Saturday morning my mom and I found ourselves bumping along a dirt road on the north western end of Sedona, Arizona. A friend of mine had given us some vague directions on how to find petroglyphs in one of the canyons out here, and we were on a hunt. Well actually Lydia and my mom had done the real hunt the day before while I was working, and given what they found I wanted to go see them as well. They did the painful job of losing the trail and bushwhacking through sharp desert shrubs to find the way back to it. I got the easy guided tour in because of their efforts the day before.
A few miles down the dirt road we pulled the car over in a pull off by an old ranch fence from the 1920’s. We side stepped the fence and headed on our own in to the canyon. After only a couple steps I felt this softening in my chest. It was subtle, but just strong enough for me to really notice it was happening. The energy here felt different than other parts of Sedona, much deeper and more palpable. I felt this gravitational pull in towards my heart, and the muscles around my chest all relaxed and opened in response.
The hike in was gorgeous, and there was a bit of a trail for us to follow from others who had hiked in to find what we were looking for. After about an hour of walking in along the eastern wall of the canyon we were getting close. The trail cut sharply to the west and dove steeply down hill, in to the wash in the center of the canyon. We then followed the trail up to the other side of the canyon, pushing our way through some junipers and scrub oak to get to the western wall. We then wandered our way down the western wall, back towards the mouth of the canyon.
Before long the scene opened up before us. We rounded a bend to find a tall cave, maybe 30ft high and 15ft deep. The red sandstone walls were charred black from fires burned within its shelter over a thousand years ago. All along the cave wall were paintings just as old. Most had faded to just a faint image, barely decipherable. One can imagine long ago the wall would have been a mural of different shapes and colors. A lot of the drawings had preserved quite well though.
Images of animals like deer, snakes, coyotes, and elk were easy to see. There were also lots of images of people, some in groups, some alone. Some of them were dancing or holding their hands in the air. There were lots of symbols like circles or spirals, or just different patterns of dots. Some of the drawings were clear but still hard to understand what they might have been portraying, maybe different gods or spirits, I am not sure. The most touching images for me though were the hand prints left behind in the rock. They were much smaller than human hands today, even making my mothers hand look big in comparison.
After exploring all the different areas where the walls had been painted, we just sat down amongst it all in silence. It was so quiet. We could hear the wind move down the canyon through the leaves of the trees, getting louder and louder until it swept across our faces. We could hear the lizards running around through the leaves, and the birds chirping around us. And that was all. I just really felt like I needed to be still and connect with the space in that moment, with something I felt there.
This cave is where over a thousand years ago human beings had taken shelter, it’s what they had called home. Evidence of the structure they built in it were all over the ground around us, piles of square sandstone rocks that had once been held together with mud. They had without a doubt suffered many hardships together here, in this spot. Gathering enough food to survive, enduring the elements, even having to defend themselves from other animals or humans. They had also without a doubt shared love, friendship, ceremony, and community with each other. Above it all what struck me deepest in that moment was how through their artwork these ancient communities had reached out across time to share their experiences with others, to tell their stories and connect. I know there was a practical aspect to making them. It was probably a helpful way to share information and tell stories to each other. Nonetheless, I got the sense that the artists who painted these drawings had an intention that the stories they told would live on much farther in to the future, far beyond their life span.
Sitting there in the silence of it all I could really feel the presence that was created all those years ago living in this cave. It was still so palpable there, that feeling of home. In my heart in those moments I started to really understand something about human nature. I recognized the desire to connect on a deeper level inside all of us. I could see it as a part of who we are and so innately human. That softening I had felt in my chest when I first stepped in to the canyon grew more intense. In that moment, in the silence, in the presence of those ancestors, my heart opened so widely. I fell in to this space of timelessness, of unity across time and space. I could feel the connection in my heart to all of humanity across the ages. How much we bear suffering together and always have, how we struggle. How much we love to, and ultimately how deeply this love and this need to connect really is our true nature, at the heart of all things. The hand prints in the wall seemed to reach out from the rock to touch my hand, a moment of friendship across time.
After a good long moment of silence my mother and I decided it was time to move on, and we started our hike out. Back down to the wash, up the steep bank to the eastern canyon wall, and eventually back out to the car. This feeling of timelessness, of open heartedness stayed with me as we left. So much so actually that it has completely shifted my relationship to this landscape, and to the rest of this earth and the humans who inhabit it in different ways.
That evening my mom, Lydia, and I all sat in meditation before bed. I could see vivid images of the petroglyphs dancing inside my mind for the entire time. They seemed like they were trying to speak to me, they were calling out to something inside of me. I am sure it will be sometime before I can fully metabolize the experience of being out there among our human ancestors. I may never understand what message those voices had been trying to speak to me that evening in meditation, but that is fine. I can say for sure I will be doing more exploring of different petroglyph and ruins in the mean time. Ultimately just the experience of being called out to from across time has been enough to stay with me for the rest of my life.
Sculpting, painting, drawing, throwing, shaping and molding.
Joy, sadness, despair, uplift, peace
Hot, harsh, sharp, danger
Cool stream, shadow, soft shapes, even fun, refuge.
I come as a witness, open, as a student or child
Let light reflect meaning off of me.
Then the dreaming can cross worlds
Be Real, Shape My World, Come Alive
“Silence. It’s rarely cited as a reason to go hiking, but it’s an increasingly valid one as our world grows louder.
Intrusive, irritating sound can damage more than your hearing. It contributes to rising blood pressure, declining productivity, and higher serumcholesterol levels.
Studies show that incessant noise makes people less caring, less communicative, less reflective; more apt to feel helpless and powerless. Even routine hospital noise impedes healing.
Ahhh, canyon country. It poses physical challenges that deter human visitation, so it’s among the loneliest landscapes on earth. And once your deep in, your walled off. Canyons are sanctuaries of silence. Temples of tranquility. Cathedrals of quietude.”
~Kathy & Craig Copeland, “Utah Canyon Country”
I am walking down a stretch of slick rock, winding between this and the sandy drainage in the small canyon below me.
I am alone and stunned by the beautiful desert scape of canyons and bushes and interestingly shaped rocks that surrounds me. I am having fun crossing this terrain, every foot step a creative endeavor.
I am tracing a path in my mind I have traced so many times. Over and over again, l am feeling my way through it, I am trying to understand.
What is my path in this world? Do I have a purpose? How do I realign myself with this deeper calling? How have I fallen out of alignment, even?
The desert is called the land of waking dreams and I’m asking it to help me understand. But the land isn’t one to offer quick answers, I feel like I need more time, years even. I only have about two weeks with this desert. But nonetheless I still ask.
A particular scene catches my attention, so much that I must stop my movement and sit for a moment. A cool breeze blows and I feel it in my hair, on my face. I am facing east.
C L A R I T Y
Silence, stillness, beauty, and calm. What a treat. If ever there was a state of mind where my dreams could reveal themselves to me and be understood it would be in this clarity, I think. I am facing east, where I am from. Will I go back home? Or will I stay out here? I don’t know. Just one of the many questions yet to be answered in my mind.
Must I be my own guide through this mess? I am asking for guidance…
I sat for maybe ten minutes, feeling the peace, the beauty, the sureness of the land. I try to align myself with this.
It’s time to walk back. This time I stay in the drainage and gaze at the shapes in the rocks and sand. Like always I trace this path in my mind back along with my footsteps. Today is not the day for answers, just questions. And yes, I can be patient and have faith to keep feeling my way. No I am not saddened by this. The path is the path.
The sun will soon set and nighttime will walk me in to my sleeping dreams. Then another awakening and the morning light will follow, beginning a brand new day. This path in my mind, in my heart, speak to me…what am I here to learn? Teach me. I want to echo this beauty throughout the entire universe.
“The Paleo-Indians were nomadic. Traveling on foot, carrying only a few meager possessions, they were the original ultralight backpackers. Along with their extended family-grandparents, siblings, children- they followed the seasons, always searching for food.
They wore clothing made of pelts and plant fibers. They slept in the open, took shelter in caves and canyon alcoves, or built rudimentary shelters out of brush and animal hide.”
~Kathy & Craig Copeland, “Utah Canyon Country”
a person who does not stay long in the same place; a wanderer.”
To live a nomadic life is to honor the roots of human nature. It’s an excursion in deepening ones respect for mankind. It’s an excursion in trust: trust of the unknown.
Living life as a nomad is hard. The modern life can be challenging, but it affords us so many conveniences that having known personally no other way of life we take our gifts for granted. But something inside us knows better, and is crying out for recognition…
This way of life requires one to tap in to a level of strength that they didn’t know even existed within themselves. Living off the land is a form of this also. A life without conveniences. This has a way of deepening ones reverence for the world and opening up our view to a vaster picture. When the unknown has revealed itself to us once the universe feels full of possibilities. One way for this to happen is through encountering challenges we didn’t know we had the strength to face until the challenge confronted us.
