Friday, May 20, 2022



Why Not Drive?



Bikepacking the Moki Dugway

 
These canyons share the color of a winter sunset.

The muted yellow, ochre, and red stone is a symphony of geologic time. Standing on the rim of this canyon, I can feel the passage of time through the ages. Wet sand transformed into hard rock to morph again into this canyon over eons. The molecules in my cells resonate with the vibration of rock solidified at the bottom of a vast inland ocean. I am one cell in the body of a living planet.

The walk up a wash in mid-day sun presses against me. Spring is the best time to be here. In a few weeks, the heat will be deadly. I stop to sit on a rock which felt older than the sand my shoe sifted into.

This rock is gray like my hair.

I observe the imprint of a worm that lived here ten million years ago. Its tiny body moved through mud and soft sand. Ten million years ago! What does that even mean? I can barely get my head around my own lifetime.


With each huff and puff, I pedal my way up and up and up these switch backs on my bicycle. I move through the strata of time as each layer of muscle presses into the incline of these monolithic canyons. I stop at a spot where a hole gapes within a rock, gapes so large that a full-sized car could fit inside.

I take walk.

There are drill holes where they placed dynamite to blast through sandstone to build this road. A red rock half my size but probably five times my weight has been moved, broken off from a cliff above my shoulder. There is a textured pattern. It’s not random. It’s been hand pecked into the rock with a small tool. A series of lines that zig and zag from one end of the rock to the other in a series of three switch backs. I’ve always suspected that this road was once a foot path from the river to the top of the mesa. The story of these switchbacks made long before the landscape was altered by the machinery of progress.

An ancient map.


I am often asked why I ride my bike in these remote out-of-the-way places. My response is always the same. “To get away from the noise and mind clutter of the ‘everyday’.” I say, “It’s so noisy in town and hard to see the stars at night.” There is something deeply spiritual that moves over the landscape with me as I travel under my own power. It is more mesmerizing than driving a car. My body moves, floats noticing the beauty with each bump, each push, each passing of boulder and forest. I miss too much if I am in a car. I can’t feel the microclimate shift from shade to sun.

The breeze on my face cools the heat inside my thoughts. The rhythm of pedal strokes soothes the turmoil.


I once cycled across a section of Nevada at night. The moon was almost full, but the light was diffused because of a thin cloud cover- a thin veil over the glowing eye of Sister Moon. A family of coyotes greeted me as they romped in the middle of highway 50- The Loneliest Road in America. In Basin and Range John Mcfee said Nevada was formed not by a pushing together of tectonic plates but a pulling apart. Like my skin, I am mirrored by the wrinkles in the Earth that trend north and south which have created this vast, desert landscape. It was summer, I was cycling from San Francisco back to Colorado. The top of the range was seventy-five degrees. The bottom of the basin was one hundred and thirteen.


It’s a great thing to cycle from the ocean to the top of a mountain over days.

The landscape changes by the minute.


I cycled across the high plains of western Kansas to eastern Colorado to the Rockies and the only thing I could hear was the breeze in the wire and the song of a meadowlark. There is no horizon because the land undulates. It’s like being on the ocean. The constant shift of the perspective gave me vertigo.


Australia is the driest continent on the planet.

There are deserts that have not seen rain in a hundred years. Once, I encountered a thundering waterfall from rain that fell 10,000 years ago. It made its way to the sea. People live out there. In fact, there are people that have been there for upwards of 70,000 years. They change and adapt as the climate and landscape changes with time.


I ride a bicycle to meet the people that inhabit these landscapes.

Kansas. One of the most conservative states in the country has some of the friendliest, most hospitable, and generous folks I’ve had the good fortune to meet. I have found churches unlocked in the middle of nowhere. A guest book and sign in the entrance telling me to make myself at home. A pastor in a small town invited me to sleep in her church right in the center of town one afternoon. It was a modern looking red brick building. I asked her if I needed a key. She said, I’ve never seen the key and I’m not sure there ever was one. She pointed to the sidewalk at a key embedded in the concrete and she said she thought that might be it but couldn’t be certain.


With no destination in mind, I cycled across the Yucatan peninsula once.

Deep in the jungle, I encountered Mayan villages where no-one spoke Spanish. Villages built around the cenotes formed a million years ago when Yucatan rose out of the ocean. The peninsula is made up of limestone, the skeletal remains of countless, tiny crustaceans. Sixty-six million years ago the surface was smacked hard by an asteroid killing off 75% of all life on earth. It cracked the limestone into a million miles of fissures that collected rainwater which now comes to the surface. It is clean enough to drink right out of the ground.



Cycling the length of the interior of Baja, I found small farming communities built around five-hundred-year-old missions. Figs, dates, and oranges brought from Spain prospered and grew fat and juicy around the springs where the churches were built from mud to make adobe. The tortilleras still build their open fires at about three in the morning to provide tortillas for inhabitants by the time the sun makes its visit.



The people in the small towns along the coast of Peru assured me that all the people in the next town up were thieves and murderers and asked me how I survived all the miscreants in the last town I biked through. The ride from the Pacific Ocean to the Cordillera Blanca in the Andes was less than one hundred miles. Snowcapped peaks at nineteen and twenty thousand feet rise out of the coastal sand dunes. It took me days and miles of switchbacks to reach the first pass. Exhausted, I managed to hitchhike with two Nuns in traditional white and black habits. They drove a brand-new pick-up truck carrying twenty-two cases of wine for their convent.

We threw my bike on top of the wine and

I jumped out at the pass at thirteen thousand feet. I rode my bike the last eighteen miles into Huaraz. It sits at eleven thousand feet.

Cycling has its drawbacks honestly. The howling wind, driving rain, blistering sun, mosquitos, and the miscreants I have yet to meet. Why not drive?

Maybe you need to go back and read from the beginning.



Monday, January 10, 2022

Self-Doubt and the challenge of adventure travel.


Self-Doubt and the challenge of adventure travel.


