Warmth

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The hardest part was always getting out of the sleeping bag. Every morning in New Zealand I’d wake up, cocooned in my own little heat burrito, and want to snuggle as far into the puffy synthetic lining as I could. The last thing I wanted to do was emerge out into the cold, take off my layers, put on my frozen-solid boots and socks and start to hike uphill. It seemed infinitely the better choice to roll back over and drift into that delicious kind of second-sleep you get when you ignore your alarm. It was comfortable in the sleeping bag, and I didn’t want to leave.

We delayed it as long as we could. We cooked breakfast in the vestibule of the tent, unzipping the inner door and sitting with our puffy coats on and our sleeping bags around our waists, trying to glean a little heat from the stove, or put ourselves in the path of the steam coming off the boiling water. I stayed in my sleeping bag to change out of my sleep clothes and into my hiking clothes, to deflate and roll up my sleeping pad, to pack my equipment into my backpack.  We delayed, we hung there, clinging to the comfort until we could finally avoid it no longer—we had to leave the warmth and venture out into the morning and what awaited us.

Being comfortable is stealthily dangerous, a silent killer. Being comfortable is nice, it’s easy.  Staying in your sleeping bag in the morning is nice, but it’s never going to be more than that. It’s never going to be dizzying or staggering or make your chest burn. It tops out at this perfectly lovely level of fine that gets stale after a little while. In many ways, it is worse for things to be nice and easy than to be bad. When things are bad, there is motivation for change. There is an impetus for movement. You are likely to strive for something better, for something different.  The unpleasantness of your circumstances makes this the obvious and only thing to do. But when things are nice and easy, that momentum is absent. There is nothing that is propelling forward motion. It is easy to be lulled into nice and easy, into comfortable, and to stay there well past the moment we needed to leave. When things are bad, when we have to fight through to make things better, we at least gain the experience of struggle, we are at least strengthened by the process. We get nothing from being comfortable.

On the morning of October 26, 2012, we woke up at 3:30am on a glacier.  The past 48 hours had been a grueling series of mental and physical trials that had left me drained and discouraged. Two nights before, we had stayed up through the night to brace our tent against 120 kilometer an hour winds that barreled down off the mountains and into the tunnel we were camped in. Every hour one of us would venture out into the frigid, unforgiving night and try to use one of the knots we’d learned to tie the snapped guy lines back together while we could still feel our fingers. The next day we’d had to hike several kilometers uphill onto the glacier, postholing through hip-deep slushy snow the entire way. When we finally arrived at the spot we’d planned to camp at, we had to spend the next four hours probing out a perimeter, building tent platforms and snow walls to protect our tents. Glacier camping required a far more elaborate camp-making process than just tenting on snow. By the time we ate dinner, it was 8pm and dark, and we crawled into our sleeping bags immediately afterwards, wasted of energy, huddling together to try to stay warm. It was at 3:30 after that night that we woke up, put on our crampons, headlamps, harnesses and avalanche transceivers, roped ourselves together in groups of four, and began to ascend Ashburton Glacier.

Others talked about it afterwards as one of their favorite memories of our time in the Arrowsmiths, the stars glinting above our heads, the silence of the sprawling wilderness pounding in our ears, the crunch of the ice beneath our feet, the glow of the headlamps up ahead, our rope teams like tiny constellations in the snow.

It was one of my worst mornings out in the field. I was weak and lethargic and miserable. It didn’t matter that we were on our way to summitting our first peak, that we were climbing on a glacier, that the peachy pink alpine glow was starting to hit the crests of the mountains above us as the sun prepared to emerge. I was sweating and freezing at the same time, my legs felt like crepe paper beneath me, and all I could think of was the warmth of my sleeping bag that I’d left behind.  With each taxing, carefully placed footstep, I was longing for nice and easy.

Too often we allow ourselves to settle for nice and easy, to settle for comfortable because we are trying to avoid the struggle. We are trying to avoid the difficulty. We are trying to avoid moving uphill in the dark and cold. We think that by not struggling, by not making ourselves get out of the warm sleeping bag, that we are doing ourselves a favor. That we are avoiding suffering. That we are happy. We think that nice and easy is something to aim for, something to aspire to. We allow ourselves to think that being comfortable and avoiding unpleasantness is as good as it gets.

It is an indulgence, an allowance, and the longer we let it go on, the more difficult it is to free ourselves from its grasp. The longer you remain in the cocoon of warmth, the less appealing leaving it becomes. We can convince ourselves that there’s no reason to move, no reason to change, no reason to bother ourselves, to upset the loveliness. The more complacent we become in the arms of nice and easy, the more sleepy and bewitched the simplicity makes us, the more we are selling ourselves short. The more we are settling. Nice and easy feels good but it doesn’t make us better.

Just before 7:30 am, we angled to the right to attempt the final pitch of our climb, our bid for the summit. Light had drenched our surroundings, the sun punching through a high-hanging layer of fleecy clouds in orange and gold. My rope team had been the first to leave camp hours before and we were the first to climb, one by one, onto the snowy knife-edge that jutted 2,236 meters into the sky.  We carefully removed our packs, planted our trekking poles in the snow and kicked out seats for ourselves, watching the others gain the final few meters of elevation to meet us. And though for the entire morning I hadn’t felt capable or energetic or enthusiastic, as I sat perched on the uppermost ridge of the glacier, I was filled with an elation, a sense of accomplishment and pride that seemed to overwrite all the struggling I’d done to arrive here. I wouldn’t have crawled back into that sleeping bag for anything. From our camp below we could see the mountains directly next to us, projecting directly up like saw-toothed walls. From the tip of 2236 I looked out at mountains as far as I could see in every direction, ranges beyond ranges stacking themselves in never ending snow-capped tiers.

