Wednesday, June 30, 2010

You come over with all of your friends

Limantour Beach to Muddy Hollow Road, California
1.5 miles

View from the beach, early in the morning

My dad is coming to pick me up right now, as I sit on the grass early in the morning. After three days in the wilderness, this feels vaguely like a failure, like everything else does in my life. I don’t even know why I bothered to call my family, but they’ve rented a house within thirty minutes of here, and I came across a pay phone at a beach this morning, and it felt like fate. At least it’ll give me a chance to spend more time with my glorious nieces.

Now that I called, though, now that I’ve reconnected with civilization, it feels like Pandora’s box being opened. Turns out I sort of exaggerated the amount of food I can do without when I’m hiking ten miles a day, and $45 for groceries wasn’t quite enough. I kind of wanted to just risk it, and keep going, and walk out with nary a granola bar in my backpack, but I decided not to. Now I sit here, in the sun, shielded from the wind, and wait for another human being.

The California Coastal Trail is beautiful, and how happy I am to be out here again. The weather is almost always perfect—the breeze coming off the ocean cool enough, the sun hot enough. It’s pretty level, too, following the ridges that circle the Pacific, with spectacular vistas, rocks coming down to meet the water. Yesterday I stopped at a total of three beaches: one for a lunch, one for a late-afternoon sun break, one for sleeping. I’m clambering among rocks and existing.

I’ve been camping, mostly illegally, following Leave No Trace ethics as much as possible, but having a hard time when it comes to the mainly hostile plants around here. California hosts some amazingly prickly plants. Not just the exquisite thistles, which gorgeous to look at, but less gorgeous when they jab me in a central vein. The worst are these innocuous-looking ones that have prickers even on the bottoms of their perfectly shaped leaves. There are bushes upon bushes of overgrown blackberry and raspberry brambles, which are fantastic when you’re walking along, looking for a sun-warmed snack, but less so when trying to camp among groves of them.

Not that I mind. It makes it feel more real, more hard-won, more hard-fought. As I’ve veered away from the well-used, three-lane trails that lead from the main visitor centers to the beaches, the trails have become overgrown, nearly impassable, and I’ve found myself wishing more than once for a machete. But that’s where the herds of tule elk hang out, where the California quail spring away into the underbrush, where the red-tailed hawks trace currents in the air.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Can’t you just leave it at that?

Wildcat to Coast Camps, California
9.3 miles

Free gift for anyone who can guess what this is

Hazy coast heading up to the actual point of Point Reyes

Evening star at dusk (extended exposure)

Monday, June 28, 2010

As the fire smolders

Pablo Point to Wildcat Camp, California
9.8 miles

California flower in front of rocks

Brook opening into the ocean

Two riders at sunset

Sunday, June 27, 2010

It’s not that it’s death

Pablo Point, California
2.0 miles

At the edge of the manzanita

I’m in the woods again, burning an illegal fire. It’s awesome. I attended the last wedding event this morning, a brunch, checked out of the amazing, cheap-for-San-Francisco-but-still-too-expensive-for-me Bay Landing Hotel, loaded my backpack, and drove out to Point Reyes National Seashore, where I am going to wander around for a week.

I’m theoretically drifting up the California Coast Trail, following the coast around the point, because it’s the best part of the coastal trail that I have good maps for. I’m stealth camping, which according to the CCT website is allowed. So I was dropped off on the side of the road by my dad and mom, dropped off to be picked up again in a week, dropped off with nothing but my wits and my backpack, what I have been longing for since April.

Tonight dinner was a tuna steak and lemongrass-kaffir lime leaf pilaf, bought from Trader Joe. The tuna steak was deep-frozen and just melted enough by the time I made it to my campsite to be perfect over my little, mini, Indian fire, made in the hole of an old stump, far from the manzanita. A fantastic treat for the first night on the trail. I spent $45 for trail food for a week, half the price of one night in my fancy hotel.

