Sand Dunes National Park

I sat awake in the cool night air, listening.  Around me the winds from the east were rushing down the mountainside. The aspens and meadow grasses surrounding me whirred with a steady rustling.  The noises felt ominous in the cool dark, as though they preceded a storm or an imminent bear attack, but in my little tent not even the puppy stirred.  It seemed that I was the only one startled awake in the blackness to wonder at what the night concealed from me.

I shifted position, recognizing that the pressures on my growing belly made for an interesting sleep experience on my thermarest.  I curled into the fetal position, facing the tent wall as it fluttered in the wind, glowing with the subtle light of the moon’s cool light filtered through the aspen grove where we camped.

Recalling the day that brought me to this spot, I smiled.  Rick, Addie, and I had piled into his car and driven the three hours to the Sand Dunes National Park.  Rick had visited before, but for me it was the first time and I was pretty excited.  Along the way, I watched the scenery fade from the familiarity of South Park, to the arid vastness of the San Luis Valley – a huge, flat expanse of harsh, unwelcoming land.  It once was a booming agricultural valley, but now it was mostly dotted with small, abandoned shacks, interspersed with large irrigation systems that periodically brought a shock of green to the swaths of brown grassland.  The valley is testament to the finite nature of groundwater and a warning to use it wisely.  In the heat of midday, the valley seemed anything but welcoming.  Heat vibrated up from the roadway, blurring the brown grasses that made their way, crisscrossed with only dirt roads, to tan sands.  As we pulled into a coffee shop to grab a chai and use the bathroom, a sign reminded us of the cost of maintaining the toilet and the need to conserve water. It asked us to flush only after multiple uses.  It asked for contributions to help pay for their tank to be emptied each month.  It seemed apparent that the valley was not thriving.

Putting this depressing fact behind me, I tried to focus on the dunes, but suddenly I was consumed by questions of if I would even enjoy the trip.  Through the wafting heat off the valley floor I could picture myself trudging across an unbroken, unshaded expanse of yellow sand with no water or cool air in sight.  A creeping panic began to rise in me.  If there is one thing that grabs my survival instincts by the balls, it’s the thought of unbroken and unmitigated heat.  My brain immediately flashes to visions of me shriveling to a parched and shrunken shell of myself, and collapsing in the heat, and never leaving the desert.  Though many landscapes evoke fear, to me, the desert is perhaps the most forbidding.

We drove into the park, however, and I reminded myself that today would not be spent on the dunes.  Today Rick and I planned to hike in the preserve where we could backpack in to a backcountry site to camp.  Abutting the dunes is the Sangre de Cristo Range.  The winds that bear down the mountains, combined with the prevailing winds barreling across the San Luis Valley, and the winding Medano Creek help to hold the massive dunes in their place.  Today we would hike up Mosca Pass, to the crossing point of the Sangre de Cristos, in a low saddle full of wild green grasses and aspen groves.

We hiked for an hour and a half, up the incline to the pass, and were there before we even knew it!  The hike was mostly shaded and gradual, and we were moving faster than we thought.  We reached the pass just as afternoon storm clouds began gathering on the horizon, so we turned back, took a dog-legged path off the trail, and made our way into a beautiful mountain meadow with a small creek running though it, wildflowers blossoming abundantly, and a tiny, miraculous, hidden cache of Columbines in a shaded aspen grove.  It was a little paradise, and after searching out the right spot, we set up camp at the edge of and aspen grove overlooking the meadow from above.

We made a fabulous meal, and Rick broke out two beers he had stowed away in his bag as a little treat.  As I sipped my shandy and watched the light fade while Addie bounded through the meadow grasses, I couldn’t imagine a better, more peaceful spot to rest my head and body for the night.  I felt a little chill as I sat with intention, trying to share this moment with the little being fluttering in my belly.

We lit a small fire and let the night fade away from us before crawling into our sleeping bags, reminiscing on the sweet perfection of our day.  Moments spent like this, together, away from the rush of life in the city, bring both of us back to ourselves and the simple things that bring a smile to our faces.

