About a decade ago, on a whim, I took a trip to Costa Rica and opened the door to a world I didn’t know existed. I still remember crowding around the computer with my friends and studying ticket prices. I remember feeling a little silly that I had never been out of the country except for one brief trip to Canada when I was 10. I twas confused but determined as I applied for my first passport. Beaches, monkeys, and learning to surf were all I thought about as the weeks ticked by. When I returned I couldn’t shake the feeling that everything I saw- the waterfalls, the monkeys, the flowers- might be different if I were to return. I felt incredibly grateful for having been able to experience what I had at the exact time that I had.
Months later, already bitten by the travel bug (but not entirely aware of that fact), I was off to India. I touched the walls of the Taj Mahal and drank my weight in chai. I wrapped myself in a sari for a wedding and was genuinely surprised to learn that New Delhi in December is cold. One morning, at dawn, I found myself atop the Golden Temple in Amritsar. As the call to prayer went out, everyone around me dropped to their knees. The newness of the moment and my ignorance of cultural practices made me pause before I followed suit and for a brief moment, I was alone, standing atop the Golden Temple, the whole colorful world around me, on their knees, connected in an invisible way by their love, their need, and their devotion.
Travel is full of these moments. The moments that take your breath away. Moments that suddenly illuminate a belief that had always lived inside of you but you never knew you had. Moments that happen in an instant that you will replay in your mind and retell to your friends for the rest of your life. Cliche as it may be, these moments feel nothing sort of magical, especially in those early days of travel.
But here’s the thing about moments- if we don’t take them out of the memory box they don’t do us much good. If we romanticize the moments and forget to employ the lessons those moments taught us, the growth it encourages within us, then those moments become great stories and not much more. Travel is gift but if we forget to actively employ the breathtaking moments and incorporate them into our everyday thoughts and actions, we miss the opportunity to “connect the dots”. Travel cannot fix all things. It cannot replace the day to day work of being a thoughtful human being, connected in a meaningful way to one’s core beliefs and values.
If we do not do the work in our day to day lives; If we let the lessons we have learned slip by the wayside when we return; If we write blog posts about our experiences but forget to turn our philosophical ponderings into action, then those moments never get to work their real, transformative magic.
Having that brief moment of realization at the Golden Temple was amazing. It is a moment I replay over and over and it still takes my breath away a little, each time I think of it. The real gift, however, has been the constant development and deepening of my belief that we are all connected by our shared humanity. That moment has touched my life far beyond the 60 seconds it took me to take it all in, take a breath, and drop to my knees. It is a moment that reminds me to never forget connect the dots between the other wondrous moments and my day to day life.
Moments like these do not have to happen atop the Golden Temple. Where have you experienced wondrous moments?
As magical as the Grand Canyon is from the top, peering down into red and purple shades of rock so far down your eyes lose an ability to judge the distance, it is yet more magical from the very bottom peering up. Perhaps because of the feeling of accomplishment that comes from a journey down, and perhaps from a feeling of quiet, peaceful seclusion from the modern world.
Whatever the reason, it’s well worth a trek down just to spend the night at the bottom in either Phantom Ranch or nearby Bright Angel Campground. It may not feel that way as you wade through the tedious reservation process for Phantom Ranch, but that is not the logistical detail I’ll be going over in this post.
In this post, I’d like to give a little bit of insight for potential hikers trying to decide which trail to take, as there are 3 major trails leading down to the bottom, North Kaibob, South Kaibob, and Bright Angel Trail. Having hiked the entirety of each of these trails at some point, I’d love to give a hiker’s perspective.
Bright Angel Trail
Distance to Phantom Ranch: 9.9 miles
Access points: Phantom Ranch and Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim
Bright Angel Trail is probably the easiest trail to recommend because of its frequent water stops and moderate distance. Hikers who are not interested in going all the way down to the bottom of the canyon can hike down to the Indian Gardens region 4.9 miles down instead.
But what this trail is especially good for is the journey back up, regardless of which trail you’ve taken down. While it’s not the shortest of the trails we’ll talk about, it is the shortest one with water stops. Both of these details are extremely important for an upward journey. Hiking up the canyon can take significantly longer than hiking down and can be far more fatiguing.
