Last year, circumstances resulted in Chris going to Burning Man alone. This year we attended together. Wow! I had an awesome time and I hope I’m able to go back next year, or soon thereafter. I think it would only get better with experience.
There’s a narrative arc to my week, the ways in which I responded to the events around me. I found myself becoming more open as the week went on. As I found my niche, I also felt more at home. I started to understand more clearly why people get so excited (and devoted to) this crazy event. There’s so much I could say about our experiences — here are a few things that really stuck with me.
The desert tries to kill everything, including your relationship
On our third date, Chris and I discovered that we had both recently burned upright pianos — and that we both think this sort of thing is a ton of fun. I remember thinking, and telling friends, that the connection seemed auspicious. Still, it was beyond my imagination that almost ten years later we would be on playa together participating in burns of a different scale!
I’ve heard from several sources that Burning Man can wreak havoc for couples. There’s a “relationship survival” guide on the Burning Man website, and “How Burning Man is going to destroy your relationship” was this year’s cover story in BRC Weekly. So I’m kind of proud of the many ways Chris and I got along during the intense week of activity. A new friend, one of our across-the-street neighbors, commented to me that Chris and I work well together and don’t seem to fight. That’s mostly true, although we certainly did have our moments.
Yes, there are many relationship challenges at Burning Man; one of the biggest was described well in the above-mentioned BRC Weekly article:
This place is a never-ending series of distractions, and the distance between what you THINK you are going to do at any point in the day vs. what you ACTUALLY end up doing can be measured in light years.
Your partner can tell you that they are just headed out to get some ice, and end up coming back three hours later because they ended up getting involved in trying to set the world’s record for the world’s longest conga line or some shit.
Chris & I had those moments of distraction or missed expectations, along with the hungry, cold, hot, dehydrated, tired, or overwhelmed moments too, all of which create pressures inside a partnership. Especially because some of the other good advice about surviving Burning Man with your loved one includes this: (1) plan dates together to stay connected, and (2) leave time for yourself and your own interests too. That’s A LOT of planning and logistics for a place where planning doesn’t work that well! Still, it helped to be aware of the duality of these needs.
I’m also extremely grateful for everything Chris and I have learned during these travel adventures about how to communicate, share space, have fun, get time apart, get needs met, plan, anticipate, adjust, iterate, and (importantly) move on. It really helped us rock this event, despite some inevitable moments of frustration. I think that Burning Man would been a lot more difficult for us as a couple had we not had the practice of living in close quarters on the road for 14 months. It’s a strange event, at which people don’t always act like they normally would. It helps a lot to be flexible.
It also really helped that Chris attended last year, and we had some experience to build on as we prepared. For months and weeks leading up to the event, we’ve been talking, asking, planning, and dreaming. We came up with some good practical solutions, like cooking yummy meals in Durango and freezing them to bring to Burning Man. We put together costumes. We argued about how much water to bring. We talked about the things that made us nervous. It all worked out.
Make like a lighthouse and shine
Obviously, there’s no shortage of cool stuff to do at Burning Man. Each day is so chock full of potential and unique experience that it is difficult to mentally process or to sum up. One of my most memorable and favorite experiences was helping the Lighthouse crew with burn prep. I had no idea what to expect when I showed up onsite Saturday morning. I simply knew that I loved the creation of the Black Rock Lighthouse Service, and that the crew wanted assistance with getting ready for that night’s burn.
The Black Rock Lighthouse Service is the name of a project on playa. It was one of a few really large wood structures that were burned during the course of the week — first the pyramids, then the man, then the lighthouse, then the temple. The lighthouse was actually a cluster of whimsical lighthouses, outfitted with steep staircases, a spiral staircase, high balconies surrounding the lanterns, and rope bridges to connect each tower. (Pics and info about the artists here.)
Many of the smaller lighthouses in the cluster were leaning, by as much as 20 degrees. Everything was askew intentionally, including the balconies you walked on. There were art installations inside. At night, the lighthouses used mirrors to send light onto the playa. They also shot fire. (Yes, you heard that right. The cupola of each tower was equipped to make bursts of flame.)
Late Saturday night, after the man fell, the lighthouses were burned. I feel so lucky to have helped in a small way (with emphasis on small; the artists and team responsible for the lighthouse have been thinking about this for years, gathering materials since fall, and building since winter; they worked long hours in Oakland and on playa). I learned a lot. I was able to spend time up close with a project that really impressed me in both design and execution. I worked with the people who had conceived of and created this piece of art. I got my hands dirty in service of their goal. I feel lucky.
