Truth . . . or Consequences?

I stop in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, for no other reason than the name.  I like how it sounds.  Strange, off beat, unusual.  The town, originally called Hot Springs, renamed itself in 1950 to win a television show contest.  On the show, contestants had two seconds to answer a “Truth,” hardly enough time to even think of a response, or play the “Consequences,” usually some zany stunt like ridging a unicycle or stacking household appliances atop one another using a crane.  It was a big hit in the 1950s and 60s.

Truth or Consequences Municipal Building

T or C, as it is commonly known, is located half way between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, on Interstate 25.  There is not much around except desert, low-lying mountains and military installations.  The town itself is small, still has dirt streets in some areas and has a barren, wind-swept feeling.  As I drive into town, I get the sense that more than one tumbleweed have rolled through these parts.

When I book my room at the Sierra Grande Lodge & Spa, the woman on the other side of the phone says, “Forget coming here!  You should play the lottery.  We just had a cancellation – something that never happens – there are no other rooms available anywhere in town for this weekend or next.”  When I try to explain to her the odds of winning the lottery and how I will save that $1 (though not really), she repeats, “You should play the lottery – you’re clearly having a good luck day.”

I arrive and immediately book a mineral tub soak and massage appointment.  The masseuse and I hit it of famously, and we spend the hour bantering back and forth about health, spirituality, and other new age topics.  Joy, her name which seems to fit, also teaches yoga and tells me how she ended up here on a road trip in the 1980s.  “Watch out if a house suddenly falls on you; it’s how it happened for me.”  Images of Oz run though my mind as she works my back.

As we engage in deeper conversation, Joy pulls out a card from a woman who “reads shaman stones.”

“I hate how everyone puts ‘shaman‘ in front of anything vaguely spiritual these days,” I think to myself, but I am intrigued.

“She’ll read your stones and tell you if you are on the right path,” Joy says.

“I could use a little of that,” I respond.

I get over the “Shaman” bit and call to book an appointment with her the next day.

T or C Reflection

That night I dine at Cafe BellaLuca, a modern Italian eatery a few blocks – walking distance – from the Sierra Grande.  Every table is full and the wait is close to 45 minutes.  “For a table?” I inquire in disbelief.  As a single diner, I am offered a seat at the bar, which overlooks the kitchen.  At first I baulk, not wanting to be on display in the adult high-chair section, but the location grows on me.  The chef chats me up as he prepares dishes for a birthday party, a group which takes up a very large table behind me.

I don’t recall the owner/chef’s name (or his owner-wife’s), but I highly recommend this place if you happen to be in T or C.  He flies in fresh seafood daily and prepares some of the most amazing Italian food I’ve had outside of New York City.  I order calamari, but someone else secured his last portion just moments before.  I watch the Chef make those small fried rings of delight and look for something else on the menu.  I settle on pesto pasta with chicken.  It melts in my mouth.  For climax, I take homemade tiramisu back to the hotel in a biodegradable “to go” container.  I eat it with my hands in bed.  Saliva and chocolate run down my cheek as I doze off for the night.

The next morning I wake early, take another soak, enjoy a nice breakfast on the veranda, then prepare myself for the shaman/medium lady.  I have no idea what to expect, or what I am supposed to reveal in my time with this woman.  As I drive to the address provided, using my trusty GPS, I conjure ideas in my head of what she looks like.  I settle on Mrs. Roper from TV’s Three’s Company with flowing floral dresses and wild, curly, supernatural hair.

As I pull into a trailer park just off River Road, where several neighborhood dogs bark indicating they know a stranger is near, I am greeted by Linda.  She is a woman in her fifties who resembles a grandmother more than anything else.  She seems a little nervous and greets me with a wide smile.  No flowing floral dress, no wild hair.  She is in plain clothes, which makes me a little more comfortable.  Linda welcomes me inside and offers a glass of water, where her two pug children race over to check me out.  One has an asthma attack on my shoe and the other appears so overwhelmed it grunts and sneezes all over itself for nearly five minutes.

“They’ll calm down,” Linda says to me, then continues to them, “Or they will be locked outside.”  On hearing this threat, both dogs stop, lift their eyebrows in what appears to be concern, then go back to grunting and wheezing.  She and I sit and the dogs find something more interesting outside to cough and bark about . . . a bug or tumbleweed perhaps.