Of course another way of broadening ones perspective is having those profound experiences of awe and amazement at the wonders of the world. The nomadic way of life certainly brings these experiences as well. Waking up in a new place every day, often somewhere wild and beautiful and vastly different than where one came from, is a treat. Falling asleep under the stars in the canyons with distant lightning flashing on the horizon is another treat. Sipping a second cup of coffee while feeling the desert wind rock the van and staring out at endless canyons is also a treat.
This way of life, it shakes things up. One never gets used to too much around them before it is changing once again. It keeps ones view on life flowing, like the blood to ones head when taking a moment each day to hang upside down. In exploring large tracts of land one really starts to get a sense of the diversity that this planet offers; in its landscapes and its cultures.
I was reading about the history of the people who have dwelled in this area over the thousands of years prior to our own existence here. The early roots of civilization, probably unanimously across the globe, but certainly here, were nomadic peoples. It took many shifts and twists and turns throughout the ages before people stopped wandering and settled more in to villages and towns. From ancient cliff dwellings to pictographs and petroglyphs, the past is so alive in southern Utah.
I was recently wandering down a slot canyon, listening to the stream trickle beneath my feet and echo off the walls around me and watching the light shift form on the rock walls around me. I was feeling challenged. Where are we going to get water today, where are we going to sleep, how are we going to make money next, where even is all this ultimately leading us? Questions. I am tired. I haven’t showered for almost a week again and that’s an uncomfortable feeling in all this heat.
In truth maybe the reason I was feeling challenged had nothing to do with these specific concerns or conditions. It seems no matter what walk of life I choose I find myself confronting this sadness, this emptiness. Sometimes the world just feels heavy, and this is something I must walk with for some time.
Soon the beauty of the stream and the light woke me back up to how beautiful and enchanting this whimsical and twisting way of life Lydia and I are leading is. For a moment any fears dropped, any concerns dropped, and I was wandering in peace and reverence.
This is that deeper level of strength I talked about earlier. It comes as grace, as beauty, as understanding. It comes as refuge. Within any of the most challenging moments throughout my life never have these moments ceased to manifest and help me know I’m not alone.
In this moment of understanding I felt renewed purpose. A part of why Lydia and I chose this lifestyle was to shake things up. Both of us needed to refresh our perspective on the deeper picture of humanity, to deepen our respect for human nature and what humankind has endured and been uplifted by throughout the ages. Voices inside of both of us, the voices of our deep ancestors, needed to be heard. Maybe this way of life is acting as a medium for that right now.
How could humanity ever move forward without knowing and honoring where they came from and who came before them? How could we ever grow without hearing the messages of our ancestors?
So it’s with deep respect for the roots of humanity that we continue forward in Foxy and in this way of life. It is also with deep gratitude, as we both know that this lifestyle is a gift to us. How special it is to have the chance to explore our dreams in a way we both feel inspired by, and to be helped and supported by the individuals in our life who love us along the way.
Yes this way of life can be hard. Granted we don’t have zero conveniences. I doubt our ancestors had the ability to stop at the local health food store and cheer themselves up with a kombucha, a loaf of bread, and a chocolate bar when they were feeling down. Nonetheless it is with humble hearts and open minds, ready to listen, ready to learn, that we put one foot in front of the other each day and are thankful for our opportunity to be Foxy Nomads.
A word about this area…
“In 1908, the first Model T rolled out of the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. They ceased producing the revolutionary automobile in 1927 after selling 15 million of them. By then, people were driving all kinds of cars on paved roads throughout the world. Traffic and smog were growing problem.
But not in Boulder, Utah. The community was so tiny and isolated that, in 1924, residents’ mail still arrived on the backs of mules. To reach the lonely outpost, the mule train traversed a vast, turbulent expanse of slick rock (…).
Boulder is still small and remote. (…) Highway 12 wasn’t completed until 1940, this was the last place in the U.S. to gain automobile access, the highway wasn’t entirely paved until 1971, and this remains the farthest hamlet from a U.S. interstate.”
~Kathy & Craig Copeland, “Utah Canyon Country”
We have stationed ourselves this last week in between the small towns of Escalante, UT and Boulder, UT. Lydia is taking part in a plein air painting competition in the area, based out of the town of Escalante. We have been exploring the canyons in between these two towns, in a section of wilderness preserve called the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Thats where the inspiration for the writing above came from and where all the paintings Lydia entered in to the plein air painting competition came from.
Soon we will drive up to Hanksville, UT, a small town near the Henry Mountains. The Henry Mountains were the last mountain range to be discovered and mapped in the continental U.S. by white settlers. Once we leave there we will be spending our time exploring the Bears Ears National Monument, which was established as a national monument under the Obama Administration.
Recently the Trump administration cut Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in half and reduced Bears Ears National Monument by 80 percent, opening both areas up to destructive development and fossil fuel drilling and mining…
I wanted to share a portion of the writings by various authors I found compiled in a booklet by the local nonprofit “Utah Dine Bikeyah.” After spending the last week here, I feel compelled to spread some awareness about really how special it is and the harm that is being done by the current administration.
Establishment of the Bears Ears National Monument
by the President of the United States of America
“Rising from the center of southeastern Utah landscape and visible from every direction are twin buttes so distinctive that in each of the native languages of the region their name is the same: Hoon’Naqvut, Shash Jaa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe, or ‘Bears Ears.’ For hundreds of generations, native peoples lived in the surrounding deep sandstone canyons, desert mesas, and meadow mountain-tops, which constitute one of the densest and most significant cultural landscapes in the United States. Abundant rock art, ancient cliff dwellings, ceremonial sites, and countless other artifacts provide an extraordinary archaeological and cultural record that is important to us all, but most notably the land is profoundly sacred to many Native American tribes, including the Ute Mountain Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, Hopi Nation, and Zuni Tribe.
The area’s human history is as vibrant and diverse as the ruggedly beautiful landscape. From the earliest occupation, native peoples left traces of their presence. Clovis people hunted among the cliffs and canyons of Cedar Mesa as early as 13,000 years ago, leaving behind tools and projectile points in places like the Lime Ridge Clovis Site, one of the oldest known archaeological sites in Utah.
The area’s cultural importance to Native American tribes continue to this day. As they have for generations, these tribes and their members come here for ceremonies and to visit sacred sites. (…) The traditional ecological knowledge amassed by the Native Americans who’s ancestors inhabited this region, passed down from generation to generation, offers critical insight into the historic and scientific significance of the area. Such knowledge is, itself, a resource to be protected and used in understanding and managing this landscape sustainably for generations to come…”
~Barack Obama, December 28, 2016
“On April 26, 2017, President Donald J. Trump signed an Executive Order calling for a review of 27 national monuments. (…) Word out of Washington, D.C. suggests Bears Ears may be gutted by 80 percent with Grand Staircase-Escalante being cut in half, leaving fragile desert lands vulnerable to development. Utah’s record of exploiting our public lands from uranium and coal mining, to drilling for oil and gas, to the destruction of desert ecosystems by off-road vehicles, is a long and troubled history.
Bears Ears National Monument is the ancestral home of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe. These lands are where the “Old Ones” are buried, their medicines found, where their ceremonies are held. Established by Barack Obama on December 28, 2016, it was a handshake across history, helping to heal the wounds between the Tribes and the United States government. This is the first time a cooperative land management agreement has been reached between the Tribes and the federal agencies that will honor traditional knowledge alongside Western science.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was established by President Bill Clinton on September 18, 1996. The Proclamation recognizes ‘this high, rugged, and remote region, where bold plateaus and multi-hued cliffs run for distances that defy human perspective.’ It was the last place in the continental United States to be mapped.
Presidents have reduced previous monuments before, but never on this scale that Donald Trump is proposing. This will be a first. The Antiquities Act of 1906 will be on trial. If one monument is diminished, all national monuments are threatened. We the People, who recognize these lands as a ‘Geography of Hope,’ believe public lands belong to all people for all time. We fill fight this aggression in the courts and on the ground. We invite you to join us. Through the leadership of the Tribes, we as a community of protectors will prevail. The Elders remind us that this can no longer be about anger, but healing.”
~Fazal Sheikh and Terry Tempest Williams
by Terry Tempest Williams
“What is beauty if not stillness?
What is stillness if not sight?
What is sight if not an awakening?
What is an awakening if not now?
The American landscape is under assault by an administration that cares only about themselves. Working behind closed doors, they are strategically undermining environmental protections that have been in place for decades and getting away with it, in practices of secrecy, in deeds of greed, in acts of violence that are causing pain.
