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Know the West

Imaginary journeys on a rowing machine


I don't mind exercise. Really, I don't. But I've always preferred to do it while accomplishing something else: going to work, talking to a friend, running an errand. At the very least, I like to huff and puff outdoors, away from the computer and incipient carpal-tunnel syndrome. Going to a gym? It's always seemed a little bit like paying a fee to breathe, or to digest. Besides, in rural western Colorado, I live near plenty of dirt roads; they don't smell like old socks, and I can use them for free.

Over the past few years, though, this prejudice of mine has collided not only with the hectic schedule of new parenthood, but also with -- can we put this delicately, please? -- the arrival of the time of life when one's waistline no longer requests, but demands a workout. And I'm too vain to buy new jeans.

So late last year, during an especially long, dark December night, I ordered a rowing machine -- the kind with a flywheel, a bicycle chain and a sliding seat. This wasn't entirely an impulse purchase: In high school, I had a brief stint as a coxswain on the crew team, and I have fond memories of misty early-morning outings on the Hudson River -- and even of the dreaded rowing-machine workouts, which I found somehow rhythmic and soothing. A rowing machine, I reasoned, would let me exercise at home near my daughter -- and it would at least imitate a real-world activity. So what if it came with a computer screen, and looked a lot like an extremely large gerbil wheel?

"Mama, where you going to row?" asked my 3-year-old, eyeing the big cardboard box in the living room.

I sighed. Exactly the problem, I thought. I'd capitulated to pointless exercise.

My daughter brightened. "You should row to Yap!"

Yap, as you may or may not know, is an island in the Western Pacific, and one of the states of Micronesia. It is my household's conceptual equivalent of Timbuktu -- an impossibly faraway, mysterious place. According to Google Earth, it is 6,992 air miles away from my front door. The water route, I thought, would be ... well, I didn't even want to think about it.

I laughed. "That's a pretty long row."

My daughter looked unimpressed.

"How about we start by rowing to the coffee shop?"

The coffee shop is 1.5 miles away. My daughter, still foggy on matters of scale, quickly agreed. (Also, the coffee shop has bagels. The availability of bagels on Yap is as yet undetermined.)

After a single 5,000-meter workout, we'd gone to the coffee shop and back. "Did you like the bagels?"

"Yeah. Now Yap."

I sighed. Six thousand nine hundred miles is ... about 11 million meters. Eleven million meters is about 2,200 average workouts. My daughter would be finishing elementary school before we spotted land. But wasn't this what I'd wanted in the first place? To use exercise to get somewhere?
"OK," I said. "But it's going to take a while."

To date, I've rowed about 300,000 meters, close to 200 miles. I figure we've rowed down the North Fork River and into the Gunnison. We've gotten through the first serious rapids of the Colorado River, and crossed the border into Utah. We've camped on the beach, and told stories in our tent. Soon, we'll get in a special yellow airplane and fly around Glen Canyon Dam, then Hoover Dam and the rest, our boat strapped securely to the fuselage. In a few months, we'll hit the Colorado Delta, where we'll portage across the mudflats and into the Gulf of California. We'll round the tip of Baja and head out to the open ocean, where, if we're lucky, we'll see gray whales and cookie-cutter sharks. My daughter hopes to see some dolphins, and maybe even a stray penguin. We need to remember to bring lunch, and cookies, and juice.

And so I row on. Behind my left shoulder, framed by a bedroom window, the view of the mountains stays the same. But the imaginary horizon is infinite.