Building Art, T or C

Linda gathers up two handfuls of assorted rocks, gems, and crystals and places them in my hands.  “Set your intention with the stones and then just drop them.”  I think about my journey, the health and healing I seek and then let the stones fall through my fingers like large drops of water.  They spread over the black leather tablecloth Linda uses for this purpose, some almost leaving the table completely.

“Very interesting,” she says examining the stones.  “You are close with both your parents, who are, I think, both still living.”   “Yes, yes, but they’re not like regular parents,” I say.  “I see that,” Linda says pointing to a smooth lump of turquoise and another lump of something dark green.  “They were kids themselves when you were young.  You’ve come a long way with both of them.  Good work.”

Linda continues, “How do I say this nicely . . . You have done a tremendous amount of work in getting rid of the old, huh, CRAP in your life,” she says pointing at a small lump of fool’s gold.  “But sometimes that shit sticks around because you dealt with it, but haven’t tossed it out completely.”  “Yes, that’s true!” I exclaim.  It is as if she knows my therapist and all the work I have done over the years.  “Now, what do you want to do with that crap?” she asks tapping the fool’s gold with a pen.  I think about this, look at her, smile, then pick it up and throw it across the room.  Linda cheers and the pugs chase the lump, grunting and coughing.  We spend the next three hours reviewing my life, journey, and next steps.  I toss several stones off the table and move several others to different areas.  It feels good.

After a reading of tarot cards, where Linda tells me I will soon meet a brown-eyed man (I’m still waiting), I say goodbye and climb back into my Jeep.  I exit the mobile home neighborhood, River Road, and the town of T or C.  I hit the interstate and think about the past 24 hours.  I mull over the idea that I have known all along that I am on the right path, especially in taking this road trip, but it is nice to meet people along the way who are there to help me heal.  And in the case of Linda, it is sometimes nice to hear from an external source – one maybe more connected to the divine than myself – that I am heading in the correct direction.

About an hour later, I get a call from my mother.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she says.  “I just bought another five pairs of shoes.”  I laugh, glad to have her – and her shoe obsession – in my life.

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Timon and Me

Half way to Salt Lake City and tears still fill my eyes and run down my cheek.  I sob, then laugh, then sob again.  It’s a good cry, but my heart is breaking at the same time.  Timon, with whom I spent the last 12 hours, is back at his shelter and I am sixty miles north.  I don’t know if I will ever see him again; the woman at the desk said she would let me know what happens to him.

Timon is a dog living at the Best Friends Animal Society (BFAS) in Kanab, Utah.

Ready to go Home with you!

My relationship with the society starts with one serendipitous conversation – something I have come to cherish on the road.  Hiking the hoodoos in Bryce, I encounter a trio snapping pictures of each other – you know, two in each picture, rotating the camera, but never capturing the whole group.  I offer to take one of the threesome; they are grateful and we strike up a conversation as we walk through the amazing variety of red rock pillars.

They make annual volunteer pilgrimages to BFAS.  After telling me about their experience, I make plans to arrive the next morning.  Once there, the woman staffing the information counter tells me “there is a volunteer orientation at eleven.  If you want to take an animal on a sleepover, you must volunteer with dogs or cats.”  “A sleepover,” I inquire.

“Yes, where you take one of our animals overnight,” she says.

“Dogs,” I say after explaining my complete allergy history.

Before the end of the orientation, tears fill my eyes.  The Sanctuary overflows with love; it’s in the air and the people working or volunteering here.  I make it to Dogtown Headquarters after a wonderful vegetarian lunch in the cafeteria.  It’s dusty and hot as I drive up to the main building, which is situated in the middle of the Utah dessert.

My assignment is to take dogs for walks, one at a time so they don’t bite each other.  Andy, a Dogtown caretaker, walks with me to show me the trail.  Along the way, we swap broad stroke stories of our lives – how he ended up here and where I am going.  We also talk about the dogs.  He knows practically every one by name and each has a story, many unfortunately unpleasant.  Michael Vic’s pitbulls are here, as are dogs who are abused, neglected or sick.  No matter, BFAS provides a place for every animal to live out their life.

Jagger behind Bars

After the walks, it’s feeding time.  We prepare meals in a sink with special ones prepared by the handlers.  Andy tells me “many dogs have allergies and eating problems so we have to be careful what we give them.”  Jagger, a dog I walked earlier, eats too fast, so receives her food in an upside down bowl that slows her down . . . slightly.  Other dogs need enzymes or vitamins.  I laugh – they take some of the same stuff I do, with food.

