Friday, December 31, 2010

Rio Grande to Friendship Camp

Armadillo peeks out in the warm weather

17.7 miles

It just turned midnight, and the wind picked up around my campfire, swirling the smoke up around and into my eyes. It’s an audible wind, the kind I didn’t like to hear whistling through my rigging, slapping the halyards against the mast. The weather’s changing. Thunderstorms were forecast for the night, and the temperature is high, more than 40 degrees.

Praise God for Alabama, where I can be out at midnight on New Year’s Eve in only a fleece. All day I hiked in just my shirt, only the second time on the trip. I can’t think of any place I’d rather be than here. New Year’s is a time to be outside, to feel the air on my skin. I have a couple of resolutions.

1. Make a big choice about my future, and not be afraid of how anyone else will perceive it. I resolve to make my choices this year based on my own ambition and calling, and not on anyone else’s perceptions of niceness. The only way to live is boldly. This year I will live bold.

2. To pay attention to the Holy Spirit. My church is doing a book study group on a book entitled Natural Spirituality, and that combined with my recent reading of Cameron and Jung has made me a lot more comfortable with this person of the Trinity, the part of God that so many ex-Baptists shrink a little at talking about. I believe the Spirit of God lives inside of me. This year I will listen to that quiet voice.

3. Lastly, to do some trail maintenance. Karen, a newly promoted forest ranger, gave us a ride both ways from town in Heflin, and we had a good talk about the rigors of managing a trail. I can come out, at least one day this year, and clear blowdowns, paint blazes. The trail has given me so much. The least I can do is begin to pay back that debt.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Heflin, Alabama, to Rio Grande

Trail ford

4.2 miles

A woman driving a Jaguar with personalized plates came up to us yesterday and gave us money. I had just been to the grocery store, and was walking back along the side of the four-lane highway with Shadow on his lead, three bags of groceries for the trail in each hand. She pulled over and pressed a folded-up bill into one hand. She was crying. She said: “God told me to give you this money.”

It was after dark, and she had left the lights of her Jaguar on. She kept saying, “I don’t know why, but he told me.”

This kind of thing has happened before, even on this trail. People want to donate to our cause, whatever our cause is, or people believe in what we’re doing, or they wish they had done it themselves before retiring, or they just want to buy dinner for a hiker. Always my first impulse is: no.

But Serena, the woman who gave us the money, said: God told me to do it. Who am I to say no to God? It was almost as if it was important for her to give than for us to receive. Maybe she thought we were homeless meth-heads, and we blew her preconceptions, when the only abnormal thing we were doing was walking along the highway when everyone else was driving.

She said, “Are you camping out tonight?” I told her we had a hotel room down the road. I said we were hiking on the Pinhoti Trail. I wonder if she’d have felt better or worse about giving me money if I had pulled out my card that said: Freelance Writer and Communication Consultant.

Which is why it didn’t matter who I was or what I was doing walking down that highway after dark, again an adventurer in an alien land. What matters is that she heard the call of God and listened. She pulled over her $80,000 car. she wept at what she was doing. Maybe so I could write about it, and tell her story.

I’m now sitting in my Golite tarp, a fire burning down. Dinner’s in the pot—leftover Mexican carried out in ziplocs, mixed with trail rice. I hiked four miles out of Heflin today, up a mountaintop in hearing of the interstate. On to the next town, the next mountain.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lower Shoal Shelter to Heflin, Alabama

Forest service road along the trail

8.0 miles

I’m sitting back in a cheap hotel room that smells of stale smoke, with a shower behind me and Alabama Mexican food in my belly, but still hungry. The trail hunger has become the raging beast it was on the Appalachian Trail, and every step this morning I was thinking about town food—buffets with turkey and dressing and sweet potatoes. I’ve been dreaming every night about steak dinners.

So town is when I am allowed to make up for the caloric deficit I’ve been running while hiking. Maybe the most fun part of hiking. These town binges of food and movies and heat make me appreciate normal life, and also appreciate life in the wild. Just having toes I can feel after three days of walking in the snow feels like a luxury.

Maybe that’s why adventurers wander off, just so they can appreciate their cushy lives at home more. I can’t imagine how it’d feel to eat that first real meal after traversing the Antarctic. I’ve been thinking a lot about adventurers lately—mainly how to become a real one. National Geographic sponsors emerging explorers every year—how do I become one of those? A little 350-mile jaunt through Alabama and Georgia doesn’t seem grand enough, despite risking frostbite and hypothermia.

The hotel has internet access, at least, so I’ll be able to post some blog posts. Even in a town of 1000, internet access feels like civilization. More and more I’m realizing how happy this kind of life makes me, and wondering how I can choose it long-term. All of my friends I talk to in town comment on it. It’s like I’m coming truly alive again, traveling.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Chipmunk Canyon to Lower Shoal Shelter

Colleagues on the trail

16.4 miles

Today we hiked sixteen miles in snow, all day. By the end of the day I could feel the crinkly part of my feet rubbing against my shoes, where the water had worn ridges into my skin. The hike was beatiful, the light casting dark shadows on the snow. I never expected to be hiking through snow drifts in Alabama.

We met some fishermen who said it’s the first white Christmas Alabama’s had since 1880. So maybe Santa did bring us an extraordinary present after all. The fishermen also said it’s going to be sixty degrees in the next few days. One can only hope.

Tonight it’s supposed to get down to sixteen, according to the friendly mathemetician we’re sharing the shelter with tonight. He’s the first overnight backpacker I’ve encountered since I left Chattanooga. Someone else who enjoys being outdoors in the cold. A hard fate for someone who claims Alabama as home.

I also walked past a church built in the 1800s today, with graves marked in weathered snow-covered stone. They still stage sacred heart singing there every Sunday. What that is, I don’t know. So. Another day walking in the cold. Sixteen miles. My longest day so far.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Jones Branch to Chipmunk Canyon

Drying socks over the fire

8.4 miles

When we arrived at the eight-mile mark today, Shadow ran away. It’s something he does sometimes. The first couple of times it happened on the trail, I panicked—shouting, whistling, chasing through the shrubbery trying to find him. I’ve since learned that he always comes back.

He generally runs after deer, when he sees them. It’s got to the point where, when he does it, every other day, I take off my pack, get out a snack and drink some water and take a break. Unfortunately, I can’t do that when there’s three inches of snow on the trail, fresh snow is falling, and it’s twenty degrees out. My shoes and socks were wet through today, and standing still for any length of time risks hypothermia in those conditions.

So I kept walking. Calling for him of course, but knowing I was moving farther and farther away from where he last knew where I was. It’s an awful feeling, but a dog isn’t worth losing extremities over. Or so I told myself. Finally, I came to a big creek crossing, and that’s when the panic really set in.

Shadow’s a wolf-dog, and I knew, taking him hiking, that there’s always a risk he’ll hear the call of the wild and not come back. In fact, I want him to hike with me and stay with me because he wants to, because he loves being with me more than the coyote and the deer. But there’s always that risk, and today I thought I had finally lost him for good.

I could go any farther, once I crossed that creek. I camped right there on its banks, gathered wood for a fire, and waited. Sure enough, he came trotting along the trail, just as I was giving up hope. So I have him with me for one more day. But tomorrow, who knows?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Jones Branch

Snow on Christmas. This is in the morning. A lot more fell.

0 miles

When I decided to spend Christmas on the trail, I knew not to expect a turkey dinner or a pecan pie. I checked my stockings—my hiking socks stuffed in my sleeping bag to dry—but Santa Claus did not find his way into my tarp last night. Maybe because my tarp doesn’t have a chimney.

What I didn’t expect, having crossed into Alabama, was a white Christmas. Three inches of snow fallen on the trap since I woke up, and it’s still falling. I think they call it a blizzard down here. I didn’t expect for Christmas Day to be that most extraordinary of luxuries, the trail zero.

