Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Easy does it

The final installation for Chile 2014.  Hot tip, if you ever want a lot of email responses while traveling, try telling a story involving someone hurting your feelings :)  Thanks to everyone that reads these funny little notes. I love writing them so I hope you get a kick out of them.



I ask, hesitating.  I am at the bottom of a rope that hasn't moved in over five minutes.  Lost in day dreaming, 1000 meters above the valley floor, my partner hasn't made a move closer to the summit as the light begins to fade and I have been shivering in the shade of a protruding rock for over an hour.

"Its the hard part! Uugh."  

Pato, my Chilean climbing partner, gives another of his manly whines.  We are on the sixth of 10 pitches in a 550 meter route up Cerro Trinidad in Cochamó Valley in central Chile.  This place is called the Yosemite of Chile but comparisons are for the uncreative: it is valley upon valley of huge (2000 meter) granite rocks; surrounded by rainforest, watched over by condors.

Climbing in Cochamó was the only thing I had really set intentions on and aimed my rutters for from the beginning of my trip.  I didnt know what to expect out of the arduous mission of even getting to the valley, besides my uncertainty if I could keep up in such a world class 'climbing destination.'  Nevertheless,  I waited 5 days for a storm to pass, hitchhiked to the pueblo, chartered a horse and started up with the hopes of smiling my way into a climbing partner. 

Turn out, I missed the other million climbers in the valley this summer and only caught the last three as they were packing to leave after three months of rain forest climbing/waiting for dry weather. Cochamó is so vast and relatively new that development of new routes is constant and difficult.  Cracks are dirty and often, once cleaned for inspection, found to be flaring and/or unclimbable. Heaps of climbers invest the whole summer of time and money just to establish new lines for the sake of exploration.   The only promise that IF a guide book is ever published, their name will be printed along with their route. 

Tactical smiles from both sides were no use, I would not leave to climb in Argentina and they would not stay for another week of expected sunshine in the valley.  And then walked up Patricio...

Handsome, in a city boy sort of way.  English speaking, in the general sense.  Pato wanted to climb Cerro Trinidad and needed a belay.  Well, perfect because I'll climb anything and you could say I'm kind of a professional belayer- 100 lbs of guaranteed soft catch.  It wasn't until we were packed to hike to the base of the mountain that I actually got to see for myself the route map and details: I had been sandbagged.

"Uh. You're going to have to lead all 10 pitches,  Pato." I'm pretty new to crack climbing and was about to climb 550 meters of pretty sustained intermediate crack.

"Ah, yes, okay, I think its fine."

I've never climbed with a stranger before and was working hard to trust my instincts as well as my own abilities to take care of myself and others on a wall.  What's the worse that can happen?

Don't worry, this isn't when I launch into a tale of terror at 1500 meters.  The climbing was beautiful, if not very very slow.  Turns out, Pato bit off more than he was truly capable of and used a lot of cheap, slow technique to get up the wall.  Besides that, I wont even tell you about the 2 hour scramble up a crumbling gully to the base of the route or reaching the summit at dark and then taking 3 hours to find our rappels and scramble back down the gully in the rain to get to camp at midnight in the rain.

I will, however, tell you that a condor visited us several times as we climbed.  It came as low as about 20 meters overhead, just gliding with a condor's curious expression.  As I sat on belay, it would return every hour or so, casting its humongous shadow on the granite. I will also tell you that it's hard to find words for what it was like to be up there, high above such an incredibly beautiful and vast valley of granite formations.  Pictures don't cut it,  long passionate storytelling would only scratch the surface.  The best I can do is tell you how it felt.  The whole 17 hour day felt more physically difficult than anything I have ever completed.  It felt like living three days in one.  It felt like the bliss of single pointed focus, of meditation and stimulation all at once.  It felt like work and, dammit, I really like working hard for things I love and feeling, deep in my tired muscles and bones that I am strong and capable.  Maybe that's what love feels like, at once beautiful and challenging till you're so spent you can only laugh because any other response is just going to smother the experience. Yes, it felt a bit like all of that.

It is the humble opinion of this very self opinionated writer that climbing has the propensity towards some figurative dick measuring.  Some talk big about ascents, scoff at 'gumbies' in a quiet patronizing way, and generally can link identity and worth to climbing resumes.  To some Climbers, this summit was cool but not incredible.   

Oh, that's cute, you top roped a whole mountain. High five.  

And to others, this is almost unimaginable, complicated and scary.  The only thing I know is that I loved it, was inspired and humbled by it.  I loved every hand jamming, freezing, laughing, thirsty, hiking through rain, exhausting, lost in translating, breathtaking minute.  Now, when I flex my scrappy little muscles, there will be tiny little fibers straight out of that day in Valle de Cochamó and that's pretty awesome, in the true sense of the word.  