Like many, I have compartmentalized my state of mind in order to survive. Like most, I have also compartmentalized my state of Utah. It is violence hidden that we all share. This is the fallout that has entered our bodies; nuclear bombs tested in the desert-Boom! These are uranium tailings left on the edges of our towns where children play-Boom! The war games played and nerve gas stored in the West Desert-Boom! These are the oil and gas lines, frack lines from Vernal to Bonanza in the Uintah Basin-Boom! This is Aneth and Montezuma Creek-the oil patches on Indian lands-Boom! Gut Bears Ears-Boom! Cut Grand Staircase-Escalante in half-Boom! And every other wild place that is easier for me to defend than my own people and species-Boom! The coal and copper mines I watched expand as a child-Huntington and Kennecott-Boom! The oil refineries that foul the air and blacken our lungs in Salt Lake City-Boom! And the latest scar on the landscape, the tar sands mine in the Book Cliffs, closed, now hidden simply by its remoteness-Boom! Add the Cisco desert where trains stop to settle the radioactive waste they carry on to Blanding-Boom! Move uranium tailings from Moab to Crescent Junction, then bury it still hot in the alkaline desert, out of sight, out of mind-Boom! See the traces of human indignities on the sands near Topaz Mountain left by the Japanese Internment Camps-Boom!
President Donald J. Trump will try to eviscerate Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante Monuments with his pen and poisonous policies. He will stand tall with other white men who for generations have exhumed, looted, and profited from the graves of Ancient Ones. They will tell you, Bears Ears belongs to them-Boom!”
May wing beats of Raven cross over us in ceremony. May we recognize our need of a collective blessing by Earth. May we ask forgiveness for our wounding of land and spirit. And may our right relationship to life be restored as we work together toward a survival shared. A story is awakening. We are part of something much larger than ourselves, an interconnected whole that stretches upward to the stars.
Coyote in the desert is howling in the darkness calling forth the pack, lifting up the Moon.”
(To see the full publication which I pulled text from, visit fazalsheikh.org/news-stories)
We are a part of a bigger picture, it is true. More and more as I grow older I can see this. Time gives way to timelessness. The desert is an incredible stage for witnessing this bigger picture at play, outside of us and inside of us. Inside of us and outside of us. Spirit, like the breath, penetrating both worlds. We breath in the desert air and its inside of us, we breath out the desert air and we give something of us to the outside. The two worlds become one.
When we honor the earth the earth in turns honors us. If we are not able to treat our planet with respect that echoes in to everything. And vice versa.
We are newcomers to the desert here, though we both feel close to it already. Lydia and I have been blessed to have been welcomed so graciously by the earth here, and by the communities we have encountered in Escalante and Salt Late City.
The brother of a good friend of ours from Vermont happens to live in Salt Lake City and be a founder of Utah Dine Bikeyah, and one of the first ways we earned money when we crash landed in to Salt Lake City was by helping hang paintings and organize boxes of stuff in this nonprofit’s new office space. In the scheme of all the work this organization has done in protecting Bears Ears, this felt like a tiny effort, but nonetheless it felt so good for a short moment to be a part of what they are doing and what they stand for.
Down here in Escalante the painting festival and weekend farmers market were a great way to feel welcomed in to a small town community again, like the one we lived in in Vermont. We became quick friends with all of the people who work at the small health food mercantile in towns after coming in most every day from the desert heat for a cold kombucha. It all felt too much like home when the painting festival kicked off to some live music and one could hear the words “I am an old woman, named after my mother…” drifting from the stage.
We are excited to keep exploring southern Utah and to keep sharing. I hope these words are a reminder of how important it is to honor this desert, and in doing so honor ourselves.
I am walking barefoot down a trail, surrounded by giants. Real giants. Recently I picked up a book titled “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien and read the first chapter. It was sitting in a cafe on the coast of Oregon on a foggy and rainy day. That day the only reasonable thing to do was to sit down, split a chai latte, and read. This particular cafe had a selection of books one could read while enjoying a beverage. I chose “The Hobbit.” Anyway it has had me thinking in fables and myths ever since.
Lydia and I are in The Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park on the coast of Northern California. Trees that are one thousand years old, three hundred plus feet tall, and up to thirty feet in diameter are towering all around us. This is among the last of the old growth redwood forests left on this planet. In the nineteenth century there were two million acres of these old growth redwood forests in California and Oregon. Today, after the onslaught of industrial scale logging and development, there are only one hundred thousand acres of it left.
The earth is soft under my feet, gentle and welcoming. Back in the days of old, when there used to be so much more old growth forest, I wonder if that is the seed of truth that the giant legends sprouted from. Maybe, however long ago these stories came to be, there truly were more giants on this earth than there are today.
I always feel strange when I walk barefoot in public spaces. I often feel like it makes me stand out more than I like. People seem shocked by it when they walk by, but they don’t understand. When I was at Plum Village in France I was taught by the monks that walking barefoot is a great way to deepen ones connection to the earth. We were encouraged to take off our shoes during walking meditation and “kiss Mother Earth with our feet” with every step we made.
The earth is our mother. The food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the ground we walk on all is provided by this mother. She truly cares for our every need, physical and emotional. I love how Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the earth as a mother in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass.” After drifting on her kayak in a lake one day with her heart full of sadness, she says:
“The earth, that first among good mothers, gives us the gift that we cannot provide ourselves. I hadn’t realized that I had come to the lake and said feed me, but my empty heart was fed. I had a good mother. She gives what we need without being asked. I wonder if she gets tired, old Mother Earth. (pg. 103)”
I can’t count how many times I have come to the mountains or the forest with a deep sadness and emptiness in my heart, and without me asking Mother Earth feeds me and I feel full again. My own mother is like that as well, so truly. I recently texted her: “Headed down the Oregon Coast! Just put our last thirty eight dollars in the tank, yikes!” Not long after I received a response: “I was going to send you some surprise birthday money. Do you want it a couple days early?”
Life on the road has had me constantly, in one way or another, thinking about money. In Vermont Lydia and I lived paycheck to paycheck. We would hit zero every week until the next paycheck would come in. On the road, we live paycheck to…theoretical paycheck that we’re not sure how were going to make yet. It can get stressful and we have to get really creative. We cook every single one of our meals from bulk foods and fresh veggies. We drive thirty minutes out of our way to find places we don’t have to pay for to sleep. It can be a lot of fun too. All of those nights we’ve spent bumping down dirt roads in the middle of nowhere looking for free camping and wondering whether we are going to be either eaten or killed have added up to some really fun memories.
Also it helps us drop our ego and the whole American mindset where its important to do everything oneself and not need anybody else to help. We have had to let go of our pride and say hey, we need a little help right now, more than a few times.
Both Lydia and I are grateful to have families and friends that are so supportive of the lifestyle we choose to live. Though we try our best to support ourselves and not ask for too much, when we do need to reach out those people in our lives have never denied us. We’ve come to discover that being self-reliant is a myth. No matter how hard we try, in one way or another, we are not independent, but interdependent and tied to every other living being on this earth in some way or another.
Living with little money has also opened us up to the incredibly beautiful experience of being unexpectedly helped by strangers along the way. After a conversation with a couple on the coast of Oregon about the way we live, they decided to surprise us by giving us all of the food left in their cooler. They told us they were about to be fed at a convention for a couple days and didn’t need it anymore. Another stranger we met at a rock climbing store in Jasper, Alberta did a similar thing. Lydia and I were talking to him and I mentioned that I had lost a couple quickdraws (a piece of rock climbing gear) so far that season and needed to buy a couple more whenever we got the money. He encountered us later that day on the street and asked us to wait at our car because he had a gift for us. He showed up on his bike five minutes later with a couple of brand new quickdraws and just gave them to me. Before I could even say thank you he told me to stay safe and rode his bike away. To give a little context new quickdraws are about twenty dollars each, so this was very generous!
On top of that, its given us the chance to have the incredibly beautiful experience of feeling like we are giving something valuable to a lot of strangers along the way. Picking up odd jobs on craigslist and through random connections we make has been a valuable crash course in networking. Its also been a chance for Lydia and I to choose projects we feel really good about accomplishing for people, which we maybe wouldn’t have had the chance to do if we just worked a standard nine to five.
For example, in Seattle I had the unique opportunity to build a cedar raised garden bed for a woman we stayed with. Meanwhile Lydia weeded out an area that had been totally overgrown and planted local clover as a cover crop. Of course this woman paid us for our work, but it still totally felt like we were giving her something of deep value. Because of our work she was able to plant a fall vegetable harvest for herself and enjoy the environmental benefits of clover in her backyard, including soil erosion prevention, carbon fixation, and local pollinator attraction.