So what is burn prep, anyway? It includes a lot, I learned. I don’t know all the terminology yet (but oh my, I want to read and learn more) but it includes … Setting perimeter to secure the space. Removing everything that shouldn’t be burned (wiring, lights, fuel hoses, glass, materials that could blow in the wind while alight). Placing ignitors and accelerant, sorting and hauling scrap wood, placing tinder and kindling. Decisions had been made about how they wanted the structures to collapse, and everything was done with that goal in mind. Holes were cut as needed to ensure airflow. A rigger came in to wire. We used highway flares and boxes of wax and sawdust. There was a lot of activity.
There was also something gratifying about experiencing the wildness of Burning Man while busy at tasks. I like this way of experiencing the stimuli, compared to simply riding around looking for adventure. Throughout the day, I noticed the music changing as different art cars rode towards and away from the lighthouse. Most of the day, there was the thud thud thud of electronic music that’s so prevalent at Burning Man. It’s not my favorite, but I minded it less on the work site. At sunset, orange rays shone melodramatically while classical music filled the air at a terrifying volume. As darkness fell and a dust storm rolled in, tribal sounding drum music set a rhythmic beat. This (and many other factors) all set a festive mood unlike a worksite almost anywhere else.
A rainbow of colors, and not so green
Being an east coast gal, I don’t know many people from back home who attend Burning Man, and I haven’t heard a lot about it. Thus, my preconceptions of the event were mostly based on: (1) what Chris told me after he attended last year, and (2) what I read in the Survival Guide and on the Burning Man website. Add to this my predilection for appreciating back-to-the-land and minimalist lifestyles, and hippy events, and ended up with some expectations that were a little … off.
Once at Burning Man, I realized I had been naive. Yes, Burning Man might be the world’s largest leave no trace event. Yes, radical self reliance is another of the ten principles, and everyone is responsible for hauling out their own trash. Yes, the organization works closely with the BLM to ensure no detrimental impact to the playa on which we party. Yes, there is an alternative energy camp and there are a lot of old hippies. But.
We’re still bringing in tens of thousands of cars, trucks, and semis hauling all the infrastructure to make a temporary city. Each day a 42-foot long truck hauls in more ice. Pump trucks are in and out of the city, emptying porto-potties and RV black water tanks on a constant basis. Did I mention that it’s about a 100 miles to the first town of any size? That’s a lot of miles back and forth. It’s really quite a display of extravagance.
Plus, each camp hauls in all their own water, usually in disposable plastic gallon jugs that can be difficult to recycle. I didn’t recycle all the cardboard, plastic, and glass that I normally would, because of disorganization and/or laziness. Generators are running all over the city. And that’s just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. Thankfully, EL wire means that glow sticks, which end up in landfills, are mostly passe. Still, there’s a lot of disposable plastic at this event. A cacophony of stuff.
Even as I had fun, the waste gnawed at me, along with the realization that there’s a LOT of money poured into making the event happen. I expected the “plug and play” camps and famous attendees, but I didn’t expect how well-off the regular attendees would seem, how many comforts of home people would bring with them into the desert. I wasn’t prepared for the overall scale of the art pieces, or the scale of the city itself. It’s a LOT of material to haul in.
For most of the week, I felt like I was in a post-apocalyptic scenario in which only the wealthy and the artists had survived and were living off the scraps of a consumer society. Dressed up on the dusty playa, partying in style in an inhospitable environment, it was as if we were spending our last days on earth with as much spectacular glory as we could muster. As if the end was inevitable, and this was one last hurrah. Or at least that’s how it seemed in my head.
I’m not saying this is “bad,” per se. Indeed, much of the excess of Burning Man is not all that different from regular American life, although it does feel more extreme, more condensed, more in-your-face. Even as environmental matters weighed on me, I also had fun and appreciated the wonderful things people created and shared. The flip side of my complaints about the impact and excess of Burning Man is that I really liked it and I participated willingly. Black Rock City is beautiful. People make ingenious things. In addition to the money that pours in, people devote time and love. Often materials are recycled, reused, saved from the landfill. The coolest things don’t usually cost the most money.
Besides the lighthouse, my favorite piece is one that I’m told comes back every year: El Pulpo Mechanico. It is a big metal octopus mounted on a truck bed. It has eyes that move in and out, and tentacles that wave. Oh — and each tentacle shoots fire. Fire also comes out the top of the octopus’ head. And sometimes the truck plays music over loud speakers, and the tentacles wave and the fire bursts forth in sync with the beat, like the octopus is dancing. This piece was created by people who are smart, creative, and resourceful. If you look closely you realize a lot of the materials are discarded baking tins. If you look closer you also see the scale working model that was built from old soda cans and other scraps. If you stop to talk, you’ll hear that the creators are designing and building a new piece, which they’re really excited about.