There is amazing calmness that comes over the place after the dogs have eaten.  The ones that were barking or digging or feverishly running around are now sitting quietly, resting.  “If you’d like to socialize with some of the dogs, you can go into cage 2, 4 or 7, but don’t go outside at 7 and the dog in 4 might nip at you – it’s a nervous thing,” Andy says to me.  I choose cage 2 because it seems the safest.  There I meet Timon.  He’s a friendly, warm 2-and-a-half year old mutt.  His run mate is almost as friendly, but I notice that she is eating her stuffed toy – well, ripping it apart and then eating it.

The dogs and I talk for a while and I pet them while in their home – a five-by-five cinderblock cell with a metal gate for a front door and a cot and blanket for each pup.  This is where unwanted, unhealthy or dangerous dogs end up – doggy prison.  The difference between this and human jail is that someone else is responsible for them being here; they’ve done no crime, but suffer the punishment anyway.

Timon in the Dunes

“Have you connected with any dog to take on a sleepover?” Andy asks.  “Yeah, Timon,” I reply.  A broad smile comes across his face as he says “he’s a great dog, one of my favorites.”  Moments later, Timon and his overnight bag – a bed, water bowl, leash, doggy bags and treats – area ready to go.  We climb into my Jeep and drive to the Pink Coral Sand Dunes State Park.  The reddish-pink sand is amazing and I let Timon walk around with leash in tow.  He stays close, sometimes venturing away, but when I call him, he perks up his ears and runs back, tongue dangling to one side.  We walk and dance on the dunes for an hour.

That evening we dine at a local Mexican restaurant that happens to be dog friendly – many businesses in Kanab are, the work – I suspect – of the BFAS.  There are no seats available in the outdoor patio, so two grey-haired Texan women invite me to sit at their table.  They have two small dogs with them on their Colorado – Texas trip.  Over my chicken chimichanga and their burritos we agree on the best path forward for our country and solve several other world problems – this is another one of those moments I cherish on the road.

Timon and I head back to the hotel room; he sleeps in his bed and I sleep in mine.  Andy said he thinks dogs get better rest on sleepovers because they don’t have to sleep with one eye open.  I image that’s true and Timon barely moves all night.

Adopt me!

The next morning, we get up, have breakfast (Timon has a handful of Scooby snacks) and head back to the shelter.  As soon as I’m in the car with him in the back seat, I start to cry, then sob.  I’m not at a place in life that I can care for a dog and myself at the same time, but if I were, I would adopt this dog.  I cry all the way to the facility, while I wait to turn him back over to the caregivers, then half way to SLC.

The folks at BFAS are grateful for the half-day I spend there and the sleepover with Timon.  But I think I get so much more than the dog or anyone there.  I get my heart back . . .and it breaks as I drive to SLC without my new buddy.

An update as of this publication from the BFAS: “Timon is doing great, still living with Dixie and is continuing to go on sleepovers.”

Climbing Yosemite Falls, Almost Twice

I arrive at the Yosemite National Park Backcountry Permits office at 1:30pm.  In my hand I hold a topographic map and a copy of Backpacker Magazine with an article about a 3-day hike.  I’m proud of myself for arriving early and being prepared as it allows me to judge the couple in front who are unprepared and haven’t figured out that rangers cannot recommend hikes.  When it’s my turn, I ask for options. He gives me one, then – almost under his breath – lists several others, which sound uninteresting.

“But have you seen the weather forecast,” he asks.

“Yes,” I reply, “it’s going to rain in two days.”

“Rain and snow – up to two feet,” he corrects.

“Snow? Two feet,” I look at him as though he is speaking Chinese.  It’s September and this is California.

“Yes,” he smiles.

I mentally catalog the items in my Jeep, finding no long underwear, no wool sweaters, no ear muffs.  In fact, the warmest things I have are my jeans, a thin sweatshirt and spring jacket.

“Are you sure it’s going to snow,” I ask.

“Yes,” he smiles again.  “Next.”

