Reading to Cats, Playing the Ukulele, and Turning 32

cat-reading-newspaper
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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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: 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

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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Check out my book: The Summit Seeker

Q&A Uncensored: Answers to Your Questions

VanessaRunsPhoto: Denali National Park in Healy, Alaska

In my previous post I presented an open invitation for anyone to ask me anything—no topic was too taboo or too personal. Here are the questions I received, and their answers:

Do you and Shacky ever fight? You are living in a very small confined space and have to be totally flexible with your lifestyle, so when and if issues/disagreements come up, how do you resolve them? You really do seem like a love conquers all couple (I know that sounds corny). – Corina Smith

It sounds crazy, but we have never fought. Both of us have a very similar temperament: laid-back, calm, and low maintenance. We also both love this lifestyle and we don’t have the typical stressors that other couples balance: debt, work, time management, children.

Many of our challenges involve working as a team (e.g. researching places to go, organizing travel details, navigating new terrain). This has produced an “us against the world” mindset that motivates us to cooperate and compromise.

I attribute the peace in our relationship to simple living combined with compatibility. That said, things like hunger and heat can make us both very grumpy. Although we may experience a moody discomfort, we tend to be angry at our circumstances or other people (bad drivers, etc) rather than each other.

I recently read a great quote from Gunter Holtorf, a 75-year-old world traveler who has driven his car (and lived in it) for more than 820,000 kilometres all over the world. He traveled with his wife until she passed away. He writes:

“When you live in a car for nearly 20 years, it’s not a normal situation of a couple living in a home. Living in the car, and doing all that travel over all those years is like living as Siamese twins. When you travel like that, you can’t say, ‘I’m going to go read a book in the garden.’ You are stuck together, 24 hours a day. The only splits would be if one of us went shopping, or if you go behind a tree to use a toilet. You are bound to be together.”

What do you think about the competition element of ultramarathons? – Katie

I strongly support competition.

Back in San Diego, I volunteered for an organization called Girls on the Run. They do a lot of great things, but this was one topic of disagreement I had with them.

I was a volunteer running coach for a group of middle school girls. They were at that age where socializing and boys were more important than physical activity, and they were reluctant to participate. We coaches brainstormed about how to motivate them.

We agreed on the idea of introducing a sense of friendly competition and felt confident that this was the missing spark. Our idea was squashed by the higher-ups. We were told the organization didn’t believe in competition because it might lead to some girls feeling excluded. Although their arguments sounded great on paper, I knew the girls were being cheated.

One of the worst things we can do is to teach our young girls to associate a strong and healthy competitive drive with negativity, exclusion, and/or bullying. On the contrary, competition brings out the best in us. This is true not only in running but in life.

Competition is that fire in our bellies and that extra push in our legs. It teaches us to handle both victory and defeat, and sets us up–not for always winning–but for trying our best every single time.

VanessaRuns2Photo: Battery Point trailhead in Haines, Alaska

Did you know that your writing career would flourish when you started to do it for yourself, or is this a happy side-effect of your lifestyle, and having more time to follow your passions?  Was spending more time writing one of your goals? – Katie

I did expect that my writing would flourish. I believed in myself wholeheartedly and in the full potential of my talents. Embracing that type of confidence is the only way I was able to survive the insurmountable negativity of my past. I am still my own #1 cheerleader.

Sometimes people confuse a lack of confidence with humility, or confuse self-love with narcissism. I believe you have to love yourself fully in order to love others well. George Sheehan once wrote, “I have met my hero, and he is me.” Be a person you can be proud. Be your own hero.

Why IS everyone going to work all their lives and missing all this wonder and beauty in the world?! – Katie

I don’t think working necessarily means you will miss all the wonder and beauty in the world. “Work” can be seen as a dirty word in nomadic circles, but that is a mistake. In reality, I work much harder now than I ever did for an employer, because I am more motivated and passionate about what I do. My paycheck just isn’t as large or as steady.

I love this quote by Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

If you find what makes you come alive, your world will always be filled with wonder and beauty, regardless of employment.

I’m wondering what you eat and if it’s changed a lot since being on the road. – Tam

We’ve experimented with everything from paleo to vegan. I felt best eating mostly raw vegan, but I’m not strict about it. I try to fully experience the places we travel to, and that includes local foods. For example, on the West coast we ate a lot of fresh seafood, and in Alaska we ate wild game.

