First Steps

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On the summit of Wittenberg.

I camped by myself for the first time when I was 23. It was in Phoenicia, NY, nestled in the Catskill Mountains, the closest one can get to New York City and still feel connected to threads of wildness. My plan was this: leave work early, drive three hours, camp, summit three mountains, and then drive back to the Poconos exhausted but content. I had no expectations, no greater hope. I just wanted to be outside, and this is what I had come up with.

I learned a lot in college, including if you want to get outside you don’t need anything fancy. Leaders in my school’s outdoors club always told us that all we needed for food was a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. That would last us the entire weekend. Of course that didn’t stop people from getting fancy with their tinfoil meals cooked over a fire, or backpacking with an entire bag of Franzia strapped to their pack. But the essence was clear:  the outdoors is accessible with minimal gear requirements if you’re willing to forgo creature comforts.

Over the years, I’d collected my own stash of stuff–down sleeping bag, insulated sleeping pad, hiking boots–but besides the new acquisitions, I’d pillaged my dad’s inventory and made do with what I already had, including an EMS backpack I’d purchased in middle school that was quite literally falling apart.

So off I went. On my own. To the mountains. For the very first time.

The weekend went smoothly. Better than smoothly. As I was checking in to the campground, two women overheard that I was by myself and invited me to their campfire that evening. And I went, even though I intended not to. They introduced me to their partners, and we spent the night drinking, eating, and exchanging stories by the fire. Two of them had met in the Marines and had married after three months of knowing each other. One was a chef who worked at a five-star restaurant. They told me about their lives in Virginia (interesting). They asked me if I was scared of bears in these parts (no). They were suitably impressed with my itinerary for the next day (nearly 20 miles, and no, they didn’t want to join).

I cannot find a beginning to this wild, meandering, sunlit life of mine. I cannot trace it back to its origins. How I got here. Who specifically inspired me. There is no clear path, and sometimes I think my life would’ve evolved into this organic, pulsing knot no matter what steps I took. But that weekend in the Catskills is a clear pivotal moment, one of countless beginnings.

Being a beginner is a special kind of joy. I recently started playing around with watercolors, picking up the supplies at a craft store on a whim, and it’s been fun albeit challenging. I don’t know what different brushes do, or techniques for using the paints. And it’s hard not to compare my work with others. But I’m trying.

This past year I have been a beginner more than ever before. I’ve lived in five different places, had five different jobs, and have met more people than I can count. And I wonder if my life feels fuller partially because there is so much newness. That the discomfort of beginning becomes the glow of success, and I constantly reap the rewards of struggling, learning, and growing.

A recent goal for myself is to be a beginner more often. To try and do and fail as often as I can. To accept being uncomfortable or scared and to push ahead anyway. Often the first steps are the hardest. The rest is just free fall.

(Want to read about other people I met on my Catskill adventure? Check out a previous blog post here.)

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My campsite in Phoenicia. (My beloved EMS backpack is on the right. RIP.)

But Wasn’t That Love?

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Flashback to hiking in the Himalayas

“He said, ‘I love you.’
She shook her head. ‘You can see me, that’s all.’
But wasn’t that love? Seeing what no one else could?”
                            –Bone Gap, Laura Ruby

“I’m so scared of dying without ever being really seen. Can you understand?”
–David Foster Wallace

When I was 18, I believed you could fully know a person. I believed you could understand a person’s thoughts and feelings and the entirety of their past. I believed that love meant that every axis of a person’s life was illuminated, that there were no secrets, no shadows to be excised. I believed that others could learn to see you in the same fluid, tilted way you saw yourself.

I don’t believe any of that anymore.

Last night I sat on a dock on Lake George and watched the surrounding mountains blossom with lights as darkness settled. The night was warm and the sound of boat horns echoed along the expanse of lake, and in an instant my memory sparked and I was brought back to my days in the Himalayas, how I’d sit on the rooftop deck of my dorm and watch the lights of Dehradun in the distance. I was always alone. I always left my classmates behind in their crowded rooms. The lights seemed to glitter in the thin mountain air, and I watched them with my legs scrunched together, singing the same Iron and Wine song underneath my breath.

