Two weeks ago, my friend Pat flew to Hawaii on a one-way ticket. He had lived in Brexico for 25 consecutive years, but recently decided to move somewhere warmer and lower. In the weeks leading up to his departure, he liquidated everything he owned, right down to his coffee table and shelves, then left town for good on his 55th birthday.
Such a decision sounds typical, and maybe it is. A lot of mountain men and women have charted similar routes. If not to Hawaii, then Arizona. Or Florida. One can only take so much wind across the cheeks on 10-below mornings up here.
But until Pat departed, I’d never watched a friend endure the emotions of leaving somewhere you’ve lived for so long — and making that move totally alone. It broke my heart, partly because I could tell it broke Pat’s heart to leave, but also because I realized I might follow him someday.
As his departure date approached, we went on sentimental mountain bike rides, met for beers on random nights, talked about what might await him in paradise. Pat, a gray-haired waiter who lived alone and was known as “The Legend,” or simply “Ledge,” because of his ability to mash up 12,000-foot mountains even into his 50s, tried to conceal his emotional cauldron. That lasted right up to the end, when it released like an avalanche and he told us all he loved us, tears streaming down his face.
He didn’t have much of a plan once he landed in Honolulu. He’d booked a room in Waikiki for a week and toyed with the idea of working on an organic farm, but ultimately ended up being disgusted by the city and hopped a plane to Maui. He was there, in Lahaina, when we finally spoke on the phone, 10 days into his new existence. He sounded quiet and subdued at first.
I asked him if he was doing all right.
“As you can imagine, it’s really difficult, man. You try to be strong and deal, just knowing it’s going to be hard and a change, but it’s pretty much like someone grabbed you by your ankles and shook you upside down for a while. Next thing you know, you wake up and you’re thousands of miles away from friends you’ve had for 25 years, knowing you can’t just give ’em a call and hook up for a ride or a ski.”
For the record, this is how Pat describes his decision to leave Brexico. “Six or seven years ago, I started entertaining the thought, knowing that I was getting older and that the mountains wouldn’t really be ideal for me to be old, because I don’t really like being cold all the time. And that air, too — the altitude is pretty tough. You don’t even think about it when you’re younger, but after 20 years you do. The decision was kind of gradual, and that’s what makes it harder than anything. It’s not like I didn’t like it there; I did. I just knew I was going to have to make a break sooner than later, and it’s hard when you get older to do stuff like that.”
Pat had rented a room in a house with three other people. He was looking for work at restaurants like the Lahaina Prime Rib and Seafood Company. “I still kind of feel like a mountain guy, but at the same time, I’m in a beach town,” he said. “I have my yogurt and bananas and berries with a bowl of cereal, try to pass out some résumés and take care of some business, and I really look forward to going down to the beach and just sitting, listening to the surf.”
At age 32, I can’t really grasp the concept of starting over halfway through one’s life. Instead of looking forward to the first powder day, Pat is waiting for the whales to arrive. And the tourists. He’s hoping to meet a friend or two. “There’s random moments where you’re just going, ‘What have I done?'” he said. “But I know exactly what I’ve done and it’s pretty exciting. There are just so many unknowns.”
At that, we said goodbye and went about our evenings 3,500 miles apart. I was a little worried about Pat, until he e-mailed a few days later to make sure I wasn’t worried about him. “Went to Hana yesterday, very cool, you should google the ‘road to Hana’ and check it out. Jungles, waterfall, black sand beaches, a most awesome trip,” he wrote. “Wanted to spend some time there, but trying to watch my pennies. So far, have been in the ocean and gone barefoot every day. Let it snow!”