In Montana we got the chance to work at a local brewery called Homestead Ale run by an amazing younger couple at their homestead. They were so busy keeping the brewery and restaurant going they didn’t have time to tackle odd jobs like weed whacking or small carpentry projects. I was hired to put up a sheet metal roof over their chest freezers, which they needed done for health inspection purposes. Lydia weed whacked a trail all the neighbors would walk down to come visit the brewery for live music and good food. As we sat inside the brewery after finishing our tasks, we sipped on our complimentary Kombuchas given as thank you gifts to us by the owners. During this time several locals walked in talking about how happy they were to have their trail opened up for them! That certainly was a good moment.
Admittedly living on this financial edge can be really hard also. When money starts dwindling and no place in town will even let you use their bathroom without making a purchase everything can start feeling really cold. All of a sudden the homeless people in the cities start feeling more relatable. I can’t help but realize that if I were born in to a situation that had no way to support me I would very easily be in their shoes. I feel so much empathy for these people. Our society can be so cold to the people who live in it with no money. It’s truly heart breaking.
When I start doubting the choices we have made about how we live our lives, I have learned in these moments to recognize all of the gifts that we have. When I reflect in this way I feel so grateful for all of the people and places that have kept my heart, soul, body and mind nurtured and cared for. Thich Nhat Hanh likes to write about how we never stop and feel grateful that we don’t have a toothache. Its only when we do get a toothache and realize how miserable life can be that we see how fortunate we are day to day to not have one. He writes that its a good daily practice to thank ones eyes for allowing one to see the wonders of the world. He goes on to thank the ears, heart, liver, spleen, and so on for performing their necessary functions so well for us.
Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass” writes a chapter titled “Allegiance to Gratitude.” In this chapter she talks about a day when the local high school calls to tell her that her daughter had stopped standing up for the morning recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Robin Wall Kimmerer is Native American, as are her children. She goes on to describe what is recited in the morning at Native schools. They call it the Thanksgiving Address, and it starts like this:
“Today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People. Now our minds are one. We are thankful to our Mother Earth, for she gives us everything that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she still continues to care for us, just as she has from the beginning of time. To our Mother, we send thanksgiving, love, and respect. Now our minds are one (pg. 107).”
The address goes on to thank the water, the fish, the plants, the berries, the birds, etc. in a similar way. It is quite long, but the children repeat it every morning. Robin Wall Kimmerer goes on to write about this morning address. She says:
“Imagine raising children in a culture in which gratitude is the first priority. Freida Jacques works at the Onondaga Nation School. She is a clan mother, the school-community liaison, and a generous teacher. She explains to me that the Thanksgiving Address embodies the Onondaga relationship with the world. Each part of creation is thanked in turn for fulfilling its Creator-given duty to the others. ‘It reminds you every day that you have enough,’ she says. ‘More than enough. Everything needed to sustain life is already here. When we do this, every day, it leads us to an outlook of contentment and respect for all of Creation.’ You can’t listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness. The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need. Gratitude doesn’t send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a gift rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy. That’s good medicine for land and people alike (pg. 111).”
So admittedly maybe we are pushing our finances a bit close to that “edge.” I related to my mother when we were talking that it wasn’t my intention necessarily to live this close to my means. Sometimes I feel a lot of guilt for asking for help with the car bill or for a little gas money when I know how hard both of my parents work. I know Lydia and I are trying to live a heart centered life, one of balance and giving. For whatever reason on the financial side of things its just not flowing as easily as other aspects of our path. Its a constant learning process for us for sure. But when the financial pressures start to feel heavy and things get tight, maybe amongst the stress and fear this can offer a chance to reflect on all we already have. So much of this world cannot be bought or sold.
We arrived in Trinidad, CA at an old friend of mines house later that day with about eighteen dollars to our name. We weren’t to bad off though. The next day, Friday, would be my birthday and the day after a farmers market was happening in town. My friend told us how to volunteer there in exchange for fresh veggies and mentioned there were probably some odd jobs around he could find us. By some miracle right when we were running out of money and food we found some refuge and a way to resupply.
By the time we left Trinidad, one week later, we truly felt wealthy. We had filled our cooler with enough organic vegetables to last two weeks, re-stocked our dry food, and saved up some money to get us over the Sierra Nevada’s. We also got the same feeling of “giving back” with the work we were hired to do. My friend who we stayed with lived on the property of an older man who rented out his airstream trailer to him. Over the years, this older man had accumulated lots of firewood that was way to long for his stove. It was stacked in huge messy piles in his back yard. Piece by piece we unburied the long wood, cut it in half with a chainsaw, and stacked it neatly in his wood shed. Having both lived off of wood heat through the winters in Vermont, Lydia and I knew how comforting it is when the season starts to turn to go in to ones wood shed and see a neat stack of wood waiting. We felt really good about giving this as a gift to this stranger!
The organization we volunteered for at the local farmers market outside of Trinidad in Arcata was called The Food Project. It was a project based on “gleaming,” which back in the day was the process of going through a farmers field after his harvest and grabbing all the vegetables that they missed. Whoever did this got them for free, because they would have just rotted back in to the ground anyway. The Food Project “gleams” at the local farmers market for food the farmers didn’t sell that won’t make it back to the farm in good enough condition to be sold again. All the food collected is donated to people with aids, HIV, or just people in need like the homeless. Because there is such an incredible bounty of food collected during this “gleaming” in the summer, the volunteers are welcome to help themselves to some of the free veggies also. It felt so good walking around the farmers market gathering fresh organic vegetables for people who needed it the most. The fact that we were able to fill our cooler also was of course an added benefit.
In Trinidad we not only filled our van and our pockets, but also our souls. My friend lent me his surfing gear and every morning at 9am I got to sit in the ice cold salt water, watch the waves break over the rocks, and try to catch some rides. Lydia stayed on the beach, where she painted the water and did yoga. At night the sun would set over the Pacific Ocean, reminding us that we had made it all the way across the country and then some in our 1982 VW Vanagon. Without knowing it we had shown up amongst the redwoods and the ocean and said feed me, and Mother Earth and the community here fed our bodies, minds, and souls.
As the van rumbles along a dirt road in a morning rain shower, Lydia and I keep our eyes peeled to try and see an entrance sign. Glacier National Park is supposedly to our right as we drive north down a dirt road that traces the western boundary of the park. Huge mountains reaching up in to the clouds seem to guard the entrance, wherever that may be. All around us there is evidence of forest fires from previous years. Charred skeletons of trees dot the landscape, some are still standing while some are leaning on to their neighbors or lying on the ground. Its clear that this forest fire happened a number of years ago because of all of the visible regeneration.
Finally the road turns in to poorly maintained pavement, and an unmarked right turn seems to lead in the right direction. It seems strange though. All of the other parks had signs for miles and miles before getting there. We are supposedly right on the boundary, where are all of the signs? We cross a bridge over an emerald colored glacial river, and after a couple hundred more feet finally we see the sign: Welcome to Glacier National Park.
But where’s the entrance station? Where’s the ranger sitting in a booth ready to collect thirty five dollars to enter the park and hand us a brochure? Where’s the long line of tourists waiting to get in like the other parks? It seems peculiar. We continue forward, and after about fifteen miles Glacier’s famous Lake McDonald comes in to view. I look over at Lydia: “I guess we found the back way in?”
Still a bit confused, we walked in to the Apgar Visitor Center and grabbed a hiking map, some postcards, and a bumper sticker. Looking at the map we see that we had in fact found the one road in to the park without an entrance station. We guessed that it must not be used enough for them to want to staff it. We decided to take a short hike along the shore of Lake McDonald that day so Lydia could paint. The weather was a bit unpredictable with patches of rain and patches of sun.
We only walked a couple miles before Lydia saw the view she wanted to paint. As she set her easel up, I took my seat on a rock. The tops of the mountains that surround Lake McDonald drifted in and out of dark rain clouds, and I wondered how I’d spend my time on the shore. I had brought a book to read and the journal to write in, but I didn’t feel much like reading or writing. I just wanted to sit still and soak it all in. Again this question pops in to my mind: Are we really here?
The next day we woke up next to a river. Rain drops still coated the van’s windows from the heavy rains the night before, making it hard to see what was outside. After admiring the mountains and burned forest around us over morning coffee and muesli (which has become a tradition), we drive back in to the park through the unmanned entrance.
Today we are planning on hiking out to Avalanche Lake, a glacial lake fed by waterfalls that pour down the cliff sides around it. Its a relatively short and flat walk, so we figured it would be good for today since the forecast is calling for high chances of rain. After a quick lunch, we set out with a small day pack and all of Lydia’s painting gear.
The beginning of the trail travels through an old forest with gigantic cedar and hemlock trees. I couldn’t help but think about the word resilience. Some of these trees are two hundred feet tall and over one thousands years old. I’ve never seen such big cedar trees. In central Vermont they never get tall like this. Having done some carpentry I know that one can mill some very rot resistance lumber from Cedar and Hemlock. A lot of the old barns in Vermont are paneled with cedar boards for this reason. We even chose to build out the interior of our van with hemlock, so the trees seem like old friends.
