May 2024

Your Hundred Best Days

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

I have a friend named Jamie Wagner. He grew up in Maine and, after stints in Washington, D.C. and Manhattan, lives there still. He’s a lawyer by education; a philosopher, adventurer, and oenophile by predilection; and a professional human being by nature. Hale and certainly hearty, Jamie’s the kind of guy you want alongside you whether you’re at a bar or in a trench and definitely the man you’d want to find you if you’re sprawled on the roadside. His law practice speaks volumes: after years of the corporate firm gig, he does asylum litigation, specializing in cases from Central Africa, i.e. Angola, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda. The stories of what his clients endured and fled would make a drill sergeant

Blending a wee bit of the wine-lover with his introspective side, Jamie has a concept he calls “Your Hundred Best Days.” As he explains it:

    The idea is to sit down with a glass of your favorite wine, a piece of paper and a pen, and wander back in your mind’s eye through your life to identify your hundred best days—so far. As you go through this process you will find out which activities bring you the most joy and you should say to yourself: I have to do more of that.

I love how it’s not just an exercise in nostalgia; there’s that “so far” along with the directive to zero in on what made those days special and then go have more of them!

I’ve known Jamie for decades. He worked at a New York law firm with my childhood friend, Mike, where they started organizing quick excursions to Europe with a few other colleagues over Presidents’ Day weekends. I joined the trips in 2000 when they decided to go to Ireland; 24 years on, we call our band of brothers The Travelers.

Many of my Hundred Best Days have been notched on those trips; no coincidence, many of those same days make Jamie’s list too. And tellingly, a lot of those shared best days revolve around hikes, often all-day affairs where we’ve reached the top of a mountain.

Mountains are another place you appreciate Jamie’s company. His trekking r茅sum茅 would impress Yvon Chouinard and it keeps getting better. After law school he took a year to tramp around the Indian sub-continent, not just hiking but mountain-biking the Himalayas, often lugging his wheels when riding them proved impossible. While there, he climbed Stok Kangri, at 20,187’ the tallest mountain in the Stok Range. He scaled Point Lenana on Mount Kenya, Africa’s second-highest mountain. In his home state he’s tackled Mount Katahdin, a challenging peak not for those with faint hearts or fear of heights. This past October, he and a friend completed Maine’s Hundred-Mile Wilderness—the Appalachian Trail’s most difficult section and a stretch without chance of re-supply—in nine days.

There’s something about a mountain as a singular destination, the clarity of the goal, the poetry of the endeavor; the North or South Pole is some nebulous set of coordinates where a bunch of invisible, imaginary lines intersect, but a mountaintop, whether it’s Annapurna or Old Rag, almost always produces a palpable sense of achievement. You don’t need a compass or GPS to verify what your senses alone can confirm.

Over the years, some of our shared Hundred Best Days have included trekking to the top of Mont Ventoux, the solitary, barren-domed giant known as “the Beast of Provence” first scaled by the poet Petrarch and an infamous stage of many a Tour de France. During the Covid era with travel to Europe proscribed, Jamie, Mike and I journeyed to the Adirondacks. We drove straight to the Mt. Marcy trailhead, pitched our tents, cooked our grub, and drank a fair amount of superlative Bordeaux. But next morning we rose at dawn for a 9-hour odyssey up and down New York’s tallest mountain, a day that easily makes all our lists.

This past August, the Travelers returned to Europe in force—our band numbered six—for a bravura tour of the Dolomites in Italy. If you’re not familiar with this region, the Dolomites dazzle; any direction you look, the vistas will amaze you with jagged peaks and John Ford skies extending as far as vision allows. We stayed at the Hotel Garni Roberta at the eastern base of Marmolada, the Queen of the Dolomites at 10,968’. We couldn’t have picked better digs for both fare or location.

In what we regard as the greatest hike of all The Travelers’ trips—so far, our crew tackled Passo and Cima Ombretta, starting from the front door of our hotel and walking down the road to the trailhead. Cima Ombretta is a
9,879’ peak connected to Marmolada by a pass, or saddle; Passo Ombretta sits at a tidy 8,858’.

We were out nearly 12 hours, with stops for a round of espressos at the rustic Rifugio Malga Ombretta; al fresco lunch at Rifugio Falier; a round of beers at the same venue many hours later on our way back down; and then a supremely well-earned dinner at the Agriturismo still a half-hour’s walk from our lodgings.

After a breathtaking effort in both the aesthetic and physiological senses of the word, our merry band reached the Passo Ombretta. I popped the cork on a bottle of Valpolicella I’d been carrying the last five hours alongside three liters of that other stuff called water and we took celebratory swigs.

Hiking signs in the Dolomites indicate time, not distance. When we reached Passo Ombretta, the sign for the the peak said one hour, which meant an additional hour to return to that same spot. There was no way I was going to hike that far with the August sun still high in the sky and not bag that peak. I didn’t even have to ask; Jamie felt the same way. Our compatriots elected to begin the long return journey. We hoped to catch up with them at far-off Rifugio Falier, where we’d lunched and where they would undoubtedly stop for well-earned beers.

Jamie and I made it to the top in 55 minutes. The last push proved quite challenging. A seemingly endless slope of silty gravel around 9,500’ had us heaving for air with its two-steps forward, one-step backwards progress. We negotiated a particularly steep pitch of bare rock on via ferrata, a fixed installation of steel cable, which, in this case, we used to hoist ourselves up hand-over-hand. On the home-strtech, we carefully leaned our left shoulders into the mountain holding onto another fixed cable for security as we locked our eyes on the foot or so of ledge that hugged the last hump before the knife-edge path to the pinnacle.

And then we could see the prize.

The Ombretta summit was glorious! Only the sheer southern wall of nearby Marmolada broke up a total top-of-the-world panorama. As on many such European summits, a large rusty cross defiles that spare sliver of aerial property. I poured out the remaining splash of Valpolicella as an offering to my far more palpable god. Jamie and I shook hands and, among many happy sentiments exchanged, agreed that there was no place we’d rather
be. I also repeated Edmund Hillary’s wonderful line: “Well, we knocked the bastard off.”

We made it back down to Passo Ombretta in 45 minutes. Along with an overall assist from gravity, we glissaded—a kind of skiing in one’s boots on soft gravel or sand—down many of the stretches that were murder going
up. We joyfully employed the technique again down several long inclines on which we’d labored going up to the pass. We made serious time.

By now the sun was also beginning its descent and our shadows grew longer. Among many rewards for our summit push, we spied a few ibex grazing. After several more hours of rugged downhill tramping, we noted the lusher vegetation and then the telltale aroma of woodsmoke: Rifugio Falier. Our friends and cold beers awaited us, as did more hours of hiking before one of the tastiest, most jubilant dinners we’ve ever enjoyed. And after yet one more (sobering) gambol with headlamps, we finally returned to our hotel.

In Jack Keruoac’s lovely (and I would argue best) book, The Dharma
, Japhy Ryder, the wine-drinking poet and college professor based on Gary Snyder, and protagonist Ray Smith, stand-in for Kerouac, climb Matterhorn Peak in California’s Sierra Nevada. Ryder relates a Zen parable to Smith about their endeavor which has always stuck with me: “When you get to the top of the mountain keep climbing.” That’s Jamie Wagner’s “Hundred Best Days” concept compressed—into a diamond.


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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet. After college, he served four years on active duty as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. He also holds a Master of Philosophy degree in Anglo-Irish literature from Ireland’s University of Dublin, Trinity College. His poems and freelance articles have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.


©2024 Patrick Walsh
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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