The Old Man and the Volcano

When we are travelling and we meet people for the first time, we know practically nothing about them. It’s our nature to make some assumptions though, based on their age, gender, the language they’re speaking, their accent, whether they travel alone or with others, their body shape, their clothing, the quantity and motifs of their tattoos and piercings, and whether they have long hair, short hair, or dreadlocks. But almost always, our assumptions are wrong.

This is a little different than when you meet someone new in your community. You can assume some things based on the norms of our society, such as their minimum education level, their fluency in the primary language of the country, their understanding of how things work in the community, the safety within which they grew up, and you would probably be a bit more accurate.

All I knew about John was his name and that he is an American. That was all he shared at the beginning of the guided trip to the top of San Cristobal Volcano, which, although not an extremely difficult climb by Central American standards, was probably the most difficult in Nicaragua.

From the summit of San Cristobal Volcano.

I filled in a few of the blanks myself. He looked to be in his mid-sixties, he was on this trip alone, he was quiet and introverted, he was clean-shaven and neatly dressed, and he was wearing what appeared to be an expensive watch. He seemed like a typical retired American, who had had a good and financially rewarding career, who probably had his act together, and was trying to have some fun on a vacation.

As usual, I was wrong on most counts. In fact, John had once been one messed up individual. But I didn’t know that yet.

The first time John said anything to me after telling me his name was six hours later, when I was descending San Cristobal to bring food to some people who had dropped out of the climb, and as I passed John, he said, “How in the hell did you climb that volcano so quickly? Are you a god damned mountain goat? Well I’m not as fast, but I will surely get to the top eventually.” Or something to that effect. I decided he had gumption.

Later, after the descent, I learned a little more about John. Yes, he was retired, but he had been working on a project restoring an old farm house for the last five years in West Virginia. The project was nearly complete. John lived alone and said he was happy.

A couple of days later, I crossed paths with John again, in the Central Park of Leon, Nicaragua, in front of the Cathedral.

He was excited to see me, and I him. We chatted at length about nothing much, reminiscing about the climb up San Cristobal. And then he opened up. John told me with a laugh, “I’ve had a pretty fucked up life.” He told me about how he had been extremely obese, an alcoholic, a frequent drug user, how he had screwed up his relationships with his kids and his wife, how his life and career had been a “god damned” mess. He didn’t get into the details of the cruelties he imparted on the people he loved because of his addiction, but he hinted at them.

Then one day, when he was about my age, John’s doctor told him that if he didn’t make significant changes to his life right away, he’d be dead in a year. John admitted that at first, death didn’t seem like a bad option. But when he thought about it more, he decided he wanted to live.

So John stopped drinking. And he stopped taking drugs. Cold turkey. Over the next couple of years, he lost about 120 pounds. Although he wasn’t able to reconcile his differences with his wife, he won back the respect of his children.

About our climb up the volcano, he said that he didn’t think he was going to make it. It was brutally difficult. He thought his legs and lungs would just give out on him. But like his recovery from his shitty life, he told me, he just took one step at a time, and when he had taken enough steps, he found that he was on the summit.

What do you say to someone about whom you have had false assumptions, and who has just shared a story like this with you? I just looked at him gobsmacked and said, “Wow, dude.”

I mean, I’m talking with a guy I only just met a couple of days ago, who should have been dead more than ten years ago, who out-climbed a couple of people less than half his age, who was spiralling out of existence, and who found the will and motivation to turn his life around, who had the internal fortitude to stay on his new difficult path, who became a caring and compassionate human being, who earned the respect and admiration of his estranged family, and who ultimately travelled to Nicaragua to climb a volcano that ten years ago he couldn’t have summited in his wildest imagination!

Amazing! Way to go, John!

And this is partly why I love to travel. There’s so much to learn about people, so much inspiration out in the world, and so many great stories to enliven the soul.

John is down there on that slope, climbing with grit and determination. Well done, sir!


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