Map My Life (the paper kind of map please)

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A while back we had some friends in the car and we were heading out to eat at some place we’d never been, a place down in a suburb on the other side of Denver. I knew where the place was in general based on info from someone who had been before, within the physical city block at least, so as I normally do, I set off to drive down there with no map and good intentions of getting close enough to figure it out.

The physical location of the restaurant actually turned out to be one of those ginormous shopping complexes, one of the 6.8 trillion acre plots with stale and emotionless chain stores en masse scattered about.

I reluctantly merged into the frenzied current of soccer mom piloted SUVs and started my visual search for the restaurant. I made one futile drive around the circumference of the place but my efforts to find the restaurant came up empty. Not discouraged, I decided I’d then enter the gravitational orbit of the nearby planet sized Baby Gap, a celestial subset of the overall retail universe, to see if I could spot our eatery somewhere around there. Well, before I could get too far into that task, our friends began frantically pecking away at their smart phones trying to find a map via the cyber world to solve the mystery of where the restaurant was.

A few seconds of that pecking and then, !BOOM!, they were literally screeching the name of the restaurant into their phone! What the….??? It actually startled me and I thought for sure one of those behemoth soccer mom SUVs was about to plow into me! Then some electronic cyberlady voice thing started screeching back at them saying she didn’t understand the request. More screaming the restaurant name into the phone, more responses saying it didn’t understand, more pecking, more screeching, more misunderstanding…and in the meantime I pulled into the parking area of the restaurant. It was pretty much at that very moment when my decision to stay away from that kind of techno buffoonery was solidified. Sometimes all we have to do is look up from those devices to see what we we’re actually looking for.

I love maps, the kind of maps you can physically unfold/refold and spread out on the hood of the car, the kitchen table or on the ground during a hike. I don’t particularly like looking at maps on the 2.5” LED screen of a smart phone or GPS device. And as I mentioned above, I especially don’t like that those devices can literally tell me when to turn right, turn left, or god forbid, to actually turn around should I go 10 feet past my desired target and be launched into the terrifying abyss of the geographic unknown. “Please Siri, I’m lost and scared, tell me what to do!!!!

I’ll oftentimes buy maps well before I leave on a trip, spread them out on my kitchen table or in the floor and spend considerable time studying them, trying to imagine the “vibe” of the places I’ll be. I not only look at the specific places I plan to go, but I spend time looking at all the places around it. I love to see how things are oriented and how they’re positioned related to natural features like mountains, lakes, rivers and oceans. Oh sure, I could jump on Google Earth and pull up a frighteningly detailed satellite image of the place and even use the tools to tilt the landscape and zoom in so I could see the pies in the window of Mom’s Bakery located right there on Main Street, but I still prefer my paper maps. I love the colours, the lines designating motorways, the landscape relief details, the legends, the smell of the paper…just everything about them. It requires me to use my imagination, the most powerful tool a human being possesses. It’s like listening to a story on the radio or reading a book instead of seeing the movie. It engages me instead of simply entertaining me.

When we traveled to New Zealand this past autumn (spring down there), we went intentionally not thinking about where we’d go until after we’d picked up our campervan. I’d bought a road map and a Lonely Planet book here in Boulder a few weeks prior to leaving, but that was the extent of the travel planning. When we picked up the campervan, the lady on reception asked us if we’d like to hire a GPS unit for the van, but she barely got the offer out before I quickly declined. She got the biggest grin on her face in response to my quick refusal and said with her awesome Kiwi accent, “I like going that way too…good as gold”.

She graciously gave us directions to a local supermarket, saying food would be much cheaper there than on the road, then bid us farewell, great fun and good luck. We knew the “good luck” statement was directly correlated to her earlier inquiry regarding whether we’d ever driven a campervan on the left side of the road using right hand drive, to which I cautiously replied “uhhhh, no”. Yeah, we opted for the insurance.

After stocking our onboard fridge and cupboard with sufficient food and beverage to last us a week or so, we literally sat in the car park of the supermarket, unfolded our map on the table, and set about the task of  figuring out where to go first. Okay, that’s only partially true. I also wanted a few more minutes to re-calibrate and steady my nerves before vaulting our right-hand drive campervan back into the busy traffic of Christchurch. Such a fun little adventure within a bigger adventure.

Looking at our map, we could see the entirety of New Zealand’s south island. We got a feel for the shape of the island, where the mountains were, where lakes and rivers were…the rest were details we’d figure out as we went. Our initial plan was simply to head toward the alps which were clearly visible on the map with their whitish tinted colours nestled between long corridors of green. With a 2.5” screen GPS or phone, I wouldn’t be able to see all that, just a couple blocks radius of where we were at that very moment. I know tech geeks will vehemently deny this, but if you zoom out far enough to see the entire island on the 2.5” screen, or even an iPad, you’d also be required to procure a microscope worthy of the Mayo Clinic Forensic Biology Department to see the slightest detail of a single motorway. Uh, no thanks.

We spent the next couple of weeks digging the map out when we’d stop at remote rural intersections and towns along the way trying to decide which road might take us somewhere else fun and beautiful, which is essentially any direction you turn in New Zealand.  We’d dig it out from the travel wallet or console and show it to locals when asking questions about places to see or places to go. That map was truly the catalyst for some spontaneously fun and interesting conversations with people. I suspect that would never have happened if I’d busted out an iPhone and started making references to cartoonish images on the miniature screen.

Best of all, we’d break out the map late at night or first thing each morning and use it to decide where we’d go next. We didn’t have to constantly pan out or zoom in, we could just look at it in its entirety and decide where we wanted to go without the limitation of screen size. It’d oftentimes simply be a feeling of where to go based on visual characteristics of the map instead of something specific pulling us one way or the other — following our hearts. We’d sometimes get out the highlighter and mark on the map where we’d been the day before and where the next day’s adventure would take us. Yesterday we traveled three inches — today maybe we’ll go an inch —tomorrow maybe eight.