  

It’s 2:30 in the morning. I am awakened by a breath stifling pang of anxiety. “Are we going to do this?” This is the question that I often ask myself right before I embark on one of my long ambling bike rides.

Part of the problem is that I’m a terrible planner. I get an idea about a place I want to ride and go. I have significant ADHD. This is why I became a guide and adventure traveler in the first place. No desks and clocks to punch. I cannot sit still. This is not metaphor. I cannot hold my seat for more than about 30 minutes at a time. It caused problems in school and work. I’ve tried to plan rides and logistics, but it gets so garbled. I much prefer to amble anyway. Keeping to an itinerary can be stressful.
I wanted to write about getting past the hurdle of “self-doubt”. It is pervasive. Looking over the guidelines for Adventure She magazine is anxiety provoking.

My friends tell me I should write a book about my experiences when I start telling stories. I’ll try to complete an intriguing and coherent article first. 

I am also in recovery from drugs and alcohol. It’s been twenty-eight years since I’ve had alcohol or any other mind-altering substances. I follow a Twelve Step model. I’m not here to extol the virtues of one model over another. This is what has worked for me.

I mentioned writing this article for She to my AA sponsor. Her response was, “How interesting that you are calling it ‘Self-doubt’.” Emphasis on, “self”.

The model of recovery that I follow believes that "self" is part of our problem. When we get out of self (or ego), we have a much better time of it. A loving benevolent power of the universe is the one who has ultimate say in what we do. Some folks call it God. Makes it easy and there are fewer keystrokes needed to describe who and what I’m talking about. This God or "higher power" helps us in everything we do.

For us, God is omnipotent. This belief is not only about not taking a drink of alcohol or using drugs. It’s about how we live day to day. That this “God” has ultimate control. This can be a very hard "pill" to swallow for some folks. Pun intended.

This does NOT in any way mean that this so-called God pedals my bicycle for me. It/she/he/non-binary/ does not control the weather or even make decisions for me.

This also does not mean that I am absolved of any wrong doing on my part if things go south. Nor do I haphazardly step into something without first considering all the consequences.

Especially, in my professional life as a guide and mentor. It is also erroneous to believe that life is pre-determined. Where I end up is not set in stone or whatever it is they write on in God’s universe. Or is it? I don’t know. It's possible that I DO end up in a pre-determined reality. How I get there is my responsibility. It means that I do all that I can to make good decisions and let go of the outcome. God is also NOT a puppet master. I understand and believe this all to be true.

 

And still. There is an annoying voice in my head that I call, “K-F*CK radio. It plays all day long. It questions my decisions. It is suspicious of my validity as an adventure traveler, an athlete my competence as a guide.

 

When it comes to bicycle travel, I find the first pedal stroke can be the most difficult. One might think it would be the pedal stroke that pushes me over the seventy- or eighty-mile mark for that day. It isn’t. There can be a whole lot of inertia that gets in the way of that first turning of the pedal. This inertia resides in my head. It’s an unformed thought. It’s the radio DJ from the radio station attempting to thwart my success by stopping me before I even get started. There is also the physicality of the anxiety. It’s like butterflies on crack flying around in my gut. It can be paralyzing. Is that fear? 

 I’ve pushed past these moments of doubt. I turn my attention to whatever this God thing is and go. It helps to make a commitment. In retrospect, it looks like, “closing my eyes” and taking a leap of faith. I was a telemark skier for a long time. I got into telemark because that’s what I believed the cool kids were doing. My decision to learn was motivated by an outside source. We call that, “extrinsically” motivated. Didn't make it less valid for me as a past time but I wanted to be, “cool”. Turned out I was good at it. It changed my life. I learned that I had grace, was a real athlete. Western Culture tells us if we're not winning medals or breaking records, we are not real athletes. I wrote my master’s thesis on Telemark skiing. There is so much going on in the brain and body. So many new neuro-pathways being established. It would be impossible for it to NOT alter someone. Some folks might take it for granted. I sure don't. There is a sharp learning curve. I fell A LOT those first days. But I learned to commit to each turn. It's a very assertive skiing technique. To execute graceful and effective turns I HAD to commit to the fall line. I averaged about 80 ski days a year for about nine years. My friends and I used to joke about how to ski the steep scary stuff. “Close your eyes and point ‘em downhill.”

I became aware of the efficacy of commitment in dealing with fear when I was learning to lead climb.

Being on the sharp end of the rope feels daunting and a little terrifying. It is also empowering. There is a split second of doubt when it feels like I am stepping out into space with nothing to grab. As human beings we are at our core, animals. Our brains are hard wired to keep us alive. And gravity keeps us rooted. Going against this is counter to our basic animal instinct. Stepping out into space is the moment when I must commit to the move or risk a fall. There is no holding back. 

The  psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 

  writes about the psychology of, Flow States. I have a rudimentary understanding of this concept. It is when everything else disappears in that one moment and one is focused on the task at hand. He refers to it as, “flow states”. The fear is still present. But the doubt vanishes. The skill necessary is NOT equal to one’s level of competence. In the parlance of Adventure Therapy, it’s called the Adventure Experience Paradigm. It has a lot to do with neurobiology. Of course, getting too far out in the paradigm can cause disaster. In the case of lead climbing, letting go of THE IDEA of failure is success. Then I am reaching into space for an impossible hold. I put my fingers and toes on a tiny crystal. I am rooted to the rock.  It is a profound feeling. It is difficult to describe to those who have not experienced it. In the next split second, I am clipping my rope into the bolt hanger at my waist. Is it a sense of safety, success, endorphins, all the above? But I am now six or eight or ten feet above my last bolt. I don’t climb much anymore. But the same holds true for my many different endeavors. 

I stepped into guiding as a career in my early thirties. After 14 years in dead end jobs, I found myself in the Outdoor Industry. 

This is where self-doubt began to REALLY show up. “Who was I to be out there leading ANYONE?” 

My first gig as a guide was for a small Mom and Pop operation in south-east Utah. The course area was large and remote. It was all contiguous. We followed the seasons. We hiked from high country in summer to lower elevations in winter. We did not transport in vehicles. In all my years as a guide, it is still my favorite. 