I often have to remind myself in memory that the morning wasn’t just this unbelievable victory, but actually a fairly dismal endeavor up until the final moments. But sometimes you forget that when you look back. It was a struggle, and that was an important aspect of it, but you don’t get the sunrise over the mountains, you don’t get the soaring ecstasy if you stay comfortable in your sleeping bag with your eyes closed. You have to get out in the cold, you have to climb uphill, you have to work through your exhaustion and your bad attitude. You have to push yourself. You can’t stay still, and it’s not fine or easy. Not at the beginning or the middle or the end. You get the full range of the spectrum, from freezing and miserable to towering and triumphant. None of it’s easy and none of it’s fine. It’s worse than fine and it’s also better than fine. Stunningly, unimaginably, overwhelmingly better.

It would be simpler to settle for nice and easy, to stay in the sleeping bag. There is immediate gratification, there is warmth. There is no struggling, there is no discomfort, there is no discouragement. But there is also no triumph. There is no awe, no unbridled joy or boundless beauty. It doesn’t push you, it doesn’t make you better. It doesn’t propel your life forward in a way you never imagined.

And even if life can’t be that sprawling and blinding and ignited all the time, even if you have to spend an overwhelming amount of time in the trudging-uphill-in-the-cold-and-dark part, once you know that kind of life exists, you will never be able to stop chasing it. A life that challenges you and astounds you and demands of you everything you’ve got and then a little bit more. A life that’s sprawling and expansive and extraordinary.

Because there is a different kind of warmth, a kind that doesn’t come from wrapping yourself in down or synthetic fill, a kind of warmth that you create, that emanates from the deepest part of you, that stings and tingles and makes it a little hard to breathe.  It’s the radiance of the newly-risen sun on your face, the burn of exertion in your muscles, the glow of the bright white light in the hollows of your chest. It’s real and it’s attainable. But you have to get out of the sleeping bag.

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A Year In Review

I remember sitting on the plane to New Zealand with the distinct feeling that this was the beginning of the rest of it, the beginning of everything that came after the linear formula of youth. I was sitting alone in the middle seat, pointed toward a side of the world I’d never been before, pointed away from everything I had known up until that moment. The tingle of giddy excitement and anxious terror that heralds adventure shot up through my fingers as I gripped the armrest, watching Boston disappear below me. It was all out there, waiting. Yet to be.

I remembered this moment viscerally flying back to the United States from Chile last week, how it had felt to be on the verge. On the verge of everything that had just happened. It felt like the end in some strange way, though of course it was not. It was the end of the first year, maybe, but as always things would keep moving and something else would be next. I had that strange feeling I often get that time that had passed and the things that had happened between the two flights could not possibly map onto each other. I remembered that flight to Auckland like I had just gotten off it, and yet thinking of everything that had occurred between then and now made it seem like a distant memory.

I remember one afternoon in New Zealand when we were stranded at an organic farm in the Marlborough Sounds for a few days and after a false-start launch delayed by surly-looking storm clouds, we all took a hike around the cove. The trail was damp from days of rain and surrounded by dark, heavy pines and Justine was talking about Japhy, the main character from The Dharma Bums, a book she tried to read at least once a year. We walked back to the large sheep barn we were taking shelter in and Justine realized she’d lost her camera. She had insisted on going back for it alone, even though it was a long walk and it had started to rain, and not till months later when I met Japhy on the pages of The Dharma Bums did I understand why Justine came back a while later from her solitary walk, soaking wet and smiling so big it filled the entire barn.

I remember sitting in a hostel in Argentina with Marielle, using my Speedy Stitch to do surgery on the fraying back of my ever-present travel companion Bag of Wonders. She shook her head at me and told me to just buy a new purse while I tried to recall the steps that Colt had taught me after having to repair his backpack hip strap and various parts of our tent in the Arrowsmiths. I remembered his tall frame hunched over in our tent, parked on the banks of a river, making sure each stitch was even, slipping into his goofy seamstress alter-ego to amuse Connor and me while we tried to put away our third bowls of cold rice. I remember looking down at my own stitches on Bag of Wonders and knowing I was light years away from matching Colt’s handiwork, but that at the very least I was able to prevent my valuables from falling to the sidewalk through a fist-sized hole in the bag’s lining.

I remember feeling nervous but capable when my head teacher asked me to teach 90 minute classes alone to a group of ten students from each grade instead of assistant teaching in class with her like I’d been told I was going to. I thought of leading the girls’ nordic team on a warm up run of the course and going over technique tips and race strategy. I remember having the same feeling of purpose, of exhaustion but satisfaction in the classroom and on the trails. I remember thinking that no matter where they grow up and no matter what they’re doing middle school kids are essentially the same, all a little unsure of themselves and funnier than they realize.