As I step back slightly dazed, another couple steps up, underprepared.  I leave the building just as he says “as a government employee I can’t recommend any . . . “

Half Dome in Clouds

Determined to get to the trail head early enough for an overnight, I speed through the park to find where ‘Mr. No Recommendation’ instructed me to leave my car.  Yosemite requires all food to be stored over night in bear-proof lockers, so I move my cooler, water, Oreos and dry goods out of my car into a metal case.  Although no one else locks their container, I pull out a Master Lock and clamp it closed – I would hate to return and find my food missing.  Next, I repack my backpack for an overnight.  Do I take the laptop or leave it in the car?  Take it; again, would hate it to be missing when I return.  By the time I get to the shuttle stop, which will take me to the trail head, it’s 3:30pm. I can still hike for four hours – should be enough time to reach the camp site, which is two miles in.

The shuttle is painfully slow and the driver cheerfully narrates each section, deer, tree and grain of sand along the way.  People, happy and talkative, get on and off the bus.  Several comment, “Wow!  That’s a big pack.”  “Yeah,” I grumble at them.  At 4:30pm the bus comes to a stop at Campground Four.  I ask about the trailhead, to which the driver responds, “Cross the street and parking lot.  You’ll see a campground, veer to the right.  Then just go up.”  “Then go up,” I ask with a scrunched look on my face.  “Yes,” she smiles, closing the shuttle doors.  The shuttle pull away and I follow her instructions.

Timeline of Events
4:40pm: arrive at trailhead
4:50pm: breathe heavy
4:55pm: sweat profusely
4:57pm: stop, grab knees, catch breath
5:01pm: pass sign – “Entering Yosemite Wilderness.  Hike at your own risk”
5:05pm: stop, grab knees, catch breath, determine signal strength of cell phone
5:10pm: call National Park Service to understand lodging options
5:12pm: descend 75 feet to shuttle stop
6:00pm: unlock car, remove food from bear locker
6:20pm: check into Curry Village
8:00pm: enjoy fresh baked pizza and 7Up
 

Yosemite Falls – First Light

The next morning I’m awaken at 5am by people in the next tent.  Half asleep, I decide to make the Upper Yosemite Falls hike, the first section of the overnight hike I was supposed to take.  I reach the trailhead, by car, in no time and start the hike by 6am with a headlamp to light my way.  The switchbacks are killer.  I am sweating and breathing hard in no time, but with daylight coming and a lighter pack on my back, it’s manageable.

I rise quickly above the valley floor and witness amazing views of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley.  Switchback after switchback means I feel like a zipper going up the mountain.  Reaching the lookout at mile one, I encounter another hiker – the first – who passes me.  “Now the real climbing starts,” he says as we wave goodbye.  “Real climbing,” I question under my breath while cursing him for being the bearer of bad news.

And he’s right – as the Falls come into view, the trail gets steeper.  It’s almost comical to observe my mind while heading uphill. It runs through all the things I could be doing right now: sleeping, eating, having sex.  It says I’m too old, can’t make it to the top anyway, and should turn back now.  Breakfast – no, pancakes – sound marvelous . . . I’m sure I can find some nearby . . . if I just turn around.  I choose not to listen, but instead push onward, upward.

The next level of incline is worse than the one below.  Now, my mind is just getting in the way, so to shut it up, I employ the ‘counting method’ of climbing: each 100 steps means I get to take a short breath break.  I do this over and over, telling my head to “shut up!” many times over the course of the hike.

Arriving at the top of Yosemite Falls is breathtaking and well worth the internal battle of wits.  A smooth, grey granite deck drops off 2425 feet to the valley floor below.  A staircase – protected by a rusty banister drilled into the rock – leads to the outlook.  Looking over I experience slight vertigo.  Trees cling dearly to the face of the mountain.  Wind whips from all directions.

Matt’s Leap of Faith

Climbing a short distance back from the overlook, I find two deep dark pools fed by a river and smaller waterfall.  I make my way down to the base of these falls, snap a few pictures, and decide I haven’t lived until I jump in.  They’re protected – from going over Yosemite Falls – by a few hundred feet of river and rock.  Stripping off my clothes, I leap.  “Waahoo!” I yell, hearing an echo as my flesh hits the near freezing lagoon.  The water is bitter and, unlike my other recent naked dips, so is the air.  I towel off and shiver while eating a lunch of nuts and dried cranberries.

The second hiker I encounter that day – a 24 year old dude from New Jersey – asks about the water.  “It’s awesome,” I say, “Haven’t lived until you jump in!”  He catapults himself from a higher elevation.  I snap a few pictures of his death leap.  He survives.

