Thank You

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A lovely note a group of kids left outside their cabin.

Strawberries first shaped my view of a world full of gifts simply scattered at your feet. A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning. It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it. And yet is appears. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present. Gifts exist in a realm of humility and mystery–as with random acts of kindness, we do not know their source.
— Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer

The sense of an ending is in the air—does autumn ever smell like anything different?—and I’ve been reflecting on these past two years and what they’ve given me. It’s easy to be cynical: I’ve made little money, my retirement accounts have flat-lined, I’ve eaten more vegetarian meatballs than healthy for any single person.

But here I am. Still.

This summer I posted my address on social media and invited people to write to me. Send letters, I said. Send pictures, send anything. It was both selfish and altruistic. I’m a glutton for letters, for paper scratched up with ink, but I also believe that sitting down and writing forces you to be alone and connect with yourself in ways we rarely do these days. There is no delete button. You will not know the person’s reaction for weeks to come. You are sending a token of love out into the hostile world and hoping someone cherishes it, appreciates it, sees the vulnerability revealed in that scrap of paper and loves you more for it.

People wrote me. They sent handwritten letters and cards. They sent poems and artwork and stickers from their local gear shop. And it was incredible. All of it. The words. The tokens of thoughtfulness. The fact that people had taken the time to write and postage and mail a letter when a lot of us cannot even be bothered to unload a dishwasher.

Those letters were a gift. Every time I found one resting in my hike center mailbox tears sprang to my eyes.

And it was interesting that nearly every person who wrote mentioned my blog. This little ole thing.

I never thought of it like this, but perhaps my blog is a gift to the world, a sliver of artistic musings I share with the universe, hoping they inspire and entertain and enthrall. And those letters were a gift to me, small offerings saying, I see you, I’m thinking of you.

The world’s a beautiful place, isn’t it?

Gift culture is often thought of as commodity culture, but they’re not the same thing. Not if you see a tufting cattail and smile. Not if you pass along an article to a friend saying, thought of you. Not if you perceive the small treasures the earth offers up to you, the trembling, tentative threads of human connection pushing toward you, as gifts. It’s all there. We already have it all.

The last time I visited Rochester my mother cleaned my car. My dad installed a new rear windshield wiper.

gifts. all gifts.

A summer camp counselor I trained for hikes ran up to me, hugged me, when I returned from a two-week paddling trip this summer. We didn’t even know each others last names.

what a gift.

I led a hike with fifth graders the other day, and I told them that the decaying tree stumps reminded me of abandoned cities, and for the rest of the hike they stopped at countless bits of nature and told me what it reminded them of, and I was so grateful that they could still find the magic in the hollows of trees and acorns and spongy moss, and that they shared that magic with me, and that these tiny mundane pieces of nature were really miracles disguised as something ordinary, something effortless, and that everything about nature is an absolute gift.

This is what these past two years have given me. Less money, more gratitude. Less stability, more freedom. Less tangible items, more intangible connections, with myself, with others, with nature.

And what a gift that all is. How priceless. How incomparable.

 

(Deep thanks to everyone who wrote to me this summer! For the record, you can write me whenever and I will always respond. Address is still currently 1872 Pilot Knob Road, Kattskill Bay, NY 12844, but it’ll change in the next couple of months.)

 

To Will

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@ Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh (which isn’t open for free on gallery crawl nights)

He sat across from me on the bus. I watched out of the corner of my eye as he drew shapes onto a blank piece of paper. Here, he turned to me suddenly. You try. I shook my head. I’m good. He continued drawing. There’s no right or wrong, he said, still doodling with aimless concentration. I’m good, I replied.

Pause. Here’s what you need to know. I am 21. It is my first summer staying in Pittsburgh. I am an academic University fellow, getting paid to study Anglo-Indian literature in a sea of science students who study neural connections in lab mice, and parasitic growth, and other things that involve lab coats and goggles. I am scared of not being taken seriously. I am scared that my work will be seen as inconsequential. I am self-deprecating and insecure. I miss India. I am desperately trying to call this city home.

OK. Continue.

That is the first memory I have of Will. Him drawing nonsense on the bus on our way to an academic retreat. I didn’t want to draw nonsense, but I wanted to be the type of person who could draw nonsense, who could scribble aimlessly in public and not care that it was subjectively bad, objectively meaningless. (There is power in not caring. I knew that even then.)

