Monthly Archives: August 2013

“I am sorry sir, there is a problem”

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I’ve really been missing international travel lately. Of course I miss international travel anytime I’m not actually traveling internationally, but I seem to be in a real funk about it lately. Whatever the reason, I’ve been spending more and more time thinking about all the trials, tribulations, adventures and downright comical things that have happened during my prior travels. Thinking about that of course just makes the withdrawals worse. Such a viscous cycle. Fortunately I’ll be traveling again in the not too distant future and can break that annoying cycle!

Something I always love about recounting previous travel experiences is the fact that the things I remember most are never the “big” things I expected to remember before I left. Instead, I always treasure those little moments along the way that made me laugh or something that touched me in a way that changed the way I saw the world.

One thing Jason and I learned in very short order was that nothing will happen the way you think it will in Nepal, nothing. Even while traveling around Mexico, Europe, South America and other Asian countries, things don’t tend to happen exactly the way you think they will. Well, Nepal and India can take it to an entirely new and unattainable level of lunacy. If you don’t have a good sense of humour and some legitimate patience, it can be downright maddening and your trip will be nothing more than an exercise in frustration. If you do have those things, which fortunately we do, it will definitely make for some of the best experiences and most entertaining stories you’ll ever have. I don’t think I’ve ever been more frustrated or laughed so hard as during my times spent in Nepal and India.

The first thing we learned when we landed in Kathmandu was that regardless of what you want or need, there will be a problem, that’s a guarantee.

For example, once we collected our backpacks from the carousel inside the terminal, we exited and immediately had to sort through a rabble of aggressive taxi drivers to secure one that seemed reasonably safe. When I say safe, that’s relative because there is no such thing as a safe driver in Nepal. Then comes the price negotiation portion of the transaction whereupon you suggest a price, he suggests a price, you counter, he confers with the other forty drivers intently listening in to the negotiations and then comes back with another counter offer. You counter again, he counters again while his team of syndicators await, and finally you somewhat agree.

Once the price is set, there is joyous discussion amongst the other drivers (spoken in Hindi or Nepali), and then you begin to think you just got screwed.  You think that until you realize you just spent ten or fifteen minutes negotiating this guy down a total of USD $0.10 for a half hour taxi ride. Regardless, within seconds you and your backpack are unceremoniously packed into a taxi about the size of a medium sized ottoman. Oh, and lest we forget that some other dude will invariably get in the taxi, someone who was never part of the negotiations.

One driver, one mystery guest, two passengers, one mechanically challenged taxi the size of a nightstand, two oversized backpacks stuffed with climbing gear, no command of the language whatsoever, all in a chaotic city you have absolutely no clue how to navigate…yeah, awesome situation.

So, once we were stuffed into the taxi like sausages, we repeated our request to be taken to an intersection in some neighbourhood we could barely pronounce where we think we can find a hostel. That was our first introduction to the phrase we affectionately came to simultaneously love and loathe for the next couple of months…”I am sorry sir, there is a problem”.

The “problem” was naturally multifaceted. First, we were told that there were no hostels in the area we requested. This was bogus and we knew it, or sort of knew it. Okay, we hoped there was. There, I said it.

We firmly restated our request to be dropped off at that intersection. It took some time but we finally made it clear where we wanted to go, and that he would take us there, or we would get out. Getting out was certainly a crappy plan B, but it’s what we had.

Then, we had the problem of having to drop off this mystery passenger before we got dropped off. Not surprisingly, our mystery passenger was a would-be “trekking guide” and we needed to stop by his shop so we could be convinced that we could not travel anywhere in Nepal without his services. Bogus. Once again we insisted that we be taken to our intersection or else we’d get out.

We finally got to where we thought we needed to be and got out — only to be accosted by another regimen of aggressive taxi drivers ready to repeat the process.

Hostels, always a problem. Bus travel, always a problem. Everything is a problem. The Nepali people are always rather nice, but there are always those words, regardless of what we did…“I am sorry sir, there is a problem”. After two months of travel in Nepal we became very accustomed to things always being a problem. In fact, problems were so frequent it got to a point where they weren’t really a problem anymore.