Food for me is highly social and I believe in long lunches, lots of sharing, and homemade meals with good friends.

What has traveling taught you? – Kristin

It has connected me to who I am and what I love to do. It has also reignited my faith in humanity. There is still so much goodness and generosity in the world. Once we get away from our digital screens and start talking to real people, it’s easy to see that the good far outweighs the evil out there.

If you had to run one 10-mile portion of trail for the rest of your life, where would it be? – Scott W. Kummer

The Los Pinos hill climb of the Los Pinos 50K course. This was the first stretch of trail that broke me, and I didn’t meet the cutoff at the top of the hill. It’s a brutal, exposed hill.

After it defeated me that first time, I went back and completed it three more times. The weather is always extreme and unpredictable. It’s a real challenge to carry enough food and water, and a real danger if you run out.

The original race director, Keira Henninger, gave it up because she didn’t feel she could keep runners safe on this climb. My friend Carlos Quinto, with Keira’s blessing, has recently resurrected the event. The first time we took Carlos out there, he had to beg some bikers for spare food and water. It’s a glorious challenge.

HERE is my first race report at Los Pinos.

VanessaRuns3Photo: Flattop Mountain in Anchorage, Alaska

How do you deal with others judgment of you and your decisions? I grew up in a people-pleasing environment and this is something I struggle with. It seems like you are very strong in your decisions and beliefs. – Alena

I used to be surrounded by naysayers and it took a lot of courage to separate myself from them. I have deleted online friends, broken off in-person friendships, and even cut contact with certain family members. The transition was difficult and awkward, but since then my life has evolved so much faster and my confidence has soared. I strongly support a ruthless purging like this for everyone.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you disassociate with people who don’t agree with you, but rather say goodbye to people who wish you ill and poison your life with their misery. Life is to short for negativity and toxic relationships.

People still make judgments of course, mostly online (you will never escape that), but now they are not people who are close to me. I can review their points, and if there is no validity there, I can easily shake them off.

What do you miss about having a fixed address and “regular” job? (I’m sure the answer is NOT “nothing” — every living situation has its good and bad features, even if it’s just the great Mexican restaurant down the road from your old house.) – Robyn

I really miss the familiarity of running the same trails over a period of months. Familiarity makes it easier to note physical improvements, and to mentally push myself to do better over time, especially with something like hill repeats (it helps to have the same hill!). It’s also lovely to watch one trail change with the seasons—I miss that. Finally, I miss going out for breakfast or coffee with old friends.

If you could change ONE thing about yourself as a person, what would it be? – Jen S.

I would give myself a better sense of direction. I am constantly getting lost while others seem to have a natural compass in their brains. I’d love to be able to go somewhere and automatically know how to go there again on my own, instead of having to look it up. I’m getting better, but it’s definitely challenging since we are constantly visiting new places.

What advice or tips would you give to someone who was considering giving it all up in order to live a more simple, nomadic life? – Katie

 Don’t wait to simplify your life—do it now. There are many ways you can start downgrading to make the transition easier. This can include giving stuff away, selling things, or cutting out non-essential expenses. We waited until the last minute, and it became overwhelming to get rid of so many things. In retrospect, we should have started much sooner.

What’s the weirdest sexual act Shacky has requested since hitting the road? – Jason

Our sex life isn’t that weird, sorry to disappoint! I feel like we’ve both had enough experiences to know what we like, and we pretty much stick to our favorite acts, which happen to be fairly standard.

While “What’s the weirdest sexual act Shacky has requested since hitting the road?” is hilarious, dare I add… Where?! – Jen S.

Always in the RV, everywhere from San Diego to Alaska to Toronto! Sometimes beautiful locations like mountains or glaciers, and other times just Home Depot parking lots. The RV has great cover so our biggest challenge is to not kick the pets.

vanessarunsPhoto: On the ferry from Haines to Skagway, Alaska

Do you make any money directly out of your running—through sponsorships or any other way? 
Or do you just run for the love of it? – myrunspiration

I don’t make money directly from running, but sometimes I get free race entries. I also get a small income from blog ads (WordAds via WordPress) and income from my book, The Summit Seeker. I will sometimes get free gear, like clothes or shoes in exchange for blog reviews.

I’m not fast enough to win races and even if I were, ultrarunning is not very lucrative. I definitely run for the love of it and usually pay to do so. I don’t keep my medals or race swag since space in the RV is limited. I give everything away to volunteers who were exceptional that day.