Will was a dancer. He wasn’t trained at all, but music played, and the notes coursed through his limbs, and he moved and swayed like gravity felt different to him. He danced at a second-floor studio above a warehouse. You could walk to one side of the open studio and look down below to lines of sinks, and doors, and porcelain tubs, all neatly arranged like terracotta soldiers of the city. It made it more special that the dusty mundane lived right below us while creatures of the night danced up above. In that dance studio you could feel like forgotten gods.

As you grow older there are places you build shrines to in your head, places that mean more as symbols than structures. That dance studio is one of them, so sacred I don’t even want to share its name with you. I would go there in the darkness and watch Will and the others move like liquid jazz. To piano. To ambient rock. To Radiohead. I would sip cider, and watch them, and write poetry on the walls of this warehouse dance studio and feel like I was interesting, like I was someone worth knowing, and I’d emerge onto the street in even darker darkness and the fact that I never visited the studio in the daylight was important, I never tarnished its pristine mystery.

I could tell you much about Will.

I could tell you that one time after leaving the studio I accidentally missed the last bus home. Even now it stands as a beacon of fear in my mind. Alone in a dark city. Who to call. How to get there. There are strange men on the streets. I am nervous. I am scared. I call the university shuttle, only to be told I am too far away. I think of walking the four miles back in the 2 AM darkness. Would I make it? Would I be safe? It is one of those sobering moments, holding a phone with limitless connectivity and yet no one I want to call. (Sometimes we invent our own loneliness.) I hesitate and then call Will. He comes back for me.

Or I could tell you that Will was an orphan, a strange and heavy word. I could tell you that I once asked him what he thought of people’s reactions to his loss, their gentle I’m sorrys when he shared that part of himself with them. Is it enough, I demanded. Is their response too rote, too cliché to still carry meaning? I was 21. I was starting to think more deeply about words and how they felt when rubbed against skin. I wanted life to feel bigger than it was. It’s enough, he told me. They’re doing their best. I know what they’re really trying to convey, and I’m not sure there are words for it.

Or I could tell you that once he texted me an apology, and I thought of all the men and boys who owed me an apology, and how he wasn’t one of them.

What I am going to tell you about is that one night at the gallery crawl. The first Friday of every month the art galleries in the city opened their doors, and you could stroll down the sidewalk and pop into each one, admiring the art and sampling the free snacks and wine.

I was 21. Nights like this made me feel cultured and free. The darkness and the art and the wine all muddled inside of me, feeling young and old all at once, feeling like a human but also a small flowered vine desperately trying to grow through the sidewalk cracks.

I could tell you a lot about First Fridays in the city.

I could tell you that my favorite exhibit was the Victorian basement parlor full of taxidermy animals.

I could tell you about the loneliness and frustration I felt on a verge of a breakup as I watched a man from an experimental music band thrash a large metal chain against the ground.

I could tell you that weekends like this made me never want to leave.

What I am going to tell you about is walking with Will and some fellowship friends down the sidewalk at night (do young people ever live in the day?), stumbling upon a man reading Ginsburg on a milk crate. He recited and gesticulated, the words from Howl releasing into the street like a sudden hymn. And it was about the words, but it was more about the moment, the abstract poetry of it all. We watched in almost silence. He finished and stepped down. Then Will asked if he could read.

And there it is. The moment I think of when I think of Will. Will reading Ginsburg on top of a milk crate on a dark street in Pittsburgh. That’s what Will was to me at 21. Art and darkness and poetry. And me. Looking up from the ground. Not wanting to read Ginsburg from a milk crate on a dark street in Pittsburgh, but wanting to be the type of person who could read Ginsburg from a milk crate on a dark street in Pittsburgh.

I was timid about being at 21. Sometimes I still am. Somedays I will stand on that milk crate, but sometimes I still won’t.

I don’t know where Will is these days or what he’s doing, and I’m not tempted to find out. Because what if he doesn’t dance anymore? What if he no longer lives his life like jazz, as he once told me he did? What if he’s not the same manic pixie boy from my memory (are you familiar with the trope)? Some people are meant to be comets, streaking once through your life, blindingly beautiful, and never seen again.

And that was Will. That was Will.

 

summer

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“Travel and tell no one,
live a true love story and tell no one,
live happily and tell no one,
people ruin beautiful things.”
–Khalil Gibran

Summer is over. There are days of sweet sunlight still ahead and a wedge of time before school, but for you the summer is over. The swell of adventure lays behind you and the steady postmarks of the familiar are just ahead, close enough that your fingers tingle with the chill of autumn and the sound of boots scraping against rock murmurs in your ear.

