7 June 2014 § Leave a comment
Urban Tellers performance, 10 May 2014.
First part of a series that explores the tenuous nature of connection, and how far one will go to learn to trust.
2 June 2014 § Leave a comment
2 June 2014
Thank you for finally stepping up to play President. You’re doing great things. In this moment, the future of the human race may well be in your hands.
Today will be the easy part: your voice will carry us all through the shock of a government taking positive action. It’s a rare thing. Some people are going to be very upset. They’re going to throw temper tantrums, and throw money around, and try to keep things from changing. They may think the systems which pay them aren’t broken. They may think that you’re a fool, a Communist, a tyrant.
Show them compassion. They’re sleeping infants, whining when the teet pulls away to piss, when the sun shines too brightly through the window. Let’s wake them up, gently, and help them get ready for school. Let’s show up for them when the bell rings, and be ready for their questions. Let’s get through this together, trade ideas, and find new, healthy ways to grow.
Thank you for challenging those who have grown rich and powerful by facilitating the pollution of the Earth. They may be the same people who will see the rest of us through this great transition, and innovate brilliant new ways to thrive. Job loss must occur to create new jobs: no longer does society employ bourreaux – the men in masks who pulled the guillotine lever – and no longer must we employ resources which deteriorate the integrity of the planet. Our inventors and innovators have produced successful alternative energy sources for decades, many of which are in wide use today.
Historically, humans have survived through adaptation: when caves no longer served us, we built houses. We do not need coal. The mining companies know this best, which is why they will fight with tooth and claw and wallet. It is what we we do: we survive.
Stay strong, brother. Your strength today will empower us for generations, will help our great-great-grandchildren, whose fate we have thus far refused to acknowledge, in ways they may never know.
29 May 2014 § Leave a comment
On the Coastal Starlight Amtrak, yesterday morning, observation deck.
Is this seat taken? a man asked. Shane stood at the edge of my base camp, a corner of the lounge car littered with books, pens, shoes, socks, a laptop on the floor, next to a jacket-pillow.
Nope, I said, and removed from the next seat a kitchen of hummus, cheese, and a dive knife sitting on a plate/cutting board/storage bag of the best homemade tortillas in the world.
You look like you’ve been enlightened by travel, he said.
Yes, I replied, enlightened to a world of things I don’t know anything about.
Train culture fascinates me. Indeed, all culture fascinates me, but trains in particular – the blurring of socio-economic lines in public areas; the potential for someone to sit next to you with whom you may have everything, or nothing, in common; that everyone, no matter how rich or poor, who chooses to dine on the train, eats the same microwaved, overpriced garbage. Even a recluse can make friends on a train.
Shane and I stumbled through the first minutes of shallow travel talk as the guide on the PA announced a contest: whomever counts the correct number of tunnels we pass through in the Oregon Cascades gets a prize.
In the uncountable dark tunnels, lit by tiny track lights in the ceiling, we traded stories of big hard lessons from the road, and what it means to have multiple homes. He spent months in a Russian prison circa the fall of the curtain, accused of spying. I told him about hitching in European blizzards, and in the Alaskan winterdark. How we got out of our predicaments: other people. Connections, loved ones.
You remind me of that guy in that movie, he said, you know, he went to Alaska, and he died?
Into the Wild was required reading for me in high school, I said, but I think I’m done hitching. I’m tired of sleeping at truck stops, under bridges, with the mice and mice of men.
I’ve been compared to Alexander Supertramp more times than I care to admit. At first, I felt complimented. I admired his idealism, his thirst for adventure. I wanted to push as many walls over as I could, whilst listening to the real Alaskan bushmen, hunters and fishermen and roughnecks, the fathers and uncles of my teenage years. They said he was an idiot, a moron, unprepared. The wilderness gives two shits about you, they said. Alaska will spit you out. He deserved what he got.
When I moved back to Alaska in my mid-twenties, I connected with the outdoors far more than with people. I packrafted glacier-fed class 3+ rapids in rain slicks, a brand-new hobby, and one I learned by trial and error alone; I bagged peaks in the Chugach and Alaska ranges without any real training or background in mountaineering; I hitched across the state, and took multiday backcountry adventures, sometimes in late fall or early spring. Conditions which, if anything went wrong, could have killed me.
