How a professional adventurer juggles the work of paying the bills with his true calling of getting up into the hills?

I remember the elevator doors sliding open on the twenty-second floor and stepping in grinning. Anxious to escape Houston for the weekend, I had changed in my office from suit and tie into mountain clothes: hiking boots, worn baggie shorts and a faded t-shirt from Neptune Mountaineering. The rest of my gear bulged my daypack out in all directions. Once the plane landed at Denver’s Stapleton airport, I could dash to my fiancée’s waiting car, and we would race westward up I-70 to the high country.

As the doors clunked closed though, my smile dropped as I sensed a dozen eyes upon me. The six passengers, all wearing dark suits, white shirts and power ties just like the ones I had dumped onto my office floor, were staring at my scraggly clothes, the battered pack… and me. I pulled my ball cap lower over my eyes and stared straight ahead. At each floor stop on the way down, every passenger that got on cast me an unhappy glance.

As the elevator filled, my dirty pack loomed larger. When I twisted my torso to make room for a lady in the corner, the pack torqued the other way and chest bumped a blue-suited drone back into the wall. He glared at me. The doors opened to the lobby, passengers flowed out, and the agitated executive shot me a look of contempt. I mumbled “Sorry” as he walked away.

That was the beginning of the end. I had tried living the urban professional life in Houston for almost a year—it just wasn’t working. I had to get back to the mountains and find a better way to blend work and adventure. Within four months I returned to Colorado, this time for good.

Of course, I still had to do the classic juggling act of most adventure lovers: work a regular job, then play in the hills whenever possible. I became a weekend warrior: I finagled my schedule for as much wilderness time as possible. I squeezed in rock climbing after work. We shoehorned weekend hut trips in between overloaded work weeks. My wife and I skipped a few family holiday visits back east so we could ski in Taos. But it was uneven. Like so many others, we could not quite resolve the work and adventure conflict. Bills don’t go away.

About ten years ago a solution to this dilemma began taking shape for me. Already an experienced science lecturer, I pondered redirecting those speaking abilities to tell my adventure stories at conferences and professional meetings. I was driven to share an epic survival struggle that I had survived in the mountains, and to distill some lessons from my adventures. So, I started re-tooling myself from geologist to professional speaker.

Becoming an adventure speaker sure sounded like a good idea. After all, I would get to be outdoors as part of my job! But instead of creating more adventure opportunities, for a while, the changeover reduced my play time. Starting a second career, while still maintaining the first to pay those bills isn’t easy. My sad standard statement was: What’s worse than a busy career that you can’t keep up with? Two careers that you can’t keep up with.

Eventually I bid geology farewell and committed to the path of an adventure speaker and writer. On the surface it might sound all exhilarating and fun. After hearing what I did for work, a new acquaintance remarked, “So you go climb stuff, then talk about it, and they pay you for that?” Were it only that simple.

Like most modern jobs there’s marketing to do and paperwork to complete. Deadlines loom and emails arrive. I consider myself fortunate to have an adventurous career, but it is still a job some days. The work of ski instructors and mountain guides might seem glorious, but I suspect they too have repetitive tasks that become drudgery and customers who turn cranky.

While I no longer fill out corporate timesheets, the work-versus-adventure conflicts still exist for me in some strange ways. For example, when I speak in mountain towns, I can sometimes squeeze in a wilderness training run on the way to the event. I enjoyed this ritual until the one day I arrived at a posh Vail hotel after a strenuous uphill jog beneath the lift line. Sweat was still dripping off my nose as I cut through the lobby, only to run right into my client and the conference sponsors. As I raised my clammy right arm to shake their hands, I noticed that the sweat had reanimated some deep-seated stink out of my old running shirt. This was not the first impression I had hoped to make.

From that day on, I decided to defer my side trips until after the business meetings were over. A new issue arose though when I decided to hike up Colorado Mines Peak (12,493 feet) right off Berthoud Pass. Someone in the parking lot cautioned me that there had been vehicle break-ins at the trailhead, so I was nervous about leaving my presentation laptop in the car. Instead I wrapped my laptop in a pile jacket, nestled it into my pack, and lugged it up the peak. I have repeated this enough now that I might hold the record for carrying a laptop to the most Colorado summits.

One warm day last June at Beaver Creek Resort, I finished speaking by lunch time. After the event, I hiked a rocky trail alone up into the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. When a torrential rainstorm tracked right over me, I flipped my jacket hood up and turned back. I hid beneath some scrubby pine trees when the hail pounded down, then finished descending under a steady drizzle. Because I had an evening speaking event in Denver on the way home, I showered, changed clothes, and checked out of the hotel. I spread soggy garments all around the interior of my SUV to dry during the trip and then set off down I-70.

On the drive, I forgot about the wet clothes. Perhaps three decades of climbing has made my nose immune to the odor of stinky wool socks. Apparently this was not true for the parking valet at the stylish Denver hotel I pulled up to. He seemed cheerful when he took my car keys and jumped in the driver’s seat. Then a scowl came over his face and he looked over his shoulder at my backseat. I peered through the side window and remembered all the damp laundry scattered about.

I intended to apologize by light-heartedly telling him that it probably looked like I had been residing in my vehicle for a while. But since I was ruffled, instead it came out as, “I’ve been living out of my car.” The door slammed shut, the driver’s window slid down and the agitated valet shot me a look of contempt. I mumbled “Sorry” as he drove away. It was almost like being back in that elevator in Houston… almost.

Jim Davidson is the co-author of The Ledge: An Inspirational Story of Friendship and Survival. He can be reached at jim@speakingofadventure.com.

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