I do love people, and my family, and I’m happy that I invested the energy and the time and money to be out here to support my brother, but endless social events and the small talk they bring forth make me miserable. I feel so unable to communicate honestly, to really connect with people. It’s making me glad to be out here in the woods instead, even though I wasn’t really psychologically prepared for it, after the shock of the big city.

Also I have this feeling of doing San Francisco, a new city to me, incorrectly. I’ve read travel books compulsively since I was a small child. There’s an excruciatingly cute cassette tape of me at the age of six, reading Walt Disney promotional materials aloud to my siblings, forcing them to comment on each elaborate description in turn. When I accompanied my family to Greece, as a child, I was the one trying to force my parents to visit each available set of ruins. In order. As much as I could figure. I was the one who planned our Metro trips through Paris at ten, so we could cram the most possible activities into each blessed day.

So, in an ideal world, I’d be staying in the cheapest available hostel listed in Lonely Planet’s USA on a Shoestring. I’d be visiting each attraction, each restaurant, each museum, preferably in order listed. I’d be shopping at Dave Eggers’s pirate shop at 826 Valencia, eating at all of the best ramen joints in the city, ordering a handmade $10 ball jar of sangria at a “speakeasy,” and heading towards a different show of a new unheard-of band each night.

As much as I wanted to do a Lonely Planet version of San Francisco, I more wanted to be among these amazing trees, this stunning landscape. Vistas scraped with yellow, mammoth white pines looming, pulling themselves up out of the green moss with the strength of eons. They’re not quite redwoods, but everything here feels bigger, grander. Even though I know it’s younger. The more mammoth something feels, the younger I know it is, the closer to its evolutionary forebears. Maybe as we human beings get older, we’ll get smaller, too, or maybe the ants will just take over after we decimate ourselves.

I’m older now, too. Still able to climb two miles straight up and stealth camp after dark. I’m excited about my new little notebook, about carrying it with me the next week, about pretending that this one week is an actual thru-hike instead of just a meager imitation. Looking at the looming trees, thinking about how many years older than I am they are, I want to move inside of them, love them every single day.

Could it be edible?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The night aimed shadows through the crossbar windows


Bridegroom and sister, both serious



After the fete

Friday, June 25, 2010

You’ll still hear me singing

Angel Island

I’m sitting in a guest room, looking out on the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge gleaming under a full moon. One of the things I was worried about, abandoning my trip in the Sierra, was that it left me without a place to stay in San Francisco this week. I was flailing about, discovering that rental cars in California cost $60 a day and campsites $25, hostels $20 a head, etc., only to have a good friend’s sister call and invite me to stay in her guest room. It’s yet another strand of the web of synchronicity that’s been woven around me by the writers’ group I joined in Chattanooga last fall.

I was just telling my dinner companions this evening about it: I met Ellen, my first Chattanooga friend, at an event at an organic grocery and café on the North Shore, and she connected me to this larger community of artists in the area, a community that has continued to spread outward, now connecting me all the way to the Left Coast. So today I spent the day wandering around the bluffs of Point Reyes Seashore, watching elk graze on the yellow hills, walking along the barren, wind-swept beaches, eating sandwiches among purple thistles and lupin.

My brother marries tomorrow, at a vineyard looking out onto the mountains, the bay, and the city. This is, after all, the reason for my vast trip cross-country, my adventure from Tennessee to Virginia to Michigan and thence to California. To give my brother away, in spirit if not literally. It’s a difficult thing to watch my baby brother separate himself from my family and create one of his own.

I’m afraid of losing him, for real. I’m afraid of losing the closeness we have now. I’m afraid that in a way he won’t fully be my brother anymore, even though I know that's not true. But now he’ll belong to someone else, for better or for worse. There are always tears at a wedding, because it’s a rupture of sorts. A loss of one family, being traded for another. Tomorrow I have to let go of my brother. If I love him, I have to let him fly free.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Tell all the people

Backyard in Waxahachie

“What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the bottle.” --Ludwig Wittgenstein (philosopher o’ the day), last line from his second book, Philosophical Investigations

Maybe all it means is that Wittgenstein didn’t keep a very clean kitchen. Who knows? I’ve been thinking a lot about being honest lately. The older I become, the more important it has seemed to tell the truth, rather than keeping secrets. Maybe this concept is obvious to the world at large, but not always to me. In Thailand, we had a concept of naa tak, literally “face break.” The larger good was to keep one’s face from breaking. So the phrase “save face” had a literal interpretation.

