CDS Column: Traveling, Chaos and Comfort

Central American bus terminals are never easy. The word “terminal” is usually an overstatement: a dirt lot packed with people and stands selling fruits and cell phones and loose AA batteries, all crammed with buses pulling in and out and collecting people even as they leave. There are no schedules, no timetables, no assigned parking spaces, just a sea of rainbow-painted school buses lurching and stopping.

That’s Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. I’d just spent a week in the mountains to the north with a small non-profit, interviewing the coffee growers and pickers who make their living at the agricultural end of a latte. After a week of hiking hillsides and asking questions on health, hunger and human impacts, the team was headed to the airport to fly home.

But not me. I like to take advantage of airplane tickets when I have them, so I had an extra few days to head to the Pacific Coast. I was bound for a few days of sand and surf.

“There is a direct bus from Managua every afternoon,” my friend Rich told me. “The bus goes to Las Salinas. Just get off at Calle Popoyo.”

Popoyo is the kind of place people dream about: a dirt road to a quiet stretch of beach, the slow thunder of crashing waves, a handful of scattered surfers, water the temperature of forgotten tea and a few cheap places to stay with hammocks hanging in the shade. No stoplights, no horns and few tourists, only a soft breeze off the ocean. They’re planning to pave the road soon, Rich told me, so it’s going to change, but for now it’s paradise.

After a week of riding in truck beds and trudging through jungle, paradise sounded good. So I rode to Managua and headed to the bus terminal.

Unloading into utter chaos, I looked around. There were no indicators in the dust and dirt and hot sun what bus went where. The best I could do was walk up to one of the barkers standing near a bus and ask for direction.

“Las Salinas?” I said to the first one I came to.

“No,” he said, “alla,” pointing to a bus a few rows over.

I hustled over to the bus in question, dragging my luggage behind me. The barker saw me coming.

“Las Salinas?” I shouted over the din.

“Si,” he said, taking my bag, “Salinas.” He followed me inside and shoved my bag into the overhead rack. I slumped into the seat, ready for a few hours on bumpy roads.

Now, I’ve never set up a country. But if I did and there was a town called Salinas and another called Las Salinas, I’d make sure they were nowhere near each other. Maybe I’d pair them with some other identifier (like an associated state name, for example) to mark one as different from the other. Nicaragua, however, doesn’t. They leave it to a guy manning the door of a technicolor school bus to differentiate between Salinas and Las Salinas.

On Saturday, however, he was asleep at the switch. And so was I. I said Las Salinas, he said Salinas, and together we hopped aboard. Moments later the bus pulled out, collecting more passengers even as it left, and was on its way.

It wasn’t until we were an hour out, when the street signs started announcing Leon, Nicaragua’s famous colonial city far to the northwest, that I realized I was headed the wrong direction. I walked to the front of the bus, where the barker had become the ticket checker.

“Excuse me,” I said in imperfect Spanish, “but did that sign say Leon? I’m going to Las Salinas, which is way south of Leon.”

“No no,” he said, “Salinas is just outside of Leon.”

The man driving the bus looked over at us.

“Las Salinas?” he said. “Small town near the beach? That’s in the opposite direction.”

The barker and I looked at each other. He shook his head. So did I. “Crap,” I said.

Paradise was going to have to wait.

International travel is like that. In places like Nicaragua, the second poorest nation in the western hemisphere, infrastructure is limited, and mishaps occur. But even in places like U.K., where we ought to be able to find our way, we get turned around.

But such errors aren’t errors; they are the point of going. Adventure isn’t the result of well-laid plans working out smoothly, it’s the outcome borne from a misunderstanding and a 100-mile trip in the wrong direction, or some other similar twist of fate.

When I embedded in Iraq I missed my flight home because my U.S. military escorts weren’t used to accessing the civilian part of the Kuwait City airport. The final days I spent with the soldier were some of the best.

On two separate occasions in Peru, I’ve wound up sleeping as a guest with a local family after finding myself far from anyplace offering a hotel room. Those nights each wound up being the highlight of the trip.

It’s hard to remember sometimes when you’re tired, hot and have been sitting on school buses all day, but these are the moments we leave home for. They serve as reminders of how chaotic the world can be, and how lucky we are to live in a place where appointments occur on time, where buses have schedules and potable water flows from every tap. Paradise isn’t just a secluded beach; it’s also a bus station with cushioned seats and a printed timetable.


This column appeared in this week’s Conway Daily Sun.

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#CoffeeLives

If you are into coffee, you might want to check this out:

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AMRDI is a Colorado-based NGO working on rural development issues in the mountainous landscapes and polar regions most affected by climate change. Their focus is on data-driven development solutions. They work on the ground to research issues of poverty, health and well-being in communities often far removed from policymakers and government services.