The atmosphere of this trail is interesting as well. It will lead you through a quintessential red-rock desert type of environment until you reach the lush area of the Indian Gardens. After this point, you descent towards the river and complete the last part of your journey walking alongside it.
South Kaibob Trail
Distance to Bright Angel Campground: 7.1 miles
Access points: Bright Angel Campground and Yaki Point along the South Rim.
I chose this for an ascending hike one year and it was the most difficult Grand Canyon hike I’ve done. It is steep, has no water stops, and leads you through a dry, winding cliffside that offers little relief from the sun at times. Hikers who choose this route should be very intentional and realistic about the supplies they pack with them. It is indeed a shorter hike, as the shortest of the trails we’ll mention today, but the most strenuous one, so take this into account.
I recommend this trail mostly for descending. Particularly if a person is concerned about making it to the bottom in time for a scheduled dinner. (All meals at phantom ranch must be reserved and fall into a strict schedule). And while it’s not impossible to use this trail for ascending, it’s not to be taken lightly.
North Kaibob Trail
Distance to Phantom Ranch: 14 miles
Access points: Phantom Ranch and the North Rim Trailhead.
I chose this one to discuss last because it is my favorite, and I’d like to share a piece I wrote about it after hiking it last month.
But first, the logistical details: This trail is the longest of those mentioned today. Significantly so. And yet, it is not a strenuous 14 miles comparatively. It is not as steep, and the environment transitions frequently. There are plenty of water stops and as long as you are providing a realistic amount of time for the hike (anywhere from 5 – 9 hours), this is a wonderful choice for a descending hike. Anyone considering this hike for the ascending trip should remember that ascending hikes take significantly longer than descending.
This is not a very popular trail, as the only trail leading up to the North Rim, but I’d like to reference the thoughts I made in a post last month to advocate for this trail as a favorite.
“The North Rim is quiet. If you stand and listen for a moment you don’t hear the chatter of a high traffic tourist destination as you would on the South Rim. Instead you hear the wind through the pines. In fact, the beginning of your trek does not feel like quintessential Canyon red rock dust and desert. Instead you’re in a gentle pine forest. In fact the first stretch of the North Kaibab Trail hike begins in this setting until the vegetation shrinks back and you can see the height of the cliff you’re standing on. The view opens up and you make your way down along cliffs into the floor of a side canyon. And then the landscape changes again. Every few miles, in fact, the landscape of the North Kaibab seems to change into something new as the canyon walls rise around you, layering back until the rim disappears behind the cliffs nearest your path.
These early miles of the trail find you descending through an ancient solidified display of the earth’s history- a core sample of the layers of earth in front of your very eyes till you reach the most ancient layers of subtly glittering Vishnu Shist, so ancient it lacks any traces of organic, biological matter. This amazing artifact of geological history lines the later miles of the trail like gravel, kicked along humbly by the feet of hikers.
This is also where you reach a little canyon creek that slips like melted glass through desert rock and brings green life wherever it goes. Most of the remaining 7.2 miles of the North Kaibab follow this creek. As I looked at it, I wondered at how different it seemed from the forest creeks I grew up with in Ohio, clouded with decaying plant life and stirring up mud. This water, cupped by canyon rock seemed more pure and more lively. And the plants that line the banks are so foreign to someone who grew up far from the desert. Prickly, spiny, spindly little plants keeping themselves as inward as possible, not spilling out clumsily into one another like the leaves and grasses of the east. Orderly, linear plants.
The creekside portion of this trail levels out significantly and you find yourself anticipating each bend will reveal the little cabins of Phantom Ranch.
It’s always further than you think. But I don’t mind in that environment. Even tired and hungry, I’m happy to be there.”
Five months of extended, slow travel taught me valuable life lessons that I never could have learned from a one week vacation or a weekend getaway. Once I got past the initial lure of traveling to new places (including Guatemala, Taiwan, Australia, and Ethiopia), seeing new things, and doing different activities, the time spent traveling really became a deeper, personal experience; travel became introspective and a journey within to make discoveries about myself and my place in the world.