As we neared the end of our stay in Nepal, we were back in the Kathmandu Valley (though not staying in Kathmandu proper) and decided that we wanted to go back to a little café in the city we’d found in our first few days in the country. We liked it because they brewed real coffee and NOT Nescafe, though we’d disturbingly grown to love Nescafe over time. There was also a little Tibetan bookstore right next door to the café and we wanted to hit that up one more time to exchange some of our books before we left for India.

The way meals are sometimes served in Nepal are in “sets”. You can get a Nepali “set” which usually consists of dahl, rice, saag, naan, curry and various other things. Basically a “set” is like ordering one of those value meal things from a Wendy’s or Burger King or something similar. Essentially you get certain foods all bundled up for a reduced price instead of having to order everything separately. The most interesting set we encountered was in up northwest Nepal when we saw a sandwich board proudly advertising the offering of a “Vagitarian Set”. We obviously knew it meant vegetarian, but that one had us both in stitches, and we knew we had to go in and have it.

Well, our little café there in Kathmandu offered something called an American Set. The meal consisted of two eggs served any style, bacon (I hoped was some kind of pork), toast, sausage (again, I hoped it was pork), the always misspelled hasbrowns (hashbrowns) and a large pot of black coffee. A large pot as defined in Nepal was about as big as a Vente sized cup from Starbucks. The food there had been consistently good, the service was always friendly and they had a little outside area where we could sit, write and watch the madness in the streets of Kathmandu unfold. Oh, the entire meal for both of us was around USD $5.

When we went inside this time we immediately noticed the waiter had changed. This wasn’t a huge surprise given that we’d been gone a while, but we were a little disappointed since we’d sort of gotten to know the person who worked there before and he would always recognize us when we came in and knew what we wanted before we even asked. It was kind of a nice to have a “family” of sorts there since we were so far from home.

Anyhow, the new guy was also very, very nice and just as welcoming. We ask if we could sit outside, which of course we could, and just like always, there were only about two or three other local people eating there. Keep in mind the entire place probably seated around ten at most.

We got situated and the super nice new guy comes over, greets us with the customary “Namaste” and asked us in very broken English if we’d like tea. We returned the pleasantry and instead ordered our large pot of coffee, the very reason we’d come back. He smiled, said “very good sir” and off he went.

When he returned with our coffee he asked if we were ready to order our food, again, in very broken English. We told him we’d each take the American Set. Here’s where things went off track, just like we knew it was destined to do.

Keep in mind that the American set featured two eggs, any style. Jason ordered the American Set and requested wheat toast, his only special request. I also ordered the American Set, but I requested scrambled eggs and wheat toast. Our waiter was genuinely delighted, scribbled something down on a  small sheet of paper, smiled his enormous smile which showed all his pearly white teeth, bowed slightly, said “Very good sir!”, and off he went to put in our order.

About five minutes later, I could see our waiter making his way from the kitchen area back to our table. His mannerism told me straight away there was going to be a problem. His shoulders were slouched, his head hung low and his pace was slow and shuffling. He honestly looked as if he was coming to tell me my favourite pet had been run over by one of those sketchy taxis. Clearly there was grim news and he was none too amped about delivering it.

Waiter: “I am sorry sir, there is a problem”, he said with a sincerely apologetic tone.

Me: “Oh, really, what is it?”, I replied, trying to act surprised.

Waiter: “The egg sir. We no have skamble egg”.

He was honestly upset and I seriously tried to look concerned and sympathetic and not laugh.

Me: “Oh, well, huh, let me see”.

I looked over the menu for several seconds before coming with an alternate plan to help everyone save face.

Me: “Do you have eggs?”, I asked as if I didn’t already know the answer.

Waiter: “Yes sir!” he said very excitedly.

Me: “Then I’ll have eggs!”, I replied just as excitedly.

Waiter: “Very good sir! Yes, very good sir!”

And with that he literally ran back to the kitchen to inform the cook of the revised order.

Jason and I both immediately knew the problem was that he didn’t know the word “scramble” and we felt bad that he was put in such an uncomfortable situation. For us, it was just another normal transaction in Nepal, but he was clearly embarrassed and sad that things were amiss. Like 99.9% of the people we’d met, he’d been so incredibly nice to us and there was no way we were going to further his dilemma or embarrassment by trying to explain what scramble meant.