I internalized this concept, to the point where I didn’t see little white lies as wrong at all, and in fact saw them as something that served the larger good. I’m changing my mind about that. In trying to protect other people’s feelings, I often end up manipulating them. Instead of being clear and up front, from the beginning, about what I want and what I need.

The counterpoint to honesty, the argument made against it, is that telling the truth causes pain. Apostle Paul says: “tell the truth in love,” and that seems the wisest course, but there are times when even telling the truth in love can hurt. For instance, here in this forum. I don’t know how many times I have shielded the truth, fearing to cause my friends and family pain. Even if I was doing my very best to do the opposite, to speak and write in love.

So I’ve decided to tell the truth about why I’m here, in Dallas. True, part of my motivation was that the Pacific Crest Trail was snowed under (despite being told that the snow was not clear in my last photograph. That grainy black stuff, across the river, behind me, fifteen-feet deep—all snow). But a friend found an alternate, lower-elevation trail for me—the Lake Tahoe Trail, a 200-mile trail circling the lake in the mountains. It was perfect. Just enough snow for an adventure, not so much that I feared dying.

Instead, I chose to come to Texas at the behest of my cousin, who has been struggling with a complicated pregnancy and the onset of undiagnosable and unspecified inflammatory bowel disease. She was in the hospital for three weeks, unable to eat, her digestive system revolting against her fetus, and without any doctors able to figure out what’s wrong. She’s much better now, thank God, on better drugs, but is without family here and needed someone to come take care of her. Her suffering is real, true suffering, and in its face I don’t know much what to do except shake my fist.

If I said it has been easy, I would be lying. It’s almost unbearable watching someone you love ill, in pain, nauseated, depressed, crying, unable to find comfort. She has good days and bad days, and I think I’ve done some good during my stay. She has gained ten pounds since I arrived, not quite up to my stated goal of fifteen, although I do have three days left. It’s amazing what adding butter and cream to everything will do. Her color is better, and she has more and more good days, fewer bad days.

The hardest part has been dealing with the emotional pain. I’m good at managing prescriptions, driving to doctor’s appointments and asking difficult questions, cooking fat-filled meals, reasonably good at keeping a clean kitchen and toilet. But for all my big talk about love, I don’t feel very good at sympathy. How hard it must be for her, healthy only last year, and now feeling so powerless, unable to work in or out of the home.

I feel selfish even talking about any difficulty I’ve had. It hasn’t been easy giving up three weeks of hiking, knowing I may be giving up my chance for a solo adventure this summer, knowing I may not be able to get more vacation time. But I couldn’t put myself first. My family needed me, and I was able to meet that need.

I’ve learned a lot about myself, too. My last post was heartfelt. Doing dishes, you may remember from the boat, has never been my favorite task. But if that’s how I can help someone in pain, then that’s what God asks of me.

It brings me back to questions about love. How do I balance the need to love others with my need for self-preservation, my need to do what I’ve been called to do? While I do dirty dishes, my writing is on the back burner. I am so much better at giving other people what they need than I am at asking for what I myself need, another part of honesty.

How can I balance the love for others, Christ’s central commandment, with carving out time for myself and my dreams and hopes and goals? A question I’m not going to be able to answer today. A question as difficult as getting that darned fly out of its bottle.

Tuesday I head back to California for my brother’s wedding. I was able to extend my return to Chattanooga by a couple of days, so I may get some hiking done on the California coast next week. I hope I’ll be able to get a couple of hiking posts in after all.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Come on, give me the keys

Today, philosopher o’ the day is Aristotle. His first book was called “Physics,” or the study of all that is. His second was titled “After Physics,” or “Physics II: The Sequel,” which has come down to us as “Metaphysics.” Funny that all of our talk of metaphysical nonsense comes from a sequel that should have ended up with a better name.