I am with them in Nicaragua now, where they are collecting survey data on local coffee growers. Coffee is a product targeted by terms like “Fair Trade” and “sustainable,” but there is very little oversight or on-the-ground research into just how much impact a $5 latte has on the people who grow the beans. AMRDI is in Nicaragua talking to coffee producers and pickers to understand those issues better.

IMG_1473.JPGI’m along to shoot video and document their efforts, working with them on their research and writing blogposts along the way. The conversations we are having are enlightening, and the living conditions of families who sell some of the highest quality coffee in the world are astonishing.

All of this work will eventually find its way into hard print, the sort of data that can help implement lasting change. But for now this is the early stages.

The trip is winding to a close, but if you want a look at what the short story check out the AMRDI blog. I’ve posted a handful of reports (day one, day two, day three and day four) on what it’s like tromping around the Central American mountains talking to people who grow the drink many of us consume every day.

And if you’re concerned about climate change and its impact on communities at the fringes in the high and polar places most affected, get to know AMRDI. Data-driven development work. Cool stuff.

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Control

Someday I’ll write an honest story. An honest sentence. An honest word. Someday.

Sometimes driving I close my eyes. Speeding along the highway I pinch them shut and see how high I can count: one Mississippi… two Mississippi… three Mississippi… Sometimes I get to five. I’m always aiming for 10, but my fear invariably overwhelms me and my eyes snap open before I reach it. Maybe my car is a little out of its lane, but usually no. Usually I would have been safe for a few seconds more. Usually I would have lived.

I close my eyes and try again.

Reckless. Stupid. Crazy. I know. But I need it. I need it to remind myself. Because I want something different. I want control. I want to see the world, to know what’s coming, to understand it and be able to maneuver around the dangerous parts. I want to know everything speeding at me, to avoid the crash, to never be surprised, overwhelmed, heartbroken. I want my open eyes to be enough to live a life without hurt.

But it’s not. Open or closed eyes, I am going die. As fast as I may drive, it drives faster. It is coming for me, and that truth is one I’m scared of. I do my best not to be, but how do you hold out a hurricane? It is coming, and what it means I don’t know. I only know it comes bent on consumption.

So sometimes I close my eyes. Not to forget or to hide, but to make ready. Does it seem crazy, my closing? It is foolish and reckless with no possible gain. I know. I can agree with that. But it also may be my first honest word.

I love life. That is my honest sentence. I love the look and feel and sway of it, the way it kisses me awake in the mornings and slams me down some evenings. I love how the day brightens for me, how words like “precipice” roll off my tongue. There is so much amazingness, and its beauty overwhelms me.

But life is not within my control. It spins around me, a cyclone I somehow exist within. I am both part of it and at the same time separate, an inhabitant of it more than its owner. Life will never be mine to keep.

And neither is yours. Neither is anyone’s. With our eyes open we may become convinced otherwise, we make think we can wrestle some version of control, but that is the real crazy. We can’t steer. We can’t. Crazy thinking is we are in control. We can only watch the hurricane, our eyes our front porch.

I am crazy, and I am not crazy. I am only saying out loud what life whispers every day. Life is the crazy one. I am not its outlier. I am in its heart. As are all of us. This madness is all of us. You think yourself safe? Life will kill us all. Do your best to control what you will, but eventually you will see too. We will all see. We have no control.

It is terrifying, overwhelming, and freeing. There is an openness in closing our eyes and letting go of control. It carries a freedom: The freedom to be, the freedom to live, the freedom to love openly, the freedom to exist with our whole hearts. I close my eyes to embrace that vision. I close my eyes to remind myself, to see beauty, to let go of any demands and instead catch a glimpse of what surrounds me. Flying along through the madness I can see how little I need for my heart to feel joy. Suddenly perfection is everywhere, in you and in me. It needs no push, no refinement, no outside markers. It fills the room, spills into the hallway. It is overwhelming. It becomes the hurricane.

That is what I want. I do not want to control. I want to accept. I want to live. I want to walk alongside. I want to love, and to be loved, without conformity or comfort. I want to live in the wind.

I love you, and in loving you I want to control you. My eyes are open, and I want to see you, to know you, to know you will accept me and never be mad at me and never leave me. Most importantly that. I want to be loved like you want to be loved and I want to be free from hurt like you want to be free from hurt. I want. I want. I want.

But at night on the road I close my eyes. And I remember.