As we have been busy putting together a nursery, fixing up our home, and trying to establish ourselves in the new jobs, we occasionally lose sight of these simple pleasures.  Our trip to the Sand Dunes was a beautiful reminder from the universe that a mountain meadow filled with wildflowers can do more for the soul than weeks of dedicated work to “improve” one’s lot.  Reduction, it seems, is often the key to contentment.

Manizales, El Jardin Secreto, and… Montana?

As I write this, there are two puppies curled up on the floor near me, Rick is sitting in hammock a few feet from me, and I’m overlooking a lush, green mountainside that falls away into a valley punctuated by a muddy, boulder-strewn river.  Just setting the scene here.  I almost hate to write this knowing that many of my friends and family are hiding out from the cold weather.  We, on the other hand, are taking a little break from the afternoon heat.

We are about twenty minutes from the city of Manizales, near the coffee-growing zone, at a hostel called the Jardin Secreto.  Unlike most of our previous places, this is actually not owned by locals.  That part is unfortunate.  We practice our Spanish a bit less here than when we stayed in the city of Manizales with the adorable Maria Teresa of the Palogrande hostel – she and I sat and chatted over coffee for a few hours, which was so wonderful for my Spanish and great fun to learn about the city from a local!  But, there are trade-offs, the couple that owns this place is American (from Portland) the woman is a yoga teacher in the Anusara tradition, and she’s into Ayurveda – so I’ve found my little happy place.  Needless to say we have been here a night and already extended our stay for several more.  There is something about the lushness, the cool nights, the pungent smells of dirt and manure, and the myriad flowers in every shape and size – it’s a just a hard place to leave.

Today we toured a sustainable coffee farm, which was great.  Lots and lots of good coffee, and some great food too.  Tomorrow we’ll head up to the mountains to trek to Los Nevados – hopefully approaching something like 15,800 feet of elevation!  The day after we will check out some thermal springs, before heading to Bogota where I’ll be beginning my yoga teacher training with BJ Galvan.  I’m really excited! The fact that I’m able to continue my training with a teacher who I have worked with in Australia is wonderful.  And, the fact that we could combine our travel here and my teacher training (after having to drop out of the training I had planned to do in Australia so that we could move home and get married) is a huge blessing.  I can’t wait!  I’m also thrilled at the opportunity to do some of it in Spanish.  What fun!

I have to say that this trip has strengthened my confidence in my speaking immensely. I have always been able understand Spanish fairly well (having taken it from age four through high school certainly helped with that), but my speaking has really come back to me with two weeks of Spanish school.  It’s wonderful and fun to feel relatively sure of myself as I speak, and to be very sure of what I’m hearing.  It’s been nearly 13 years since I last spoke Spanish regularly – it’s incredible what the brain keeps hidden away. 🙂

Anyway, in case you’re wondering how Manizales, the Jardin Secreto, and Montana are at all related, I guess I can fill in a few details. As we have been traveling, Rick and I have been dedicating a fair amount of time to job applications and figuring out some of the details of our future.  While there are challenges to doing this abroad (namely horrendous Internet in Cartagena, and the fact that we are often on the move) it’s actually been pretty effective.  Up until we left for Medellin I was cranking out a few applications a day – mostly to locations throughout Montana and Colorado. Rick has been doing much of the same, though his path is a bit more reliant on where I go so I’ve been leading the charge.

Having completed our tour of the US cities we were considering calling home just over a month ago now, we determined that we loved the sunshine and ruggedness of the Rockies and probably wanted to make those mountains our home.  Though we have both spent lots of time in Denver, and though Rick owns a house there, we are both drawn to a rural lifestyle.  Montana has been calling to us both now for a long time, and it might just end up being our final destination for several reasons.  I’ve always wanted to live there, and have taken every chance I’ve had to visit.  Rick too has felt the draw to Montana.  He was a ski bum at Big Sky and has spent quite a bit of time in and around Bozeman.  And, just a few summers ago Rick and I biked from Missoula to Seattle, seeing some of the best of the west along the way.  That part of the country holds a chunk of both of our hearts and I think we’d like to try making a go of settling down there and bringing up a family – with the majority of our time spent out in the woods.