These are the lessons about life that I have learned after five months of travel around the world…
Be a little nicer to others.
When you travel, you make yourself vulnerable by leaving your comfort zone and putting yourself out in the world. You need help because you normally don’t know where you are, what to eat, and how to speak the local language. People are out there to help you, as long as you let them. You’ll see how people will open themselves up once you show some compassion and kindness.
I once heard a 103-year-old woman answer the question, “What’s the best advice you can give to others on how to live their lives?” She simply replied, “Be a little nicer to others.” All those years of experience and wisdom and she understood that life at the core is made of all the interactions and connections, big and small, that we have with others.
Be nice. Be extra nice. Bring out the best in yourself and others around you.
Money doesn’t buy happiness.
You don’t need a ton of money to travel and you don’t need millions of dollars to be happy. If you’re always comparing your net worth to others’ net worth, you’ll never be happy.
Happiness starts from within. If you’re pursuing things that you’re passionate about and give you purpose, you’ll be happier. When you help others for unselfish reasons, you’ll be happier. And when you connect with a purpose that’s bigger than you, you’ll truly be happy.
I’ve met some of the happiest people in some of the poorest countries in the world and I’ve met some of the most depressed people in some of the richest countries in the world. Money doesn’t buy happiness. Living life on purpose will give you all the happiness you’ll ever need.
Fulfilling work, quality time with your kids, “me” time, nutritious meals, regular exercise, eight hours of sleep every night, and meaningful travel are all the ingredients of a healthy life. You can have it all, as long as you make balance your goal.
Sometimes you overwork yourself for weeks without end. You sleep less. You don’t go to the gym when you should. You eat junk foods and load up on coffee. Then you crash. Hard. And your body needs two full days to recover. You need balance every day all the time.
Too much of anything isn’t healthy or sustainable. Balance is essential to healthy living.
Live your life.
Your life is yours and yours alone. Be who you are. Follow your passions. Trust your gut. Don’t compare yourself with others. Stay true to what you believe.
The key is to live. Many people are dying a slow death in a profession they are bored with; others are in destructive relationships; some are using escapes from actually living by abusing drugs, alcohol, TV, Internet, etc.
You need to choose to live your life. That choice begins with trusting yourself and moving forward with your heart.
Love the journey.
Life is not a race, so enjoy the journey. Each step you take and each personal connection you make hopefully gets you closer to your truest, most authentic self. When you value the journey more than the destination, you are grateful for each step and blessing. You realize that failures exist not only as small lessons, but also as opportunities for mercies to come through. And you are present in every moment.
When you let your heart lead the way, you’ll be on the path towards realizing your dreams. Sometimes what we want isn’t what the world says we should want, what our parents say we should want, or what our peers say we should want, but your path ultimately is the product of your choices.
Stay the course. Listen to your heart. Let the love flow.
Love the journey and you’ll be on your way.
For more about Cliff’s travels, visit his website: LiveFamilyTravel
I am often asked why I travel. What is the benefit? Is all the work, preparation, and planning worth it? So, I set out to identify what it is I really feel I have gained through travel. While this list may not be the same for everyone (and I expect it wouldn’t be), I bet most travelers can identify with each item on this list. So, here it is…. the top five gifts travel has given me.
5. Patience. Anyone who travels long term will tell you that patience is a major key to making it all work. Waiting for a train in New Delhi, cooking a meal for 4 on a single burner in San Marcos, dodging touts in ChiChi market, crossing the border into Panama, trudging through monsoon rains in Kolkata, avoiding eye contact with leering men in Egypt, or trying to coordinate travel plans in a foreign language in Nepal- the longer you travel, the more you value your own ability to call on your patience like a super power. Cultural differences and language barriers make time, space, and dimension very subjective terms. Patience is a virtue that gets practiced and (almost but not really) perfected the longer you travel.
4. Connection. True human connection, that which transcends cultural barriers, is something I value on a very deep level. Traveling allows me to see, smell, touch, taste, feel, and experience what visitors and immigrants to my home country hold in their memories and consciousness. Travel presents the opportunity for me to recognize the common human experience between myself, a circus performer in El Salvador, a business woman headed to work in Switzerland, a genocide survivor in Guatemala, and everyone in between. I get to connect with people all over the world, all the time and experience our shared humanity on a regular basis.