I imagine though that by allowing these trees to continue to grow they are of even more value. What they offer in resilience to our barns or houses is only a fraction of the resilience they are capable of lending to the local ecology as old grandfather/grandmother trees. This is the term given to trees that have gotten so large they are actually capable of taking care of the smaller trees around them by sharing nutrients through their roots. I am certainly no expert on the matter. I have heard though of an old cedar forest in a different part of Montana that holds so much moisture it creates its own weather system. This has allowed it to evade centuries of forest fires. As Lydia and I walk by these giants I place my hand on one of the cedar trees that is particularly large. I want to ask it, “can you teach me how to be resilient?”
Shortly down the trail we encounter a river cascading through a narrow shoot. Years and years of running its course here it has carved a miniature canyon. Not long after the forest opens up to reveal cliff sides shooting up in to the clouds. At this point in the hike I realize I am surrounded by great beings, all of them holding the wisdom of eternity. Some of the rock formations in the park are four to six billion years old. Maybe thats why I feel like I could stare at cliffs like this my entire life and still learn something from them each day. The fact that they are not revealing themselves completely, hiding their high peaks behind fog and rain, only adds to their mystique.
When we arrived at the lake, heavy rains moved in. We admired what we could see, but it was clear Lydia wouldn’t be able to paint this afternoon. Fog was thickening, and we were getting poured on. We sat for a little while longer, not minding that we weren’t getting the full view of the cliffs and waterfalls. It was beautiful like this too, the rain and the clouds lending their own intensity to the scene that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
After not too long we headed back down the trail, past the hidden mountain peaks, past the river, through the old forest, all the way back to the van. We were wet and tired and hungry, but satisfied. The question persisted to appear in my mind. Are we really here?
A train grinds by right outside our window in the morning mist. After tiredly cooking dinner the night before we decided to drive halfway to the other side of the park to be able to hike in the Many Glacier area that morning. We had accidentally driven past the spot we had intended to sleep and had decided in our exhaustion to camp at a horse riding trailhead just off the road. The train rumbled by every couple hours through the night just two hundred feet from our campsite.
We opted out of morning meditation in the light rain and horse poop, had our coffee and muesli in the van, and hit the road. Since it costs money to camp in the park, we had gone around the south border of it to sleep for free. We still had a little over an hour of driving this morning to get to the Many Glacier area.
We finally arrived at the road leading in to Many Glacier, another poorly maintained paved road with potholes and frost heaves. We didn’t even make it to the entrance station before Lydia found an incredible view she wanted to paint. The road in to Many Glacier runs along the border of Lake Shelburne, another gorgeous lake surrounded by mountains upon mountains. We stopped at a pullout that was empty, as Lydia wanted to paint with nobody else around. Of course this didn’t work, as many people pulled over simply to see what her painting looked like.
When she finished her painting we headed towards the park, only to be turned around at the entrance station. The ranger said that the area was full and we had to wait a couple hours for enough people to leave. “There is nowhere to park and hardly any room to drive around in there,” they informed us. We didn’t realize this was possible. A couple hours later the rangers let us know we could enter. The woman working the entrance station informed us that Glacier National Park had totally blown up in popularity these last few years. She suspected social media might be to blame. She told us that last July Glacier was the most visited park out of all the other parks in the United States.
This all really made me wonder, if so many thousands of people are so interested in visiting these protected wild lands, why does that not show up at all in our current political climate? Are people just not making the connection or just not getting involved?
We took a breath taking and restful walk around Swiftcurrent Lake, made some dinner, and drove all the way back to the other side of the park to sleep. The next day was to be our big hiking day. The plan was to hike the twelve mile Highline Trail, one of the best reputed trails in the park.
I have heard that the fear of heights is one of the most basic fears programmed in to the human mind. “Lydia! Everything alright?” I ask shortly down the Highline Trail. “Just hold on a minute, I’m scared of heights,” she responds softly to me. To her right is a cliff side and a couple feet to her left is a two hundred foot drop. The Highline Trail begins at Logan Pass, the high point of the Going to The Sun Road. Both the Going to The Sun Road and the Highline trail were made in a similar fashion. They are narrow and windy paths blasted out of cliffsides with large drops on one side of them.
We had intended to get here a lot earlier. Foxy (our van) surely wouldn’t have made it up the road, so we decided to take the parks free shuttle up to Logan Pass. The shuttle took a lot longer than we expected, and we found ourselves starting our twelve mile hike around one pm. The last shuttle was to leave “The Loop,” the end point of our hike, around seven pm. I know from experience that a normal hiking pace is about two mph. This left us not a moment to spare, seeing as hiking twelve miles at two mph would get us to The Loop at exactly seven pm.
With this in our minds we started off at a quick clip, only to be slowed down by a line of about fifteen hikers all stopped on the trail. A mountain goat was hiking down the trail and stopping to munch on grasses every fifty feet or so. Turns out this trail is very popular among both tourists and animals. Because the trail is blasted in to a cliffside, the mountain goat had no way of stepping off of the trail and we and about fifteen other hikers had no way around him. As he took his time strolling down the trail and munching on grasses, we started to wonder if we would make it to the end point on time.
Finally he found a way to step aside, and very cautiously we made our way past him. I’d only ever seen mountain goats as small white dots way up on hillsides, now I was so close I could have touched him. That was pretty special.
Leading up to today we had been watching the forecast. There had been a lot of rain and some lightning all week, and this day had the lowest chances of these events. To our delight, for the first time since we got to Glacier it was a beautiful sunny day with total visibility. All the birds and wildflowers felt like they were rejoicing in the alpine meadows we traversed. The snow melting in the afternoon sun made all of the streams run hard past us. It was one of those days where things felt like they couldn’t get any better. Every turn of the trail opened up to reveal stunning views of the mountains and valleys around us.
We loved all the ground squirrels and marmots who crossed our path. At one point an entire herd of big horn sheep trotted down the trail towards us before stepping off to the side so we could pass. We were making good time, smiling the entire way. Lydia’s fear of heights had passed quickly, and she was psyched to be out in this beautiful wilderness.
We arrived at The Chalet, a hut made from stone and wood, just before five pm with four downhill miles left to go. We were just slightly ahead of schedule, though we had no time to spare. Both Lydia and I were getting tired and Lydia’s toes were in a lot pain as her hiking shoes were a bit too small. To add to the urgency of the situation big thunderclouds started to appear on the horizon. It was clear that we had to keep moving.
We hustled down the last four miles as quickly as we could, but we weren’t quick enough. About a mile before reaching the loop the storm hit. First came a slight rain, and then we could see these strikingly beautiful lightning bolts weaving and dancing their way through the sky in three different directions before striking the ground. Thunder rumbled and the wind began to whistle through the pine trees. As thunder boomed louder and louder, the sky filled with lightning. We quickened our pace a bit, but what could we do? We put on our rain jackets and tried not to think about the lightning as we walked the last mile. Luckily the storm passed just as fast as it had come, and soon the evening sun was shining on us.
Ten minutes later we arrived at The Loop. It was six thirty, we had plenty of time until the last shuttle out. There were so many people waiting though that we couldn’t all fit, and they had to send up an extra shuttle. We waited at The Loop until about seven forty five, wet, exhausted, and hungry, having last eaten just before noon. We got back to the van at nine pm and still had to cook our dinner and drive to our campsite. We finally filled our bellies and didn’t get to camp until around eleven pm. We slept very well that night!
Our last day in Glaicer was a bit of a rest day. We caught the shuttle again this time all they way over Logan Pass to St. Mary Lake. Lydia brought her painting gear. I spent the day sitting by the water and admiring the views, similar to how I had the first day. I had brought a book to read and the journal to write in as Lydia painted, but I felt like doing neither. I just wanted to soak it all in. And again this question popped in to my head, are we really here?
I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be in a place and truly show up there. The word tourism has been in my mind a lot. Lydia and I were living on the same farm in Central Vermont for the last three years together. I remember on the farm we would always have a celebration at winter and summer solstice. Farming being so tied to the seasons, these were bigger holidays than Labor Day or Fourth of July.
There was this strong feeling inside both of us of being deeply at home and familiar with the land and the seasonal shifts that occurred month to month. During one of the winter solstice celebrations, one of the farmers shared a poem. Though I forget who wrote it, what it was titled, and even the wording of the poem, the message stuck with me. The last verse of the poem was something along the lines of, “If you want to truly know a place, you have to stay their for more than one year.”