I wasn’t home for Christmas, unless my little green teepee counts as home, unless I carry home in my heart. I didn’t have any gifts, except for the snow falling, and my dog wrapped in an orange ribbon to keep hunters away. My gifts were under a tree, though, the over-burdened pine my teepee hangs from.

Ramen noodles with onion and mashed potatoes is a poor substitute for turkey and stuffing. But I’ll take it. Of any day to take a trail zero, this is it. A little vacation from hiking today cuts into my daily mileage and into my food stores, but oh well. It was worth it for a day of reading and burning candles and watching for patterns in the snow on the silnylon walls.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Oakey Mountain Shelter to Jones Branch

View from the shelter

12.5 miles

Walking on the trail today, I thought about walking. Not much else to think about. I thought about how I have walked at least 3000 miles in my life. I’m not even sure that’s a lot. I’ve spent several years of my life doing little but walking, but how does that compare to those African women who have to walk three miles a day just to get to a water source?

Compared to what a lot of people have walked, most Americans for instance, 3000 miles is a lot. Walking 3000 miles makes me something of an expert. It makes me a walker. But what is it about walking? Why is it so important?

I like to think of my own walking adventure as a pilgrimage—hence my subhead—just like Annie Dillard does. My walking is a pilgrimage because I’m seeking after something as I walk. I’m following in the tradition of great walkers of the past. But what am I seeking? Is the answer the walking itself? Is the adage true—the journey is the destination?

Being a walker means I have bad knees. Because I carry my belongings on my back, I have bad shoulders, too. But I continue to walk. Searching after something, not always knowing what, like all the pilgrims who have gone before. On this not-all-that Christmas-y Christmas Eve, maybe I’m one of those magi who still wander unknown paths, following a strange star.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Davis Mountain Shelter to Oakey Mountain Shelter

Fire and moon

11.8 miles

Shadow is beginning to be gimpy around camp. I’m worried I’m pushing him too hard, even though he isn’t really the reason my mileage hasn’t picked up. I’m trying to ease him into the hiking life. He seems to love it, but at the end of the day he’s as tired as both of us. All of it’s coming back to me—mainly the feeling of always wanting to have gone further, wanting more, more miles, even while my body wants to stop.

The last few miles coming into camp are always miserable. Always. That’s the thing about thru-hiking. It’s not enjoyable in the way that a day hike is, or even an overnight backpacking trip or a weekend can be. Because there’s always a push for more miles in a shorter time, an earlier time to wake up, a later time to get into camp. I’m always pushing myself for more to give to the trail.

So what is the point of those last however-many miles coming into camp? The ones where my head’s down, and Shadow’s head’s down, and his tail is down too, and we’re both just trying doggedly to get here, wherever there is? I don’t see anything in those miles. There’s nothing beautiful, or revelatory, or even noteworthy in them.

Adage goes: the journey is the destination. Maybe so. I know that Thich Naht Hanh discusses walking meditation, and I can understand that concept. There’s a fluidity of mind that come from walking, where the experience of walking itself becomes my focus, where I become mindful of my body’s motion and little else. My consciousness can just drift as my feet move through the leaves. I wish I had read more Thich Naht Hanh before I left, so I’d have a better idea as to how to use a walking meditation to focus my consciousness, rather than thinking about how tired or how much pain I’m in.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Spring Creek Shelter to Davis Mountain Shelter

Crossing the state line

8.9 miles

I’m having a hard time journaling now that I know I probably won’t be able to post these entries until I’m back in Chattanooga. It was depressing seeing all of these comments from friends in Cave Spring, knowing that all of you’d love to hear what’s going on, but running out of computer time to post. I have to let it go. It’s like on the boat. It’s worth writing, even if I don’t know when anyone will read my entries.

Tonight the moon rose low and orange behind the shelter. It looked like a harvest moon, even though I don’t know what a harvest moon is. Last night was both the full moon and the winter solstice, an occurrence that happens I don’t know how rarely. I watched the moon, chased by clouds, all night, staying up well past midnight by the fire.

Even tonight I’m writing more by moon light than by my dying headlamp. We’re in shelter country now. The Alabama trail association, evidently trying to live up to its Appalachian Trail counterparts, has built gorgeous three-sided lean-tos about every nine miles on their section of trail. They all seem brand new, and even nicer than the ones on the AT.

So far the trail has been well-blazed in Alabama, too, and far prettier. I don’t know how crossing an arbitrary state line can make that kind of difference, but evidently it does. It just goes to show how much a team of organized volunteers can accomplish. Not that they can make a trail more beautiful, but they can certainly make an effort to route it through more beautiful areas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lock and Dam Park to Spring Creek Shelter (via Cave Spring, Georgia)

21.2 miles (1.9 miles hiking and 19.3 miles hitching/yellow-blazing)

I had vast plans of getting into town today and posting my last ten days worth of posts, but unfortunately I am running out of time in my library internet session. Maybe next time. I am writing, and walking, and loving every step and every word. My publication will just be delayed shortly. Internet access is far more scarce in backwoods Georgia than I had expected.

But. I am alive. I miss everyone, and Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Rome, Georgia, to Lock and Dam Park

Food for the resupply

8.1 miles on trail (plus 4.1? miles of off-trail road-walking, for 12.2 miles for the day)

Shadow (and I) had to experience twelve miles of asphalt walking today, and now he's gimping around camp, nursing his right shoulder. Walking on concrete is not fun. Things I saw along the road today: a hypodermic needle. An empty bottle of Sudafed (I didn't even know it came in bottles). A discarded pregnancy test. Bleached-out Fire sauce packets. An empty Three Olives vodka bottle. Styrofoam. More broken beer bottles than I can count.

In some ways, I'm glad I got to experience a true, real-world Georgia road walk, down to the eighteen-wheelers buzzing past. I've been avoiding the road-walk sections of the trail, hitching rides with friends and strangers, but at least now I can say I did one full day on the road. I know what I'm missing. And I have no qualms, whatsoever, about skipping these sections.

It's still an interesting way to see the world, an interesting way to understand our country, seeing it from the perspective of the things we throw out our car windows. It was worth doing once. But I'm not sure it'd be worth doing a second time. There are people who do whole long-distance road walks, cross-country road walks, thousands of miles along highway, and I just couldn't. I guess I learned that about myself today--that I need to be in wilderness for this kind of adventure to feel worthwhile.

My mom is coming to visit tomorrow, as an early Christmas gift and as a way for her to experience the trail. She's going to jump us ahead the next fifteen miles of road walk, so I don't have to do the next two days on asphalt. The people who do these trails as purists, who walk every mile of concrete, I may never understand.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Cabin Creek to Rome, Georgia

Rocky Georgia trail

3.3 miles

We got rides from three little old church ladies today. What they're thinking, picking up two weather-beaten strangers and a giant black wolf-dog, I have no idea. Except maybe they're thinking that it's almost Christmas and it's cold and they believe in the kindness of strangers. All of them were Baptists, too. The trail may force me to revise my opinion of Baptists.

Hitchhiking is one of those odd perils of trail life, one of those habits that everyday people think has gone the way of the dinosaur, but that trail people have to deal with all of the time. George Mueller, the Christian missionary who ran orphanages in industrial-age England, is a personal hero of mine, and one of the things I love about him is how he refused to ask for money. He fed his orphans with donations, but he didn't ask for any of them. He just waited for the money to show up in envelopes under his front door.

I always want my hitching to be the same way, a completely unasked-for blessing. I want to dawdle around on street corners with a backpack and wait for someone to offer a ride, and wait for grace. That's what happened today, at least with our last ride--the widow of a disabled veteran who wanted to tell me all about her dog and her husband. That ride was a gift, and so was meeting her. Getting rides from strangers is one of the best things about backpacking. Every time, it affirms my belief in my fellow human beings.

