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.

redwoods national park

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

2013 vanessaruns
“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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Ontario, Canada: Finding Home Right Where it Always Was

Ontario

“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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Vulnerability and Catcalling in Bear Country

vulnerable

“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

Why We Need Nomads

Jamming and bumming around on the Homer Spit in Homer, Alaska

I recently stumbled on a Quora question in which the writer was thinking about quitting his job and selling his possessions to travel the world. He gave a brief description of himself (single, in his 20s, a job but no career), and asked whether he should go for it.

The resounding answer was yes, but not necessarily because it was a respectable lifestyle. Rather, because he was young enough to get away with it. Because he still had time to build a career, a family, and a real life. Because now was the time to get the travel bug out of his system.

I was glad to read the encouragement and travel tips he received, but couldn’t help wonder: what if a 40-something man with three young children also wanted to become a nomad?

A nomad is someone who travels extensively, with no real home to speak of other than the wide-open road. They usually carry all their possessions with them, and earn little to no income.

Truth from a reliable source

Truth from a reliable source

 

Nomadic travel is tolerated if you are young, responsibility-free, and trying to find yourself, but only for a pre-determined amount of time. Why isn’t travel—apart from age and status—worthy of pursuing in itself as a respectable (not just fulfilling) way of life?

The most common question we get from people we meet since hitting the road full-time is: “For how long are you traveling?”

We still aren’t sure how to answer that. “Um… forever?” Shacky says, and then we explain that we live this way. It’s not a vacation. It’s not a year-long project.

People are puzzled by this concept. Our contact with them usually expires before they grasp it, and as we walk away I can almost hear the wheels turning in their heads with a million questions.

Online, people have fewer questions and more opinions. We are called freeloaders or spoiled by people who don’t know us but dislike the concept of full-time travel. Some accuse us of contributing nothing to society, or worse—burdening it.

This isn’t surprising when you consider that although this lifestyle has many benefits, they are often described as personal fulfillments rather than contributions to the real world, giving us the reputation of takers, not givers.

What benefits do nomads bring to society? Do we really need them?

The answer is a resounding yes. As much as we need lawyers, doctors, and construction workers—we need nomads. Here’s why:

Social Benefits

A few weeks ago Jessica Kurti posted the following story on my Facebook wall:

Transported my first hitchhikers today… was AWESOME. Two ‘through hikers’ doing the entire Pacific Crest Trail. Gave them a lift to Sisters, Oregon, where they were going to eat, run errands, and meet a ‘trail angel’ who would give them a lift to the next trailhead. So, I would like to say THANK YOU, to you, Shacky, Honey Bird and Crockett (their trail names). I learned so much about what is possible! Although I love to help people, I rarely would consider picking up hitchhikers (in this country at least as a single female). SO GLAD I DID. And I wish *all of us* continued safe journeys and amazing adventures ahead! ‪#‎cannotbelievethisismylife ‪#‎LIVINGTHEDREAM

Much love from Bend, Oregon (started in Florida). Keep on keeping on!

She was thanking me because I had previously written about our experiences picking up hitchhikers, commenting on how unfounded our society’s fear of hitchhiking actually is.

Nomads are more trusting of strangers than your average person, probably because they spend a large portion of their time talking to strangers. They discover that strangers (and people in general) are inherently good, hospitable, and eager to help.  As a result, nomads serve as society’s connectors.

Nomads will:

  • connect people with similar interests to each other
  • connect people with resources to people in need
  • connect strangers in close proximity
  • connect Facebook friends in real-person contact

Nomads not only make frequent connections, but also improve the quality of those connections. The transition isn’t from stranger to acquaintance, but from stranger to good friend. Nomads have the time to really listen and understand the people they meet. They are not rushing to their next appointment or thinking about what they will cook for dinner. Their attentions are focused on the stories and experiences of others. Nomads allow us to feel heard and to feel like our stories matter.

Nomads connect us to each other, re-establish our faith in humanity, and dispel unfounded social stigmas.

Intellectual Benefits

I first learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in a high school Psychology class. As a child of poverty, it was one of my first introductions to the concept that there may be something more to life than living to fulfill our basic needs of food and shelter.