Admittedly, we were both curious to know exactly what he wrote down for “scramble” on that piece of paper when I’d originally ordered! And we could only imagine the discussion that ensued back in the kitchen!

When I got my American Set I indeed had two eggs (I assumed from a chicken), both of which had essentially been cremated. This was exactly as I’d had them countless times in the cafes, monasteries and teahouses all over Nepal. I was happily stoked with my fried eggs, Jason was stoked with his fried eggs, our slices of mystery meat looked as amazing as always, the waiter was proud to have served such a wonderful meal, we were stoked that he was stoked, Jason and I got another good laugh, everyone was smiling…no problem!

While we waited another two hours for the bookstore to open, we drank great coffee, wrote in our journals, talked about all those little experiences in Nepal, and as frustrating as it had been to travel there, we became a little melancholy at the thought we’d be leaving in a few days. Most notably, while were sitting there we were genuinely treated as if we were family. We got to practice our Nepali/Hindi with our waiter and he asked to practice his English. It was actually kind of sad to leave our little café knowing we wouldn’t be back there during our travels.

I think those are the things I’m missing most right now. Those little things we can only experience when traveling internationally that really mean nothing, but mean everything at the same time. I love adapting to other cultural methods, systems and ways. I love all the trials and tribulations of learning a new language and trying to apply it in different situations. I also love playing charades when the language skills fall short! And I love building families all over the world through those little offbeat interactions.

It’s amazing what a little patience, acceptance and a simple “thank you”, “gracias”, “merci”, “kop khun kha” or “dhanybhad” can do for making new friends and bringing a collective smile to our planet. I have no problem with that.

Namaste.

Travel light, ski hard, pedal far, live big.

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A Fine Red Line.

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After two days in Kata, Thailand, Donna and I had seen enough. Our brief travel diversion to this SE Asian version of Cancun wasn’t a complete bust, but almost. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful, incredibly beautiful, but even during off season it was crowded with tourists. And nothing was as cheap as we’d become accustomed to in the rest of Thailand.

We sat in our little room to escape the sweltering heat, humidity and torrential rains, and after a little research decided to leave the next day and head on over to Rai Leh. The entire reason for coming to Southern Thailand in the first place was to climb and see why every climbing publication ever printed touted it as a “must do” destination.

We’d caught a cheap flight from Bangkok to Phuket (USD $40 one way) but really hadn’t thought much about how to get across the Andaman Sea to Rai Leh until right then. Some friends back here in the US had told us a ferry was the only way to go. Fast and cheap they’d said, no worries.

We consulted our Rough Guide as to where we’d need to go the next morning to catch one of those fast and cheap ferries, which turned out to be about an hour ride in a sketchy ass Toyota Hilux pickup converted into a taxi…otherwise known as a songthaew. There were actually some decent looking ones around, ours didn’t happen to be one of them. Anyhow, the worst part was having to pay about USD $15/each, which paying that amount for just about anything in Thailand is bordering on absurd in our opinion. The driver was nice (as always) so we kind of blew it off.

We got to the ferry station and stood in the queue to buy tickets with a pretty large group of rude tourists, almost all who were heading out for tours to some of the more popular islands. The large pushy group dynamic didn’t agree with us much, but this was the means for us to get somewhere else, so we endured. Once we got to the window to purchase our tickets, the plan made an abrupt change. It seems they wanted USD $125 for the 2.0 hour ride via jet catamaran!

Whaaaaaat? We immediately stepped out of line and hit the reset button. Where was that fast and cheap part? We scoured the fare board posted on the wall and sure enough, regardless of what ferry line we took, it was going to be pricey. We then sat, dug out our Rough Guide and initiated Plan B which could be found under the title, “Other Modes of Transportation”.

We quickly discovered there was the option to take a local bus, our normal option if available anywhere we travel, but that would take roughly 4-7 hours (yes, a nice tight schedule) and could be “an experience” as the the book described it. The bus depot was a short tuk-tuk ride away so we threw our backpacks in and went to check it out.

The first thing I noticed was there were only about three Thai people in the entire depot and not one sign posting the fares to various towns and villages was written in English. The lettering was beautiful for sure, but pretty useless to us. Undeterred as always, we approached the ticketing window and told the attendant of our desire to get to at least Krabi or Ao Nang. From there we’d have to figure out other modes of transport, but that appeared as close as the bus would get us. From there we’d just figure it out.

