Trail Therapy: Why Movement Outdoors is a Game-Changer

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By Gigi Griffis

About a year ago, I was having a full-on meltdown about my finances. I’d been scammed out of $350 and the whole thing sent me into a spiral of anger and panic and general gloom.

I couldn’t work. I couldn’t relax.

So I did the only thing I could do: I strapped on my day-pack, harnessed the dog, and walked onto one of the steepest hiking trails near my house, focusing on working my body and letting my upset mind focus on something else (like, you know, breathing, and putting one foot in front of the other).

It took less than an hour for my angry, whirling thoughts to settle as the noises of town faded away and I moved farther and farther into solitude.

And as my thoughts settled, I realized something profound.

I was upset about the $350 because it made me feel trapped. Because for the past few years, I work really, really hard, build up my savings a bit, and then—suddenly and unexpectedly—the expenses roll in. An unexpected medical bill. A series of vet visits. Or, in this case, a scam.

I kept thinking “I just can’t get ahead.”

That’s what caused my panicked spiral that morning.

But as I made my way quickly uphill (not quite running, but reducing a 1.5 hour hike to just under an hour), I realized that it was equally true to look at the situation from the opposite perspective:

“I’ve always had exactly what I needed.”

Sure, I wasn’t constantly watching my bank balance swing upward, but I also had never been destitute. I didn’t have to take a job I hated. I wasn’t living on my parents’ couch.

No, I was okay.

And so by the end of my hike, I was calm. Still not thrilled about the scam situation, but not railing or screaming or pulling out my hair in frustration. Just calm.

I’ve hit a lot of spirals like that. They’re usually around money or love or loss. Or losing friendships. Or wishing that my freelance business would (gosh-darn-it) succeed faster and in a bigger way.

But what I’ve noticed this year—a year that I’ve been lucky enough to get a visa to live in the Swiss Alps, with my apartment backing up to at least four challenging hiking trails and two easy ones—is that movement and nature are a deep, gratifying, and surprisingly instant kind of therapy.

It’s as if when I move up these mountains, pushing myself to go a little farther or a little faster than last time, I’m burning away all the negative, dark, and heartbreaking thoughts.

Because, in between telling myself that I can make it up the hill, noticing the perfect way the rocks spill over the hillsides, and moving away from the source of the trouble, even for just a few hours, there’s no room for those negative thoughts anymore. There’s no room to think that I just can’t ahead or that I’m not lovable or that I should give up.

After all, in that moment, I am getting ahead (quite literally). I am doing something just for me (which is the kind of thing that can’t help but make you feel loved). And I’m not giving up on the mountain, which makes me just a little more certain that I can conquer the less tangible things in my life as well.

And so I’ve begun to understand life a little differently this year.

On days that I’m frustrated, angry, or upset, I lace up my trail running shoes and run along the valley floor or wind my way, hiking, along the cliffs and up into the high alps.

When I noticed that I was feeling unmotivated in the mornings, I instituted a new routine, waking up at 7 a.m., loading business podcasts up in my iPod, and power-walking out of town in the brisk September air.

When I need a fresh perspective or just to be too exhausted to dwell on the tough stuff, I grab my jacket and I move. Up a mountain. Across a valley. Through town. It doesn’t really matter where. It’s the motion that clears my head, calms my heart, and reminds me that I can trust myself—body, mind, heart, and all.

14996296397_fe71042753_cGigi Griffis is a world-traveling entrepreneur and writer with a special love for inspiring stories, new places, and living in the moment. In May 2012, she sold her stuff and took to the road with a growing business and a pint-sized pooch named Luna.

These days, she’s hanging out in Switzerland, planning epic European adventures, and promoting her newly launched unconventional travel guides: ITALY: 100 Locals Tell You Where to Go, What to Eat, and How to Fit In and the smaller city guides for Paris, Barcelona, and Prague.

You can find more musings, travel stories, travel tips, and books at gigigriffis.com.

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Check out my book: The Summit Seeker

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Your Dirtbag Hospitality Guide

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Are you passionate about supporting your local dirtbags, but aren’t sure what exactly they need (other than a shower, obviously)?

Worry no more!

After three years of dirtbagging experience, I have compiled this handy list of what your dirtbag needs but may be too polite to ask for.

  1. Shower

Let’s start with the glaringly obvious. You can’t go wrong with this offer since a stand-up shower to a dirtbag can be as rare an ultramarathon race director in it for the money. The two things your dirtbag will appreciate the most: a little privacy and hot water. When you’re used to freezing creeks and public nudity, a hot shower is like bathing in a unicorn’s tears of joy. PS: Ignore any sobbing you hear behind the shower curtain—probably just chaffing.

  1. Wifi

Free wifi that isn’t from McDonald’s is pretty freaking luxurious. For a dirtbag, it feels like that time you got your very first email in your brand new email account that wasn’t a welcome email from Hotmail. If you really want to spoil your dirtbag, offer up wifi that’s strong enough to stream Netflix: a true gem. Please remind them to shoot an email to their poor, worried mothers who feel like they’ve somehow failed.