It’s the excitement for creating and experiencing that would keep me coming back to Burning Man, despite some of my reservations about the event’s excess. This excitement can be found in places both large and small. We camped with a couple that Chris had met last year, some really interesting people from California. They built their own dome from scratch (you can catch a glimpse of it in the first photo, behind the Cricket), teach robotics classes to school kids back home, and are enthusiastic about all the neat people they meet at Burning Man. They had curious minds and were really fun to talk to at the end of a long day exploring. Their smiles helped me stay grounded, and I appreciate that. Their stories kept me inspired about life, and I appreciate that too.
In the end, there’s no way for me to perfectly reconcile these conflicting feelings. Burning Man is a large and varied place. (Every day I would ride down to the info station and check the population census, which peaked around 66,000 this year.) If I am lucky enough to return, I’d want to be more involved in a project (like the lighthouse) both before the event and on playa. I’d want to learn a lot more about making fire, safely. I would continue to think about the meaning of the event, the ways that Burning Man’s ten principles help create an immersive experience unlike almost anything else. I would continue to wrestle with the rest.
At Esalen’s Summer Solstice Sadhana I took a workshop on body, breath, and meditation with Jody Greene — and she blew me away with the depth, vulnerability, and thoughtfulness of her teaching.
Jody has a really dry sense of humor, and a bluntness about the way she speaks. She is SO funny, I laughed about 35 times in our morning together, about things that matter like learning how to be sweet to oneself. (This article is something of an exaggerated version of Jody’s directness of thought that I experienced.)
I love the way Jody teaches both what she has personally learned works for her, and that it is important to find what works for you. And that what works will change. I love that she takes a mind-body approach to how she works on well-being.
My time with Jody was limited. Usually she was leading meditation at 6:15 a.m. while I was writing and soaking in the hot springs, and later she was hands-on-assisting in one of our classes. I attended the workshop led by her on the second-to-last day of the festival. Had I known sooner how much her style of teaching connects with me, I might even have disrupted my morning pages routine for some more time with her meditating just after dawn.
I would definitely seek out Jody’s workshops again. If you are a human being, are into self-knowledge, struggle with pushing yourself too hard, have injuries that need to be accommodated, or just want to learn more about yoga or mediation, I encourage you to do the same. I can’t say so enough.
Chris and I spent a night “back country camping” at White Sands, on a little loop trail in the dunes with about 10 sites. This allowed us to stay out in the dunes playing and taking pictures past dusk … and to wake among the dunes in the morning.
Dusk and dawn (and even under moon- and star-light) are spectacular times for photography and watching the scenery in this very cool moon-like place. Our camping setup was super simple — the Cricket was a mile away and we walked there in the morning to make coffee.
What and where is “White Sands,” anyway?
White Sands is a National Monument in south-central New Mexico. It’s a pretty unique place…
… White Sands is the world’s largest gypsum dune field.
The gypsum crystal dunes feel a little different from beach sand … the gypsum is more damp and slightly more clumpy/crumbly than sand. Sort of like the salt fields, Chris says. (Gypsum is water soluble and not usually found in sand form.) We learned that the high moisture in the dunes means that:
The dunes freeze in winter so they are much harder than in the summer. This makes sledding faster but it also makes falls hurt more and can even break bones.
Yikes! For us, it was fun to build an expanse of sand pyramids with and dig holes in while watching kids sled down the non-frozen dunes in April. The gypsum seemed like it should pack like snowballs, but it didn’t quite hold together. It was fun to see the effects of water dripped on the things we built/dug.
… White Sands is also adjacent to the White Sands Missile Range.
The park is in the southern part of a 275-square mile dune field that’s contained within a larger, 3,200-square mile missile range.
Occasionally the park closes due to activity in the missile range. When we entered, we were also given several brochures warning us about what to do (and not do!) if we found “UXOs” while hiking.
UXO = UneXploded Ordnance
UXO = bullets, bombs, duds, grenades and shells that have been used but have not exploded
UXO can be: new or old; shiny or rusty; clean or dirty
All UXO are dangerous!
The area now part of the missile range was also the US Army’s first detonation of a nuclear weapon.
Prior to the Cricket adventure, Chris and I visited the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado. More recently, we’ve also climbed over sand dunes on our trip to Death Valley. Both were pretty spectacular and fun to explore …. but on this trip, 11 years after my first visit to White Sands, I’m still convinced that it’s one of the most special places.
I feel such a sense of expansiveness at White Sands. I love the stark contrasts of the New Mexico blue sky and the white of the dunes. The colors that come out as the sun moves above us are delicate and seemingly infinite.
It’s definitely a desert love kind of place.
Alexis & Chris
After Chris & I were in Joshua Tree, scrambling around on rocks had me thinking, once again, about fear and adult learning. This weekend in Durango I met a young man who has me thinking about adult learning (and fear, and perfectionism, and inner drive) yet again.
(Photos of me by Chris at White Sands.)