For the three minutes prior to approaching the attendant, I practiced how to ask for a ticket in the native Thai dialect. In the three seconds following that attempt, I knew I had horrifically failed to execute the request as the stunned attendant blankly stared at me as if I’d suddenly grown a third eye. New plan, get out the map and just point.

The attendant smiled, said “yes, yes!” and immediately started scribbling letters on a little blue sheet of paper as I clumsily sifted through my wad of baht to pay for the ticket. All of a sudden, we looked and noticed our bags were not there! Oh sh#$%!! Then Donna saw a guy loading them on a bus. She ran out to make sure they didn’t drive away without us, while I anxiously finished the transaction.

Armed with two pieces of blue paper, I ran out of the terminal to Donna to make sure everything was okay. Fortunately our bags were on the right bus! Whew. The bus she was standing by was painted with so many bright colours it was close to giving me a seizure, which sort of help take the edge off my anxiety about the bags.

The same guy who had loaded our bags turned out to be the boarding attendant, bag handler, chef du cuisine at the nearby pad thai cart, station petrol pumper, the bus’s guest services ambassador and yes, our driver. We were still reeling a bit from the thought of our two backpacks going on a potential walkabout until he smiled, bowed, vigourously shook our hands and welcomed us onto the kaleidoscope that was his bus.

Sawatdee kha! Yes, yes…prease on”, directing us to get on.

So awesome. We knew right then we’d made the right choice.

There were three things we noticed upon boarding. First was the fact that we were the only Westerners aboard, perfect. Two, the advertised “luxury air conditioned service” consisted of what could be described as an ancient GE Window Unit sticking out of the rear section of the bus. Given the oppressive heat and humidity of Thailand, this was a concerning development. And third, and most importantly, was the circa 1960s television precariously mounted above the driver’s head blasting a Thai music video at a volume level equivalent to a jumbo jet. Nevertheless, the tightly schedule 4-7 hour bus ride to Krabi cost us USD $6 total and it had the all the markings of a good adventure, so we were in it for the duration.

Before the bus pulled away, Donna asked if I’d looked at a map to see what route we’d be taking. Uh, no. I think between the confusion of actually purchasing the tickets and the gut wrenching episode of turning around and seeing our bags not there, I really hadn’t had a chance to further flex my brilliant command of the language and inquire. I then dug our well worn map out and began looking.

From the recognizable towns listed on our ticket, I traced our route on the map along a long, thin red line which had no more than 1mm distance of straight lines for the entire distance. Our reaction to that was that air conditioner better work or it could make for a very long, very queasy day.

Thankfully the air conditioner thing kind of worked, kind of. The video we discovered, was an old VHS tape on “loop mode” so we had the pleasure of hearing one song, at those jumbo jet level decibels, repeat every 6-8 minutes…for six hours. We also discovered there was an official ticket taker on the bus. This was probably the most curious thing of our entire travels in Thailand. When the bus initially pulled out, he walked through and inspected everyone’s ticket, some people paying him right then, which seemed odd because we had to go through the ticketing attendant, but nothing out of the ordinary really. Then, inexplicably between stops, he would randomly walk through and inspect everyone’s ticket again. I can understand after we’d stopped to pick up or drop off passengers, but no, this happened randomly between stops for the entire trip, sometimes two or three times between stops. This was his job and he was obviously quite proud of it. Bravo him!

True to the squiggly lines depicted on the map, the road never straightened out for more than a quarter of mile. That fact didn’t seem to register with the driver because I can’t really recall him ever hitting the brakes other than at bus stops, both the designated ones and random ones. The bus would lean so much at times going around corners the windows beside us would form gaps around their perimeter from the twisting of the fuselage, and I’m not even kidding.

The air horns, all of them, worked beautifully. Any pedestrian within 100 meters of the road would receive the full, eight horn fury of the Kaleidoscope bus. And every time he would pull the string to blast some poor farmer back into his field, I would almost jump out of my skin. Judging by the driver’s frequent glances in our direction via his mirror, I began to think he was trying to impress us with his driving skills. We couldn’t decide whether he was the crappiest driver on the face of the earth, or the best. Whatever it was, he was at least confident and always had a smile.