My shifts were 42 days long with weekly resupplies of food and essentials. We met with Field support staff and planned our next week’s itinerary right on the trail. We hiked from water source to water source. 

Our field manual of policies and procedures was only 20 or so pages. Protocols for whatever disaster might befall us. The industry has changed over the years. These manuals are now a hundred pages or more.

It is impossible to plan for every variable. Lots can go wrong. But for me it has not. A tribute to my skill, plain dumb luck or a little of both? 

Understanding the difference between hazards and risk is helpful.

Hazards are objective. Meaning we cannot control them at all.

Examples are lightening, rock fall, wildlife etc. RISK is how to manage the outcome of the exposure to that hazard. 

I encountered lightening once that terrified me. I was in Wyoming working as an Outward-Bound Instructor one summer. We were in the Bear Tooth Mountains High up on a ridge. A weather front moved in seemingly out of the blue and quite fast. It caught us off guard.

Summer storms usually build over the course of the day and are most often seen in the afternoon. If climbing a peak, we need to be heading OFF the peak by noon. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in the Rockies. On this day we missed the mark. The descent took longer than expected. Getting caught in a high-altitude storm can be terrifying and dangerous. It happens. We can mitigate the consequences with good decisions based on all available information. Experience and research are useful. Inanimate objects can have predictable behavior. Lightning is a good example.


Rock fall, avalanches, wildlife, water features all have their own patterns. We cannot predict ANYTHING one hundred percent. We can make good decisions based on all the possible information we can garner. I am always observing my surroundings and watching for change in conditions. This can keep us “safer”. 

I know this and yet, there is still a niggling voice in the back of my mind. As though there was this other person present inside my head saying, “You sure about this? You are the lead here if this goes south it’s on you.”

There are volumes on catastrophes and disasters in the outdoors. There is also a constant feedback loop. Every decision leads to the next and so on. 

In debriefing every catastrophic event, usually involving the death of a participant there is a common denominator. A series of bad decisions. It is not usually one thing that goes wrong. 

Doubt. Is it fear, lack of confidence? It’s in the same category. A manifestation of fear? I’m not sure.

I am always questioning my decisions. This is where belief in God is helpful for me. Trusting that whatever the consequences of my decisions are, I won’t go through it alone. This is both liberating AND disconcerting at the same time. 

It's liberating because I know I cannot control everything. So, I don't have to try. A little bit of common sense and experience goes a long way. BUT setting off on some adventure without SOME training and preparation is a bad idea.

First principle of “Leave No Trace” is Plan ahead and prepare. 

How has self-doubt played into choices and decisions I’ve made in my own travels? How did I arrive at those decisions and how have they altered the course of my life? 

When has self-doubt saved me and when did it hinder me? 

For example. I was beginning to doubt the decision I made to cycle from Lima, Peru to Bogota, Columbia. Getting out of Lima on a bicycle was daunting. I found a route out of the city that looked like it took in small surface streets. I left at three o’clock in the morning to avoid Lima’s famous gridlock. I tried following a route on my phone to no avail. I kept the ocean to my left to navigate as long as I could. BUT it took me through the province of Callao. Next to Lima, Callao is Peru’s largest port of entry. It’s a sea-side city replete with a beautiful historic district. As the city has grown away from the sea, it has become a center of heavy industry. It is a major shipping port and the location of Lima’s International Airport. It’s very busy and parts are very poor. 

Forced away from the water by fences I had to cycle a few miles around the airport. There were entire neighborhoods of incomplete brick houses. I navigated convoluted streets, piles of rubble and empty lots strewn with trash. They say crime is rampant. By 6:00 AM the streets were filling up with people going to work and women pushing heavy carts with hot food and coffee. I stopped to eat at one such stand. People were very polite. If there were criminals with nefarious intent, I didn’t encounter any. Perhaps they thought me nuts to be doing what I was doing and left me to it. It took hours to get out of the city. There were suburbs and more suburbs and more suburbs. Finally, out of the city, I found a small fishing village and a place to stay that first night. The people were lovely. The coast of Peru is NOT very inviting. The water is very rough, the beaches rocky. Was I nuts? Am I a little naïve, too trusting? Am I lucky? DOES. IT. MATTER? Was God present “protecting” me? Or was I paying attention to my intuition?


Over the course of the next 10 days or so, I cycled as far as Huaraz in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru. Not very far as the crow flies but cycling from the coast up into the mountains took days… More days than I had counted on. In every village and town, I stopped in along the ocean, I heard similar things from locals. “What, you are a woman cycling alone?! Are you afraid!? How were you not robbed in the last town?!” “Cuidate!”, (Be careful) they said.

“There are murderers in the next town.” And on it went. 

I never encountered any murderers. But the anxiety began to weigh on me. I was too stubborn to turn back. 

Fear and doubt ruled by the time I arrived in Huaraz. I found an inexpensive and decent hostel to stay in while I considered my options. I found out that a Brazilian woman who was cycling solo had disappeared somewhere on the border. I was also following the news in Ecuador. The government was becoming more unstable, the economy in shambles. I stayed in Huaraz about two weeks. I was able to take a few side trips by bus to outlying areas to visit Inca ruins and villages. 

In the end I could not assuage my anxiety enough to cycle solo through Ecuador.

I ended up on a bus back to Lima and flew back to the US.

Did my doubts win out or my common sense? 

I continue traveling to many far-flung regions of the world on my bicycle. There is not much that can stop me. Covid put a damper on things and the dog I adopted in India keeps me closer to home these days. 

I don’t know if I will ever be free of “doubt” about my abilities. There is a delicate balance between “Doubt” and pushing the envelope. When Luke Skywalker was doubting his ability to raise the ship from the swamp, he kept “trying” to no avail. The Great Philosopher Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no ‘try’.” If I don’t at least move forward with the first pedal stroke, I’ll never know.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Benediction






How many people have used that title to describe rain in the desert?

