Thank you, Mike Miller.
Musings on the biology of risk and reward.
I would love to tell you stories about all these great men, because there are amazing stories to be told but I don’t think I have 8 days to speak so I’ll try to keep it brief. I’ll tell you about a biologist friend of mine who studied the worlds greatest carnivores, grizzlies and Siberian tigers and in the end he was killed and eaten by a bear at age 49. Another friend was one of the worlds best mountain climbers, he was killed in an avalanche at age 40. Another was an endurance athlete who didn’t own a car but rather rode to races on his single speed road bike. He was a hardrocker, and a finisher of a race where he ran 700 miles in 12 days. He died in the last mile of the Tucson marathon at age 40. My own father was born into an Amish family but when he was 12 his neighbor took him for a ride in his plane, and four years later my father left his family and the Amish community and went out on his own to pursue his dream of being a pilot. When he died he was a pilot for a commercial airlines, captain of the 747 but he was killed in the crash of a plane that he wasn’t even flying age 58. The same age as Micah.
These five men all died doing the things that they loved. Every one of them however, had taken great risks in their life and in the end they died doing things that for them were relatively easy and safe. For most people, the things they were doing would have been impossible, dangerous, physically demanding, lonely, frightening, but for these men it was what they did every day of their lives. They were doing what they loved but that’s not what killed them. We don’t know the exact cause of Micahs death yet, but I suspect we will find out that like the others it was more or less a random chance. They died doing what they loved not because what they were doing was so dangerous but because they spent so much time doing those things that pure statistical probability made it likely that they would be doing them when their time came. That’s beautiful man. I hope we all live lives like that. I miss all these men greatly and would gladly give a year of my life for one more week with any one of them but they led amazing lives and they died well and with no regrets and I cannot feel sad for them, only for us who have been left behind.
But I said there were seven and I’ve only mentioned five. Another friend who had also been a grizzly bear biologist left that field and became a computer programmer because he thought it would be a more secure future. He chose safety but he always regretted that decision. He used to tell me “Bart and Alex are out their making a life and I’m stuck here making a living”. And he was making plans to move to Alaska and join his friend Bart but before that happened he died in front of his computer late one night of a brain aneurism, age 45. Sure, Bart got eaten by a bear and Alex died in an avalanche and you might think they died because they lived risky lives, but they had no regrets and they outlived my friend who had chosen safety and regretted it his entire life. That is truly sad. Safety is an illusion my friends. It doesn’t exist. We cannot control the timing or manner of our passing but we can control our lives and for me the lesson of this is to live the best life we can and not get so caught up being afraid of death that we never truly live.
The seventh one pains me most of all. Another spectacular, larger than life personality. He grew up in Jackson Hole in the 50s and became a mountaineer and skier putting up many first ascents and first descents. He had to move to Canada because his conscience wouldn’t allow him to fight and when he came back to the states many years later he became my friend. We skied and climbed together for a couple years before he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and given six months to live. He beat that by three years and we got to climb a few more mountains together but in the end he suffered a long painful death that was terrible to watch. Fighting with insurance companies, kept alive by drugs and machines. Although he lived longer than any of my other friends I would not have wished that on any of them, it would have been a fate far worse than the ones that they received.
I’ve thought a lot over the years about these men and what made them different. As a biologist I can tell you that in every population of animals there is a small segment of the populations that are prone to disperse. These dispersers don’t stay at home and fight for a territory to defend, they head off into the unknown by themselves. Many of them die lonely deaths in wild places but occasionally one succeeds and when they do find another population or an empty patch of habitat they can be wildly successful, spreading their genes far and wide and that keeps the dispersal gene from going extinct. It is a high risk, high reward strategy but it is critical because without these dispersers populations would not be able to expand, or adapt. They would become inbred and stagnant and eventually extinct. Dispersers keep populations vital by connecting them.
Humans have a dispersal gene too. Of course we do. Throughout history, humans have struck out in search of new lands and new people undaunted by the risk they take and many of them do die lonely deaths in wild places but a few become wildly successful and I’m sure we can think of many examples. In today’s world there are not undiscovered lands sadly, but there are still empty places in the world and people to connect and dispersers are out there climbing the peaks, studying the wildlife, flying the skies, running the trails, connecting with new people. They can’t help it. It’s in their genes. Unfortunately in today’s world there are fewer and fewer outlets for dispersers and many of them end up stuck in cubicles trying to shoehorn themselves into a life that somehow never seems to be a good fit. They have an innate deep seated need to get out and so before they go to work or after they are done they go outside and run, or bike, or climb, or ski. They dream of travelling the world and seeing new places and meeting new people. Their non-disperser friends will never understand but they are dispersers and they can’t help themselves.
