A Death Sentence Turns Into A Call Of The Wild

Sep 4, 2014

Leo Egashira, 60, is no stranger to death. He once saw his life flash before him when chased by a thousand-pound muskox in Greenland.

However, he had an even scarier encounter when he received an HIV diagnosis back in 1992. The life-changing event fostered his appreciation of the outdoors.

Each year, millions of people visit Washington state parks, and Egashira is one of them. He decided to take advantage of the state’s natural environment after his  diagnosis. He saw it as a call to truly live.

“HIV diagnosis was a slow death sentence” in 1992, Egashira said. “The medical therapies were not that effective. Many people died. My own partner died in '92 and that's the reason I got tested.”

That’s why, when he received his diagnosis, Egashira decided to embark on at least one once-in-a lifetime trip. He's been doing these trips every year now.

Many therapies and medications have come out in the past 20 years, and they’ve kept Egashira’s HIV at bay. He has backpacked in many places around the world, including the Arctic and Greenland.

Leo Egashira in the Grand Tetons
Leo Egashira in the Grand Tetons
Credit Courtesy of Leo Egashira

He keeps photos of these trips on his computer at work, and his colleagues crowd around his cubicle as he shows photos of the of the Grand Teton Mountains in Wyoming; Glacier Bay, Alaska; and the pristine blue water on Baffin Island in northeast Canada.

In pictures of his trips, Egashira looks like he’s in pure bliss.  

He’s a research coordinator at the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute at the University of Washington. His interest in learning about indigenous peoples and cultures isn’t limited to the walls of his office; he carries it with him on his backpacking trips.

When Egashira was in the Arctic, he stayed in the home of a Greenlandic Inuit family, where he tried traditional Inuit food like whale skin with blubber.

"I think that when you are that close to the land, and especially when you go to indigenous areas of the world, you have a much greater appreciation for what the land is and for the people who respect and call that land home,” he said.

It's experiences like these that make Egashira feel very fortunate. He’s been living with HIV for over two decades.

“I sometimes wonder why my partner at the time had to die. I don’t really dwell on it too much," he said. "It’s just something I think about occasionally: why am I doing so well?”

Many of Egashira’s colleagues and close friends died in the 1980s and 1990s. He’s learned the importance of time. “You don't know when your time is going to come up. Anyone could die quickly through illness or accidents or anything. Live life as best as you can and with as much adventure as you can.”

Egashira plans to live for a long time. “As long as there are countries or peoples that I haven't seen, that's something to look forward to. So, I’ll never ever, ever die of boredom, and if I become physically incapacitated I’ll be an armchair traveler!”

It doesn’t seem like Egashira will become an armchair traveler any time soon. Recently, he went on an eight-day backpacking trip in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado.

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