I also stopped and had fantastic fried chicken and biscuits from a roadside diner attached to the Citgo, the Citgo that had achieved almost legendary proportions in my mind, as the future site of food and warmth and everything good about civilization. I never would have found a diner like that, let alone eaten at one, except for the trail. It's another of the things I love best about hiking--the way seeing the country from the ground up allows me to experience things I would never have the chance to otherwise. Today it was fried chicken the way it was invented to be, lightly breaded and crispy, with huge biscuits, yellow butter baked right into the crust, and stewed turnip greens, the first vegetable I've seen in ten days. Food has rarely tasted so good.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Taliaferro to Cabin Creeks

Backpack still life

10.6 miles

I'm sitting in my tarp, wrapped in my sleeping bag. It's getting cold again. I had one glorious night last night of above-freezing temperatures, and a beautiful sunny day today, but tonight it is clear and getting colder. Still, the moonlight reflects off the leaves scattered in front of my teepee, and in my layers of down, I am content.

Today the trail reached a rails-to-trails section, a converted railroad bed turned into a bike path. Which is lovely, if you happen to be a neighbor, but not so great for the thru-hiker. The hiking was flat but muddy, paralleling a highway the whole day, sometimes between two different roads, with only a scrim of trees on either side. If I had been a hobo, I would follow the same route, walking down the railroad tracks. I even found an abandoned depot, where hobo me would have spent the night.

At least six packs of unleashed dogs attacked us, or tried to, sent almost into a fervor at the sight of Shadow walking calmly past. They were aggressive, but not enough to challenge an 80-pound wolf-dog. One, an old red pit bull with only three legs, looked as if she would have made the attempt except for a number of defeats in the ring. Now she had drooping dugs hung almost to the ground. She must be good breeding stock. Lesson learned: Georgia has no leash law. Not that there's anything to be done about that.

I wonder if hobos had to fight off packs of hungry dogs. I wonder what the line is between hiker and hobo, even now. I wonder what these people think about us, with our backpacks, nonchalantly strolling past their backyards. Maybe one of them will leave a pie on a windowsill.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Forest Service Road 205A to Taliaferro Creek

"Come here," I tell Shadow. He comes.

8.4 miles

Today I woke to rain drumming on the fabric of my tarp. The last sound any hiker wants to hear. And I needed to pee. So I lay still in my cozy bag for as long as I had strength, and then made a mad dash for the far side of an oak. It turns out it wasn't rain after all, but just leftover water being blown from the branches of trees. It wasn't as bad as I thought.

So I hiked anyway, even though one of the cardinal rules of hiking is: Hike in the rain, but never start hiking in the rain. And I was so glad I did. The morning was clammy and cold, but by afternoon, coming down a ridge into fifty-degree weather, the sun started filtering through the trees and the whole world turned gold. Maybe it's because I'm reading Annie Dillard, but I keep finding beauty in unexpected places. Today I was shocked at the forest floor of yellow and orange oak leaves. I looked up and the branches were bare, but below my feet were all the colors of the fall forest.

Being warm doesn't hurt, either. Despite the looming beauty every day, I keep asking myself why I am doing this journey. Why does anyone adventure at all? This morning in my sleeping bag, I remembered Ernest Shackleton and all of those other Antarctic explorers. What drove them into that misery and suffering? At least when I get out of my bag in the morning, I'm not afraid I'm going to die. But he got out of his tent every day, even knowing that he was more likely to die walking than die in his shelter. But if he didn't keep walking, he'd die too.

Many of those adventurers ate their dogs. They actually killed them, and ate them. In their defense, it was only after many of their men had died, but still. I look at Shadow, and I think--he's my colleague, my companion on this adventure. How could anyone do that, ever? But they did, and it was their choice to put themselves into that horrific scenario.

For what? For glory? On an endless quest to find themselves? That's what this trip feels like to me, sometimes. At least the Appalachian Trail has a bit of mystique, some fame that hangs about it. The Pinhoti Trail and its turkey tracks had never been heard of by anyone. Despite the fact that my hike may be the FIRST-EVER southbound winter thru-hike of the trail, I will gain no recognition for it. All of my motivation has to come solely from inside myself.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Narrows Picnic Ground to Forest Service Road 205A

View from the trail

10.4 miles (plus 1.5? miles off-trail, lost)

No fire tonight, which makes an astonishing difference in my mood. Instead I am curled up in my down sleeping bag and every ounce of clothing I am carrying, at probably six o'clock in the evening. The tarp is covered in ice. It rained all afternoon, and the rain has been freezing on the exterior walls.

It didn't actually rain, though. It snowed, most of the time, and as we walked into camp it warmed just enough so the snow melted and turned to rain, but stayed cold enough that the water froze as soon as it hit a surface. A surface like a rain jacket. So my rain jacket has a literal shell of sharp icy nuggets. And I'm sequestered for the night.

Camping dry again tonight, too, with no water source nearby, although this time I'm prepared. Each of us (Shadow included) is carrying a full three liters of water. There is a thirteen-mile dry spell over the next stretch of trail--no springs or creeks of any kind crossing our path--an dd then the next major landmark is a Citgo gas station, where I will buy food for the next week of hiking.

Plus, I got lost again this morning, wasting yet another good hiking hour of daylight, doodling around on another gravel road to nowhere, trying to find a blaze. That's the third time so far. Whoever designed the trail put about 100 blazes where they are least useful to anyone hiking (immediately before an intersection, for example, as opposed to after), and none where they are needed most (at a gravel road that splits in three directions, for instance). Can you tell the bloom is off the rose?

I know, from experience, that these cold, damp nights are exactly what long-distance hiking is all about. Perseverance, or consistency, or bullheadedness, or self-torture, or something. Why am I doing this journey again? I still can't quite answer that question. I'm doing it because I want to, because I choose to, but why exactly do I want numb fingers and a frozen abode? For the adventure of it, I suppose. But adventure is never as sexy in the actual living of it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

West Arumchee Creek to Narrows Picnic Ground

Bark of a hemlock

7.2 miles

I brought two books with me into the wilderness. One is Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and the other is Vivian Gornick's The Situation and the Story. I read Annie Dillard's chapter on parasites last night, and today came on a huge stand of hemlock trees, dying from the woolly adelgid. I had been seeing them dead across the trail all along, huge pine carcasses cast in my path, but today I finally figured out what they were and why they were all dead.

After that, I felt like I was walking through a graveyard. Mammoth pines, hundreds of years of growth, dead all around me. and nothing I could do about it. One pine, so big I would have a hard time putting my arms around it, was newly fallen, the flesh of its inner trunk pink and fresh and wet. It looked like a little breeze had come over the crest of the mountain and knocked it over. Just a push, and a 100-year-old tree was down.

But death is love's companion, always there. Eros and thanatos, those two ancient twins.

I don't really know why I'm out here. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision with a modicum of planning. I needed to be outside again, knew that my stationary life was causing me to stagnate, knew that I needed to be on the move. It's the last month of my 32nd year. Jesus was 33 when he was crucified. It's a significant year, the 33rd of one's life. I need to take a step back, and think about my future.

Maybe part of that need was a need to witness some death. Even the deaths of hemlocks ona Georgia mountain ridge. The next time I pass through, they all will almost certainly be gone. And this self I'm carrying through, she too will be gone.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Keown Falls to West Armuchee Creek

Frost flowers

10.0 miles

I'm sitting across a fire, the coals bloody red and warm. The logs crackle. The flesh on the left side of my body feels scalded, the right feels as if there's a cold wet towel laid against my skin. Even though I have three layers on.

It's forecast to be fifteen degrees tonight, and again, I'm guessing that it's actually much lower than that. No way to know. Today the frost bloomed up from the ground, encasing just one kind of grassy weed with these delicate blossoms of ice. Reverse blossoms. The snow rose growing from the dirt, carrying the stem aloft.

The threads of the ice were like miniscule ribbons. Like pulls of salt-water taffy. When I first saw one, I thought it was litter, some cheap bride's cast-off corsage. Then I looked closer and they were everywhere. Fields of bridal detritus. We tasted the frost, and the fronds of crystal were so light, so little, that they melted right away. They tasted delicious, like whatever delicate chemicals chlorophyll extrudes.