Abraham Maslow developed this theory in his 1943 paper describing the stages of human growth. While other psychologists of his time were studying the mentally ill, Maslow examined the healthiest one percent of a college student population. He named people like Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglass as examples he studied. Here is the hierarchy:

 

Our current society over-emphasizes the bottom two levels at the expense of the top three. Once we have met our basic needs of food, shelter, and security, we are pressured to over-develop those benefits: a bigger house, a nicer car, giving our kids everything they could possibly want (not just what they need). To achieve this, we sacrifice the higher levels of friendships, self-esteem, and the freedom to be creative.

Nomads embody the opposite, and as a result they balance society. We embrace the bare minimum when it comes to food, shelter, and security in exchange for the higher opportunities of self-actualization. We have the freedom to immerse ourselves into areas that the rest of society has little time for: volunteering, extensive travel, year-long projects with little to no financial return, and time-consuming works of art.

We learn from the nomad that happiness comes in different shapes, despite society’s insistence that more money equals more freedom. We see nomads working as their own bosses, or exploring their true passions. Watching them gives us the courage to do the same.

Nomads change the way we think and view the world.  

Environmental Benefits

Can you brush your teeth with two sips of water? What if all the water you had access to for the day was the amount you could carry on your back? What if all the trash you could make was limited to what you could pack out? What if the only light you had after dark was a headlamp?

As a nomad, I have learned to use less water, less electricity, and produce less garbage. I have grown resourceful enough to fix things when they break instead of throwing them away. Many nomads live this way. It’s not a weekend camping trip; it’s life. More importantly—it’s not that hard.

Nomads can teach us to respect, appreciate, and preserve our resources. They can show us how to live comfortably with less, how to save hundreds on unnecessary products, and how to stop draining our planet.

I have only experienced two city-wide blackouts in my life: one in Toronto, and one in San Diego. Both times, it felt like mass panic in the neighborhood. As a society, we are uncomfortable with the concept of living with less. We tend to imagine extremes: either we live large or live in a cave with nothing. Nomads know there is a sweet middle ground. We can drastically reduce our carbon footprint yet still fit in with civilized society.

Nomads teach us to respect our resources and show us how it is possible to live comfortably with less.

Global Benefits

A few weeks ago I posted this picture on my Facebook wall and it immediately sparked a flurry of comments.

avocado

The photo was taken in Healy, Alaska, just outside of Denali National Park, and was fairly consistent with the avocado prices I had seen in other parts of Alaska. When we began our journey from San Diego, avocados were a main staple in my diet. By the time we arrived in Alaska, I had been forced to give them up. I could no longer afford avocados.

The biggest purchaser of avocados that I know is my good friend Patrick Sweeney. This free-spirited California beach boy practically survives on avocados, hot sauce, and beer. He often posts photos of his fruit and vegetable purchases—mounds of fresh produce at obscenely low prices. Sweeney hates the concept that healthy food is too expensive and unavailable to poor people who want to eat well. This argument, according to Pat, is an excuse that perpetuates the obesity epidemic in America.

I agree with him partially, but not entirely. I have learned from our travels just how region-specific eating well actually is. My idea of healthy eating has evolved from primarily raw vegan to whatever the locals eat, and what the region offers. Along the Pacific Northwest, I enjoyed mostly fresh seafood. Now in Alaska, I eat fresh game meat (mostly reindeer) and salmon that was swimming only hours ago. Here, I would go broke as a vegan.

The avocado issue made me reflect on how many times we make wide, sweeping generalizations about the world based on our own tiny regions.

Nomadism infuses the world with people who can relate to different perspectives. We carry the message that there is more than one way to do things and we refute stereotypes wherever we travel.

Every community seeks to bond over common ideas. This is human nature, and it makes life easier. But every once in a while, every region needs a nomad to shake things up in places where everyone thinks the same, earns the same, and votes the same.

We need nomads to reminds us that our rules do not apply to every inch of this planet. We also need nomads to experience our own regional truths, and carry our stories off to places where our habits are considered strange.

Nomads fight stereotypes by collecting and delivering different world views across regional lines.

Physical Benefits

After watching the documentary Craiglist Joe, Shacky and I were answered a Craigslist ad to pick up a brother/sister pair of backpackers hitchhiking their way across the country. Eddie and Charlotte turned out to be amazing company. We took them to the Grand Canyon and picked up some great travel tips just by observing them.