We made lots of stops along the way, sometimes in amazingly picturesque villages. The way the local scheduling seemed to work is the driver would lay down on the horn as he approached the villages and people would know that “it’s time”. Anarchy would always ensue as soon as the bus would stop. People would simultaneously get on and off the bus amongst pure and unfiltered, mass chaos. Then, once the people getting off were off and the people getting on were on, we’d sit for a half hour…with the air conditioner turned off. However, that was 100% okay with us because in each village, a vendor would get on the bus and sell little cups of sorbet! It was like pure heaven in a cup! I think we became legends because we’d buy three or four each at every stop! For less than USD $0.05, it was the deal of the day! That’s the Thailand we were accustomed to, not what we’d just left in Phuket.

After a full day of travel, dozens of ticket “verifications”, about a gallon of lychee sorbet (each) and no less than 400 loops of that mind numbing Thai pop music video, we finally pulled into the Krabi bus terminal. It was a collection of dilapidated buildings complete with a food cart serving pad thai, a 1970s vintage soda box and an adjoining field full of other Kaleidoscope bus carcasses. We both had to laugh when we looked up and saw a sign on the side of a building, written in English, which read DON’T PANIC. That made us both laugh out loud. Obviously others without a good sense of humour and sense of adventure had passed this way before.

Once we got off the bus we were welcomed by the customary wave of tuk-tuk, songthaew and taxi drivers wanting to take us to our next destination. “Sawatdee kha! Yes, yes, I take you!” was the coined phrase even though they had no idea where we wanted to go.

From our research during the NASCAR worthy bus ride, we had concluded we needed to somehow get to “the pier”. That was it, that’s all the info we had…“the pier”. We knew that was the way things worked so we sorted through the phalanx of drivers, made our selection based on nothing in particular and confidently requested, “the pier”.

Sawatdee kha! Yes, yes, I take you pier, 40 baht! Korp kun kha”.  (40 baht was about a $1 at the time)

And with that we got in a nice young guy’s rickety little taxi, along with his daughter and I assume his dog, and pulled onto yet another thin red line.

Forty five minutes later we arrived at “the pier” just as he promised. We knew this because there was a sign that read, “The Pier”. Another 45 minute in a longtail boat and we found ourselves in Rai Leh, with very few other people, a cold Singha beer in hand, sitting on one of the prettiest beaches on the planet.

Travel on a thin red line…I say $6 well spent.

Oh, the climbing? Yeah, “must do”.

The Less I Have.

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Me with my Lowe Alpine Countour IV on a climbing trip in the Bugaboos (Canada)

Over the past few weeks I’ve been assessing a lot of things. Some of those things include where I am and where I want to go. This isn’t something new for me since I’m generally in a constant state of living the dream and fully accept that not all paths we think we’ll take are the ones we’ll actually walk. If you really think about it, can any of us say with complete honesty we’re exactly where we thought we’d be 20 years ago? I’m sure as hell not, but that’s not a bad thing in my world.

One thing I’ve never been a big believer in is that “things” equal success. I think it’s kinda sad that most people see it that way though. Ads bombard us constantly telling us how much our lives suck without their products. To get these products we must have a better job. To have a better job we have to sacrifice our free time. When we sacrifice our free time we eventually miss it and look for ways to get more of it. Sadly, we’ve been trained to think that technological gizmos and more stuff will make our lives easier and give us more free time. In reality, we have to work harder to afford those gizmos, thus taking away from that free time. It’s a stupid cycle and one I played for a short while right after attending university. Fortunately I saw the viciousness of the vortex pulling me down before it was too late and I swam to shore — and have been there since.

If you saw the cell phone I carry, you’d probably be appalled. Hell, most six year olds would be appalled! Most everything I have is well used. Why? I am a firm believer that when I buy something it needs to have a purpose and I’m willing to use it until it’s no longer useful, even if it’s not the “latest”. To use my phone as an example, I bought it to make calls and to have when people want to call me. Crazy huh? As old and low-tech as it is, it still allows me to make calls and every once in a blue moon, it will buzz and voila!, there is someone is on the other end who wants to talk to me. I love this science fictiony type stuff!