I don't know how all that converts into genital comparisons, though.

But really, who cares about any of it; Chile, Cochamo, or otherwise. In the end, its just an elaborate ruse.  The geography of travel across borders, or resume of routes ascended is merely a catalyst and outlet for our own internal travel, its outcome judged by where we start and end up within ourselves.  

So, there's that.

Turn and face the change

Human I love!
     You may or may not have know from my last email, but it was pretty hard for me to leave the states this time around.  For the first time in my life, I felt like I had made a home for myself.  Dont get me wrong, I traveled to find home in other ways; humans are Home, adventure is Home, my self is Home.  Yet, Salt Lake had allowed me to set roots and build community within a geographical boundary for the first time since I was 15.  I was nervous to put my gypsy-girl ways back in practice, insecure about my Spanish abilities, and sincerely enjoying security and new relationships.  Nevertheless, I packed my car, drove to California, packed my trusty old backpack and greeted Chile after 30 hours of sitting and waiting on planes and in airports. 
     Months before I departed, I contacted farms in Chile looking for ones with horses I could learn from and lovely mountains to explore.  I found that suited my fancy and made arrangements to stay for about six of my total eight weeks.  Illani, the farm owner, is an American who has been living between Chile, Europe and the US with her Chilean husband for the passed 40 years.  Her farm lies at the base of rolling hills that over look the Catrica Valley and Villarrica Volcano.  It truly is a magical valley; lush and green, I´m told it looks like southern France. 
     The farm was entirely more bustling and crowded than I expected.  At one point, our lunch table sat 25 people.  On average, there were five Chilano workers, eight volunteers (like me), family and friends.  It was full and Illani´s attention was in short order.  I struggled to find things to do and Illani´s quiet passivity meant I was given little direction.  Seeing other people lay about and not contribute much made me feel even more that I wanted to add to Illani´s farm and help support the space she had created for so many to enjoy.  After about a week, I had found jobs to keep me busy and came to recognize other tasks needing doing.  It felt good to have a base and be able to contribute as well as take care of my own needs for time and space.  It felt a bit like home.
     After two weeks on the farm, I had ridden the horses a few times, sanded and painted the new bathroom, chopped wood for days, cooked, taught yoga, hiked the hill every day, and had a few blessed times of one on one conversation with Illani.  I was happy as a clam is happy.  One afternoon, after a long day in the sun, Illani said she had something she wanted to talk to me about so we walked into her rustic bedroom.  She turned to face me, “Blake, I just dont feel we have a connection.  I think it would be better if you left.”
Whoa.  Hold the phone and shut the front door.  What.
     That was almost exactly what went through my mind.  Then, WHAT THE FUCK AM I GOING TO DO NOW?!  Then, ouch, that´s not very nice to suddenly kick me out because you don´t like me.  I felt like I had been punched.  Illani didn´t like me.  Working hard to keep it together, I asked why.  She had no answer, said she had considered it and couldn´t figure it out but that she also needed the space as she wanted to rent the volunteers´ house to curb her growing debts.  I left and walked to the volunteer house.  Louisa was there, my partner in fun and work and conversation since she arrived.  She is a French cowgirl.  I love her.
     I told her, through very sad and hurt tears, what had happened.  That I didn´t understand it and didnt know what to do.  I had no other plans and was honestly afraid to travel.  I had been so home sick I had grown complacent and felt I had forgotten how to travel thought it was my life for years.  I hadn´t felt strong enough to do it and this had done nothing to instill confidence in the world at large.  We sat and talked, I said maybe I´d go home, I dunno.  She was shocked, kept wondering how Illani could even say she knew me when she had so little time for us.  It felt like high school, when I felt alienated from my friends and bullied in the special ways that girls bully.  It hurt to not be liked.  So, I walked up the hill for the twentieth time to be by myself.

News flash.  Sometimes people don´t like me.  Sometimes people I like don´t like me, or you, or your mom.

     Crazy, I know.  But, I guess I had forgotten it or hadn´t had that fact pull the rug out from under me so strongly.  Watching the clouds move over the valley, I thought about what I needed and what I wanted.  I wanted to transpose the same feelings I was loving in Salt Lake to a farm in Chile, I didn't want to push my comfort zone like I had for so many years.  I wanted to feel secure.  My  needs were almost entirely opposite; I needed to recognize that feelings are context specific and I´m not in Chile for the same reasons I am in Salt Lake.  I needed to remain strong and flexible and understand that I can make plans and then the world can change them.