One of the main things I noticed about Eddie and Charlotte was that they walked—a lot. I was used to viewing movement as a form of exercise in the form of a training plan, or something you needed to schedule. But Eddie and Charlotte walked as a way of life. In the months that followed, I would come to redefine movement for myself.

In my pre-nomad days, I would log all my exercise on a site called Dailymile. It tracked my running, walking, hiking, swimming, or movement of any kind. I could record the mileage and at the end of the week, it would give me a grand total and tell me I was awesome.

After we hit the road, logging workouts on Dailymile became more complicated. Without a GPS surgically attached to my wrist, I had no idea how far I had moved that day. I no longer went out to do a workout. I just went out to play.

Instead of running a pre-determined route, we would pull over to the side of the road intrigued by a hill or mountain, and climb it. We spend time on the trail or in a pool, coming home only when we were hungry or out of water. This healthy concept of movement was a welcome change and we seek to share it with others.

Eddie and Charlotte gazing down into the Grand Canyon for the first time.

Eddie and Charlotte gazing down into the Grand Canyon for the first time.

 

Nomads help us see exercise and movement as a way of life, not an activity we need to schedule.

Emotional Benefits

Michael Comerford was the second hitchhiker we picked up on the side of the road. He was surviving as a carnival worker, traveling the country to work various gigs. He told me stories that I’ll never forget about how much carnival workers loved making children happy, yet the irony that most of them came from abusive childhoods and were separated from their own children. He told me about the shocking lack of education and illiteracy in the industry, and the hopeless abandonment the workers would face if they tried to leave their carnival families.

Nomads often immerse themselves into the margins of society. We see, hear, and feel those who have no voice, no words, and no education. These experiences tune us into a full spectrum of human emotions that we can then share, speak about, or write about. They come out in our art, in our music, and inject themselves into the hearts of those we come in contact with.

Back in the “real” world, when I had a real job and a real home, it was easy for me to disconnect. Routine set in, and my emotions were dulled. There was nothing new or exciting, and there was nothing to make me angry or annoyed. I had tweaked my world for maximum comfort and slipped into a state of complete moderation.

Now in a world where anything can happen at any time, I have reconnected with the way I feel about the world. From intense joy to tremendous frustration, nomads experience a wide range of human emotions on a daily basis. We are good at feeling things in a society where emotional displays are often unwelcome.

Nomads expose us to a full spectrum of human emotions that feed our sense of humanity.

Psychological Benefits

When I read Jennifer Pharr-Davis’ book Becoming Odyssa: Epic Adventures on the Appalachian Trail, I was a new nomad struggling with the concept of inactivity. Well-trained in the art of office multi-tasking and accustomed to starting each day with a “to do” list longer than my arm, I was now immersed in a world where it could take all day to do one thing. Sometimes that thing was as basic as finding a place to sleep that night.

I was starting to work on my second book, and if I wasn’t pounding away at my keyboard every spare second, I would feel guilty. The guilt puzzled me since I had no deadline, no boss, and I was writing for fun, yet those societal values of ceaseless “productivity” still lingered in my brain.

In Becoming Odyssa, Pharr-Davis wrote about her own transition from constant movement to sitting still. She describes one incident where she was at a friend’s house, just sitting there. Her friend asked if she wanted a magazine? Did she want to watch TV?  But Jennifer just wanted to sit there, as she often would in the evenings on the trail, and that concept made others uncomfortable.

These days I do nothing just as often as I do something. And shockingly, it has made me more productive. I have better ideas, and when I work I am faster and more eloquent, because I have had time to organize my thoughts.

The biggest psychological stress plaguing our society is… well, stress. This goes hand in hand with the concept that we need to be doing something every minute of the day, and any minute resting is a minute wasted. Even when we do stop to rest, we are burdened by thoughts of what productive things we should be doing instead.

Rushing, multi-tasking, and stressing out are now things that only exist in my past, and that is something I learned from a nomad. In return, I seek to pass it on to others. It is a message that our society needs to make time to hear.

Taking it slow and drinking in the views on the Alaska Highway

Taking it slow and drinking in the views on the Alaska Highway

 

Nomads encourage us to slow down and de-stress.  

Survival Benefits

Residing in what is now Lebanon, the Phoenicians enjoyed a rich, civilized culture based on lumber exportation in 300 B.C. They grew to obtain great wealth due to their enormous and beautiful cedar trees, whose infamy is Biblically referred to as “the cedars of Lebanon.” Their land was plentiful, their people were strong, and their soil was rich.