If we were perusing the map outside on our camp table and the winds happened to be whipping, which is ALWAYS in New Zealand, we could use our beers to hold down the corners and never once risk ruining the circuitry of an electronic device after an errant spill. Replacement map, $4. Replacement iPhone, $250.

No, the paper map didn’t provide links to real time road conditions or links to weather forecasts for the next week. However, since we were truly living in THAT moment and not even a week or mile ahead, we could easily look out the window and figure out everything we needed for weather considerations. If it was raining, we’d turn on the wipers. If the road became rough or slick, we’d slow down. Not complicated stuff here. Ooooh, if it was raining we could unfold the map, which was made from waterproof coated paper, to fabricate a makeshift umbrella! Try doing that with an iPhone!

During that trip, we beat our maps and Lonely Planet book into wads of pulp. When I look at the map now, with all its markings and unintended creases, I realize that not only did it serve its purpose of being a useful tool, it’s now become a piece of art specific to our experiences down there. I doubt there’s a mark on there that wouldn’t conjure up some amazing memory of an ocean side campsite, a delicious lunch at some random roadside café or of a mind blowing drive through the alps. Same for the Lonely Planet book since it still has red and yellow sticky tabs sticking out of it. That map is truly art produced through the medium of living life.

Limiting the vision of our journey, both physically and especially metaphorically speaking, to a 2.5” inch LED screen seems as though we’d be cheating ourselves out of the very reason we partake in a journey to begin with. A simple domestic road trip or a long term overseas adventure for me is about climbing out of the box I find myself in from time to time and letting my mind and soul run free and naked, unleashing my imagination, being 100% open to adventure, being pleasantly surprised from time to time and not having everything so defined as to eliminate the need to even think for myself.

Sorry Siri, but I just need my big clunky paper map, my sense of wanderlust and a little free time to find where I need to be in this life.

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

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Everything I Want and Need, I Already Have

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500. That’s apparently the average number of advertisements a typical American will hear or see in a given day. Take a second to think about that in the context of companies telling you how every aspect of your life sucks without their products or services — and that’s what they’re doing! If you keep hearing this over and over, eventually you’ll start to believe your life truly does suck compared to your peers.  It’s no wonder people are always clambering over themselves and spending sickening amounts of money to switch from things like the current version of the iPhone to the newest so they can get their email 1/1,000,000,000,000 of a second faster — or surf the internet more efficiently while they’re driving — or upgrade their current vehicle to get an additional eight horsepower because the current 500hp will only get them from 0-60 in 2.4 seconds instead of the much more desirable 2.3.

I drive a 2003 Toyota Tacoma Extended Cab pickup with 130,000 miles on it. I bought it used, uh, I mean “previously loved” in modern advertising vernacular, with 43,000 miles on it several years ago. It’s not fancy at all but it gets me where I need to be and up to now has been an incredibly dependable vehicle. I’ve put some of my own touches on it like building a system in the bed to make car camping more comfy. I could’ve bought one of those pre-built systems that is super fancy for over $1,000, but instead, a wood working buddy of mine and I spent an afternoon building a REALLY custom one for $104 in materials, $4.80 in Santiago’s green chile burritos and a $8.50 six pack of IPAs. I’ve also lifted the suspension just a little to allow for more aggressive tires to help me more efficiently reach backcountry trailheads. I rock a 2nd generation iPod Mini (read:ancient) that’s played through my car stereo using the old school cassette insert thingy. Some people call it a hippie truck. I prefer to call it “charismatically efficient”.

A good friend of mine recently had to trade his extremely well used Toyota Tundra because he had truly driven it into the ground. To repair it (again) would’ve been about twice as much as the truck was worth. So he got a newer Toyota Tacoma, the sweet looking four door model. It’s a nice truck overall but the thought of having four doors admittedly had me thinking how nice it’d be instead of just having the jump seats my truck has, which are only accessible via climbing over the front seats. Yaddah, yaddah, yaddah…I kinda got caught up in this and decided to look on the internet to explore trading mine in for a four door.

I spent a couple of days daydreaming about how awesome it would be to take four or five people in my truck on skiing, climbing or mountain biking outings without having to contort the jump seat passengers into elaborate origami figures. I thought about how nice it’d be to have a stereo with a USB port instead of having wires and cables dangling all over the place. I thought about how nice it would be to simply have something “newer”. I say newer because I’ve long since done away with the thought of buying a brand new car when good used ones with low miles can be purchased for thousands less.  Anyhow, I got in that deep track and before I knew it was trying to justify spending the money.

I’m pretty good at not getting caught up in the materialistic torrent that is our society. When I do from time to time, like with this new truck thinking, I usually can swim to the edge quickly and get out without getting swept away too far downstream. Fortunately I did it this time too.

I actually like my old school things. They may not be flashy and have the latest sleek designs, but they do what I need them to do and we’ve built a history together. Getting a new truck will not help me enjoy skiing, mountain biking or climbing any more than I already do — and those are the things I love and only use my truck to go and do them. Having a phone with internet and 5g (whatever that is), instead of my horrifyingly old, non-internet flip phone, will not make my words travel faster on the rare occasion I actually call someone or someone calls me. Opting for Gchat instead of just regular Gmail to be “instant” doesn’t make my words more meaningful by getting them to the recipient 10,000 nano seconds faster. I have what I need and I’m happy I’m the kind of person who can be satisfied with knowing that’s enough.

This whole “new truck purchase vs. non-purchase” exercise was a nice little reminder to detach from those every day pressures, live in the moment, and be happy with what I have and not constantly look for the next best thing. I’m likely way off the norm with this crazy hippie thinking here, but so be it. In the end I decided to just be happy with what I had and go do things I love to do.