  1. Laundry facilities

There is only one thing that stinks worse than a dirtbag: their dirtbag of laundry. Keep in mind: these were clothes that were rejected by the dirtbag as being too dirty on their scale of extremely low standards. If you are fortunate enough to have a washer and dryer in your home (oh, the lappin’ luxury!), do the universe a favor and lend them out to the dirtbag cause. CAUTION: Do NOT attempt to load the washer for your dirtbag. They have been training for months to withstand the force of this smell. You’ll need a gas mask and/or resuscitation.

  1. Home-cooked meal

Dirbags eat. A lot. And rarely—oh so very rarely—do they get to enjoy the goodness of a home-cooked meal. If your dirtbag turns down a free meal shared amongst friends, they’re simply not a real dirtbag. Go ahead and cook up a storm. It doesn’t have to be the least bit fancy or even all that good. Oops—did the salt slip? Did you use the wrong spice? It’s already way better than your dirtbag’s last meal of cold Poptarts and GU.

  1. Leftovers

You’ve done the home-cooked meal. You’ve nailed the showers and the wifi and the laundry. Easy peasy. Now, if you really want to make a dirtbag love you, insist they take some leftovers for the road. It can be as simple as a sandwich or as easy as that old lasagna that’s been sitting in the back of your fridge for three weeks. A dirtbag will respond with enthusiastic glee. Legend has it that some dirtbags have even been offered take-home beer, otherwise known as Dirtbag Nirvana.

Remember: Dirtbags can be shy and solitary creatures. They will most likely never ask outright for any of the above luxuries, but with only a few friendly offers you may easily find yourself with a new (or slightly used) dirtbag friend for life (DFFL!).

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Reading to Cats, Playing the Ukulele, and Turning 32

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A few weeks ago someone asked me what my long-term life goals were. In the past, I have been vocal about not really setting any, about the value of spontaneity and adventure, and the importance of getting lost sometimes.

Still, I thought seriously about the question and it took me a few minutes to realize that all of my “wildest dream” goals, I have already accomplished. I always dreamed about writing a book and running 100 miles. I wanted to travel and live off my art.

I am 32 today and I am so proud of the way my life has turned out. In the past 12 months, I have traveled more places than my first 31 years combined. I’m thrilled to be doing exactly what I want, exactly how I want it.

It’s time to set some new ambitions and explore new limits. How exciting!

Here are some “lifetime” goals I came up with in answer to my friend’s question. They seem far off and distant right now, but who knows… maybe in a few years I’ll be checking this list off and adding more?

MY LIFETIME GOALS

  • write more books, maybe 10-15+
  • set some OKTs (Only Known Times… being the first to do crazy stuff)
  • remain nomadic (as long as I care to)
  • remain independent (not in a position of needing to rely financially on another)
  • travel internationally
  • learn to play 5+ instruments over my lifetime + sing
  • at some point, travel alone and get comfortable with it
  • thru hike the Colorado Trail. Pacific Crest Trail, Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, among others
  • train for and finish the Mogollon Monster 100
  • learn a martial art
  • read at least 100 books/year every year
  • play every day of my life (never all work)
  • Run Across El Salvador
  • learn one new word every day (vocab)
  • learn the art of farming
  • recite various poetry/song/stories from memory
  • learn 5+ languages in my lifetime
  • volunteer everywhere and all the time
  • continue to maintain and develop relationships with my family

In the immediate future:

  1. We will be working at a turkey farm in Colorado this August.
  2. We will be setting a date for a Run Across El Savador in the next couple of weeks. The plans have been in the works for most of this year and we’re looking at February 2015. It’s about 160 miles across the country! It will be a stage race.
  3. Traveling into Mexico next year (Copper Canyons, here we come!)
  4. 20 hours of volunteer work this month so far (at races). I tried a gig volunteering at an animal shelter and it was terrible because I wasn’t allowed to adopt every single thing. I heard there was a position for reading to cats though… To Kill a Mockingbird, anyone?
  5. I am on my four chapter of my next book. It’s about females and endurance. I’ll do a post about this later – there’s too much to tell. I also plan on writing something about all our travels (book #3?).
  6. I am learning the ukulele (banjo next).
  7. I am practicing and improving my Spanish (French next).
  8. I am READING ALL THE THINGS!

Thank you all for your birthday wishes and THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for being part of my life. You are all so special to me.

This is gonna be a good year.

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Must Have Been Another Earthquake, Kids by Jason Robillard (Book Review)

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The first “real life” RVer we ever met and our earliest inspiration for hitting the road was Jason Robillard and his family. We tracked him as he and his wife Shelly quit their jobs in Michigan, moved into an RV with their three young kids, and hit the road full-time.

They made us think that we could do it too–frankly, because we figured: If they can do it with three kids, imagine how much easier it would be for our childless selves!