Now I’m not very tech savvy, but I’d be willing to bet my words wouldn’t travel through cyber space any faster, nor would the words of my friends get to me any faster if I had the latest, and most expensive iPhone. And if those words did get to me 1,000,000 nanoseconds faster, would it really be worth spending hundreds of dollars for the privilege of simply being able to tell me friends about it? Apple wants you to think so but it’s just not all that important to me.

Anyhow, in this process of thinking about the path ahead, I naturally thought about what necessities I should take with me. Since I love to travel as much as I do, my very first thought was that I needed to significantly lighten the load. If you’ve ever schlepped a backpack around while traveling, you know the value of packing light! You learn quickly to take the minimum. However, I’ve seen people get out of taxis and watched a dumbstruck cabbie unload a mountain of suitcases onto the curb. Traveling that way is certainly not efficient and truth be told, is sort of stupid. If you “need” that much stuff to travel, then maybe you don’t need to travel. Obviously the ads I mentioned above work on some people.

Donna and I aren’t the types to accumulate a lot of stuff, but in the course of living things seem to pile up. Like magic, one day you walk into your basement and are puzzled how it got so cluttered. There is no way I could’ve accumulated all that stuff, but yet, it happens. Okay, a lot of mine is super important gear, but still…

I procrastinated for a couple of weeks, thinking I should start the process of sifting through some of it and downsizing the fleet, but I just couldn’t bring myself to start. So, instead of forcing it, I let the idea simmer, thinking about my reasoning and trying to understand exactly how that accumulation occurred in the first place. More importantly, I wanted to understand why now was the right time to cast away some of the weight! Then, early one evening I went to the basement with a strong sense of detachment and got started.

The hardest part is starting. The next hardest part is stopping! Once I got rolling everything was being considered for elimination. If I hadn’t used it in a year, it got strong consideration. Two years meant immediately it was out the door. Although I use most of my gear a lot, I was still a tad surprised how much I had accumulated over the years. But I was committed so everything was given unbiased review.

When I got to my collection of backpacks, I soldiered on with my cause despite becoming a little more emotional about the items. One backpack in particular, a Lowe Alpine Contour IV 90+15, made me stop, sit in the floor and think about the process in a different way.

You see, a backpack has always been my symbol of freedom and simplicity. When traveling internationally, it’s all I’ll take with me. It’s simple and easy to carry through airports, on busses, tuk-tuks or simply walking from one place to another.

When Jason and I were bumming around South Asia for a couple of months, we had everything we “needed” in our  backpacks (mine being the aforementioned Lowe Alpine one). And for two months we lacked for nothing. Other than a new book or a trinket here or there, we lived with what we had. We’d sometimes trade a couple of books at local bookstores for a new one because we either didn’t have room in the packs or simply didn’t want to carry the weight. We seriously kept it about as simple as you can imagine. By keeping it simple we were able to move around freely and efficiently and always according to the compass of our imagination. Living the simplistic lifestyle of a backpacker is ultimate freedom. Being free allowed us to see things we might not otherwise have seen. Seeing those things facilitated emotional and spiritual growth like I’d never imagined. Another viscious cycle…but a beautiful cycle in this instance.

So, as I contemplated that Lowe Alpine backpack for downsizing, I wondered whether I should just keep it. After all, it had well over 100,000 miles of sentimental value wrapped up in it. But then I looked on the floor around me and saw that I had about six other backpacks of all different shapes, colours and sizes and I was immediately refocused on reducing the weight of having more than I need. I thought it ironic that my symbol of freedom was also something that could be construed as an anchor. In the end the backpack was put in the pile to be listed on eBay.

I’m still in the midst of this downsizing process. Clothes, shoes, tools, cameras, lenses and everything else inside the walls of my house is getting scrutinized and the listings on eBay and Craigslist are growing accordingly. I thought this process might sometimes make me sad or I’d feel pangs of regret, but in actuality it’s making me feel better and more ready to set course for the adventures ahead. I always claim to be a simple guy with simple tastes and simple needs and perhaps my absence of regret in this downsizing process is a good confirmation that my claim is true.

My style of being a traveler is incredibly simplistic and keeping my day to day life in tune with that style keeps me smiling everyday and keeps me nimble and ready for any adventure that comes along.

Less is more.

Climb high, ski hard, pedal far, paddle long, live big.