There is something about the idea of a more rural life that I love.  I am a social person and I love and feed off the energy I get from other people.  Unfortunately, sometimes I feel as though it takes me away from my own priorities and goals.  I found that to a certain extent, the relative isolation of our lives in Australia (in the sense that we didn’t have a huge social network) allowed us to grow individually and together in some really special ways.  I felt like it allowed me to spend time focusing on things I enjoy and want to do more of – like yoga, art, and writing.  Rick, though in very different ways, sees the appeal of a rural lifestyle.  We both want to improve our ability to live self-sufficiently and be close to nature.  Rick loves the idea of being able to leave the house to go trail running, a luxury that might even draw me back into the runners fold. We also both love that in Montana we can have mountains, water, and sunshine.  I guess I’m greedy, but I just want it all – and I’m willing to give up living in a larger city to have it.  Plus, we both love the winters and the potential of amazing backcountry skiing, great resorts, and opportunities to Nordic ski too.

We have a few irons in the fire for jobs in Montana, but we are more and more convinced that even if we don’t have a specific job to walk into, we might make our way to Montana anyway. We aren’t ruling out other parts of the West.  I certainly love the idea of being close to our friends in Colorado, or somehow finding work we love in Jackson Hole or Boise, but when we consider all the options, we still end up with Montana at the top of our lists.  No final decisions have been made yet, but so far this is where are hearts are leading us.

Misrepresentation and social media

I came across the most interesting line in the New York Times a few days ago.

I was reading an article about the passing of Lilly Pulitzer, whose iconic clothing line, popularized in the 1960’s, continues to be a symbol of wealth (and WASP) despite the audacious color choices and patterns which are her signature.   I wore a vintage Lilly belonging to my mom to a wedding in Virginia last summer and the dress brought the house down.  I had old men looking at me like I was their 1960’s prom date, older women stopping me to reminisce about the Lilly’s that they had worn and loved, and people my age wondering where I got it and how they could find one too.   Vintage Lilly designs are fun, quirky, and more elegant than anything they put out today.

But this post isn’t about Lilly’s per se, it’s about the changing way society uses symbols and shared meanings to communicate information.  To wear a Lilly was to indicate you were a part of, or at least understood, the rules and customs of a certain part of the population; a typically upper class part with the luxury of being able to buy and wear outrageous resort-wear without shame (or you simply have exceptionally loud taste). She may never have intended this as a designer, but the brand grew the way things have for years: a good idea, worn and shared at first by friends and family locally, and eventually shot into another echelon when worn by Jackie Kennedy Onassis, an old schoolmate supporting her business.

I enjoyed reading that Lilly Pulitzer hated promoting herself. The author slipped a truly telling line about the world’s changing social mores in her piece, saying “She (Lilly) meticulously avoided personal publicity, as was once common to people of bottomless wealth.”  It was a refreshing reminder of what used to be the norm before social media amped up each of our personal megaphones.  Once upon a time people let their actions speak for themselves, without putting it on youtube, writing an ebook, blogging, tweeting, Instagramming, or facebooking each passing thought or moment of their day.  I long for the time when being humble and soft-spoken about one’s life and achievements was the mark of character.   I thought it  was one of the most sharp statements I’ve ever read on class and the changing dynamic brought to today’s society through social media, and it really hit home to me.

The topic of how social media is changing our rules and mores is a topic I have given a lot of thought to.  I recall sometime in college writing an email to facebook inquiring whether Macalester could be included in their network, back when it was only in the East.  I wanted to be a part of it then, the connectivity and intrigue of being able to learn about the people you see every day.  I don’t think I anticipated then, what social media is today. And, honestly, I don’t know if I would have gotten on board then had I known.