Now, if you are a disperser there are some qualities that you’d better have if you’re going to be successful. You better be strong because you are going to encounter some hardship and you might have to defend yourself. You better have a positive attitude because you just have to believe that the grass is greener on the other side. You better persevere because you have a long way to go. You better be comfortable alone because you’re gonna be alone a lot. You better be smart so you can adapt to changing situations, you better be peaceable because when you get to where you are going it will be you against everyone else, you better be charismatic because you’re gonna want the people you meet to like you. You’d better have love in your heart because the whole point is to spread genes right? These men I knew had all these qualities in spades. Have you ever watched nature shows on TV? You’ve see then dispersing wolf trying to ingratiate themselves into a new pack. They don’t come in aggressive and belligerent or they would be killed. They come in humble and submissive, wagging their tails, this doesn’t make them weak just practical.. You see the same thing amongst children on a playground or musicians entering a picking circle at a bluegrass festival. This too is a trait of dispersers and I suspect that if someone had been there to observe it, it would have been the way that Micah approached the Raramuri, humble and submissive and wagging his tail. It works.
We know what Micah did for the Raramuri. The race provided food and money to many but Micah didn’t want to just give them handouts to meet their material needs he also wanted to show them that they were respected and honored by many other people and that they should be proud of their culture because that is not a lesson that they heard very often. And he did, and they responded. And Micah did the same for many of us. Us dispersers. He gave us a name, called us Mas Locos, and when the world was at war he brought us together in peace at the bottom of a canyon in Mexico, because that’s what dispersers do, they connect us. He taught us, like the Raramuri, that we are not alone, that there are others out there like us who have never really felt part of this modern world. He provided a venue where we could express all these innate qualities that we all share. Strength, perseverance, peace, love, humility. And like the Raramuri, he instilled in us a sense of pride in who we are, and we went home changed people. And now that Micah has left us I hope that we will take his lessons to heart and we will disperse out into the world with peace and love in our hearts and strength in our bodies and we will find ways to make it a more connected, and vital place. Micah showed us one way but there are many other and it’s up to us to find them, and while we are searching for our own path I hope we keep in mind one last trait that all of my friends have shared. They gave back far more than they ever got out of the world and they never bothered to collect much in the way of material wealth. Instead they collected experience and relationships and when they died they were wealthy and happy men. It’s a high risk strategy but the rewards are also great. Giving is more powerful than getting.
I’d like to finish with a word to the non-dispersers out there. You will never understand us. We know that, just as we will never understand you. The things we do seem risky and frightening to you. You are going to give us advice like Never run alone, always tell someone where you are going, be prepared for anything and always carry a massive pack loaded with rain gear, warm layers, extra food and water, a huge first aid kit, a flashlight, a cell phone, a GPS, and a SPOT. Its good advice and we should probably take it more but often we will respectfully ignore you because we are dispersers. Our destiny lies often in places beyond the reach of cell phones and search parties. We have to travel light, and we have to be free to adapt to changing conditions and we are comfortable being alone and we are comfortable with a little risk. The things we do are not frightening to us, we don’t do them in order to face fear, we do them because it is what fuels our spirit and recharges our soul, we can’t help ourselves. It’s in our genes. Sure, some of us will die out there in the lonely wild places but we are OK with that because we are more concerned with living than dying. Dying in the woods does not frighten us, what frightens us are cities and paperwork, and car crashes and sitting on a sofa watching TV and dying a long slow death trapped in a bed becoming a financial and emotional burden to our loved ones and having insurance companies decide whether it is worth keeping us alive any longer.
I’m not here to tell you to be stupid and take risks and ignore safety and to be unprepared. But nothing in that advice would have kept a single one of my friends from dying. It may have shortened the search but it wouldn’t have saved their lives. Ultimately everyone of us is responsible for assuming the level of risk that we are comfortable with and there is nothing wrong with being safe but there is nothing wrong with an occasional calculated risk either. If Micah had listened to that advice he certainly would never have gone to Guatemala in the middle of a civil war and would not have gotten the name Caballo Blanco. He probably would not have become a trail runner because there were no other people to run with in those days, he would not have met the Raramuri in Leadville, traveled to Copper Canyon to live with them and he would never have started his race and many of us would not have been inspired and this would be a much smaller crowd and the world would have missed something beautiful. And if Micah hadn’t done these things he would never have met Maria or Guadajuko and his last few years might have been lonely and sad rather than full of Love and peace and joy and I want to say a special thanks to Maria for providing that to him in his final years.
So please, let us go, let us explore, and connect, and inspire, and head off into the wild, lonely, empty places with wild abandon. Let us go beyond the range of cell phones and search parties. We know what we are doing , we are listening to out hearts and following our destinies. Its what we do, we can’t help oursleves and you need us out there, even if you don’t understand why. Just like we know that the world could not function if everyone were like us. We need you too and we appreciate what YOU do because, after all, somebody has to fill out our tax returns for us….
by Mike Miller