Yesterday I woke up without a shred of disappointment for not succumbing to The Man and his material pressures. It felt as good as it always does to detach and think for myself. To celebrate this re-affirmation, I loaded my mountain bike onto my awesomely old school Tacoma and went to one of my favourite local trailheads. I also intentionally left my crappy phone at home to further my disconnection. To some I know leaving a phone unattended for more than 30 seconds is downright scandalous! On the way over I listened to Morning Edition on NPR in non-digital format on my old school radio, drank non-designer drip coffee from my beat up and bestickered travel cup, listened happily to the rattles emanating from mysterious places underneath my truck, watched the sunrise through my pitted and chipped up windscreen and smiled with sincerity from the second I back out of my garage. Okay, maybe I am a hippie, but these things are comforting to me and make me happy. They are me.

So, with a very full and happy heart, I set off by myself right around daybreak to ride across the high mesa where the trailhead started, then over into the foothills where I’d climb up onto a ridge to get amazing views back out to the plains. I’ve lived in Colorado for a long, long time and covered thousands and thousands of trail miles around this state and seen some incredibly stunning scenery, but yesterday was one of those incredibly rare times when the spring flowers were more beautiful, the sky was clearer and the mountains more majestic than I ever remember them being.

I have to think some of that was just Mother Nature showing off like she does here pretty regularly. But I also have to think that my little exercise in realizing that I truly do have everything I need cleared my view to see life in its bare, unfiltered glory. I was living in that exact moment and I once again had the correct eyes to see the organic beauty of this world — the beauty that’s always here for those willing to slow down long enough without looking too far ahead to see it.

The things I already have give me all the things I want and need. Why would I ever require more?

Feelin’ groovy today.

Climb high, ski hard, pedal far, paddle long, get off the phone, love what you have, live big.

“I will never call you my friend”

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Mr. Alim, Jason and Me in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Bangkok, Thailand – chaotic

Seoul, South Korea – Intense

Mexico City, Mexico – fervid

Kathmandu, Nepal – anarchic

Kolkata, India – helter-skelter

Dhaka, Bangladesh – ???

When Jason and I got on the plane to leave Dhaka, I was left without a single breath in my lungs, without a normally functioning internal compass, without coherent questions or answers and clearly, without words to describe what just happened. I literally couldn’t formulate a sequence of letters to construct a single word, much less a sentence, so we sat next to each other in almost complete silence as we raced across the sky toward Nepal. Never, and I mean never have I experienced anything like that in my travels, ever.

It’s now been about 18 months since the wheels went up on that flight and I still can’t come up with the right word or words. I’ve actually looked in my Lonely Planet books from time to time and while there is no single adjective in there that strikes me as spot-on accurate, there are some brief descriptions that do partial justice:

“It doesn’t matter how many times you experience this city, the sensation of being utterly overwhelmed is always the same” — Lonely Planet, Bangladesh

Dhaka is more than just a city, it is a giant whirlpool that sucks down anything and everyone foolish enough to come within it’s furious grasp” — Lonely Planet, Bangladesh

The fact that there are so few tourists in Bangladesh means that you won’t ever have to contend with crowds at hotspots or with booked-out accommodation, but it also means that the going can be rough” — Lonely Planet, Bangladesh

I’ve written and told friends about the chaos and maddening crush of people in places like Nepal and India and while that’s been very true and always some fun filled recollections, I’ve never been able to get my thoughts around Bangladesh to say much about my experiences there, or at least enough to feel like I could give it a fair and objective turn — until the last couple of weeks.

If you’ve read or listened to any news source at all, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the horrific building collapse in Dhaka where 1,000+ people have been confirmed killed and still hundreds missing. While this heartbreaking catastrophe happened half way around the world and I didn’t personally know a single person involved, I feel a sense of deep sadness for the city and country as a whole, as if it were my own. And to add to that sadness are the insensitive and hateful comments I hear and read related to the tragedy. I’ve read and heard people here say “they deserved it”, “if they’d educate themselves they wouldn’t have to work in those places” and most pathetically “if they weren’t Muslims it wouldn’t have happened”. I’ve even heard some of these things from people I am causally acquainted with. I find these comments personally hurtful.

I admit I was scared while in Bangladesh. I think I can say with all certainty that Jason felt the same. Just like the quotes from the Lonely Planet book, we found Dhaka to be rough, like a giant whirlpool and utterly overwhelming. Justified to be scared? Maybe, possibly, probably? Again, it’s like no place on earth I’ve ever been. The entire country of Bangladesh is roughly the size of Iowa. The estimated population of Bangladesh is 150+ million. That’s half the population of the United States living in a place about half the size of my home state of Colorado…think about that factoid for a few minutes. Those simple statistics put Bangladesh amongst the worlds most densely populated countries so  yes, it was unnerving.

Add to that the fact that every question or inquiry we would ask was followed by a committee of 30+ people physically pushing in to discuss the situation. Before you get your answer though, there must be at least 5-15 minutes of animated and ferocious shouting in Bengali amongst the committee, sometime with finger pointing and gentle physically posturing for authority. This can make an already crowded and intense space get a little more claustrophobic. This type of thing happens whether asking for something complicated like a bottle of soda or just asking for a simple “point” to the nearest water closet. So intense.

With our time almost up in Dhaka, Jason and I were sitting at the airport, anxious to get on a plane and leave. Again, we were both emotionally and physically shelled to the core and desperately wanted (maybe “needed”) to escape that mayhem (so of course we were flying off to Kathmandu). Well, despite being close to leaving, the Dhaka airport is an extension of the country itself in that the chaos, deafening volume and complete confusion is the norm.

