By Russell Heath
Let me tell you the story of my own stuckness. It starts in Tel Aviv, which, in 1980 when I was there, was a dysenteric’s paradise: It had public restrooms on every other block—the limit of my range.
I’d been a year and a half overseas—first in Italy, then, in the fall of 1979, I dropped down to Africa, crossed the Sahara, navigating the sands by compass. I traveled east through the jungles and onto the savannas of Kenya and Tanzania. From those great plains, I headed north across the eastern Sahara traveling old camel routes on the backs of open trucks.
Africa at that time was a place where you could still have adventures; where the reach of modernity was tentative, where life was raw, disease ridden, almost always difficult, and sometimes violent.
One morning, in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan—where the Blue and White Nile meet, where the desert sands blow into the city and clog the streets like snow—I met a member of the local elite, Syd, who, in a fit of self-importance, invited me to lunch with the President, Gaafar Nimeiry. On the drive out to the president’s palace, Syd pointed to the big houses on lush green lawns, richly irrigated by Nile river water on the right side of the road and said, “Old regime.” He pointed at the new houses being built on brown arid sand on the other side of the road and said: “New regime.” Unspoken was the corruption and veniality that made both sides of the road possible.
At the presidential compound he went in first to clear with security—a second later he rushed out, voice pitched high in alarm.
“The guard posts are deserted. I think there’s been a coup.”
We raced through the gate and across the compound into the presidential palace. Inside was a courtyard paved with white and black tiles. Syd clapped his hands shouting in Arabic, calling for the guards. The house was silent. He told me to stay put and pounded up a staircase. No way would a white boy get a chance to explain what he’s doing in the President’s palace to a guard slinging an AK-47. I chased up the stairs after him.
He banged on the president’s bedroom door, shouting. It opened and out came—not the president, but the president’s wife wearing substantially less than a burka; about what a Victoria’s Secret model wears on the job.
I reeled. Sudan was a conservative Muslim country, between this and the coup I was in serious trouble.
“He’s just a friend,” Syd said, dragging me away. And, this being Africa, the guards had deserted their posts for their mid-morning meal of bread, fava beans, and camel’s milk cheese.
“It’s why a coup is so easy,” Syd said, as we left. Note: Nimiery was overthrown in a coup five years later.
I sailed down the Nile in a felucca and spent 11 days trapped in Cairo waiting for the parasites roiling my belly to quiet down enough to make a mad dash across the Sinai to Israel. Sick, homesick, alone, and depressed, I staggered from one public restroom in Tel Aviv to the next. A voice raged in my head: Hop a plane home, get reamed out by my family doc—and then awake the next morning in my childhood bed and not have a clue what to do with my life. The thought of being home without a direction sparked a terror so great that no matter the pain, I couldn’t return.
It was then, on the streets of Tel Aviv, that I decided what to do with my life; it would be nonstandard, devoted to adventure, and on my own eccentric terms.
Surprisingly, Israel had hospitals. I checked myself in, got fixed up, and headed into Asia.
A few years later, a friend, who lived on a sailboat, and I were skiing a ridge in Alaska. I asked him where he’d sail her—thinking, perhaps, to a neighboring village. He said, “The South Pacific” and I said, stunned, “You can do that?”
Two years later, without bothering to learn how to sail, I launched myself into the Gulf of Alaska on a 25-foot wooden boat headed for distant horizons. In the Pacific, I raised the dot of Pitcairn Island after navigating 3,300 miles by the moon and stars; in the Tasman Sea, I was knocked down by a rogue wave; In the Gulf of Carpentaria, I was plastered with whale snot when the whale pacing my boat blew.
It took four years to sail around the world. The Atlantic crossing was my last and longest: 4,700 miles, 51 days, and the most beautiful, with clear skies and easy seas. In the Mediterranean, I’d picked up a book of poetry, and I sat on the bow like a figurehead—the boat behind me, nothing in my sight but sea and sky, flying fish, and sea birds—singing out poems I’d memorized: when I was young and easy; two roads diverged in a yellow wood; I will arise and go now.
Tears rolled down my cheeks and goose bumps pocked my skin. I was going home.
On that passage, the passage home, I made four promises to myself: to end my epic adventuring; to find a meaningful job; to marry; and to build myself a home with my own hammer and saw.
It was a major shift—from adventure and wilderness to connection, community, roots.
And here’s the point of my story: I couldn’t do it. The old adventuring life that had kept me happy and alive for 20 years was now dead to me. But I couldn’t create the new life I wanted.
For the next 15 years I struggled to make it happen. For a job with meaning, I ran environmental organizations and every morning I walked to work feeling like a claustrophobe locking himself in a closet. Looking for a wife, I went through woman after woman, happy with none; and when in Alaska, I wanted to build my house in Maine; when in Maine, then in Alaska.
Then I discovered transformational coaching. I learned that the world and our lives in it are not as they are, but only as we see them to be. Shifting how we see enables us to remake, reinvent ourselves. To be clear, this is not always an easy process, but for me it provided a pathway out of my stuckness and into a new, self-created life.
I am not now the same person I once was. I started life a radical introvert—too shy to strike up a conversation with a Coke machine. I spent years of my life running from people, and now I work deeply and intimately with them. I have created—am creating—the life I want to live.
Russell Heath‘s mission is to get people to live full out. He’s been living full out since he was a kid. In his teens he hitchhiked to Alaska; in his twenties, he lived in Italy, crossed the Sahara and the jungles of Africa; in his thirties, he sailed around the world (alone); in his forties, he wrote novels; and in his fifties he bicycled the Rockies from Alaska to Mexico. He’s lead two Alaska environmental organizations and recently moved to New York to dig into leadership coaching. He now coaches leaders who want to make good things happen in the world.. Visit www.russellheath.net