This young man is 26ish, wiry and strong, and a brilliant acrobat. He seems, from the couple of hours that I watched him play in a mutual friends’ home gymnasium late one night, to have some innate sense of how to move his body through new challenges. And yet —
When we first met, earlier that night at a bar, he was terrified of dancing. He wanted to, would move to the edge of the bench we were sitting on, but he couldn’t quite. He gritted his teeth. He was scared.
He couldn’t see it as: Just Have Fun. All he could think about were the things he couldn’t do yet. Perhaps that he wouldn’t be good enough.
(The way he perched there reminds myself of on a cliff edge, bouncing my knees and on the balls of my feet, contemplating cannonballing into a river while friends watch. Fear and excitement.)
While sitting, not dancing, we talked for a while about his fear. I had been prepped for this (our mutual friend mentioned earlier that the young man is awesome, and doesn’t own it yet) and I was interested to try to understand why. (NB: I wasn’t in the mood to dance either, for my own reasons.)
The part that I can relate to is this: every time he masters something, he thinks immediately about what he wants to learn next. (Or, that’s my personalized paraphrased version, at least.) His orientation is to focus on what he can’t do, and try for it. Or at least want for it.
It feels fun because he gets excited about the process of learning itself, figuring out how to do things. He told me about practicing on his skateboard as a kid, about getting a trampoline and learning flips on that, about these activities that seem to be both practice and play. (It’s the same kind of thing as the guy or gal who codes on their computer all night, or plays guitar all the time, or writes, and more.)
He also told me about so many things he wants to do. He referenced an amazing dub step dancer that I assume is this guy or someone like him, and I could see his eyes widen with awe as he spoke about it. He was thinking about the distance between his own abilities and the youtube dancer’s. It was tantalizing and torturous.
(I know that feeling. It can hold you back, or it can push you. It depends.)
This young man really does try hard, and that impressed me later in the night. I watched him flip upside down across the floor, over and over, toppling his hat off his head and trying to catch it with his foot as he landed right side up. Over and over. And other moves, tripping up and continuing to try. It looked like fun and work, all rolled into one.
He tried brand new things, too. The young man does floor work as his “thing” I think, and he wanted to jump through the Lyra (a big aerial hoop, higher off the ground than I am tall) and what google tells me might be called a flow staff. He wound his arms into silks, I think, as well, hung and swung in the air. (Other people did these things too, and other things. It was an amazing group of talented people. I’d like to write more about our hosts themselves. And take pictures! But I’m interested today in this particular young man’s learning process because we had talked about it together, and I had related to it, even though I learn different kinds of things.)
The vibe was definitely different in the privacy of the home gym, and you might think that he was worried only about strangers watching him at the bar, felt comfortable with his friends. But as he finally got up to dance at the bar, he asked those of us with him not to watch. And then he was comfortable around us later.
He seemed pretty serious about not watching, because he seemed like a serious person. So I tried to honor that, focused my attention on conversations and other parts of the room. Someone pointed me to him though, and for a moment I saw him agile on the dance floor, moving his body in ways I couldn’t even figure out how to mirror, before looking away.
I mentioned it later. “You weren’t supposed to watch!” he said. I explained.
Later, when parting ways, I told him it was nice to see him relax, smiling, playing in the gym. How different his face looked from when we were at the bar. Now he was lit up.
“I’ve got to work on that,” he said. And in that moment, it seemed like whatever was holding him back at the bar would be just one more thing to master, for fun.
It has, shockingly, been almost two months since we last posted. Time flies when you’re having fun!
(Or, sometimes, it simply takes us a little while to sort through photos and percolate on impressions of the things we’re seeing and doing.)
(Or, other times, honestly, we’re busy figuring out what’s next and how to survive life on the road.)
Since we last wrote, we have traveled through much of the southwest… from California’s Death Valley; into Nevada’s Lake Mead & Valley of Fire; we’ve seen Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West and the cactus flowers blooming in Arizona; made short trips into Mexico and seen some amazing art in New Mexico; met up with family at Big Bend in Texas; and then rested for a bit with friends and family in Colorado.
Phew! There will eventually be posts on all this, and more.
As I write this, I am relaxing on a couple-of-week visit to friends and family back east. After everything amazing we’ve seen on the road, it’s still really good to be back here in the land of trees. This New England girl was getting majorly burned out on the desert.
Meanwhile, Chris continues on with the Cricket to see some magnificent southwestern destinations in Arizona and Utah. (He is a bit hardier than I.) You can find updates from him on Facebook and Instagram until he shares his photos on this blog.