As we were sitting, this man sitting across from us seemed to be staring. Not in a menacing way, but as a Westerner it was a little uncomfortable given that our culture doesn’t generally do that. However, we were pretty used to it so didn’t take it as a personal affront or attack. After a few minutes the man very abruptly asked where we were from, where we’d been and where we were going. This too was very common and not out of the ordinary. Still, we were pretty much on edge and being approached by anyone was unsettling at that point.

Well, as it turns out the man’s name was Mr. Alim. He was  from Dhaka, as was his family and many generations before him. He had children, all of which he had photos in his wallet and was thrilled to dote on them to us, proud beyond description (spectacularly beautiful kids by the way!). Throughout our conversations he asked about our families, our work, our home towns and what we thought about Dhaka. Tricky spot for sure with that last question. We wanted to be honest so we gently explained that we were a little overwhelmed and that we found it hard to be there. He smiled broadly and said that “HE” is overwhelmed by Dhaka! We finally managed our first smile and a small laugh since landing there in Dhaka.

For the next hour or two, we talked and talked and talked. He asked us why we were traveling to Nepal, about our choices of studying Buddhist philosophy and he in return gladly answered all our questions about his Muslim faith — and we had plenty. We had a basic understanding of Islam but this was a wonderful discussion and lesson that both helped explain things I already knew, clarify other things and shed light on things I had no idea about at all. It was a conversation I would be hesitant to have with anyone here in my own country given my eastern beliefs, but incredibly refreshing to be so open and honest with someone I barely knew halfway around the world.

After a while, Mr. Alim said he had to leave to board his flight. We were finally feeling our first hint of being relaxed when Mr. Alim blurted out something that took us aback. Keep in mind that all conversations seem very stern and calculated much of the time so it was oftentimes quite hard to sort out what was going on, especially when we were already on edge. This is how the conversation went down.

Mr. Alim (looking us directly in the eyes): ” I will never call you my friend

<A very uncomfortable silence, maybe three seconds…then>

Mr. Alim: “I will only call you my brothers

<Absolute frantic hugging and shaking of hands from Mr. Alim>

Mr. Alim: “I will always welcome you in my home

Me and Jason: “And you ours”

And with that Mr. Alim walked away and boarded his flight.  Jason and I then let out what is likely the longest exhale of our collective lives.

With only minutes remaining for us in Bangladesh, Mr. Alim changed the entire view of our experience. Yes, it was still the most insane, frantic, unnerving, hair-on-fire chaotic and scary place I’ve ever set foot, but I was also reaffirmed of my belief that people are basically caring, compassionate and loving wherever you go. Mr. Alim spoke for his city and his country and accepted us as his brothers, regardless of religious affiliation, nationality, race or colour. That is the world I will continue to believe is out there, the world I’ve experienced time and time and again, and the world I want to help continue to build.

To me, hatred, xenophobia, bigotry and every other form of exclusion or discrimination are the true weapons of mass destruction putting this world at risk. Anyone who has hurtful things to say about my Bengali family or the “families” I’ve acquired in all the places I’ve traveled, both here and abroad, are not my friends and have no place in my world. I truly believe in one love for all.

Thank you again Mr. Alim, you too are my brother.

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

I Don’t Like Beets, But That’s Okay

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Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Photo by CJ Latham.

Beets. Not going to lie, I can’t stand them. Not sure if I was emotionally scarred early in life with a bad experience, if it’s simply a visual thing, or maybe a texture thing or if it’s just that I never developed a taste for them. I just don’t like them. You can put yams, pumpkin, squash and a couple other things in the same category. Despite my moderately intense disdain of these crimson coloured tubers, a meal with them as a side doesn’t bother me too much, that is unless the juice migrates over and discolours my potatoes. So gross.

Last week we met a few friends at Ras Kassa, our awesome little Ethiopian restaurant here in the valley. It’s probably one of my favourite places to eat because from the very second you walk in, you are greeted with spectacularly beautiful Ethiopian art, décor and most noticeably, the most delightful and genuinely warm welcome from the owners. It’s truly like time travel to a place far, far away. So awesome.

Choosing something from the menu is hard. EVERYTHING looks amazing but there are certain options that have beets as a side. No biggie since I’m cleverly adept at working my way around them. So after several minutes of narrowing down our individual selections, we placed our order and continued our conversations.

Before I go any further with my original thought, at one point we were all talking about ethnic food and were discussing likes and dislikes. That was a fun little conversation for sure, and hilarious. At one point, CJ said he mostly liked food like what we were having because of the richness of flavours, interesting spices, the feeling of being somewhere special and being able to share it with friends. I liked that, a lot actually. Meals should always be about sharing time with friends and having an “experience” rather than just eating food.

Okay, back to my thought.

So, when our food came out, it was served on this single humongous and extravagantly arranged platter. Despite each of us making our own individual orders, it was all served on one plate. So awesome. And one of the most fun things about this place is you eat with your hands. You simply tear off a bit of a crepe looking thing, scoop up your food of choice off the massive platter and stuff it in your yap. If you happened to be all prim and proper and require doilies and dessert forks, you’d be in etiquette hell. Fortunately I require little in the way of etiquette and think the only requirement for enjoying food is that it makes you smile.

Well, once that beautiful platter was placed on the little table between us, it took me about a nano-second to spot those glaring clumps of crimson, one on each side of the platter.  No worries though, they weren’t close enough to my section of food for any juice to make its way over. However, it was close to the lentils that I wanted so I’d have to exercise extreme caution when getting into those.

Long story short, we ate, we laughed, we got extremely messy with the food, we talked of travels (our little group was very well traveled), we talked about life and basically had one of the most memorable meals I can remember. To top things off, we all agreed we’d go for the “Coffee Ceremony” we’d noticed when looking at the menu! That in itself was the perfect way to end the evening. How good was the coffee? Well, coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia so I’m going to say the taste was borne from a long, reputable history.

Bottom line is that despite those beets on the platter, they certainly didn’t detract from having a very special evening with some very special friends.