News update. Its okay that people don't like me.  I don't have to change or be afraid.  Yes, I can be an insufferable beast.  Yes, I can be many other things that you love.  Its okay to not be everyone´s cup of tea.

     I came down from the hill and felt better.  Way better.  I was still in shock and wanted to talk more with Illani, but I knew that Illani had done the best thing she could have done for my trip.  She gave me a kick and got me moving again. I never got any explanation for Illani´s actions, but I know there are a myriad of good arguments for why I am an acquired taste.  While I don´t have anything to prove with this trip, I definitely have more to see than one valley and one set of people.  More to learn than horses, more to challenge me than one woman´s opinion of me. 
     In the end, its all okay.  Haters gonna hate.  She probably couldn´t stand how smart, and funny and pretty I am.  This must be how Britney Spears feels.


As for the rest of my trip, I left the farm last week and went backpacking in an incredible forest with Louisa for 4 days.  Now we are headed to another farm in Huelmo, on the ocean farther south.  At some point, when the weather looks dry, I´ll head to climb huge granite walls in Cochamo Valley and then I don´t know.
I still miss home in a way, think of the someone that waits for me there, excited to return to play and adventure with people I love.  Yet, I´m in Chile and that is really, really cool.  Now, I´m all the more ready to give it my best side for the remaining weeks I have here.  Thanks Illani.

So, what challenges you these days?  What heals you or makes you laugh? 

Another go round

The first of this round of stories and quips:

And so it begins, the organization of my life into boxes vs.  backpack.  Will I need This in the next two months?  I have no idea.  I feel that vague excitement of all that I don’t know.  Practicing my español, collecting climbing beta, digging out summer clothes- all of it is like a nesting instinct but for travelling.

There was a long period in my life that wrapped itself around travel.  During these years, I floated (ran), unattached (detached) and exploring (looking wildly for Something).  The world around me was in constant movement and it felt safe.  When the music is so loud and the skirts twirl so fast, it is much easier to make sense of the white noise that rises to the surface.  I can see now that all of that instability formed me into the woman I am- I know my shit and I am still looking like everyone else, as Sam Comen once put it.

While I was busy racking up the sum total of my young life, I shied away from attachment and deep connection like it was that kissing disease your friends got in high school.  Mono, was it?  Yea, mono.  Lucky for me, however, there are people on this planet that saw through the part that screams, I KNOW MY SHIT, and loved me for the child that was still searching.  How lucky are we that there are people like that.  People like Melody Mo, who curled up with me on the back bench of a terrible, bumpy 12 hour bus ride to Bamako after a two day ferry trip out of Timbuktu, during which I barfed off the side of the boat… on Christmas.  Or Greg Washburn, who gave me my playa name, Pan, and made sure to give a sincere goodbye on my final foreseeable departure from the Burning Man’s BlackRockDesert.  Lorraine Ishak, do you remember mobbing through Lesotho in your lovely Rover to collect the Nik from Cape Town?  South Africa would not have been the same if not for you two being there to put up with me.   How did I get so lucky to have met all of these incredible humans?  

As I write these words, a hundred faces rise to the surface of my memory and I am stunned with emotion and pure loving gratitude.  Gratitude for all the moments that became stories, that become memories, that are now part of my flesh and bone.  Thank you for being part of my tribe.  Thank you for being a part of where I am now, my past and my future adventures; all of them, from love, to South Africa, to Connecticut, to choosing to set roots over moving again, to surviving the wilderness. Even, a -20 degree week on trail with Wade Landon when I got frost bite. Crazy.

Once upon a time, the stories I collected were more clear and pre-told in my mind.  Now, it seems, those distinct floor boards of life are getting worn away; covered in snow, sand, river water, and various forms of smelly wilderness-play gear.  What once seemed a peak experience can eventually become part of the scenery, another stitch in the breathtaking life we are busy living.  

Maybe that is why this upcoming international outing feels extra different.  I mean, we all greet every bout of travelling from its own unique launching point: it’s that whole you never step in the same river twice sort of deal.  True, yes.  And, yet… beyond two months in Chile (where, I dunno I’m going to live on a farm and stuff) my future is entirely unknown and in the hands of graduate school admissions.  For the girl that lived life finessing things to go her way, this is very humbling.  There is no real finessing of those bastards ‘cept with cold hard cash and influence, two things that grow in short order out of Bakersfield, CA.  I haven’t felt so humbled and less in control in a long time- no expectations, no ability to form more than cursory plans, fueled by enough experience to demonstrate that it will be exactly what, where, and how it needs to be. I  have nothing to prove with my Grand Adventure de Chile, finally.  Exhale.  My trip to Chile, and my future, has me on the edge of my seat and, somehow, sitting relaxed.  Finally.    
Is it just me or have you ever lost track of yourself?  Taken one or seven ill-thought out turns, started wandering and when you looked around again, you were like; wait, that’s not what I meant to happen.  Yea, me too (or seven).  Center can be a hard place to find if you’re walking on your hands without realizing the world looks a little downside-up.  This is not where I ramble off with advice, don’t worry.  Screw advice, pardon my French.  I guess sometimes I just like to sit and smile about how cool things can be and how I still have no flippin’ idea about anything.  And maybe that resonates with the What’s, Where’s, and How’s of your life.