I remember sitting on my bed in my house my senior year of college, spiraling into a panic while everyone I knew put on suits and went to career fairs and practiced case studies, feeling like I was suddenly being thrust into something I hadn’t prepared for and didn’t want. Why hadn’t I gotten internships during college summers? Why didn’t I own business heels? Was this all there was after graduation?

I remember sitting in an international phone booth in Chile interviewing for a job that did not require a suit or heels, calling effortlessly on my past experiences to answer questions and realizing that everything I had done in the past had counted, had led me to this exact spot, had in fact better prepared me for this job than any internship could have.

I remember standing outside in the driving rain at four in the morning at our snow camp with Colt and Jared, trying to fix our tent so it wouldn’t be claimed by the angry winds. I remember standing in my driveway as a light snow fell in December and feeling like I didn’t want to or know how to go inside. I remember yelling and crying as my parents and I tried to figure out how this whole living-at-home-after-college thing was going to work. I remember getting dropped off at a random street corner in ninety-degree Calama with Marielle after a creepy, sleepless overnight bus ride and having no idea where the bus terminal was. I remember spending four hours waiting in the cramped, noisy extranjería in Santiago waiting to pay a fine for my visa. I remember checking my email one day at school in Copiapó and discovering that my great aunt Angela had died and I hadn’t gotten a job I’d interviewed for in the same minute and a half. I remember having a panic my last week in Chile that I was making a huge mistake by leaving. I remember looking at my flight confirmation in the airport in Santiago as I was leaving and realizing that I’d missed my plane and would need to dig into all of my savings to get myself home. I remember feeling miserable, confused, frustrated, scared, disappointed, and lost. I remember feeling that maybe I had made a mistake in choosing this uncertain, nonlinear path, and wouldn’t it be easier if I were just living in an apartment with a full-time job somewhere.

I remember creeping out of my tent in the early morning clutching my sleeping bag to watch the sun rise over Lake Ohau with Justine and Colt and Babalu, I remember the overflowing pride as my middle school skiers crossed the finish line at their state meet, I remember feeling like I’d been punched in the gut when Marielle and I rounded a corner in Glacier National Park in Patagonia and were suddenly staring up at Monte Fitz Roy, I remember laughing until my jaw hurt playing the Chair Game with my students in class, I remember hiking to the top of one of the many mountains surrounding Copiapó with Natalie and Diego, gazing out over the sprawling Atacama desert. I remember feeling exhilarated, awestruck, joyful, accomplished, fulfilled, and lucky.  I remember feeling that I was in the right place, doing the right thing.

I remember while in Chile in 2011 reading a book called Even Silence Has An End, by kidnapped 1990s Colombian political candidate Ingrid Betancourt. Held captive in the Colombian jungle by guerilla forces for six years, she used her prior knowledge of needlepoint to keep from losing her grip on reality. She wrote, “Now I realized that life supplies us with everything we need for the journey. Everything I had acquired either actively or passively, everything I had learned either voluntarily or by osmosis, was coming back to me as the real riches of my life…”

I remember realizing that everything counts, that everything we do somehow contributes to who we are as people, to what we do and where we go and who we are next. That what we do inherently informs what we do next, that we cannot stop everything around us from shaping not only our present experience but also our future experiences. If we do things for the right reasons, for reasons that feel true and organic and necessary, those things will naturally lead us to the next right thing. Everything builds off everything else. Nothing we do mindfully is useless or pointless.

I remember sitting on the chair on the back patio of my house in Copiapó reading The Dharma Bums before the sandy mountains that looked blue in the morning light, and Ray saying “I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted.” I remember smiling and knowing that it had been true all year and it was still true now, looking forward.

The Brochure

It was yesterday, as I found myself running around Santiago alone, trying not to get simultaneously deported and kicked out of my English teaching program, that I was hit with a vivid image of my NOLS kayaking instructor Ben looking out at a swollen, terrifying sea and proclaiming in his booming voice “Now THIS is the brochure!” Due to his Australian roots, the word sounded like “BRO-shuh,” and due to his slightly untraditional vision of the NOLS brochure, what we were looking at appeared to be a completely impossible situation.

We had spent most of the kayaking section “lily-dipping” through flat water, letting the sun tan our forearms and experiencing little resistance whatsoever from the elements. Instead of feeling like we were unwelcome trespassers in Mother Nature’s backyard, as we would later, she seemed to us a genial, nurturing hostess cradling us in her aquamarine arms.  It seemed impossible that clear skies, calm water, and bright yellow boats couldn’t be considered prime Brochure conditions, but the nicer the weather got, the more Ben seemed to call out across the water to the fleet, “WHERE’S THE DAMN BRO-SHUH?!” It was merely funny at first, one of the many amusing Ben-isms, but it became clear later why it was that Ben was inciting Mother Nature to bring it on.

It was a few weeks into the course and we found ourselves hitting our first major weather system—the clouds had been growing throughout the morning and less than a kilometer away from our destination we came around a corner and were blasted with an intense current, swelling waves and cold rain. I watched from my kayak as Ben gave a “cut it” gesture to Sally, our other instructor, and we were immediately instructed to get off the water. We pulled the boats onto a small beach in the cove we were floating in and watched while Ben paddled out into the open ocean around the corner to test the waters. Though a fiercely powerful rower, Ben was still unable to gain any ground against the strength of the water, and returned to the beach after a few minutes of effort, shaking his head at Sally. We went in shifts to the top of the leafy ridge to check the ocean on the other side of the cove, watching the whitecaps roll into shore. Finally, after what seemed like a soggy, cold eternity, we saw that the water had calmed enough for us to make a break for it.  As fast as we could, we got the kayaks into the ready position, pushed them out into the water, and hopped in. What we would face around the corner of the cove would be like nothing we’d seen thus far, nothing like what we felt prepared for.