Later in the day, when I had to strip off my shoes and socks and roll up my long underwear over my knees to wade across two foot-and-a-half deep streams--not so fun or so beautiful. Wading and long underwear are not two things that generally go together, for good reason. Walking, and fast, is the only sure way to warm numb toes. Why would anyone convince me to walk through two rivers on the coldest day of the year?

Love. True love. It's the only possible reason. Wasn't Leopold Bloom always saying something like that?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Snake Creek Gap to Keown Falls

Sunset on the trail

6.6 miles on trail (plus 8? miles of lost walking for a total of about 15)

Today was another horrible day of being lost. One intersection at a gravel road I came to a full five times, the fifth time in a car, hitching back the way I had come two of the previous four times, because even on the fifth time in a car, I couldn't figure out which direction to go. It is more frustrating than I have words to recount. No matter how many times I tell myself: it's okay! Relax! You're just out here for a good time, for an adventure! it is not okay. Every step that is not on the actual trail itself, not for some larger purpose, however arbitrary, is miserable.

I'd say I walked at least fifteen miles today, maybe more, and on the food I'd planned for seven. Daylight is going really fast, and it's just getting faster--the solstice is just around the corner. I don't feel like I'm making any real progress towards my destination, especially when I'm spending more time wandering around lost than I am on the trail. As much as I know it doesn't matter (except in terms of the timeframe I'd planned for my trip), it still stings.

At least I finally made it back to the actual trail to camp. Shadow hitched us a ride, by stopping in the middle of a dirt road and not getting out of the way until a driver stopped and complimented him on what a pretty dog he is. The driver and his companions--three good-hearted Southern hillbillies, driving around forest-service roads with a case of Keystone Light--knew exactly where we needed to go and were willing to take us there. Praise be the Lord and American brewing establishments.

The crazy thing was that they had a thermometer in the car. (A thermometer is another of those things an ultra-lighter deigns not to carry.) So we've been guessing at temperatures out here, and going by the forecast. But his gauge read 21 degrees! And it was cold today, but not nearly as cold as I've seen it. Not water freezing while my back is turned cold. Which means I'd guess that I've already seen single digits out here. Just as meaningless as walking eight miles off trail? Perhaps. But it feels like it means a hell of a lot more.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hurricane Mountain to Snake Creek Gap

Fingers of frost reaching up from the ground

9.3 miles

Water continues to be my major challenge out here. I had thought water would be the least of my worries, going so far as to only bring a liter of carrying capacity and throwing in an extra Dasani bottle at the last minute, just in case. After the first night of camping without water, I realized that a single liter was far too little. I picked up another liter bottle in Chatsworth. (A big Gatorade bottle--water bottles are so cheap, and they come with a free drink inside!)

Two liters is the most I ever carried at a time, on any trail. Including backpacking across the Mojave Desert on the Pacific Crest Trail. But here, it feels barely enough. It's the third night tonight I've camped without water out of a total of five nights on the rail. Half of the water sources listed in my guide aren't running. And there aren't that many to begin with.

The reason I was able to hike so light on the PCT is because of cameling--another of those jargony trail terms that means I could sit still at the water source and drink two liters at a time. When I finally arrived at the only water source today, I drank almost a liter and a half. It takes time to build up belly capacity for water. Unfortunately, it's the one thing I can't convince the dog to do.

He drank a lot of water this morning, but not nearly as much as he needed to in order to make it through another waterless night. As much as I tried to convince him, he couldn't grasp the concept of the next twelve miles being waterless. He drank as much as he needed at exactly that moment and no more. He's carrying his own water now, at least some of it, but it's impossible for him to carry enough of it to be happy. He'd drink two liters without blinking the minute we'd come into camp, if I had it available.

I'm realizing why humans and dogs are such good partners. Dogs take the short view, humans the long. The short view is useful for things like, oh, knowing if there are coyotes circling your camp. The long view is useful for when you have to plan water sources. I see it all the time with him. Even with his food, or running away from the trail. He sees exactly what's in front of him, and no more. It's how I try to see the world when I do yoga. But it's not that helpful when there's any need for a plan.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dug Gap to Hurricane Mountain

Setting out in the snow

6.5 miles (plus 24 miles hitched/yellow-blazed)

One of the movies I watched in town was "Roadhouse," one of those 80s classics with Patrick Swayze in a mullet. It seemed to be making a comeback, like all the rest of that 80s crap. Even Kelly Lynch, in the movie, wears those fantastic faux tortoiseshell glasses that all the Brooklyn hipsters are sporting these days. The coolest thing in the movie is how Dalton, our titular hero, shows up in town and in three scenes has a job, a car, and an apartment over a ranch, just like that. Actually, the coolest thing in the movie is Sam Elliott, but he's the coolest thing in any movie he's in, "Big Lebowski" included. Just like Gregory Peck.

I digress. So coming through Chatsworth, on a little Family-Dollar town in the middle-of-nowhere Georgia, made me think about how easy it'd be to do it just like Dalton. There's a 1980 Chevy Nova down the street, the next lot over. A flea market on the other side of our cheap motel. A "mature lady" who posted a room to let sign at the bulletin board of the grocery store. All I'd need is a job at a roadhouse.

I guess it's one of the major reasons why I love these kinds of trips. I love imagining the kind of life I could lead in any one of these little towns. Maybe it's one of those things I love because all of Americana is still so exotic to me. I'm sure kids who grow up here can't wait to get out and move to the big cities of Chattanooga and Atlanta. But for me, these small towns have the same exotic allure that most Americans feel for the rural villages of France, or Thailand.

Small town movies remind me of that. Especially ones where a stranger comes to town and changes everything. I always want to be that mysterious stranger, who moves into old lady Vann's place and teaches yoga at the community center and writes novels.

I am the traveler. That is why I'm in these towns. I'm the stranger that brings in the story. And the traveler moves on through.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Chatsworth, Georgia

0 miles

Only three days out and already I'm taking a zero day (trail code for no miles hiked). I must be getting soft. Or three days spent in sub-twenty degree weather require a full day of defrosting. The real reason I decided to take a day off is because a friend is driving through town tomorrow and can give me a ride across the next forty miles of asphalt that is the trail.

I decided before departing that if I could avoid walking on concrete, I would. The Pinhoti Trail is allegedly complete, but this stretch of Georgia is connected by a significant section of road-walking, which is a peril of lesser-hiked trails. Last night we flagged down a ride from some Baptists going to Bible study on Wednesday night, and they gave us a ride into town. I joked with them about how they live along one of America's National Scenic Trails! They should see hikers all the time! Of course, they don't. I think we were the first people with backpacks they had ever seen, despite the famous Pinhoti turkey-track logo posted not 100 yards from the church's door.

Anyway, it's good to be warm again. We had a little snafu yesterday when we found a blaze posted in the wrong direction, and took at least a seven-mile detour down into a ravine. I have no idea how far out of our way we walked. But it was the prettiest non-section of the trail so far, taking us across two rock-strewn almost-frozen rivers, past a waterfall with huge scattered house-sized boulders, and down into a deep gorge and back out again. It's still no fun hiking in the wrong direction. Spirits were low for a while.

But after a four-mile night hike, in the still twenty-degree weather, fortified by a Snickers bar and church folk, things are looking up again. I'm looking forward to heading into the lower mountains, the ones farther away from the lower Appalachians. These four days were just to fortify our nerves to the cold--tomorrow starts the real continuing adventure. Which, I hope, will be warmer.