I do not want to control you. I only want to see you, to bear witness to who you are, to feel the pulse of your heart and the rise of your breath. To learn about you without the push or pull of my own interest. I want you to love me and only me and never anything else, but more importantly I want to not care about any of that. I want to watch you unfold, to forget your past and the future and see who you are, to be let into the guesthouse of your heart, to stand at the foot of your spinning life, to lie next to you in the whirlwind of time. No steering. No control.

For that version of love I need to be reckless. I need to fly down dark alleys and make it to 10, to 100, to 1,000. I need to let the winds come full force as I stand naked in the rain, feel the waves and blown sand rake my body. I need to let life overwhelm me and drown in its blackness. I need to let it all come, even hurt and death, and lie in peace. Let the silence slide over me. I need to lose. I need to forget. I need to fall.

And it is so hard for me. It scares me so much. I want control. I want to never hurt, never be alone, never feel anguish or loss again.

So I close my eyes. I do it to let go of fear. I do it to recover myself, to reignite my spirit, to remind me that hurt and loneliness and anguish are just more sand, more waves. If I love you out of fear I love no part of you, not even the idea of you. I love the idea that someone might see me, accept me, nothing more. You are an apparition, a placeholder. That is the place where the crazy lives.

So I close my eyes. I let go, and in letting go I learn to love fully. I learn to seek and explore without fear, to question what makes your heart shine rather than question your motives for shining. There is a recklessness to it, a foolishness. Discovering your heart and yet ignoring the urge to stay safe, rejecting the urge to control, is its own version of night-driving. It is another risk, one without gain. It is crazy, lost, bleeding. We all want to be loved. And we want that love to be steadfast, enduring.

Maybe letting go is the key. Maybe rejecting control allows two people to grow in time: If I accept you then I can watch you shift and change without it threatening me. If you can watch me shift and change too without it threatening you maybe we have a chance.

I cannot control these shifts; not in you, not even within myself. And with time yours may diverge from mine. I want to celebrate them as I celebrate you, because in truth they are you. Your growth is you. Your movement and momentary expression in the world is you. That spinning movement of self is the miracle we call life. Your body is just a vehicle, one you both live in and never own. I do not wish to own it, or you, only to honor.

But that is not our pattern. We so want others to “be themselves,” like they are some fixed thing. But they are not. You are not. You are more complex than that. How much have you changed in the last year? The last five? What are you if not those shifts?

To love you I must let you go. I must cede control. I must strive to see the person you are, not who you were or who I would like you to be. I must find your heart, your never settled, perfect, dancing heart. And if you are you you cannot be who I want you to be. Unless I only want you to be you, who you are. I cannot want to change that, even if loving you as you are means together we veer into oncoming traffic. So I forfeit control. I close my eyes. I let go of the wheel.

And perhaps I find a perfect story.

CDS Column: Lost Hiker

I don’t hike much anymore.

I used to. I used to hike all the time. Through high school it’s all I wanted to do. When I graduated I wasn’t ready for college, so instead I went hiking — first on a cross-country road trip to hike Colorado, the Grand Canyon and Jackson Hole, then on the Appalachian Trail. At 18, I walked from Georgia to Maine. It took four months and transformed me from relative backcountry novice to old hand. Night after night, firing up a tiny backpacking stove, filtering water, sleeping among the pines, hiking became my first full-time job.

From there I moved to mountains, to rock climbing, ice climbing, mountaineering and skiing, added tools to get me to the top, techniques to push adventures to new heights. “Hiking” became something I did to get to the fun part: the snow, the rock, the vertical parts where the rope came out. I hiked on 14ers in Colorado (the state’s highest peaks), volcanos in Washington and the knife-like ridges of the Tetons, to rock faces in the Shawangunks in New York and Yosemite Valley in California, but keep in mind none of it was hiking.

And over time it moved even further aside. It got renamed “the approach” as I traveled to South America, Europe and Africa for mountains, rock and ice climbs. “Hiking” meant carrying a rope, harness, helmet and all the climbing gear for the adventure ahead, and thus weighted it became more work than fun. The sport once again found itself on my periphery.

But recently I’ve found myself back in the woods. I find myself there with no summit in sight, tramping between trees and ducking under spruce bows, the trail unbeaten and unmarked. I’m out there wandering, splashing through creeks and past logs downed by beavers. It feels like a return, a recovery of my hiking spirit.

But it’s not. It’s from before my high school days, before hiking boots and Gore-Tex and double-walled tents. It’s from my very first explorations of the woods, back in late elementary and middle school when I would pull on duck boots, grab the dog and vanish into the trees out past the cemetery at the end of the street. There were trails, but they were serpentine and poorly marked. The spruce and pine hung close, and though it was only a few hundred acres hemmed in by road on one side and ocean on the other, it was enough to get lost in. There were rotting logs and moss-covered rocks to climb over, and a canopy so thick sunlight struggled to reach the forest floor. It was just woods, more rugged than any hiking trail. My Australian shepherd Cody and I would walk for hours, wandering deer-paths looking for stray antlers and animal signs, imagining ourselves intrepid explorers, Native Americans maybe.