You wish you were more excited for this coming fall. You were excited. Once. Three months ago. But then you left and ate wild raspberries on the sides of mountains, and watched swarms of baby catfish move in patterns like starlings, and felt the chill of the thermocline bite at your face.

Perhaps the most important lesson you’ve learned in the past two years is that you can never go back. Not to the same place. Not as the same person.

Part of you wants to write about every moment of the summer. You are surprised at how small that part of you is. To write about it would bleed it of its color, and what you really want is to nurture it, to cradle it, to remember the feeling of freedom you felt as you descended Upper Wolfjaw in the rain. It is too soon to rob it of its vibrancy.

But here are three moments to let loose in the world:

one
You are siting on the shore of Heart Lake watching the boys swim in the water. A stranger gives them pretzels and they feast as if they haven’t eaten in days. The sole girl of the trip sits next to you on the bench. You invite her to go into the water, but she shakes her head. You watch people pass in front of you. You are quiet.

Do you want to be a mother? She asks. The question startles you and you suddenly feel awake. You have been working on a piece about motherhood for months now and sometimes loose metaphors and looser thoughts will drift into your head like a fog. The girl is 14. You are honest with her. You are vulnerable. The two of you talk about motherhood–your own mothers and what it means to become a mother, the sense of loss that accompanies it–as the boys splash about and try to bury each other’s sandals in the bottom of the lake.

That conversation sticks with you for the entire summer.

two
One of the best parts about being 40 feet under the lake is the silence. Words are meaningless. The loudest sound is your own steady breathing.

three
You and your co-lead are portaging your canoe through a mile of forest. You both wear 40-pound packs and carry the canoe overhead. People warned you about the bugs, but there are bugs and then there are bugs. Mosquitoes and flies, swarming and biting, ankles and toes, wrists and fingers. You wear rain gear despite the heat because it’s something they cannot bite through. You are the only one who brought a headnet.

You smile beneath the canoe as your feet swell in your sandals from all the bites. You feel proud because you are carrying a canoe and wearing a pack and being destroyed by bugs and you are good, you are wonderful. Once upon a time, you sat behind a desk and watched for flash sales at REI to buy gear, hoping but not knowing that an adventure would be on the horizon. And here you are in the wilds of Canada. Here you are. You are doing it. You made it.

 

 

Before I Go

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Me at 14 years old in the Canadian Rockies. First big mountain range (minus the Adirondacks, if you count those) I ever saw.

Summer is here and the woods are alive.

I made an impromptu trip back to Rochester this weekend, one final exhale before summer submersion, and I rifled through old journals as I often do, thinking and dreaming and remembering a past me. I found a bucket list I’d made in 2012 with items such as, visit the temperate rain forests in Washington, get something published, and go skydiving. Of the eleven things listed, seven of them I’ve already done (I’m coming for you, Alaska). It is a strange and lovely feeling to be the person you always wanted to be, to see mile markers so clearly staked behind you in the rear-view mirror.

On Twitter Esmé  Weijun Wang posed the question: what song, if you were driving at night down a dark & quiet road, would immediately transport you back to an adolescent Mood should it come on the car stereo. I scrolled through the thread, curious to see what songs were listed, while simultaneously thinking of my own haunted melodies.

Smashing Pumpkins, Simon and Garfunkel, Alanis Morissette, the songs were ripe with memory. And then there was this:

hearthurt

 

…closure is a lie, we never get over, we just get on, and we are all of us inside every age we’ve ever been.

That right there. When you find a line, a word, that encapsulates everything you are feeling but didn’t know how to describe. Sometimes I think art is the only thing that can lift us up from ruin. Art, connection, I don’t know the difference.

I played around with watercolors the other night before I got tired of my own ineptitude and switched to writing in cursive with my new fountain pen (which is one of the most soothing, aesthetically pleasing feelings ever). I am bad at visual art. I am bad at a lot of things. I am bad at knots, and making fires with wet wood, and reversing into parking spaces with a trailer attached. Working in the outdoors has alerted me to all the things I am subpar at.

Which is an interesting feeling because I thrived in academia. I am good at time management, and writing, and test-taking. I am a traditionally smart person.

When I reiterated that I was bad at knots to a coworker, she said that I was being too negative about my own abilities. And I see the advantages to phrasing it “knots are something I can improve upon.” But saying I’m bad at knots is being honest, and I think society has created the expectation that being bad at something is a negative connotation, which I’m tired of believing. Being bad at something means you have room to improve, more to learn. And isn’t that a gift? To learn more, to see yourself grow by an observable metric?

