In the winter of 1972, when I was just two years old, my father strapped me to a pair of tiny skis and pointed me downhill. By 1990 I was thrashing moguls at full speed, would casually blow slow-turning helicopters over those moguls, and then I’d cap off each run with a Camel Light on the chair lift and do it all over again...and again and again. I called my VW Van home, wore dreadlocks, got inked, listened to Black Flag at full volume, and lived the ski-punk life to a tee.
Then at age 25 I miscalculated a way-too-big aerial, landed on the uphill side of a rock-hard East Coast mogul, and shattered the tibia plateau in my left knee. For the rest of that sad season I could barely push my left leg into my binding. I had a choice: surgery, or stop skiing. Caving into my stalwart fear of surgery (long story), I quit. After failing to convince me to get the knee surgery, my longtime ski buddy Ryan said, “You’re a f#@!ing dick,” and stormed out of my apartment. Obviously we took skiing pretty seriously.
Around this time my older brother David strapped his two boys, Peter and Mark, onto skis and pointed them downhill. Peter is now a competitive whitewater kayaker and expert river rafting guide who lives in his truck (yes!) and skis with an effortless park style during the winter. Mark works on the Vail Ski Patrol, and on any given day, he navigates rescue sleds loaded with injured skiers down double black diamond runs, blows up potential avalanches with dynamite, and employs highly trained (and really cute) dogs to sniff out snow-buried bodies. In my opinion, my nephews’ life choices are the cherry on top of my family’s version of The American Dream.
Earlier last year I traveled to Vail in a prodigal return to my beloved sport. A full 23 years since I shattered my knee, X-rays revealed that time had smoothed out the once jagged bone. At least one ailment was sorted. On the mountain, however, I suffered the nausea and headaches of altitude sickness, a frightening lack of fitness, and a 49-year-old’s natural caution, but my most pressing ailment was a killer case of tearful nostalgia. A long-dormant part of me—a part I’ve come to realize is vital to my sense of wholeness—was waking up. Deep down, I’m a die-hard skier.
Surprisingly, my skiing skills were right there waiting for me. I managed to blow a couple modest airs and, for very short stretches followed by near-blackouts, I banged out bursts of short radius turns that garnered generous cheering from my family. After one of these bursts I collapsed onto my side and fell silent. My sister-in-law Jean asked if I was OK. “I think so...just need a minute....” When I struggled to get up, my nephew Peter wisely suggested that we hit the lodge and get me some Gatorade before I barfed. We’d done two runs.
Today’s skis are shorter and wider and look like snowboards; the boots actually fit comfortably and have heaters; everyone wears helmets (yuck, but a good idea); the lifts are faster and carry more people; but other than that skiing hasn’t changed much in 23 years: gravity pulls you downhill and you try to manage your speed with graceful turns.
I, however, have changed a lot. I’m happy to gently carve long turns on groomers, revering the mountain rather than attacking it. A chrome-dome shines where my dreadlocks used to be, and while I once pushed my body to the literal breaking point, I now seem poised at that threshold by default. What hasn’t changed is that skiing still inspires a sense of adventure and snaps me straight into the here and now.
Over the years I, like many others, have used wrist watches to inspire those same feelings. This is no grand insight. A sense of adventure has been one of the main reasons people have spent money on Rolex tool watches since the firm got rolling in the early. Rolex’s founder, Hans Wilsdorf, was a brilliant marketeer who invented the adventure watch category at the end of World War II by re-branding his waterproof Oyster models as the Air-King (1949), in honor of World War II aviators, and the Explorer (1954), aimed at folks who wanted a watch like the one that accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary to the top of Mt. Everest. Both watches delivered accurate time keeping and cutting-edge water resistance, but it was the sense of adventure packed into them by name and reputation that made them hits.
Hillary’s Oyster is a coveted museum piece that now lives in the highly guarded Rolex archives, but its legacy lives on in today’s modern Explorer model. That time-only watch has gone through numerous small upgrades to become one of most iconic and desirable Rollies currently on the market. I went scuba diving off of Catalina Island in the 39mm Explorer last year and found it to be as elegant as it is badass. This straight-up Explorer provides a potent sense of adventure.
The Explorer II, however, takes the adventure proposition up a few notches. Introduced in 1971 for the ultra-niche community of spelunkers, the 39mm Explorer II Ref. 1655 featured generous lume and—by way of the same movement used in the GMT Master (Cal. 1570/5)—a glowing 24-hour hand that allowed those crawling through pitch black caves to know whether it was day or night. Spelunkers are few and certainly couldn’t sustain a product like this, but the Explorer II sold well to rugged sophisticates and world travelers. Steve McQueen isn’t known to have actually worn an Explorer II, but somehow (a marketing department rumor?) the Explorer II became The Steve McQueen Rolex, thus sealing its fate as the manliest of manly tool watches.
In 1985, Rolex issued the Explorer II Ref. 16550, fitting it with an updated 40mm case, a set of Submariner-style hour markers, a sapphire crystal (then a relative rarity), a longer GMT hand, and a new movement (Cal. 3085) that allowed its owner to set that GMT hand independently. Starting in 1988, Rolex made a series of movement revisions and slight aesthetic mods to this 40mm version, and in 2011 Rolex bumped the case up to 42mm and loaded it with the modern Cal 3187. That’s the one I took skiing with me in Vail.