I sit at the top of the falls for a some time contemplating my accomplishment.  I realize a few things: First, that my body performs better than expected sometimes, even though we have been through hell and back.  Second, my mind gives up too easy and would rather be on vacation.  Third, my soul is ablaze with love and expansion in nature.  I decide it better to listen to my soul more often as I make my way down the mountain.

Mammoth Snow

After brief consideration of lodging options – there is space available at the base of the Falls in Campground Four for $6 – I exit Yosemite via Tioga pass.  That night, I sleep soundly in a Comfort Suites in Mammoth Lakes as two feet of snow fall on the park and surrounding area.

Going Home

My mother and I pack her shoes and assorted bargains into the jeep and discuss our route to Carmel Valley: 280 to Highway 1, down the beautiful California coast.  I inform her that I will make frequent stops to take pictures of breathtaking scenery.  We say goodbye to our hosts and make our way south.  Having spent nearly four days in the fog, we pray for sun, which is often abundant outside of the city.  The famous Mark Twain quote – “the coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco” – runs through my head, though it’s not just SF, but the entire NorCal coast.  As we drive, we hit a wall of fog so thick that it’s hard to distinguish ocean from land.

Golden Hills

It’s about a two hour drive from the Fog City to Carmel, but it take us three and a half.  Rather than stopping to snap pictures, we stop once at an outlet mall in Half Moon Bay and once at Costco in Santa Cruz.  Making our way along the Monterey Bay, sights, sounds and smells become familiar.  We pass the county fair grounds where I rode the ferris wheel for the first time, the town in which my parents met, the hospital where I was born, the high school I didn’t graduate from.  We turn left onto Carmel Valley Road and the fog gives way to abundant, warm sunshine; the memories now flow faster.  We pass the junior high I attended intermittently, the place where we had to drive fast get through a river to visit Margie and Ellen (the time of year dictated how much water would come into the car), and the ranch my father used to manage.

Making the final harrowing turns, which made me car sick as a child, we enter the Village and see the “welcome to the Carmel Valley” sign that has greeted visitors and residents for many years.  This town is one of those special places that defy total explanation.  Originally settled by ranchers in the 18- and 1900s, it saw an influx of hippies (including my parents) in the 1960s and 70s.  Movie stars and other wealthy independents retired here, including the Brady Bunch mother Florence Henderson.  More recently, wine growers have moved into the area and planted grapes on the arid, golden hills.  This mix of people makes for good daytime – and nighttime – drama.  Ask any resident about their life and experience in the valley and you’re likely to hear an story of love, intrigue and zany adventures.

California Oak Tree

I am surprised how comforting it is to smell my hometown.  The air is sweet and full of eucalyptus, oak, and sea mist with just a hint of skunk and horse shit.  I breathe deeply and chew on it as if sampling fine wine.  It’s intoxicating – literally – and I feel slightly giddy.   They say that smell is our strongest sense when it come to memories and with the smell of the Valley they come flooding back: good, bad and ugly.

My mother and I pull up to the Blue Sky Lodge, a gem in the heart of the Village that has been run by the same family for generations.  Before we can park, a long-time family friend, Jenny, and her son greet us.  They accompany us back to the cabin to help unpack.  Next Abbe and Fred arrive, followed by Martha, Tom, and my father.  It feels like my mom and I are celebrities returning home to a town parade.  This is just one of the gifts we receive from family and friends while visiting this beautiful place.

The next four days are filled with stories of the old days and catching up on lives lived.  It is fun to hear the stories from my elders who have grown wrinkled and grey.  I remember when they were younger, and just trying to survive, hold together a relationship or make the best they could for themselves.  Along the way they led a social change that is only now being realized.  I am finally able to see my parents as entirely human – no better and no worse than anyone else on the planet.  It brings me a sense of peace to have a renewed relationship with them in these years.

Carmel Mission

The only time mom and I leave the Valley, and sun, is to make a run to the Del Monte Shopping Center in Monterey to replace a phone charger that she forgot in SF.  While there, I hear words cross her lips that I never imagined possible: “I don’t want to shop anymore.”   I imagine it’s temporary and due to the weight restrictions airlines now place on luggage.  No matter, I’ll take it!  We stop briefly at the San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo (aka, Carmel Mission), one of gems in the system of missions that run up and down the state.  They were built by spanish missionaries each about a one day horseback ride from the previous.  We joke about robes on display in the museum (they would go well with the current pope’s fashion sense), then enjoy the beauty and quiet of the grounds.