Do you worry about health insurance or medical costs? – Anj

Not as much as I should. I do have coverage in Canada (I’m Canadian), but that doesn’t necessarily help me outside the country. We’ve been looking into a few options and I’ve been scolded about not making it more of a priority.

How many states have you visited since you took off? How long have you been on the road now? Can you tell me the month and year you left for this trip? Any idea how many different trails you’ve explored or run during this trip? – Kristin

We have been on the road for one year (since August 2012). We’ve explored countless trails and run 2,000 miles, driven 30,000 miles, and visited 17 national parks (2 Canadian, the rest American).

Does the RV ever smell due to lack of showering? – Jakehat

Not from our bodies (we can keep up pretty good with at least a wet wipe), but sometimes if the dirty laundry piles up, it will smell like… dirty laundry. Also, when the cat takes a poop, we all smell it for a few glorious seconds until she covers it up.

If we don’t clean and put away our gear after a long run, a running funk will develop. I’m in charge of cleaning and I normally stay on top of it, although it’s surprisingly difficult to sort, clean and store all your gear immediately after a 100-mile race. In those cases, we surrender to the funk for a day or two.

vanessarunsPhoto: Spending the night just outside of Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada

What do you feed ginger on your long runs together? I’m training with my dog and figure if I am eating something, she should be too. – Dustin Heath

We will carry any of her favorite foods. She loves hot dogs, jerky, and peanut butter. She seems to enjoy burritos as well. When she ran a 50K with me she enjoyed potatoes from the aid station. Almost anything she is willing to eat, we will feed her. She is a picky eater so we trust her instincts.

Do you ever listen to the weakerthans? – Jakehat

I had never heard of them, but just checked them out online. Not bad! I’ll get Shacky to download more of them. We’re currently on a Johnny Cash binge.

When can we all go for a run on Brown Mountain?! – Rob G.

Not sure where that is? :)

I always picture you and Shacky driving around singing Queens Bohemian Raphsody. What are the lyrics to that song? – Istomsl

Shacky prefers this version.

vanessarunsPhoto: Kathleen Lake in Yukon, Canada

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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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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

Happy Hoboversary! Stats From One Year Later

SONY DSCIt has now been one year since I quit a reliable and respectable job in my field of journalism to travel, write a book, and do more living. I had no idea at the time where I would find myself one year later.

Here are the stats:

THE NUMBERS

Miles Driven: 20, 000
Miles Run: 1914
Longest Run: 52 miles at Zion 100 (DNF)
Total States Visited: 13
Total National Parks Visited: 13

Total Income Made: $5,000 (We be rich!)
Biggest Purchase: Rialta RV for $25,000
Biggest Expense: Food
Savings in Bank: $15,000

THE GOOD

Favorite Trail: Angel’s Landing at Zion National Park. I hate to pick a touristy spot, but it was actually pretty unbelievable, and I managed to chick Shacky by making it all the way to the top. I’d be happy running that trail every day.

Favorite State: Oregon. I LOVE TREES!!! I had forgotten how much I really, really missed trees and greenery and running through the woods. The trails are much more forgiving than what I’m used to in SoCal, though sometimes I do miss the gnarly, rocky climbs in the desert. But O-EM-GEE the TREES!!

Favorite Wildlife Sighting: The elk at Redwoods National Park. We walked right among them, and they didn’t care.

SONY DSCFavorite Person I Met for the First Time: Cory Reese in Utah. Awesome dude! He took us trail running and we had dinner with his lovely family. Cory keeps knocking out 100 milers and takes amazing photos. Follow him at: http://www.fastcory.com/

zion9Favorite National Park: Sequoia National Park. Again–the trees. My jaw dropped when I saw the sequoias for the first time. Read more about what they taught me HERE.

Most Scenic Drive: Sequoia National Park to King’s Canyon National Park

Favorite Non-Running Pastime: Reading. I am currently reading Jay Danek’s new book Got to Live, and I keep up with close to 200 blogs. You know when you wonder who has time to read all these blogs? Me. I read them all.

Best Meal: Albacore Tuna Ceviche at Multnoham Falls Lodge. They have a lovely restaurant at the bottom of the waterfall. It’s a little pricier than what we’re used to, but the food is simply amazing. Shacky had the prime rib and gave me a taste. It was the softest meat I had ever eaten. It just melted in your mouth. Shacky said it was the best prime rib he had ever had. My tuna ceviche had a great kick and was really tasty.