We were right–it was easier. Over the next three years we eased right into a simplified childless existence. We camped off-the-grid, chased adventures, visited breweries, and wondered how in the hell the Robillard’s were doing it with all those kids…

This book answers all those questions.

If you’re a curious parent who wants to give your children a healthy worldview, you’ll appreciate Jason’s insights. If you’re seriously thinking of taking your family on the road, you’ll pour over Jason’s detailed logistical tips.

What makes this book completely different from all the RV-info books already out there is the rare fact that Jason does NOT in any way sugar-coat the lifestyle. He is brutally honest about the pros and Every. Single. Con.

Although we’ve had a very different experience in our smaller, child-free ride, I found myself nodding in agreement at his candid advice. His personal anecdotes are unique and entertaining.

And if you haven’t had the honor of experiencing Jason’s masterful graphs, you’re in for a treat:

toastAnother favorite is the Q&A section near the end where Jason fields questions from real-life friends and acquaintances.

Check out the Table of Contents HERE.

See the book on Amazon HERE.

And the Kindle version is HERE.

I found this photo in the dictionary under “Accomplished Author”:

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Happy reading and don’t forget to leave an Amazon review!

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We’re Not in Niagara Falls Anymore: A Photo Essay About Water

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Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada

If you happen to be growing up in a poor family in Toronto, Canada, and if you happen to be Hispanic, chances are you do the following three things: shop at Goodwill during the week, go to church on the weekends, and visit Niagara Falls on every holiday outing.

Chances are you walk the same half-mile section of pavement near the Falls, eating the sandwiches your parents brought from home and watching the ferry rides from a safe distance.

At Niagara Falls, I learned that nature was dangerous, full of caution signs, and could really only be enjoyed by the rich. I soon came to dread every long weekend at the Falls.

It wasn’t until we drove across North America last year that I was able to re-connect my soul to nature and specifically to water. It was my first time seeing a waterfall I was allowed to play in.

In many ways, our travels can be seen as a water pilgrimage, hugging the coast on the west and again on the east.

I have struggled to describe with words our human connection to water. It’s a primal and ancient relationship. Quite simply, water completes us.

“Take a course in good water and air; and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own. Go quietly alone; no harm will befall you.” – John Muir

Below is a photo essay of my favorite waters across Canada and the USA.

Full collection of my water photos in this video:

Direct YouTube Link HERE

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more.

- George Gordon, Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

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2013: Stats From a Year of Travel Blogging

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 310,000 times in 2013. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 13 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Being silly in beautiful places = what we did in 2013. Same plan for 2014.

Happy new year, dear readers!

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2013: A Year of Travel Across North America

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“Life is full of beauty. Notice it. Notice the bumble bee, the small child, and the smiling faces. Smell the rain, and feel the wind. Live your life to the fullest potential, and fight for your dreams.” – Ashley Smith

What could you do in one year if nothing were holding you back?

This is the question I asked myself at the beginning of 2013. My quest to answer it has taken us 40,000 miles across the continent. We began in California and drove north to Alaska. In the fall, we drove across Canada, then dropped into Pennsylvania for the winter at The Wolfestead. We have explored 2,000+ miles of trails and there is an urgency I feel when I tell people to stop putting off their ambitions. There is nothing holding us back.

2013: A VIDEO YEAR IN REVIEW

Direct YouTube Link HERE

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Ontario, Canada: Finding Home Right Where it Always Was

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“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” – Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

The first time I held a living monarch in my cupped hands was in a eucalyptus grove in Oceano. By California standards, the morning was chilly even though the sun was out on this late January morning.

The grove, owned by the nearby city of Halcyon, was believed to be land on which Native Americans thrived. I walked in awe under the towering trees with my friends Pat, Caity, and Colin. The dogs, Nigel and Ginger, ran circles at our heels.

I spotted the monarch lying motionless on the ground. Fearing it was dead, I picked it up and squealed with delight when it twitched against my fingers. Then I spotted another one nearby. And another. I looked up and noticed the eucalyptus above me was covered in butterflies, but they were barely moving.

When monarchs get cold, they lose the ability to fly. They rely on the sun to warm their flight muscles and give them mobility. Most monarchs can crawl at temperatures of 41 degrees Fahrenheit, but need a temperature of 55 degrees to fly. These orange and black beauties were chilly.

Later that year in October, I was on the other side of the continent. It was a lovely day by Canadian standards in Cobourg, Ontario, even though I was shivering. The wind off the water whipped sharply against my skin, but the monarchs didn’t seem to mind. They fluttered playfully with the wind, weaving their fragile bodies in figure eights across the shore.

What are they still doing here? I wondered. Shouldn’t they be heading south?

Two years ago, local resident Sue Hedgedus carried out her vision of a monarch way station in Cobourg. With the help of volunteers from the Cobourg Ecology Garden, Sue built the monarchs a safe place to lay their eggs.

Could I really blame them for lingering? After all, I was also clinging to my northern home past the shorts-and-t-shirt season. I was here to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving with my family. It had been two years and 40,000 miles since I had last seen them.