When I attended my friend’s wedding in India, I didn’t need a transistor to explain the side ways smile on her groom’s face as she walked towards him or the joy she radiated when she finally got to see him after a full week of ceremonies and preparations. When her parents visit and I am offered a cup of chai I am reminded of hot, humid, monsoon mornings in Mumbai and I can almost hear the chai wallahs, just like they can. When I beg her to make me mattar paneer and she chides that it’s “not really healthy, you know”, I know that she is smirking because she is (not so secretly) thrilled that I loved an Indian dish so much and that I know exactly how it tastes in her hometown. When she asked my friend and I to be present at her son’s birth, her parents hugged me and told me to take care of her, knowing that only true friends would have traveled to India to see their child get married years ago. My friend is an awesome person and I would be friends whether I had traveled to India to watch her get married or not, but I am thankful for the richness travel has brought to our friendship. Sometimes I think we over think things and place too much emphasis on cultural differences (as beautiful as they are) and forget to look for the moments that don’t need translation. Do you have to travel to find connection? No. Does travel magically make connections happen? No. But travel has expanded my understanding of what connection can mean, presented opportunity after opportunity to explore human connection, and made my circle wider and deeper than I ever thought it could be. My connection with this friend and every single person who has touched my life along the way, is a gift I carry forever.
3. Clarity. Time spent away from home and all things comfortable has a way of clarifying that which is most important. Trekking from place to place with everything you own strapped to your back will make you think twice about your material “needs”. Watching a mother drop her child off at an orphanage because she doesn’t have the money to feed all three of her children will make you reconsider what “good parenting” means. Working with an NGO in a foreign country will forever make you look more closely at where your donated dollars are going. Visiting Mother Theresa’s homes in Kolkata will make you question the party line about mission work in the third world. Watching the sun cast shadows over ancient Mayan temples will make the history you think you know look dull. Meeting living victims of your country’s foreign policy will make you wonder just what else is being done in your name.
If it sounds like travel raises a whole lot of questions and not a whole lot of clarity, that is only partly true. Travel certainly and inevitably does raise innumerable questions…but the clarity lies within those questions. Clarity does not mean “figuring it all out”. Some questions will be answered, some will not. The very realization that the questions exist is clarity in itself.
2. Empathy. Over the course of this long, continuous journey, I have come to the conclusion that pity and empathy do not look the same. Pity is what I had for people who were “less fortunate” than me back before I had met any of “those people”. Pity allowed me to see myself in some small way as “better than” and in no way did it serve me or those I thought needed me to do something for them. Pity paralyzed and disconnected me.
Empathy is what I hold now that I have helped birth babies, cook meals, and redefine education with people who would have previously been considered “less fortunate”. The key word in that last sentence is WITH, not FOR. I recognize the core of our shared human experience reflected in circumstances I will never fully understand. I have learned to actively remind myself that poor is not synonymous with “less fortunate” any more than rich is synonymous with “happy”. I still struggle with the “why” of our world’s inequality but I now know that the “how” for doing something about it depends on our ability to empathize, not pity.
1. Perspective. Triumphs and tribulations have a way of seeming really, really big when we have nothing to compare them to. Exploring our vast and varied world has given me the opportunity to step outside of the day to day that we all get caught up in and see the larger picture. Long term travel reminds me regularly that no matter the political, philosophical, or economic agendas being pushed back home, this is the one and only shot we have got at this life. I could spend every day hemming and hawing about the socially acceptable way to live this life (according to my home culture) or I can actually live it. The mundane must still be dealt with and the day to day must still be lived but at the end of my life, I will be damned if I look back and think ” I should have done more”.
What are the best gifts travel has given you?
How many among us have made the trek back to a favorite destination of years past and realized that, well, it just isn’t the same anymore? The bus drops us off in the sleepy surf town we remember fondly from our first backpacking adventure and we wonder where that Roxy store came from. We hop off of planes and out of cabs and are amazed to see teenagers, clad in jeans and Abercrombie t-shirts, hanging out at Mcdonald’s where women in Saris used to dole out samosas from a road side stand. Dirt roads that once flooded with every rain are now paved and outfitted with perfectly placed gutters. Little girls who used to sell flowers are now young women, married, and calling after children of their own- children who will never sell flowers to help their families make ends meet.