I know this is probably silly, but that meal and those beets actually had me thinking about a lot of stuff. For example, I’m doing a road trip over on the West Slope this weekend to do a little mountain biking with some friends. The trails we’ll be riding are crazy fun and sometimes challenging overall but admittedly there are some super technical parts I simply can’t ride with my current skill set. Those sections total about 100 meters of a 25-kilometer ride. I’ll probably try to ride them, but if it doesn’t go off, no big deal. Those 100 meters certainly won’t take away from the experience of being out riding in the desert, hanging with some of my closest friends and of course sitting around the campfire late into the night philosophising and drinking a fun new beer or two.

Same goes with my style of travel. Yeah, sometimes it’s uncomfortable and hard to be alone in a faraway place when you don’t speak the language (not very well anyhow) and struggle a little. Those times should never define the entire trip and the richness of exploring a beautiful new culture, food and land.

Beets. Nope, don’t like ‘em, but that’s okay.

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

Nowhere to be, nothing to do…

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When we left Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jason and I reviewed our itinerary, which was nothing more than our Air Bangladesh flight voucher. The extended version of it read something like this:

Arrival: Kathmandu, Nepal @ 15:45

That’s it. The only thing we knew for certain was we should probably find a place to sleep for the night being that we were emotionally shattered from traveling in Bangladesh and needed a good night’s rest. From there we could figure out what to do and where to go. Outside of that, about the only thing we expected was the unexpected. No plans. No physical or mental bearings. Definitely no command whatsoever of the Nepali/Hindi/Bengali languages. It was once again 110% “game on”.

I’ve mentioned this to a few people and I could almost literally watch their skin crawl right off their bones. They’d fidget around, uncomfortable at the thought of not having a steadfast plan or some idea of what to expect, especially when contemplating landing in a land halfway around the world without a clue how to communicate.

Scary? Hell yeah it is, but it’s also invigorating and soul-feeding like nothing else. Every one of your senses is exploding and you’re more aware of your surroundings than you’ve ever been in your life. Every minute detail is huge — the incessant honking, hordes of people screaming at you to take THEIR taxi, the smells, some good and some, uh, not so much — it’s literally like drinking from a firehose.

Could I avoid all that “trouble”? You bet I could. I could walk down to REI or ring up Backroads Adventures, plunk down about $5,000 and not worry about another thing other than making sure my passport was updated and getting to the airport on time. My transportation would be pre-arranged, my accommodation would be carefully vetted, my three square meals a day taken at “reputable” eateries and all the trophy sites reached by air conditioned transport. Huh, now, can you see my skin crawling off my bones?

I’ve been studying/contemplating the idea or concept of emptiness lately. It’s a funny term, “empty”. When you mention it to anyone, almost without hesitation most people will consider it with a very negative connotation — an empty glass, an empty heart, an empty gas tank, an empty life. Most people “think” they prefer to consider everything in life as “full”. “I want to live a full life”, “give me a full glass”, “my holiday itinerary is full”, etc. etc and will work hard to make sure everything in their life is, or can be perceived to be, “full”.

This has been an interesting word to study, but as I’ve come to understand the concept of emptiness a little better, I can actually equate it to my style of travel and why I prefer the style I do. Before I get into that though, perhaps the best example of my view of emptiness came when I thought about going to a movie. Suppose there’s this amazing movie I really, really want to see, say some kind of ski porn or climbing flick by Teton Gravity or Powderwhore Productions. When I get to the theatre, imagine I walk in and find all the seats are full and standing is not allowed. Full in this context is not a good thing. I would kill for one empty seat so I can get what I want — to see the movie. In the case of an empty seat, empty would be good.

Now, to relate a travel scenario and the concept of emptiness, say someone gave me a bucket, something like a medium sized pail, and said to me, “See all those pool balls over there, that big stack? Each one has some awesome activity written on it that you can do on your upcoming holiday. All you have to do is choose which ones you want and put them in your bucket until it’s completely full. Then, just bring it back to me and your holiday is all set. Once you choose though, you can’t change and put them back because we have to make reservations and make sure we can use your time efficiently. Oh, and keep in mind that once you pay, there are no refunds even if you decide you don’t want to do them”. Sounds pretty awesome, eh? Just fill that bucket up to the brim and get ready for a carefree dream holiday.

Now suppose after you fill your bucket with all your chosen activities, you’ve paid and you’re happy as a clam when all of a sudden you see another pile that has more activities that you didn’t know about, maybe an activity that would change the entire way you see all of life life. You look at your pail and see there is no more room for another ball. Damn it. But you really, really wanted one of those other ones. Disappointed with the lack of an empty space in your pail for even one more ball, you settle for what you have.

I know that some people, probably most people, prefer to cherry pick their activities beforehand, have a place to stay secured (especially in a foreign country) and have a relatively good idea of what they’ll be doing each day. Totally nothing wrong with that. It’s just a matter of choice.

For me, I can say with all honesty and absolute conviction that the most memorable and DNA changing moments of my life came via a path I hadn’t planned on taking. It’s the times when I had to use my skills as a traveler to adjust my view (not adjust the situation), go with the moment, adapt, contemplate, decide, trust…most times completely on the fly. I love stumbling on something completely unexpected and getting a taste of a culture I knew nothing about, seeing something interesting that’s far off the tourist track or taking a chance eating from a street vendor and having the best meal of my life. Risks in all this? Sure. But the rewards of it far outweigh the risks, at least for me.

So when we landed in Kathmandu, we had a completely empty pail. We’d made the conscious decision to stay true to our style of travel and for the next couple of months would fly by the seat of our pants, live in the moment and see where fate (and sketchy ass busses) would take us. I admit it took us out of our rather broad comfort zone from time to time and sometimes situations seemed very unsavoury. But, the amazing people we met and the experiences we gained could have never been replicated under any structured, “full” format of travel.