Cobourg Ecology Garden

Thanksgiving was better than expected. The affectionate welcome from my family and the joy of reuniting with my sisters made me wonder why I had been in such a rush to leave.

Two years ago, I boarded a plane at Toronto’s Pearson airport with a dismissive wave and a “good riddance”. I was floundering in a dead-end relationship, overwhelmed by family drama, and frustrated with a lack of trail races. I needed space to breathe. Physical space. I needed mountains and single track and solitude. I needed to be miles away.

In San Diego, I found a surrogate family of trail and ultrarunning friends. I immersed myself in the outdoors. The mountains were a salve for my soul.

I disassociated myself with everything I had left behind in Toronto, and I lost touch. Canada had left a bitter taste in my mouth. I had only seen a sliver of it—a city where I didn’t fit in, and for two years I rolled my eyes at the thought of ever returning.

From San Diego, I had followed the west coast to Alaska. Then last September I asked Shacky if we could drive across Canada. Part of me hoped that it would be wonderful. Another part of me hoped it would be terrible—to prove that I had been right to leave.

Then Alberta happened. The Columbia Icefields, Jasper National Park, and Banff happened. My jaw dropped at snow-peaked mountains and crystal-clear waters and wildlife that didn’t know how to be afraid.

In Canada, we traveled through some of the most spectacular scenery my nomadic eyes had ever seen. More scenic still than the Alaska highway, the Columbia Gorge, or the lush trails of Oregon—especially beautiful to me, because it was home. This was a country I had always known, yet never known at all.

I discovered friends in Manitoba, enjoyed the hospitality of strangers in Prince Edward Island, and was humbled by the dramatic tides of the Bay of Fundy. Small towns warmed my soul and my heart began to swell with the pride of being a Canadian.

A few months earlier I had been nodding my head at Mark Twain’s account in Roughing It (1872). He, too, had moved to California in 1864 as a journalist, and was inspired by travel.

I posted the following Twain quote on my Facebook wall:

 “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

The first to reply was Michael Sean Comerford, a hitchhiker we had picked up in the Yukon. Michael had been on his way to Anchorage to work at a carnival, but he was a journalist by trade. For one year, he was traveling as a nomadic carny and surviving on carny wages. He was blogging from the road and gathering experiences for a book. Michael carried a tiny notepad where he carefully wrote down our names, and we have been friends ever since.

Expecting Michael’s comment to be pro-travel, I was surprised to read what he actually typed. He said:

“Twain simply did not meet all people or travel to all ‘little corners’ of the earth when he wrote this. I’ve met extraordinary people who’ve never traveled. And what does it mean that he traveled and yet became a misanthrope toward the end of his life.”

Michael’s reply made me pause and think of all the wonderful people we have encountered on our journeys. They were not nomadic. Many of them were 9-5’ers. They had families. They had communities. They had homes.

They offered us food and hot showers and hospitality, opening their lives and sharing everything they had. Far from narrow-minded, they have helped us reconsider our own prejudices and assumptions.

They are trees and we are butterflies. They are less mobile, but no less important, and it is lucky for us that they are rooted to the ground—a safe place to land.

I understand this now.

Our pilgrimage to Alaska is one that many people associate with Christopher McCandless’ journey described in Into the Wild. When Outside magazine posted an article about McCandless’ death, the comments lit up in heated debate between two distinct positions: those who supported McCandless and those who were disgusted by him.

McCandless’ supporters described him as someone who was really living and never hurt anyone. They attacked naysayers with the disturbing implication that people who hold steady jobs and stay close to their families are somehow not fully living.

The opposition identified McCandless’ travels as selfish and indulgent.  They insisted that he did indeed cause much pain to his family.

These days, I am forced to pause and re-examine my day-to-day.

Has my life become so much about mountains, trails, and summits, that I am neglecting the relationships that matter the most? Have I called my mom? Have I written to my sister? Have I Skyped with my friends?

In the end we are influenced—not by those who have seen the best views—but by those who have spent the most time with us, thought about us, and shared in our milestones.

CobourgPlaying on the shores of Cobourg, Ontario

Earlier this month I received an email from a lady named Camille who wanted to profile me for a feature she was writing. The topic was the evolution of the American Dream as it passed from parents to children. What did the American Dream mean to me, and what had it meant to my parents?

This was a topic I had been churning in my brain for some time. Over Skype, I told Camille about my dad’s immigration to Canada, his struggle to provide stability for me, and his quest to accumulate the possessions I grew to shun: a house, a car, and all the amenities of a comfortable life.

At times, I’ve felt guilty about my choice to abandon all the things my parents worked so hard to give me. I reconcile those feelings by reminding myself that my parents didn’t struggle to give me a physical house, but rather freedom—the freedom to educate myself, to write exactly what I think, and to take the unpopular route. I am free to define success on my own terms.

Still, I feel a pull when I am away from my family, and I attribute that to a newfound sense of maturity. It’s that moment when you’ve wandered enough miles to know where your family lives and why it’s important that they know where you are.