We sit in our favorite restaurants and coffee shops (because, thankfully, some of those are still standing) and reminisce about the crazy party hostel that once stood where the Marriott now towers and the place on the corner where you used to be able to by a $1 beer to enjoy while you watched the sunset on the beach. We whisper that the taxi drivers have certainly figured out how to fleece the tourists and pray that the charm that has always made this place special doesn’t get erased completely. Mostly, we are just happy that we saw this place as it was, way back, before all the change happened.
Sometimes it’s sad to return to a place and realize just how much has changed. You miss what you have romanticized and forget about that miserable night you got infested with bed bugs at that crazy party hostel. There is something very human in the desire to return to a place you “know” and wrap yourself in the comfort of familiarity. Change can wreak havoc on that comfort.
But there is a wonderful side to all of that change. Perhaps one of the most beautiful things that traveling affords us is the ability to see the world for the ever evolving organism that it is. Yes, things change. Yes, things we remember and love may not always be there. But isn’t that knowledge actually wonderful? It reminds us that the world is only “as it is” for this moment. It will never be like this again. We can wait until “someday” to travel or we can do it right now, knowing that “someday” will never look like today. As an added bonus, we can travel today AND “someday”, and our experiences will be inexplicably similar and different all at once.
The only real certainty is change. Travel gives us space to explore what that change means (and looks like). Eyes that have come and gone and come back again have the privilege of seeing change in a comparative manner. Minds that have explored new places and returned have the ability to put change into a global context and see history playing out before their eyes. Individuals that have returned have the opportunity to discover how change might even be shaped by the most positive and intentional parts of our collective humanity. We are so very lucky to see our world, as it is, no matter what it looks like in this moment. Because what is right now, is ours- just for this moment. There are no guarantees that it will ever look, fell, or pulse exactly like this again.
The world is changing, as it always has. So, then this is the perfect time to get up and explore our world. You wouldn’t want to miss what it looks like right now, would you?
People often ask us if there’s a social deficiency for our children, being raised on the road, weaving in and out of so many different cultures. It’s a serious question, and it deserves serious consideration.
My answer is always, “No, growing up in the world is the most socially healthy experience any child could have.”
They learn to adapt, respect differences, navigate generation gaps, live flexibly and develop language proficiencies that will make them infinitely more socially comfortable in our ever shrinking world than they would be if we spent our entire life in the little town we left. Nowhere was that more apparent than playing in the pool this week with the Korean delegation using the same techniques they’ve perfected for playing with kids when they are the ones who don’t speak the language.
There is not a social deficiency for our kids, or others that travel for a living, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t differences.
Our kids are what’s called Third Culture Kids:
“Someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture.” According to my passport, I’m coming home, by Kay Branaman Eakin
These kids create a culture for themselves that’s a blend of their experiences, the upside is flexibility, adaptability, a high comfort level just about anywhere they’re dropped and the ability to roll with the punches like few people can.
The downside: they don’t entirely “fit” anywhere. My family traveled a little, just two winters of my childhood, and we straddled the international border between the US and Canada as a dual nationality family. Even that relatively small amount of cultural diversity I can relate to the third culture experience.
We love being “home,” in the USA and Canada, because so many of the people that matter most to us are here. Our children’s dearest friends are very “fixed-location” kids and they embrace one another as if not a day has passed and the cultural divide just doesn’t matter a bit to them, or to our kids, for that matter. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
We’ve witnessed this several times, with families in Germany & the Czech Republic, other traveling families in Central America and most recently when our virtual friends became real world friends. There is something that happens with Third Culture Kids meet other Third Culture Kids that is inexplicable unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes. There’s an understanding, a belonging, of sorts, between complete strangers that bonds them deeply, and it’s such a joy to watch.