A lot of people visit these parks each year. It can actually be very overwhelming. It’s a side to National Parks that I haven’t written about yet. It can be really hard to feel like you are actually in nature, almost as if you are in an amusement park or a museum instead. The trails can be crowded and the small roads jammed with traffic. The cultures and economies that have built up in a lot of the small towns surrounding the parks are geared towards people who will be there for maybe two weeks maximum, tourists. Everyone is trying to sell you something. I often have wondered in these towns, how do the locals feel about all of this?
It all feels a little disrespectful. Thats why I keep asking myself, am I really here? Am I really showing up for this land the way it is showing up for me? Yes I did see this mountain range one day in July, but I have not witnessed it in August, September, October, November, Etc. I have not witnessed it in my sadness, in my joy, in the shifts of emotion that occur throughout a year. So have I truly seen it? Am I really here?
To travel like we are I think we have to be mindful not to be tourists. By this I mean not to treat a local economy as if it is made to serve our every wish and not to treat the natural world like its an amusement park. Instead, can we arrive in a place as someone open to what it is willing to offer, as someone willing to bend to its wishes? Then we might truly learn something and truly be there. We are going to leave this park soon, and I have to ask myself again, how well have I shown up for this landscape and this community? Have I only taken and not given back?
Was I ever truly here?
Field Notes —
Emerald, turquoise, mint, sage, and robin’s egg blue-
Waters tinted by cerulean sky and glacial silt
Clear as crystal
Shinning jewels beneath rays of sun light
Yellow star field meadows
And sturdy green shoots erupting out of melting snow
The aroma of pine tree thickets is heavily intoxicating
My eyes feast on the jagged crown of heaven’s peak
Flats and cliff sides dip their feet into a hazy valley lake
Flanked by inlets of tree line
Bear grass rises like bursts of moon light upon leggy graceful stems
A fawn’s first steps
Fragile and awkward
In the evening they embroider deep dark silver worlds
As wisps of mist and fog silently invoke the dark magic of night
The shadow of fire leans on ridges and foot hill
Marching burnt deadwood
The color of crow feather
Finds its place in the ragged twilight hour
Sun tanned and stream kissed
I find myself empty and full
Like the wind and the river
In the heart of Yellowstone lies a caldera that’s thirty miles by forty five miles in size. Yellowstone is a super volcano that last erupted six hundred and thirty one thousand years ago. It is still very active. The remarkable volcanic activity that can be witnessed throughout the park is actually one of the major reasons it was protected and established as this countries first national park in 1872. There is actually so much volcanic activity here that NASA has taken to studying it to learn about how life could exist on other planets. Hot, harsh, sulfuric waters are heated by lava deep under the earth’s surface and then pressurized and pushed out above ground. In the areas where this water runs over the earth one sees multicolored bacterial mats containing some of the first life forms that were able to exist on this planet. If this volcano were to erupt again it would be catastrophic to life as we know it, and even if I were still home in Vermont I would feel the effects.
I feel small.
Yellowstone National Park is home to a thriving community of many of the large mammals in North America. Black bears, grizzly bears, mountain lions, packs of wolves, elk, moose, and bison all roam the 2.2 million acres of snow covered peaks, lush meadows, and dense forests that constitute Yellowstone. I can feel their presence here, how they shift this landscape. Its palpable. There is this sense in Yellowstone that this is somewhere truly wild.
These large mammals couldn’t exist without this wilderness. If the park didn’t envelop such large tracts of undeveloped land these large mammals wouldn’t choose to live here, they physically and emotionally need it to thrive. For example, the territory of one male grizzly bear can be up to 500 square miles.
I think that also if these large mammals weren’t here, this land would not feel or even look like it does. It’s really true. There is a relatively recent scientific finding referred to as a trophic cascade. One of the major studies of this event actually happened in the Lamar Valley here at Yellowstone. By some unique chain of events, scientists discovered that the re-introduction of keystone predators in an environment can over time have an effect that cascades down the trophic levels and ultimately changes the physical geography of the land. They observed this when wolves were re-introduced in to this park. As the wolf population grew, it changed the habits of the deer, who prior to this time had had huge population booms and overgrazed all the meadows. The deer started spending less time in the open meadows where they were easy to spot, and a lot of the meadows were able to regenerate to forest because of this. This brought more beavers and birds to the area. The beavers built dams, creating more niche habitats for other species. So the entire ecosystem changed. Not just the ecosystem changed though. Because so much forest could regenerate, it stabilized the soils on the river banks. With less erosion they started to wind more. So over time the introduction of wolves in the Lamar Valley even changed the shape of the rivers.
So in other words this landscape and these animals are really one with each other. One would not exist without the other. They inter-are. The mammals could not exist without this wilderness and this wilderness would not exist the same way, physically and emotionally, without them. It is so clear in Yellowstone that one is in an environment literally shaped by these mammals. One can truly feel it. I start to wonder my place in all of it.
When we first arrived in Yellowstone we camped just south of the park, pulling in after dark on a nearly full moon night. The campground was on Snake River, an active grizzly bear zone located in a patch of dense forest that lies between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. The moonlit river and forest and mountains were awe inspiring, true to the definition of the word. (“awe: a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear and wonder. -google definitions”) As I drifted in and out of a restless sleep, I peered out the van window at the river. At one point I pulled back the curtain and as if in a dream I gazed the moonlit silhouette of a grizzly bear wandering downstream. I blinked and rubbed my eyes and the figure was gone, a mirage or not I will never know.
I feel restless.
Printed on the road map that one gets upon entering the park are three large words: The Restless Giant. They are referring to the super volcano that is Yellowstone. I am sure that they call it this because ever since it erupted six hundred and thirty one thousand years ago it has not stopped spewing hot sulfuric water and gas from its caldera. It has not rested.
As I stared at the map handed to me by the park ranger this word stood out. Restless. Deep within the earth there is always restlessness. Extreme heat and friction and powerful forces are grinding and shifting and moving. One can see its evidence very clearly here. This restlessness is in me to. These forces of heat and change propel all of us forward. The forces of the earth need to play out on a very personal level for all of us. When a student asked the Zen Master Suzuki Roshi a question about hell, he responded after some time, saying, “hell is not punishment, it is training,” as if to say it’s quite normal and necessary to feel the forces of heat and change that this planet produces, in one way or another.
Though these feelings might sound uncomfortable and challenging, they are the necessary ingredients in my life to spark creativity. Within all of this mess of feeling fragile, small, and restless I feel endlessly inspired and as wide open as these Wyoming skies. The sky feels so big here, I’m not sure how this landscape achieves that effect. Maybe its the huge treeless valleys with ten thousand foot snow capped mountains on either side. Maybe its the altitude, the valleys themselves being at five to seven thousand feet elevation, holding you that much closer to the cold vacuum of space. Maybe its the low light pollution that lets the Milky Way explode in to a band of stardust every night.
Whatever it is there is some magic unique to this part of the world that just brings me to life. It’s almost as if the veil between the physical and the spiritual world draws thinner here than other places. It’s as if as one gazes out they are simultaneously witnessing landscape as well as the grace and movement of a great spirit that pervades all things.
All of this leads me in to the questioning of my life and the choices I have made and continue to make. To what degree am I allowing this deeper wisdom to guide my life, and to what degree am I closing the door and turning away? Right now Lydia and I are traveling to Alaska in an old van we have turned in to our home. I know this is, funny enough, a dream both Lydia and I have harbored for a long time. It has been beautiful to watch it manifest from thought to reality. If this is truly my heart path where is it leading me? I wonder sometimes also, am I on the right path? I love the teachings of a certain Yogi named Swami Muktananda. In a book called “Mukteshwari” in a chapter titled “You Yourself are What You Seek,” he writes:
“Who would wander from forest to forest
when the divine flame shines in the heart?
The thumb-sized flame
shines in the center of the heart.
By its brightness the world is bright.
When that is in the heart,
why do you think it is far?
Within the heart lies supreme affection,
boundless enthusiasm, lasting peace,
compassion like nectar.
So why travel far and wide seeking something that is already so close? The truth is I don’t know, and I am sure I am not meant to. But the universe speaks in mystery with a language not many can understand. There is room for contradictions, amendments to the rules. Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” I believe a heart centered life can look like thousands of different things. Perhaps there is a mystery that keeps the gears on this old van greased and rolling north west down the highway that neither Lydia and I have yet to comprehend.
There is no shade here, where Lydia and I have stationed ourselves. Upon feeling my arms start to burn a little, I wanted to sit down to write somewhere that offered some relief from the sun, but I saw none. It’s our second day in the same spot, about one mile in on the Castle Hill Trail in Badlands National Park, South Dakota. Lydia has set up her easel and is attempting to capture the beauty of this location with her painting. We had run out of time and patience here yesterday, as we hadn’t eaten since breakfast and it was nearing 5:30 in the afternoon. Today we made sure to cook a big lunch before coming out and even brought our overnight gear to do some camping. The Badlands has very low light pollution and is reputed to be a spectacular place to witness the night sky.