But, enough about how incredibly unique and interesting I am… How are you?  I mean, really, how? As I await that response:

I hope you sit for long periods of time doing nothing.  No more than staring at a wall, a sunset, the hands of a loved one.  I hope you listen more to what surrounds you and less to what envelops you.  When you get up in the morning, I hope you have time to yawn and stretch.  I hope you read more.  I hope you tell more people you love them.  I hope you fight and do not accept; that you swim through the mud to the nirvana on the other side.  

In the meantime, oh man, how I love you, you beautiful sparkly human that has allowed me to know you.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Such and Such

I wrote this nearly a year ago. With my recent resignation from guiding, I guess it is all the more poignant and real just how overwhelming the work can be. And now for the such and such... I was told by someone recently, a very smart someone who I am still yet to really know, that every action speaks a need. It seemed to me that the space between two people is filled with this speaking and needing and yet we are often hard pressed to be speaking exactly the same language. Over the last few years of working within behavioral health, from adult trauma therapy patients or (currently) at-risk youth in the wilderness, it feels like I have had to choke on this idea more than once- when they start abusing again, it has nothing to do with you; when they say fuck you, bitch what they really mean is this is scary and I’m homesick. But still, I love people and as much as I have placed myself in a space of ‘helper,’ I sure as hell would not have done any of it if not for the fact that I grow into an easier, happier life learning through and from these humans I have met. My last week on trail was one of the more difficult weeks I have yet walked out of. A friend and fellow guide, in decompressing from the week, said it sounded like something of a ‘staff development’ sort of shift. By that, we mean that I felt like I barely kept my head above the water, numbed my own emotional needs to care for those of my students, and in the end saw some beautiful humans showing their ugliest sides. I learned even more sharply that these young boys and girls in wilderness programs for the greater part of 10 weeks have so little choice and autonomy that it must be created. Many were yanked from their warm beds in the ungodly hours of the morning and sent to Utah by parents at the end of their long, though some shorter, ropes. Sometimes, the best gift I can give to the young boys I work with is to ask them where they think they want to make their backpack line rather than telling. When you have to stand in a circle to brush your teeth every day for exactly two minutes with your whole group and then do pretty much EVERYTHING else with them too, it doesn’t really matter how small the blister is- sometimes you just need someone to give you their undivided attention and support. I’ve seen this with boys, girls, young adults, and fellow staff. The trouble is, I guess, when the action does a poor job at speaking this need. I went to Burning Man recently, my second time in three years, and was amazed at how differently it felt this time around. My first year was like being born. I remember walking up to my friend Ethan one morning as he played around in the Yum Cart and told him, “I get it.” In the time I had spent on the playa, up to that moment, I felt like I understood why it existed, at least for me. It is a place where people are given the space to cut out from under the weight of their chosen lives and run and play and explore and love with other people doing all of those same things. My greatest need the first year I came was to find the sort of community of spirit I had found myself in for two years living in Africa. America, I thought, would disappoint me. Seems not, and I left the dusty desert knowing that the space I create around me, the speaking actions of needs, is what can draw near the love of strangers and friends and self. My second voyage to the dust introduced something slightly different. Out there in that Black Rock Desert, I saw a lot of humans expressing themselves in ways that were at once real and full of life. It looked like people being their most-selves: their sexiest, funnest, deepest, playfulest, wildest, highest selves and it was spectacular to see. Next to this, I also caught wind of a great amount of sadness about the ‘default world’ they would be forced back into. Why was it that these folk were their “–est” selves here and not away? Why was it that a friend told me, driving away covered in dust, that he wasn’t as nice at home? Why was I more paused and positive in that place than in my own home, with my own students? Maybe it is that chosen weight we carry, the one that feels comfortable yet debilitating, that keeps us doing the same things even when the results are decreasingly satisfactory, the same need with the wrong speaking. The same weight of impatience that explains it is easier to tell a kid rather than ask, the one that steps on my toes when I want to skip and tells me I should rather walk. Hard to say where the weight comes from and where it goes, but however you slice it, your guess is probably just as good as mine. and she asked that this time the world to come gently round to her, B