 

 

I recently had the opportunity to meander across a section of the Utah desert. God, I love it there! I drove this time. I retraced in reverse a ride I took on my bike a few years ago. I rode my bicycle across some of the most remote, barren, and spectacular scenery I’ve seen anywhere in the world. The best part is from Blanding, Utah across to Hite Cove and across the river to Hanksville, Utah.

 

 

I stopped and camped on the rim of White Canyon. Carved from Cedar Mesa sandstone, White Canyon comes out of the foothills of the Abajo Mountains. It meanders its way through about 45 miles of sage brush and Pinyon Juniper forest emptying into Lake Powell. There are miles of side canyons and drainages that feed it.

 

Looking south I could see towering red cliffs of Wingate Mesa. It rained all night. A soft gentle patter on the roof of my camper. My camper is a Ford Escape. I removed the back seats so I can lay flat on the custom 3/8-inch plywood I cut for it. It’s long enough for my 5 feet four-inch frame. If the weather is bad, I can sit up and make hot coffee with the window cracked.

 

In the morning I walked out on an apron of slick rock about 50 feet above the canyon floor. The potholes were full of water, and it looked like water had run through the canyon in the evening. A rare occurrence indeed. Not sure if it's true but there is a theory about potholes water. Since it gets blasted by UV rays by the sun, the water can be safe to drink. I lay down prone on the sandstone and allowed my animal nature to drink right from a large but shallow pothole. It had the metallic taste that rainwater often has. It tasted like the desert.

I reflected in those moments that I had been there before. Several times in fact. I thought back to the days when I worked as a guide. This was part of our course area. Over the course of months and driven by the seasons, we walked. Much like the Ancient ones must have done. From the high country in summer to the low slick rock country near the lake. From the back side of Monticello across the entirety of what is now the Bears Ears National Monument. Crossing canyons, washes, and mesas. Around buttes and into the featureless landscapes of what we called, “Blow sand world”.

 

Arriving somewhere above White Canyon, we drank from its potholes. Deep within the canyon were long standing deep pools of water. I found more than one stone age tool along the way as we made our way up and over the towering red cliffs of Wingate Mesa. They once mined uranium ore in that area, and we would hike among the remnants of rusted mining equipment. The ground was strewn with yellowish rocks of ore. Wasn’t the safest thing to do but nobody told us otherwise. On we went. Down near where the confluence of two of the biggest rivers in the Southwest come together. The southern terminus of the course area. That was years ago now. My feet can no longer manage the kind of mileage we put in while carrying everything on our backs.

 

But I remember:

If one can be still long enough in that place, there will come the benediction of time.

As I drank from a pothole this morning, I drew a spiral on my forehead in blessing. I thought about the people I knew in that place all that time ago. A couple of the students I worked with and a few of the guides as well. Where are they now? Has the walking across this landscape altered the course of their life as it did mine? I know at least one of those students died. She was twenty-one years old and left behind a three-year old. I remembered her name and I said it out loud. They found her in an alley in Salt Lake City dead from a drug overdose.

 

So, what have I done since then? I continued wandering in the desert. My travels took me to the ends of the Earth. And I cannot get enough of it. This wandering. There will come a reckoning I suppose. I never have been able to make any money to speak of. My peers and the rest of the world moves on toward, “financial stability and some future in retirement.” I am still. I am kneeling at a pothole in the desert drinking rainwater.



 


Wednesday, December 2, 2020

A Recent Interview With A Local Public Library 

                           https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDj9QnNKFUs&feature=youtu.be





Saturday, August 22, 2020

What Prarie Dogs Might Teach US



What Prairie Dogs Might Teach Us






There is a colony of prairie dogs in the lot next to where I work. Sometimes when it’s slow in the office, I go outside and watch them from the night entrance of the building. It’s a door which is around the back of the complex. The prairie dogs’ antics are quite entertaining. As much fun as they are to watch they are also a vital feature in the landscape of the American South West. Much maligned by ranchers and developers alike, they serve a vital purpose. They forage and clip vegetation to maintain their habitats. This affects the plant species composition leading to more diversity of plant communities. The prairie dogs' constant excavations encourages penetration and retention of moisture.

They contribute to the mixing of subsoil and topsoil while redistributing minerals and nutrients. (NPS). 


I work at the local Detox unit. My work consists of monitoring clients who have been picked up by the police or are coming from the emergency room because they are intoxicated.  Some are detoxing from smoking or ingesting unhealthy amounts of illicit drugs.  We keep track of their vitals and wellbeing until they are healthy enough to return to wherever they came from. Many of them are chronically unhoused and addicted. Some are regulars here. It’s safe, secure, they can clean up (we often do their laundry or provide clean clothes). We provide food, water, juices, healthy snacks. Some of our clients show up after days or weeks on meth and have not eaten in days.  We can help with finding treatment programs if they are interested or refer to local Twelve Step meetings if they decide that they have had enough. Those who decide to seek treatment are the exception not the rule. Our unit shares the building with our local Acute Treatment Unit for those experiencing psychiatric or psychological emergencies. 


 My immediate supervisor is a friend of many years. We know each other from the recovery community. I am in recovery myself from years of alcohol abuse and drug addiction. We both think of ourselves as committed to service. 


Our conversations often turn to drug and alcohol treatment. In this neck of the woods there isn't much. 12 step meetings and ineffective outpatient programs is about it. "Bill" (not his real name), points out the window to the empty lot next to our building where the prairie dogs live and says, "That's where we are going to build our treatment facility". 

I smile and nod. A bulldozer and what I call, "other weapons of mass destruction" would wipe out my little colony in a matter of minutes.


In my years of working with addicts and alcoholics, there is often a common thread in all the stories I hear. It’s often a life of hopelessness and despair. People talk of feeling like they don’t belong, have no stake or ownership in the greater community in which they live. Outcasts, they exist in the margins. 