My life was smaller at 18. I’d never lived outside of my parents’ suburban neighborhood. I’d never been by myself in a city, or fallen in love, or made clay sculptures in a cave by the light of my headlamp. Life was easier to encompass, it was still something you could hold and pass along like a tide-worn pebble, no thorns, no knots. I still didn’t fully believe in being alone.

A coworker asked to see my water bottle the other night after catching glimpse of my Glacier National Park sticker, and we talked about hiking, and seasonal work, and the beauty of the West. I spent three months by myself on the road, and it was one of the best periods of my life. But that time spent alone, those private, radiant moments, are impossible to share. Words are flimsy. Like sunlight through wanting hands, those moments cannot be held.

And it’s not just me. Most people I know have their own corners and cobwebs, the places of themselves where light only trickles in. The other evening my partner mentioned his time traveling out West–hitchhiking and surviving off pocket crumbs–and his brow furrowed with bad memories. I will never know most of his previous life, I’ll never know the boy he was before with brighter hair and fewer freckles, but maybe it’s through possessing these private thoughts and memories we ensure that above all else, we’ll always belong to ourselves. Life is better with mystery, anyway.

In this mess of light and love, of being seen, of being human, I think of a Vincent Van Gogh quote:

“I tell you, the more I think, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”

I share my time and my thoughts. I try my best to be open and honest. And maybe that’s all any of us can do. Try to be human and empathetic, try to convey what it feels like to be alive in our own earthen and wanting skin, try to convey that through whatever means we can.

Goodbye, See You Tomorrow

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“Here sitting on the world, she thought, for she could not shake herself free from the sense that everything this morning was happening for the first time, perhaps for the last time, as a traveler, even though he is half asleep, knows, looking out of the train window, that he must look now, for he will never see that town, or that mule-cart, or that woman at work in the fields, again.” –To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

You’ve been living in a tent on the top of a hill in Cape Cod for over two months now. Patches of black mildew blossom in the humidity. Tent freckles, you think to yourself, as you run your finger over them. It is almost time to leave again. Almost.

The summer passed you by in the strangest way. Sometimes it feels like you weren’t even there, like you were a passenger on a train watching the scenery flash by—families rotating in and out, cabin doors slamming shut in their wake—but then there are moments, moments when the window opens and the breeze smells of wildflowers—when a kid hits a bullseye and his mouth falls open in wonderment, when a camper sings boldly into a microphone with the backing of a live guitar—and in that moment you feel present, grounded, like the world is real and you belong, and you’re doing something important, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.

You want to write something big and meaningful about this summer, about illness and death and human connection, but you feel smaller than normal and words don’t come easily.

Here’s what you can capture, still lifes from the train window:

Some nights you’d make tea and sit behind your mildew-freckled tent and listen to the sounds of the highway while looking up at the stars. You went to Provincetown by yourself and listened to a podcast about the Manson Family as the road narrowed and the traffic swelled, and it felt safe and warm to be alone again in an unknown city, and it made you happy to know that you could be with someone and still belong fiercely to yourself. You found a tree frog in the toilet stall and marveled that a life of tree frogs and shower spiders was now yours.

This has been a summer about empathy. About listening and learning and finding gratitude in every shadow, every narrow beam of light.

Families welcome you into their lives for a week, sharing stories of g-tubes and surgeries and stubborn doctors, and you take whatever they give you, whatever morsel of their lives they are willing to put into your hands. You are a passenger along for the ride. You are just passing through.

A Year

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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.

 

 

To Disappear

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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?

 

 

/arrival/

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There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind. –C.S. Lewis

There are things that bring you comfort. The familiar weight of your backpack hanging from your shoulders. The peppermint scent of Dr. Bronner’s soap. Curled pages of poetry that have kept you company around the globe. These are the things that you haul from place to place. These are the things that help you feel like you when the snow globe world has shaken once more and the particles have settled.