We will reunite in Durango, Colorado, where we’ve rented a place for the summer. For me, the single most challenging things about being on the road is the loneliness or lack of community. I am so thankful for Chris’ company, we have grown closer in so many ways as a result of traveling together like this. Yet even with his regular presence, and with the fellow adventurers we meet on the road, in campgrounds, on hikes, or online, I started to feel like I was missing something. I’m such an introvert, and I so value my time alone, that it surprised me to discover the extent to which I wasn’t getting my relational needs met.
I’m really grateful that we have the wherewithal to stop, nest a bit, and experience a different sort of adventure living temporarily in a different place. There’s so much going on in Durango, and we are lucky to have a dear friend there; I’m hopeful it will be a good place to make new friends, do some volunteer work, dig in to projects that are more difficult to accomplish while camping, and explore the surrounding area via weekend trips in the Cricket.
From there we’ll drive to Burning Man (we both got tickets this year!) and then … we will be heading “home”!
I put home in quotes because for eleven months now, our little Cricket has been home. We tow our home behind us. We leave our home in campgrounds while we explore new places. Home is where we cook, eat, sleep, laugh, argue, connect online, and store our things. Yet after many conversations about what’s next, we are pretty certain that our more permanent location will indeed be back east. Despite all we’ve seen, we haven’t found a place that matches what we love about our community, the location, and the opportunities we have here. But the resettling part of the journey is still more than four months out, and for now we continue our year-plus adventure in ways both expected and surprising!
I promise, there’s more to come.
At state park campsites, people stroll around looking at each other’s rigs. There’s a social aspect, stopping by to make a personal remark or ask a question, but often when we were in the Cricket we could hear the comments people made as they walked by. These were some of my favorites, recorded over a couple of months in California…
Its like a tent
Its a pop-up
Does the back go in
Its so cool
I love it
You still have tenting, you still have to pop it up
Oooh that’s so cool
I like that one
You like that
Ooh, it’s open
Check that out
Really fucking cool
Yea, it folds in
Than’s a pretty cool little thing
Look at how cute this little thing is
Isn’t it cute
Look at that – Cricket
Cricket, neat little thing
So that just folds up, huh
It’s very unique
Now THAT is designed by a NASA engineer
That’s sooo cute
Ooh that ones cute
I like that a lot
Wow, that’s a weird looking house
While we’re out adventuring, life continues back home … invitations for events we can’t attend come through the email, the creative district grows, our friends make families, our families continue their own adventures. Sometimes we feel lonely out here on our own. Thankfully we have each other, but friends along the way help a lot too.
Sometimes we manage to cross paths with fellow travelers. On the central California coast, we met Dakota and Chelsea of Traipsing About — and I hope we cross paths again. It was really fun to hike and talk travel life with a couple who know it well. Dakota and Chelsea have made their lives as travelers for some years now, and I had several moments of clarity talking with them about the nuances of this lifestyle and the ways it affects a relationship. (Short version: you have a ton of fun, get really close, perfect your team skills, go a little crazy sometimes, and then have more fun, repeat.)
Traipsing About was one of the blogs I read — often in bed on weekend mornings, saying to Chris, “hey, look at this!” — as inspiration for our own adventure. They have such an open-hearted approach to the ways they explore the world together, the ways they’ve learned to do it well. Talking and laughing with them definitely helped me embrace the messiness of this life a little and, during a month in which I often struggled with being cold and dirty and not quite in the zone, helped me remember what’s amazing about having an adventure partner with whom you get to make (almost) exactly the life you want.
Further down the coast, we met Cass and David, transplanted east coasters making life in LA. Their apartment walls are covered with cute pictures of the two of them exploring around the world and with her amazing photos of the scenery; their books represent dreams of future adventures; she also shares a fantasy about doing something like our current adventure. You can hear the sincerity in their voices when they talk about their love for the places they’ve been, especially around the american landscape.
Via Cass & David’s hospitality, Chris and I ended up being able to bike up the LA coast from Hermosa Beach to Santa Monica, by way of Venice Beach. Our 30-mile round trip, fueled by yummy burgers at Bareburger (humanely raised meat, of course), gave me a chance to see several places I was interested in, but that we hadn’t been able to properly visit while towing the trailer (beach parking is tight). How better than to do it along the strand, on bike, on a beautiful March LA day under the spring sunshine.
We checked out the canals in Venice, Muscle Beach, the Venice boardwalk. We got pretty good at biking through sand where it had blown (it had been really windy) into piles in stretches across the sidewalk.
We also took a weekend ride with Cass & David to the Manhattan Beach pier, ate custom made ice cream sandwiches, looked at the big and often empty houses. (In San Clemente, where we’d spent six weeks over the winter, the architecture is a uniform pale terra cotta — so it was fun to see the conglomeration of styles in LA.) Sharp new glass and metal cubes next to their now awkward-looking 1980’s ancestors of the same materials, and then Italian villas with stone and pillars and exuberant style next to the few beach shacks that remain, New England-y wood shingles and simple design. The people watching was fun, too — the fellow bikers and dog walkers on the strand, many skateboarders, players on the volleyball courts (we’ve never seen so many volleyball nets in our life — all arrayed on the beach), people enjoying the nice days.