To top it off, I never told anyone where I was going. I lived with my mum, who worked often. I never left notes, rarely took pictures. Often I didn’t know where I’d end up until I got to an out-of-the-way trailhead. My car was registed to a fake address half the state away, and I didn’t carry identification on my person – the useless card would weigh me down, I reasoned.
Maybe I wanted to be like John Muir, to toss some bread and tea into a sack, jump the proverbial fence, and walk into the wild unknown. But Alaska doesn’t really have fences. For two years, my mum’s place as base camp, I trusted my balance, resourcefulness, and growing experience to carry me through my adventures. In retrospect, I’m fairly certain that I didn’t really care much if I died out there.
Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours hit theaters in 2011. Adventure movie by the director of Slumdog Millionaire and 28 Days Later? Inspiration? Please! Sure, I’d thumbed through Aron Ralston’s Between a Rock and a Hard Place amongst mountaineering literature in bookshops, but never read it. The message reached me anyway.
In 127 Hours, the main character – played by James Franco – falls into a slot canyon in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, and his hand gets wedged between the wall of the canyon and a rock roughly the size of a refrigerator. He goes through his gear: climbing rope, flashlight, camcorder, a bit of water; and imagines what it would take to get out of his predicament: eight strong men – who in the film appear as shadows in the relentless desert sun – pulling in sync on a line which might free the stuck young man below.
I pictured myself at the bottom of a whirlpool rapid on Alaska’s Sixmile River, or Sheep Creek (rivers I had no business running alone), or breaking an ankle near the summit of Bold Peak. I imagined facing off with a brown bear in the empty tundra of the Talkeetna mountains, and losing. Realistic situations, given my ambition. Then I envisioned the shadows of eight strong men, willing and able to help, playing cards back in Anchorage, because no one knew to look for me.
The point is that since the dangerous, unlikeable age of 23, I’ve learned some boundaries. My risk assessment is different now: why would I jump from the top of a fifteen-foot boulder, if I could walk nimbly down the other side?
If travel and adventure have enlightened me to anything, as Shane suggested, it is to the fragility of life. We humans are at once resilient and adaptive creatures, capable of creation, destruction, and healing. Yet it takes a relatively insignificant decision to alter the dynamic of life: half a second on a motorcycle, a moment’s hesitation on a mountain, saying a terribly inconsiderate – even if true – thing at the worst possible moment. Perhaps one reason we are so incredibly adaptive is that we are extremely sensitive to set and setting, and those who listen are the ones who learn, and thus, survive.
We’ve got work to do.
22 May 2014 § 2 Comments
Sometimes we tell stories over and over again to find out their significance to us. Just as it is common to see something new in a film one has watched multiple times, a connection which binds the characters closer may reveal itself in the hundredth telling of a story that didn’t seem to exist before.
The audience plays a large part in the development of story: pertinent questions, feedback, and criticism reflect holes, irrelevant information; it can help connect important, but perhaps misplaced, fragments. Pieces gathered during immersion.
Any story can be told from an experience. A picnic can be a sweetbitter serenade, or it can be a vicious slaughter of the ant-thieves. An arduous mountain ascent can be a reconciliation, or a cold lesson in compassion. To misquote the Beatles, perspective is all you need.
For months, I’ve been telling the same story over again, as if it was the only one. Every telling has had the same ending: I don’t know.
Which isn’t much of an ending at all. It’s a clue, however, that I’m still in it, still discovering characters, their roles, and the story’s plot points.
In this particular narrative, character becomes audience, and becomes character again. Insists that his input is important to the story, “so put it in the story!” The character wants to know why the narrator is there. Narrator as character: first person.
I imagine Ed Gish saying, does the architect reveal his plans? No, he builds the fucking building, and lets everyone marvel. No one cares what nails were used, how long the concrete took to dry, or which trusses support the heaviest loads. They care about having a place to live or work, and if it looks good, that’s great. If the building is energy efficient, made of recycled materials, or wins design awards, those are bonuses. The building is the point.
The story is the point.
This is a terrible time to write! The concrete is still being poured.