After Thanksgiving dinner, it’s already dark outside. I button up my winter coat and follow my family out to the car to say our goodbyes. After hugs and promises to stay in touch, my sisters pack into my mom’s green mini van and make themselves comfortable in the backseat for the long drive back to Toronto.

Kayla, my ten-year-old baby sister, is squashed in the back corner of the van. I can barely see her little limbs as she wiggles herself back outside at the last second. She races toward me and throws her arms around my neck for one last hug. She sobs into my shoulder while my family waits in the car.

I smooth her hair and hug her tight. I tell her how much I love her and how beautiful and strong she is. She can barely catch her breath between her tears.

Kayla’s outpour surprises me. I am as surprised as McCandless might have been to learn that his parents loved him deeply—except I have lived to see that affection firsthand.

I am more than a nomad, a trail runner, and a mountain bum. I am the big sister who sends postcards but rarely calls. And Kayla is the ten-year-old who misses me so very much.

And that’s when it clicks. I know now why the monarchs have not migrated.

Their loved ones are rooted to the earth, and they must linger until the last possible second before flying away.

1383794_10151627805596922_1817614738_nFrom L to R: My sisters Eli, Naty, Emma, Kayla, and me

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? It’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” – Jack Kerouac, On the Road

 BUILD YOUR OWN MONARCH WAY STATION

Monarch populations have been receding at an alarming rate due to the disappearance of the milkweed they depend on. Please consider planting a simple monarch way station in your own garden. Here’s how.

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Check out my book: The Summit Seeker

Vulnerability and Catcalling in Bear Country

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“Hey! What’s a pretty girl like you doing back here?”

I jerked my head to spot the shabby homeless man. I had walked right past him and hadn’t noticed. He sat on a park bench with an old green grocery bag leaning on his side like a dirty man-purse.

He looked weathered and tired, but his expression betrayed amusement at my unexpected presence. His black hair was disheveled and he refused to drop the piercing gaze of his black eyes.

He appeared to be in his mid-50s, but could have been much younger. I couldn’t tell if his dark skin was his natural hue, or if he was just really dirty. I could smell him.

He had the features of a Native American, and he wore three layers of tattered clothing, even though it was fairly warm outside: a black shirt, a black sweater, and a stained, brown jacket. I was wearing my short pink running skirt and a light green tank top.

I felt naked as he leered at me, waiting for my response.

“Um… hi,” was all I could manage.

He caught me off guard. I had jogged there from the park where we were playing ball with Ginger, off to the left of the Fairbanks visitor’s centre in Alaska. This was our first big Alaskan town and we were kicking off a much-anticipated summer of exploring Alaska’s trails.

I was heading to the visitor’s center to check the movie times for a documentary film I wanted to see on the Aurora Borealis. Instead of walking to the front door, I thought I could get in through the back. I didn’t know anyone was there.

He continued to pursue conversation and my discomfort grew. I was sharply aware of his intruding eyes on my body. My heart rate began to instinctively rise and I felt a warm wave of anger wash away the smile I was wearing. I responded with more mumbling and walked away. No way was I going to let him see me run.

Once I was safely out of his line of vision, I walked dejectedly to the front door. I didn’t care about the movie anymore. I was mad.

I was mad that I couldn’t jog away from my boyfriend for two minutes without being the recipient of unwanted attention. I was mad that I was minutes into my epic Alaskan adventure, smiley and excited, and this guy ruined it. But most of all, I was mad that my first reaction had been to deflate and flee the scene.

I saw flashbacks of myself years ago—in my 20s, and in my teens—being called at, leered at, and yelled at by strange men on the street of Toronto. I felt that same old wave of fear and panic I had always felt, not knowing whether those men carried weapons, whether they would follow me home (some did), or get angry if I didn’t respond.

I live a different life now. I have grown stronger and wiser, and most importantly I have gotten away from those shitty neighborhoods.

I have struggled to educate myself. I was the first in my family to graduate from University. I have finished 100-mile races and uncovered new strengths in both my body and my mind. I have written a book and traveled to the most remote state I could think of… yet none of that mattered.

Here on the edge of the world, there was still anger and fear and poverty, and an old man on a bench in his shit-stained coat could still make me feel like a nobody.

Why wasn’t I stronger, I raged to myself as I stormed into the visitor’s center.

Later that morning, an older man stood in the park and watched me do yoga. Under normal circumstances I would have thought nothing of it, but now my senses were on high alert.

Shacky sat nearby with Ginger, but that didn’t matter. I could feel the man’s eyes watching me.

Downward dog….

Now plank…

Every alert system blared in my head as I shifted positions. My skin crept with that instinctive itch all women experience when they know they are being sexualized.

I WILL NOT LET YOU STOP ME FROM DOING MY YOGA!! I screamed at him in my head. This time I would be strong.

Every position was now a rebellion, shooting defiance and indignation in his direction.

Keep your face calm, I told myself. Don’t let him see that it bothers you.