The Phoenicians were self-sufficient and prosperous, but as they started to clear-cut their cedars trees over time, the quality of their soil decreased. It became harder for them to grow food, and their people started to go hungry.

The leaders of the time decided to go to war to expand their borders and rose up against Alexander the Great. Alexander squashed them like bugs and conquered their entire civilization. Historically, nations who could not feed themselves would never survive.

“Food sovereignty” is the term used to describe a nation’s ability to feed itself—a skill we are rapidly losing in our society. Socialized with the idea that if we need something we must buy it, we commit Phoenician sins at an alarming frequency.

We need people who know how to be self-sufficient. Through programs like WWOOF, many full-time nomads are learning to work organic farms in exchange for free room and board. Nomads are also experts at acquiring the things they need without using money. They barter and trade their services, goods, or skills. No matter how industrialized we become, these ancient survival skills are always useful.

Nomads bring us back to our roots of self-sufficiency, trade, and simple survival.

Irrational Benefits

Philosophically, does the constant supply of information steal our ability to imagine or replace our dreams of achieving? After all, if it is being done somewhere by someone, and we can participate virtually, then why bother leaving the house?

This is the question that Ben Saunders attempted to answer in his 2012 TED talk.

Saunders is a polar explorer and the youngest person to ever ski solo to the North Pole. He ponders his purpose of nomadic travel:

“Nothing will come of it,” he wisely admits. “We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, and not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. So it is no use. If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy, and joy, after all, is the end of life. We don’t live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means, and that is what life is for.”

Nomads understand this to be true first-hand. In a society that demands a purpose and a rational explanation for any expenditure of energy, nomads represent travel, movement, and adventure as worthwhile pursuits in themselves. Theirs are the adventures that inspire books and TED talks. This is where original ideas are born and lives are changed. There is no other job or career on earth that operates on this principle: that the destination is senseless but the journey is everything.

The benefits of living vicariously through your local nomad are also abundant. Not all of us need to ski to the North Pole, but some of us have irrational dreams of our own that we’ve muted with society’s expectations. Sometimes it takes a nomad to come along and uncover them. If we pursue those ambitions, our own adventures will inspire others, and so the circle continues.

Nomads feed our inherent sense of curiosity, wonder, and adventure; they give us permission to follow our own senseless dreams.

While nomads are not the only people on earth who benefit society in these ways, they are important, underestimated, and rare contributors. Just as some of us aspire to bring home a steady paycheck and live in comfortable homes (society needs that too), there are also nomadic spirits chained to their cubicles because they are convinced that travel would be selfish.

It is not selfish. Nomadic travel can never be selfish, because for every benefit you receive, you give away everything—your entire heart, your mind, strength, and life—to forever change the people you meet and tenderly touch the places you visit.

“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,

To gain all while you give,

To roam the roads of lands remote:

To travel is to live.”

- Hans Christian Andersen

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****

Check out my book: The Summit Seeker

Happy Birthday Shacky

SONY DSC

For the past several weeks, Shacky and I have been watching Dr. Who episodes every night before bed. We are almost caught up and the seasons are getting better as we go along. I wasn’t a fan of the early female companions who kept falling in love with the Doctor, acting clingy and helpless.

Why does everyone fall in love with the Doctor?

I concluded it was the lure of travel, the intoxication of being whisked off to a new and exciting place, and the thrill of making things up as you go along.

Today is Shacky’s birthday and I realize those things have also come to describe our lives. In the tardis RV, Shacky takes me to cool places and neither of us really know what we’re doing. Time has also changed for us. Celebrating Shacky’s birthday last year in San Diego feels like a lifetime ago.

Below is a birthday video I put together for Shacky. Here’s to many more years on the road!

SHACKY’S BIRTHDAY VIDEO

Direct YouTube link HERE

gangnam-style-funny-dr-who

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Check out my book: The Summit Seeker

Our Second Hitchhiker

with hitchhiker Mike

with hitchhiker Mike

This week we had the honor of picking up our second hitchhiker off the side of the road. We saw him as soon as we drove into Fort St. Nelson in the evening, but we were stopping to spend the night. I hoped he could get a ride (there weren’t many cars going North), but decided we’d give him a ride tomorrow if he still needed one.