20 April 2014 § 1 Comment
In a widely-reported move, Rio Tinto, a major player in the development of Alaska’s Pebble Mine – long a threat to the Bristol Bay watershed and its fisheries – gifted its shares in the project to the Bristol Bay Native Corporation and Alaska Community Foundation. The decision was announced after the EPA said it would consider stopping the mine, citing the Clean Water Act. The White House supported the EPA’s announcement. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski suggested that the Obama Administration may have held more sway in the process.
Last September, Anglo American, a mining company which had invested in Pebble Mine from the start, pulled out of the project. Currently, Canadian-based firm Northern Dynasty Minerals retains shares in Pebble Mine.
Alaska’s government, hyperaware of both how much money Pebble Mine would produce for the state and how much it would devastate the region environmentally and economically, has remained steadfast in “letting science decide” the fate of Pebble.
I’m a Bristol Bay fisherman. The threat of Pebble Mine has loomed over every season I’ve fished like a dark banner under which ornery fisherman gather and complain. Movies have been made in protest. For half a decade, nearly every fishing boat, tender, skiff and processor vessel in Bristol Bay has flown the anti-Pebble flag, the corresponding stickers stuck ubiquitously throughout the region (one remained on my car as I sold it last year in Oregon).
No one in the fishery knows, really, what might have happened had Pebble gone through. It still may, though the chances are minimal. Would we have had four years of decent fishing left, or until the spawn of the last uncontaminated fish died off? Should we worry about other problems now, like Fukushima and radioactive fish, or the Fraser River’s anticipated heavy run, which this year may overtake Bristol Bay as the most abundant salmon run in the world, and plummet our price?
On a smaller scale, I’m fishing this year with Heather on her boat, the Silver Kris. We’ll be running it together. Will everything work correctly? Will we catch fish? Will we lose money on the venture to Alaska? We’re to drive to Seattle today to put gear and food on the barge.
It’s that time of the year. I’ve mostly forgotten or repressed what negative memories of last year’s grind on the Okuma remained, and I’m readying for the northern migration again. With worries and confidence and news of this disaster, or that gift.
Pebble Mine is now in the hands of BBNC, who are, by and large, fishermen. Imagine if the protestors in Egypt were handed Mubarak’s power; if Syria’s government forces suddenly handed its arms over to the families of civilians it has murdered; if Occupy Wall Street accomplished something tangible. We’ve won, gotten what we wanted; the protest of Alaska’s rural communities, fueled by environmental and cultural stewardship, worked. What now?
Now, we continue. We buy food and coffee, rain gear, engine parts; save receipts for next year’s taxes. We visit a friend at the airport who’s on layover toward the fishing grounds. We tend to the passing of the seasons, and adjust the anchor lines for the flooding tide.
We go fishing, because that’s what we do.
14 April 2014 § 5 Comments
Huffington Post recently posted a blog written by Stephanie Dandan addressed to the general public, written vicariously by the mysterious clan known as ‘travelers’ – though, apparently, we’d rather be called nomads, wanderers, modern gypsies. As if we gather under the flag willingly.
The piece romanticized dingy hotel rooms and the novelty of sleeper buses and the long, cold nights “we” sleep under a bridge (personally, those nights are usually quite lonely), as if the stay-on-the-road-at-any-cost maxim is our only compass reading, the only path to the education and evolution she talks about, the thing we as a ‘sect’ do and think about constantly.
As if nothing else could bring us the joy of an overnight train in India, chicken buses in Guatemala, exercising compassion for a bus ticket agent when a tourist gives him a hard time.
In Holy Cow, Sarah Macdonald’s acclaimed travel narrative about two pivotal years in India, she notices, while on a trip to Derradun, two Westerners who look “determined to believe they are the only westerners to have discovered the delights” of the town. To the observant wanderer, this is common fare in the far reaches of the world. Westerners tend to bring our ingrained individualism elsewhere, and project it outward; we insist on our own spatial boundaries and chronemics, often oblivious to local custom.
I’m annoyed not so much as what this woman said as what she presumed in order to say it. A traveler is not a traveler is not a traveler. There are tourists, and there are travelers. There are nomads, and there are gypsies. Different words for different lifestyles. I identify as one or more, less for poeticism than accuracy.
Perhaps I’m sensitive because I’m three days back from a trip, still jet lagged and wake up in the middle of the afternoon because my body thinks it’s tomorrow morning. My bank account is freshly low, a few payments are behind, and I’m grateful to the subletter that we’ve got a place to land post-travel. Feels like a first.
