Monday, May 27, 2013

sacred rivers.

San Juan River, Utah
Honaker Camp
May 22

When I'm standing in front of a body of water, I can brush my teeth forever.

The air is perfectly warm against my bare shoulders, alive with the chirping of crickets, the gurgle of river and a rustle of wind. I'm not getting paid much to be here, running a gear raft down the San Juan River with a school group, but the idea that I'm getting paid at all to be on a trip I otherwise would have paid for still astonishes me. It astonishes me that I walked into a pub and got this job; that I've managed to see so much of the world this way. It astonishes me that three weeks ago I was in a New Zealand rainforest. How is it possible to move so quickly from one world to another, from green rainforest to ocher desert just like that? Sometimes science fiction seems more plausible than reality -- Dune, for example, where the desert-world exists on another planet entirely. Here, it's mind-blowing that this is one world, one month in a lifetime of months.

Bats swoop overhead. On a muddy, serpentine river cut through towering sandstone cliffs, the sky becomes small, a misshapen canvas of moonlight outlined by the silhouettes of cliffs. The full moon traverses across this oblong patch of sky, and stars come to life in its wake. As with everywhere else I've been, this world is defined by water -- the lack of it, and the power one ribbon of water has to cut through eons of rock.

May 23
Camp three

Days on the river, long and hot, sun beating between canyon walls, onto the brims of our hats, into water thick and muddy. Our boats are small spots of blue against vertical cliffs of red. The sand blows hot, scouring everything. In the afternoon, when I'm tired from rowing, the sun drops behind a wall and brings shade, cool and beautiful, the colors of dusk painting the canyon walls in the middle of afternoon heat, the burnt red striations in the rock becoming hazy and soft. Fighting off a dehydration headache, drinking as much water as possible, I row the heavy gear boat in the back. I challenge myself, thinking about lines and form and technique. I mess up and get myself out of my messes with no one around to see. I try to learn. I get frustrated, landing on the rocks I want to avoid, and repeat to myself like a mantra: don't look at where you don't want to go. Focus on one line. Nervous before a big rapid, I nail it and surge with confidence, only to get stuck on a teeny submerged rock later on. There's so much time to think, but I think about little except the river.

From Siddhartha: "I am only a ferryman, and it is my task to ferry people across the river. I have transported many, thousands; and to all of them, my river has been nothing but an obstacle on their travels. They travelled to seek money and business, and for weddings, and on pilgrimages, and the river was obstructing their path, and the ferryman's job was to get them quickly across that obstacle. But for some among thousands, a few, four or five, the river has stopped being an obstacle, they have heard its voice, they have listened to it, and the river has become sacred to them, as it has become sacred to me."

Now, at night, the moon rises from within a canyon and illuminates the cliffs like a spotlight.  The moon-shadows of mesas on the cliff look like a city skyline. From deep within the canyon, desert frogs scream like pterodactyls.

May 24
Grand Gulch camp

Another magical day in the desert. The last four miles or so of river today were stupefyingly dull except for getting beached on the occasional sandbar, and I was prepared for a lackluster final camp. But Grand Gulch is grand indeed -- breathtaking, surreal. Spillover pools of clear, still water surrounded by oases of green, climbing in tiers higher and higher up a side canyon, each layer revealing a new world. There's more life and diversity in this desolate landscape than in the moisture-laden city where I grew up. I spend the final evening wandering around snapping photos and learning new flowers and cacti, birds and insects and lizards.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Eulogy for the Northeast

In an early morning fog on May 10, I set off down the street with my little Honda packed to the gills. The familiar houses disappeared in my rearview mirror, and the familiar road turned into a familiar highway. All this familiarity was made new by the feeling in my chest that I was not going to stop driving until 2,300 miles had passed under my tires. I would stop for sleep and gas and food of course, but I would be in the dreamstate of traveling for thousands of miles, and when I awoke, I would be somewhere entirely different. The soft green light and rolling hills and warm fog of New England would be replaced by red sandstone desert and rabbitbrush and towering mountains, and I would have another pin to place on the map of my life, another place to call home. I'm ready to stay somewhere for a while this time, I tell myself, and the western slope of Colorado sounds as ideal as anywhere. But as I drove through New York state, struck by its quiet, early morning beauty, I found myself again holding up the mirror of the place I'm choosing to go against the place where I'm from and trying, again, to reconcile my love for two disparate places. The West and the East.

Among the super-fit outdoorsy types who tend to settle in the mountain West, it's common to disparage the relatively tame, settled East. The rivers are bigger in the West, the wildlife is grander and the landscapes are more dramatic, but more importantly there's the issue of accessibility. More than anything else, it's what sets the east and west apart. As much as 80 percent of western states are publicly owned by the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, leading to large stretches of unbroken land open to outdoor pursuits like climbing, camping and paddling. In New England, the majority of land is privately held. As little as 20 percent belongs to the public.

It's difficult in the Northeast to pull over by the side of the road and simply walk into the woods. As Robert Frost asked, Whose woods are these? The culture of the outdoors is also more genteel (think New Hampshire's stately AMC lodges compared to California dirtbag climbing camps), and we have more people crammed into a smaller space. If you haven't been here – or if you've only been to Boston and New York – you might easily be mistaken in thinking that everything north of D.C. and east of Chicago is one big over-populated sprawl.