I have a couple outdoor trips this summer that are stretching my confidence thin. And that’s good. Instead of feeling overwhelmed or nervous, I am excited to improve my skills. I dreaded lifeguarding because I hate holding my breath underwater and look who’s a goddamn lifeguard? (Please don’t suffer a spinal injury in deep water.)

It’ll be a good summer. I am excited to be away from the internet, to look forward instead of backward, to make new bucket lists, to write more and share less, to be outside, to be physically engaged, to be away from humanity for a bit, to feel power within my own body and my own mind.

I hope you have a good summer, too. I hope you do things that you are bad at because you are bad at them. I hope you get outside. I hope you are easy on your 19-year-old self in memory and that those songs haunt you less. I hope you do things that a younger you would be proud of. I hope you read books and create art and are brave enough to be vulnerable with another living soul. I hope there’s at least one day that feels like magic.

Happy summer, friends. See you on the otherside.

 

Ugly Beautiful

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picture of a place i went one weekend that probably changed my life that i never really talk about because how does one talk about stuff like that

 

A guy friend in college once told me I could be hot if I tried. I wasn’t offended. I knew what he meant. He meant I had socially-acceptable features that, if I made more of an effort, would be attractive to men. He meant I should wear mascara more often. He meant I should ditch the frumpy thrift store sweaters. He meant I should straighten my hair, and buy jeans that fit, and exercise a little bit more, a little bit harder.

There are many times I do not want to be attractive to men.

There are many times I want to shave my head and burn every article of clothing I own that isn’t black.

There are many times I think I’d look better dipped in blood.

The first and only time I smoked a cigarette was in college. A boy I knew told me that if I didn’t smoke with him he would kill himself. My friend and I exchanged glances and agreed to the slender stick of nicotine. I remember the pulse and glow of traffic on Forbes Avenue as we sat on a concrete ledge passing the cigarette between us. Students walked by laughing, and I envied their nonchalance, their freedom because that evening I’d never had a choice at all.

That’s what being ugly is to me. A choice.

And when I say ugly, I mean not trying.

And when I say not trying, I mean fuck you, men.

And when I say fuck you, I mean I want you to know what it feels like to stand waist deep in the ocean scraping your own fingernails against your bare skin, howling into the moonlight, and no one hears you, no one hears you, and undertow is just a synonym for gentle drowning, and this is what it feels like to be a woman, this is the tithe for having skin so soft.

College is when I first learned anger. It wasn’t listed on the syllabus.

The problem isn’t with beauty, but possession. About being beautiful for boys, and boys clutching on to it with savage fingers, thinking the world was made for them, that they are entitled to have and to keep and to judge. I often think of that Helen Oyeyemi book I still have yet to read. What Is Not Yours Is Not YoursMost things in the world are not ours.

When we think of beauty we don’t often think of danger. But an entire war was started for Helen of Troy and for which man got to claim her. Do you think she ever just wanted to be ugly? Do you think she dreamed of being Medusa, having snakes for hair, being feared instead of desired? Can you be both? I want to be both. But what does it mean that men killed for Helen, but men killed Medusa, and both were considered a victory? All I taste is blood.

Sometimes I try to look nice. There are days when I wear makeup. There are days when I hope men notice me and think I am beautiful.

You could be hot if you tried.

I could be anything if I tried. But sometimes I don’t try. And when I do try, I try to be a longleaf pine, or a timberwolf, or magnolia petals carried on a bed of wind.

And when I try to be beautiful, it is the type of beauty you see when the sun is just cresting and shadows stretch on your hardwood floor, and the kitchen smells of yeast and coffee, and this feeling bubbles up inside of you and you feel like you might burst open like a volcano, like a sunrise, and you wonder if black holes ever dream of you, if any stars know your name, and it is magical, this feeling of being beautiful, of being alive.

 

(Pssst… You should read this. And probably this, too. And most definitely this.)

where do we go from here?

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I used to sit in Washington Square Park and watch this punk rock pianist play classical music on the weekends. I bought one of his albums and still listen to it all the time.

But I needed to witness someone wrestle
With what it means to just exist
-Dawes

Existing is hard. A pair of lungs, working legs, synapses that fire and illuminate, you’d think the biology of it all would be the difficult part of it. But often it’s not.