Heading back towards the sun and Village, I realize that in fact it is possible to ‘go home again,’ but doing so has nothing to do with the location and everything to do with where you are in life.

Sequoia Hugger!

Redwoods

We arrive in the Golden State just after 5pm and I am worried that we are not going to find suitable encampment for the night.  The temperature has dropped 30 degrees and fog now hugs the top of the redwoods as we continue our westward drive on Highway 199.  Reaching Jedediah State Park and Campground, we pull in and see the “campground full” sign.  We have to pull forward in order to turn around, but before anyone in the car can get a word out, the friendly, young ranger asks “looking for a place for the night?”  Yes, I reply.  “You’re in luck, we just had a cancellation.” I ask if we can we take a look at it.  Yes, he says, “but I get off in 30 minutes, so make it quick.”  We’re back in ten, paying $35 to camp in the keystone of redwood parks in northern California.

In no time, Malaika and Purdie are cooking delicious zucchini succotash using the small backcountry stove I brought along: I’m impressed by what two determined Aussies can pull off with bare minimum.  I set up camp, take a quick walk around the grounds and breathe in the sounds of people talking, kids playing or complaining, parents trying to figure how to set up tent, and RVs running generators.  I’m struck by the desire of human beings to be in nature.  Not everyone wants to be in it in the same way I do, but it is interesting that every year people pack the national and state parks with their family and friends.  It gives me hope.

I return to find Malaika and Purdie discussing America.  It’s been interesting to see the country through their eyes.  Malaika is surprised at the beauty and diversity of the landscape; she had the idea of a barren, overdeveloped land.  Those places exist, I say, but there are also breathtaking sanctuaries that people in this country have worked hard to protect.

The highlight of my evening comes when opportunity meets need.  The girls have never heard of, nor had, S’mores.  Given my food cravings, I am ready for just about anything on a stick.  Unfortunately the only chocolate in my possession at the moment is organic raspberry, large chunk.  Being that this is a S’mores emergency, any chocolate will do.  Over burning marshmallows and melting chocolate on graham crackers we exchange stories of our lives, loves and sorrows.

Footbridge to the old growth

The next morning is quiet and misty.  We’re up early and, after short debate, decide to hike a short point-two (.2) mile trail. We learn later that we have misread the signs and it closer to 2 miles.  In no time, we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the mighty giants we call redwoods.  They shoot up out of the land like prehistoric monsters and it is easy to feel as if one has stepped back in time.  Fog embraces the canopy and ferns and tall grasses grow large and green along the forest floor.  We cross a river via footbridge and enter old growth forest, which is larger and more mysterious than its younger counterpart.

As I step close to one colossal giant, which I cannot even see completely, I wonder what we can learn from beings this large and old.  Many cultures see trees as magical beings that bridge realities and walking amongst such presence, there is no mistaking that these sequoia are alive.  I realize this is a silly statement, but let me explain: by alive, I mean conscious.  Not in the way you and I are conscious, but they are aware of us, their surroundings and the world.  I believe that there is vast knowledge accessible to anyone patient enough to listen.

Tree Hugger

Malaika tells Purdie and me about an artist in Australia who hooks up diodes to trees and then has people hug them, which produced unique sounds.  One time, he conducted a symphony by coordinating tree huggers.  To demonstrate, Malaika walks up to a redwood and hugs it as if she is embracing a long-time friend.  Wanting to hear what the tree will sound like (or say), Purdie and I move into to embrace our conifer brethren.  If you have never hugged a tree, or had a conversation with one, I highly recommend it.

Four hours later the gals and I emerge from the hike more centered and peaceful.  We race back to checkout of the campground.  Later that day, I say “so long” to Purdie and Malaika for the moment – human style hugs all around.  Sebastian, my stuffed frog copilot, takes his rightful place in the car, riding shotgun.

More NorCal pictures are available –> here

My (Brief) Life on Vancouver’s Skid Row

E Hasting Street (aka Skid Row)

Dressed in khaki shorts, trendy t-shirt and a baby blue bike helmet, I jump on my bike, with camera around my neck, and head to Vancouver’s skid row.  I wandered onto Hasting Street the pervious night in search of a late-night Chinese noodle shop.  What I found instead was drug deals taking place in front of me and residents smoking and injecting drugs openly.  The only other place I have seen anything like it was in Zurich in one particular block.  In Vancouver, the squalidity goes on for blocks and blocks . . . and it is crowded.