Cass is a photographer (her site was built with David’s web skills), and we visited a favorite gallery of hers, looked at beautiful large prints on aluminum, photos from all over the world. It’s pretty stunning how a directional lamp can use the aluminum to really make well-captured light in the photos glow.
As travelers, Chris and I have stayed at the homes of quite a few people — I hope we’re good at being fun-and-helpful-but-not-too-obtrusive houseguests. With Cass and David there was something really genuine about how easily we all got along. Their cats were even friendly, and reminded us so much our beloved Malachi.
We’re so grateful for the opportunity to meet these fellow world-explorers, and for one more adventure in LA. And if down the road, David & Cass start a blog about their travel adventures, I’ll definitely read it.
Last week I was in Joshua Tree, wedged into a rock crevice about eight feet off the ground, afraid to go up, afraid to go down. I suggested to Chris, “I’ll just stay here. Forever. You can throw peanuts into my mouth.”
I had scrambled here by pushing and pulling myself over some easy low boulders and into this narrow “V” that led to a softly rounded spot where I could sit, if I could make it that far. It wasn’t radically dangerous, and the next step didn’t require an exceptionally risky move. It was just scarier to do anything — to trust my foot my fingers, my arms, to trust that I am strong enough to use my limbs in this new way — and less scary to do nothing.
Kinda like life, right?
This was my second try. Chris had tried once. I really wanted to do it, because I’d spent the week thinking about fear: what’s reasonable fear that should be heeded, what’s psychological fear that should be overcome? I was determined to overcome some of my fears on these rocks and, in particular, in this moment.
In our prior tries, Chris and I had each jumped off before making it this far, before wedging ourselves too deeply into this spot I was in now, with each foot pressed against an almost vertical projection of rock, my fingers each gripping a small handhold tightly.
Chris spotted me from below, offering encouragement.
“I can’t do it,” I moaned.
It might have been only moments but it felt like I was there for a while.
I’ll spare you all the back and forth, and my cursing. To cut to the point, I wanted to go down, I wanted OFF THE ROCK, but he pointed out that is was probably easier to go up. He was probably right. At least I could see what the next move would be.
All I needed to do was put all my weight on one foot while straightening that knee and swinging the second leg into a new position on the wall, then using that second leg and my finger grips to rise a little more. After that, I’d be almost clear.
But I was scared, really scared, despite the fairly low stakes. This was the aforementioned psychological fear.
This scramble is a perfect metaphor for the kind of adult learning that I’m so fascinated with. I’ve used rock climbing (a friend’s writing on her learning curve) as an example in work talks about learning & growth and the risks and victories of taking on new challenges. Learning is different as a grownup. There’s little formal system for acquiring new skills and abilities, and so if we do it, we do so by the force of our own desire. When we get to the sticky points, the fear blockages, how do we keep going? There’s no one making us go to school or do the task, so any movement is by the force of our own curiosity, motivation, or pride. Whatever it takes.
In my own case, stubbornness helps a lot. I don’t like to give up. In the case of being stranded in a crevice on a low rock wall, there’s not too much option of giving up, either; in some regular life situations, it takes a little more time to work through!
At Joshua Tree, I decided to keep going, to brace myself (mentally and physically) and try. I made it — pressing and pulling and prying myself up there until I could lean in on my stomach and wiggle the rest of the way. Although we shared a laugh that I wouldn’t win any points for style, I felt really proud. Then Chris did it, too, slightly faster and more gracefully than me. I’m proud of him, too!
I guess the lesson here is that in physical and mental situations, our fear often tells us to stay still, or even to go back, but that the way to grow is forward. I feel like that’s what each us of have been doing on this trip as we work through creative blocks, comfort challenges, relational conflicts, and learning to live and make in new ways. I’m finding that living small and simple makes it easier to face those scary moments. That in our current travels situation it’s not as easy to avoid things, and thus it’s easier to take that next, scary step. Because sometimes you just have to.
How can I be authentically in the present moment while also kicking ass at getting things done? I think a lot about that. Most days, I wish I were more productive. Yet on this trip I also spent six valuable months fighting my usual urges to organize, to schedule, to discipline. I know I got something out of the uncertainty.
The kind of control that’s familiar to me is like a marked path — even if you haven’t travelled a stretch of land before, there’s a predictable route to follow with known information about distance, elevation, and forks along the way. I’m a planner by nature, and I’m quite comfortable both making and following these metaphorical maps. I know quite a bit about “what works” — for me and for humans in general — with regards to productivity. I’m starting to use these skills again, but first I had to let them go.