 When I had been clean and sober for about six years, I knew I wanted to find meaningful employment. Not that what I was doing wasn’t. I lived in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada of Central California. I worked as a landscape laborer and became an irrigation specialist. In my spare time, I drove my little truck up to the high country and cut firewood in the forest.  I sold it for extra cash. I also re-discovered my love for the outdoors. It only took a few hours to fill my little pick up with fire wood.  I spent the rest of the day wandering the woods with my dog, Buddy. 


After completing a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) course in Alaska I went to work in Wilderness Therapy. I started as a guide working in remote parts of southern Utah.  Eventually, I went to graduate school and became a clinician. The “Students” as we call them, who attend these programs are mostly adolescents and young adults. Some research suggests that Wilderness is a more beneficial and effective form of treatment than in-patient clinical treatment for a host of behavioral and other mental health issues. 


Nature is both harsh at times and beautiful. Our students are pulled from their dysfunctional routines at home. They are separated from family, friends and their devices. Life becomes very simple and ordered by the rhythms of nature. Many of my students report that after spending 6-9 weeks out in the bush, they feel a sense of well-being they did not experience before coming to a program. They gain wisdom about how nature reveals and balances itself. They learn about self-efficacy and emotional regulation. They learn that nature is a perfect mirror for healthy and un-healthy behavior.  


When their time comes to leave the program, many express reluctance to return to “normal” life. Huge public schools and shopping malls.  They say that “normal” is stressful, overwhelming. Most of these kids come from large urban or sub-urban areas. Their only open space is the local ball field. Their access to nature consists of artificial lawns or athletic fields manicured and sprayed with enough toxic chemicals to drown a battle ship. Not a single prairie dog anywhere. My students often express anxiety with the thought of returning home. More stressed than they had when they first arrived in the bush. There is good reason for this. Research suggests that our disconnect from nature is taking a toll on the human psyche.


Here is what I wish my boss and his superiors would understand. Indeed, the western model of mental health treatment in totality needs to recognize that it would be counter productive to bulldoze my little colony of prairie dogs for a building. A structure that further separates people from wind and sky. How do I explain that? Sitting inside a room under fluorescent lights with windows that don’t open is part of the problem. Our detox unit is lit with artificial lighting. There is one large screen television, 210 DVDs and a few windows that don’t open. I work three –ten hour shifts and that’s about all I can stand. We call our office, “the fishbowl”. We have windows on three sides that look out in to the milieu and to the doorways leading to the dormitories and bathrooms. We have Closed Circuit TV that monitors the dorms, hallways, entry ways and parking area. I don’t see the sun when I am at work unless I leave my post and step outside for a few minutes. 


There is a whole health complex and hospital across the street from this building. It’s less than ten years old and considered, "state of the art". It’s a modern hospital with all the amenities. It stands on land that once belonged to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. The building itself sits in the middle of what used to be prime elk winter calving grounds and later became pasture for grazing cattle. Now, these meadows and pastures are surrounded by miles of pavement and there is a subdivision with an array of residences. The remaining pasture is currently up for sale and will eventually become an ugly sub-division.  


The other day, I left the fishbowl and walked over to the backside of the hospital. There is a little contemplative garden and a “healing” labyrinth. Seems the labyrinth and garden design was “squeezed” in at the last minute. It's not easy to get to from the main part of the hospital. It's a long walk with no direct path or walkway. One has to navigate through a maze of various parking lots and zig zag the occasional sidewalk. Wouldn't be easy for someone in a wheelchair. The garden sits next to the ass end of the hospital where the generator, and heating and cooling units are. There is an artificial waterfall which is a nice touch. Research also suggests the calming effect of being near running water. The water fall is very difficult to hear over the din of whatever machinery is belching exhaust on the roof top.


I was there a day or two ago. It was a slow Sunday at the detox. I walked the labyrinth with the machinery as the background noise of my meditation. It's loud. I try to convince myself it's the sound of the river nearby. I did hear a little song bird above the din. I looked up into the canopy of the trees planted neatly in straight lines and saw a finch of some kind. And then it dawned on me. The hospital, the ATU, Detox, all of it!  Everything designed and built to keep us healthy is the very thing making and keeping us sick. Some might argue this is by design. But that is for another blog post.


The irony of sitting at a computer staring into a screen writing this is not lost on me. In my mind, there is a much deeper significance to the existence of a small colony of rodents. Aside from the importance for the ecology but more difficult to articulate is that their very presence right where they are is profound. Obviously, my experience of them is subjective and personal. The prairie dogs signify resilience and survival. Humanity is NOT the all important apex species it thinks it is. Destroying the colony for a building that is supposed to heal our damaged psyche perpetuates the problem. It only serves to illuminate our warped perspective on health. It magnifies our dependence on an artificial lifestyle and economy. 



Sunday, April 12, 2020

Covid 19 As Rite of Passage


Covid-19 and Social Isolation as Rite of Passage



Western Culture has become a casualty of consumerism. We prove and high lite our success as individuals and as a society in general by collecting “Stuff”. It makes us appear prosperous. We’ve made that a priority. Even the arts suffer in this way. Music, theater, literature. If someone isn’t making money from it, we don’t consider it worthy.
Let's look beyond the “science” of Covid-19 or at least what they want us to believe. It has cultural causes. We see species-ism at the root of this pandemic. The virus has made the leap from animals to humans. Species-ism is the assumption of human superiority leading to the exploitation of animals. It’s true. I don’t care if you don’t want to believe it. Really, I don’t! Do your own homework and find out for yourself.