I want to touch on a couple things in response to Stephanie’s enthusiastic writing. Many travelers like to let “normal” people know that letting go of everything to tramp off into the wild blue will change their lives forever. But it isn’t always the best thing. It doesn’t work for, or serve, every potential traveler. Some aren’t ready for it. Some will never be. It’s not always a matter of excuses (i.e., travel is too expensive, dangerous, lonely, etc.) – some people thrive more in the bubbles they’ve created. We’re on on our own paths.
Stephanie is dead-on in that we sacrifice luxury and comfort for experience, that many travelers are able and willing to toss most things aside for the contents of a backpack. Traveling, in my experience, is a spartan lifestyle primarily because trinkets, gifts, souvenirs, and bullshit don’t fit in a backpack. They weigh too much. They’re not useful.
Money’s often tight, and there can be a perpetual, annoying desire to squeeze as little money into as much time as possible, and some travelers index parts of the world by how much one can live on per month: Europe costs $1,000 minimum, India half that; Central America, depends on how one does it. In order to stay longer – if that’s the priority – one might sleep on the beach, eat only the cheapest local food, or stop drinking (alcohol can account for extraordinary amounts of one’s budget). If those are sacrifices, “we” also sacrifice things like community, relationships, a sense of accountability (but to ourselves), and very often, purpose.
One thing that many travelers don’t mention, consider, or share is the part of the journey which begins at the end: re-entry. Integration. Finding home where we left it. Reconciling acceptance and criticism of our mother culture. Taking the lessons from a 6-month sojourn through East Africa, and applying them to West Coast US America. Or wherever. How do lessons from other parts of the world fit at home?
When one arrives in a new country, skin color and economical differences can become points of separation. We spend the beginning, perhaps the entire trip, adapting. Like children, we learn how to communicate verbally, non-verbally; we learn effective reactions to confrontations, beggars, offers, situations we’d not likely experience at home. Perhaps we learn to accept that we do not, and will not ever, fit in amongst the locals.
The process of re-entry often depends on how well we’ve adapted to another culture. How do I, for example, take a developed skill of bargaining with South Asian street merchants to a world of fixed-price capitalism? Is there any crossover? Does the me that learned those lessons deteriorate as I re-learn how to conduct myself in the States? Motorcycling the narrow chaotic streets of India, for example, seem to have seeped into my hatchback-driving habits on the orderly, polite roads of Oregon: they don’t mix well, so one must adapt further. In this we find that the traveler does not stop traveling once he reaches home: he continues the process, re-calibrates to a different currency exchange, ways of buying goods, driving.
Some travelers, the hardcore nomads who actually claim the term ‘world traveler’ from a place of often traumatized clarity, intend to never return home. These adventurers become mythic to those of us who feel like three or six months is a long trip – these nomads are wisps of Himalayan air, leatherbacks at Goan markets, low-profile Westerners who no longer qualify for the so-called White Tax. They’re the ones who go to Antarctica for US$50, burn their passports to avoid the consequences of an overstayed visa, know the classical connotation of the word ‘gypsy’ and want nothing to do with it. These guys and girls are admirable to the point of exhaustion; incomplete, in a forever-spiral, wanting, searching, running forever.
And that is what the road is for. To be away. For some, to facilitate change. Because we do. Not just “we”, but anyone who claims the road as home for any length of time. While we’re journeying, we see how people of other cultures pursue happiness; in the mountains, with no money at all; in city streets, offering copycat goods for exorbitant prices. We gain a sense, perhaps, for what they value, and how or if they accomplish it. Then to ask oneself, is that true for me? In this way, we can distinguish adaptation from appropriation, integration from theft.
There is no right or wrong sort of travel (though one could distinguish responsible from irresponsible), in fact, there are as many ways as there are travelers: our paths, I believe, are determined more by what we’re open to accepting, rather than a specific itinerary or place. But an odyssey is not an odyssey if one never makes it home.
27 March 2014 § Leave a comment
by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell
The road from intensity to greatness
passes through sacrifice.
For a long time he attained it in looking.
Stars would fall to their knees
beneath his compelling vision.
Or as he looked on, kneeling,
his urgency’s fragrance
tired out a god until
it smiled at him in its sleep.