This trip was intended as a journey of discovery, which does require going beyond the known — while literally exploring the country, I’m also studying my soul. Looking back at my first post, A Manifesto, this purpose is clear. I knew the kind of growth I was after. I didn’t know how I would need to get there. I don’t think I understood that it couldn’t even be charted in advance.
One of the reasons I was so attracted to Steven Sagmeister’s TED talk on the power of time off is that he grappled with free time in a way I could really relate to. He thought he would leave his sabbatical completely open to create and discover, and he discovered that he got nothing done. As he put it, he became his own intern, responding to other people’s queries and letting the external world drive his time. In a brilliant move, he created a schedule for himself.
Such organization is how I am comfortable — my projects tend to be goal-aligned, color-coded, white-boarded, excel spread-sheeted, and tracked for progress. I’m the kind of person who makes to-do lists on vacation: write in journal, brush teeth, make sandwiches, go kayaking, walk to happy hour.
I studied Sagmeister’s slides. I was interested in him and curious about how he approached experimental organization. I’m enough of a dork that I took screen shots and zoomed in his schedule, was charmed that he included things like “future thinking” and crushed on him a bit over activities like “typographical research.”
I invested a lot of time and energy planning for our travels, but I focused on the practical things – budgeting, saving, minimalizing, planning, and outfitting the camper. While I was still employed, I was steadfast about not wanting to pre-define my creative time off because my intention was to discover new things about myself once I had the space to do so.
I thought that “I’ll figure it out later” was enough to accept openness. I thought that that once we got on the road I’d go Sagmeister-style and lock in some kind of routine and project rotation. I thought that even if I didn’t know quite what I wanted to do, I should have structured time for experimentation.
I had a lot to learn.
I didn’t know how much freedom I would need before I could even begin to understand the path my soul wanted to follow. Sure, I could think of tasks with my head, I’m rarely short on ideas. Yet when I tried to knuckle down to these projects, it felt false, like there were things I had to learn before I could benefit from familiar discipline. I could not predict how scary it would be to let go.
The first six months of our travel included many fun adventures, but much of my personal time was about the darkness of these fears.
I wanted the security and predictability of everything being planned, and our trip logistics, my travel partner, and my own brain conspired to prevent that. I fought against it, hard, and I was always unsuccessful.
I felt like I was trying to jam a changing person into old expectations. I didn’t know yet what I wanted to be focusing on, because I hadn’t grown into it yet. I could try to schedule myself into the activities that sounded good, but they felt a little false.
Six months sounds like a long time to be adrift like that. It still astounds me how long it took to shake off some of the ways I felt burdened and constrained by my old life. Interestingly, in some cases I’m now returning to interests that I’d previously held and thought I would discard as more oriented towards my professional than my personal self. Perhaps they are actually both — which is a good thing. To know this, I needed the space to go away and then come back on new terms and for new reasons.
I’m starting to understand how much this kind of personal adventure is truly about what’s around the next corner, over the next hill. It’s about open space and about discovering as you go, maps not needed. I hope I can bring this knowledge home with me, too. I’d like to always leave a little space in my schedule — and in my heart — for discovery.
Throughout our travels, we’ve been the beneficiaries of great hospitality, generosity, and openness. That’s especially true of Oregon, perhaps because we spent so long there, perhaps because the state attracts a special kind of people. I’m not sure. Probably both, and more.
I’ve been meaning to send some gratitude out into the world for this. It’s a post I’ve been avoiding (I mean, we crossed the border into California two moths ago now) for various complicated reasons. Maybe I was worried that I’m not up to the task of properly honoring all the people I want to mention. Of course I want to make each unique. Maybe it felt too personal, as if we were exposing not just ourselves but also these other friends to the blogosphere. Maybe it just made me a little bit sad that we’re not there anymore, that it will be some time before we are able to return.
(We will return, no doubt about that. I have a list of unfinished business, things I still want to do, or to do again, people to spend time with.)
In keeping with Chris and I practicing routines, we’ve started an accountability group (a “group” of two). My goal for the week was to post the two topics I’ve been struggling with. So, here goes!
When we cruised into Oregon, we already had some social plans. Chris had connected with a woman who he grew up with, someone who had since moved to Oregon for college and then settled and started a family. I have to say, I was skeptical about meeting someone he hadn’t really spent time with since he was a child. Would we have any connection? What would we talk about? Was this nuts? Oh, Alexis of little faith.
Chris’ friend is awesome, as is her husband and their two small kids. Her mom even came to dinner! It was really good fun. Of course I’m grateful that they hosted us in their home, made us a nice meal, provided us a warm welcome. One night staying with them turned into a weekend of house and dog sitting while they went to the beach. We got to play at being regular people. That was cool.