This weekend our worlds collided. The very best of our chosen family joined us for an Independence Day camp out. We laughed, swam, told stories, and caught up after a long winter on opposite ends of the continent, and it was GREAT. And then, two of our favourite traveling families joined the party and added such an interesting dynamic. It t was such a joy to have them all in one place and to have, for just a few hours, both of our lives intersect in one place. There was a “wholeness” that we sometimes lack in the time spent with all of them.
Our kids miss people wherever we go. This is a common experience for Third Culture Kids. Not a day goes by abroad that they don’t wish aloud that their fixed-location friends were there to share an experience. When we’re “home” it’s the same, they wish for their abroad friends to share the day’s joy here. Jeremiah, one of Hannah’s best friends, is spending the week with us. Last night he made a comment that stuck with me: “I’ll bet you guys could fill this whole campground with the people you wish were here!” And he’s right, we could. The very best and very worst of travel as a lifestyle is that no matter where we are, we make dear friends, and no matter where we go, we miss someone we love!
The air is unbreathable, hot, and terribly humid. The air conditioner perched at the top of the wall at my right is just an empty plastic shell that reminds me that there could be some extra comfort, if someone had cared to replace the wiring. Instead, rivulets of sweat pour down my forehead and temples, sliding down my spine and flowing over the small of my back, soaking into the elastic of my underwear. I had to take my shirt off to endure this first Indonesian live test.
“Cut the set short, I can’t breathe…” Sam screams from behind the drums, his man-boobs twitch, lucid with sweat.
“Why man? They are loving it!” I answer screaming on top of amplifier white noise between two songs.
“I said cut it fucker, I can’t fucking breathe! I am feeling sick! There’s no air!”
OK then, roger.
This is the best travel I have done recently, hands down.
We are at the back of Khansa Studio’s rehearsal room in Pamulang, somewhere in the sprawling suburbs of Jakarta, nestled between a row of halfstacks and a small melee of young Indonesian hardcore punk believers. They are probably twenty, but the room’s so cramped it feels like they are hundreds, all blowing hot air in our faces. One has just finished walking up the wall to my right, supported by a bunch of other lunatics pushing him at the small of his back. From my perspective, I believe for a moment that the room is rolling sideways, and this guy’s trying to run with it. When Sam hits the last of four strokes with his sticks, we launch into the last song of the night, and I wonder if this still makes sense. Looking at how the kids spin and jump and crawl on top of each other, forcing me to step back against the amps, I am tempted to say “yes”. But reflecting on the fact that I am sweating as if I were playing guitar inside of a Finnish sauna, our drummer is having a respiratory crisis, and tonight – and for the rest of this tour – we will never get paid a single rupiah, my European heritage materializes with a hammer to smash the bubble of underground dedication right before my eyes. Why are you doing this, Marco?
I don’t know. Probably because these days I only conceive traveling as a concoction of brutal anthropology, self-inflicted ruin and mind-numbing exploration of the weirdest fringes available in the world. But it does indeed make me feel good, for I know that I’m probably not the only one, but certainly one of the few, to have had this vision and this cross. Suddenly all of the problematic divides among travelers and tourists disappear, because they are not important anymore. I’m only trying to make my time on Earth meaningful to my own self, I guess. Is there anything wrong with it?
MARCO FERRARESE is a metalpunk guitarist who travelled extensively and lived in Italy, the United States, China, Australia and Malaysia. Since 2009 he’s been based in Southeast Asia as a writer, hardcore punk musician and researcher. He travelled from Mongolia to Australia in 2009, and hitchhiked from Singapore to Milano through Silk Road routes and the Middle East in 2012. He blogs at monkeyrockworld.com. Marco’s first Asian pulp novel Nazi Goreng was published in November 2013 on Monsoon Books. Follow him @monkeyrockworld
This week I’m in San Francisco, after riding my motorcycle from Washington. First, I have to say – the ride down the PCH was in-damn-credible! Thanks to a friend’s suggestions, I got off the PCH near Fortuna and took the Avenue of the Giants scenic route. Who would have thought that there was a scenic route to an already incredible scenic route? I’ll write more about this another time. Take my recommendation, though, if you are ever in southern Oregon, take 199 West and to 101 South, then just take that as far as you’re able. Here’s a couple pictures to wet your appetite.