A close second would be the clam chowder at Pacific Oyster, a little spot along the Oregon coast. It was the day before my birthday and Shacky chose the restaurant. We also did oyster shots there (my first time!) and they went down so smooth… The chowder made me want to hug someone and then go to sleep.

Strangest Drink (in a good way): Wasabi Ginger Ale at Fort George Brewery in Astoria, OR. It was really interesting and strangely pleasant. Shacky loved it. I liked it, but then the taste started building up and it was too much wasabi for me by the end.

Favorite Food Eaten for the First Time: Rogue Creamery Blue Cheese Popcorn. OMFG. The bag is a huge ripoff, yet I bought it twice.

Best Desert: Tillamook Cheese Factory Ice Cream. We came back here THREE times.

Biggest Accomplishment: Writing, editing, and self-publishing The Summit Seeker

SSTHE BAD

Least Favorite State: Kansas (I didn’t get it? I didn’t see anything there, still a little puzzled…)

Scariest Moment: For many of the roads in California (San Francisco area), I had to literally go to the back, lie down, and close my eyes to try to convince myself we weren’t going to die. The narrow roads kept turning and winding and there was so much descent that our brakes started to smell like they were burning. The cat started throwing up and I felt pretty sick myself.

Worst Weather: Hail and snowstorm driving up to Crater Lake National Park. We couldn’t see the lake at all. The next morning, it was crystal clear and we enjoyed some amazing views. I couldn’t believe how fast the storm hit us, and how quickly it disappeared.

SONY DSCBiggest Disappointment: We would have made it to the Copper Canyons Ultramarathon, but instead had some RV trouble and ended up camping at the Volkswagen dealership for more than a week.

Strangest Drink (in a bad way): Buffalo Wings Soda by Lester’s Fixins. GAGGG!!! Shacky said it wasn’t that bad, but it was pretty terrible. These guys also sell Coffee Soda, Bacon Soda, Peanut Butter & Jelly Soda…

Hardest Chore: Writing. Writing is hard, even when you’re “good” at it. I’ve been writing and working on a book every day for a year (now on my second), and it doesn’t get easier. It’s also incredibly time consuming.

FINAL THOUGHTS

With the passing of a year, I have come to understand more fully how incredibly lucky I am to:

a) have the opportunity to travel this way
b) have the support of an awesome partner in crime and a couple furry kids
c) enjoy good health and a strong body

I really hope I can do my time on this earth justice by living to the best of my ability and getting in the most experiences that I possibly can. We are often alone in spectacular places because everyone else is at work, stuck in traffic, or too old and weak because they waited until retirement to travel. I am so blessed to have the freedom that I do, and I need to honor that by savoring every single moment.
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Weekly Photo Challenge: Escape

Task from this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge:

Share a picture that means ESCAPE to you.

Here’s mine:

angels14To understand the significance of this photo, we need to rewind to one year ago today. I was days away from permanently leaving my cubicle job in San Diego, spending my last few office days wrapping up paperwork and training my replacement. We had just bought the Rialta RV, our new home, and Shacky was nervous about quitting his job.

There were so many unknowns in our future. We had no idea how to live in an RV, how or where we would shower, whether we would run out of money, or how the animals would handle our travels. It took Shacky another couple of weeks to quit, a move that was far from easy for him.

Fast forward to the day this photo was taken. We are climbing Walter’s Wiggles to get to Angel’s Landing at Zion National Park, one of the most beautiful areas I have ever seen. I look up at Shacky and catch his reaction as he first spots the tight, steep switchbacks going straight up.

Pure bliss.

We are so far removed from where we were one year ago. We have escaped everything.

No longer financially secure, contributing members of our modern society, we have managed to escape “real life”.

An escape from rush hour.
An escape from cubicles.
An escape from crowds.

Now we fall asleep under thick starlight and wake up to glorious sunrises. We set our eyes and our feet on rugged landscapes–sometimes water and sometimes mountain, but always new and secluded and wild.

We’ve escaped.

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10 Overlooked Rights Worth Fighting For

rights worth fighting for

As a Canadian living in the USA, one of the first things I noticed upon moving here was how gung-ho Americans seemed to be about fighting for their rights. Issues like gun control, health care, and other common themes are sure to raise blood pressures and trigger heated debates.