Towers he would gaze at so
that they were terrified:
building them up again, suddenly, in an instant!
But how often the landscape,
overburdened by day,
came to rest in his silent awareness, at nightfall.
Animals trusted him, stepped
into his open look, grazing,
and the imprisoned lions
stared in as if into an incomprehensible freedom;
birds, as it felt them, flew headlong
through it; and flowers, as enormous
as they are to children, gazed back
into it, on and on.
And the rumor that there was someone
who knew how to look,
stirred those less
stirred the women.
Looking how long?
For how long now, deeply deprived,
beseeching in the depths of his glance?
When he, whose vocation was Waiting, sat far from home—
the hotel’s distracted unnoticing bedroom
moody around him, and in the avoided mirror
once more the room, and later
from the tormenting bed
then in the air the voices
discussed, beyond comprehension,
his heart, which could still be felt;
debated what through the painfully buried body
could somehow be felt—his heart;
debated and passed their judgment:
that it did not have love.
(And denied him further communions.)
For there is a boundary to looking.
And the world that is looked at so deeply
wants to flourish in love.
Work of the eyes is done, now
go and do heart-work
on all the images imprisoned within you; for you
overpowered them: but even now you don’t know them.
Learn, inner man, to look at your inner woman,
the one attained from a thousand
natures, the merely attained but
not yet beloved form.
16 March 2014 § Leave a comment
Tonight, a relatively famous woman who writes riddles on her van asked me, where does the name ‘Structured Roots’ come from?
It was nighttime, and the parking lot was slowly emptying. Through huge, open garage doors, one could see young people scaling the chalk-covered walls of The Circuit. Muffled hip-hop beat down the chatter. Tiffany Hensley let the question hang in the air as she pulled out her smartphone to check the website. I did not seem to lose her attention.
“That’s kind of a story,” I replied, as I do when I don’t know an answer, or to stall for time as I make one up.
“Made you think,” she said. That’s her purpose in life. The reason for the riddles on the van, penned in permanent marker, is “to get more people to think more.” Across the whiteboard of the Sprinter van, in a slew of handwriting styles: a list of Amazing Facts, a chess board, a misquoted riddle from The Hobbit that still begs the right answer.
“Well, it ended up on the back of a notebook about 11 years ago…” I started.
Yeah, what? Tell the story right, Sean.
“When he was 16, my best friend killed himself,” I started again, watching her face. She didn’t respond. “Months later, I was writing in a spiral notebook in the living room of his mother, and sketched the words on the back, in wavy, root-like letters.”
None of this answered her question. In sooth, the words meant nothing to me, the ramblings of a young poet. She perused a beading website called Structured Roots. “Is this your site?”
“I guess I have neither,” I said abruptly.
She looked up. “Oh, is that it?”
I stared past the white fluorescent street lamps, mouth agape, into Portland’s sepia-toned sky. For years the title was just something on the back of a notebook that later entitled a Google Pages site whose link I rarely shared. For lack of something better. Ask my first editor – I was never good at titling anything.
And now, my first day back in Portland, the only place besides Alaska I’ve felt homesick for, friends’ Welcome Home messages unread in my inbox, home no longer a moldy hotel in India but a cozy basement lit warmly by rope lights and Buddha’s calm half-smile, and I realized that my life had neither structure nor roots; in fact, I’d consciously avoided both, tore them up and apart when I detected them, packed up and tramped off when they threatened my nomadism.
Tiffany had just taught a workshop in the climbing gym aimed toward climbers who “want to have stronger minds” – Concentrate and repeat positive thoughts; Mind over Body; What you think directs reality. In the climbing world, which is driven more by ego and physical accomplishment than meditation and strength of will, these ideas seem novel. Simultaneously, it’s Hippietalk 101, the mental art work of yogis, circus performers, festivalers and many people with whom I consort. I said none of this, because although I know some of these typical law-of-attraction tenets as truth, I don’t necessarily integrate or apply them.
As we spoke, one of her students approached Tiffany in the same dreamy, I-want-more-from-you-but-don’t-know-to-say way I have hung around teachers, workshop facilitators, and beautiful women after they said I can definitely change my world – for me, the fanfare represents only partial gratitude. It says loudly, often sans reciprocation, what else can you offer me?