Something else about “empty” travel that proved itself out time and time again while we were bumming around Nepal and India was the reality of having nowhere to be and nothing to do. One night in particular that strikes me now was about a month into the trip. We had been roaming around the country for a while and wound up back in Pokhara (Nepal). We were staying in this tiny little Tibetan guesthouse and late one night we were sitting outside around a little garden table writing in our journals (Jason sketching in his pad). For some reason that night it hit me that I seriously had no idea what day it was and that we had no plans at all going forward, nothing — other than in a few weeks we needed to board a plane for Kolkata, India.

We talked for a while, sipped our masala tea and eventually Jason quietly went into the room and returned with our Lonely Planet books. We thumbed through them for a while, discussed a few places and eventually decided we’d hop a bus and go somewhere else the following day. The funny thing is, we’d never thought about that place until then, but since we had an empty pail, we could simply pack up our few belongings and go. If it was cool, great, if not, no harm and we’d move on. That place wound up being the most pivotal experience of my entire trip, but that’s another story. Had I not chosen to leave all my options open and just wing it from day to day, I may never have had my life changed in such a huge way.

Now, as I now start to put together ideas for my upcoming travels, I’ll naturally follow the same guidelines I’ve always used — always leave more than plenty of room to have nowhere to be, and have nothing to do.

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

I Hate You Whitewater Ski Resort

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This past weekend’s weather forecast promised a healthy dose of new snow here across the Central Rockies. All indications were that Colorado was getting into the storm track and at long last, we’d finally be able to ski some soft snow on the piste instead of the all-too-common groomed up manmade stuff that turns to boilerplate ice after the first hour of being assaulted by spring break tourists.

Yes, we got some new snow, about 10cm, but it wasn’t all that fluffy so instead of floating through a pillow of softness, it was more like surfing over a coral reef at low tide. Chunky, choppy, whatever you want to call it, it was just another typical day in the Colorado 2012-2013 ski season. I know this is spring in the Rockies and conditions are supposed to be variable, but I think frustrations are just high due to yet another subpar powder year.

What makes it even worse for me is that just two weeks ago we were in Nelson, British Columbia, one of our favourite places with a couple of our favourite friends to ski at Whitewater Ski Resort and be part of the Annual Kootenay Coldsmoke Powder Festival.

Whitewater is truthfully pretty much the antithesis of what skiing in Colorado is typically like, save for a few of the small “gem resorts”. No frills, no holier-than-though attitudes, no lift lines, an endless supply of blower powder, world class terrain (read:steep), reasonably priced lift tickets, lodging and food, super friendly locals who love to share the stoke and an entire community that truly embraces the very soul of what winter is supposed to be about.

I first went to Nelson a few years ago with a friend who lives up in Spokane (about three hours away from Nelson). She endlessly touted it’s coolness, it’s laid back grassroots attitude and vibe, and of course it’s unworldly deep powder and phenomenally steep terrain. She even went as far as saying that if she could figure out a way, she’d make Nelson her home. Keep in mind that this friend is an uber stout and discerning skier and it takes something special to get that type of glowing endorsement out of her. Naturally I was intrigued with all this hype so I accepted the invite to go see what it was all about. That was the exact start date of my love-hate relationship with Nelson, BC and Whitewater Resort.

Yes, Whitewater could be a bit intimidating at first glance because it’s definitely first and foremost a no frills skier’s mountain with some of the sickest lines in North America. Experienced skiers will start salivating the very moment they round the corner and look into all the steep chutes and juicy glade lines below the magnificently beautiful Ymir Peak. However, even if you’re a complete skiing neophyte, you’ll immediately get wrapped up in the fun, relaxed vibe of the locals and any worry or intimidation instantly vanishes. There is truly something for everyone at Whitwater and people are amped to share it with you! Now that I think about it, it wouldn’t be overly hard to just stand in the parking lot and stare at Ymir Peak all day and leave calling it a total success.

It’s hard to explain really, but your DNA actually changes when you’re there. Things move at a slower, but more amazing pace. People are actually courteous and nice to each other. The snow is so soft and confidence inducing that you’ll find yourself doing silly things, even without a GoPro strapped to your helmet. You can eat amazing food without mortgaging your house to pay for it. You can park right next to the base area — for free! Your face will literally hurt from smiling and laughing so much. And at the end of the day, the delightfully funky hamlet of Nelson will be just down the hill waiting to give you a big, warm, genuine hug welcoming you back home.

Before I ever went to Whitewater, fighting traffic, standing in long lift lines, skiing hardpack conditions and worst of all, sometimes having to deal with rude people all day was just part of the norm of a typical ski day. It made it hard to get excited about going out to ski at all but that’s what we had. It’s honestly why my friends and I pretty much stick to the backcountry when the avalanche conditions allow. Now that Whitewater’s spoiled me forever, anything but a once in a decade powder day at a resort here in Colorado simply falls into the category of “just another day”.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to live in Colorado and to have some of the nicest resorts in North America at my disposal. There is never a day goes by that I take that savoury bit of good fortune for granted. But until you ski a place like Whitewater and experience a town like Nelson, you can’t fully understand what a grassroots ski experience is all about and how it sets the bar impossibly high for a skiing experience anywhere else on the planet. Just yesterday as we sat in standstill traffic on I-70 coming down from skiing, Donna said, “You know, Whitewater will probably be the best ski days of my entire life”.

As a backcountry skier, grassroots experiences is what it’s all about for me and my friends. Easy and convenient doesn’t necessarily equate to good. We ski because we love to ski and we don’t mind working hard to float those beautiful powder lines. Whitewater gives me those beautiful, deep powder lines, for a fair price, always with a smile and always surrounded by likeminded souls. If you ski for the pure love of skiing, you’ll get what Whitewater is all about. If you enjoy genuinely friendly people who are thrilled to share the stoke of winter and will be happy to drink a beer with you at the end of the day, then you’ll fall in love with Nelson and it’s residents in a heartbeat.