Yet the greatest inhibitions in life are the ones we place on ourselves, and that has certainly been true for me. These past few months I have been attacking the obstacles that have been preventing me from embracing true freedom, and I’ve discovered that these are rights many of us have overlooked. And unlike many major political issues, these things affect us every day, several times a day.

Exercising the following rights has freed me in many ways, and I hope they will also inspire you to live better:

1. I will exercise my right to take my time.

Do you know what the worst part of a minimum wage job is (I’ve had several)? It’s not the crappy hours or the pathetic pay. It’s the 30-minute lunch breaks. Lunch in 30 minutes?! That’s unheard of. I’m a one- to two-hour lunch girl. I’m also a slow eater.

I’m slow at chewing. I’m slow at swallowing. And when I’m done, I’ll probably want dessert. God help you if I make tea—I’ll just sit there sipping until the sun goes down.

When I lived in Mendoza, Argentina, I quickly adapted to their European model of eating lunch. Everyone went home at lunchtime, prepared lunch, took their sweet-ass time eating, and then took long naps. They went back to work at around 3 p.m., and worked until around 7 p.m.. Now there’s a decent life.

The truth is, I’m slow at most things. I’m a slow runner. I’m slow at waking up. And I’m slow at thinking my thoughts and writing them down.

But I like to think that these things are worth the wait. Great things need time to just sit around, like wine or sauerkraut or cheese (more about cheese later). Slowing down also gives me time to make sense of my world, and write posts like these.

Ever since I left the corporate world to bum around the country in an RV, I’ve been less apologetic about taking my time. I’ve exercised my right to move slowly. As a result, I’ve noticed a drastic boost in creativity. I get more and better ideas. My thoughts have time to develop and intertwine. I write better, with more clarity, and I can make better connections.

If you operate in a rushed environment, I strongly encourage you to slow down. I was always afraid to try this, especially at work because everyone around me was moving so fast and I worried I would get left behind. But I wish I had been brave enough to slow down sooner. I would have been better at my job, better at relationships, and better at life.

Practice saying these amazing phrases:

“I need more time.”

“I’m not finished with that yet.”

“Please come back later.”

And every once in a while, take a long lunch. A REALLY long lunch. Make a cup of tea and drink it slowly with a friend. Yes, life is short. But these are the simple pleasures that make life worth it.

2. I will exercise my right to sing and/or dance.

A few weeks ago we were shopping at Trader Joe’s. Shacky was looking for some eggs and I found a little corner where they were giving away cheese samples. CHEEEEESE!! I love cheese, but I’ve been on a mostly-vegan diet since May (plant-based is a more accurate description). It was really good quality cheese though, so I decided to make an exception and try a sample.

I hadn’t eaten cheese in quite a while and it was so freaking good that I wanted to hop up and down and do a little dance. But I didn’t. Cause I was at Trader Joe’s and it was crowded. But I should have.

This wasn’t the first time I suppressed a little dance. I usually feel like singing on the trails, but sometimes Shacky says, “Do you really have to sing This Land is Your Land again??” Still, I don’t want to suppress stuff anymore. If I’m happy, I should do a little jig.

I love cheese.

3. I will exercise my right to make a joke.

When I was trying to be a cool kid back in the age range when being cool was important (Jr. High), Yo Mama jokes were in style. So were any other insult-jokes.

Like this:

  • Yo mama is so stupid that it took her two hours to watch 60 Minutes.
  • What’s the difference between three penises and a joke? Your mom can’t take a joke.
  • Learn from your parents’ mistakes—use birth control.

I loved jokes. I would go to the library to read joke books, but they weren’t insult jokes. My favorite joke of all time was this:

Q: Why was the math book sad?

A: Because it had so many PROBLEMS!!”

HAH. Still a damn fine joke.

But I never got to tell it. Because the exchange below never quite seemed like a natural flow:

Other kid: Yo mama is so fat that when she gets in an elevator, it has to go down.

Me: Why was the math book sad?

As the years passed, I never really grew out of my silly sense of humor. I always had a quirky funny bone, and I would often find myself laughing alone at things that nobody else thought were funny.

I grew up with a sarcastic and teasing sense of humor. In my family, if someone teased you until you cried or until you became raging mad—that meant that they loved you. I have vivid memories of my dad making me cry this way. I can’t say I always enjoyed it, but his sense of humor did seem to rub off on me.