The second we turned the corner, we ducked our heads down against the driving rain, trying to maintain our heading. Paddling became like pushing plastic through hardened concrete, and any attempt at communication between boats seemed to get lost in the wet, gray air. At some point I looked over to my left and saw Ben in his kayak, beaming at us and to himself. His Brochure had certainly arrived, though we hadn’t yet figured out why on earth that could be a good thing.

Nearly seven months after kayaking into the current in the Marlborough Sounds, I found myself speedwalking through throngs of Chilean businessmen on their way to work, starting to sweat a little and wondering if I was about to have to get on a plane back home. I’d spent the morning running in my business casual outfit first ten blocks in the wrong direction, then twenty blocks back to the Banco Estado where I had to pay my visa fine, and then to the extranjería where I would attempt to register the visa for the second time. Due to arriving in Chile over a month before my teaching assignment began and not being able to register my visa within the required thirty days, I was now experiencing the veritable roller coaster to hell that is bureaucracy. I’d spent four hours the previous Friday sitting in the extranjería waiting to file for my late-registry sanction, at which point I was told I’d have to pay a fine, but I had to do it at a particular bank, and I wouldn’t be able to do it until the next Monday because all the banks were already closed. I’d spent Monday morning trying to pay the visa fine before it got any higher and subsequently skipping the first several hours of my teaching orientation to do so. At the time, trying not to get deported seemed like a valid reason to miss a few introductions and housekeeping items. After walking 2 kilometers out of the way, then waiting twenty minutes for the bank to open, and then waiting another thirty in line, even at 9:30 the morning was off to a bit of a dismal start. As I was walking out the door to head to my orientation thirty minutes late, I read on the bank form that failure to register the visa within three days of paying the fine would result in more fines. Deciding to cut my losses with the orientation, I speed walked back to the extranjería to attempt to register for a second time. After two hours waiting in a cramped, poorly lit waiting room with Chilean daytime TV blasting at a jarring volume, I arrived at the counter to be told that I was missing important photocopies I hadn’t been told about and that they couldn’t do anything for me until I had them. Though up until that point I’d maintained a pretty positive attitude about everything that had been going on, feeling good about my ability to navigate the bank and the extranjería and a good deal of the Santiago streets in Spanish, this hit felt a lot like turning a corner and being blasted by a 3 knot current. Little did I know that the rain hadn’t even started yet—that in only a few more minutes I would arrive late to my teaching orientation and be told that failure to show up to any part of the mandatory training was grounds for dismissal from the program.

As I walked from the extranjería to the training center, I tried to practice deep breathing, tried to visualize that bright white light in, that black smoke out, and tried repeating over and over that I couldn’t control the raging storm going on around me, that I could only control my reaction to it. And that stressing and getting twisted up in knots would not change anything expect my experience of all of this, and that the decision to breathe deeply and think calmly was just as available to me. I was then reminded of another nugget of NOLS wisdom, one of the seven leadership principles that I had experienced many times on my semester in New Zealand and that I was unquestionably experiencing now. I could see the words written in the little yellow handbook we were all given on the first few days: Tolerance for Uncertainty and Adversity.

My first turn as Leader of the Day came near the end of our kayaking section—Ethan, my co-leader, and I had planned relay races, games and other fun activities for what we expected to be a relatively easy move on the water. Things had gone smoothly for the entire journey, until we pulled up at what was marked on our charts as a campsite. Justine and I hopped out of the boats to inspect the site, finding a place to store the boats and to set up tents and tarps. It became quickly clear that the spot was uncampable—overtaken by vegetation, hilly, and without a discernable fresh water source. We consulted the chart and found two other nearby camping options, so we rounded the boats back up and set out to try our luck at the next spot. Two more times we pulled up to a beach, hopped out of the boats, and determined that what was supposedly a previous campsite of another NOLS group was actually inhabitable. Ethan and I decided to take a beach break to figure out what the heck we were going to do, feeling the responsibility of the entire group on our shoulders. It didn’t help that it was overcast and cold, and that the morale and energy of the fleet was quickly waning.  I tried not to let the guilt and disappointment in myself that was starting to creep up on me take over as we poured over the chart, feeling as though I’d certainly failed the group as a leader. Ethan and I decided that our best option was to kayak three more nautical miles to what again was only possibly a campable spot.

When we finally arrived, everyone drained from the difficulty and the ups and downs of the day, we found ourselves engaging in what Ben referred to as “combat camping” – a fight against the encroaching tide to stay dry on the tiny sliver of beach. After setting up our tarps we all gathered in a circle to do the daily debrief, a discussion of what had gone well and what could be improved upon for the leadership of the day. I sat next to Ethan, prepared for us to get reamed out for leading the group astray not once, not twice, but three times, and waited for what our feedback would be. To my shock, the group and the instructors commended us for being able to roll with the punches, for being able to re-strategize when things didn’t go according to plan, and to deal with unexpected challenges in a calm and competent manner.