I imagine myself using the photos I will take today to tell the story of drug addiction in Canada.  A couple blocks in, the smell of old urine and used beer hits me like an epiphany.  The streets are dirty and filled with trash; apparent addicts in filthy bright-orange worker vests roam the streets.  I imagine the city gives them “jobs” that don’t ever get quite done.  I bike on.

Pay-by-the-hour Hotels Line the Street

I stop at a street corner where I can see up and down Hastings Street.  At 11am it is nearly as thick as the night before.  It feels like a bad remake of Night of the Living Dead; the citizens of this land shuffle down the street, some in torn and/or dirty clothes, vacant, almost dead expressions on their faces.  A transgender prostitute – with a bit of life in her – shouts “hello handsome.”  “Lookin’ good girl!” I yell back.  She smiles.  I bike on.

Another stop and I  encounter a man named Michael digging through the city-owned trash can.  He thinks I am an officer of the peace and, pointing down the street, tells me that someone stole a painting.  I tell him I am not the fuzz, but I don’t think he believes me.  A moment passes and Michael hands me a crumpled, hand written note titled “this is my inheritance.”  The collection of words make up sentences that don’t quite make sense. . . to me.  Still, I read it – out loud – out of respect.  I see that it doesn’t matter whether it makes sense to me, it is important to him that others see his heirloom.

To be honest, I am more interested in the couple sitting behind him on the street, grey skin, sunken cheeks, preparing something for a glass pipe.  I guess heroin, but ask Michael.  He looks down to avoid the question.  I step past him and say good morning to the twosome.  Neither look up at me, but go about their business.  I ask if I may take their picture – the woman says, again without looking at me, “I don’t want my picture taken today.”  I feel suddenly warm and as if I am intruding.  It feels like I am in someone else’s living room, but I see no furniture.  I bike on.

Another man on the street declines to have his picture taken.  The warmth I was feeling starts to expand from my belly into my chest – I identify the feeling: anxiety.  I look around; I am not welcome here – physically or energetically. My mind tries to justify my presence: I know what it is to fight the monkey on my back, to jones and to feel as though nothing else matters.  I see the battle scars on my own body and identify with the uninhabited faces I witness walking past me.  I am them and they are me: we are the same.

Looking down the Alley

But on the outside, I look like a tourist.  I feel like a tourist in that moment and, although I hate to admit it, I am.  I have come into someone else’s living room – their life – with the intention of capturing something exotic and taking it back to my own world.  I bike a block and then take my camera out to at least capture a street scene.  I get two snapped off when a rather tall man approaches me: “I don’t want my picture taken,” he says.  My heart beats faster, now I am feeling fear.  “I’m just taking them of the street,” I respond.  “Yes, but when you take a picture of the street, you take a picture of the people, and no one around here wants their picture taken.”  There is incredible clarity in his statement.  I finally get it: this is not where I belong; I am not invited. “Sorry, no disrespect meant, I’ll put it away.”  I roll a few feet on my bike and another man who witnesses the exchange tells me the residents of Hastings Street will “riot” if anyone takes a camera out.  He concludes ”it’s too bad, such nice architecture.”  I bike on.

A few blocks over and I am in the trendy part of Gastown.  Taking a quick bathroom break in Starbucks, I then head over to the Inuit Gallery where I see First Nations artwork in the range of $1000 – $25,000 CAD.  I fit more easily into this world than the one I was in 15 minutes ago.  Reflecting upon the difference between me and the people on Hasting Street I realize that I am able to bike, walk or drive away to more comfortable surroundings.  With this unexpected revelation comes immense gratitude for my life.  Thank you Universe for the amazing life I have today, yesterday and tomorrow!

Glacier Rocks! (and the story of how I almost didn’t make it out alive)

My pattern of pulling up to park entrance gates late in the afternoon is not broken by the time I reach Glacier National Park.  I know immediately — even though the sign says “open” — that there will be no camping available in the main campground by the time I get there.  And, as luck would have it, the lesbian couple on motorcycles in front of me score the very last camp site in Fish Creek that evening.  I am OK with this outcome as I intend to stay in the back country anyway.  I drive and watch as the bars representing my cell phone reception disappear.

