One of the most powerful statements on my NOLS course came from Morgan Hite’s essay “Briefing for Entry into a More Harsh Environment.” The last sentence reads: “You don’t need the mountains to do that.” Hite wrote the beloved piece in 1989, just weeks before Curtis Bartosik began his fall semester in the Rockies. In the years since, Bartosik, an American, has gone on to live in Japan, Hong Kong and now France, where he is an established entrepreneur, member of the board of the American Chamber of Commerce in France, general secretary of the American Legion in Paris and President of the Cornell Club of France. Bartosik’s life choices demonstrate that yes, it is possible to live in some of the most populated regions of the globe, and still connect with the natural world and maintain the values a NOLS course cultivates.
In this interview, we discuss trail running in Hong Kong, "JaPOWuary," living car-free in some of the most notoriously car-dependent cities in the United States, and the need to contextualize American distances for international tourists to prevent tragedy. Enjoy reading about the man who has mastered living a double life.
NOLS: You had what some might say an alternative approach to your college experience. Can you tell me a bit about it?
Curtis: Back in 1986 there wasn’t a word for it, but I took what is now called a gap year. After my sophomore year at Cornell, I took a year off and did outdoor things for twelve months. I rode my bike across America, went the Army School of Mountain Warfare, the Army’s mountaineering school in Alaska, attended NOLS, and then climbed in Joshua Tree for two months or so. In my final years at Cornell, I taught for the outdoor education program and kind of led a double life because I was also a ROTC. Outdoor Ed was full of left-leaning anti-military types and the Army was clean cut. It was interesting though because both the Army and NOLS are all about leadership, so it was intriguing to see the differences and the similarities. Now, of course, the U.S. Naval Academy works with NOLS.
NOLS: After you graduated from Cornell, you lived in some of the largest cities in the world. Did you maintain the hybrid lifestyle you had developed in your final two years at Cornell?
Curtis: In some ways, yes. Weekends were the only chance to get out, but I had more opportunities to enjoy the outdoors than people might realize. Tokyo is one of the most urban places you can imagine, but the Japanese countryside is truly amazing and easily accessible by train. The powder for skiing is ... quite something. Just thinking about that brings up some very good memories. After Tokyo, I was transferred to Hong Kong, another densely urban area. However, that is where I discovered ultra trail running. People associate Hong Kong with the city, but the back side of the island is steep and rugged, so there are a lot of great trails. Then from Hong Kong, I went to Los Angeles; another super urban environment, but I lived without a car and started mountain biking.
Weekends were the only chance to get out, but I had more opportunities to enjoy the outdoors than people might realize.
NOLS: Los Angeles has a reputation for its car-dependent culture. How were you able to get around and socialize despite that?
Curtis: I leased a car when I first arrived, but got rid of it after three weeks. I lived close to my work and the beach, so I pretty much commuted by rollerblading, and did my shopping and laundry using my bike’s panniers.
Then, to get out of my neighborhood, I took the bus. This was a bit awkward socially because in L.A., there are three questions you are asked when you meet someone at a party, "How did you get here, highway or surface?," "Where did you park, street or garage?" and "What kind of car do you drive?" I felt like an outsider because I couldn’t participate and didn’t have the shared camaraderie over traffic or need to re-park mid-party. On one instance, I told someone I came with the bus and they were shocked. "What? You took a bus? There are buses in L.A.?" My friend, who had overheard this conversation countless times, interjected, "You drive in L.A., doesn’t it always seem that you are stuck behind a bus?"
NOLS: After L.A., you spent a few years in the Bay Area, with fantastic access to the Sierras, the Marin Headlands, and the coast. What was the transition to Paris like?
Curtis: Coming to Paris was difficult at first. I felt that I had found paradise in northern California and the Sierras. My wife and I quickly started using public transportation to get out of the city, as we don’t have a car here either. There is an excellent train system radiating out of Paris, like the spokes of a wheel. We take the train out to the end of one spoke, and then walk through forests to the next and come back on another train line. We did that over the course of two years when we first arrived and covered the entire green belt. Some areas weren’t always as nice as we had hoped, but it was an easy way to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city, and we found our favorite escapes to return to.
Some areas weren’t always as nice as we had hoped, but it was an easy way to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city, and we found our favorite escapes to return to.
NOLS: How has public transportation made it easier for you?
Curtis: In Paris, by taking an overnight train couchette sleeping car, which reminds me of capsule hotels in Japan, I can go to bed in Paris and wake up in Chamonix. Sure, it takes about five or six hours to get to the Alps by high speed train, but if you take a night train, it is really zero time. Time on a train is very different than driving. You can work, read, whatever; it is time well spent.
NOLS: Time well spent. That sounds like your entire life.
See Curtis' course, the Fall Semester in the Rockies