Whatever happened to understatement and the elegance of doing something for its own sake, without sharing it ad nauseam? I find that from facebook, to twitter, to instagram, social media seems to induce a sense of self-importance among its users that rubs me the wrong way. It memorializes life as we’re living it, giving a sense of urgency to each of our desires to share or promote our moments as we live them, rather than just living them.  It makes everybody’s walk home from work, or bike ride, or dinner, or baby suddenly worthy of blogs, photos, and incessant snippets shared via Twitter.  and while these are important personal moments, the sharing element seems to me like crying wolf on what’s important in life, slowly lowering the bar for what qualifies as memorable.

I recently joined Instagram while traveling with Eliot. He loves it and finally convinced me to get off my high horse about it.  And it’s fun, I can admit it.  But I catch myself in the midst of editing a photo of something utterly mundane that, upon further reflection, has no place on the web and then deleting it.    Not internet worthy.  Not worth memorializing, at least not anywhere outside of my brain.  I don’t want my life represented in a series of over-hyped vignettes.

I think perhaps most Instagram photos fall squarely in that category.  I mean, I love sharing photos of my life – but they can’t possibly produce an indicative image of what my life entails.  More than anything, the images present a custom-crafted vision of how I want my life to be seen by others.  It’s a form of personal marketing, and frankly I think it’s turning us all into narcissists.

Maybe I just don’t get it.  Is Instagram about marketing your life or is it just an artistic toy?  If it’s about art, again, it’s setting the bar pretty low.  I took a photo of my shin guards today and made it look good using filters. If it’s about sharing and memorializing one’s life, I think there is more insidious stuff happening to each of us when we begin to see the mundane details of life – a glimpse in a mirror, or a flower we pass on a walk, a morning coffee, etc., as media to consume and share, rather than personal experiences that make up a life.  I wonder at times whether this type of consumption of isolated personal moments takes away from them, and instead turns them into media tools to craft an image of who we are and what our lives look like.

This is just something I’ve been chewing on lately.   Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy social media and I don’t think it’s going anywhere fast.  It’s here to stay.  But,  I worry about what it does to me, and what it does to each of us.

Rainy Day Musings

I’m sitting in the gray light of a rainy Brisbane day. The street we live on is steep, so there’s a torrent rushing down the side of it adding to the music of falling rain, distant traffic, and the occasional squawk of an unhappily drenched crow.

It’s the first moment of stillness that I’ve had in a few days.  I just cleaned house and I’m waiting for pizza dough to rise—now to reflect on the past few weeks.   Ah, domesticity suits me… sort of.

We had Denver friends in town for a few days as they make their way on a round-the-world trip.  It was fantastic seeing some faces from home and hearing news of people we know.  We brought them to see a soccer game, checked out the beach at Surfer’s Paradise, and grilled some kangaroo on the barby.  Also, one of them was accepted to veterinary school while here, so we had to celebrate a bit!  Good things happen to those who visit us!

But now that they’re gone, it’s back to normal around here.  R and I are taking an introductory painting class at the Brisbane Institute of Art.  We’re both running a fair amount with an eye towards the Gold Coast Marathon in July  (I’m also working on my barefoot running).  And, of course, I am on the job hunt—and there have been some promising developments, but nothing concrete yet.

Mostly today, I am reflective.  Rainy days do that.  I have felt a profound desire to disconnect, leave facebook and stop compulsively reading the New York Times—to seek a more permanent state of stillness and focus. Of course, knowing almost nobody in Brisbane and being on the other side of the world makes that prospect a bit daunting. Reliance on the electronic world to connect you to all that’s familiar is a frightening form of dependence, which scares me so much I want to disconnect. Of course, disconnecting scares me too. But why should I be scared? What is more familiar than taking some time with yourself, without a computer screen or a movie, or podcast, or ipod—just you and your thoughts.  Every time I am alone with my thoughts, I realize that I like them.  I find them comforting.  My brain keeps occupied and I don’t feel distracted.

Eventually, however, I wonder if I am missing out on something and it eats at me until I check in online.  And then 20 minutes later, sated on information, I am left shamed by my lack of spine.

