Landmark birthdays, job promotions, important anniversaries — we all hit milestone moments. Sometimes we throw a party or go out for a celebratory dinner, but too often we let the momentous occasions slip by unnoticed.
“A milestone is a marker of change — when you shed the old you and announce the new,” says Kate Larsen, a master-certified executive coach in Minneapolis. “If we don’t take the time to fully celebrate what’s good in our lives, we miss the opportunity to create positive memories — the kind that encourage and enliven us for the future.”
Travel is an especially appropriate way to honor a personal success or rite of passage. A change of scenery offers a new perspective, helpful at transition times when our identity can sometimes feel shaky. And if we choose to undertake a physically challenging journey — completing a triathlon two years after chemotherapy, or white-water paddling with buddies for a 10-year college reunion, for instance — we can enter a new phase with greater confidence. “A sense of courage and power comes from that kind of physical accomplishment,” says Larsen.
A milestone trip doesn’t require quitting your job and cashing in your retirement account. Your celebration can be as modest as a weekend at a family cabin or as monumental as a climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro.
What matters is that you (like the people profiled on the coming pages) make an effort to honor your achievements in a way that does them justice, and that does you real physical, mental and emotional good.
Urban Renewal, Ski Revival
As Daniel Dreher skied down the Alta, Utah, slopes, he exhaled deeply and let his reflexes take over. Participating in a three-day Ski to Live retreat in 2010 was the perfect opportunity to experience a core passion of his in a new way; he wasn’t focused on speed or the quality of his turns. Instead, the 52-year-old senior project manager was practicing a Zen consciousness technique called “Shift” that helped him stay present in the moment: skiing only for the sake of skiing.
Dreher’s retreat had a dual purpose: to take a completely new approach to a sport he loves and to acknowledge his five years of helping rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He helped reopen Tulane University, reconstruct parts of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, and renovate flood-damaged buildings on Xavier University’s campus.
After five years of pouring his heart into helping the city recover, and keeping himself sane by practicing a unique blend of cross-training that includes vigorous physical, mental and spiritual practices, Dreher decided on a Ski to Live getaway. “For me, skiing is both a physical and spiritual endeavor,” he says. “After so many years away from it, I needed to reclaim that core passion and do it in a radically different way than I was familiar with.”
The Ski to Live program, run by former world-class professional skier Kristen Ulmer, helps people enhance their mind-body skills by combining Western psychology and Eastern awareness practices.
Ulmer asks participants to try skiing in different mind-states, including fear, excitement, anger and happiness. Eventually, members of the group hit the slopes experimenting with Shift techniques — skiing with no limits or attachments. “It felt totally expansive,” Dreher says. “I let myself go where the spirit moved me.”
The enlarged perspective Dreher practiced during Ulmer’s retreat continues to enrich his life and manifest in his work. He recently co-created the John Scott Sculpture Garden at Xavier University, centered around a salvaged piece of the late artist’s bronze work recovered from a flooded, ransacked studio in New Orleans East.
“I believe I ended up in New Orleans for a reason: It’s where I can contribute the most and have an impact on healing the community,” says Dreher. “The skiing retreat reminded me that if we expand consciousness, magic happens.”
A Marathon for Better or for Worse
When they took their wedding vows 30 years ago, Cindi Yaklich and Dave Harrison of Boulder, Colo., couldn’t have predicted the ups and downs of married life, raising a son, and balancing careers and relationship. So when they reached that milestone anniversary, they traveled to Slovenia, Cindi’s ancestral homeland, to celebrate their collective endurance — with a 50K alpine marathon.
“Fifty kilometers is about 31 miles,” says Dave, 56, a defense lawyer. “That’s 30 miles for our 30 years together, plus one extra mile for good luck,” explains Cindi, 55, a graphic designer.
The couple, who has a history of doing athletic events together, trained at altitude to prepare for the 6,800-foot trail climb in the Slovenian Alps. Yet nothing prepared them for the heavy rain and near-freezing temperatures that turned their nuptial-milestone vacation into “an Outward Bound–like bonding experience.”
Cindi, the faster runner of the two, usually crosses race finish lines ahead of Dave, but a bout with traveler’s stomach slowed her down in Slovenia. Together they faced a grueling six-hour mountain ascent during which they got lost, could see only 5 feet through the heavy fog, were constantly soaked by rain, ran in ankle-deep mud, and relied on each other for moral support while the other runners raced far ahead.
“The situation was so absurd that we just had to laugh,” says Dave. “It took our minds off the miserable conditions.” When he made a slight misstep, sliding off the trail and 15 feet downhill, Cindi jokingly called out, “Honey, is your life insurance up to date?”
At mile 29, the exhausted, frozen couple stopped at a high-mountain hut, where the Slovenian aid-station crew convinced them not to continue on the short but dangerously steep, slippery descent. Cindi’s competitive side was disappointed at not finishing, but she changed into dry clothes and a down coat the crew loaned her, and accepted a glass of blueberry brandy to warm up. When the group learned that her father was Slovenian, they brought out hot soup, local specialties and beer. Defeat turned into a rousing party.
“We’ve been together long enough to know that the best things happen when our plans fall apart,” says Dave. Neither he nor Cindi felt concerned about the fact that they didn’t cross the finish line of their symbolic race. “What counted was that we did it together and became even closer running companions,” says Cindi.
Navigating Transitions, Decade by Decade
Birthdays serve as a reminder to Mary Mettler to live life to the fullest. “It’s important to expand what we see and do as we grow older, and that’s easier to accomplish when you travel,” says the 75-year-old San Francisco resident, who took a series of daring adventures on her 50th, 60th and 70th birthdays.
Twenty-five years ago, Mettler left her position as a corporate vice president of finance to travel for a year while she contemplated the next phase of life. After three decades of breaking glass ceilings and several years of careful planning for early retirement, she was ready to exchange corporate life for some adventure.
A challenging 24-day trek around Nepal’s Annapurna peaks in the Himalayas took her through gorgeous rhododendron forests and across hazardous suspension bridges. “Nepal was a stretch for me,” she admits. “I’m cowardly about heights, and on days when my group stumbled our way across rockslides that were still moving, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.”
Mettler says climbing the nearly 18,000-foot Thorong La Pass helped “strip my persona of the corporate-world stuff.” Looking back now on a time she sees as preceding a midlife crisis of sorts, she reflects: “My Nepal trek made me a little braver in tackling my uncertainty about the future.”
Meanwhile, her best friend’s death from lung cancer at 51 reminded Mettler of her own mortality. So she commemorated her friend’s passing and celebrated life by rafting the Grand Canyon with friends who encouraged her to become a financial adviser. That launched Mettler into another passion — “giving back” to others by sharing her expertise.
At age 60, Mettler returned to the Grand Canyon with three dear friends for a birthday hike to the bottom, which she calls her spiritual home. “I wanted them to know how important they were to me.” When Mettler turned 70, her colleagues treated her to three nights at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park. The crowning activity was a hike up to Vernal Fall, where they could view the iconic Half Dome rock.
Mettler is glad she’s chosen travel as a way to help her re-map her life with each new decade. “In times of transition, you need to change your viewpoint,” she says. “It’s too easy to keep going exactly the way you always were — unless you venture out and push yourself to make those changes.” As for the milestones, she says, “Once you hit 70, you start celebrating every year.”
Experience Life contributor Laurel Kallenbach is planning a milestone birthday at a creative-writing and yoga retreat in Scotland.