Here’s how it goes: You pack your bags thoughtlessly, and then you drive. Roads unspool like ribbon. Music holds you tight. In Montana you listened to Harry Styles on repeat as you drove into plumes of smoke, your hand outstretched beyond the window bobbing up&down up&down in the hazy air. The wildfires were calling you home, and you listened. You burned.

You wear the same three rings, the same five necklaces, the same four pairs of wool socks. You feel like a liar when you fill in your parents’ address on your I-9 form. You are doing your best to call this body home.

After your parents dropped you off as a freshman in college, you threw on a sundress, filled your backpack with notebooks and pens, and ran outside into the arms of the city. I think I’m lost, you texted your then-boyfriend as a nature trail ended at a row of dilapidated houses, beer cans and cigarette butts posing as lawn ornaments. You ignored your boyfriend’s concern and continued onward.

There is so much world to see.

Your nose was pressed against the car window as you wound through the foothills of the Himalaya for the first time, eager smudges on the glass. Bodies swung like pendulums around the curves, colliding in the backseat. You drove higher. Your body thrummed. The mountains felt endless, and your heart burst with sunshine and everything inside of you felt lighter and more radiant than it had a heartbeat ago.

There’s a restlessness that inhabits your bones, that invites you onward, pushes you to new places, into the arms of new people. You don’t fight it. Not anymore.

But that wasn’t always true. There was a time when all you wanted was to stay, when forever felt like something to strive toward. But those days are over, those memories  stitched up and haphazardly healed, and stability is no longer something you dream of.

You wander.
You burn.
You are too much for a single person to hold.

You are in Ohio now. You drink chamomile tea, and listen to conspiracy theories, and you wonder if anyone is thinking of you in that very second, if you’re more alive, more cherished in memory. You sit in a coffee shop in New Philadelphia and remember sitting in a similar one in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where the barista complimented your necklace and then fled to the bathroom to vomit. You loved that place.

Someone mentions the phrase “twin flame,” and you realize how much you’ve left behind, and how you don’t regret any of it.

There is so much world to see.

Leaving/Left/Gone

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Bilbo: I’ll be alright. Just let me sit quietly for a moment.

Gandalf: You’ve been sitting quietly for far too long! Tell me, when did doilies and your mother’s dishes become so important to you? I remember a young hobbit who was always running off in search of Elves in the woods. He’d stay out late, come home after dark, trailing mud and twigs and fireflies. A young hobbit who would’ve liked nothing better than to find out what was beyond the borders of the Shire. The world is not in your books and maps. It’s out there.

Bilbo: Can you promise that I will come back?

Gandalf: No. And if you do… you will not be the same.

You left. It started with a dream, a fragile wisp as light as a daffodil petal. You sat at your office desk and planned, and schemed, and imagined a world covered in blue pines.

You are always leaving.

They told you that you could have adventures, but they never told you that there was a price. You could have your wildness, but you’d lose the sense of comfort you’d feel when you’d walk down the sidewalks of your old neighborhood, dogs barking, children laughing, garbage men waving as you pass by.

No one ever told you that adventure is accompanied by loss.

People will talk about their jobs behind desks and debate the meaning of business casual, and you will feel alone. They will say, did you know Tory Burch is having a sale, and you will respond, one time I burned a hole in my jacket while making tea in the shadow of Mount Shasta. 

You will sleep in your childhood bed, you will visit the offices of your first job, you will meet up with your ex-boyfriend, and even though your jeans still fit, even though the pantry is still stocked with your favorite cereal, this life is no longer yours. You left, and you changed, and there is no going back.

And that’s OK.

That was the point, wasn’t it? To change, to become, to tap into this life you knew existed if only you tried a little harder, drove a little further, followed more stars. You started drinking seltzer water as an excuse to leave your desk at work, and you knew that if you didn’t run, your lungs would always feel this tight.

So you left.

You are always leaving.

One time in Idaho, you sat with your feet propped up on your back tire, coloring in an adult coloring book. A guy approached you and asked about your journey, gesturing to your New York license plates. You told him. He was impressed. Not many people actually do it, he said, and you thought that was the greatest compliment you’d ever heard.