As such, there are some who believe that western culture is stuck in a perpetual late adolescence. It's characterized by preoccupation with physical appearance, asserting independence, and feeling invincible. These in and of themselves are not harmful. But we have taken it to the extreme. Immediate gratification has become paramount. It’s “Me first and the rest of my community can go squat.” Bill Plotkin points this out in his book, Nature and the Human Soul. Plotkin goes on to say that in the cycle of life elders, teach and pass on ancestral wisdom. Many cultures consider this a sacred rite.
Children move from childhood and into full adults with guidance from grownups. But today even mature adults have fallen easy prey to the idea that “more stuff is better”.
Adolescence is also characterized by testing boundaries and pushing the envelope. This is how societies tend to move forward in their thinking. It allows us to move forward and evolve toward tolerance and acceptance. "And the children shall lead". Or something like that. But adults need to be present to offer guidance and pass on the "ceremony" of growing up.
There are some transitions that have survived. Mostly religious in nature. Bar Mitzvah, Baptism etc. A few secular ROP can be a bit hair raising such as Fraternity hazing. Some gangs have forced members into criminal activity. These exist because marking transition has always been important. They are a natural extension of any civilization. But we have lost touch with what is healthy, nurturing and fills the human desire for wholeness.
Rites of Passage can take many forms. Initiation, Ceremony and Vision Fast are important aspects of celebrating the transition from childhood.
Can the current pandemic serve as a “Rite of Passage” out and away from our perpetual adolescence? We are fasting from socializing. We’re staying home or otherwise isolating. The newLexusPorscheJeepGrandCherokeeFourrunnerSpecializedfullysuspendedcarbonmountainbike
is parked in the garage of the 12,000 square foot house you just built. You know. The one constructed on top of an ancientburialgroundelkcalvingareasimplybecauseyoucouldbuilditthere. And now, no-one can come see it or the new 80” wide screen T.Vs you put up in each of the four living rooms in said house.

There are generally three phases to a Rite of Passage. They follow in order as such. Separation. During this phase the individual is prepared through initiation into cultural norms for the experience itself. In more primitive cultures, children have already learned much about surviving on the land in preparation for adulthood. ROP initiation often includes ceremonies for purification and other spiritual practices. It may also be learning to endure the physical, emotional and psychological challenges of the solo fast. Participants are not only fasting from food. There is also refraining from all social contact. Contemporary western culture understands the “wilderness” as an absence of consumer goods, conveniences or being without cell service. The second phase is the fast itself spending time alone in isolation.  What the French Ethnologist Arnold van Gennep called, “The Betwixt and between”. Neither here nor there. It is a liminal space where one becomes ghost like, belongs to nowhere and no one. It could be described as walking the margins. This can last anywhere from 3 or 4 days to a year. This second phase might be the most difficult to manage for people, especially modern western society. The participant finds they have very little control of their surroundings. An individual begins to rely on their spiritual practice and relationship with whatever gods or spirits they may believe in. They hope and wait for a “vision” or if you will, for their inherent gift to be revealed.  The third phase is the return. When a seeker carries the knowledge of their gifts back to the community. All designed to help the society thrive.
In some ways we are all living this liminal space through our social isolation and doing without our conveniences. I personally know quite a few people who are relying on their spiritual practice to get them through this weird and wonderful shift. But this is making many people uncomfortable. And that is the point of a fast.
The Corona virus is bringing out the best in some circles and the worst in others. Profiteering, hoarding and price gouging to name a few of the worst. Charity, volunteerism, service to name a few of the best. But as the crisis fades into the dusk what's left? Will we learn anything? Will consumerism and bragging rights continue to be our motivation? Will it be business as usual? Will we wipe our brow and exclaim with a loud sigh, “Whew that was a close one. Glad I survived!” and go back to the business of sucking the planet dry to prove our worth? Will we find ways of making our addiction to consumerism look good? Maybe this time it will be different.


Wednesday, September 11, 2019


Staying Safe While Traveling Solo


Safety while traveling is often at the forefront of people’s minds. I believe that, generally speaking, it is pretty safe.  I mean shit happens all the time but the trick is learning how to mitigate the possibility of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Obsessing over the inherent dangers of travel is a waste of time and energy. Never the less staying safe gives us a much better appreciation for the places we go and people we meet. The all-inclusive cruise doesn’t pose too many safety concerns. It’s more dangerous to marine life.  Other than not drinking yourself into a coma or eating your-self sick, cruises are a safe bet. There is of course the family vacation. One or two adults and 2.3 kids drive to Disneyland over a ten day school holiday poses little risk. Except for being on the road with ten million other families or getting sick on the Tilt-A-Whirl, what can go wrong? That’s another post. 

An 18 year old on a gap year, a thirty something back packer, an adventure cyclist or a mountaineer all have at least a few things in common. One thing they may share whether they know it or not, is they want a transformative experience and to make it home alive and mostly unscathed.

I travel a lot. And I love telling stories. Sometimes people’s eyes  gloss over when I talk more about how quiet it is cycling across the Australian outback instead of the fabulous food I ate in Europe. Most folks cannot wrap their heads around why anyone would spend so much time, camping in the sand or the remote Cardon (huge cactus cousin of the Saguaro) forests of Baja Sur. 


But this is what I do. And I want to inspire others.
A common question often comes up. And a friend recently put it succinctly, “How are you NOT afraid to do that?” I used to shrug it off. But it’s a valid question, one worth addressing. It might sound trite to say, “I am a little scared but I just do it anyway.” And this is true. However, there is more to it than that. It is somewhat subjective. “Feeling” safe and “being” safe are two totally different things. In outdoor education we weigh the hazards vs. risk. Hazards are objective. The things we cannot control such as rock fall, lightening, and the pitch of a slope. Risk is how one perceives the hazard. We can even manipulate the “risk” in how we present a given activity. It might be the same part of my neurology that allowed me to become a street musician. That’s a little scary too. 

I am reminded of something a friend said many years ago. We hitchhiked around the country playing music on the streets. He said, “You have to learn to make yourself comfortable in the most uncomfortable of situations. You have to look confident that what you are doing is important and that you belong in that place at that time without question. That was easy. I grew up really awkward and socially retarded. I learned to compensate. Being a street musician was fun and lucrative.  But in the beginning I had to ask myself, “What if I suck?” The answer was that people will ignore me. Or throw money out of pity. But I didn’t suck and I don’t suck now! In fact, I’m really good at it. I can make a bucket load of money in a few hours at the right time and in the right place. It takes some strategy and can be hard work.  I had to learn to entertain not just play music “at people”. Engaging with your audience is the key to entertaining and making money. Because human behavior and attitude can be somewhat predictable, I learned to “read” my audience through keen observation and thus have more positive interactions.

