Government? Closed. Parks? Open.

Fotor_151691047732914.jpg

People taking pictures of things at a busy national park (I prefer to photograph the people taking photographs, obviously)

Reading the news is a small daily horror. We are currently in the longest government shutdown of the modern era, and people and places are suffering. The institutions we have built this country upon are failing us.

The national parks are staying open despite being understaffed and unable to handle the influx of visitors. Restroom facilities are closed. Trash is no longer being picked up. Landscapes are being damaged, sometimes irreparably so.

I’ll save you the trouble of digging through the news dumpster yourself:

We can blame the shutdown. We can blame the lack of money and resources that protect our parks. We can blame troublemakers and rule breakers.

But the root is us. Thoughtless, hurtful humans. Because it’s not one person causing all of this, not two, not a handful, not a couple “bad seeds.” We, the collective, are the problem.

Natalie Diaz tweeted the following in regard to the destruction at Joshua Tree National Park:

natalie diaz

I could make this post a philosophical musing on human nature and destruction and how we love to play god for the brief eclipse of power. I could cite scientific studies (hello, Stanford Prison Experiment). I could quote Shakespeare. But none of that is helpful.

See, what bothers me about news is that very few outlets tell me what to do about any of this. They inform me of all the bad things happening but don’t give me ways to help fix them. And for me that’s frustrating. I’m a doer. I believe firmly in my own agency and my ability to affect the world. I believe that change is brought about by people, and that I can be a source of power if only I do and act and try.

So I do. And I act. And I try.

This is me trying. This right here. This small, sparrow-boned post.

Want to help our parks? Here are some things you can do:

  1. Don’t go. Even if you promise not to litter or take a dump, human traffic is still a problem. Please don’t visit the national parks right now.
  2. Educate yourself on the Leave No Trace principles. There are seven of them. Learn how to best minimize your footprint in our parks–both national and local–so that when you visit in the future, you will know how to respect the surrounding wilderness.
  3. Donate. Money is helpful and necessary. Small local organizations are stepping in right now to protect our parks. Support them. Yosemite is one of my favorite national parks and through some research (AKA a recommendation from Beth Rodden, a Yosemite resident and pro-climber, on Instagram), I learned that Ken Yager and the Yosemite Climbing Association are doing a lot to help the park, especially with the current trash overload. They have a donation page!
  4. Write thank-you letters to park staff. Kind words are always welcome.
  5. Get involved with your local conservancy or park. Education is one of the best ways to develop an appreciation and understanding of nature. Will it help immediately? No. But change doesn’t happen overnight and the American wilderness faces a long, globally-warmed road ahead; it needs all the supporters it can.

What the parks need right now and in the future are kind, compassionate, thoughtful human beings who care about the people and the world around them. Because even if there isn’t someone there to tell us what to do, even if we are able to run free and wild with sunsets in our eyes, we need to do the right thing. For the planet we live on. For our own fragile humanity.

There’s no better time to start than now.

(Do you, dear reader, have other suggestions? How can people help our parks and wilderness? What cool, inspiring things have you done or heard about in this vein? Let me know!)

Ohio on Fire

Fotor_152365042869320.jpg

Forget what they say
the year started in March
when a girl offered you a cigarette
leaning against her blue beater.
The match was lit.
Still
you stayed.

Did you know fingers
can smell of cigarettes?
Fingers that point and pluck and love
perfumed with a past
no memory of you.

You’re not sure how it started.
It started when you arrived
it started when you wrote your name
(not your name)
in marker
on a blank white sheet
it started when you were mopping the rec room
and his doubts poured out
straight into the dirty water
and you washed the entire room with them.

(Did his doubts smell like tobacco?
You don’t remember.)

It’s easy to ignore smoke
to name it incense
fog
a dirty ghost from
a dirty past
rising from the rec room’s
dirty-water-washed walls.
It’s happening, they told you.
No, you said
and walked away.

(You cried on your drive to Ohio.
You never told anyone that.)

People tried to bury
their loneliness in you
like an armoire
they could hide their
secrets and shame
knowing they’d soon be smoke.
They expected you to be someone
when you were barely yourself.
Call me by your name
No.
Call me something else
let me be someone else
let me move to Ohio
and be synonymous
with the sound of rocks
sinking in stagnant water.