Now – this week, I wanted to ask a question. When you travel to busy, vibrant locations (big cities and such) – do you feel a bit lost? A bit secluded?
The other night, I was talking with my friend Boris, who I met when trekking through Siberia (a real awesome guy, btw). Anyway – we were discussing what it was like to visit a large city like San Francisco when you’re traveling solo. We both felt that if you don’t already know someone there, it’s easy to feel a bit alone. It’s the reason he gave me some things to do in SF; recommendations that would get me started and he also introduced me to some of his friends.
Truth is – often when I’m traveling solo, I feel the need to some alone time to acclimate. I remember going to Göteborg, Sweden a few years ago. It was a great place to hang out with a vibrant night life. Before I could venture out, though, I had to spend about a day alone in the hotel to absorb the new environment. Only after that did I feel comfortable in going out to explore the city. Yet, on every adventure I’ve been on, I’m often traveling as part of a small group. In those instances, I felt comfortable in most situations (well – except for some really sketchy ones). I was able to jump right in and explore the surroundings.
I noticed the same thing at World Domination Summit a few weeks ago. I was fortunate to have a lot of friends to hang out with and springboard from; but, it’s something that I would have struggled with otherwise. I find that with small, intimate destinations it’s much easier for me to get involved and to be a vibrant part. Once there’s too many people, I tend to step back and observe, rather than participating.
I’m interested to hear your thoughts – is this just part of my introvert tendencies – or is this a more common feeling?
Chris Plough writes and podcasts at oznog.com, where he shares stories and advice from his adventures and from the incredible people that he’s met along the way. You can also follow him on twitter: @chrisplough.
Ann’s words have echoed in my mind as her sweet, octogenarian face has pleasantly haunted my afternoon walks. We wandered slowly through the natural bridge outside of Waitomo with her and her husband, Ross. I quietly got the kids’ attention and encouraged them to walk more slowly behind him, and not press forward as he did his aged best to step over tree roots and up the rocky stairs to the high meadow where we laughed together about the crazy idea of standing in the presence of 3 million year old oysters. Tony gave him a leg up over the fences. He laughed, good-naturedly, when the boys leapt out from behind blackberry bushes with a roar, as he had undoubtedly done forty years before I took my first breath.
Ann was hand washing for the two of them in a little tub out the back of her camper van, using water that Ross was bringing, one bucket at a time from the bridge. He’d lower the bucket the twenty or so feet to the surface with a long rope and then haul it up, mostly full, hand over hand before delivering it to his white haired wife. By the time she was done rinsing he was there to help her wring out his trousers, one on each end, twisting hard, and hang the clothes from a line he’s strung under the awning.
She commiserated with me over hand washing for six, producing meals for an army on two burners in a three foot square space, and the difficulties of adventuring with children. She’d raised a tribe too, in her day, and they’d camped the length and breadth of their island homes. Perhaps she’s a premonition of myself.
I’ve been thinking about that statement, and the layers of meaning it embodies.
Truth be told, living this way is a lot of work. Staying home is far and away easier. But the best things in life are always the things that require the most from us, that we have to work our rear-ends off to achieve. The things we are proudest of mean so much to us because they’ve cost us the most.
Marriage is like that.
Raising kids is like that.
Traveling is like that.
All three together is the perfect storm of all that and two bags of chips.
There was so much encouragement in Ann’s face as we talked and washed and shared “mama” stories. The older I get the more I appreciate the stories of old women. I think because I’m just beginning to understand the many-layered thing that a woman’s life is, stretched thin over the better part of a century. Perhaps it’s because I can see myself in their eyes more clearly than I could at twenty, or thirty.
So many people give up. They give up on the thing they really, really want to do. There are so many reasons: It gets too hard. It costs too much. It hurts too badly. It isn’t what we signed up for. Someone else fails us. We fail ourselves. It’s inconvenient. It’s easier to stay home, in some capacity. We feel that we don’t deserve it, aren’t “worth” it. It’s a fight.