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Even Nudes Get the Blues

“Okay, so here is the bathroom. And you have your, what did you call it again?” “Sarong.” “Yes, we’ll see you out there in a few minutes, then.” He smiles and leaves me to undress. I take a breath, smiling to myself. Here’s looking at you, kid. My belt clanks on the tile floor as pull off my skinny jeans. I stand up and give myself a look in the full length mirror; well, I think, if I can’t lay around naked in a room of strangers at 26, young and careless, when can I? I wrap my sarong around me and walk back into the studio where I will sit in one pose for three hours while five artists furiously paint what they see. A ‘stage’ has been set on the floor of drapes and cushions, brightly lit by additional lamps. “Will you be posing me or, um, should I just give it a go?” “Well,” Rick replies cautiously, “let’s see what you come up with and maybe we can make adjustments?” I turn back to what will be my little nook for the next three hours and hesitate to remove my covering. For one half second the discomfort seems almost unbearable. I remind myself that nothing about this is going to be easy and I must embrace the discomfort for a moment until it passes. As I set myself down on the red velvet draped stool, I am supremely aware of the… shall we say, vantage points… of each of the artists. I am not interested in giving away any more intimate a glance than has already been afforded. Taking full advantage of my own artistic license in this scenario, I decide to sit on the floor. With over-cautious grace, like that of a young girl wearing heels for the first time, I lower myself to the ground with my back against the stool. Dropping my knees over, I form a kind of greater-than symbol with my legs and look up for approval. “That’s it. Don’t move. Wait, tilt your chin.” As he says this, I rotate my shoulders more openly to the room, twisting my back slightly. “Perfect!” Another artist exclaims, “Everybody got a good angle on this one? I’d say we got it on the first shot.” They all nod, I make a few more minor adjustments to the tilt of my chin, playing with the light until it sounds like everyone is satisfied from their varied angles. Suddenly, like at the sound of the gun at the races, there is a fury as brushes make scratching sounds on canvas with slight tapping interludes as they reload. Amidst all of this, I sit. I sit with only my thoughts to entertain me, wearing nothing but patient concentration. There was that moment, less than a moment, when I thought this may have topped all of my crazy ideas. Really, Blake? The pay isn’t that good, even if all you have to do is sit around. But, then I remembered. I remembered that in fact I have done things much, much stranger than this and as the world spins madly on I am somehow comforted by this thought. Sitting in this form of silence, I go looking for a distraction. In no time at all, I find one. I have this theory, you see, that goes something like this: if people were naked more often, and naked around more people, we would be happier. We would be happier because we would stop lying to ourselves about what ‘perfect’ really was, we would stop looking at our bodies in relation to “everyone else’s.” The fallacy of this being, of course, that the bodies most people are seeing undressed have been gymed, or starved, or photoshopped, or just plain lucky because those are the one’s people are told are okay to bring out of doors. Most people don’t look like that and it never seemed to be as much of a problem as it is today. If we were more comfortably naked, maybe we would stop judging ourselves as much. If we stopped judging ourselves, well hell, we might just lighten up our judgment of others. But that’s probably just a crazy thought from the crazy girl sitting naked while strangers paint her. After 30 minutes passes, an alarm goes off. “Okay, you can take a 10 minute break.” I get up, already a little stiff, and try to, as daintily as possible, stand while wrapping my sarong around me. Somewhere along the line, sitting had begun to feel safe while standing undressed just didn’t suit me at all. Leaving the safety of my nook, I wander around behind the easels to catch the first glimpses of these developing pieces. Strange, I don’t know what I expected to see but when I looked at the first painting I was… amazed; that is me, wholly and unfiltered, rendered in oil paint. And there, again, that is me, but different. And still, three more me’s. In attempting to stifle my gasp, I raise my hand to my mouth. This is way more than I bargained for. This is big. After a few more minutes of walking and stretching, chatting and listening, I walk back to my nook. This time, I take off my sarong without batting an eyelash and take a seat, quickly finding the muscle memory of my previous pose and settle back into my meditation. Floating in and out of thought and the absence of thought, I make plans for the week; friends I will see, bike rides I will take, books I will read. I quickly tire of these thoughts, thoughts I can busy myself with any old time, and just settle my mind and think of nothing but the space between my eyes and the wall plug upon which I have chosen to fixate. And so goes the rest of the night. Every 20 to 30 minutes, I get up, stretch and watch myself develop through the eyes of these artists. We talk about what it means to recreate what you perceive and then sell it, how it will never be perfect until we let go of the need to make it so. The present is just too precious to be copied, I guess. Then I sit, back in my meditation of non-thought, just me and the wall plug. I like to think it was meditating back on me, but we will never be sure. At the end of the three hours, I dress and am handed over a check for my time, along with the promise of calls in the near future from several of the artists looking for models for longer term projects. I give my thanks for their patience on my first sitting and bid them all a safe drive home. I walk out into the cool of the evening and I can no longer stifle the laugh that has been sitting on my heart all night. As I step off the curb, I give my heels and playful click. It was meant as a reminder, a reminder that I am not that girl painted so stoically on so many canvas, looking like a petal recently fallen. No, no, I am… well, I don’t really know what I am yet but maybe that is exactly the point.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Weather in the Everglades