I’ve had a lot of what happens next conversations with people lately. It’s partly the field I’m in—seasonal work is transient, and movement in every sense is always on people’s mind—but it’s partly age, as well. Twenties are a messy decade. Life plans and road maps only get you so far.

The moment I realized that my plans were broken and that my map had gotten me lost was in New York City. I’d expected to love New York. I was a new college graduate, and I’d romanticized the city as a place where I’d be young and poor, struggling but successful. My life was supposed to be an episode of Girls, only with moderately better choices and a less irritating protagonist. I’d spend entire afternoons combing through the grid of Manhattan by foot, hoping that by walking I’d find a way to make the city home or a way to escape, but my sojourns never brought me either.

Ever since New York, I feel like I’ve been living year-to-year, never making decisions with an endgame in mind, but just living to live, gaining experiences and figuring it out, knowing that I have the tools and resources to make something of this all when the time feels right.

(When does the time feel right? Maybe you just know. Or maybe you don’t know and you just do it anyway.)

We don’t prepare people well for the world beyond college. We tell them to get a job, to work and save, but if that doesn’t happen, we tend to shrug our shoulders and wish them luck. Life feels very narrow sometimes.

What I struggle with the most is the shadowy judgment I feel from others watching me navigate my own life. It’s nothing outright. It’s hidden in the subtleties, the nuances that inform me that they think I’ve strayed too far, that I am too old for such instability. It bothers me when people no longer see me as the smart and motivated woman I was in college, that, for some reason, I can’t be smart and successful and wandering all at once.

Formal education isn’t the only form of growth that matters. Academia is only as high as the pedestal you put it on.

I’m not really sure who reads these posts (besides my few vocal, dedicated readers; I see you), but maybe you need to hear this because sometimes I do: You will find your way. You will find your way because you are capable of choice, and life takes the shape of your choices. It’s going to be alright. You will make it work. The days of thorns and bramble will become memories, and one day you will miss this struggle. Appreciate the bruises and flowing blood while you can. You will find your way, and it will be as golden as you always dreamed it would be. There’s courage in the choices you’re making, in choosing differently, in seeing differently, and I hope you know I’m proud of you. I hope you’re proud of yourself.

My senior yearbook quote for high school was from Atlas Shrugged, which, despite my conflicting views on the novel, I still find motivating:

Do not lose your knowledge that man’s proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads. Do no let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.

You’ve got this, dear reader. The world is yours ❤

 

 

paris is burning (but what isn’t?)

 

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The Kapoho tide pools in Hawaii.

I get it now; I didn’t get it then. That life is about losing and about doing it as gracefully as possible…and enjoying everything in between.” -Mia Farrow

Notre Dame was ablaze yesterday, the cathedral spires crowned in smoke like an unholy halo. People reacted as they normally do in moments of erasure–photos, prayers, temporary Facebook profile pictures. It was as if someone had died.

On Christmas Day in Hawaii, my parents and I went to the Kapoho tide pools, pockets of volcanic rock alive with sea urchins, and coral, and small darting fish. I wore my trusty Chacos and hopped around the blackened edges, peering down at sea slugs as thick as my wrist.

The Kilauea lava flow in 2018 decimated those tide pools. The sea urchins, and sea slugs, and small darting fish, all gone.

My biggest naivete as a teenager was how fully I believed in forever. That I would write something that would be known for hundreds of years, that I’d find someone (soon) and spend the rest of my life with that one person. I valued endurance. I treasured longevity—for myself, for my creativity, for my relationships.

I remember my first breakup in excruciating detail. It was the first time I’d experienced deep loss, the first time that dark cavern inside of me opened up and swallowed me into some lonely, fetid place. And I remember the last time I saw that particular ex. I remember his drug-fogged eyes and dirty apartment, and I remember that it was then I realized how many forms loss can take. That a person, or a place, can exist and still be gone forever.

How fervently we believe in forever is a sign of our own hubris. We believe that this planet we hold hostage won’t change. That the memory of ourselves will last longer than our own beating hearts. That people won’t leave.

I used to be overwhelmed by own insignificance, by the weightlessness of my small and fleeting life. But now, knowing that everything happens only once, that this is it, this is everything, somehow that now feels like a gift.

I am thrilled that Notre Dame was spared significant damage and that people are already emptying their pockets for restoration. But I can’t stop thinking about those Kapoho tide pools that are lost forever. And it makes me think about other natural spaces that are not yet gone, and how no one of power is frantically trying to preserve them. Rumor has it that there are oak trees in Versailles planted specifically for repairs to Notre Dame, but I can think of nothing that will replace the melting glaciers in Montana, doomed to disappear by 2030.