Remembering this phrase, Tolerance for Uncertainty and Adversity, as I walked home from orientation alone, having been pulled aside to be reprimanded for skipping and still not having sorted out the visa problems, I felt my heart rate slow, my breath even out. I imagined Ben looking at the situation I was in and saying, “Now THIS is the Bro-shuh!” I knew the reason that he’d wished to provoke the wrath of Mother Nature, the reason that a day that seemed like complete catastrophe had been reason for praise, was because the Brochure, the Uncertainty and Adversity, those are the places we grow. Those are the places where our abdominals strengthen from paddling against a forceful current, those are the places where our independence and competence soar, those are the places where we learn to keep breathing deeply as we walk even when things around us are spiraling into a tangled wreck. Navigating difficult seas, remaining calm and clear-headed in the face of uncertainty and adversity—the image of that, that is the Brochure. And though it may not look like the pretty picture we’d wanted, may we all be lucky enough to experience it, and to keep paddling right through it.

belonging

There is a saying that ignorance is bliss and it is bullshit. It is true, but it is bullshit. It’s a cop-out, it’s an excuse for bad behavior. And in the case of the planet we live on, it’s fatal.

I have spent most of my life loving the outdoors. I climbed my first mountain when I was five, put on my first pair of skis when I was eight, and grew up in a house where the backyard was the primary babysitter. But I have also spent most of my life drinking things out of plastic bottles, turning on my car a few minutes early in the winter, absentmindedly leaving lights on, buying new things instead of fixing old ones. It was too easy to be ignorant, to conveniently separate the trees and mountains and lakes I loved from the habits I’d fallen into.

It was easy until I wasn’t walking on pavement, until I wasn’t sleeping inside permanent walls, until there wasn’t a trashcan to throw things into. These things are common necessities in everyday life, but they are blinders. Once they had fallen away it was clear that this was it. This was where we were from, this is what we had, this is what belonged to us—and what we belonged to.

I had been out in the field with the National Outdoor Leadership School for over a month when the blinders came off, when my compartmentalization stopped being an innocent oversight and started feeling like a blustering act of destruction. We were camped in a valley at the base of the Ashburton Glacier on New Zealand’s South Island, waiting out a snowstorm for our re-ration helicopter to arrive. The grassy braided river valley we’d descended into the day before was now draped in snow, the sky thick with flakes the size of dandelion heads. Having used up most of the food from the previous ration, we were supposed to spend the day in our tents, burning as few calories as possible, making strange soups out of the dregs of our spice kits.

But we were not spending a semester out in the wilderness because we liked to be inside. The storm was a calm one, with almost no wind and temperatures hovering just below freezing. I crept over to the tent my friend Justine was hunkered in and whispered through the tent wall to ask if she wanted to take a walk. We took off in the opposite direction of the glacier, letting the snowy grass soften our footfalls, handrailing the branches of the river we were camped next to. The silence of the falling snow in the enormous valley seemed infinite and impossible. We stopped when the river banked out and we would have had to climb or cross to continue. For a few moments we just watched the water moving, the only sound in the whole valley. We had spent a lot of time on the semester thus far sitting in spots alone and meditating, and staring at the water for even a few moments seemed to almost induce a meditative state. Watching its continuous motion over rocks and sand and around corners slowed the mind and the pulse, matching the easy rhythm of the river.

It occurred to me then, as obvious but overlooked things sometimes do, and as it would many more times before I left New Zealand, that we were nothing but guests here. The water in this river would move in exactly the way it was moving now whether we were here or not—and not just whether Justine and I had traveled to this particular spot on this particular day or not—but whether we as a human race were here or not. The water in this river was not here for our convenience, for our purposes—it was here all on its own, with no other original intent but to keep moving. I looked up at the towering mountains shielding the valley, at the vast white glacier behind us, at the gray sky spilling snow. It was all here regardless of us, independent of us, and at this point, despite us.

Later that evening, all twelve of us huddled inside the four-person tent to have a debate about mining conservation lands in New Zealand. It was supposed to pertain to a specific piece of current legislation in New Zealand , but the debate ended up spiraling into a discussion of conserving land in general, of what our responsibility was as humans to the land

“Where do you think the materials for your cell phones come from?” Our instructor Jared asked us.

Where do you think everything comes from? Where does every piece of material for everything we use everyday come from? It comes from the earth. It comes from things that existed independently of us, that we decided to use for our own convenience. That we decided were put here for us to use. That we decided belonged to us.

And as the debate continued I got quiet, thinking of watching the river move earlier in the day. Thinking of the snowy saddle we’d kicked steps up the day before to get here. Thinking of the sky hanging over us. Thinking of all the different kinds of grasses we’d walked on. Thinking of not just the mountains surrounding our campsite but of all the mountains I’d ever seen, of all the mountains I’d ever loved. And I knew then that the walls of the system of compartmentalization I’d been using had just crumbled. I could not have spent three months out here, in the only place that can be fairly called “the real world” and go back to act as I had before. To pretend that the actions of one person among billions didn’t matter. To act like I didn’t have a responsibility to protect the places I loved—to protect my home. And not just the conservation lands, not just the wilderness—but the air and the water and the planet as a whole.