Why, you may ask, is your favorite and much-esteemed blogger so obsessed with philosophers these days? It’s not so much obsessed with philosophers as their philosophy, she may answer, cheekily. In these last two particular cases I’m particularly concerned with the idea of the real versus what is beyond the real. Because these ideas end up being very important in day-to-day life.

For instance: there are the dirty dishes to do. And there is the idea behind doing the dishes. But what is more important? Doing the dishes, or the idea of doing the dishes? Physics, or metaphysics?

Thich Nat Hanh, the Buddhist thinker I’ve referenced before, has as his central concept mindfulness. One of his favorite metaphors is the necessity of mindfulness as one does the dishes. Mindful of one’s hands moving in and out of the water, mindful of each act, of each movement. Mindful while cleaning the toilet. Mindful while folding the laundry. And why? Because that’s what we spend most of our time doing. Most of our time is spent on these boring, mundane aspects of existence, and what we are called to do is move through them mindfully.

As now: Breathe. I am typing in a Word document. I am listening to Bob Dylan. I am sitting in bed with a blanket around my knees.

As much as I spend the life of the mind consumed by the thought of love, by what it means to be a good Christian, by metaphysical concepts, often these ideas boil down to doing the dishes. Plunging my hands into soapy water. Washing them because I love the people who ate off of them. Chopping vegetables to feed mouths I care about. Listening to the stories and feelings and hopes of the people carried into my life.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

My mind’s not right

Me and the snow

My belief in the noumenal realm of Kant has been renewed, thanks to my recent visit with Mike the statistician. I can speak freely of Mike the statistican, since the odds of him ever happening across this website are nil to none, the main reason I feel so much more freedom talking about people distant from me than from those close. It was a pleasure to have that vocabulary renewed for me, the vocabulary of Kant. His language for describing the universe is among my favorites, but I always feel vague embarassment when using it, as it seems pretentious and forced.

But they are beautiful, and necessary, words. We have the phenomenal, the realm of the actual, matter in motion. Things we can see and feel and touch and measure. And we have the noumenal, the realm of everything else, just as real. All of us know that second realm is there, all of us except scientists, maybe, and statisticians.

I’ve never found better words for those two parts of reality. Acknowledging their existence begs a whole series of additional questions. What do I have faith in? What do I believe? Do I only believe in things that can be measured and quantified and counted? Or do I believe in the noumenal realm, too? And if so, how? How do I make decisions in that other realm beyond the reach of science?

The specific context of that conversation was the difference between quantitative psychology, hypotheses about human behavior that can actually be measured and tested, and psychologists like Jung, my personal favorite. His exact words were: “Jung is bull.” At which point I disagree. I believe there is a profound use for the world of matter in motion. If we measure things, and test them, we can learn a lot about the world. But there is also a place for those who observe reality and that make observations about it, based on this other realm, the realm of the noumenal.

I’ve been discussing my faith a lot lately, and I find the division between those two realms useful in discussing it. Because faith is just that—faith. I can have no proof for the things I believe, no scientific evidence, because faith exists in a completely separate place, the place of the noumenal. The key is to keep one’s rationality just as alert in both realms. Just because there’s no scientific evidence of the things I believe, doesn’t mean that there’s no evidence. It’s just evidence of another sort.

I suppose my posts for these weeks are a lot different from what a lot of people were expecting, including myself. I expected to be writing about snow and blisters and ramen noodles. Instead, I’m writing about esoteric philosophers. Maybe I’m dealing with my disappointment by dissolving myself in the world of ideas. One of my many bad habits.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


In this life, it can be as hard to find validation as a single woman choosing not to have children, then it can be to find validation as a married woman choosing to be a homemaker. I know that fact, of course, but I don’t always realize it consciously. My cousin and I have been having long conversations about the role of women in our culture, and she has expressed the belief that our society’s prevailing attitude is “feministic,” where I am usually of the opinion, as all of you well know, that it is “misogynistic.”