I’ve been thinking lots about the things I really want to do. The big things and the small things. The hard things and the harder things.The things that seem mundane, like staying married until I’m in my eighties, raising kids who are productive citizens and learning to write. The things that seem like pipe dreams too: seeing Antarctica, changing the world, and successfully handing my parents’ legacy to my grandkids. I really, really want to do these things.
For tonight, the things I really want to do included cooking 3 kilos of meat, enough potatoes, cheesy cauliflower & salad for an army, making a double batch of ginger cookies and making my husband laugh until he was squirming to get away from me, which is an accomplishment. I want to sit and sip my tea, munch my still warm ginger treat and thank the gods that be for friends who love me enough to mail me the exact type of tea that keeps me from killing the children; who I want so desperately to strangle sometimes when we all are living in 126 square feet. And I’m willing to live in 126 square feet of rolling space because I really, really want, quite desperately, to make their childhood epic and not to miss a moment of it.
What do you really want to do?
Earlier this year, I rode a Ural motorcycle and sidecar through Siberia, up 1800km of ice roads and ending in the Arctic Circle. It was one hell of a journey which taught me how to survive in extreme sub-zero temperatures. More importantly, it expanded my limits and showed me what I was capable of.
One of the most important lessons happened on the second night of the trip – our first attempt camping out. Now, I don’t know about you, but I had never camped in extreme cold before. Sure – I had tested out my equipment on a -20C night in South Dakota, but there is a world of difference once you get below -30C. That night was mild, compared to the rest of the trip, but it still hit -32C.
So – we setup camp and tried to building a fire. We could make a lot of smoke, but couldn’t get a strong fire blazing. Fortunately, with the help of a good MSR camp stove, we were able to boil enough water to fill our bellies with pelmeni. Around 9pm we called it a night. I was riding solo, so I had a tent to myself. Quickly I stripped down to base layers and stuffed the upper layers into my sleeping bag to keep them from freezing. After the long day, I fell asleep quickly.
Around midnight, I woke up and realized that I couldn’t feel my toes. Now, one of my biggest fears was getting frostbite and loosing a few digits. I could feel the panic rising; but, after a few slow breaths, I was able to get it under control. I tried flexing my toes, but they wouldn’t move. I took a moment to think about my options – get up and try to get my blood flowing? Aside from my feet, I was warm enough in the sleeping bag. I didn’t know how much body heat I’d lose by getting out. I wasn’t sure how well I’d be able to stand on my numb feet. Too many unknowns, so I decided to stay where I was and move my legs to get blood flowing. After a few minutes of that, my core was getting warmer, but my toes were still numb. Time for a different tack. I had just enough room in my sleeping bag to bring one foot at a time up within reach. I used my hands to manually flex my toes and warmed them up by contact. After a few minutes, I could feel them again and was able to move them just a bit. I switched feet and repeated.
Each time I would put a foot down to work on the other one, it would go numb again. I just couldn’t seem to keep them going without working them with my hands. I kept at it. After I was sure eons had passed, I checked the time, only to be disappointed that only a few minutes had gone by. I began to think things through – I had several hours to go until the sun would come out and temperatures would begin to rise. Would I be able to make it until morning? Did I have another choice?
So that eternally long night, I kept at it – switching feet every few minutes and wishing I could fast forward to morning. I couldn’t control time, though, all I had control over was my will to endure. I began to relax and just focused on the task at hand. Eventually, the sun began to rise. As soon as the inside of the tent began to glow, I breathed a sigh of relief and knew that I would be okay.
I’ve been taught that lesson before – but sometimes a reminder is necessary. Relax, breath and just focus on what is right in front of you. Keep at it long enough and you’ll eventually make it through to the other side.
Later on during the trip, I camped out in harsher temperatures (-43C) but had a much easier time. Partially I’d say it was due to my body acclimating the the environment and also because I learned a couple tricks — like filling a water bottle with boiling water and putting it at the bottom of your sleeping bag to warm it up. That definitely prolongs your comfort and allows you to get a bit of sleep – but trust me, either way, the mornings are still painful.
It’s funny how that these moments turn into a fond memory. Time and distance do strange things.
Chris Plough writes and podcasts at oznog.com, where he shares stories and advice from his adventures and from the incredible people that he’s met along the way. You can also follow him on twitter: @chrisplough.