The park is this beautiful mixture of a desert-esc landscape and lush prairie land. The desert like portion is a light tan mixture of silt, sand, and clay that is baked hard to the ground. This mixture both rises up as large fragile cliffs resembling giant sand castles and also erodes away to form deep crumbly ravines and trenches. It is truly awe inspiring to be here and witness these other worldly formations.
Of course there are other things that set the mood here. Walking down the trails one traces big horn sheep hoof prints and passes signs reading “Beware of Rattlesnakes.” Yesterday on our outing we had the pleasure of encountering a group of 5 or 6 big horn sheep, all sitting and admiring the landscape around them and then later grazing on some of the prairie grasses. They are all around here. It is a treat having only left Vermont a couple weeks ago and to be among such unique creatures! In our few days here we have also witnessed bison herds and communities of prairie dogs, yipping and barking and running about.
The prairie also lends its own unique beauty to The Badlands. The park actually borders Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, so looking out in to the distance all one sees is miles of open, lush grasses moving in the wind. I never realized how beautiful a sea of grass could be. It’s easy to forget, especially as a landscaper, that grass holds its own sovereign and wild space on this earth. As the prairie meets the desert scape of The Badlands it thins and dries, bleaching in large swaths to the same color as the sand, silt, and clay around it.
The weather here also sets a certain mood. There has been a constant wind and big storm clouds always on the horizon, though mostly we have had fair weather over our heads. When clouds fade and the sun comes out the heat rises instantly, and the dry air makes it feel a bit like a small desert surrounded by grasslands.
For Lydia and I being in The Badlands right now represents a big accomplishment. It feels as though we have made it out west. We have been working tirelessly these last couple years trying to build the van interior in to a home while paying for all of the mechanical work that comes along with wanting to take an ’82 Vanagon all the way from Vermont to Alaska. Managing to have enough energy and money at the end of the day to live our lives was difficult. We only left on this trip a couple weeks ago, and we are just starting to feel out what van life looks like for us.
The weather in the park reminds me of how this trip has been for us thus far. Fair weather over our heads, but dark and unknown thunder clouds always somewhere on the horizon. Fair weather over our heads because we have been having lots of fun and are so happy to be making this shared dream a reality. It has been so liberating to take each day as it comes, having no set schedule, no major deadlines, and no expectations of whats to come. But every day there is an unknown. Where will we sleep tonight, will the van have any problems today, when is the next time we can shower and do laundry, etc. In a sense we have stepped out of our comfort zone of a home with an income and friends all around us and in to a whole new world of unknowns.
Our new lifestyle has had me thinking of a title of a book written by a Buddhist Nun named Pema Chodron. It’s titled “Comfortable with Uncertainty.” I think that is really at the heart of how we are living right now, and I think the truth is thats how all of life is. When are we truly certain of what the next moment will hold? Within the routines and structures we create at home and in our lives we find a sense of security, but at the heart of life, if one really looks, is this deep, ground shaking uncertainty. I remember one time I went to the public library in Montpelier, VT to listen to a Buddhist Nun speak about death. She said, “We all walk around pretending we know when we will die, but the truth is we don’t. We make all of these plans and ideas up in our heads but we could die tomorrow.” I think she was just bringing our attention to that uncertainty at the heart of each moment. This trip has been in a sense an encounter with that uncertainty, and for this reason has had me thinking of death from time to time.
The Badlands has been our third National Park/Monument we’ve visited thus far on our trip. We also stopped in Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa and Indiana Dunes National Seashore. I think it was at Effigy Mounds where my first reflections on death started to arise. The reasons for this are clear. Effigy Mounds is considered to have been both a place for refuge as well as ceremony and burial. Some of the mounds take the shape of bears while others are more simple, just mounds of dirt. Some of the mounds are even filled with the bones of the ancestors of the Mounds People of the current Midwest. A note, more like a prayer than anything else, from a Ho-Chunk woman as you enter the park reminds one that the old ones spirits will watch over you as you walk through the space. As Lydia and I walked slowly and respectfully passed the biggest of the bear shaped mounds in the area two turkey vultures circled over us, bringing my mind to a place of reflection on a topic I have not reflected on much at the young age of twenty-eight.
Another reflection that has been on my mind this trip is development. It’s been remarkable how much of the land in our country is either developed or privately owned. To think that all this land once looked like these parks not to many centuries ago is a hard thought to bear. Geologically speaking all of this development, even our human species at that, is very young. Actually geologically speaking Badlands National Park is a very young formation also. It is only twenty six- seventy five million years old, which is only a fraction of the age of this planet. On that time scale it was just a very brief time ago all the land in this country was wild. The landscape off I-90 for the last 800 miles has been endless farmland. Though beautiful in their own right, these farms offered us no refuge. And that is what these grasslands and this park are to us right now. Refuge. And not just to us. The entire local ecology and millions of visitors each year find refuge here. We and all our animal relatives need wild spaces more than maybe we can understand at any given moment.
When we first entered the grasslands we stopped at a scenic viewpoint off the interstate and I could feel instantly the difference. Things felt truly sovereign, things felt health and hopeful. Things felt honored as what they were, not as what they could be used for. The constant drone of “progress” one feels as they see farmers driving these huge farm fleet vehicles over thousands of acres of tilled land or sees construction vehicle after construction vehicle tearing up and fixing roads had magically passed.
I felt the same thing as we drove in to Iowa over the Mississippi River in to Effigy Mounds National Monument. As we walked respectfully through this sacred site and out to a viewpoint over the mighty Mississippi, bald eagles circled over us. This river and its banks were their home. I was honored to be in their presence.
The animals need this wild land for habitat. It has been heart breaking for us thus far on our trip, especially Lydia. Most of the animals we’ve seen have been dead on the side of the road, struck by a car and left on the pavement. How disrespectful is this? We see it every day and put it out of our minds, but imagine if this was somebody’s pet or even a person? We would be horrified. These beautiful creatures deserve more respect than this. One gets the sense that in these parks and grasslands they can be at peace, and are given more respect.
I think Lydia and I feel the same about being here. I am so thankful to those who protected these wild lands. They could have so easily been gobbled up and developed like all of the other millions of acres around us that used to hold this same wild sovereignty.
That is another part of what makes this trip so important. It is in a way a reclamation of our own lives, our wild sovereignty. It’s hard with work and life to not just get caught in this constant drone of “progress” that surrounds us. In this state of mind sometimes the days blur together and pass unnoticed, leaving one to wonder ten years later where their life has gone. There is a poster on the wall of the barn home where we lived and farmed these last three years before hitting the road which helped wake me back up to how I should be living. It reads: Peaceful, Mindful, Wild, and Free.
After a couple hours painting and writing in this same spot, Lydia decided to wrap up her painting and I put away my notebook. We walked slowly through the late evening heat another half mile down the trail and set up camp. It was a beautiful cloudless evening, and Lydia and I laid down together and watched the light turn orange and the sky different shades of blue and purple. The sun danced over all the different prairie grasses and played with the shadows on the other worldly cliff sides.
Dinner was a little less romantic than I anticipated, as I realized with frustration when I opened the food bag that I had forgotten the can opener for the can of beans and our stove was nearly out of fuel for cooking pasta. Luckily the fuel was just enough to cook some extra al-dente pasta, and after a little brainstorming we found a flat head screw driver in Lydia’s painting gear and grabbed a rock from nearby and pounded our way in to the beans.
We slept that night under the stars. No tent, just our sleeping bags and the open sky. This is always a bit intimidating for me at first. Also without sleeping pads on the hard clay I found it hard to get comfortable. The moon rose and the sky turned dark. Mosquitoes buzzed in our ears and we hid in our sleeping bags until they lost interest. Then we would stick our heads back out and peer up at the night sky until they discovered us again. Since the moon was rather full we actually couldn’t see to many stars, but the moonlit sand castle mountains were indescribably enchanting. The chorus of the evenings wind and moon light was made complete by the distant yipping of a pack of coyotes. The night drew on, as I drifted in and out of sleep.
Somewhere in the late late evening, I awoke startled by a horrified screaming from Lydia. I rolled over and hugged her. “Whats Wrong?!” I asked as I realized she was in a bad dream. My heart was pounding. “Oh,” she said, “I was dreaming you were getting eaten by coyotes and I needed to scare them off, I was trying to save you!” The she started to laugh and apologized, embarrassed that she had screamed out loud. As my heart settled down I rolled over on to my back, and to my amazement I could see the entire Milky Way. The moon had set just enough, and the sky had exploded in to a band of thousands of tiny dots.