Now that I’m back here in Colorado, I find myself trying to get stoked about skiing anything less than Whitewater (which is everything except Whitewater itself). I admit my thoughts are already drifting to next season and the idea of introducing Whitewater to a couple of my close backcountry friends from here, those friends who will definitely “get it”. However, I must be careful and not let the secret out too much, lest I endanger the very reason I go to begin with.

I hate you Whitewater for setting the standard of a purely organic skiing experience so ridiculously high and making the remainder of my season here in Colorado seem so “average” — but I also love you enough that I’ll always return every season for the rest of my life.

Climb high. Pedal far. Ski hard. Live big.

Mathias & Liz, I Love What You Say

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Me and Liz making a few turns in Beaver Creek, Colorado

I consider myself a perpetual student. I love learning — be it garnering some new skill, learning a new language or learning more about life, I love it all. I don’t however, particularly like formal classroom settings. To me, and maybe it’s just me, but a formal classroom setting makes me feel like it’s nothing more than regurgitated data being force fed to me. I find it stale and lacking in interest. I do however love learning in real life situations. One of the best books I’ve ever read which deals with how we learn, how we view learning and how we “define” quality is Robert M. Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s an older book but still incredibly relevant, especially in today’s world of instant gratification.

As everyone knows, you can go down to your nearest Barnes & Noble and spend hundreds of dollars on books in an attempt to glean some prophetic words of wisdom about living our lives to the fullest, guiding our spiritual development and overcoming adversities of every imaginable description. Indeed, inspiration and spiritual vision can be only $29.99 and a $4 cup of Starbucks away.

I’ve read tons and tons of books about people overcoming adversities in the mountains, on rivers, on the open sea and the hardships and tribulations of adventure travelers in almost country of the world. Similarly, I’ve likely read an equal numbers of books about why those people can do the things they do and how they cope with the pressures and oftentimes the associated catastrophic consequences. I fancy myself a pretty decent endurance athlete and a pretty internationally well travelled fella and it always motivates me when I read about people doing things, or overcoming things that sometimes seems humanly impossible. In short, I like the physical aspects of pushing limits, but I love the mental and spiritual side of the equation.

In the fall of 2011, my friend Jason and I spent a couple of months climbing, trekking and generally bumming around Southeast and South Asia (Thailand, South Korea, Bangladesh, Nepal and India). We both prefer to travel as far away as possible from tour or group type situations and just wing it on our own. I’ve been to Southeast Asia a couple of times and feel pretty comfortable traveling solo there. Bangladesh, Nepal and India, well, that definitely challenged me and pushed me outside of my fairly wide comfort zone — and it changed me to the core.

After six weeks or so of getting mentally and spiritually wrecked by the travel in these places, I had pretty much started to think that maybe I was just a bad traveler, and even worse, had completely missed the reason for going there and immersing myself so deeply in those challenging cultures in the first place. Not only had we gone to climb and trek around the Himalaya, I’d also wanted to touch the roots of Buddhism and learn more about my choice of spiritual philosophies. Yes, the climbing and trekking was mind blowing, but I kept waiting for that life changing spiritual nugget to fall from the sky, but it just wasn’t happening. I’d find a small nugget from time to time, but nothing as powerful as maybe I had hoped.

Then, late one night (about a week before leaving Nepal), Jason and I were having tea in a dark, dingy little cafe just outside of Kathmandu in the Tibetan settlement of Boudhanath. Aside from one other patron, a guy in his early thirties with long curly hair and wearing worn clothes, we were the only people who came in for almost three hours. I was writing in my journal about feeling I’d missed many of reasons I’d come. I’m ususally so good about taking things as they come and finding those treasures but the hardships of solo travel had knocked me off course it seemed. I mostly just wrote about how it felt I was leaving just weary of the poverty, the crush of people and the overwhelming difficulty of doing anything and everything.

After an hour or two of eating momos and drinking tea, the guy with long, curly hair and worn clothing got up to leave. I had noticed over the evening that he’d been reading a book and every once in a while he’d stop reading and gaze out the window as if in deep contemplation. He put off a calming energy just being in the room with him and I wondered the entire time how he could have that calmness about him in such a anarchic place — yet I was there too but felt completely overwhelmed. As he walked by our table, I couldn’t resist the temptation to know his “secret” and asked him if he had a few minutes to talk. Fortunately he did.

His name was Mathias and said he was originally from Sweden. He explained that he was in Boudhanath studying meditation and philosophy at one of the monasteries and had been in Nepal now for approximately six months.

Under normal circumstances I would never have said these words to a total stranger, but I told him what I had observed about his calming energy and asked him how, amongst all the overwhelming lunacy of Kathmandu and Nepal as a whole, he could maintain that balance and centered energy.

Mathias explained that the first time he came to Nepal he had the same feelings as I did – overwhelmed, off-balance, disoriented, disappointed, angry and confused. Just like me, he had come looking for answers to many of the same questions though neither of us knew the exact questions going in.

He went on to say he vowed never to return after his first experience. However, he returned two years later as part of his studies and even though things had deteriorated in the country after the fall of the Monarchy, he was able to deal with the chaos a little better. He then said it was his third time to Nepal (this time) where he fully understood the principles of his studies and that’s what allowed him to look past what would normally be off-putting. He said the fact that I’d found a few spiritually moving experiences along the way was a good sign I was looking in the right direction.

He explained that throughout his travels and studies, he’d realized that during is first time spent in Nepal his perceptions were confined and limited to only what he knew and tried to force the ways of Nepal into those defined parameters. However, he soon realized trying to manage things which are completely beyond his control was not only damaging to his own spiritual development, but pointless. He said he finally realized that whenever he felt most overwhelmed, he had to merge with those energies and exist within them.  Once he could do that, he could begin to cultivate his own seeds of learning and better develop his understanding of life.