My uncles were the same way. They would torment each other, and that was how they showed love. But at school, they called that bullying.

In Junior High, I had a good friend that I teased in music class one day. I told him that his new haircut made him look like he had cancer. My teacher heard me, and lost his mind. He threw his music stand across the room, screamed at me, and made me leave the class. I was shocked. What did I say?

At that time, my mom was dying of leukemia and it was actually something we joked about at home. Humor was a coping mechanism and I genuinely had no idea that cancer was a sensitive issue.

After that outburst from my music teacher (who I loved and admired), I learned to heavily sensor my humor. Even now, I have a sarcastic, dirty, and hard-hitting funny bone. I still sensor myself a lot.

But I’m learning to let go. To just be who I am, even at the risk of offending others. Yes, I can seem callous and inappropriate. But there’s something to be said about humor as a tool for healing. We are hurting, but it hurts less if we can joke about it. We are starving, but our stomachs can be filled with laughter.

One of my biggest reliefs in life is when I hear someone else make a highly inappropriate joke that I also think is funny. The realization that they have the same sense of humor—and that I can be myself with them—is so liberating.

I can tease others mercilessly, but I can also roll with the hardest of jokes when they are directed at me. The best thing in life is to be able to laugh at yourself. And when someone laughs at me—I still feel loved.

Last month, I took Shacky to meet my uncles in L.A. I was a little worried because I didn’t know how they would act around Shacky. As soon as they opened the door, the first thing they did was tease him about his beard. And they continued to do so for the rest of the night, as new beard jokes occurred to them.

To me, the thought of teasing someone immediately after meeting them, before “feeling them out”, is a huge risk. I think twice. But to see my uncles do it so naturally, I had to smile. They were being themselves.

4. I will exercise my right to look you in the eye.

“EX-CUUUUUSE ME! Do you have a staring problem??!!”

This was said to me by a snarky little black girl in my elementary school class. She scared me a little. But she was right—I had a staring problem. I like to look at people.

What can I say, people are pretty interesting. Faces are cool. But direct eye contact was considered rude.

  • Don’t look at strangers.
  • Don’t stare.
  • Keep your eyes to yourself.

All of these were things I was taught in school and in other social settings. So I stopped looking. Until eye contact seemed weird and uncomfortable. I lost my childlike courage to stare.

But I don’t really believe staring is a problem. I think I have a right to look you in the eye. You left your house this morning. You went out in public. We’re in a public space. So I believe I can look at you quite freely. I can wonder about you or think you’re pretty, or admire your clothes. And who knows, I may even say hello.

I’m tired of averting my eyes. I want to see you and notice details about you, and maybe even recognize you the next time we meet. And if you look back, maybe we can share a smile.

5. I will exercise my right to be silent.

My ex-boyfriend was a talker. I was always more of a listener, so I learned to perfect the art of acknowledgment-noises. Like:

“Yes.”

“Hm.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Interesting.”

Shacky doesn’t have any acknowledgment noises. So when I tell him something, sometimes he doesn’t reply at all. “Did he hear me?” I wonder. So I tell him again. No response. Again?

Eventually he just says, “I wish you’d be quiet.” And I have to laugh.

He DID hear me. But he exercises his right to be silent, and I’m learning to do the same.

Sometimes when I’m running in a group, I feel pressure to talk. It’s pressure I put on myself, thinking I have to fill every silence or people will realize I’m actually pretty boring to run with.

But silence is awesome, and I have a right to shut the hell up. I don’t have to make shallow, meaningless acknowledgment noises. I don’t have to rack my brain for something to say. I can just listen and talk when I want to.

Silence doesn’t mean that I’m mad. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong, yet often that’s what we assume. We think everything is cool as long as someone is gabbing.

In journalism school, one of my professors gave me a valuable tip that I never forgot. I’ve used it often with tremendous results. It’s this:

When you’re interviewing someone, ask them a question and let them reply. After that, there’s a lull. A short silence. The interviewer’s instinct is to fill this silence with a response, or by asking the next question. But if the interviewer is brave enough to remain silent, the interviewee will start speaking again. They will answer the question a different way. Because they’re out of their standard reply, what they say next is usually genuine, raw, and often the blatant truth. More often than not, they reveal something truly insightful and fascinating in an effort to fill that silence.