About validation: it’s one of these things that I know isn’t necessary, but it doesn’t make it any easier to live without. I want affirmation and celebration of the choices I’m making, even if my conscious mind knows that expectation is entirely unrealistic. As time passes, as people question my choices, I realize that validation is something that’s never going to happen. Trying to redefine marriage, for instance. Or femininity. Or success.

I’m feeling melancholy today. Maybe it’s the BP oil spill, which makes me want to spew profanity at a rate equal to the spewing well. Maybe it’s my email, which refuses to work, even after hours of effort, and I know I should just give up and switch addresses or programs or something, but at this point I’ve wasted so much time on it I don’t want all of it to be in vain. Maybe it’s just feeling so completely out of step with all of the women in my life, almost all of whom, every last one, are pregnant. And I am not. And don’t want to be.

I’m realizing, though, that this being out of step isn’t going to get better. It’s just going to get worse. Every year that passes, my life and theirs will diverge farther and farther from each other. The center cannot hold.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

I found you, flightless bird

Imagine, if you will, a plane flight to Texas, banking above the desert after three weeks in ten square feet of my brother’s Acura. I’m recrossing the land driven by us on hours and hours in the car, hours and hours of listening to Iron & Wine, The Avett Brothers, Townes Van Zandt, Johnny Cash, and Highway 61 Revisited. At seven in the morning, driving through the corner of Minnesota, we tried to genuflect at the crossing of Bob Dylan’s favorite old highway. At a coal mine in West Virginia, we were told, “no f***ing pictures, you f***ing f***ot.” At the crossing of the Pacific Crest Trail, we trekked across sixteen feet of snow pack. We peed in pit toilets in the Nevada desert, learned colloquial Serbo-Croat in the long stretches of Nebraska, and drifted among water lilies in Wisconsin. It was an epic trip. It will go down in record books. Trust me on this one.

I’m being creative right now, even though I have two well-heeled and made-up Arizona women sitting beside me, talking about their Tiffany bangles and five-carat diamonds and the outfits they wear to their neighborhood Wine & Dine parties. It makes me uncomfortable. I asked my brother on our trip, whether or not he really believed the principle of no competition in yoga, a principle that I’ve begun to adapt to the rest of my life.

My brother made the point that competition, and desire, is probably what drove most successful people in the world. By the standards of the world, Buddha was not very successful. He was a penniless wanderer. As was Christ. And Saint Francis. By the standards of the world, none of them was successful, and it becomes a question of how we define success.

I am also a penniless wanderer, without success in the eyes of the world. I must be doing something right. I only aspire to follow in those footsteps, but I find it interesting that not only has almost every prophet in history chosen poverty, but each has also condemned wealth. Especially unexamined wealth.

It’s not that we’re wealthy, it’s that we have no idea how wealthy we are. We think this kind of wealth is normal. We think that it’s okay, that it’s sustainable. And it’s not. I imagine our grandchildren will be shocked that we jumped on planes at a whim, that we hopped in our cars and drove cross-country. We probably shouldn’t be doing these things that we’re doing. We probably shouldn’t be jumping in our cars or planes or trucks.

But what do we do? Turn down medical care and air conditioning and Coca-Cola? We probably should, but it’s not easy.

Friday, June 04, 2010


Spicy Miso Ramen

When spending a day hiking with a statistician, I find it unwise to use the phrase, “But it’s only in the specific that we can know the noumenal.” This I learned yesterday, while hiking with a statistician. I love my brother’s Dartmouth friends, but being consistently around that level of discourse can be exhausting. And make me question my presuppositions.

Spending two days with someone who spends all his time analyzing data made me think a lot about abstract math. Not quite abstract math at all, though, but concrete math, the math that governs every inch of our lives, ever bit of data that we accumulate in a cloud around ourselves as we live. All of those numbers are so specific, but also abstract in a real way. Is the only thinking that matters in life numbers and what we can do with them? Things we can count or measure? Is that all we believe?