Everything in the frontcountry, as we called it out here, was put in place for our particular use, to make our lives easier, for our purposes only. Roads, gas station mini-marts, supermarkets, car dealerships, Apple stores. At what point had the fact that the human mind could engineer a smart phone become more amazing than the fact that trees and rivers and mountains somehow existed in their own right?

When I came back to the U.S. after my three months with NOLS, I began coaching the middle school ski team in my hometown. I remembered my own time on the team with a visceral clarity.  When I was in middle school things had been simpler, quieter. No one had cell phones, no one had any kind of social media. We did ski team because we loved the snow, we loved the outdoors, we loved a sport that didn’t cram us inside the sweaty school gym. The team was co-ed, which in the sixth through eighth grades was just about the thrill of a lifetime. The bus rides home after practices and races were almost better than the actual sport itself, a time we spent playing games and talking about things and developing crushes on each other.

Coming back to the middle school cross-country ski team ten years later was something entirely different. Not only had AOL instant messenger, the main form of communication in 2003, been all but rendered obsolete, but also every other method of connection had been ramped into high gear. Most of the athletes had iPhones, on which they had access to their Facebooks, Twitters, Instagrams, and Pinterests. They spent the bus rides Snapchatting each other and taking pictures of themselves, of hacking into each other’s various social media accounts. Gone were the days of bus trivia and hand games, gone were the days of being only connected to the people on the bus at that moment. Channels to the outside world had been opened, and a little of the magic had been lost.

But what worried me most was not the loss of the bus culture that had been such an important part of ski team for me—what worried me most was the seeming loss of connection between the athletes and the environment in which they participated in their sport. And obviously, in 2003 we still got cold and we still wished there weren’t so many hills on the course, but for me at least, there was a certain thrill in that feeling of icy chill at the start line, of the quiet moments coasting through the woods when no one was watching, of the inherent link between the sport and the environment.

On the third and final section of my NOLS semester, spent backpacking in the Ahuriri conservation area, our instructor Andy gave a lesson on the six ecological principles and the interconnectedness of nature. Interconnectedness was the antithesis of a compartmentalized attitude about nature and the environment. It said that everything we did, everything we were, was connected to everything else. There was no such thing as loving the outdoors and not molding your actions to reflect that love.

But even more than that, what it demonstrated was that though as someone who loves the outdoors I had no excuse not to do everything in my power to protect it, acting in an environmentally conscious way was not a luxury. It was not trendy, it was not something that only people who like chucking themselves into the backcountry for three months at a time have a responsibility to do. Interconnectedness means everything is connected—everybody is connected. Every single person that exists on this earth has an equal responsibility to protect this planet and its resources.

We spend so much time assuming that everything on this earth belongs to us—its trees for our oxygen, its waters for our navigation, its land for our repurposing, and forget that we belong to it. We belong to this planet in a way most of us like to forget, while we mindlessly consume and destroy and ignore.

And while everything that we are doing now to reduce our impact, to change the way we power our worlds is of course crucially important, I realized that though caring about the environment is not a luxury or a political belief or a pet cause, it is extremely difficult to make people do anything about something they don’t care about.

At the end of practice the other day I stood brushing my skis off, watching the sun sink behind the trees, casting a golden afterglow on the snow around us.

“Will you look at that?” I said to the kids standing around me, thinking to myself for the thousandth time how lucky I was to have a job that allowed me to stand out on a snowy hill and watch the sun set every day.

A few turned to briefly glance at it, but most kept shoving their skis into their bags or texting on their phones, asking what time it was and when the bus was getting here.

Doing everything we can now to find new sources of energy and reduce our consumption and repurpose old things is pivotal and overdue. But raising a generation of kids who grow up with their faces shoved into high-def screens and fail to create a personal relationship with nature is raising a generation of people who will do nothing to protect it. We protect what we love. And so maybe inspiring each new generation to love and feel connected to nature is just as important as finding different ways to power our cars and heat our homes.

Everybody belongs to the earth. Not just outdoorsy folk or liberals or hippies or environmental activists, or eco-gypsies, as my brother referred to me in my birthday card this year. But also people who spend most of their time indoors, people who hate the cold, kids who are growing up in their living rooms instead of their backyards. They belong to it too.

You don’t have to spend three months on the wilderness to start appreciating the earth, to start acting consciously (though it certainly does the trick). Go outside for a few minutes. Breathe in the air, taste its crispness. Stare at moving water for ten minutes, and let your heartbeat match its rhythm. Play in the snow. Take a walk in the woods. Lay in the grass.  Feel the sun on your face, the wind on your skin. Acknowledge your place in the interconnectedness. And pass it on.

Time to Grin and Brace It

It was four in the morning, it was sideways-sleeting, and the tent-pole-cup was broken. I stood huddled in my rain gear, aiming my headlamp down at my tentmate and my instructor who were laying sideways on the icy snow, trying to speedy-stitch the stirrup back to the tent body before they lost all dexterity in their hands. It was four in the morning and I was supposed to be snuggled up in my sleeping bag inside the tent, but instead I was outside getting pelted with rain on the side of a snowy mountain, the blackness around me increasing the sense of being in the absolute middle of nowhere. It was at this particular moment that I began to question what the hell it was I was doing there, why someone would intentionally volunteer to put themselves into this kind of situation, and when the hell we were going to be able to crawl back into the warm(ish) dry(ish) tent. The answers to the first two questions seemed uncertain, and the answer to the third was not until we had fixed the tent.