It's so weird to be in a climate-controlled room after learning to be okay with consistent below-freezing temperatures. Different parts of my body keep remembering to be cold, as if they're waking up. My skin is having weird reactions. It's crazy how the human body can adjust to almost anything, given time. And now my body is adjusting to having delicious pizza in my belly. That, I can adjust to any day.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Double Top to Tatum Lead


11.5 miles

The third day is the day when the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Now I realize: this is what it's like. Ice frozen in my water bottles all day, almost no running water in springs to drink from, numb fingers and toes every minute. What everyone says about this being the season--is wrong.

I camped dry (without a water source nearby) last night and only found one running stream today, running right through some people's front lawn. We were sitting there, eating breakfast, when some cars drove by--one pick-up truck passed three times. Probably thinking: what are these Yankee idiots doing out in 20-degree weather?

I am hiking with a partner this time, so those kinds of things feel less threatening, but we are still in Deliverance country. None of the sections of trail have been completely without a road walk portion, and though they haven't been bad, at least not as bad as I expected, it's still not fun to walk around with a backpack in front of someone's house. It makes me feel like some kind of criminal drifter. Which just goes to show how far outside of societal norms I have wandered.

The trail is much more like the southern Appalachians than I expected, both in climate and in scenery. The cold is awful, but it's so much more of an adventure to be doing this hike in winter. So much more ambitious and dangerous and exciting. At least, that's how I feel right now, beside a fire and with mac and cheese in my belly. Tomorrow morning, when I'm waking up again to frozen shoes, I may not be so happy.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Gennett Poplar to Double Top

The massive Gennett Poplar

7.6 miles

It's supposed to be even colder tonight--the lower teens. Last night snow was falling on my sleeves--tonight a water bottle froze while my back was turned. I'm getting into a zone, though. I had forgotten all the tried and true tricks about preventing hypothermia. 1. Change immediately out of any and all clothes you were wearing upon hiking once you get into camp. 2. Dry base layer!

I'm hiking with far more clothes than I had on the Appalachian Trail, and I don't know if that's because I've gone soft or if it's really that much colder out here. I think it's because it's that much colder. Tonight's forecast was for eighteen degrees, in Chattanooga, and there's a lot more elevation out here. I thought the highest point was less than 2000 feet, but in reality it's 3700 feet, and I crossed over that mountain eysterday.

The truth remains: it is cold. Tonight I will sleep with my down jacket on inside of my fifteen-degree sleeping bag, and I will probably not be warm. It is supposed to be the best time to hike in this region of the country, because hikers don't need to worry about water, but water is still scarce. The thing is, it's not so cold that I really need to worry about dying either.

It's so worth it to realize that although it's not easy to live out here, exposed to the elements, it is possible. It makes me so happy, knowing that I'm capable of living this way. Every day that passes, I remember the things I'm capable of. I knew I was, but it's good to be reminded physically every once in a while.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Forest Service Road 64 to Gennett Poplar


Pinhoti Trail
6.3 miles

I'm sitting in front of a fire, the last embers slowly burnign down. On the trail again, a different trail, but still the trail. I'm going out for the whole daggum thing, all 340 miles of it, theoretically.

It's about 22 degrees out tonight, and I am not a winter person. Shadow the dog is with me, but he doesn't like the fire, so he and his warmth stay far away. He was in his element today, racing back and froth along the trail, even with a pack that's a quarter of his body weight. A lot heavier than mine, percentage-wise.

Every time I come out into the wilderness, I realize that this life is what I always want. I always want to be this connected to the earth. Just being connected to the weather again, even bad, snowy weather, fills me with joy. Because I realize I'm capable of handling it. In my down jacket and rain gear, I'm just as comfortable as I would be at home on the couch. More comfortable. Because I'm fully living, deliberately living. Because I can watch the snow melt on my coat and it doesn't bother me.

Of course, what I always forget about in my normal life is the pain. If hiking is a metaphor for life, and life is pain, then hiking is even more concentrated pain. It's the part I forget about as soon as I'm home, warm and cozy on the couch. The pain is just beginning--a twinge in the knee or back, a second toe beginning to whimper. I forget about the pain, and the monotony. Every step, every mile, every mountain is more or less the same. After the excitement of the first couple of miles, even the cold and the pain begin to settle into a routine.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Whatever you wish to keep


Originally uploaded by jc_strick

Yoga in Chattanooga



Boat kids are a lot like missionary kids. All of us are crazy gypsies for the rest of our lives. Some academics even came up with a name for us: third-culture kids. Because the culture we create is in between the two that we grew up conscious of. That’s one of the things we grow up with a continual awareness of: culture.

Most children, especially those growing up in the United States, aren’t even aware that such a thing exists. As far as they’re concerned there’s only one. Theirs. They are fish growing up not aware of the ocean. How can they be, when they’ve never seen anything else? But we missionary kids are aware, from the moment we cross that invisible boundary between the worlds, that culture is all there is.

Maybe that’s what keeps us endlessly questing among cultures. I look at people who manage to be stationary, attached to one place, with envy. Such an odd thing, to know stories about the grandparents of the people you run into at the grocery store. Such an odd thing, to meet someone and realize you went to kindergarten with her. So strange, to never be a stranger.

I see cultures, and I want to taste them. I want to experience them, and then move on to another one. The Germans have the best word for this feeling, as usual. Wanderlust. I can’t stay in one place, because I lust after new places, after new experiences, after new journeys. Wanderlust haunts me like a spectre.

So I’m planning another trip. I had intended to do a long hike this year, and I’m realizing that the year is drawing to an end. I’ve taken time off of both my jobs, and I’m heading south, to the Alabama Pinhoti Trail. This blog was designed as a travel blog, after all. Something I’ve fallen away from in the last two years of staying still. But traveling is when my heart beats fastest.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Race for the prize


Need I say more? I have been silent for November, but no longer. I have vast posts coming your way, dear reader. I hope.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Release me

Austin Hollow Road

I am at the Austin Hollow acreage, sitting in the sun beneath a huge oak with bees buzzing around me and my shoes off. Land. My land. I want it to be my land.

Even though there is a tobacco field across the street and a neighboring farmhouse, I could be the only person on earth right now, and that’s the way I like it. I want this land, and they are asking exactly $7500 more than I have available. I have made an offer, but we are at an impasse, exactly $2500 apart from each other, and the offer that I have made would still force me to go into debt.

My good friend Sonia thinks I should put a Donate Now button on my blog to help me meet that gap, as if all of you don’t have better things to do with your money, like give it to orphans in Afghanistan, or flood victims in Pakistan, or children dying of cholera in Haiti. No. All of you should give money to me, crazy girl who wants to build an earth-ship in back-country Tennessee, and who will probably spend your hard-earned money on yerba mate and yoga workshops anyway. I don’t know what to do.

I think I’m just going to wait and see if Jesus feels like being nice. Jesus, or fate, or the universe, or whoever is in control. My brother calls me a determinist, which, in many ways, I am. I believe I’m following a path already chosen for me. So I can have faith that whatever is meant to happen will happen, eventually. (With courtesies to Alan Ball.)

The thing with fate, though, is that it doesn’t relieve anyone of the burden of free will. I want this land to be mine, but that doesn’t mean that I’m allowed to have this land. I was actually given a straight-up, hardcore sign the last time I was here. Sharing it with you is something that I wanted to do, but even now it feels too personal.

That I was given a sign begs the question—if I am intended to have this land, then I can’t mess it up. Somehow, I’ll get it. Somehow it’ll come to be mine. Somehow.

I wish I could believe that. I’m a determinist except for when it actually means that someone could be looking out for me. Then it feels too good to be true. Too much like wish-fulfillment. Which is what all of the atheists and humanists out there are no doubt thinking. Then I have to make it mine, wrest it from the hands of its owners by the power of my almighty will.

And if I don’t? Ah, well. We’re all just rats in a cage. I alternate between giddy hopefulness and desolate hopelessness. I have to find a way to have faith, if not in Christ, then in myself. But how?