A little known fact about me is that I entered college a chemistry major, with leanings towards quantum mechanics. What fascinated me about chemistry was knowing the innermost secrets of the fundamental elements of the universe. I always want to start from the beginning, and it seemed the only way to understand the world from the beginning was to begin at the inside and work my way out. It was only later that I figured out that the best way for me to understand the world was by art rather than by science.

I do believe that art is the only way to understand the unquantifiable things scientists pass over in silence. God, love, truth. Not that data isn’t useful, but one must use the language of the subject, and the only way to talk about the noumenal is to use the language of the noumenal. The language of art. No matter how many numbers we accumulate, I doubt they’ll ever say anything meaningful about faith.

These topics were all discussed on the eleven-mile hike we did to the top of the Wausatch range, one of the sets of mountains encircling the Great Salt Lake. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and I did get to assuage my desire to fill up my water bottle with snow. Today we drove on, through the barrenness of Nevada, into California. I haven’t been here since I left by train, carrying a bicycle. It’s as crowded as ever, but I still see reasons why people are drawn to it. Reasons like the ramen shop we ate at for dinner.

I also passed by the Pacific Crest Trail today. We drove right by and took pictures. I believe a 300-mile hike in the Sierra would have been possible, but I probably would have had to take a lower-elevation side trail. As it is, I’m being whisked away from California temporarily because of family concerns.

The pilgrimage west is completed, at least temporarily. I didn’t get to dip my toes in the Pacific, but I did get to drive west across the Bay Bridge in dying afternoon light.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Lonesome tears

Dog, friends, and frisbee on Colorado path

Peter and I spent the last two days staying with friends of his in Colorado, friends who he met at a Thai language program in Madison, Wisconsin, years ago. They’re a half-Thai, half-American couple, and they took immense pleasure in feeding us massive amounts of Thai food for two days solid. I’m so full right now, as we get ready to leave, on red roast duck curry, fried omelet, beef salad, fish sauce, and fried pork ribs right now that I can barely move. I ate as much as I possibly could—it’d be an absolute tragedy to have to waste space on fast food on the drive.

Yesterday we spent all day eating. All day. Just when we finished breakfast, we started lunch, and after lunch, we started on dinner. It was amazing. The funny thing was how much I learned. Peter was craving kai yat sai, a deep-fried Thai omelet, stuffed with minced pork, garlic, and vegetables, and served over rice with fish sauce and hot peppers. I told our friend Bobbi that our maa bahn used to make it with cubed carrots, and Bobbi said that wasn’t authentic, that she made it that way because we were farangs. Hysterical. Then I mentioned that the stuffing was a little bit red and sweet, and Bobbi said that our maa bahn must have added ketchup to the stuffing, again, because we were Americans. So my memory of authentic Thai food was fake.

This stop just made me homesick. Homesick for my true home, Thailand. Being around people who know Thai food, Thai language, Thai culture—it just makes me realize how I always feel a tad off in American culture. Because where I really belong is some place that people here don’t understand. But I don’t belong there, either, of course… How can I belong someplace I haven’t been in ten years?

So maybe all my talk of wandering is really just longing for one single place on God’s green earth. According to Bobbi, 30 acres in Isaan province in Thailand goes for $20,000. Whoa. And an acre, beachfront, in a tourist area is $60,000. That’s just a rough skimming of prices. If I went and did serious research, I’m sure I could find better deals, especially given the political climate. The challenge with buying land in Thailand is that the government forbids land to be sold to foreigners. Only Thais can own pieces of Thailand, a law I heartily endorse. When I saw what selling chunks of their own country did for Bahamians, I understood even more thoroughly Thailand’s law.

I’d have to marry a Thai, or incorporate somehow, or just lease. The one place I want to belong and I can’t really live there. Of course. Still. Maybe a year-long sojourn across Thailand is what I’ve been longing for. Maybe a language course. Maybe a Master’s degree in classical Thai literature!

But these are pipe dreams. In the meantime, I will hold my recipes for somtam (green papaya salad), khao niaw (sticky rice), and khai yat sai (stuffed omelet) close to my heart. If I cook them often enough, maybe I can find home.