As he was telling me about merging with the forces and not fighting the current, everything I learned as a raft guide became crystal clear. When a person falls into fast water, the first rule is don’t panic. As hard as it is, you must relax. You must try and orient yourself to the direction you’re moving and under no circumstances try and fight the current. If you do, the power of the river will overwhelm you and pull you under.

Listening to Mathias, I realized I had been doing exactly that — fighting the current. I’d been trying to harness things I couldn’t control and make sense of things that were completely senseless. As he talked more and I embraced the correlations of life and the river, I quickly began to relax and not internally fight the current. I had to learn to use the energies I couldn’t control to get where I wanted, not try to overpower them. At that exact second, all my travels up to that point made perfect sense. That’s not to say they weren’t challenging anymore because they were, but I realized that learning to deal with chaos was perhaps the reason I traveled there in the first place.

After about fifteen minutes, Mathias stood up, pressed his hands together, wished us fruitful travels and studies, softly said “Namaste” and walked out into the chilly, pitch black darkness of the night. I’ve thought about what he said almost daily and have incorporated it as a guiding principle in the way I live my life.

Now fast forward almost exactly one year later to this December and something almost identical happened, something that only reaffirmed what I’d learned in Nepal.

My good friend Jesse, who I ironically find to be similar to Mathias in both physical looks and deep spirituality, told me his good friend, Liz Clark, was in town and wondered if I’d like to come up and ski and hang out with her for a day. He also said he really wanted me to meet her because he thought we shared a lot of the same philosophies of life. Well, any friend of Jesse’s is going to be amazing as a general rule of thumb, but I’d heard him speak very highly of Liz specifically over time so I was definitely stoked to meet her.

I could write an entire blog about Liz and her sailboat, Swell, but since she already has one, I’ll refrain. http://www.swellvoyage.com/ I clearly got the sense from the very moment I picked her up in Boulder that she possessed that same energy Mathias did. There was just something about them, something so palpable about the energy they possess that it was impossible to ignore.

As we drove the couple of hours up to meet Jesse in Beaver Creek, we talked like we’d known each other for our entire lifetime. I love feeling comfortable like that around people, which is rare for me. I’m fascinated with the idea of sailing solo around the planet but like I mentioned before, I find the mentality and spirituality of the poeple who do it the most fascinating — and there sat Liz Clark, about a foot from me, willing to talk about it all.

In our random and convoluted conversations, we eventually got around to the subject of being alone, loneliness and fear, especially while sailing solo with the power of the sea a constant and humbling companion. I loved Liz’s thoughts on being alone and loneliness, but it’s when we got to the subject of fear where she said some things that really made me stop and think about just how amazingly genuine and beautiful her outlook on life was.

Stop and think for a minute about yourself and how you might deal with being alone in a raging storm thousands of miles out to sea with no possibility of rescue or help. Everything you do could be the difference between life and death. One mistake, even a small one, could be catastrophic. How would YOU react? Maybe the better question is whether you would ever willingly put yourself in that situation? If you’re honest with yourself, probably not.

But that’s what Liz does. So solo sails and accepts the things she cannot control. She’s learned to accept those uncontrollable energies of the sea, of death, of life itself and advance not only her sailboat within them, but also advance her spiritual being.

Oh, she also surfs a little (uh, and does so better than most people on the planet). And she definitely knows the uncontrollable dangers of that as well. One of the reasons I was able to meet and hang out with her here in the US is because she’s back here recovering from a broken neck sustained while surfing.

So with all this talk about being alone at sea, being scared (but not afraid), breaking of necks and loneliness, I asked her how she manages to push on with such calmness and balance, though I was pretty certain I already knew the answer.

Almost identical to Mathias’ words, she said there are certain things we cannot control. Some people let those things consume them and it becomes chronic negative energy. If they continue to let it consume them, their automatic reaction to every situation will default to negative. She then gave an anecdote related to her broken neck that made her thoughts more understandable.

She said when she broke her neck the general response from family and friends was that her unicorn and glitter picnic of happiness may cease to exist since there was a possibility she couldn’t continue surfing or continue with her voyage aboard Swell. Those were the things many people thought defined her very existence and would surely end the journey. However, Liz explained how she believes life is about flow and change and regardless of what path we take, whether it’s the one we’re currently on or a completely new path, it’s how we react to those changes that will dictate the happiness we find within ourselves and within our world. If we train ourselves to react with positive energy instead of defaulting to the negative energy like so many people have the habit of doing, then we can always move forward in a meaningful way.

As she was talking, I mentally went back to the little café in Boudhanath and heard Mathias’ words all over again. Liz was saying the same thing, just a different way. It made perfect sense to me how when I was near them they had that same powerful, almost magnetic energy that physically pulled me toward them. I truly believe we crossed paths not only because of circumstances, but also because of a similar energies bringing us together.

Spending time with Liz was amazing, period.

This is the kind of learning I love doing. No classroom on earth can provide the circumstances nor harness the energy to unravel these lessons about life. It takes getting out into the big scary world and experiencing it on its own terms. There is no App or textbook for the real world. You actually have to turn the screen off and move around, make yourself vulnerable, be willing to listen and move in a different direction in order to get a clearer view of the larger picture.

I doubt I’ll ever cross paths with Mathias again, but who knows. Although Liz will be leaving this week to return to her boat in the South Pacific, I’m almost certain I will cross paths with her again and again throughout my life. However, if I never do cross paths with either of them, I know I’ll forever have their words with me and my journey will be made better and more complete for simply having met them. I hope everyone can be so lucky in their own journeys.

Ski fast. Pedal far. Climb high. Live big.