Farrow
(Only one person asked
what book it was from.
You never give more
than asked.)

Bonfires burning the night
all eyes on California
when really it was Ohio
going up in flames.
Scorched love.
Scorched earth.
I still don’t know
if love or anger
burns hotter.

Paper Worries

Fotor_153711201012778.jpg

A bracelet found in my communal bathroom.

“I sometimes think that the size of our happiness is inversely proportional to the size of our house.”
Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts

I have many hobbies and one of them is worrying. I worry about getting my heart broken, being stuck in an unfulfilling life, and money, often money. My money worries come suddenly and with force—I’ll see a picture on Pinterest of a white-walled kitchen lined with mason jars and mismatched mugs, and I’ll think “I want that someday.” Then I’ll think that to have a kitchen you must have a house and having a house means you probably have a job, and doesn’t that mean you have to stay in one place? And how does one buy a house, anyway? And why does the word “mortgage” make me envision a coffin?

Here’s the direct path of the worry spiral: Do I want to work seasonal gigs forever? Probably not. But what am I qualified for at this point? Who would hire me? What if no one will hire me but a marketing firm that sends email blasts about Viagra? What if I have to write about Viagra FOREVER just because I want to live in one place for longer than three months? And how will I take vacations if I have a full-time job writing about Viagra? And honestly, what kind of apartment could I afford with a job like that? Could I even afford decorative mason jars for all of my loose bulk products? And I wouldn’t have time to hike or read or do anything except think of more palatable phrasing for “erectile dysfunction” (Could I somehow make a pun with “limp stick” and Limp Bizkit? Maybe.).

Somehow the solution I always land on is money. If I made more money, I’d feel more secure about my flimsy future, and life would unfold in front of me with clarity and precision. It would be like a board game where life progresses effortlessly from one space to the next, a definitive end in sight. You get two-hundred dollars every time you pass go.

But life doesn’t feel like that. Instead, it feels like the scene from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when Harry’s flying around on his broom grabbing at keys, hoping to find the exact one that will unlock the next door guarding the stone. It feels aimless and overwhelming, and yeah, Harry knew which key to grab because of the bent wing, but I’m certainly no 11-year-old Harry Potter, and I’m not even sure if it’s keys I’m reaching for or tree branches or part of my front door that broke off this week and will probably never be repaired.

And I know it’s silly, and I know it doesn’t make sense, but part of my brain whispers that a steady income would solve all of that.

It’s a worry that’s been implanted into my mind from the world I inhabit, a worry that people around me unknowingly nurture. When will you go back to your real job? So it’s kind of like a gap year? You have a degree?! People tacitly imply that I’m not doing enough, that I’m spinning wheels instead of racing forward, and it can be difficult to remind myself that my life is fulfilling and meaningful. I’d rather be in the sunlight helping kids conquer their fear of heights than tucked away in an office thinking of ways men can feel confident about their soft genitalia. Society abides by a very narrow definition of success, and I am frequently reminded that I do not meet that criteria.

Every trite thing you’ve heard about money and life is true, but I’m going to tell it to you again because I need to hear it for myself:

It will never be enough. But it is enough. You are enough. Make enough that you can sustain yourself and the ones you love, and then place your wants elsewhere. Crave time and adventure and human connection, and forget all the rest. Forget what they’ve taught you about needing more. Being busy isn’t the same as being successful. Being successful isn’t the same as being happy. Life ebbs and flows, and it’s most vivid at its most wild. Don’t stress. Don’t worry. It’s all just borrowed time anyway.

What Blossoms From Anger

Fotor_152538145642892

“The children of the woods play wild, secret games.” –Gillian Flynn. My campers playing games in the fields of Ohio.

When I was eleven, I wrote a strongly worded email to General Mills arguing that gymnast Paul Hamm should be on a Wheaties box. I didn’t regularly eat Wheaties and I didn’t do gymnastics, but I thought that the red-headed gymnast was adorable and talented and totally deserved to be smiling up at frazzled grocery store shoppers who were confused about what aisle the granola had been moved to. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t an issue I cared much about (sorry, General Mills, for the deception), nor did it matter that Paul’s hair would’ve contrasted poorly against the orange Wheaties box (Shadowbox it with white? Photoshop a stylish hat on?). People online convinced me to take up the cause, and I was enamored enough with the tiny ginger man that I did.