Warrior 1…..

Warrior 2…..

GO AWAY GO AWAY GO AWAY GO AWAY!!!!

I finished my yoga and stomped off.

Less than an hour later, I had to use the bathroom but there was a man lying on the sidewalk, blocking my path. I didn’t want to walk past him, so I asked Shacky for the key to pee in the RV.

“He’s fine,” Shacky assured me. “He’s here with his family. He’s not homeless. His kids were just here.”

Really? Were my instincts off? Was I being oversensitive and paranoid?

I headed toward the bathroom. As I passed, the harmless guy stretched himself across the floor of the sidewalk to look up my skirt. I rushed into the bathroom and peed, seething on the toilet seat.

I was helpless and weak, hiding in the girl’s bathroom just like I did on the first day of middle school when I couldn’t find my computer classroom. Then again at lunch when nobody would sit with me.

I tried to brush it off. Certainly, I had endured much worse. Still, I couldn’t shake my disappointment in myself. How could men I didn’t even know still have the power to make me feel frightened and objectified? I hadn’t changed at all.

I was off my game for days. Nothing noticeable, but subtle frowns mixed with streaks of paranoia. When a man approached us to ask about Ginger a few days later, I tensed up. The little things made me feel a lack of control.

Fairbanks wasn’t what I had hoped. An unexpected heat wave forced us to keep the dog in the RV with the A/C running. When we tried to explore the trails, starving herds of mosquitoes bombed us repeatedly like angry wasps.

Unprepared, we had no bug spray. Our dog would run back to the RV after only a few minutes outside, covered in red welts. She’d nip at the air and swat her own face until we finally had the sense to leave town. Unreasonably, I blamed those men. They had ruined the entire city. Fuck them.

A few days later, the beautiful town of Anchorage lifted my spirits and I decided to approach this issue the same way I always handle things that trouble me: I research them.

I wanted to understand why men acted this way. Did they want attention? Did they genuinely believe this was an effective way of finding a mate? Did they think women enjoyed it?

And what was the most effective way to react? Ignore them? Humor them? Shout at them? Out-creep them? I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of reacting exactly the way they wanted. I didn’t want them to know they had gotten a rise out of me.

Most of what I found online was directed at men—a lot of “Stop it, guys!” and little analysis. Then I stumbled on an essay in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates examining manhood. Coates argues that men street harass women as a means to feel more powerful. They are not terrible people, but simply powerless men who lack opportunities to display dominance in other areas of life.

Men who are validated and respected do not need to catcall. Men who are trampled, disrespected, and overlooked get a rise out of making a woman squirm. When the powerless man watches a woman drop her eyes or shuffle away in embarrassment at his call, he feels powerful. She has noticed him.

Alyssa Royse offers another perspective. She believes the unfortunate cause is society’s habit of demonizing male sexuality. “It starts young,” she writes. “Girls are told that boys are predatory and somehow out of control. The corollary there is that boys are told they are predators, and out of control. Therefore, not a desirable thing, but a thing to defend against. From the get-go, we are teaching our kids to fear male sexuality, and to repress female sexuality… It’s sad. It’s insulting. And it’s damaging…This way of looking at male sexuality conflates sexuality with predation.”

As far as street harassment prevention, many women on online forums seem to embrace a concept known as “bitch face”. They brag that the reason they are not harassed more often is because they go through life wearing a “default bitch face”.

Here is the scholarly definition according to Urban Dictionary:

bitchface

I am horrified by this concept. I worry that if I wear a bitch face all day, I will soon become a bitch in real life. I need my default face to be a happy one. I need to smile until I have a good reason not to.

In my world, defaulting to a bitch face would allow random men to hold me prisoner to my own fear and skepticism. It would ruin not only the days they call to me, but also the days they don’t. They would sentence me to walk through life with my guard up, a burden I cannot accept.

I may not be able to control the comments of every man on the street, but I can protect my instinct to smile. No matter how often I am made to feel uncomfortable or self-conscious, I can preserve my faith in the inherent goodness of humanity and tear through every corner, laughing and running in a short skirt as though nothing unpleasant has ever surprised me. I can choose to stay vulnerable—on purpose.

Brené Brown recently intrigued me with her TED Talk on the path to vulnerability. She stumbled on the concept of vulnerability in her research on connection and shame, and like many of us, she was terrified by it. “In order for connection to happen,” she says, “we need to be seen—really seen.”

After six years of deep research that included hundreds of interviews and thousands of stories, Brown isolated a breed of people that she describes as “whole hearted”. These people had found connection, love, and belonging. They were living to the fullest.

Brown took a magnifying glass to their lives and found two common threads:

1. They were courageous.

There is a difference between bravery and courage, Brown stresses. Courage, from the Latin word cor (meaning heart), was originally defined as telling the story of who you are with your whole heart. “They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were,” Brown says.

2. They were vulnerable.

Not only where these people vulnerable, but they embraced vulnerability. It was important to them, and they believed it made them beautiful. They talked about vulnerability as something that was important, not excruciating. They were willing to say, “I love you” first, and they were willing to invest in relationships that might not work out.