It was October 16th. We had been out in the backcountry of New Zealand for over a month and yet this was the first moment I’d experienced that had been such a forcible reminder of who the boss was out here. If slanting, freezing rain and gigantic wind gusts hit your tent all night, no one was going to call it off. No one was going to spare you. No one was going to fix it for you while you rolled over and went back to sleep. You had to wake up, put on your rain pants and rain jacket and fix the tent yourself—lest you all be blown off the mountain when the tent poles snapped.

We had spent the hours leading up to the fateful tent-pole-cup disaster in a state of bleary-eyed flux between trying to fall back to sleep and snapping upright to brace the tent poles when a gust shot over the mountains and ripped its way through the valley we were camped in.  The intensity of the volume of the wind shaking the tent and the pressure of the walls pushing down onto your shoulders and neck seemed almost too great to be believed. The patheticness of the tent in the face of the power of the wind was so absurd it would eventually become funny, but for now, we just braced, laid back down, braced, laid back down, and braced, in bewildered, exhausted silence.

We had been lulled into a false sense of security on our first month of sea kayaking, treated to brilliant, spotless skies and glassy waters, spending sunny afternoons lounging and cooking on beaches and sleeping soundly through quiet, windless nights. The switch to the snowy mountains of the Arrowsmith range had heralded an entirely new ballgame with an entirely new set of rules. I woke up the morning of October 17th to discover that storing things in the vestibule of the tent was not an option on mountaineering like it had been on sea kayaking—my bowl and spoon, left there the night before, had been claimed by the wind.

I was angry. I scribbled in my journal the next day, “The weather shat itself around 9:30/10 last night and since we are camped in a frigging wind tunnel we got our shit completely rocked. Woke up at 12:30am to insane wind shaking the tent…I’m sure there is some kind of lesson or growth to be gleaned from this that will perhaps occur to me later, but at the time it was just miserable, a seemingly interminable moment that made me long for an actual building and a warm dry bed.”

During the night it kept repeatedly and pointlessly coming to me that there had to be some way out of this. That this couldn’t actually be happening. But there wasn’t. It was. It was four in the morning and the weather was shitting itself and if we didn’t brace the poles, if we didn’t repair the tent, we were going to lose the only home we had out here.  It was a situation in which the only option before us was to just suck it up and do what needed to be done.

Much of the first few days of the festival of challenging outdoor situations mountaineering brought us was spent in a sort of pouty protest, a sort of indignant disbelief and vague sense of injustice. But the earth owed us nothing. In fact, if I were Mama Nature and had been treated the way she has been, I would have been whipping a lot more than 80km/hr winds at tents parked in her backyard. The longer I walked around with the there’s-no-way-this-can-actually-be-real entitlement, the longer I was going to be miserable.

The next few nights were more of the same. We had been forced to hunker down due to the weather, and had spent a few days huddled in tents whose size seemed to decrease with each passing moment. We spent most of the day catching up on sleep we’d lost the night before, finishing the only books we’d brought with us, and getting so sick of cards that we ended up just lying in our sleeping bags staring at the yellow tent ceiling.

The night of October 17th was marked by fierce winds but no rain. We were better prepared this time, ready for what we were about to endure, and had decided to split the night into shifts of tent-bracing, so that the others could at least get a little bit of sleep. At 11pm I was tapped awake and sat up in my spot in the center of the three-person tent, ready to do my duty. I had reason to believe that half of why the previous night had been so god-awful was because I had been operating under the foolish delusion that I could somehow fall back to sleep in between giant gusts of wind. This time I decided to stay sitting up through my shift, waiting in the dark for the next gale to arrive. With my two tentmates sleeping beside me, I sat up straight, keeping my eyes closed, listening to the air whoosh around the valley outside, ready to raise both my arms up to steady the poles when it was necessary.

After passing some time like this, I began to experience a strange sort of calm. My heartbeat began to pleasantly decelerate, my muscles became relaxed, and my mind began to wander. I thought of everyone in the world that I knew, most of them separated from me by nearly a day and a half, and thought of what they were doing at that precise moment. I thought of my mom and little brother getting ready for school, I thought of my friends going to work, and I thought of my two expedition mates sleeping beside me, able to rest because I was sitting up, awake, meeting the wind. Suddenly I was no longer furious or affronted at nature for sticking us with this inclement weather.  I no longer believed I was owed kindness by the environment, I no longer expected there to be some kind of escape route I could take.

The weather was the same as the night before, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t miserable.  I wasn’t absorbed in my own head, in my own discomfort. I wasn’t wondering what the hell I was doing here. I was sitting on the side of a mountain in New Zealand, feeling purposeful and peaceful, holding our house up against the wind.

the things we carry

There are a million ways to try to hold on to things. We close our eyes, we narrate, we imagine, we recreate, we pinch our fingers, we clench our fists, we stare and stare and stare. We clutch and we grab and we cling, trying to keep what has already passed. We seem to be programmed to resist the shift, resist the transformation of things ending. To ease the ache we often try to create physical artifacts of what has slipped away, of what we have left behind us.