The next time I wrote a protest email to a person or organization was thirteen years later. The White House had changed hands, and the Internet had erupted into a firestorm of white hot anger. I read the discourse, I felt the heat of the flames, and I joined the fight. And, once again, it was the People of the Internet who stirred me into action.

It was different this time. At eleven, I had felt the feeble force of injustice at an athletic slight, but none of it was anger. Anger has never been an emotion I’ve worn well. I cry (often) and brood (probably more often) and overthink (hence the parenthesis), but I don’t rage.

But this time, at 24 years old, the echoes of outrage reverberated within me. I composed letters and emails, even faxes, to my local representatives. I hosted postcard parties to speak out in quantity. I left voicemails. Sure, Paul Hamm may have been denied the coveted position as the poster boy of Wheaties because he may or may not have fairly won the gold all-around medal (I’m sure this controversy keeps you up at night too), but this was injustice on an unfathomably large scale. I was angry about health care. I was angry about the slackening environmental regulations. I was angry about the corruption and the greed and the callous disregard for humanity.

It is July 28, 2018. It’s been over a year since I’ve contacted a local representative. In fact, I forgot to register in time for an absentee ballot for the New York primaries this past spring. Bouncing from place to place, it is harder to stay in touch with the national discourse these days. WiFi is infrequent. I spend my days out in the sunlight, helping kids into kayaks. I spend less time reading the news.

And the questions I’ve been asking myself lately revolve around my fading anger. Do I need to rekindle it? And if so, how and for whom? On what scale should I be fighting—for my country, for my hometown, for the trees I now call neighbors? In the time that I have, what’s the best way to make a difference?

The problem is I want to do it all. I want to learn more about proposed legislation for ATV use in the Adirondacks. I want to rage against the inadequate assistance in Puerto Rico and our complicity in our own quiet tragedy. I want to become a rafting guide in Arizona, and teach at a camp in upstate New York, and live in a cabin in a sun-stained patch of woods with mismatched mugs and towering bookshelves and my imported Lord of the Rings posters. I want it all.

Some days I feel like I’m doing enough. I send thank you letters to authors who’ve impacted me, and I get a message back, a thank you for a thank you. Kids gift me smiles and laughter. Parents thank me for my time and efforts, my willingness to live out of a tent for the summer so that they can enjoy camp for a week. And maybe the smallness of my efforts are OK. Maybe I’m impacting more lives by teaching kids how to shoot a bow and arrow than I ever did with my emails and letters. Maybe it’s passion, not anger, that matters more.

A Year

Fotor_152970071841536

One year ago, I was sitting at a desk. It was a nice desk. The chair was padded and it swiveled; I had an entire drawer dedicated to colored paper, glue sticks, and craft foam; a painted alligator made of egg cartons and cardboard boxes watched me work. It was a lovely desk.

Fifty-two weeks ago, the end of my desk life was in sight. I was leaving my job at the end of June and embarking on a new adventure. I was ditching my office desk for a collapsible one my dad and I made that fit snugly into the back of my car. Farewell to my padded chair and hello to a bright red camping chair that had a single cup holder in the right arm. Spontaneity was swapped with security. AC was abandoned for smoke-stained Western air.

Three-hundred-and-sixty-five days ago, I thought I was taking a break from the 9-5 lifestyle. Just a couple months of wildness, I told myself. Then I’ll be ready to start again.

But those couple months stretched and stretched, until here I am, one year later, with no foreseeable end in sight.

The past 525,600 minutes feel heavier than those that came before them, weighed down by the places I’ve visited,  the trails my shoes have pressed against, the people I still daydream about. Time passes without significance in the cogs of routine, but adventure forces you to be present every moment.

3.154e+7 seconds ago, I was a different person. I loved fewer people. The world felt more hostile. In this narrow space of becoming, I shed my skin and ran, growing with the world instead of against it.

One year ago, I left my lovely desk job. I haven’t looked back since.