Clearly, I am questing. But I do love the sun on my back, and even the flies suckling the sweat from my arms.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

His ghost is lying thirsty

In case anyone wants to make the best-ever Bahamian mix CD, in order to celebrate the end of summer, here are my choices:

1. Rake ‘n Scrape Mama – The Lassie Doh Boys


2. Only in Exuma – Dry Bread

3. Junkanoo Rock – Ira Storr

4. Tonight Is the Night (You Make Me a Woman) - Betty Wright


5. Fat Gals - Sir Kai

6. I Ain't Asking Fa Much - Ancient Man


7. Cry Baby - Eddie Minnis

8. Neighbour! Neighbour! - Colyn McDonald

9. Gal If I Had You - Eugene "Geno D" Davis

10. Mosquito Bite - Eugene "Geno D" Davis


11. Onion - Wilfred Mullings

12. Shame and Scandal in the Family - Shawn Elliott


13. Call da Fire Engine - Ancient Man


It took me forever to put this post together, but it was so fun to relive all those days chopping up onions in the galley and listening to Radio Bahamas. Some of the links get you to live streaming songs, and some to places you can buy albums. And you all should buy albums.

I have to admit, also, that Ancient Man has got to be at the top of the list. I can't believe there are videos of Crooked Island's Homecoming on YouTube! Click on the links, too, because they'll take you to the studio versions of his songs, with much better sound quality. But much worse dancing.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Gotta find me a janitor to sweep me off my feet

Wildflower on another piece of land I will almost certainly not buy

The planet is turning away from the sun, slowly, even though it was still 100 degrees out this week. The humidity has lessened. I don’t feel a desperate need to carry my window fan from room to room. At night, I actually have to turn my fan off, which means it’s too cold.

I went to the park last Thursday, to get a dose of sunlight before Labor Day. My least favorite holiday. Labor day means summer is over. No more wearing white. No more Vitamin D. No more beaded sweat on my upper lip. If I don’t have my sun, thing start to fall apart.

This Chattanooga summer has been the hottest on record, and for me it’s not hot enough. Or it’s exactly hot enough—I just don’t want it to get any cooler, ever. I’m beginning to believe a move to Mexico might be advisable. Mexico, or Thailand.

The park was deserted. I had expected hordes. It was a beautiful, sunny day, only two days before the holiday weekend. I forget about things like school. Yet another example of treating myself as well as I would a child. What would I want to do instead of school, if I was in school all day? I’d want to be there, in the sun, gazing out at the river, hearing the calls of boaters across the water.

Only a month more of warmth, and I haven’t budgeted nearly enough time for basking in the sun this summer. I’ve spent the last several (non-blogging) weeks grabbing at any spare moment to drive around to more pieces of land. I am determined to buy a place before winter. Determined. That doesn’t mean, however, that a piece will reveal itself to me.

I continue to experience the challenge of deciding between mountain and valley. I don’t want to end up making the wrong decision. Soil can be enriched, yes, but every time I drive to look at another barren, rocky five acres, covered in bugs and scrub pines—I drive past acres and acres of fertile, verdant bottomland. I think, as I drive: this is what I want.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Si No Te Hubieras Ido

I've been getting a lot of negative feedback about blogging lately. Not about my blog in particular, but about the genre as a whole, about its uses and drawbacks. Basically: about how everyone in the world (except me, evidently) thinks that they are useless. My site meant something when I was adventuring, traveling--but now that I'm stationary, now that my goals are more quotidian--it is boring and meaningless.

One comment, when I mentioned I was feeling pressure to post on a certain day, "That's just a goal that you put on yourself." As opposed to what? Goals that come from external sources, from editors? Goals that come from other people are somehow more important than goals I set for myself?

Another comment was, "Why are you even bothering blogging after Lent? Don't you need to focus on your other writing projects?"

And another was, "I wouldn't call yourself a blogger. Everyone has a perception of bloggers as being whiny complainers who just talk about themselves."

I don't know how to deal with this feedback. Or I do. I deal with it by not writing. Which is exactly why posting is so important for me. Nor does anyone actually bother to read my defense of blogging post. Or read the things that I'm saying at all. It's just another example of people writing things off because they don't want to deal with them, because they don't understand them. It shouldn't change how I feel, but it does.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

John A Hobson was a good man

A towering cumulus cloud
Bahamian cumulus cloud

I had fun finding that forecast applet yesterday, although the flash may crash your computer. One of the advantages of having internet while you blog is squandering time trolling for toys. Distracting me from the actual work of crafting my experience into compelling mini-stories. My cultural stream of consciousness. Although maybe all of our streams of consciousness are made up of applets now.

Anyway. My stream of consciousness is made up of weather. Or it used to be. The one phrase written in my little notebook that used to break me into tears every time I read it, every single time, was:
whole conversations about clouds
That alone. I used to have whole conversations about clouds. That’s what sailors do. I used to sit in the cockpit of Secret, watching them flow over, and discuss what they meant. Watch the looming cumulus, tracking the course of summer thunderstoms across the landscape. Watch the strung-out cirrus, the arrows they pointed in the sky following the frost in the upper atmosphere. Watch the feathered clouds for the angle of winter squalls.

I can’t do that anymore. As much as I love my new career, it involves sitting at a desk for the majority of the day. A desk where I can’t see the sky, let alone clouds. I can watch the wind breathing through the oaks and peach trees, see the moths that settle on my screen, hear the crickets swooning through the greenery--but no clouds. When I do see them, they’re meaningless. They don’t speak to me the way they used to. I used to be able to read them, like a book, like a script written in the sky.

That makes me weep. As much as I believe that the decision I made was a good one, the right one, the loss still hits me sometimes, a blow to the solar plexus.

As you can tell, I’ve been rereading my little notebook from Secret. So I find things like this:

Fri- S5-10kts <2ft
Sat- W5kts, SE, SW5-10 kts <2ft
Sun- Nassau: frontal trough, shifted E near Haiti- clouds & showers in SE- strong low N of Bahamas move to GA, swells subsiding NW- SCA extreme caution NE swell S-SW 15-20 kts 5-8 ft swell

I remember how I used to wake up at six every morning to hear the weather, to copy it down. How weather used to be such a presence in my life, the third personality on the boat, its spirit always in my mind.

Every decision, every choice, means loss. I’ve gained something, but I’ve lost things, too.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Wrapped around your finger

Karl watching for coral
That day--sailing

“Cutter-rigged ketch bruising along at six knots under power, no sail out—beam wind of 5-10 kts.” --Melissa Jenks

A note I wrote in my little notebook as I was sailing through the Bahamas, from Paradise Island to the Exumas… My point, perhaps obscure to non-sailors, was very much the same as the point that Edifice Rex makes here, in an excellent post that I can’t recommend highly enough. It blew my mind that these people could have a boat, so beautiful—my dream boat, a cutter-rigged ketch, with boatloads (ha!) of sail—and be using it like a motorboat. Not even a sail out, with a beam wind, the best kind of wind God breathes.

Admittedly, we were sailing that day at around three knots. Not fast. (Actually, I can check my logbook! Our average that day, 6 May 2007, was 3.5 knots, and we achieved a maximum speed under sail of 4.1 knots. So not that slow after all!) A five-knot beam wind has a harder time moving a heavy boat. But still.

That boat was heading the opposite direction. The other way. Bruising back to the States, over the banks, probably trying to make it to Nassau in time for dinner. They were forcing their way forward, on the backs of the dinosaurs and the whales, burning up that diesel as fast as they could, instead of being willing to take the slow way, the difficult way, the harder and truer path.

I understand Edifice Rex’s reluctance to toot her own horn in her subsequent post. It’s difficult to say: I’m doing it right, and you all are doing it wrong. On the other hand: if we didn’t believe we were doing it right, we wouldn't be doing it this way.

When something breaks, the fast solution that most of us turn to is to go to Walmart and buy something new. The easy way is to buy something made of petroleum in China. The slow solution is learning to fix it. The slow way is learning to build something new that won’t break, that’ll be worth fixing. Americans take the easy way a lot. Because it’s easier. It’s more comfortable.