This data started Brown down a long and difficult path of learning how to implement vulnerability into her life. She came to an important conclusion that perfectly describes why bitch face is so tragic.

“You cannot selectively numb,” Brown says. When we try to stifle feelings of anger, grief, and despair, we numb everything. “We numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.”

Bitch face is a numbing. It’s an armor shielding against unwanted attention, but also against anything good that may cross our paths that day. It protects us from catcalling, but it also protects us from unexpected kindness, motivational encouragement, and spontaneous hospitality.

I spent the rest of the summer practicing vulnerability in Alaska. This mostly manifested itself in me being a nerdy goof (read: being myself), talking to strangers, and singing to the bears. I took more chances than usual and climbed steeper hills.

I learned to approach each new experience with a fresh expectation of success, though yesterday may have ended in disaster. And every new man gets a clean slate.

Brown’s TED Talk on the Power of Vulnerability

Direct TED link HERE

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Check out my book: The Summit Seeker

Q&A Uncensored: Your Chance to Ask Anything

Photo: The breathtaking Bow Lake in Alberta, Canada

Photo: Bow Lake in Alberta, Canada

Two years ago I participated in an online Q&A game via my blog. Because my life has changed so drastically since then, I thought it would be awesome to do it again. Here are the rules I posted two years ago:

You ask me anything. About anything. No question is too weird or strange or stupid or personal. Post your questions in the comment section and I will answer them ALL. It’s that simple! And hopefully fun.

You can ask as many questions as you’d like, and no topic is off limits. Here are the answers to the questions I was asked in 2011:

You asked, I answer! Part I
You asked, I answer! Part II
You asked, I answer! Part III

To get us started, below is a Q&A I did this week for an online publication called Sensa Nostra. They are writing a three-article series on tiny homes and home-free living.

Here’s what they wanted to know:

SN: You gave up a successful writing career in an office to live in an RV and travel the land. Was it difficult giving up all that you’d achieved in your job after working so hard to get there?

VR: On the contrary, I was excited to write for myself as opposed to a news organization or media outlet. I have a journalism degree, and I can write anywhere. I had stories to tell outside of my job and I wanted to write a book. I also never made an obscene amount of money as a writer or editor, so I was used to a very low-budget lifestyle. I felt I had little to sacrifice.

It was harder to convince my boyfriend to give up his job as an electrical engineer for a major biotech company. He has been there for more than 10 years and his income was much higher than mine. There was more for him to lose, and although we both wanted to travel, it was scary to make that jump. We delayed his quitting for several weeks simply because we kept getting cold feet. Once we made the leap, it wasn’t as bad as we imagined.

The experience reminds me of that Indiana Jones scene in the Last Crusade where Jones has to jump across a large chasm and there’s no way he’ll make it. It turned out that after he jumps, there’s actually an invisible bridge. In the same way, we didn’t end up falling into a terrifying abyss, but making that initial jump still took some nerve.

SN: Why did you choose to buy and live in an RV? Did you want to travel, or were you radically changing your life and choosing a minimalist path? Or was it a way to save money once you’d given up your job?

VR: This lifestyle was a dream come true for us. Yesterday, we spent 6+ hours on the Superior Hiking Trail, a 275-mile footpath in Northeastern Minnesota. One month ago, we were running in Alaska. In my old life, I would have spent those days at the office.

We wanted two things when we bought the RV: to travel freely, and to live minimally. Our 22-foot Rialta RV is tiny by most standard. Most people use this RV for day trips or camping, but not for living. I love it because it forces us to keep only what we need and use, and it encourages us to spend more time outdoors.

We also wanted a vehicle small enough to fit into a regular parking spot. We didn’t want to spend any time or money at RV campgrounds. Since we bought it, we have never paid to spend the night anywhere.

SN: Can you tell me more about your day-to-day life in the trailer? Did you expect to be living in this way when you first moved in, or are you constantly discovering many pleasant aspects of this way of life?

VR: We essentially drive from trail to trail. Both my boyfriend and I enjoy trial running, so we visit a lot of national forests, national parks, and state parks. He loves water and I love mountains, so we look for places that combine mountains with waterfalls/streams/lakes.

We have no set plan in our travels and no deadlines. Sometimes we are out in the wilderness all day, and sometimes we find a good wifi spot and settle down to catch up with the rest of the world. Because our wifi time is limited, I spend most of my time pre-loading articles to read later, downloading podcasts I can later listen to offline, or copying emails into documents I can access later. I type the responses when I have more time, and the next time I get wifi, I just send everything off.

We had no idea what to expect when we moved into the RV, so we are constantly learning and making new discoveries. It keeps us on our toes!

SN: Is this a short-term break, or a new way of life?

VR: I don’t see myself ever going back to owning or renting a home, or working a traditional job, but I would never say never. It’s a big world and I still have many more years to live and experiences to experience.