 

 

Wild Child(ren)

Fotor_152668338438682

      “What’s this tree’s name? C’mon, we just went over it.” I point to a slender tree with gray bark peeling off like wallpaper. The kids look at it uncertainly.
       “I know it!” A girl exclaims, tugging on her braid. Her eyes widen in revelation. “A shaggy hickey!”
       I look at the shagbark hickory and stifle a laugh. “Not quite.”

Outdoor education is exhausting. Thirteen-hour days filled with sixth graders and mud and “No, that’s not edible!” Mashed potatoes with the consistency of Drano. Thin vinyl mattresses that you slip off of if you forget to put a sheet beneath your sleeping bag. There is never enough food, never enough sleep to fill me up.

This was supposed to be my in-between gig, a brief respite before my next full-throttle adventure. But then the lake water receded, the buds burst on the trees, and I dreamed less and less of faraway places. For the first time in years, I wanted to stay.

“Is Farrow your real name?”
“Do you ever wear make up?”
“Have you actually been to all those places on your water bottle?”

The questions flow ceaselessly. I answer them honestly. Most of the time. The kids distract themselves with their disposable cameras, taking pictures of half-eaten grilled cheese sandwiches and their own muddy boot prints on the tile floor.

“What time is it?”
“When’s lunch?”
“What would happen if I accidentally fell into the lake?”

They start off a little shy, uncertain about me as an instructor. But then their caution melts. They smile as I play off of their Vine reenactments. Their eyes widen when I reference the twisted towers from Fortnite. Their eagerness grows as I tell them yes over and over again, boundaries from their daily lives slipping loose, delivering them fresh and breathless into the wild.

Small acts feel like gifts. Can I put mud on my face? Yes. Can I lick this tree? Yes. Can I get my shoes wet? As long as you don’t complain later. The kids splash unceremoniously into creeks and hold salamanders in their hands. Tree branches crack as boys beat them against rocks. Girls rub sand into their hair.

There’s a sense of pride I get from being the one to say yes, the one to give them this tiny sliver of freedom and wildness. How strange that it’s a luxury to get dirty. How odd that climbing rocks feels like a privilege.

“So that’s poison ivy? Can I eat it?”
“How do snakes poop?”
“A crawdad? The counselor over there told me it’s a lobster.”

People say to dream big, but I’m dreaming smaller these days. A clean thermos, a book, and a child brave enough to interrupt me during a lecture to tell me I have a tick on my face all feel like bliss. Some days this is enough.

To Disappear

Fotor_150087272431458

Last summer I thru-hiked the Northville Placid Trail with my father. It was 133 miles of mud and mosquitoes, storm-ravaged bridges and swollen lakes. The trail only crossed four major roads (except for a several mile road walk at the end), and my dad and I could walk an entire day without seeing another soul. It was isolated wilderness at a local, accessible level, some of the loneliest forests you could experience on the carved up East Coast.

A 2016 study by the Wildlife Conservation Society predicted that there will be no globally significant wilderness in the next 50 years, and, in a separate study conducted by Peter Potapov, 20 countries will lose their large forests entirely within the next 60 years. The disappearance of wilderness has been happening for a while, debatably ever since industrialization and large-scale agriculture emerged. In the last 25 years alone, though, the Wildlife Conservation Society discovered that 10 percent of the world’s terrestrial wilderness had vanished, which is the equivalent of half of Australia disappearing.

The Adirondacks doesn’t count as “globally significant wilderness,” but when I read statistics and articles like the ones mentioned above, I have to find a way to relate to it personally, otherwise it feels too distant, too big, too easy to dismiss. It’s overwhelming to think that over 250 million people live in these vanishing forests, but when I remember my own time spent in the dappled sunlight, a beaver swimming in front of us as we lit up our backpacking stove for dinner, the crisis feels pertinent.

What does it mean for places to disappear?

I don’t remember when the woods I grew up in were thinned, trees torn down to make room for office buildings. One autumn the forest was thick, and then I left for college and the next time I looked out my best friend’s window I could see screaming light for the very first time. My friend said her mother cried when the trees were cut down.

I don’t look out that window anymore.