I haven’t used air-conditioning all summer. Here’s the forecast for Chattanooga:


Chattanooga, TN (37421) Weather Forecast


And I’m so comfortable. I spend most of the time in my basement, where it’s ten degrees colder anyway, but I wear almost no clothing all the time. I drape a sarong around myself first thing in the morning, and I live in it as much as possible. I have a fan that I cart around from room to room. Really, that’s all one needs to deal with hot weather: minimal clothing, and air flow. Something I learned, very well, from the Thais.

The point is that taking the difficult way generally isn’t all that hard. It requires swimming upstream, yes, or sailing in a beam wind—but it’s generally cheaper, better for the earth, better for my body, and better for my mind.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Underneath the covers

Best time for salads is summer (beans are from our garden, tomatoes from someone else's)

Wednesdays I am supposed to post, and Wednesday I wrote this horrible, horrible post, where all of my darkness exploded, as it likes to do. I wasn’t brave enough to make it public. But I keep thinking about it. I’ve always believed that once I write something it doesn't belong to me anymore. It belongs to its intended audience. In this case, the ether.

That’s basically what I wrote about on Wednesday. How useless I’m beginning to feel like this exercise is. How I’m developing all of these carefully wrought arguments, crafting and shaping them into essays that make compelling points about the issues that are the most important to me, and how no one on earth gives a flying miracle.

I’ve been rereading my posts from the boat, and they were brilliant. Brilliant. I’m stunned I even wrote them. How could I have tapped into such depths? I felt like what I was doing then was nothing. When what I’m doing now is nothing. Nothing.

My blog’s title is “Casting Off,” which used to be a cute double entendre—cast off earthly things, and cast off the bow lines! Now it just feels farther and farther from what I’m doing. I wanted to name the site “Ultralight Life,” because I felt like whatever happened my commitment to living the purest, simplest life possible would never change. It hasn’t changed, but I do feel a bit like I’ve lost my way.

I miss my home. I miss Secret. I miss the clarity that I felt in those days. Now, so aware of my audience, or of my lack thereof, I’m too afraid to tell the truth in this space. The truth is that I am a writer. I’ve always been a writer. No matter what hat I put on--adventurer, backpacker, bicyclist, pilgrim, sailor, traveler—all I ever will be is a writer.

I cast off Secret partly because things fell apart, but mainly because I couldn’t figure out how to be both a writer and a sailor. That dream wasn’t working, or wasn’t working in a way that helped me follow my true calling. Adventuring is a dream for me, but it’s only secondary.

The next adventure I have planned is building a sustainable homestead and farming my own land. It’s in keeping with my primary values—purity, simplicity—but my main reason for it is that it’s the only way I know how to survive on the $6000 a year I can earn as a writer. That makes me feel disingenuous, like somehow I’m lying when I say I want to build my own house. No. I don’t. Not really. I want to build my own house so I can have space to write and don’t have to pay rent. That’s why I’d be fine in a tent or in a camper, at least for a while, until I write that best-selling novel. Ha. Anywhere I can put up a desk and have a place to dispose of my own waste.

That’s what Casting Off means to me. Read the verse. Cast off everything that so easily entangles. So easily entangles from what? From that bright shining goal, that truth I’ve known about myself since I was three years old. All I do, every moment I spend, is simply to help me find the clarity to become the person I’ve always been. Even if no one cares.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

And I’m a stickman



My cousin sent me this clip a while ago, and I’ve only just got around to watching it. I feel like she’s given me a gift in introducing me to Sister Wendy, who evidently is something of a BBC celebrity, but new to me. I had the same reaction that many people do upon seeing her—a vague discomfort at listening, seriously, to a nun with a lisp talk about art. Then I slowly realized how intelligent she was, how true what she was saying was, and then I began to see the glow about her, the glow of someone passionately engaged with God, and art, and life. Someone who knows exactly what she was put on earth to do, who has made conscious choices about the life she wanted to live. By the end, I didn’t see her habit. I didn’t see her overbite, or hear her lisp. I saw the beautiful face of someone who had discovered her path.

The first moment I had of epiphany I had was when she said, “We moderns are called upon to make a practical and informed choice of the pure as opposed to the comforting.”

Bill Moyers then asks what the difference between comforting and pure art is, and she says:
“There’s quite a lot of art, you see, that gives that instant satisfaction of feeling that I know I can judge this without having to look, without having to take trouble. I just know because it’s so obvious. That’s comforting. Whereas, you see, the real art makes demands.”

I love that line: real art makes demands. I also love her saying that we’re called upon to make a choice for the pure, as opposed to the comforting. It’s so true in so many aspects of modern life. All we want is comfort—in our art, our food, our homes. When what God calls us to, all of us, is purity. Not that purity means discomfort, because when we follow the path of the pure, what we find, as Sister Wendy has, is joy. Which brings us to sex.

Sister Wendy:
“Why did [that critic] think that anybody should not delight in the created work of God? I mean, it’s to me very illogical. God made the body. And this suggests that God made mistakes about certain parts of the body. You know, that unfortunately, He’s done these shameful things and we must do our best to cover them up. This is not the faith. The faith is that God looked at His creation and thought it was good. Thought it was beautiful. We’re made in the image of God. There is nothing—nothing--amiss in any part of the human body. There is something far more salacious about these sniggers and criticisms, than in just a Christian delight in God’s skill.

“None of the sisters are cramped by the false idea that sexuality is something wrong. It’s something we have sacrificed. The vow of chastity doesn’t mean we just don’t get married. It means that sexuality is something you give to God, because you want to be free for something else. It’s a wonderful gift, and I delight that people have it, though it’s not a gift for me.”

These words are so beautiful to me. I’ve always loved the monastic vows. I love Thomas Merton’s writing about the monastic life, and Kathleen Norris’s exploration of the vow of stability. If I had several more lives to live, in one of them, I’d be a nun. Right after I finish my career as a Bob Dylan impersonator. The idea of sacrifice, that one chooses to give something to God, freely, as a gift—it gets right to the heart of what this blog is about. We have to Cast Off—cast off the things that easily entangle us. Leave them behind. Whether they be a mortgage, a boat, children, health insurance, sex, marriage, indoor plumbing, running water, a cubicle, or the bottom half of a toothbrush.

That’s what Sister Wendy is saying. We don’t give these things away because they’re bad, because they’re evil. We give them away because they belong to God. We give them away when they do us no good. They don’t make us happy. What makes us happy is faith. Faith that God gives us the desire of our heart, and that if we follow that desire—whether for art, or literature, or politics, or cattle farming—we’ll end up with that same glow that she has. We’ll end up exactly as beautiful as Sister Wendy.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Me and the ocean


Catching a ride down on an ATV

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the object it loves.”
--Carl Jung

I’m sitting at my desk, at 12:44 in the morning, listening to the Bravery. The crickets are singing outside, just loud enough to echo the beat of my song. I’m really tired. I spent all day wandering around one of the pieces of land I’ve been looking at for the last several months, praying that I wasn’t finding any poison ivy.

I dragged two friends up there to help me decide if I can deal with the access issues that exist for that piece. It’s a gorgeous spot, but I can’t drive to it. My knee is skinned right now because I fell on the walk back down. The access problems make it remote, in a way that’s delicious to contemplate, but I’m not sure it’s going to be so wonderful if I’m living there.

So we had a picnic at the home site, and talked about Julia Cameron and The Artist’s Way. I’ve never mentioned her book out loud here, but she’s been an influence on my thought for years. I first discovered her thanks to a friend in my book group in Chicago, but was always skeptical. How can an artist tell me how to be an artist? How can there be an artist’s “way”? Isn’t that just more of that self-help bull?