As I lay there gazing up at this vastness in front of me, something in my mind shifted. In a moment it became so clear how vulnerable my human life is, how small even our planet is, yet simultaneously how incredibly vast and expansive it all is. My earlier meditations on death at Effigy Mounds came back to me, and I remembered something I read about saints and the great wisdom holders on this earth. The writer had spoken of these great beings going to join the stars upon dying. I saw for a split second in my minds eye a much bigger universe than my day to day one. One where I could embrace both life and death in my thoughts and heart as a great opening in to the vastness of the universe. One where I would be foolish to believe there could ever be anything other than deep and wild mystery.
Charles and I have been cat and house sitting for the last couple months, and soon we’re about to move from the yurt on the farm and into our van. So we’ve had to do a lot of cleaning- and this is where I find an overload of products for different wildly specific applications, either in someone’s cupboard, or in the aisle at a store.
As Charles and I are slowly getting rid of 80 percent of the things we own to prepare to move into the tiniest space either of us have ever lived in, (well there was that time Charles lived in a tiny house on the farm, but the van is probably still smaller than that), we’ve been simplifying and condensing the things that we do need to bring along.
This has been an extremely liberating process! Its like getting rid of mental and physical baggage, cleaning the mind out as well as the spaces with our belongings. The less you have, the less responsibility you have, and the more you appreciate what you do have. I’ve been asking myself almost daily, “do I really need this?” And then being very honest with myself, and engaging in the process of letting go. If I’m not using it everyday, it probably isn’t essential. There are some things that are challenging to let go of, but when you do you open up new space for growth and clarity.
I’ve found THREE SIMPLE and basic DIY van (or whatever you live in) cleaning recipes, all from doTERRA’s do it yourself blog.
I picked the recipes that seemed the most important, and that could be modified to fit other cleaning applications. This is a very simple way to create an eco-friendly toxin free cleaning supplies cabinet. You can refill your bottles each time you make a new batch, and even experiment with different essential oil combinations. Outside of the essential oils, you’ll want to buy these ingredients in bulk: Baking soda, white vinegar, citric acid, salt, olive oil, and fragrance free liquid castile soap (ex. Dr. Bronner). Then, all you need is three glass containers that you’ll reuse each time. The containers include one jar with a lid, one bottle with a sprayer, and one bottle with a cap or sprayer. You’ll want glass because pure essential oils can pull the toxins out of plastic. And besides, who wants more plastic? Also, ditch the paper towel and one time use wipes. Sponges and rags are our friends. Can’t afford to buy some new rags? Just cut up that tee-shirt you were going to donate. Its true that sometimes even these need to be thrown out, but they can be washed and reused many times before that fate.
Wood Polish: For surfaces and furniture
Recipe 1: 1/4 cup olive oil 1/4 cup vinegar 10 drops Essential Oils (Arborvitae, Wild Orange, or Lemon) Glass bottle with cap or sprayer
Instructions: -Combine and mix ingredients, pour into bottle – Spray or dab onto a clean microfiber cloth and rub surface down
Modification: Subtract the vinegar for wooden cutting boards, vessels, and utensils
All Purpose Cleaner: For any surface, appliances, and windows
Recipe 2: 1/4 cup white vinegar 1 3/4 cup water 30 drops lemon essential oil + on guard essential oil (either 15 of each or 30 of on guard) Glass bottle with sprayer
Instructions: -Combine, mix well, and pour into bottle -Spray onto cloth and wipe surface
Modification: -Multiply the water and vinegar and add 2 tablespoons of liquid castile soap for mop bucket solution. Multiplication variable depends on square footage of floor. -Subtract the vinegar and add 2 tablespoons of unscented liquid castile soap for dish washing/hand soap. The ratio of water to Dr. B soap is 1:10 and says so on the bottle too
Deep Clean Scrub: Heavy duty grime- compositing buckets, bathroom, sinks, ect
Recipe 3: Mason jar with lid ¾ rounded cup baking soda ¼ cup unscented liquid castile soap 1 tablespoon water 1 tablespoon vinegar 5–10 drops Lemon oil
Instructions: -In bowl, combine baking soda and castile soap. -Add water and stir. -Add vinegar and essential oil. The consistency should be a soft paste. -Store in airtight container.
Modification: -Substitute a 1:1 ratio of on guard essential oil with oregano essential oil getting rid of black mold
See, how simple is that? Once you have these formulas roaming around in your head, it will be easier to implement down the road. If you’d like to eventually expand your DIY toxin-free cleaning supply cabinet, go right ahead! These three recipes may just help you to get the ball rolling. OH and PS…elbow grease doesn’t cost a cent!
Note: Not all aforementioned essential oils are ideal for cats, dogs, and other pets. Make sure you research whats recommended for your pet. That being said, I’m pretty sure any one of the standard chemical cleaning products could swiftly kill your pet if they got ahold of it.
What does it take for an experience to be memorable?
My first memorable experience farming or gardening has to be planting garlic on a small organic farm in Sweden. Åke, a native Swede, and his wife Ting Ting, an immigrant from China, started Gårdsbutik, their large garden and meditation center in the South-Eastern region.
There were many other wwoofers (world wide organic farmers), cycling in and out, some to travel, some to learn, and others to take refuge from other countries. Siad was a young man who escaped Morocco and sought asylum in France, but had been consistently arrested in Paris and wound up wwoofing in Sweden. Gårdsbutik was a beautiful safe haven, and was only about an acre. The farm, incredibly diverse and efficiently tended to, and was surrounded by wild fields covered with daisies as the common weed, and old growth forests. The natives were tall like the pine trees. The country landscape was dotted with red and yellow painted houses and threaded with canals.
When I arrived in late summer, much of the work I did involved harvesting, washing, packing, composting, and processing. Åke, the group of woofers and I worked on a few infrastructure projects, and sometimes I did small tasks alone like shoveling, raking, or cleaning. Often Åke would take me and another wwoofer into town to run the farmers market. All of us together took turns with the CSA delivery and farm stand. I worked with Ting Ting and my friend Svenja from Germany in the farm store often, and with Ting Ting alone if it was my turn to cook. Even though I was on a vegetable farm and vegan, not all the meals strictly adhered to plants only. Once she cooked moose, and I graciously offered my turn to someone else.
The garlic planting, though simple and fairly straight forward, inspired me because it made me feel apart of the process from the very beginning. I wanted to be more apart of giving life and the sowing process, rather than just the taking and reaping. The garlic was not growth that I could monitor directly. I couldn’t see its slow hibernation, duplication, and incubation underground, but it was more of this pleasant feeling of hope and wonder as the seasons changed, as we walked past the rows of alliums almost daily. The planting process involved creating small holes in the dark soil, holes to be spaced out from out from one another, like neighboring nests or dens. I felt a small wave of joy as my thumb pressed the bottom of the clove into the black, soft, and welcoming earth. Svenja and I worked side by side and tucked them into bed for the rest of the fall, winter, and spring. I would not see them again, but I trusted the earth, the farmers, and even the summer wwoofers to be good caretakers. I remember the plastic tag covered in crumbs of dirt labeled vitlök (swedish for garlic), above the row where I was kneeling, as if it were an arrow pointing towards abundance.
The winter months came eventually, ushering in blizzards and swallowing hours of daylight whole. I had worked on two other farms and came back with Svenja. We spread compost over the beds and forked steaming hot horse manure tangled in clumps of hay bales, onto the snow laden mounds, white sand dunes in a plant desert. It was profound to feed new life with decomposition.
Six years later was my first summer farming up at Good Heart Farmstead in Vermont. Ironically, one of my first tasks in that lush green season was to move the hay aside on the garlic beds, allowing the sun to penetrate, gently waking maturing bulbs from their long slumber. It felt as if I was drawing the blinds or curtains for them. I got to watch their green shoots pop up through soil and witness the stalks grow taller and taller, until the tips browned, letting us know they were ready to come out of the ground and into the world. I learned how to harvest them quickly, and pulled bunches at a time. I was soaked in sweat, drinking in the air, and in a constant table top position until all were liberated from the depths of the earth.
It took a very long time to see this first experience of growth through. Even though I’ve had lots of prior experiences seeding, transplanting, and harvesting, they were always in fragments, somehow removed, and therefore not so memorable. Good heart was the beginning of sewing together so many essential patterns in my life, and I can’t help but wonder if I was fated to work and live there, or just ready. This notable experience gave me permission to feel like a grower for the first time. My present had connected to my past. The task of farming and gardening felt very incomplete and at times stressful when I wasn’t apart of the seed planting, with a hand in the whole process, and then my belly in it too. Sowing the seed, nurturing growth, seeing the growth bear fruit, and then eating that fruit is what helps us to feel whole, to gain wisdom, and to appreciate the miracle that is the cycle of growing, human and vegetable alike.
Perhaps that is why this memory in particular, holds a very special place in my heart. A powerful memory, an experiential memory, is a combination of nostalgia, an moment that shaped your identity, and something that defines or alters the way you view the world, and the way you view yourself.