SN: Do you feel that your writing career has actually become even more successful since quitting your office job?

VR: Absolutely, a thousand times over. I finally have the freedom to follow my instincts, write about what I know and love, and dive into research and interviews that truly interest me. My writing has improved drastically, and it is much more personally fulfilling.

SN: What does ‘success’ mean to you? And what do you value most in life?

VR: I love this quote: “Success is the certain knowledge that you’ve become yourself, the person you were meant to be from all time.” – Dr. George Sheehan

To me, that is true success. The freedom to be yourself at all times, never compromising to please a boss or a spouse or society in general.

In life, I most value freedom. That doesn’t translate into everyone being jobless and traveling the world, but it has a lot to do with never feeling like you have to settle. Freedom means being able to construct and live your life on your own terms, whether that is raising a family, starting a business, or working in a career you are passionate about.

I spent so much of my life trying to live on someone else’s terms, and I think many of us do to some extent. Freedom means embracing your own path, whatever the cost.

SN: Have your values changed since moving into the trailer? Do you see the world from another perspective that you’d never previously imagined?

VR: I see the world with much more enthusiasm and excitement. My values–compassion, transparency, and selflessness–have deepened. I feel child-like in my ambitions, like the world is there for my taking.

I can read about a place that sounds interesting, and immediately GO there. I don’t have to put it on hold. I don’t have to ask for vacation time or permission from my family. I don’t have to write it down in a bucket list. I have the freedom to move and travel wherever my whims take me. I feel in complete control of my life–it is truly liberating.

SN: Why do you run? And why do you run ultra-marathons? Was this always your goal?

VR: I fell in love with running in 2007, and when I discovered trail running I never went back to road. I always loved long distances. Ultra running fits well with my personality. It requires a lot of drive, dedication, energy, and mental strength. I love things that are hard and demanding, but low-profile. I love being alone in nature, drinking in the mountains and pushing my body to its limits.

SN: Can you tell me more about barefoot running?

VR: I embraced barefoot running as a way to connect with nature. I love the feeling of mud, bark, soil, and grass under my toes. It goes back to that child-like freedom of running wild, with no cares in the world. It brings me back to that place of bliss.

SN: Are running, writing and living in a trailer all inter-connected for you? Does one influence the other?

VR: They are all things that I love, so in that sense they are inter-connected. I don’t know if I will always live in a trailer. I can just as easily live out of a backpack, or a van, or a bicycle. What matters is mobility and freedom. Writing and running I believe will always be a part of me.

SN: Are there any negative aspects to living your lifestyle?

VR: There are definitely inconveniences. Things like showers, laundry, and chores look very different than they used to, but I can’t say they’re negative. Is rinsing your clothes in a stream more negative than throwing into a washing machine? I think it’s just different.

SN: What does living in this way allow you to do that your old life never could?

VR: Travel full-time.

SN: What are your goals for the future?

VR: I would love to run across El Salvador next year, a distance of approximately 160 miles. I was born in El Salvador and I haven’t been back in years. This will be my way of coming back, making my mark, and reconnecting with a community long-forgotten.

I have a love-hate relationship with my cultural upbringing that drove me to separate myself from Hispanics in the past. My ex used to accuse me of thinking I was “too good” for my culture, but in many ways the cultural values I was raised with damaged me, especially when it came to the role of women and female expectations.

I was raised to be submissive and subservient, always sacrificing my own needs for the men around me. I was also raised to depend heavily on men, both emotionally and financially. My current boyfriend is my first “white” relationship, and the dynamic is very different than what I am used to, and to be honest pretty amazing.

I recently reconnected with my dad after a long time of not speaking. One of the first things he said to me was to thank my boyfriend for “taking good care of me” while I was away from home. I know this is my dad’s way accepting me and my new relationship, so I take it as a positive response. However, it also perfectly reflects what I was raised to believe: that I am useless without a man and incapable of taking care of myself. For the first time in my life, I now have the courage to believe otherwise.

Going back to El Salvador for me would represent a re-birth and a coming out. Kind of like facing an old bully that tormented me for years. I want the country to see who I am and what I have become–that I am so much stronger than they thought I could be and I have bigger balls than most of their men by doing something none of them have dared to attempt. I also want their women and girls to see an example of female strength, courage, and independence. I want them to know they can do whatever the hell they want with their lives.

SN: It’d also be interesting to talk about money – whether you have any, how you earn it and how you use it.  And what your perspectives are on what we ‘need’ and what society says about it all.

We started off our travels with a small base of savings, and then I immediately started working on my first book. Now my book and other writings are my only source of income. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to support our simple lifestyle. I am working on my second book, but it doesn’t at all feel like a job. It’s a labor of love, and I’ve been lucky enough to work because something interests me, not because I need the money. This is the first time in my life I have been able to say that, and it’s a result of living simply, not being rich.

Got more questions for me? Leave a comment below.

tamati

Photo: Flattop Mountain in Anchorage, Alaska

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Check out my book: The Summit Seeker

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