My professor was an expert with this technique, sometimes staying silent long enough for the interviewee to provide two or three answers. The key is for the interviewer to be comfortable with silence. They must perfect the ability to look at someone and just smile, knowing that they are waiting for you to say something, but refusing to utter a word.

I have been trying to eliminate wasteful words from my daily life. I want to stick to words that come from the heart and that mean something. Words with intention.

And if I have nothing to say—I will exercise my right to say nothing at all.

6. I will exercise my right to get excited.

Getting excited is never cool, especially when you’re a teenager. As a teenager, I would get excited about most things, so I was a pretty big nerd.

I would get excited about books, about nature, about learning, and even about homework. I would wonder how things were made, and I would get excited about that too. The cool kids were indifferent and unimpressed. That’s what made them cool. They would roll their eyes at me, so eventually I learned to stop showing my excitement.

I still get excited about a lot of things, but I’ll also still catch myself suppressing my excitement (see section above re: cheese dance). It’s a bad habit formed over time that I need to shake off.

I miss getting really excited about stuff. I miss jumping up and down and clapping my hands. I miss high-fives. I miss lingering at a rock formation or a sign, to examine them thoroughly and then get excited about them.

In my mind, I still see the rolling eyes of those judgmental teenagers, even though they’re no longer part of my life. It’s time to exercise my right to excited about dumb stuff.

7. I will exercise my right to experiment.

Jason Robillard has just written a book (to be released soon) on trail and ultrarunning. He calls it a “Guide for Weird Folks” because it contains a plethora of lessons and experiences he has accumulated over years of experimentation and doing the opposite of conventional running wisdom.

As a result, his book is full of tips that you will not find anywhere else. Jason has experimented with various forms of sleep deprivation training, stomach training (how to run on both a full stomach as well as an empty one), and even when it’s best to wear cotton instead of tech clothing. He has done everything from running in a sun hat to duct taping his gonads (sans instructional video). He even covers grooming in the nether regions for endurance runners (hair, no hair, or some hair?). It’s quite a read.

The success of Jason’s blog, and the pending success of his book, is a great example of the power of experimentation. I’m a big fan of guinea-pig-style writing, and I’m strong advocate of experimentation.

It used to be that ultrarunning was such a niche sport that participants HAD to experiment to find what worked for them. These days there is so much written about training and race tips, that you could easily follow conventional wisdom and, in my opinion, miss out on valuable knowledge.

Our society isn’t set up to encourage experimentation. We are consumers of the tried and true. We want someone to tell us what works so we don’t have to try new things. But experimentation is still the best way.

My ultrarunning experience can be summed up by stating that I’ve had great success by doing all the wrong things. I increased my distance too fast. I don’t taper. I almost always try something new on race day, including shoes. One thing that experimentation teaches me is the incredible skill of adaptability.

And really—what is an ultramarathon finish if not a successful adaptation to all the challenges faced throughout the day? Experiment, experiment, experiment. In this sport, there are no rules—same with life.

8. I will exercise my right to do my best.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?… Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you… As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

– Marianne Williamson

This is a quote that resonates with me. Often, I seem fearless on the outside. But my deepest fears are rooted in the fact that I’m afraid of what I could become if I did my absolute best.

It all started in elementary. I would do well in class, and get labeled a nerd. So I learned to hold back. I learned to do well, but not too good. I learned to never do my best.

When I started running ultras, I quickly learned that I was pretty good at it. I ran my first sub-6-hour 50K early on in my ultra career. I jumped from the 50K distance straight to 100 miles. I finished 100 miles on my first attempt. And in that same year, I finished four 100s.

Even so—I still hold myself back. During races, if I’m running fast and feeling good, I think:

  • I shouldn’t feel this good. Something must be wrong. I should slow down.
  • I don’t deserve to finish this strong. I should move slower.
  • People with more experience are further behind me. I should slow down.
  • I’m not hurting, but everyone else is walking. I should walk too.
  • I’ve had a really good running year. I should finish this, but not push too hard.

Deep down, I’m afraid of what I could become if I truly did my best. Like that elementary student, I want to do well but not stand out. I’m terrified of my limits. Not because they will hold me back, but because I may discover that I actually have none.

Little by little, I’m conquering those fears. I’m signing up for harder mountain races. I’m starting to expand my training: more core and strength work, with the purpose of getting stronger. I’m experimenting with more uphill running, instead of just power hiking. It’s a slow process, and sometimes I’m still very afraid. But I know that I don’t have to measure myself by anyone else’s standards. I can do my best, and soar to new heights.