How do we choose what to care for? How do we decide what shape loss takes?

Some things are destined to leave us. We can pour all our funds, all our energy into preserving something, and we can lose it anyway. We can pour all our time, all our love into someone, and they can leave us anyway. Not everything that’s broken can be fixed. Not everyone who’s broken can be healed.

9 Things I Learned Working at a Gear Store

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A proper-fitting, breathable, fun-colored headband for snowshoeing adventures! See the end of the post for my pre-upgrade version :/ (this is also a PSA for why you should be skeptical about buying a white jacket…)

  1. You don’t really need all that stuff.
    From my perspective, gear store shoppers fall into three categories: dirtbags, stablizers, and over-the-mooners.

    I myself am a dirtbag. I am thrifty. I stretch my money and my gear as far as it will go. Duct tape for patches? You betcha. Breathable layers purchased at secondhand stores? Oooh ya. Sheets of Tyvek instead of a tent footprint? Now we’re talking (but seriously, look in my trunk).

    For my first ever backpacking trip, I went on a week-long trek in the Himalayas (humble beginnings, I know) using my dad’s 80L external frame Kelty pack that totally didn’t fit me. But it held stuff. And I got to hike to the source of the Ganges. And it was awesome. Dirtbags love the adventure, want the gear, but really can’t afford much. So they make it work. Because adventure is always worth it.

    Stablizers are at a comfy place in life. They have their beloved outdoor pursuits, but they already own most of the gear they need, so they only buy more when necessary. When they get a $10 reward in the mail, they use it to buy things like bug spray or Clif Bars. They do not fall for marketing schemes and remain tight with their purse strings.

    Over-the-mooners don’t always go on crazy adventures, but they do buy crazy amounts of stuff. They’re often new to outdoor pastimes, and they are going to drop buckets of cash before they’re sure if they even like the sport. Examples: Couple who bought $400+ in baselayers before their long weekend in Toronto (dirtbags know you only need one baselayer for, like, ever), mother who bought $400+ in Smartwool because her daughter said she was cold, and a grandfather who purchased his granddaughter $500+ worth of clothes before her first ski club outing. Will they like their adventure? Solid maybe. Will they be warm and stylish as all get out? Awww yeah.

  2. There will be days when people will want to throw Microspikes at your face.

    As a gatekeeper of both gear and cash, people will get really angry with you. They won’t follow the return policy and somehow it will be your fault. Or they will want you to endlessly rollover already-used coupons. Or they will do the math themselves and ask you to double check the computer’s math (the computer doesn’t mess up tax percentages, but thanks for checking, Rich). They will try to return a children’s North Face jacket sans receipt and be irate that you cannot accept it, and they will shake the jacket in your face and ask “But where else would I have purchased it?!?!?!” and you’ll say, “Uhhhh, The North Face store in Victor?” and your manager will nod in agreement.

    Customer service is strange because, yeah, sure, the customer is king, and we will often do backbends to make them happy. But the more I work service jobs, the more it feels like that policy is used as an excuse to treat employees like garbage. People feel entitled, and they’ll threaten to call corporate, never shop in your store again, and even blast you, personally, on Facebook if transactions don’t go their way.

  3. Customers will sometimes know more than you. That’s awesome.

    Fake it until you make it only lasts so long. For the novice outdoorsperson, general knowledge might be enough. Maybe the promise of hip pockets on their pack is enough to sell them. But some people are gearheads and they know their stuff. They see right through your bullshit, so don’t bother pretending you know which Osprey pack is the lightest off the top of your head, or Caamp vs. Black Diamond vs. Petzel carabiners. They’ll know when you’re lying.

    Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. That’s such a valuable skill for anything in life. Because as soon as you say you’re not sure what the answer is, it opens up a window to learn. I found it rewarding to grab the store iPad and look up answers online to the people’s questions to make sure I gave them accurate info. And they respected that.

  4. Profit is #1. 

    It’s in vogue now to be an ethical outdoor retailer. REI, Patagonia, PrAna, the list of companies that are trying to be more sustainable and eco-friendly is long, and what they’re doing is awesome. But don’t forget that retail companies exist to sell you things. I’m sure most of them genuinely care about their impact, but they’re also playing into a facade, trying to be ethical and aware because that’s who the consumer wants to buy from right now.