The beauty of having a blog for me is multi-layered: first, it’s not a notebook – there’s less risk of losing what I write, and it does not weigh me down. When I write something, I publish it to the interwebs, and have little control who or what reads it or where it ends up – a constant lesson in letting go. The blog is in itself a structure of expression, where I am my own artist, editor and accountability officer, typist, secretary. Purer, perhaps, that I am not paid, receive little feedback, no deadlines. As for my roots, they are “in the cloud,” as the saying goes, their rightful place, accessible from anywhere and limitless in potential.
11 March 2014 § 2 Comments
My last supper in India: the upper room of a tattoo studio, King Circle, Mumbai. Fish curry and homemade chapatti – and two new dishes I’ve not heard of, even after two months in this country – a sign of only just landing. A mother’s steel food containers sit on a rolling office chair, three young men hunched over them, eating with our fingers. Yogesh the artist smiles humbly at my excitement.
“You like the food,” he asks, or says. In India, I can rarely detect a tonal difference between statements, demands, questions. The artist intern, I’ve forgotten his name three times and am now embarrassed to ask, leans over me to dip chapatti in the veg. “And the piece?”
I’m radiating happiness. Mumbai has been only good to me, this shop a sweet icing spread by getting lost in a district of colonial manors, technology institutes, and modern apartment buildings carved like Pharaohs’ tombs. I have no idea where I am, which is at least consistent with the rest of the trip.
And it doesn’t matter. The tattoo was perfect, a realization of a year and a half of touring mediocre or wildly egotistical ink factories when I wanted little more than a good font and an artist who was stoked on it, too.
It figures I’d get my first piece abroad. In India, no less, hours before boarding a plane to Singapore. The next afternoon, Bali.
“No seawater for 15 days,” Yogesh says. This is a definitive statement, I can tell, but argue anyway: But I’m going to Bali!
“Ten days then. You don’t want it infected. Believe me.”
Humility and art illuminate this man’s smile. He’s six months older than I, a motorcycle adventurer and successful business owner. His art style sings graffiti blues, peacock feather filigree and abstract shadows that could be trumpets or a woman’s hands – simple, elegant, as close to the poetic images in my mind as I’ve seen.
I came in on a hunch. Leo Tattoos lives between the humid dinge and grime of Mumbai’s metropolitan sprawl. I was lost, blocks from my last reference point, when I looked through a glass door at the bald head of Moses. Something, perhaps the oppressive heat, told me to go inside.
Moses had one-inch plugs in his ears, a thick black beard, and a head tattoo of an ancient warrior’s bone blade. He was a miniature version of two different men I’ve known, and when I think of the trio, I see uncanny resemblances across bloodlines and nations, native and diaspora. Moses, a kind man set to be married to a Swiss girl, made me a pair of rosewood earrings from scratch – cut the pieces from a ruler-sized slab of Indian rosewood, sat on the floor and filed the wood LEGOs down to smooth plugs.
While he whittled, Yogesh and I talked art. The studio emanated inspiration. A bike wheel, axled to the computer desk, spun nonchalantly as he cruised the web for photos. The black cupboard doors are covered in childish carvings, a cub scout with a pocket knife. On the walls, art within plywood frames; silent bells hang above hand-carved chairs. Vibrations of sandpaper static and tattoo gun buzz and a woman’s voice from the speakers collide mildly in the air-conditioned space. I feel grounded and welcome here. For a while, the four of us explore our respective channels, quiet and gathered, drawing and carving and writing ourselves with wood and ink. In each of our hands, a new self-portrait births every hour. Inspirations comes to procreate here, in search of willing students, mates, mediums of men of art and blood, music, expression the priority. I am honored to create amongst them.
Yogesh doesn’t have many tattoos himself. “I just haven’t found the right artist,” he says. He showed me his work. Everything custom, except for some Americans who want a photocopy of Ganesha on the shoulder. Most of his style comprises lines and shadows with words and eyes and filigree, accentuated with jazz notes, a simple fusion.
“What can you do with a five-letter word?” I ask.
He wrote my word – trust. – complete with the period, on a blank sheet of paper. “It’s a perfect design,” he says, tilting his head to look at it sideways. “What is your definition?”
That, I think, I’ve got a lifetime to figure out.