I know I am not the only one thinking this. These days, I get a sense of the tide turning away from connectedness.  The New York Times recently discussed it,  I have seen multiple facebook posts about disconnecting, and then there is this game.  Twitter, facebook, text messages, blogs, and the like are all great for feeling connected but, as my friend Katie once said, “that shit ain’t real.”

People seem to want to reconnect with the wholesome – cooking, crafting, making a home; but they can’t let go of their online compulsions, so they combine the two.  Have you seen the glut of cooking blogs, or Do-It-Yourself homemaking, or crafting these days? When I google “cooking blog” I get 306,000,000 results. It’s mind-blowing.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the recipes, the crafts, and the sharing.  I cook from recipes I find on blogs all the time, but you have to wonder, is all this homemaking-themed blogging an attempt to connect with something authentic and wholesome that we hold in our distant memories and yearn for but don’t really have?  And, if you make the world’s most beautiful loaf of bread, photograph it, and share the recipe with your friends does that fulfill the authenticity-shaped hole in your life?  Do you find wholesomeness and fulfillment?  Or do you then check to see if anyone has commented on it or if the collective cyberworld “likes” your latest offering.  It’s a messed-up, vicious cycle, people.  I’m thinking of tapping out.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune recently did an article about one of my favorite authors, Sigurd Olson, who was a proponent of getting away, getting out, leaving the distractions of modern life in order to find ourselves and reunite with a peace and spirituality that becomes lost in the rush of life.  He, and a number of other environmental thinkers/writers/poets have long forewarned us against the dangers of losing ourselves in society.  See below:

One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast… a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards. – Edward Abbey

“Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.”
Sigurd F. Olson

My guess would be that someone someday will trace the roots of modern human loneliness to a loss of intimacy with place, to our many breaks with the physical Earth. We are not out there much anymore. Even when we are, we are often too quick to take things in. A member of the group who insists on lingering is “holding everyone else up.” I think about this kind of detachment from the physical world frequently, because human beings, generally, seem to long for a specific place, a certain geography that gives them a sense of well-being. – Barry Lopez, “Permafrost”

“for how many years have you gone through the house
shutting the windows,

while the rain was still five miles away and veering, o plum-colored clouds, to the north

away from you and you did not even know enough
to be sorry, you were glad

those silver sheets, with the occasional golden staple, were sweeping on, elsewhere,

violent and electric and uncontrollable– and will you find yourself finally wanting to forget all enclosures, including the enclosure of yourself, o lonely leaf,

and will you dash finally, frantically, to the windows and haul them open and lean out
to the dark, silvered sky, to everything

that is beyond capture, shouting
i’m here, i’m here! now, now, now, now, now.”
Mary Oliver

These writers, for the most part, have written about a society that was moored.  That was tied to a city, that was on a physical telephone line, but today society is everywhere.  If you have a phone, chances are you’re connected to the internet, and with that link out there in cyberspace, the world connects to you whether you like it or not.  You can’t just walk away from society, you have to walk away and turn off. People love to fault Aaron Ralston for his cavalier behavior in going into the canyons without telling people where he was, but damn if sometimes you don’t just want to go away and run the risk of really living your life without being connected, despite the potential consequences.

While I was hiking, recently, in Tasmania, my camera battery died.  I began using my phone as a camera.  We had no service, which I liked, so I could just snap a photo and put the camera away. But then one day, we hiked to the top of a mountain, and I turned on my camera to take a photo of R and I – smiling, happy, escaping from the world (I appreciate the hypocrisy of this after my earlier rant) and then my phone chimed.  I had email.  I got service atop a mountain.  And rather than ignore it, I checked it.  And my dog had died.  No joke.  So, you see, sometimes you just wish you weren’t connected.

I don’t have the answer on how to break away from the hyper-connectedness of today.  I wish I did.  I am starting with appreciating my experiences in the moment, rather than documenting them for future consumption by others.  I think this is a good starting goal, and as I do it I’ll begin working towards fully disconnecting.

On that note, I need to get going – too much time on the web, too little time spent outside.  The rain has stopped, and the birds are signing.  Time to live life.