It would be hard for me to fully engage you in my experience of wearing this Rolex Explorer II in Vail, as most of that experience — and I think this is true of everyone’s deeper feelings about wearing watches — comes down to how I weave the watch into my inner dialogue as I wear it. In fact, I’d argue that our inner dialogues are exactly what sustains the watch industry today. The marketing messages spell this out by relentlessly tugging at our sense of self, but I don’t regard this as superficial or merely ego-driven. To the contrary: if a product can engage our inner lives, then that product is delivering something all too rare in a world filled with cheap crap that fails to spark much of anything other than disappointment when it inevitably stops working. In stark contrast to today’s planned obsolescence, Rolex builds watches that reliably serve as our daily companions until the day we die. (We aging folks know all too well how soon that is.)
Though a keen sense of mortality is inextricably tied to a device that literally marks the passage of time, an adventure watch like the Explorer II can also remind us that the best moments in life are when we lose track of time and fall into the flow of the present. Doing so attenuates that killer combo of rear-view regret and future-gawking anxiety that can dominate our inner lives. In some of us, concern over the past and future can mushroom into a full-on existential crisis, cutting us off from the best part of our selves that exists in the here and now. Put in these terms, a few thousand bucks for a watch that can mitigate all that sounds like the deal of the century, and the surface pretense of owning a luxury item gives way to something of great substance and value.
This is what happened when I skied Vail while wearing the Explorer II. Yes, I felt like a bit of a ding-dong eating overpriced truffle pasta in a tony ski town while wearing a Rolex, but that was just my ego struggling to recapture that down-to-Earth ski-bum identity I’d abandoned when I sold my VW Van, cut off my dreadlocks, exchanged Black Flag for Neil Young, and tried to grow up. My embarrassment was just my ego worrying about external perception. Totally superficial. The authentic reaction was the sense of adventure the Explorer II engendered in me. I didn’t feel like a movie star or a sex symbol or anything like Steve McQueen — far from it — but I connected back to a willfully daring part of myself that had lain dormant for decades in the absence of skiing. That seemed pretty authentic.
Getting back in touch with my inner ski-punk probably explains why, once the snow melted, I ran out and bought a motorcycle and reread Robert Prisig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This cult classic is about a middle-aged man seeking re-connection with a former self lost to a prolonged existential crisis. Pirsig calls his former self Phaedrus, a young man who spent weeks on end alone in the mountains of Montana contemplating the nature of rationality itself, an endeavor that eventually led him to lose his shit.
Like me, Prisig dropped his mountain life and rebuilt himself as a somewhat reluctant but relatively functional member of the American middle class. Also like me, Prisig became unsatisfied with middle class life, and so, via his subjective relationship to his motorcycle, he slowly reconnected with his younger, adventurous self. Maintaining and riding the motorcycle grounds both of us in the present and relieves our existential apprehensions. I guess that’s a kind of American Zen.
A wristwatch isn’t much different from a motorcycle; power goes in and the intricate movement of many high-tolerance parts produces a deeply satisfying physical phenomenon that can pull one straight into the present moment. Leaning my
Ducati Panigale into a corner, carving my high-tech skis through freshly fallen snow, gazing mindlessly at the sweeping seconds hand of a Rolex Explorer II: these relationships to precision machines—the tools of manly adventures—connect us to something deeper within ourselves.
Maybe we need this because there’s no arrowhead to sharpen, no battle to fight, no animal to hunt, and no real danger to overcome in modern life. The digital age has only advanced that condition, relegating life’s pursuits to web searches that usually lead to a purchase of something we probably don’t need — like a wristwatch. Buying a watch, even a really great adventure watch like the Explorer II, sure can look like an empty pursuit, but I don’t think it is.
It may seem counterintuitive, but in order to pin down the potential meaning of buying a Rolex tool watch it’s helpful to unpack how Rolex sells us their Explorer models. Visit rolex.com/Exporer and the tag-line stands alone in pure Swiss minimalism: “Scaling New Heights.” Scroll down a bit and you get a video shot from a helicopter swooping over an impossibly steep cliff way up high in snow-capped mountains. That chopper zooms in on a lone climber making his way up through a narrow channel in the rock toward the peak. Who is that climber? It sure as hell isn’t me. I’m guessing it’s not you either. That climber is a symbol, an aspirational figure playing out a mountaineering metaphor that’s as old as religion. The Bible called him Moses, The Beatles called him The Fool on the Hill, and Pirsig calls him Phaedrus.
The marketing materials go on to tell us that the Explorer II is “Designed for Exploration,” “Resisting the Extreme” and “Answering the Call of the Unknown.” Then, in an apparent attempt to make all of this rhetoric seem less rhetorical, Rolex presents Ed Viesturs, an Explorer II ambassador and the only American to scale all 14 of the world’s 26,000-foot peaks without supplemental oxygen. For Viesturs — a man who actually scales the heights, resists the extreme, and answers the call of the unknown — there is no metaphor. We either presume, or are sometimes told, that elite athletes like him succumb to powerful inner experiences while risking their lives. There’s always that part of the mountaineering documentary where the climber struggles to communicate what it felt to dangle from a cliff. Sometimes they cry a little. It’s almost a cliche, but it’s not rhetoric.
Rolex knows, and has always known, that its customers aren’t going up there. They know we don’t need a badass tool watch, or any watch really. And Rolex knows that we seek out their most rugged tool watches because they bring us back to our own sense of adventure. When we unpack what that means, we realize that it’s really about an inner dialogue we’re constantly having with ourselves about who we really are, who we aspire to be, and how we want to feel.
As I write this I’m strapped to a computer, sipping coffee, and puffing on a cigar in my cozy writing shed. And I’m surrounded by adventure watches — dive watches, pilots watches, field watches — largely because they suggest that my life can be more than this desk job, that I can connect to the same fearless spirit that fuels my nephews’ enviable career choices, and that, no matter how much I gasp for oxygen while trying, I can partially revive that young punk in dreadlocks blowing huge airs in the bumps. Bum knee and all.