    Working for a gear store alerted me to all the behind-the-scenes stuff that isn’t glamorously eco-chic. For example, did you know every single garment in a store comes in its own plastic bag? Every. Single One. (OK, some are tied with twine; shout out to PrAna and their focus on sustainability). And many stores don’t recycle. At all. So it’s definitely ironic that you can buy a North Face t-shirt made from recycled bottles and that same shirt came in plastic that will never be recycled. See what I’m getting at?

    Resources aside, many brands and retailers don’t focus on their human impact. Where are the clothes made? Are the laborers being paid fairly? Only a handful of brands tout the sustainability and fair-trade quality to their items, so I think it’s safe to assuming that many brands are operating on a less-than-laudable basis.

    Think before you shop. Shop from places and people you want to support. Voting happens every day when you purchase items; it matters what you buy and where you buy them from.

  5. People are the best part.

    I learned so much from my customers. They offered me such different perspectives.

    For example, I always ask customers if they would like a bag. An older black woman was purchasing a fleece and when I asked her if she would like a bag, she looked at me with disdain, her eyebrows furrowed together. She chuckled, “You think I can just walk out of here without a bag? People are going to think I stole something. I’ll take a bag and a receipt.” I hadn’t thought about that because I never have to worry about being accused of stealing. That’s not a stereotype I bear.

    Another time a woman was looking for a very specific type of fanny pack and carabiner. She’d seen a YouTube video of how to make a special wheelchair pouch using those devices, and she wanted to make one for her own chair. Much to my surprise,–but not to hers–many carabiners wouldn’t fit around her wheelchair bar–the gate just didn’t open wide enough. So I grabbed a ladder, pulled down a whole bunch of carabiners, and tried them on until we found one that worked. She was so grateful. I felt bad that the carabiners were hung up on the wall out of reach, that the aisles were awkward and narrow for her chair to pass through.

    Like I said, different perspectives.

  6. You get what you pay for–but sometimes up until a point.

    If you pay $50 for a pair of hiking boots, you’re going to get $50 hiking boots. Some things just aren’t worth skimping on. My coworkers and I have our own mental lists of gear that needs to be quality, and gear that just needs to be. For instance, if you’re a climber, harnesses and shoes aren’t worth paying loads for, but hexes and cams–pieces of equipment that you literally trust your life to–are not worth buying from unknown brands. For me, boots and a good pack are backpacking essentials. Clothes? Those I can hustle up wherever.

    Without naming names, some items–or brands–are cheap because they’ll only last you a season. Do your research. Ask store members for their opinions. We’re not going to sell you garbage products if they won’t work for you, but remember that better gear costs more.

    (Best of luck to everyone who bought those $18 raincoats. May God be with you on your wet, unbreathable adventures.)

    But on the flip side, sometimes items are expensive because the manufacturer wanted them to be expensive (*~all about that $profit$~*). Questions you should ask yourself (or a staff member!): What technical qualities does this item have? Is it more expensive because it’s a sustainable company (good business practices are pricey, folks)? Is it more expensive because of the brand name? How long will it last me? How much will I use it?

  7. Becoming a member is probably worth it.

    I’m only including this because if you’re a member at many stores, they keep your transactions on file AKA YOU CAN RETURN THINGS IF YOU LOSE A RECEIPT (see point #2). It’s almost like we want to make things easy for you? But also make sure you’re not playing the system? Weird.

  8. Capitalism will sometimes make you sad.

    I feel like this explains itself

  9. You’ll be inspired.

    People are so cool and do the coolest things. I LOVED hearing about everyone’s upcoming adventures. From Antarctica to Nepal, Zion to Puerto Rico, my customers all had amazing travels ahead of them. Meeting people like that, working with like-minded people who saw the point in quitting your job and living in your car for three-months, working in a gear store was a highly inspiring and validating experience. See you in the winter, fellow gear store employees…

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    LOOK AT HOW MUCH SNOW IS STUCK TO MY HEADBAND! IT’S NOT WORKING.

    (…maybe? I’m honestly so bad at commitment. )

Almost

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Here’s a picture of a place I no longer live.

Winter is over.

Almost. Just barely. Light lingers. Ice cracks. Buds on your parents’ magnolia have emerged, green and fuzzy.

when the world is puddle-wonderful, e.e.cummings once wrote.

The world is slowly turning puddle-wonderful.