We found a place to park the RV for the night and got on with our evening ritual of watching Dr. Who episodes before bed. A couple hours later, I noticed the hitchhiker walking down the street, alone and defeated looking for a place to spend the night. I made a mental note to look for him the next day.

He was a tall, lanky dude in his 50s wearing a heavy backpack and a black t-shirt. The next day we discovered that the shelter in town was full, so he had spent the night in the announcer’s box of the local baseball diamond, trying to fight off mosquitos. In this part of the world, the sun comes out at 2 to 3 a.m. and he was hoping for a ride until about 11 p.m., so he didn’t get much sleep.

Shacky and I drove into the Visitor’s Centre to use the bathroom and get some wifi before starting our commute. We spotted the hitchhiker on the side of the road again, and took bets on whether or not he would still be there when we came out of the bathroom.

When I got out of the bathroom, I found him already talking to Shacky. His name was Mike and he was a writer. He had worked as a newspaper reporter for most of his life, and now had a blog on Huffington Post. He was on a one-year mission to work at as many traveling carnivals as he could, currently on his way to Anchorage to see if he could work there (it would be his 3rd carnival).

Mike had no other income other than what the carnivals paid, which was less than minimum wage. His plan was to blog about his journey and publish a book about it at the end of the year. I packed a food bag for him, and he ate while we drove.

Mike told us all about his travels, the people he had met along the way, and asked lots of questions about our own lifestyle. He scribbled notes into a tiny notebook and helped us keep track of the wildlife we saw. He was bright and eloquent with some fantastic stories.

He described the majority of carnival workers as very poor, uneducated individuals (many not having finished grade school, and a few who could not read), eager to drink and party but also extremely hard workers who found joy in helping kids have fun. The irony was that many were away from their own families and children, and some had joined the carnival to escape their families (mostly abusive).

Instead of giving away Mike’s stories, I’ll encourage you to check out his carnival blog and follow his travels HERE.

We drove to Liard Hot Springs, where Shacky and I had planned to spend the night after a good soak. Mike wanted to continue his journey, so we said our goodbyes.

After dipping into the warmest hot spring I have ever experienced, Shacky decided he wanted to keep driving. Mike was still waiting for a ride, so he hopped back in and we drove to Watson Lake. We were definitely spending the night in Watson, so that was the last time we saw Mike. When we get to Anchorage, we’ll look for him at the local carnival.

Every hitchhiker we pick up confirms my suspicion that strangers are inherently awesome, trustworthy, and good human beings. I read on a blog somewhere (I wish I could remember names to reference it) about a woman who hitchhiked all over the world, and insisted it was one of the safest things she had ever done. She said that all the men warned her about other dangerous men, believing that they were the exceptions; each of them convinced that most people could not be trusted. We distrust our neighbors, and our neighbors distrust us, but dangerous men are more of a minority than we believe.

This does not mean that we should not be vigilant, aware of our surroundings, or that bad people do not exist. I just wish—with years of “don’t talk to strangers” ingrained in my upbringing—that I had spoken to a few more along the way.

Read Shacky’s account of our hitchhiker encounter HERE.

i-saw-a-hitchhiker-giving-me-a-thumbs-up-so-i-m-guessing-he-likes-my-facebook-status

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Check out my book: The Summit Seeker

The Pacific Northwest: Finding Humility at the Waterfall

SONY DSC

Cascade Falls, Pacific Coast Trail

 

It is late morning on the Pacific Coast Trail—a sunny but cool day under the vast shade of the forest. We are in Oregon, a few miles away from the Bridge of the Gods, where the PCT crosses and continues past the Washington border. We’ve been on the trail all morning, and are now taking a break at Cascade Falls, less than a mile off the PCT. Apart from a lady taking pictures with an elaborate tripod and camera set up, we are all alone. Shacky throws a stick for Ginger while I soak my legs in the water and rub off the layers of dirt that cling to my calves.

Suddenly, I turn my head at a noise that sounds like a car. Huh? It can’t be. We’re on the PCT! But when I look up, I do indeed see a car inching its way up the trail. Although the dirt road is wide enough for a small car, it’s not a road that goes anywhere—it dead ends at the falls. I don’t even know where a car could have been coming from? These people must be very, very lost.

I mentally prepare to give some directions, but the car doesn’t stop. Nobody jumps out. They see the falls, the rocks, and the dead end, but they keep driving up to the water, spreading noise and fumes and blocking off the entire trail. What the hell are these people doing??