Photographs turn memory to public property, turn moments into something stiff and unnaturally glossy. When there is a photographic representation of a moment, it suddenly becomes the signifier, the primary representation of that moment. Perhaps as time goes on we begin to remember the photograph instead of the moment itself. Those moments you can hold in your flattened palm. What you have to hold differently are the moments that live only inside your head, the ones the camera didn’t catch, the ones that you maybe can’t see, but you can feel. Those require cradling, require cupped fingers.

In New Zealand we took pictures at the top of peaks, we took pictures when the sun was out, we took pictures when we turned a corner and were stalled by the expanse of scenery before us. Those moments too are memories. Those moments were beautiful and important. But the moments that I’ll cradle, the moments that I’ll cup my sunburned fingers around are different ones, are ones that I can feel more strongly than I can see. All of us standing in the driving rain at the top of a leafy ridge, thoroughly soaked through our neoprene, looking out at the ocean, waiting for a window to make the final paddles of a journey. The way the light came through the yellow tent ceiling as we sang Ingrid Michaelson’s “You & I” after I ran through the thick silent snow to get there, realizing I had remembered the words. The inexplicable, warm calm that came over me as I sat up in the middle of the tent through the night, bracing it against roaring winds funneling themselves in over craggy mountaintops. The hugeness of the silence the morning we climbed up a ridge guided by headlamps to watch the sun emerge. The freezing, electric jolt to our entire energy when we flung ourselves into an alpine lake still cased with ice. The tumbling inertia of laughter it took only a look to set off. The feeling of fleeting togetherness as we sat on top of box containers watching the sun go down for the last time, the strains of the guitar Colt held in his hands filling the atmosphere.  These were the things that lived only inside us, that we would have to hold closer to keep, or perhaps hold in a different way.

The last day out in the field we moved slowly. We took longer to pick up our feet, we chose routes that led us out of the way, we stood longer contemplating where to cross a river. We took breaks even though we weren’t tired, we baked a pie on the side of a hill in our sleeping bags, we spent hours huddled against our backpacks, hiding from the wind, watching the rising sun burn the bottoms of the clouds red. We did all these things and yet we still came to the finish, we still popped up over the last hill and saw the way out, the way to the end. No matter what measures we took to prolong it, the end continued to loom, waiting for us to arrive. We stopped on a wide, flat hilltop and shrugged off our packs, quiet. Justine suggested we do cardinal acknowledgements, a sort of Maori yoga practice we had learned that brings you closer to the earth—acknowledging north, south, east, and west, sky, self, and earth, that allows you to push out all the curling black smoke within you and gather in all the incandescent white light of your surroundings. The five of us stood in a line, spread out across the hilltop, and repeated the motions facing north, south, east and west. We opened our arms up to the sky, brought them down close to our chests, bent low and grazed the grass with our fingertips. We pushed out the fear and the sadness and the negativity, we pulled in the power of the mountains, the freshness of the air, the warmth of the sun, the calm of the sky. We faced each direction and said thank you, and at the end we turned in toward each other and said Namaste, the light in me acknowledges the light in you, and then it was time. We all stared down at the patch of beech trees winding through the valley toward the road beyond it, knowing that there was a sort of bittersweet inexorability bringing us toward it. Each step we took contained the thousands of other steps we had taken over the previous months—sidesteps across swift, murky rivers, lunging leaps from one boulder to the next, plunging steps deep into mushy snow, careful steps along narrow footpaths, triumphant steps up the last few meters of elevation gain. These steps were the same as thousands of others, and yet they were different because they were the last ones. Because when we set our packs down it would be for the last time, when we pulled our boots and gaiters off and laid our socks out to dry, it would be for the last time, when we did everything we had been doing for months, it would be the last time. The magic, the spell of perpetual skin-tingling awe that had wrapped itself around the entire expedition would be broken. But no matter how languid we allowed our cadence to become, no matter how many times we paused, the only direction in which we could move was forward.

John Muir wrote, “These beautiful days must enrich all my life. They do not exist as mere pictures—maps hung upon the walls of memory—but they saturate themselves into every part of my body and live always.”

The way we hold on to things is not through two dimensional snapshots or even written words. It is not through retelling, through mentally recreating, through nostalgic daydreaming. Even when we must walk away we can hold on by reaching out our arms and gathering it all into our chests, by carrying the muscle memory of all of our footfalls with us as we take our next steps. By letting the sun seep into our skin, by letting the mountains press themselves up against us, by letting the air fill our chests, by keeping the electricity buzzing through our veins. The way to truly hold on to things is not to attempt to preserve memories that immediately begin to fade and curl at the edges, but to allow the experience to inform every step we take afterward, to evoke the spirit, the energy, the essence of it all in everything we do. The actual expedition may have been over, but it would be palpable in everything we did next.

One of the principles we were taught in our Leave No Trace training was “Leave What You Find.”  But we hadn’t. We couldn’t. Every incline we had panted up, every shoreline we had washed our dishes at, every scree field we had sidehilled, every sunrise we’d snuck out of the tent early to watch, every spot we had wandered off to to just sit and look, every patch of matagouri we’d hurled ourselves through, every gust of wind we’d stayed up bracing the tent against was now an indelible part of us, glowing through our ribcages and out the tips of our fingers. We couldn’t have left what we’d found if we’d wanted to. And while we stretched out our arms on the hillside at the end and tried to hold on to everything that had happened, it became clear that it would also be holding on to us.