And it is. But maybe self-help isn’t such bull after all. More and more I’ve been realizing the efficacy of cognitive-behavioral therapy, the psychological technique developed in the twentieth century that’s been shown, empirically, to actually work. In one of my early journal entries,where I was struggling to take Cameron seriously, I compared her techniques to those used by Iraq war veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. The cognitive-behavioral techniques used by the veterans were twofold. The first were “pen-and-paper” exercises, which parallel the stream-of-consciousness writing Cameron asks her artists to do. The second were exposure techniques, where soldiers are asked to revisit the places—crowded movie theaters, busy malls, highway overpasses--that recall for them the most stressful moments from the war.

The parallel exercise that Cameron recommends for her artists is a two-hour weekly appointment for contact with culture and nature and the self, in solitude. She says, in this task, “you are receiving—opening yourself to insight, inspiration, guidance… [Time is] especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness.” I find it almost impossible. I can spend two hours watching television and not have a second thought, but to actually take two hours for myself feels profligate and sinful.

For a while I was attending the Independent Film series at a movie theater downtown, and even that was brutal. Going to movies alone is one of my absolute favorite things to do. Sitting in the silent dark while credits roll gives me a thrill that reminds me of when I was a child, of that feeling when the whole world was open to me, when everything I had yet to experience was part of the creative unknown. But every week would roll around and I’d convince myself not to go. It costs too much in gas, I’d say. The movie this week sounds awful. I have to do the dishes.

She says: “If you think this sounds stupid or that you will never be able to afford the time, identify that reaction as resistance. You cannot afford not to find time.”

She’s right. More and more I’ve been realizing that we don’t give ourselves permission to do the things that we allow children to do. Why are we so easy on them, and so hard on ourselves? If what we love to do is eat ice-cream sundaes, drive through farmland, camp in the backyard—why can’t we do that for ourselves, instead of waiting to be given permission to do it for someone else?

The other day, on a walk, I passed one of my neighbors, a grandmother crouched beside her sprinkler. She said, ashamed, “I’m not allowed to play in the sprinkler unless my grandson’s here. What will everyone think?” She had to pretend there was something wrong with the sprinkler, that she didn’t know how it worked, so she could crouch beside it and play in the water. Grandmothers aren’t allowed to play in sprinklers.

But they are. We all have a friend who lets herself do the things that we don't give permission to ourselves to do, and you know what? We’re envious. Why can’t we let ourselves do those things? What God wants for us is joy. So why do I feel so much guilt for finding it?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Is the club down the street?

Garden is not doing that great this year. A lot of cucumbers, not much else.

Today I encountered this quote, in Harper’s:
“The 750-word weekly film review is a form of journalism. Gathered together, short pieces written over a period of months and years become a chronicle of an individual sensibility.… Read as a book, [a collection of reviews] documents the writer’s attempt to puzzle out the ongoing flux of movies amid the ongoing flux of events.”
It's from an article that analyzes the collected columns of two critics, Manny Farber and James Agee. The article continues by saying if their work “is literature, it’s literature of a particular kind—filled with political asides, topical jokes, and references to fleeting sensations: a cultural stream of consciousness.”

I thought to myself—hey, that’s what I’m doing. Except for the film review part. Although sometimes I do that, too. For those who do what I do, write in the public sphere of the digital age, there always arises a larger question. What exactly am I doing here? What’s the point? It’s the nature of the genre.

It’s nice to know that I have ancestors, and knowing what their role was in the early twentieth century is illustrative. Agee and Farber were writing columns for a weekly magazine, columns that tracked not only the path of American culture, but also their individual thought. Back in the olden days, when everyone read words on paper. That old-fashioned stuff? They make it from trees? Anyway.

Every so often journalism and literature have massive revolutions. The invention of paper was one, the invention of the book another. The burning of the Alexandria library was probably another, when all of the monks hid themselves away to protect books from forces seeking to destroy them. Then there was Gutenberg and his printing press, when the whole thing blew wide open.

Our era is similar to seventeenth-century Europe, when not just books but also disposable magazines and newspapers began to be printed. That’s when pamphleteers—crazy, reckless souls--took it upon themselves to write their ideas down and publish them all by themselves. Dan Bricklin describes them as “booklets consisting of a few printer's sheets, folded in various ways so as to make various sizes and numbers of pages, and sold--the pages stitched together loosely, unbound and uncovered--usually for a shilling or two.”

At each stage of that evolution, it must have felt like words had lost all of their value. When movable type was invented, the amount of pages a person could produce a day multiplied by 1000 times. By some accounts, thousands of pamphleteers were published in London during the heyday of what gave newspapers the nickname “rags.” Pamphlets were little but ‘zines from the eighties. Copied and sold on street corners.

What happened to all the rags? They distinguished themselves. They calcified into the institutions we know today as the Times of London, the Guardian, the New York Post. It’s exactly the same thing that’s happening now. All of us are writing little newspapers on our own, with no division between our computers and our audience.

In some ways, it’s perfect. I can read about whatever I want. If the kind of news I care about is how to raise chickens in Alabama, I can read about that. If I care about buying and cooking squash blossoms in Brooklyn, I can read about that. If I care about what Lindsay Lohan is wearing in jail, I can read about that. But we no longer have any arbiters for our news. We are our own arbiters.

We can argue all day about whether it’s good or bad to have information fed to us by people in control. We can talk, more significantly, about how any of the new writers are going to make a living. But at some point, the blogosphere will also calcify, will become its own institution. The new arbiters will reveal themselves.

My only point is that I’m doing exactly the same thing as Agee and Farber. I’m writing a chronicle not only of my culture but also of my individual sensibility. If I’m lucky, and brave, then what I write could also end up as literature of a particular kind. A cultural stream of consciousness as literature. And I’m okay with that.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Just like a faucet that leaks

Foot shot
Sunset in Wisconsin

It’s another one of those days when I don’t know what I’m doing or why I’m doing it. Why am I crafting my day into words, explaining to strangers how I occupied my time? I’m grateful for this place, the space that I’ve carve out for myself to create, but I don’t feel like I deserve it. I still feel like a vampire, living off other people’s good graces, their gifts, their leavings.

I am truly grateful for the thing that have been given to me, and I try to accept them in the spirit in which they’re offered, but the nagging voice at the back of my head says: when are you going to start pulling your own weight? Earning your own living? When are you going to give up on these juvenile dreams? When are you going to get a real job? When are you going to come of age?

The whole time I was in California, I drove around in other people’s cars, rather than bothering to rent one myself. I spent more on hotel rooms than anything, but even then I spent most of the time being the guest of others, availing myself of hospitality rather than paying my own way. I drove cross-country with my brother partly as a fun adventure, but mainly as a cost-saving tool—that way I could add wear and tear to his vehicle, not mine, and piggy-back on the fossil fuels he was already burning. Even the hiking trip was just a way to avoid paying for another week of lodging.

Maybe it’s being back here, my adventure for the summer mainly over, and realizing that I still don’t have a place of my own. The land decision hangs over my head. As the stock market dwindles, so does the cash I have to plunk down on acreage. I want a home, but at this point it just feels like another abstract goal to mark down on a list.

The real business of researching, contacting realtors, calling about listings, driving around country roads to find another disappointing piece of dirt, and then starting from scratch again is exhausting and heart-breaking. Worse yet, it takes time away from the writing work that I have put at the top of my list. But can I write with a good conscience until I have a carved out my own space in the world? And how can I carve out my own space until I stop doubting myself, and forge ahead, doing what I believe in?

My California host has a son, a 24-year-old jazz drummer living in New York City, an excellent career choice which I endorse heartily. His story did make me take a step back and wonder to myself which career path is harder: aspiring writer, or aspiring Brooklyn musician? Maybe I should put fashion model, movie star, and astronaut on that list, too. I’d never question the dreams of anyone else. I want my nieces to be able to pursue any ambition they have. But when it’s me, by myself, bashing my head again and again against these same doubts, these same obstacles, it’s tough to not throw it all to the wind.

Here's a link to his band's music: Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds. Go help an artist out and spend some cash.