This is the story of a man named David who may or may not be alive today. He took as granted that he would die at 63, the year death found his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. I knew him when he was 60 and 61, and though three years ago, until I hear otherwise I’ll assume he’s still alive.
David was as close as I may ever come to meeting someone on par with Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World. David doesn’t always drink beer, but when he does, he prefers to tell stories. And through his stories he tells you about your life, the lives of others, and how to live simply and well in this strange world. Given what I never knew and what I’ve since forgotten, I am only able to paint a small picture that is hopefully suggestive of the much larger portrait.
The first half of David’s life was spent winning the approval of his father. The turning point came in his early 30s, just after his father failed to make it to 64. By that time, David was a partner in a large law firm, having just put the finishing touches on his dream house on the coast in Maine. The day he moved in, he sat on the couch, looked around, and, in his own words, felt like a pharaoh who had just built his own tomb. Within days, he quit his job, sold the house, and set off for six months in South America. The following 30 years of his life have been given to travel and international humanitarian work. I met David in an unimpressive hotel conference room in Philadelphia before heading to the Republic of Georgia for his third and my first stint in Peace Corps.
Six months later, four or five of us went on a hiking trip to Mount Kazbek, the mythical site of Prometheus’ enchainment. It was Christmas Eve. That night we watched the moon rise over the Caucuses, its light mixing with the city-glow from Vladikavkaz, 40 kilometers north over the Russian border. As we celebrated with mugs of watery Georgian beer, I asked David how close he’d come to death.
After South America, he talked his way onto a racing yacht in the South Pacific. Within a few days at sea, the boat’s inept owner and captain managed to break the mainmast and almost sink the boat. David almost drowned and seems to never have forgiven that captain.
I asked him to tell us another time he’d almost died.
In Iraq in the early 2000s, David was the head of a refugee organization and found out his life was in danger. Leaving the organization’s office with only a briefcase containing $60,000 and some documents, he intentionally headed towards a city the US was bombing. Before arriving, he had the driver pull over by the highway. Getting out, David flagged a taxi and headed in another direction. In this manner, he zigzagged his way to the Kuwait border and safety. He wouldn’t go into further details about why he was a target, but needless to say he has many strong opinions about the War in Iraq.
David talked about Christmas Eves in Bolivia, Moldova, India, Namibia, and elsewhere while instructing us listeners in the virtues of giving your life to helping others. The spell of storytelling was strong that night. It improved the taste of the beer, which warmed us against the Caucasian cold. I remember going to bed wishing I were able to write it all down, only to wake up the next morning unable to remember or word it correctly. It wasn’t just the stories, but how David told them. I couldn’t have captured his way of telling it then and certainly can’t capture it now, four years later.
The next day, while hiking down from a monastery, David took a shortcut and slipped. I was right behind him as he somersaulted over a ledge, breaking his leg. He later told us he had slipped and broken his other leg on Christmas Day two year prior while walking through Kashmir. That time, he continued hiking for another two weeks; this time, he was medevaced to the US for four months’ bed rest.
We built a mythology around David because his life was so much larger than our own. Some said he was a aesthete, only sleeping three hours a night and giving all his money to a nun in Africa; others (like myself) retold stories that hinted at past conquests (David purposefully never told the ending of a story about a dinner party in Brazil where the hostess offered him the pick of her friends, and he swore our local pizza restaurant had the same floorplan as a brothel in Thailand). We didn’t know what was true about him quite possibly because there was too much true about him. David’s stories and lifestyle seemed to hint at much more than what he was telling. He’s the most genuine human I’ve ever met, which is hard to understand and articulate.
Returning to Georgia after four months immobile in bed, David’s life revolved around taking walks. He began with ten minutes per day and worked his way up to 90 minutes each morning and 90 each evening, for no other reason than this is how long it took him to walk the city’s circumference. It was only part physical therapy. While on bed rest, David decided to trek all the world’s great walking paths before he died and had plans to conquer El Camino Santiago in the autumn. Also while on bed rest, he devised a new way of writing grants that would result in over $200,000 in funding for his NGO in the following year.
Before David left for Spain, he invited me on a walk to a town about 12 kilometers away. We walked south past the steel factory and the prisons. The former was built by Stalin’s will and German POW labor during World War II, the latter a site of human rights violations that would begin the decline and end of President Misha Saakashvili’s power. Farther on, pomegranate orchards and the tall houses of Azeri farmers lined our road as it stretched through the desolate brownness of Georgia’s Kvemo Kartli region. Our steps set the pace for the conversation as David told me about his life, about my life, about all life.
After a few hours, we reached our destination, drank some water, and walked back home. Like every walk with David, it was the simplest motion of a story, of leaving and returning.