The same is true when traveling. Engage with others, greet strangers, and let them know you “see” them. I believe people want to be seen and acknowledged. Westerners stand out in the rest of the world. No matter where we go or how we try to disguise ourselves, LOCALS KNOW. So you may as well behave as an honored guest in someone else’s home.

Travel gives us one of the most profound experiences life has to offer. For some folks that all-inclusive cruise is as adventurous as it gets. That’s fine. For them! I’d be bored out of my mind. For me, the travel IS the destination. Often just figuring out how to get from point “A” to “B” is the challenge, especially where you don’t speak the language.

I love the Spanish speaking world because my ability to speak Spanish is excellent. I once stayed with a family in a small village near the rural region of Petén Itza in northern Guatemala to attend a language school. It’s an area covered in dense jungle. Throw a rock in any direction and you’ll likely hit a Mayan pyramid or ancient stone structure. In fact, “Itza” is the name of the Mayan language in that area. The language school I attended taught both Spanish and “Itza”. I arrived on my bicycle having pedaled down through Yucatan and across Belize on my own.

Staying with the family connected us. I heard their stories, their struggles and joys. I learned the history of the place. (see blogpost) http://freewheelingfem.blogspot.com/2016/02/language-school-and-other-lessons.html?m=1

In fact, not that long ago, there was a civil war in Guatemala and one could NOT simply travel to remote parts of the country. It’s helpful to understand the history and economics of a place in order to gauge the relative security. The industrialized nations of the world have created economic crises all over the developing world. There is much resentment toward the West. People are often desperate enough to rob maim or commit murder. That’s a sad state of affairs and staying safe becomes paramount. The locals are often in just as much danger or sometimes even more. The migrant crisis in Central America is a good example.  Honduras and El Salvador are ruled by violent gangs, drug lords and thugs. Governments are powerless and corrupt. The people of Honduras and El Salvador are terrified. I was warned against travel through these countries. I met other cyclists who went anyway and others that took busses from Guatemala straight to Costa Rica. It would have been a crap shoot for me. As a solo woman on a bike, I wasn’t leaving it to chance. That part of my ride ended in Guatemala City. I’m just not that invested sometimes in how many miles I can crank out. The level of anxiety I would have felt traveling through those countries just wasn’t worth it.
The civil war in Guatemala ended in 1996 and the country side is again peaceful. However, the current local government was totally corrupt. This is what makes it sketchy for travelers. The adage, “A hungry man is an angry man” is very true. And desperate people take extreme measures such as committing crimes in order to survive. Tourists often bear the brunt.

 This small community in Guatemala however, found another way. The folks in this village created their own way out of the financial disaster caused by the thieving mayor and town council. There were several language schools that provided economic opportunities. There was even a co-operative of local indigenous women that made soap and shampoos that they sold to the big hotels across the lake. By attending a language school I was contributing to the local economy. The residents of the area understand how important it is for students to be and feel safe because their economy depends on it. They don’t take kindly to tourists being robbed or roughed up. So, they keep alert. They know who we are and keep an eye out. I had heard about a popular tourist destination in the Western Highlands. Some creep was harassing, robbing and even assaulting tourists. The local police were not addressing the issue. The locals who depended on visitors became fed-up. They eventually caught the guy and simply killed him. When police are unresponsive, vigilante justice is the order of the day I’m not saying I condone such things but at the end of the day a community’s livelihood may depend on it.
Sign in the market in Antigua. Basically telling thieves that shop owners don't wait for the police to arrive.