Its 6 AM and my little watch alarm is emitting its meager beep, strong enough to wake me while faint enough to not disturb the other four people sleeping near me. I stumble down to the waiting truck and make myself comfortable for the two hour drive from Key Largo to a boat ramp 40 miles inside Everglades National Park.
Course 196 has been in The Glades for about a week now and there has been no more than hour long breaks in the constant, heavy rain. They are wet, rashed, and fighting. The kids that we serve in Outward Bound Southeast range in age from 13-17, but all are classified as ‘at-risk.’ That is to say, they come as a combination of pot heads, school-skippers, rule breakers, parent disrespecting, grade failing youngsters and have been referred to us to teach them a bit of responsibility and hopefully some coping skills while they are at it. Our strategy? Twenty day flat water canoe trips, 48 hours of supervised solo on day 11, and community service to wrap it all up. Basically, we are taking what has become the average adolescent and guiding them through what could be the greatest and most challenging adventure of their lives.
At the boat ramp, we load our canoe and all the resupplies into the speed boat and head out, twisting and turning through ‘islands’ of trees but no dirt. Mangrove ‘islands’ are basically deep rooted trees that grow out of the mucky floor of tropical, slow moving rivers like the Glades. After about an hour we arrive at our drop off spot. We tie down the 13 replacement dry sleeping bags, dry clothes, food, and a dozen other weighty and sizable needs into the center of our canoe and start off towards where the team said they would be. It is 11:30 AM.
At 12:30, we arrive at Coot’s Bay, the intended meeting place. We wait there for an hour and a half as they assume they are lost about but are in fact right around the corner, so to speak. Navigation in the Glades is more of an art than a science. While there are charts (not maps, mind you) the only real reference is previous experience. Often you can get by with, “Okay, I recognize this so I’m pretty sure we are at The Witch,” and othertimes that just gets you more lost. When all 7 of the canoes are lashed up (tied together) it is 2 PM and the team is famished. They are thankful for the fresh veggies we have brought and we dine happily on subs.
We unlash our boats and begin the convoy towards the board up site. Because there is no viable land in 95% of the Everglades, we create a kind of raft to live and sleep on each night. These are made by lashing the boats together and covering them in a network of 2’X8’ boards that we carry in the bottom of each canoe. It doesn’t create a whole lot of living space, but it is enough for kitchen/Food Circle and to lay out our individual, enclosed bug nets each night, albeit shoulder to shoulder. Very intimate quarters no matter how you slice it. Upon arriving at the site, we have to wait two hours in lightening drill, waiting for the storm to pass so the group could safely move around without the threat of electrocution. It takes another 2 hours to complete the long and and still relatively new process of ‘board up’ for the students. There is a lot of shuffling of stuff from one canoe to another to another to get out the boards and then organize everything for easy finding through out the evening and in the morning. In fact, this process has been known to take up to 6 hours depending on the behavior of the students. By 8 PM, the boards are placed, the tarps are up and the ‘kitchen’ is firing on all cylinders. It comes as almost no surprise, however, that shit begins to hit the fan at this point.
“Naw, man, tell him he needs to shut his mouth. I ain’t trying to hear that.”
“Whatever, bitch be crazy. I didn’t say nothin. Tell her sit back down.” Nia raise herself and throws her shoulders towards Tony in the most common intimidation move south of Canada. “Man, I wish I was a pimp so I could slap a bitch.” Right as the word ‘slap’ comes from Tony’ mouth, Nia lunges forward right into the lead instructor, Liz.
“Nia, sit down.” Liz has brough out her firm voice and it works well. “Tony, go sit over there with Eric.” At this point, Tony is usherd out of the scene by Eric, an assist on the course, all the while cussing over his shoulder knowing he is safe from what was impending doom.
“Okay, Nia, I need you to step back and collect yourself before you make a poor decision.”
“Naw, Miss Liz, its easy, just let me stick him. That will solve everything, it will all be over.” She pauses, looks Liz square in the face, “I just can’t let him talk to me like that.”
These sorts of altercations, while not common, are neither rare. We are bringing together kids from different backgrounds and putting them in stressful situations with no break. Kids pick fights in math class just like kids are going to pick the same sort of fights on the river. On the river, however, there is a way of dealing with it that does not include the principle’s office. After Nia and Tony have cooled down, they are brought back into the group and asked to explain themselves, take ownership for their actions, empathize for the other person and finally make a plan to keep themselves from repeating the same behavior. By this point in the course, the students are not new to this technique and come back ready to simply stay out of eachother’s way. Sometimes, however, it is not so easy and students have to remain separate for the group overnight until they can come back and communicate respectfully with a mind for reconciliation. Whether you are in an office or the Glades, communication like this is as simple as it is incrediblly difficult but at least these kids are getting a taste of it earlier than later.
As the meal of some weird pasta concoction is being served to the students, there is suddenly two kids puking off the side of the raft. One young girl, Aleni, has just started her period and hasn’t eaten today. I plant myself, crosslegged, next to her as she heaves into the brown water. Feeling like distraction is the best medicine for her nausea, I try to calm her down and we start talking about how annoying periods are and how aweful it was to use a tampon for the first time today. She laughs, “Yeah, my mom will be surprised,” her voice cracks slightly, “When I’m sick I miss my mom.” We talk about taking things for granted and what it means to truly appreciate. When I ask what she has learned so far, she tells me about knots and paddle strokes and community. “I have never seen people your age, wait how old are you, anyway? Nevermind, you guys probably can’t tell us. Anyway, you guys all talk to eachother and us like, I don’t know, like you are friends and parents at the same time. It’s hard to explain. But yeah, I couldn’t get through this without you guys and the other students.” She giggles, looking out at the black night around us, “We are such a weird family.”