Then I understand—they’re trying to drive as close as possible to the falls so they can either see the view from their car, or walk as little as is humanly possible. On the final steep and rocky incline (for a car, anyway), they give up and park it. Out of the car stumble a trashy looking couple with their kid. I can’t believe they drove here.

The kid, about six years old, is in heaven. She runs right up to the falls and wants to play. The mother wanders off while the dad stands to the side and smokes a cigarette. They stay for about three minutes before calling the kid back to the car. After they leave, I am horrified to discover the dad’s discarded cigarette butts all along the water.

Most of the time, the people we meet on the trail are happy, respectful, and kind, but every once in a while we meet people who make me wonder if they deserve to be there. When the trails feel like home, I find myself feeling more protective of them and highly disgusted by those who aren’t respecting the land, or didn’t exert any effort to get there.

It used to be that you couldn’t see the views if you didn’t put in the miles or make the climb on your own two feet, but that’s not always the case in the modernized wilderness of today’s tourist hot spots. Sometimes I wonder about the balance between getting more people out in nature, and making it just a little too easy for them.

The douchey couple incident stayed with me for a few days, scratching on my brain like fingernails on a chalkboard. What the hell is wrong with people?? I huffed to myself as I ran up a hill. Those guys should not even be allowed in nature!

But then I thought about their young daughter, and the three minutes of joy she had playing at the base of that waterfall. I wonder if she’ll grow up to remember her fleeting moment as “that day we went hiking,” and seek out more days like it. Perhaps someday this trail will see her running through it, soaking her legs in the falls, and feeling protective of its beauty.

More importantly, who was I to judge who “deserved” to be on the trail? Was Trail Police really a job I was cut out for? It seemed to take my mind to a place I couldn’t enjoy—one of judgment, condescension, and perpetual annoyance.

A few days later, I was running alone up the Wahkeena Falls trail on the scenic Columbia River Gorge. We had already run that morning, but I couldn’t get enough of this place. Shacky was resting in the RV, so I started off with just Ginger. Before long, she was slowing down in the heat of the day and the perpetual climbs, so I took her back to the RV and started for the third time on my own.

The falls themselves are a short walk from the parking lot, up a paved “trail”. Most people just hike to the lookout for pictures, but if you continue up the trail, there are more lookouts and waterfalls as the road becomes significantly steeper, no longer paved, and more technical. That’s where I was heading.

After getting my miles in, I was bounding back down the switchbacks and hit the crowds at the waterfall again. Taking up most of the space was an extremely obese family of four. The two pre-teen children were huge, and their parents looked like they might roll away. I stopped to watch them more closely. Did they look like the kind of people who would leave junk food wrappers all over the trail, or flick a cigarette over the falls? Did they “deserve” to be there?

The longer I watched them, the bigger the smile grew on my face. They were elated. All of them were looking at the falls like it was the hidden wonder of the world. The kids shouted and laughed while the mom stuck her arm out for a selfie photo on her camera phone, her face beaming with gratitude.

I was humbled.

I had seen this waterfall three times already. Where was my beaming face? Where was my boundless joy?

I was polishing off a 50-mile week to get to this point, and these guys had just walked a few hundred feet, yet we were both in the same place. In the end, I had advanced no further and done no better. We were both on the same trail, both hot and sweaty, and both of us had gotten out of bed that day and put on our running shoes. Over food or comfort or television, we had both chosen the waterfall.

John Muir once wrote that nature should be explored by “anyone with the right manners of the wilderness,” and I think that sometimes the wilderness itself extracts that respect from us, whether or not we have experience giving it.

Oregon so far has been my favorite state to run in. I have been both humbled and exalted by its towering trees, lush forests, and clean air. The state motto reads: alis volant propriis. It means, She flies with her own wings. 

What if we are all just flying the trails in our own time, with our own wings, in different stages of our relationship with the wilderness? Some of us are just starting out, while others are growing old on these trails.

That obese family may not have walked to many waterfalls, but they knew what to do in the presence of this one. Maybe their journey was just starting.

Maybe—in some way—we all deserve to be here. Or more likely, none of us deserve this. Yet day after day, by some great mercy, the sun still rises and the water still falls.

For all of us.

Pacific Coast Trail

Pacific Coast Trail

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Check out my book: The Summit Seeker

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