Vanishing places destroy our sense of permanence. Natural places encompass a type of forever that we don’t ascribe to humans. But they too can leave us. They too can break our hearts. And unlike fickle lovers, destroyed wilderness will never return. What is gone is gone and will not come again. The creek beds will stay dry despite our tears.

We often go into the wild to be lost and alone, to find something within ourselves that cowers in crowds and fluorescent lighting. And there’s a shapeless irony that we are losing places where we want to be lost, places we want to disappear inside of, as if moss and mud could swallow us whole.

What would it feel like to always be known, to never be able to vanish when your body cries for solitude?
What parts of humanity are we losing when we lose these vast and lonely places?
What are we really leaving behind?

 

 

Memories Are Stronger Than Bone

IMG_20170828_133527689.jpg

I met a guy in Moab, and I can’t remember his name. He told me about how he was airlifted off Mount Whitney  along with the body of a dead girl, a girl who went hiking with her fiancé and came down with AMS, but instead of following her down, her fiancé chased the summit and she wandered back alone. They found her in a frozen waterfall, crashed through the ice.

I can’t remember his name. The guy who told me that. I can’t remember his name.

He had a dog, and a Subaru, and worked at a bike shop on the main strip in Moab. He’d moved from Vegas two weeks earlier, leaving behind a wife and a pile of debt. Her pile of debt. I didn’t know about her loans, he told me as we sat in the desert, his voice whisky strong. I didn’t know.

I can’t remember his name.

I can’t remember the name of the guy from Québec I met at the Grand Canyon whom I talked with for two hours in the parking lot. He showed me his renovated van, and we discussed Trump, and California gas prices, and where the hell the closest showers were.

I also can’t remember the name of the woman I met at Lake Tahoe. It was the only time on that trip that I got lost while hiking, and we stumbled our way back to the correct trail together. She was mid-50s with a sparkly blue nose ring and a daughter about my age. How do I become like you, I thought as she talked about rowing on Lake Tahoe in the early, sun-bitten mornings. Her nose ring caught all the light. How do I become like you?

Maybe it’s OK that I can’t remember. After all, names only mean so much. Words too have shortcomings. Because when I say, I loved every minute of it, what I mean is, I’m a different person. And when I say, I’d do it all again, what I’m actually telling you is, None of that’s behind me. 

I think about that guy from Moab often. Is he back with his wife yet? Is he still sleeping in his car? How hung over was he after his night of confessions? I think about him, and everyone I met, and how even the bad days were amazing, and how my skin and muscles felt like home.

This is just the beginning. The adventure continues. I’m chasechasechasing the life I want, and I hope you are, too.

Putting Price Tags on Parks

Fotor_150855514918430

Canyonlands National Park in Utah is one of the parks with a proposed increased entrance fee.

Once upon a time, a man named Gutenberg invented the printing press. Before that books were copied by hand, making them expensive and rare, available only to the societal elite.

And then along came Gutenberg and everything changed. There were more books in circulation. More people began to read. The worlds of ink and paper that had existed for a small minority exploded into existence for the masses. Mankind was changed forever, not by the existence of books but by their sudden accessibility.

It’s not a unique situation. Accessibility is always an issue in technology, but it affects other spheres as well, such as art, food, education, and yes, public parks.

The Trump administration is considering increased entrance fees to 17 of the most visited national park. It’s not a mere $5 or $10 hike in price, however. The proposal would double, or in some cases triple, entrance prices to $70 per vehicle. An entrance pass gets you access to one park for up to seven days.

On the front, the administration says this plan is intended to create more revenue for the parks, which they desperately need. These increased rates would raise an additional $70 million for the parks.

But the government is also proposing steep cuts. The president’s 2018 budget cuts nearly $400 million from the parks budget.

Even a non-mathlete like myself can see things don’t add up. It’s not about increasing funding to the parks, it’s about shifting the burden of responsibility for who pays for that funding.

Our national parks are underfunded and overcrowded, and yes, raising entrance fees theoretically would help alleviate these issues. But the deeper issue at debate here is who has access to these spaces. National parks already have a diversity issue–most visitors are white, wealthy, and middle-aged–and raising fees would be yet another barrier of entry for people with less money or who don’t live in communities that place as much value on natural spaces.