When we are finally able to get the students into their nets, it is past midnight and the team stays up until 4 AM talking about the previous 5 days of behaviors, insane weather, and wet everything. We have brought the gift of refined sugar in its many forms and during the next 4 hours of laughing, venting, problem solving, we all binge like the emotional eaters we have become. When we finally are settling for sleep, it is 4:30 AM.
I ready my space, laying out my sleeping bag and placing my headlamp in easy reach. It is at this point I make a decision that even at the time, I guessed would come back to hurt me. I decide that I will remove me damp, smelly clothes and instead sleep in my sports bra and undies. At the time, the risk is equal to the discomfort so, placing my clothes at the foot of my hammock, I accept the possible consequences and there’s no turning back. Through the night, there is a drip on my face and the constant threat of waking Liz or Eric crammed in next to me with the slightest wiggle. Needless to say, I was not asleep at 6:30 when the wind picked up from 20 MPH to about 40 and lightening crashed deafeningly close.
“Okay guys, let’s get the kids up.” Liz bolts upright next to me and I am awake and scared. I start to unzip my net and look down remembering my untimely decision. Shit, I knew this would happen. I scamble around in sleeping bag and netting looking for my shorts and t-shirt; evaporated. More frantically, I search, “They are bright fucking red shorts, how can I not find them?!,” I scream at myself. I look around as Eric and Phil are pulling the raft in closer to the mangrove, allowing it to protect us from the incredible winds. Liz has moved towards the kids, trying to rouse them from their slumber.
“I need someone to help me get this tarp off the kids.” No one moves towards her, I continue looking for what should have remained on my body in the first place. In a more frantic voice, Liz calls out again, “The tarp is full of water and has fallen on the kids, I need someone to help me lift it. Now!” It was the change in her voice that pulled me, almost without thought, from my net. As I am stepping over and around the sleeping kids, I keep repeating one manta: underware is just like a bathing suit, underware is just like a bathing suit. Its fine, just help the kids, they probably aren’t even awake right now, anyway. Later, Eric would admit that the sight of me running around in my (luckily very conservative) undies gave him a good laugh in the middle of all the tension. You’re welcome, Eric.
Upon completing Operation Undies, I scurry back to my hammock and remember my stinky, yellow rubber rain gear is under my sleeping mat and I pull it on quickly. Once on, I walk to the edge of the raft and look out into the dark morning. It is 7 AM and as dark as midnight, save for the blasts of lightening striking no more than 100 meters away. At this moment, I am the most scared I have ever been in my entire life. We are unreachable by our own base and it is unlikely the park staff will come for us either. I push this thought down as soon as it rises to the surface. I am focused on my part in the machine working to keep everyone safe and as I turn back to the tumult of the raft and start shaking kids awake, I know they will be more terrified than I am.
“Brandon, hunny, you have to wake up. We have to get into lightening drill. Kyle, can you wake up Matt for me?” Brandon is rolling over and begining to wake up, and I raise my voice to explain to whoever can hear, “There is a bit of a storm outside, so we have to all get up and get our rain gear on and take down your nets.” Next to me, Stephanie is trying to wake up Nia, who is refusing all encouragement in that direction. I can’t say I blame them, really. This is their first night in days with adequate tarps and dry sleeping bags. Besides, who wants to wake up and deal with pandemonium? Not I, says the 13 year old inside us all.
Once all the students are gathered, with the wind still whipping at 40 MPH, thunder and lightening crashing, and rain dumping, Liz takes change of the moment. “Do you guys know how Outward Bound was started?” They are all sitting on the boards looking up at her as she sits on a bucket, leaning forward expectantly. Their eyes are riveted to her; the calm center of their universe, the closest thing to a mother they can ask for right now. “The owner of a shipping company approached Kurt Hahn, you know the founder, and said that all the of new sailors were dropping like flies out there in the harsh conditions of sea while the old guys were trying to save their tails and still take care of business. So, Kurt Hahn went out with them and saw that these young guys didn’t have the experience and strength of character that these old guys had and they were dying based on their arrogance and poor decisions. Basically, they were soft and their environments and lifestyles had kept them that way.” Liz took a dramatic pause, all eyes still on her as the world rained down outside of our safe haven. “Kurt Hahn decided to start a school to teach these young men about responsibility, tenacity and fortitude that would prepare them for sea, carrying them safely through the rigors of war and shipwreck and all of life’s storms. And here we sit in the middle of one such storm, having worked together, communicated, stepped up and survived. Feel proud for being here, feel proud for being a part of the Outward Bound family.” All around eyes lowered, some bobbed their heads in agreement, others just clutched their knees in front of them.
After a few minutes, there was business that still needed handled. Snacks were given, space was more effectively cleared and everyone settled to wait it out. After a moment of silence, Matt turns to me, “Yo, Miss Blake, what time did that storm start?”
“Um, about 6:30.”
Matt sucks in his cheeks, showing disapproval, “Man, storms need a snooooze button.”
And we’re back on track.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Satirically True, Poignantly False.