You’ve tapped into your animal nature these past two winters, your mind and body yielding to the gray winter days. Hibernation involves sweatshirts, and leggings, and at least five mugs because you can never be bothered to clean them. Your body has turned softer, the curves more rounded, the lines less firm. You try your best to find beauty in that, but it’s harder to appreciate your body when it’s not pulling you up mountains, when its most impressive use is supporting your laptop as you catch up on Queer Eye . You are gentle and forgiving with yourself (because that’s how Jonathan Van Ness would be).

when the world is mud-luscious…

You’ve tapped into your plant side this past winter, lying dormant for the season with books scattered around your mattress like fallen petals. You are biding your time in the soil, cooking more, learning more, creating more. You are waiting for the sunshine and warmer days when you can emerge and can scale walls, climb mountains, with your spindly stalks. You have so much energy. So much life. You are waiting.

For now.

You’ve tapped into your natural side this past year, connecting with the world in a primal and essential way. You sleep eight hours, sometimes nine, a night, and you’re surprised that you feel guilty for this, for the luxury of unfettered sleep. You wonder when you absorbed the belief that productivity and struggle were benchmarks of success, that being nourished and relaxed meant you weren’t doing enough. You live life slower these days, roughly at the pace of ice melting on the Genesee. This is how you want to live.

Winter is over.

Almost. Just barely. Spring is approaching and summer looms large.

The quiet months are behind you.

Almost.

 

 

 

Dear Reusable WinCo Bag,

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Dear Resuable WinCo Bag,

I’m sorry I didn’t acknowledge our one-year anniversary. To be honest, I forgot. I didn’t forget about you–of course not! How rude. How unforgivable–but I forgot that our adventuring had stretched beyond the shortened measuring stick, that weeks and months were a paltry time reference and that our relationship could be measured by years, or epochs even (did you know that it would take you 1,000 years to decompose? I’d never let that happen to you though, of course not).

We met in California. I’d been living out of my car for two months and just discovered the miracle of WinCo Foods, an employee-owned grocery chain that has remarkably cheap groceries. Grocery shopping was always exciting, a brief burst of normalcy as I walked through the labyrinth aisles with my greasy hair and dirty clothes. Grocery shopping meant I feasted that evening with a pre-made salad, gummy worms, and a tall boy of PBR. Since I traveled without a cooler, all perishables had to be eaten quickly, so I had a day or two of good food before it was back to ramen and grilled cheese sandwiches.

I used you for grocery shopping several times, but then I relegated you to a more permanent position: undergarment holder.

The road trip ended but still we traveled onward. Iowa, Ohio, Cape Cod, the Adirondacks, Rochester. More wool socks were added to the collection. You held everything proudly.

I thought of you the other day, darling WinCo Bag, when I was watching Marie Kondo’s show on Netflix. Does this bring you joy? She asks people, referring to each individual object in a person’s overstuffed house. Does this bring you joy, this dog-chewed key chain from El Paso? This bedazzled tank top you wore one time for your Coyote Ugly outfit? This Santa-hat-wearing teddy bear an ex-boyfriend gave you with a note reading, “Beary Christmas” and that you used as Kleenex when he dumped you two months later? What do you feel when you hold it? Joy?

I’ve been thinking about stuff lately. Because I like stuff. I like my red down jacket, and my map-of-Pittsburgh pint glass, and having my favorite poetry books clustered together in a neat pile. Things are useful. Things bring me joy. But things weigh me down, both literally and metaphorically. I feel like at some point I have to chose between a vagrant lifestyle of adventure, and a settled life of houseplants and WiFi. And it’s hard because I want both. I want it all.

An article on Grist pointed out that the show fails to address why we have so much stuff, how we got to this point where our lives are flooded with meaningless objects, shiny in their newness. It doesn’t mention capitalism, and consumerism, and how we inculcate children to the importance of buying things, that we paradoxically frame shopping as both a luxury and a necessity, a balm for our fraying sanity. We build our pride around owning stuff. Not necessarily using it, or cherishing it, but having it, so that if someone asks if you have a Vitamix you can proudly exclaim YES, and feel like you belong to this group of people. Because stuff is part of our identity. What we own, or don’t own, links us with certain groups and that sometimes the only reason we buy something is to belong.

And all this made me think of you, dear WinCo Bag, because items gain value through use. Thanks to California’s ban on plastic bags, I purchased you, lovely, useful Reusable WinCo Bag. And when I lay eyes on you, you give me joy. Because I know my cozy socks are in there. (But also for the memories. Those too.) You bring me far more joy than any beige basket from Target ever would.

Cheers,
Channing