I wish I had something funny to say about all this, some witty Bolshevik quip about Russian elitism or something, but I’m empty handed. With Trump’s recent approval to shrink Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante Monuments in Utah, it’s clear that this administration cares little about public land.

In a way, it’s a circular problem. The current administration doesn’t care about protecting public lands, which then impedes the public from experiencing and enjoying them. Which then creates people who also don’t care about wilderness because they had little exposure to it.

I can tell you that big trees are amazing and important,  but until you stand in front of General Sherman yourself and try in vain to capture the towering sequoia in a single frame on your iPhone, craning your neck to see its broccoli-like branches way up high, it won’t mean as much to you.

When did you last visit a park, national or otherwise? Where did you go? How dirty were your shoes? What did the sunlight feel like on your skin?

The government is accepting public comments about this proposal until November 23. So if you’ve ever visited a park or been touched by nature in any shade or fashion, take a moment and share your story and why you think public spaces should remain as accessible as possible.

Click here to comment.

Of Mice and Mountaintops

 

Fotor_150551463778836.jpg

Bernard and I breakfasted together the morning after our introduction. Honestly I would’ve kept him around longer, but he had boundary issues and tried to run up my leg while I was driving, a major no-no.

I am writing this at 10:09 PM on a Thursday night in a WalMart parking lot. My car smells overwhelmingly of curry. My car doesn’t normally smell of curry.

When I committed myself to a solo road trip—a mini foray into the shallows of vanlife—I was ready for the Big Stuff. Mountaintop vistas. Sunsets on beaches. Sitting in the woods with my feet propped up, beer in one hand, book of Rilke’s poetry in the other. I thought everything I Instagrammed would also be the most profound, enjoyable moments, as if the physical grandeur of the landscapes around me would reverberate at the same internal frequency of awe.

And they do.
Sometimes.

But sometimes I hike 10 miles, look around, shrug my shoulders, and head back down. Sometimes I don’t leave my car to take a picture and it remains only that—a photograph with no backing behind the veneer. Empty.

What I didn’t prepare myself for was the Small Moments. Like when I forgot my garbage outside my car for a couple of hours and then discovered at four in the morning when I felt something scurrying across my sleeping bag that I’d accidentally brought a mouse in along with my empty Pringles’ cans. It wouldn’t leave, despite me opening all the doors and asking nicely and waving a spatula about. My tent smelled of onions and peanut butter the next night as I curled up in the woods with all of my groceries, hoping the mouse traps in my car worked. (RIP Bernard. In the words of Fall Out Boy, thanks for memories even though they weren’t so great.)

Similarly, I was under prepared for the curry disaster of September 21, 2017. Knowing the tupperware was prone to leaks, I’d wrapped my flannel around it and stabilized it with my pillow. And then, because I’m an idiot, I forgot about it, only to suddenly remember it when I came back to my car after brushing my teeth in WalMart and wondering why my car smelled so weird.

It wasn’t even good curry, mind you. I’d made it myself on the bank of the Sol Duc River in the Olympics with coconut milk, spices, and WalMart-purchased vegetables. So it was very mediocre curry. And it smelled not great.

It had seeped into my flannel, drenched my pillow, and pooled onto my air mattress. It had been a long day of driving, and all I wanted to do was sleep. My body tightened in frustration at the mess before me.

But I had soap and a sponge. I had a towel. I cleaned up the mess, rolled down the windows, and ate an entire bag of gummies in the driver’s seat to make myself feel better.

My car regained its normal smell about three days later.

When you go out into the world things will happen to you. Yes, there will be beautiful mountaintops and sunsets, but there will also be field mice and mediocre curry in your sleeping area. And the mountaintops will give you better pictures, but the mice will give you better stories. And that feeling of overcoming an unexpected crisis—even if it’s mouse-sized, even if it’s in the WalMart parking lot—may feel more rewarding than that 10 mile slog.

So say yes, go out into the world, see what’s there, cry a little, feel inspired, feel proud, wash your hair in rivers, sleep in your car, say hi to strangers, see what the world hands you when your eyes are closed.

Curry-tinged dreams are better than no dreams at all. Even if they involve mice.