And yes—I do deserve it.

9. I will exercise my right to fail.

From an early age, we set up our children for success. We try to give them every advantage, every head start, and the smoothest road possible to an easy and profitable life.

But don’t we learn better from a face full of dirt after a hard fall? From scrapped knees and bloody hands and hot tears? We learn from our failures, and we learn fast.

That’s how I grew up: with the face-full-of-dirt technique. That’s how I learned to ride a bike, to run on trails, to attack life’s challenges. Yes, some things were harder, like fitting in at school, but there was one thing I learned from growing up this way that has brought me great success: I lost my fear of failure.

I’m not sure it’s after your 100th time, or after your 1000th time of failing that you lose the fear of failure, but eventually it does go away. Failure just becomes a way of saying to yourself, “Try again another way.”

I have said before that when I registered for Chimera 100, I knew deep inside that I could not finish it. I embraced the possibility of failure, and started training my ass off. Had I been terrified of failure, I never would have registered. I never would have finished.

You know that feeling right after you register for a race, or take on a huge task where your blood pressure starts to rise and you think, “Dear God, what have I just done??!!” That’s good. That means you’re exercising your right to fail.

At my second 100-mile attempt, I failed. It was Nanny Goat 100. I only made it to 55 miles, and I felt pretty dumb because it was supposed to be an “easy” course. But the course was a 1-mile loop, and after 55 miles, the loops really got to me. I just gave up mentally. I just didn’t care anymore.

I learned so many things from that failure. I tried a few more looped courses, like Across the Years 72-Hours (1-mile loop for 3 days), and confirmed what I learned at Nanny Goat: I’m not really built for these types of courses. Give me mountains. Give me water crossings. Even give me mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and bears. But if you give me a loop where I’m going nowhere, I’ll want to shoot my brains out.

I still love the challenge of looped courses and greatly admire the folks who can buckle up and knock them out, but my failure at Nanny Goat taught me what my strengths were.

Failure is a shortcut to learning. The greater the failure, the stronger the lesson is reinforced. Embrace it.

10. I will exercise my right to dream ridiculously big.

“What the hell are you trying to do, run 100 miles someday??”

The biting words of my ex-boyfriend still ring in my ears. His tone was one of such deep disgust, and I knew he meant for me to be offended at his suggestion. It was right after I had come home from a long run, and he couldn’t understand why on earth I needed (or wanted) to be out running all day.

But I did want to run 100 miles. And how do you even begin to explain that to someone?

In life, I have learned that there are dreamers and there are dream-killers. Associate with dreamers.

Dreamers will not care WHAT your dream is or how ridiculous it sounds. They think you can do it, and will cheer you on.

  • You want to run a 50K on little training, Trisha Reeves? Oh ya, you totally got it.
  • You want to run across the country with no money and no shoes, Patrick Sweeney? Easy peasy. Go for it.
  • You want to backpack across Central America by yourself through dangerous places, Jess Soco? Totally doable.

It doesn’t matter how ridiculous your dreams are, or if they’re even about running. Dreamers will cheer you on. That’s because dreamers know just how possible the impossible really is. And they’re often right.

Despite what others think of your skills, capabilities, or experience: You have a right to dream big. Not just a little big. Ridiculously, that-makes-no-sense, you-must-be-insane big. The kind of big that everyone—except for dreamers—will scoff at.

It’s your right to hold on to your dream. To nurture it, protect it, and grow it.

I threw myself unreasonably into my first 100-miler after only a small handful of 50K finishes. It was senseless and crazy and unheard of. But the dreamers in my life said: “You want to race 100 miles after only a few mediocre 50K finishes? You can do it.”

And so I did.

I have to smile whenever I read ultrarunning how-to articles that caution you on going slow, staying safe, and “never do anything new on race day”-type advice. Of course, this is all very reasonable advice. I cannot deny these tips, and it is your right to follow those wise words.

However, it is also your right to take a huge chance. To be reckless and completely crazy and just dream big. Really really really big.

You can do it.

***

YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY:

Seeking Dispersers: A Call to Embrace a Wild Life

East Jesus in Slab City: Finding Community in the Desert

Alaska-Bound and Other Adventures

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CHECK OUT THE SUMMIT SEEKER HERE:

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