Amazing Bowman Lake

Bowman Lake is a 16 mile drive (10 miles unpaved) from the Apgar (West Glacier) entrance to the Polebridge (north west) entrance, then another six miles on rough, dusty road where to drive any faster than 25 MPH is certain car death.  A small mercantile at Polebridge sells supplies and amazing sticky buns, but I blaze past in search of a place to sleep for the night.  Bowman Lake campground on a Thursday night is practically empty – a few other campers are there – and friendly.  I set up my tent and sleeping arrangements and then take a walk.  I am slapped in the face by the awesome beauty of Bowman Lake.

I meet a friendly older man, Leo, and (presumably) his son, John.  They offer me firewood and advice on hikes and avoiding the bears: “you don’t have to worry about them for about four miles, but always makes lots of noise”.  I jump in the lake; the water is so cold that it hits my skin like a million shards of glass.  I swim 10 feet and start to hyperventilate.  The cold snaps me into thisreality – I know I am alive – I yell at the top of my lungs: “whoo hoo!”  That night I light a fire with the wood that Leo and John gave me, and watch as the orange and red flames dance around the pit.

Stars over Bowman Lake

The stars that night are mind-blowing.  One of the things that I miss the most in NYC is my relationship with the stars – when I look up on a clear night and witness the millions of tiny lights in the sky I feel more connected to the universe, the planet.  I no longer feel small or insignificant – I don’t think that we are just a fleck of dust whirling in empty space.  My presence in this world is significant and observing the universe allows god to witness his/her/it’s amazing creation.

The next morning I get up and decide, after looking at a map, that I am going to do the Quartz Lake loop. Twelve miles.  If I leave by 8 am, I should be back before lunch, I think to myself.  I grab a liter of water, a pack of Trader Joe’s Turkey Jerky and two Cliff Bars.  The trail has two inclines – one of about 900 feet and the other of about 1000 feet – on either end of the hike.  Any real hiker will look at my preparation and start to worry.  I start out along Bowman lake and rather than taking the harder incline first, which I had intended to do, I take the easier.  I am sweating and panting just a mile into my hike.  Even in the cooler air, I begin to strip clothes as I walk . . . and walk.

Quartz Lake and her smaller sister, Lower Quartz Lake, are beautiful, secluded, undeveloped and primitive. I meet two groups of campers at Quartz Lake and forgo the naked dip out of fear that I might interfere with their peace.  Lower Quartz Lake is a different story – one group and by now – nine miles into the hike – I am exhausted, sweaty and bug bitten.  I strip off my clothes and jump in – again the feeling of the cold, recently glacier-frozen water hits my skin.  “Whoo hoo!” I yell, and leap out quickly, before I cannot catch my breath.  Well past the lunch hour now, I don’t have time to waste – I must get back to camp.  I borrow some bug repellent, finish the turkey jerky and eat my last cliff bar.

In no time I see the final 1000 foot incline – a mountain – representing the last two miles of the trek.  I take my last swig of water and begin.  Here is where I realize that the level of fitness I THINK I am capable of and the actual level are different.  Add to this my poor planning – I am out of water, food and energy – and I start to doubt my ability to survive this walk in the woods.  I sweat profusely and pant almost uncontrollably.  I hunch over and grab my knees to catch my breath.  I imagine the hikers behind me finding me dehydrated, nearly dead and curled in fetal position on the side of trail; I decide this is not an option (vanity pushes me forward). I start counting the number of steps I take; agreeing with myself that if I take one hundred steps, I can lay down and take 100 breathes.  I do this for the next 1000 – 1200 steps, sometimes going a little over or under so I can rest in the shade.  Finally, the top of the mountain.  The last mile of the hike is downhill.  “I can do this!” I think to myself.

By the time I made it back to my tent – well after 2 pm – my legs are cramping so bad that I cannot lay down.  I eat a whole watermelon and some energy beans (basically souped-up Jelly Belly jellybeans) and drink a liter or two of water.  Leo suggests potassium or bananas for the cramping, so I drive back to the mercantile in Polebridge.  No bananas, so a sticky bun – or two – will have to do.  It does the trick (along with four Advil) and I am able to sleep well that night.  I make myself dinner, then sit back and look around.  The lake, trees, stars and everything else is even more beautiful than it was just the day before.

Looking back, I guess any quest would neither be meaningful nor complete without moments where one’s survival was in question.  Next time, I will plan better.

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