But though I don't know if I see myself settling in New England, I'm quick – too quick – to defend my homeland. I bristle when anyone says anything negative about the East. True, New England lacks the large-scale wilderness and outdoor opportunities of the West, but I think it's unfairly maligned. For example: while more than 80 percent of old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest has been razed by loggers – and that which remains is checkerboarded and left to a few protected reserves – New England is recovering from past abuses and is now 80 percent forested. Looking at a map of forest cover in the U.S., the region I call home is more lushly covered in green than anywhere else in the country. Some of this can be attributed to climate and an influx of people to urban centers, but it's also due to a sense of environmentalism and the actions of private landowners who care about their land. In the Northwest, the Forest Service needs to make money and does so by handing large parcels of public land over to private logging companies who are driven by profit. (Elsewhere in the West, it's private mining or oil companies.) While the straggly second- and third-growth forests of New England don't begin to compare with the majestic old-growth of the Pacific Northwest, it is more consistent, abutting people's homes and yards, stretching along roadsides, spreading through valleys and over mountains. It isn't relegated to a few protected strongholds. It's part of the places where people actually live.

And therein lies another of New England's strengths: the population is more evenly distributed. Many cities in the West were planned around water sources and habitable land, and populations are centered in big cities that radiate outward in ever-widening concentric rings. In the East, where the land is more forgiving, towns and roads sprung up in random disorder, a meandering, bleeding network that doesn't revolve around one large city but rather dissipates itself across the land. On one hand, this means fewer unbroken tracts of wilderness, but on the other, it means that people live more closely with the land. What we lack in raw wildness we make up for in intimacy, in having mountains and hollows and backroads that are ours to care for and explore. Just because land is privately owned doesn't mean it's off-limits – but you often have to be a local to know about it. New England isn't a place that's particularly welcoming for those who are just passing through; it wasn't built on mobility or transience, but on staying and spreading roots.

Soon, I'll be writing for a publication founded on the unique identity of the American West. I'm excited to explore new places and build a community and learn more about magazine journalism. But I'm also worried that working on stories emphasizing the singularity of the West will cause my instinctive defensiveness of my homeland to kick in more strongly and the line between East and West to become more defined, and I will have to live with part of my heart in one place and part in another. 

 The big flat

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

the beauty of simplicity.

Aldo Leopold: "Experience... is actually a progressive dilution of the essentials by the trivialities of living."

Life is more beautiful when reduced to the essentials. It seems at times like we are surrounded by superfluousness since birth, at least here in America. The accumulation begins when we're still in the womb, at a baby shower – so many things in so many boxes, and really, is the convenience of a new gadget offset by the inconvenience of organizing a house full of stuff?

Some stuff is unnecessary but beautiful – pottery, I think, and books and glass and art – and therefore necessary for its beauty. We need beauty. But so much of what fills our lives is just throwaway clutter. We think of ourselves as consumers, but really, it's our habits that consume us. There are people I love dearly who are convinced of the necessity of changing one's curtains twice a year, ironing the doilies, and keeping the exterior of their cars impeccably clean. They become stressed when they lack the time for these perceived necessities.

These, of course, are not earth-shattering observations. In an increasingly complex world, we are urged at every turn to simplify. But instead of actually doing it, we buy a magazine about simplifying our lives and add it to the stack of Things To Read, after which it's relegated to Things To Organize and Dust, and later, Things To Recycle. Rarely does anyone truly downsize: when we decide to get rid of something, we eventually buy something else to take its place.

Spartanism is an ugly alternative, though, and I certainly don't want it. There are few things I love more than going to a flea market and spending a morning pawing through other people's junk, marveling at the discarded bits of life that are sold and sold again, cycled through generations and across borders. I walked away from one last weekend with a cast iron pan – something I hope will last a lifetime, but I don't delude myself. Tastes change. Even while espousing against it, I add more clutter to my life with great enthusiasm.

And yet caught in the cycle, I pause. Past a certain point, more stuff unequivocally equals less time. Today I scoffed at my mother when she said she'd be happy living in a one-room cabin, but my grandmother – who is one of the people convinced she needs to do housework that I find completely unnecessary – defended the statement, reminiscing about the times she lived on the road for months in a small RV after she and my grandfather retired. She loved the simplicity of having everything its place in her tiny home on wheels; it was like being on a ship, where everything has a function and nothing is extraneous.

I've experienced this myself: traveling, to an extent, is an exercise in simplicity, living off only what you can carry on your person. I did it for years. But the truest example of this kind of beauty has come from my time with Alaska Crossings, when, for seven weeks at a stretch you live fully in the present day. Every morning you wake up and think only about the essential needs of the group: getting from point A to point B safely, finding water, gathering wood and making a fire, cooking food, setting up shelter, and sleeping. You move no faster than your own arms or legs can carry you. You live by the weather and the tides. You find water from the earth, and sleep under the trees. There are no bills to pay, no errands to run; no distractions from the important work of building relationships and living unobtrusively in the wilderness -- and somehow, the outside world carries on without you and you find you can still be happy.

In nature, as on a tidy ship, there is nothing without purpose. It's only during these times living in the bush that I've come to understand what's truly important and what can fall away as easily as a leaf from a tree, and even as I pack my car full of stuff to take with me to Colorado, I'm grateful to have had the opportunity. 

photo update

Back in the ol' U.S. of A. with unlimited bandwidth and I've finally added photos from my time in New Zealand. All the following blog posts from the past five months now include a few photos, and the last one includes links to even more photos from New Zealand.

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