The road to Cicely
The late William F. Buckley Jr., publisher of The National Review, author of a bajillion books, and a man who never met a syllable he didn’t like, was asked once by David Letterman if he spoke so elaborately (i.e., as if he swallowed a particularly complicated dictionary) when he wasn’t in public.
“I talk to my DOG this way,” Buckley replied, although that’s from memory. He was probably more eloquent.
It was Buckley – this also from memory – who first brought the word “penultimate” to my attention. I was in college, reading something he’d written, and he expanded my vocabulary in the polite way, by using the word such that the context of the sentence defined the term.
It means “next to last,” and while it’s not really all that helpful when talking to your dog, it’s nice to know.
I’ve been having some penultimate moments, then, entirely arbitrary and assigned their status by me, and God knows you should be careful trusting my judgment.
In fact, while we can all think of next-to-last things that are obvious facts (book chapters, freeway off-ramps, spoonfuls left in the ice cream carton), there’s a lot of judgment and speculation when it comes to almost-final episodes in this adventure we call being alive. Very few of us know what’s going to happen next.
Mortality, though, has a way of beautifully focusing the mind, particularly as one approaches the bright light at the end.
Not that I’m anywhere near that point, as far as I can pretend. But sometimes realism creeps into the picture, as if measuring the space we occupy in preparation for a new tenant.
Everybody leaves this life at some point, and if you live long enough it becomes clear that the hourglass is starting to look a little lopsided. Time is running out.
Or sand. Metaphors confuse me.
Last summer, as the upcoming November elections were starting to heat up and demographics were tossed about as if they meant something, I became aware that I was 54 years old. This was not an accident; I had a birthday and everything.
But I’d been seeing the phrase “55 and older” used a lot (a LOT), and while I’m perfectly happy to accept the idea that I age at a much slower rate than other humans (I’m an accepting kind of guy), it appeared obvious that I was heading into unexplored territory, some of it involving discounts.
So the next 12 months would be my penultimate year, I decided, my last chance to kick up heels and make a difference before I was nudged off onto the senior citizen sidelines, where apparently I would vote, shop, dress, and behave as my fellow aging Americans did, predictable and not all that interesting.
I wasn’t thinking along the lines of a bucket-list year, trust me. Bungee jumping has no appeal, or cliff diving. It might have been nice to sail around the world for a year, but I don’t have a boat. Marathons look painful. I’ve already written some books.
I did buy a new car, but it’s not a convertible and mostly my wife drives it. You get the picture.
I was more interested in attitude. I wanted to approach the last part of my life, no matter how long it might be, with my head held high and my eyes wide open, waiting for opportunities to do something, be something, try something that I might not attempt once the calendar flipped me into another category.
And then I sort of forgot about it. And here we are.
So I went to Alaska. Last Sunday afternoon. It was a quick trip, but time is a factor when you’re almost obsolete.
It was Fake Alaska, of course. Authenticity feels like a luxury when you’re this old.
My daughter and son-in-law, Cameron, are in town, on sort of a penultimate adventure themselves, doing a little traveling and visiting before heading for the delivery room sometime this fall.
Impending parenthood can also focus the mind. From experience, I’d just suggesting sleeping as much as possible, but my son-in-law had something else in mind.
Like me, Cameron has tremendous affection for the television series “Northern Exposure,” which conveniently was filmed in this very state, much of it in the small town of Roslyn, only 100 miles up I-90, an easy afternoon.
If you’re a fan of the show, you know Roslyn pretty well already, but we wanted to see it for ourselves.
Standing in for the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska, Roslyn has been on my radar for years, if only as an exit on the way to someplace else, but again: Exits seem to be on my mind.
It’s a picturesque place, now augmented by the new Suncadia resort just outside of town, but we were looking for familiar sites. The KBHR radio studio. The Brick, where we ate Brick Burgers (fabulous).
Joel Fleischman’s office in the Northwestern Mining Co. building, which is now a gift shop where my MasterCard got very warm, buying T-shirts and hats with show logos.
A penultimate gesture, then, a hike down memory lane, an old TV show, a trip with a young man about to embark on his own journey, and a fine way to spend a sunny Sunday.
It wasn’t a bungee jump, but then I’m not finished yet, and I suspect I’d rather sleep as much as possible anyway.