How Distance Can Help You Grow

An Interview With Alexander Northway

By Sean Dickson

I sit in front of Peets coffee shop on a bench next to a few old fellows. I wish I could say I heard the birds chirping and the sound of children running around playing, but all I hear is the steady purr of a BMW R1200 GS motorcycle rolling up to the coffee shop. The engine shuts off and a high leg kick goes up over the upright bike, and off steps Alexander Northway.

I met Northway at Peet’s coffee in Montclair village. We got to talking after I commented on his motorcycle, and after chatting with him for a while, I decided his thoughts needed to be written down. To a man like myself who has an insatiable thirst for adventure, Northway’s thoughts and ideas inspire introspection on a life lived outdoors.

As we sit in front of the old coffee shop, his helmet resting precariously on the gas tank of the motorcycle, he begins to tell me what has made a fulfilling life for him.

“Where did you ride in from?” I ask. He tells me that he has been riding for a few days from North of the California border, straight down past the fires and through the smoke. “The smoke is a thick, sickening yellow. It makes it tough to breathe. You can’t see the sky, much less a mile of the road in front of you.” You can tell the smoke has taken an effect on him. Northway’s eyes are downcast, “So many families have lost their homes, and I haven’t seen mine in months.”

“How long have you been away from home? Why stay away for so long?” I ask.

“I ride for a while because I believe true growth happens in solitude. I’ve been gone for about a month and a half. The road offers time for thought and reflection. There are many who think a long ride is a way to escape from something in your life, but they are ignorant. People who think this way have been conditioned to believe creating distance from something is the same as running away from it. I feel sad for those who are not able to get away for long periods of time.”

“ Do you have a family? Perhaps those who are not able to get away have families who depend on them, and their presence is needed.”

“ I have a beautiful family. A wonderful wife and four kids, all who are now mid-to-late teens.”

“How can you take long rides with a family at home? How can being away for months at a time be conducive to a happy family, much less financially support a family?”

“I understand why you are asking this question. We have been taught to think that our lives are to be lived in one place with the same people, that short trips are to be saved for the weekends when the working week is over. When I was 20 years old, I decided that the decisions I made going forward each day were all going to be made in alignment with the life I saw for myself in the future. I raised my family in the same way. My wife believes that our relationship is strong enough to withstand distance and that our time together is more precious because of it. I have always identified with the saying ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder.’ The interesting thing to me, though, is that while I am on the road, I don’t miss her. I am devoted to the moment when I am on the road, and my thoughts are focused on personal growth. When I return home, I am able to devote my energy and focus and love to her and our relationship.”

“What about your children? How do they feel when you are away for long?”

“They miss me. I think they would prefer that I didn’t go on long trips, especially when they were younger. The distance teaches them to be more self-reliant. I was raised without a father and never relied on anyone but myself for support. I am there for my kids when they truly need it because it was a luxury I was never afforded, but the times when I am away is good for them as well. I am able to return home and teach them the lessons I learned on the road, no matter how small. Now that they are older, they can accompany me and we learn those lessons together. It makes our relationships stronger together.”

We sit in silence for a while, both pondering his words. When I look up at Northway, his eyes are watching me, making sure I am understanding him. I recognize that he is teaching me lessons through his answers, and a question forms in my mind.

“Why do you ride a motorcycle?” I ask.

“Death is around the corner always. Throughout my life, people have said ‘Live today like you will die tomorrow.’ While this is a wonderful thought, it doesn’t hold weight on one’s heart. It only provokes thought, not action. Riding a motorcycle takes the soft murmur of death and presents it as a loud immediacy. The reminder that death is more imminent than ‘tomorrow’ provokes action in me and forces me to make different decisions than I may have otherwise.”

“Some would say it sounds like you have a death wish,” I say.

“F*ck em.” Northway is composed. He has no malice in his words. “We all die at some point, I just hope to be around long enough to live a good life with my children and grandchildren. Then I will leave this world fulfilled.”

“What do you do for work?” I ask.

“I run a wilderness guide company. I was a young man on an alpine search and rescue crew for years as a volunteer, and it gave me the knowledge to become a wilderness guide. I started guiding small parties, then got more clients and bigger trips planned. Pretty soon I had a piece of land connected to national forest land that I guided everything from hunting trips to camp and climb trips. The guiding is about getting people into high adrenaline situations, and then meditating and reflecting on the experience. I found that this method of guiding trips pushed people to become more proactive in their lives to get outside every day. We are meant to live outside.”

“Meditation and adrenaline, huh? Sounds like a recipe for a pretty good life,” I say.

“It is … You have to choose what proportions you want each to be in, but it makes for a good life.”

“Any final words of wisdom you have for a young man?” I ask.

“Bad weather always makes for better adventure.”

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