I had time to explore the village during the day but I did not go out after dark. There was nowhere to go anyway, it was a small village and I spent the evenings with my host family practicing my Spanish. I was able to stay relatively safe.
Traveling in this manner forces us to push past pre-conceived prejudice, breaks down walls and opens the door for building global community.
 I wasn’t brave enough to camp in the remote Guatemalan or southern Mexican jungle alone however. Crazy shit happens all the time. The day before I crossed into Guatemala from Belize an American woman was found murdered near the river. The story we got was that she was on a yoga retreat in the jungle, had taken the morning off and went to the river alone. When she did not show up by dinner, they went looking. I’m not naïve and this was very unnerving. I stayed at the campground on the opposite side of the river that night with some other bicycle travelers. There were armed, private security guards walking the grounds all night. It makes it sound like this happens all the time and the “Developing world” is very dangerous. That people should never travel and death is lurking around every corner. It’s just not true. These days Americans are more likely to be shot to death in incidents of random gun violence on our own soil.
When I mention that I like to travel to Mexico, the first thing I hear from friends (who often have never been there) is about the “drug cartels”. The truth is killing tourists is bad for business. And unless you’re buying illicit drugs on the street or anywhere for that matter, there’s little likelihood of tangling with a cartel.
I camped alone all through Baja, Mexico. And during an entire 17 months in Australia and New Zealand, I paid for accommodation maybe 6 or 7 times. I love camping! And Australia has the best wild and bush camping I’ve ever encountered. I felt very safe. There just are not many people around. They don’t have the gun violence like we do. There was one mass shooting in Port Arthur, Australia in 1996. The government launched an immediate gun buy back and amnesty program. They took thousands of guns off the street and tightened up their gun laws. They do have their share of wackos for sure. When talking with locals and telling them what I was doing, I was often asked if I’d seen the film, “Wolf Creek”. I guess it’s about a serial killer. To be fair, there was an issue in the news about a real serial killer that was trying to get released from prison early. He had murdered several people and kept their bodies in fifty gallon drums out in the middle of nowhere. I heard other stories about hitchhikers gone missing too. But I wouldn’t be dissuaded. I believe in the basic goodness of human nature.
Not even the wildlife in Australia is not what it’s made out to be. Sure, 23 of the world’s 25 most venomous snakes; salt water crocs lurking in rivers, billabongs and ponds, deadly spiders etc.  Feral dogs in India and South America pose more of a threat as much as anything. A basic understanding of animal behavior is useful. See previous blog post, “That Which Does Not Kill Us Makes US Stronger.”
Travel has changed much in the years since the internet has become so prominent.  It is easy to connect with other travelers, hear their opinions, get perspectives and read reviews of hostels, hotels, beaches and even whole towns or neighborhoods. Cell phones have made things a bit safer. For example, I had to take a taxi late one evening from Dharamshala in northern India back to my farm stay. About a forty five minute drive. I didn’t actually have any phone service but my driver did not know that. I pretended to make a call to where I was going. Then I set my ringer. It rang and I pretended to answer. I gave a description of the car and driver. Next time I’ll pretend to photograph the license plate too. As much as we hear about corruption in some parts of the world, the disappearance or murder of tourists is bad for business. I heard a story or two about locals taking on thugs and socio-paths for fucking with tourists when the police would not respond. Some of the details were grizzly. All in all, travel is safe and I recommend it.
Tips for staying safe.
Travel with others if possible. I don’t most of the time. But that’s me.
Be aware of your surroundings
Know the address and location of your accommodation.
Let the staff know where you’re going. Sometimes they don’t really care but all the same.
The large outdoor markets are a big draw for tourists. They’re also popular with thieves and other dishonest folk. Leave your passport, credit cards and wads of cash in your room. Carry small denominations of bills and coins. Carry a copy of your passport.
Stay in busier areas of the market.
Stay alert for an increase in the normal chaos. Shady people may create a diversion to capture your attention while they’re helping themselves to your wallet.
Haggle with sellers. Not too much however. Bargaining is a big part of the culture in many parts of the world. Not to do so can be seen as an affront. But remember, you are mostly quibbling over pennies or a buck or two. However much of a low budget traveler you are, to the locals, you still have riches beyond measure just by the mere fact that you are there at all. Be generous, it builds good Karma.
Many years ago when traveling in western Sichuan Province in China, I came across a large market. They were mostly Tibetans but there was one gentleman from an eastern city selling handmade, wrought iron door handles. A friend back home was building an unusual home so I wanted to buy him a set. They were already incredibly inexpensive but I knew not to accept his first price. That would be offensive. We communicated by writing numbers on a piece of paper. We went back and forth several times. When he finally accepted my offer with a dramatic nod of his head, I suddenly heard applause. I turned around to see twenty or so Tibetans looking on. They must have found my gumption admirable. I also received some pats on the back as I walked away with my little paper wrapped bundle. In the end, we bargained over about seventy five cents. But that didn’t matter. What’s important is the relationship of the buyer to the seller. It is very important that both parties are satisfied with the sale.
Once, when I was in Delhi, I found myself haggling with a kid over the price of a rickshaw ride. When we arrived at my destination, I realized how hard that kid worked. I had been a boorish schmuck! I paid him twice what we agreed upon and bought him a plate of food from a nearby vendor. It was still under two dollars. He was very gracious about it and his face lit up with his good fortune.
Don’t be a boorish schmuck! Don’t draw negative attention to yourself.
Be polite, be kind, and be open. As novel and anonymous as all the chaos seems, these are still other human beings trying to make it home to feed their families.
Learn a few words or phrases. “Please, Thank you, hello and where is the bathroom” are all useful phrases no matter where you are.
If someone beckons from an alley or store front, be cautious.
Be Alert. Carry yourself like you know where you are going, keep your eyes and head up. Scan the area. Of course you don’t want to appear paranoid.
For women:
Dress modestly (could apply to the menfolk as well). For better or for worse if you can’t dress like the locals, try to mimic what they reveal and what they don’t. Especially when traveling in more traditional countries. Decorum is always good policy and is respectful regardless of your feminist tendencies. Besides, who wants that kind of attention? I don’t!
As an older woman traveling I experienced things differently than a 25 year old might. Age demands respect in many cultures. I am often called, “Aunty” or in India was called, “Mother”. That was weird but nevertheless, age has its merits. I was often treated with deference. That was kind of cool really. Younger folks wanted to give up a seat on a crowded bus for me. Sometimes I took it. Sometimes in the bigger more modern cities, I would be ignored. This at times could be reassuring. The adage “Out of sight, out of mind” could come in handy. But I suppose one might argue that it makes me an easy target, because I might be mistaken for a pushover.
If you must go to bars: Find others in your hostel to come with you. The more the merrier. Keep track of each other. Try not to get falling down drunk.
If you must attend a rave on the beach or Full Moon Mushroom party DON’T drink the “Kool aid”. Really, unless you make it yourself, know whoever made it or you open the beer or wine bottle yourself. Careful of what you smoke.
Don’t leave your drink unattended.
Keep your ear to the ground. That means talking to and listening to others who have been where you want to go.
Be back on time. Some hostels lock the door at a certain time and you CANNOT get in. It sucks but that is how they keep their guests safe.
Pay attention to Department of State warnings and advisories. I don’t always follow what they say. I’d never go anywhere if I did.  I read up anyway before I leave just to have a sense of what I’m getting myself into.
Follow your intuition: IF A SITUATION FEELS WEIRD OR UNSAFE IT PROBABLY IS!!! I quit my solo ride from Lima to Bogota because once I reached Huaraz in the Cordillera Blanca I just could not shake the feeling of unease. I had cycled up the coast from Lima and met wonderful people. But in every little town I went through the locals told me that the last town or the next town was incredibly dangerous and full of murderers and bandits. I never experienced any trouble at all. I even left my phone on my unlocked bike a few times when entering crowded markets.
This leads to my last point. Sometimes you do need to trust that the universe will guide you. Despite your misgivings, fear, and anxiety just go! Maybe I’m naïve or just lucky to never had had serious problems. And perhaps someday my luck will run out. But until then, I will do all I can to keep traveling. I will meet remarkable people and weirdos alike. I’ll see and experience landscapes unlike any other. I’ll get to eat bizarre and curious food. I will travel through liminal space, transform and arrive at a new reality and consciousness.