Because you did it. You left, and it was worth it.

Home doesn’t mean what it used to. You’re not sure what it means these days. A place, a person, a feeling you get when you’ve hiked all day and the wooded valley ripples outward below you, like you were the single tossed stone that set everything in motion. You think it’s OK that home is nameless and undefined, a specter instead of a solid presence. You think it’s OK that your skin is restless. You think it’s OK.

A man at Mount Rainier stopped you as you passed him on your descent and told you that you looked strong. You smiled. He was right.

You are gone.

 

Memories Are Stronger Than Bone

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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

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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.

EarthWorks Institute

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Kids running wild, as they should, during one of EarthWorks’ summer programs. (Photo courtesy of EarthWorks Institute)

The quintessential American childhood is built upon exploration. We see it time and again in children’s literary classics, such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Bridge to Terebithia, and the Little House on the Prairie series. More often than not, the freedom of exploration is linked with the outdoors. Even when the kids are housebound, they often find a way to circumvent their situation—say, via a secret garden or an enchanted wardrobe—and hidden, natural worlds once again are theirs to pursue. Nature is the most accessible landscape for—to borrow a line from Dumbledore—the flighty temptress adventure.

I don’t need to tell you that kids spend a lot of time in front of screens these days. If you haven’t witnessed it yourself, then you’ve definitely been bashed with a dozen or more headlines about it. Like the debate on artificial sweeteners or millennials choosing avocados over houses, screen time for children is a hot-button issue that never lacks in “news” coverage.

It’s something Lindsay Cray has noticed, too. Lindsay is the Co-Founder and Executive Director for EarthWorks Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on connecting residents in the Greater Rochester, New York, area with the world and community around them. Typically this is done through developing a closer connection with or a better understanding of the outdoors. Although EarthWorks offers classes for a variety of ages, its emphasis is on kids.

“Kids are lost,” Lindsay told me in a phone interview. “I’ve met children who literally don’t know how to climb trees, or don’t know how to cross a creek. And I’m not talking a raging river creek. I’m talking a creek that’s five or six feet wide with stones to step on. I’ve worked with children who have stopped dead in their tracks in front of a small body of water and looked at me like, ‘what do we do from here?’”

Before dedicating herself to outdoor education, Lindsay worked as a research scientist studying facets of the human condition, knowledge which influences her work today.

“We’re not as far away from our primitive ancestors as we like to think we are,” said Lindsay. “Doing things like climbing trees increases your balance and also helps you become good at math. Being outside and learning how to push your physical limits helps you to control your mental limits as well. Kids who are constantly dealing with sensory overload don’t understand how to process information and that information can either be schoolwork, or it can be social emotional learning, or it can be critical thinking skills. They’re losing that because they don’t physically challenge themselves in ways that are healthy.”

EarthWorks has many programs designed to get kids reacquainted with nature. They offer courses in tracking, foraging, primitive tools, zombie slugs, and even a Jedi-themed summer program where kids will learn “the true power of the FOREST AWAKENED.”

And the programs are working.

Lindsay says that the response from participants—both kids and adults—has been overwhelmingly positive: “A lot of people tell us that the work we’ve done with them or their children has changed their lives, that the children have become people that the parents didn’t even realize they could be, or that it’s brought them out of their shell. Kids beg to come back, especially for our forest school and our summer camp program.”

In 2016 alone, EarthWorks reached 2,180 participants. They conducted around 700 hours of programs, 620 of which were oriented at children.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would’ve been a very different story if Huck had been given an iPad in the beginning. Forget building a raft. He could have rented a kayak and booked Airbnbs along the way. But where’s the rip-roaring adventure in that?

We need adventure in our lives, especially the wilderness variety. As adventurer and indie vanlife god Chris McCandless once wrote, “I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions.”

So let the kids run wild. A little bit of mud never hurt anybody.

(Interested in learning more about EarthWorks? Click here!)