The thing that has really lasted though, in my memory, is how completely open they were — the kind of people who seem to be unfailingly authentic, who are willing to open their hearts and their minds, who (seemingly) easily bring up “real” topics as easily as they do they “what to do in our area” kind of conversation. I won’t divulge all their secrets, or their not-so-secrets here, of course. Yet I have to mention how much it meant to me to spend time with some really genuine people. Living on the road can be lonely and isolating. I clearly felt a little bit cynical about my ability to relate. It was a good lesson for me to have this comfortable connection, to feel human. Thank you, Chris’ childhood friend and her family. That meant a lot.
Leaving Portland for the Coast
While in Portland we also saw a former colleague of Chris’, someone who had recently moved out west. He and his other half are on an adventure of their own, and it was really fun to feel that spark. We met at cool place called the Hungry Tiger and had a fun evening of conversation about the area and their discoveries, both logistical and personal. It was exciting to hear about how their careers are developing, how they are exploring the world, finding things they love. I so admire their willingness to pick up and go. We wonder whether we’ll find a place on this travel adventure that we might want to relocate to, but it’s a pretty scary proposition. There’s something about the safety of the network at home that’s pretty hard to break. I so admire the bravery of these friends for getting it done.
Plus, they gave us some great suggestions, including a list of galleries to visit. Several weeks later, when my mom was in town, we used that to create a half day art outing. While we might have found the galleries on our own, they felt more intimate for having been suggested by a friend. I regret that we didn’t properly connect back to him to say “thanks” and share what we enjoyed, or that we didn’t do another outing with these folks. It wasn’t because of them. If anything, it was because of the ways we were discombobulated by travel at that time. I hope (I think) we are getting better at being appreciative visitors.
We also had a couple of lucky friend-of-a-friend meetings. One in particular bears mentioning for that same reason again — the openness and willingness to make time for a real human connection. In this case, with an almost complete stranger!
Let’s see if I can make this make sense — a friend back home had made an introduction for another friend we know when she was living in Oregon (but who sadly for us, went back east just before we arrived out west). So friend #2 (who I adore, but who was properly Chris’ friend through the arts long before I came into the picture) provided an email introduction. We thought Chris and I would stop in for a visit, but logistics worked out that I would be going alone while he was in Alaska. So these lovely people in Oregon found themselves wondering who this woman was — a friend of a friend’s of a friend’s partner, or something like that — arriving at their house to stay. I found myself wondering about them, too! (Yet also trusting our friend’s recommendation, as I suppose they did.) We sorted some of this out via email, and I arrived, trailer in tow.
This couple, who are closer our parents’ age than our own, had long lived and made their careers in Corvallis, but had recently relocated to Bend for a variety of personal reasons. That is where I visited them. The visit was a whirlwind of activity and energy. Multiple hikes. Directions to some of their newly discovered favorite eats and drinks / and discovering some new ones with them: ocean rolls at Sparrow Bakery, Looney Bean coffee overlooking the river, savory yogurt and other scrumptious middle eastern treats.
As someone who tends to be calm and watchful, I am in complete admiration of the energy radiating from the female half of this couple. She had the two of us writing together and the three of us playing drawing games; she was cooking and coming up with ideas; asking me to read them my poetry; showing me their art. He shared his music with me, and his interesting mind.
I feel like this is where I start to fail in my ability to describe these connections – especially the one in Bend. When I write it down, it sounds like a list of stuff! These details are part of my memory, but they don’t capture what seems so special, so unique. That’s more personal, intangible. I liked that I immediately felt like almost an old friend, a trusted one. It’s a nice quality, to make someone feel like that.
Some connections were more fleeting, but cool all the same. I visited the oldest cemetery in Eugene with a new friend, a fellow traveller, adventurer, and camper-liver. We wandered the moss covered hills for a couple of hours, talking about life, appreciating history. She showed me a slice of this town that I wouldn’t otherwise have discovered.
And finally, we made another set of new friends who might be lasting (we hope!). They are a sweet couple roughly our age, so full of excitement for life, especially life in Oregon. Once again I’m going to fail at describing everything I appreciate about them. They provided thoughtful lists of things to do in their city and around the state. We discovered Cape Perpetua because of them — a place we went back to again and again to watch the surf and to crawl around tide pools. They might someday (when parenting responsibilities allow for it) travel camp like we are doing. I know they’ll come up with some grand adventures, and will do it with full enthusiasm for all this planet has to offer. I hope that we can repay some of their kindnesses then, with some recommendations of our own.
I’m not sure if I’ve done any of these people justice. I wish I could mention everyone else, too, outside of Oregon. For now, I’ll just shout out to a couple of cool people in Poky. You know who you are. We appreciate you, too.