“Welcome everyone to Travelers Anonymous. It looks like we have a new member. Would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself?” she smiles warmly, as though I need an invitation. No, lady, I've been practicing.

“Hi, um," I begin, "Well, I’ve got that itch again. That one that starts in my toes, to the arches of my narrow feet. Through my spine it crawls, friendly but certain, to the back of my neck where it turns my head to the sky. Run, it whispers, kissing my ear lobe. This itch is more than a mood, it is in my muscles and bones, it speaks in the way I carry my body in the way I walk and dance and listen and... My itch, my teacher.
“There is no reason for me to be unhappy or bored with my life in Connecticut. I love my job, the community I work in, my coworkers, and the city within which I live. It is by chance I ended up here and I am daily coming to understand why I am here at this time. I am grateful everyday for what this decision has taught me. Or maybe I’m not. Maybe I just go through the motions of loving work and time with new friends while I occasionally make the time to connect with all of those I left behind, again. Maybe the way I look at maps and long for the summer and the end of responsibility is more than just casual, a little more covetous than I care to admit. Or it could be in the way I look at pictures from the past 2 years spent abroad, telling myself it is to do some of that Photoshop work I put off while I was rocking and rolling in novelty and freedom. These recent habits hurt so good. I can only call this the cabin fever of winter for so long before it starts to creep into my normalcy; I’m in line at the grocery store and, triggered, my mind takes me swiftly and comfortingly back to that Time with that Person and that Story... no less that 5,000 miles away. Or when use my left hand and feel the visceral discomfort of committing such a heinous taboo. But wait, it is not taboo, and the trigger in the grocery store is really just organic broccoli and I’m laughing with only myself because no one else showed up to this private joke.
“Sometimes I lie awake and think of all the adventures out there. All the grand things I am bold enough to accomplish that other people are afraid of; I only want it if it is difficult, dirty, and at least 5 people tell me it is dangerous. On these sleepless nights, I wonder where I will be in exactly one year and I am tickled with fantasy, I’ll be having the fun some people can’t even imagine. Well, I think first I’m I’d like to... Oh, sorry, I guess I got carried away...Hi, my name is Blake and I am a traveler living in the past.”

“Hiiii, Blaaaake,” the whole room stammers at me in unison after the customary half-a-beat pause.