep. Vince Lombardi said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” When you have worked a long day and your toddler crawls into bed with you because he’s afraid of the dark, you find out what you are really made of. It’s tough to be brave and lead when it’s 1:00 AM and your teenager is still out on prom night and you can’t sleep even though you have to get up at 6:00 AM and go to work. Everybody can keep their cool and make good decisions when they get eight hours of uninterrupted rest. Only a parent understands the challenge of running a household full of energetic grade-school children when you’re sleep deprived, without snapping someone’s head off. Only a parent can appreciate the struggle to remain sane when you can’t remember what it’s like to sleep without someone kicking you in the kidneys all night long. Leading a family is difficult because you are constantly fighting fatigue.
4) Your children don’t know and don’t care how important you are at work. I don’t care if you are the CEO of Apple, the Rear Admiral of a Naval shipyard, or Supreme Court Justice, and neither do your children. Your children don’t care about how many lives you saved that day, or how much money you made on that big deal you closed. Your children aren’t impressed by some fancy title or corner office with windows on two sides. All your children care about is what you are going to fix for dinner and if you will let them stay up and play a game past their normal bedtime. The world may bow at your feet or shower you with accolades, but when you cross the threshold of your home the only title that matters is Daddy. To lead a family you can’t pull rank or rely on some earned status. Leading as a parent is difficult because parents have to lead in the moment without the help or trappings of authority.
5) You can’t quit from being a parent. No matter how old you get, you will always be the father of your children. There is no finish line. There is no retirement. There is no quitting. It is true that you can simply give up, or abandon, your children, but that only shifts the burden to someone else, not the responsibility. Children will look to you as a parent (good or bad) for the rest of your (and their) life. The job of a parent does evolve over time, and the task loading does wane as children grow older, but the job is never complete. Once a parent, always a parent. Parenting is not for quitters.
Yes, leading as a father is the toughest thing I have ever done, but it also the most rewarding. Your children may know of your biggest faults, but they will also love you when you don’t deserve it. Your children may pick up your bad habits, but they will also surprise you with their ingenuity and accomplishment. Your children may deprive you of sleep, but they will also reenergize you with their sense of wonder and zest for life. Your children may not respect you for your titles and accomplishments in the workplace, but they will look up to you because of (and in spite of) who you really are. You may not be able to quit being the father to your children, but why would you ever want to?
|The Family Photo|
|The view at the top of Tiger Cave Temple|
The sound of metal crashing against metal made my heart skip a beat. It was our last night in Thailand and I didn’t want to spend it in some urgent care, or police station, where nobody spoke English. However, I had taken a few risks on this trip and although risk can produce rewards, it can also produce injury, and incur cost.
I like to take a few risks while traveling. I’ve raced horses on the beach, whitewater rafted, rappelled down waterfalls, explored caves, ziplined above the rainforest, jumped off cliffs, boated down the Amazon (the river not the website), scuba dived shipwrecks, and swam with sharks. A bit of adventure gets the heart pumping and makes travel more memorable. Sitting by the pool or on the beach is boring. I like a little more adventure. My trip to Thailand incurred a few risks, but it was packed with once-in-lifetime adventures as well.
|At the Grand Palace|
When my daughter suggested Thailand for her Senior trip, I must admit that I wasn’t enthusiastic about it. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to travel that far when perfectly acceptable destinations were within a few hours of air travel. What could possibly be worth spending twenty hours in an airplane and crossing the International Date Line? She promised it would be an adventure into the unfamiliar.
From the moment I stepped off the airplane onto the streets of Bangkok, I felt like I was swimming in the unfamiliar. I couldn’t speak the language. I didn’t know much about the culture. I struggled to hire a taxi. The money was strange. I had trouble finding my bearings. I was in deep water of the unfamiliar and all I could do was tread water. The streets of Bangkok enchanted me with the intoxicating smells of street vendors, the melodic sound of the Thai language, and the rhythmic movement of a city in motion. I went for a walk the first night and soaked it all in. I wanted to communicate and my brain instinctively began searching in vain through my rolodex of languages for phrases I could use, but found nothing useful. I was relegated to pointing, smiling, and hoping that I could get my point across. Just finding a place for dinner was an adventure in the unfamiliar.
After a good night’s rest, we embarked on the first thrilling quest—feeding tigers and riding elephants. Growing up on a farm you develop a healthy respect for large animals. You learn that no matter how loyal or docile, large animals have the propensity to injure or kill you at any time. In spite of that learned respect, I found myself bottle-feeding juvenile leopards in a cage. They tugged at the bottle like baby calves I used to feed, but I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen when the bottle was empty. Of course, I found out. I fed them raw meat at the end of a rawhide bone while they sat on my lap. I was relieved to emerge from the cage with all my fingers.
Next we boarded a safari bus with open windows and passed through areas with lions, tigers, and various other wild animals capable of eviscerating a human without breaking a sweat. I felt pretty safe, until I realized that my window was broken and wouldn’t close. When we finally arrived in the herbivore section, our bus was bombarded with giraffes, zebras, and one aggressive ostrich looking for the sliced carrots we had on board. Luckily, when we ran out of carrots they went back to standing in the shade and let us move on.
We topped off the day by riding elephants bareback along the banks of the Kwae Noi River. As we approached the lumbering beasts with bananas, their long trunks greeted us like groping hands. I climbed aboard Mayura, my ride for the day, straddling her neck with her coarse hair poking at my legs and her ears flapping against my hips. The trainer grunted and she sauntered forward to follow the other elephants, but every chance she got she stopped to eat, pulling up small trees and clumps of grass. The trainer dismounted and I sat atop of that great beast feeling completely out of control. I knew no commands. I had no bridle or saddle. I was keenly aware that had she wanted to, Mayura could have yanked me from her back with her trunk and ripped me limb from limb. Instead, she was content to pull saplings out of the ground from their roots and get me soaking wet in the river. I was a helpless passenger in this adventure into the unfamiliar.
The next day we traded our four-legged transportation in for long-tail boats and tuk tuks (open air taxis powered by motorcycles) as we toured the sights of Bangkok. We visited several Buddhist temples as the oppressive heat beat down on us. We followed the masses through the opulent Grand Palace. We weaved in and out of gnarled traffic in the back of a tuk tuk and explored the city from a water taxi on the Chao Praya River before heading to the airport and our flight to Krabi. The mix of unfamiliar sights and sounds kept me off balance and intrigued me the entire time.
|Riding in Ao Nang|
Our first day in Krabi and Ao Nang began with a little slower pace. Our villas were nestled in the countryside away from all the hustle and bustle of the town. After breakfast we ventured into Ao Nang to stroll along the beach but found ourselves peppered by shop owners hawking their wares. The streets were filled with motorcycles and scooters creating a cacophony of revving two-cycle motors and the air smelled of lingering oily exhaust. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, we rented a couple of scooters for the afternoon and were soon dodging in and out of traffic along the beach on
the wrong side of the road. By the end of an exhilarating afternoon cruising around on two wheels, I
was starting to find my bearings, and we decided to rent them again the last few days of the trip.
|Britt with Natty|
We thought we booked a private boattour across the Straits of Malacca to Phi Phi Island, but soon realized as our flatbed truck-cum-taxi filled up with people, that we were part of a bigger tour. After some heated and somewhat confusing negotiations, we cut the price in half for the tour and were assigned to Boat 21 and lined up on the beach to load up. Our guide, Natty, burst on the scene with great fanfare dressed like a banana with shorts on. His flamboyant delivery of instructions and coquetry kept us entertained as we island hopped our way to Phi Phi Island.
Unfortunately, the tour on Phi Phi Island was overcrowded and didn’t deliver the adventure experience we wanted, until the ride back to Ao Nang. On the way out that morning the water was smooth and the skies were clear, but when we started our return a squall line loomed on the horizon. The seas became rough and the wind whipped at our faces as we headed towards the storm. We were at the mercy of the capable Captain and his First Mate as we ploughed forward into the waves. I was sitting at the back of the boat with the sound of the two outboard motors pounding in my ears as the waves continued to build and crash over the side of the boat on top of me. Each time we crested a wave with the bow of the boat I got soaked in the back. For thirty minutes the warm water of the Indian Ocean pummeled me and soaked me through and through and I laughed a nervous laugh as we headed into the teeth of the afternoon shower. By the time we pulled into port, the rain was coming down in sheets, but we were all laughing at the thrill of the ride.
|Monkeys at Tiger Cave Temple|
It was foggy and cooler the next morning, but that was perfect weather for the next adventure—climbing 1237 uneven and steep steps to a Buddhist temple atop a limestone mountain. Tiger Cave Temple overlooks Krabi from the North and boasts incredible views of the surrounding geography, but you will pay a price for those views. My daughter wanted to race to the top, so we split off from the rest of the group and kept a grueling pace. We stopped for photos and to catch our breath, but made it to the top in about forty minutes covered in sweat. The breathtaking vistas made the climb worthwhile. I sat and took it all in as everyone else climbed to the top. As I sat enjoying the view, I met people from the Philippines, Malaysia, Germany, France, Canada, and Spain. I guess the desire to climb is universal and the risk was certainly worth the reward.
The last day we rode our scooters back down to the beach and hopped a long tail boat over to Railay Beach. This gorgeous beach boasts white sand with the consistency of brown sugar, clear blue waters, and great kayaking. We kayaked out to the nearby limestone islands and explore the caves carved by the ocean. The lack of waves made for great kayaking, but monotonous beach time. After a few hours we headed back to Ao Nang and toured the area on the scooters enjoying the afternoon sun.
For our last dinner in country, we rode to a restaurant where we could watch the sunset. The view was spectacular, but like almost every other meal ordering food was an adventure in itself. When we finished, we hopped on the scooters in the dark for one more jaunt along the beachfront road. One more chance to take a risk and glean the reward of soaking in the sights and sounds of Thailand.
The sound of metal crashing against metal made my heart skip a beat. My daughter, riding double with her friend, had gotten off balance during her start and crashed into two parked cycles. I pulled over and went running back to the accident. She had banged her ankle in the mash up, and they were both shaken a bit. I picked up the other bikes and examined them. They didn’t appear to have any damage. Her scooter had a broken headlight and damaged fairing. As I examined the rented scooter, a policeman came up and started taking notes. For a moment I regretted taking the risk of riding in a foreign country. I worried that my propensity for adventure might cost me more coin than I anticipated. Maybe I should stay home and watch TV like everybody else. Perhaps taking risks is not the smartest course of action when you are a long way from home and don’t speak the language.
With the help of a local hotel employee (Holiday Inn no less), we got it all sorted out. The other bikes were not damaged. No laws had been broken. Although my daughter and her passenger were shaken a bit, they had suffered only minor bruises. The only problem remaining was the cost of repairing the rented scooter. As my wife and daughter got one last massage, I solicited the help of a local shopkeeper and got an estimate on the repair. In the end the damage came to about $160, a small price to pay for the fun we had.
|Rylee on her to Railay Beach|