But that’s where hiking began for me, those first forays into woods as pretend hunters and explorers. The nylon windshirts, LED headlamps and ultralight stoves came later, the slick well-marketed modern trappings that now adorn that early call.

My earliest role models weren’t looking to stand on top of things. “Because it’s there” is a modern concept. They were looking to survive, to find enough to eat or the safest/quickest route. “Adventure” was an accident borne of necessity. Hiking wasn’t the approach to those explorers, it was the pre-industrial equivalent to a trip to the grocery store. It wasn’t sport, it was just part of life.

What brought me back to my roots? To the root of my roots? My new hiking partner—not an Australian shepherd, but a 30-year-old Sears and Roebuck 12-gauge.

That’s right, hunting is my new hiking. With my dad’s old shotgun I wander, no vertical objective calling from the horizon. I find myself stumbling through undergrowth, pushing aside tree branches, mucking across marshes and otherwise tramping, the original forest call. I’m not ticking off another peakbagging summit or trying to break my speed record up Washington; I’m just walking, wandering the woods, looking for antlers and animal sign.

And with the walking the wonder returned. The things I used to love about hiking — noticing the feathers scattered among the tree roots marking some kill, walking an old logging road in the cold morning air that eventually peters into nothing, tripping on the rusted hulk of an old peavey left by some long forgotten logger — now lives in blaze orange. It’s exploration with a walking stick of wood and steel.

And just like those early walks with Cody, when I go hunting I have no idea what I’m doing. I get lost. I get wet. I find myself tired and hungry and running low on water. I overdress or underdress, wear the wrong socks or wrong hat. It’s all those things I used to struggle through while hiking, but when there are summits involved I’ve long since learned my lessons. Not in hunting though. In hunting I’m still the utter beginner, more akin to that elementary school kid than ever.

As a result the animals of the forest are safe. I see game, but everything in the woods moves so much faster than me. I have yet to get my gun to my shoulder much less get a shot off before my quarry disappears. It’ll be a long time before I kill anything. When I see something I wind up chasing, but the animals know the hiding spots better than I do. So I search, walk in circles sometimes for hours.

It’s the most hiking I’ve done in years.


This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

Wednesday After

13403970_1509050489121031_6107610005133950721_oI caught the most amazing wave today.

My arms and shoulders were still tired from handstand class, but the waves were peeling long. My friend Mike sent me a note that he was going to Higgins Beach, and in the aftermath I decided to join. I entered the water in full neoprene—hood, gloves and booties even—and hopped my way out as far as I could against the surge. At the last break of whitewater I started paddling. A few waves crested over me, crashed and pushed me under, but after a few surf sessions in recent weeks I’ve developed enough fitness that I got out.

But barely. These were big waves, and by the time I pulled beyond them my shoulders were spent, my arms slapping the water. I sat up, let the ocean roll beneath me. I’d done the hard part, made it past the breakers, and now was recovery. I sat for 7 or 8 minutes, bobbing.

Then I started chasing waves. They were big and loose, I kept missing their pull. They came with enough force, but I was far out and they lacked shape. I kept sitting up and looking for something to carry me.

Then it came. I’m not nearly the surfer as I am a climber, but this wave wanted to teach me. I felt it buck underneath me, steep and rowdy. I paddled to match, pulled with everything left in the marrow of my shoulders. And it took me. Suddenly I was sliding down its face. I hopped up, shooting forward in the gathering maelstrom, turned and grabbed the wave’s shoulder, its crest roaring and tumbling white at my back. I felt it catching up, saw churning in my periphery, but I augured deep, carved into her flesh as the wave rolled forward. I was on the brink, just a step ahead of the tumbling, in the pocket, my board carving a dividing line between blue face and crashing white. I’d landed here before, but never on anything nearly so big—it was taller than me, snarling like a wolf at my feet. But my fingers were in its mane, and I held fast.

I don’t know how long it lasted—like those infrequent moments where I hold a handstand it felt like forever, but it was seconds, 20 or 25 maybe, or maybe only 10. I rode the flashing teeth, danced in their spray, felt the board rock and toss, dragged my fingers against the ocean’s lips. She seemed to rise to meet me, to push me with an angry kiss. I shot forward, ahead of the white and onto a less turbulent elbow. I bounced down these final tendrils to the foam of the beach, where I jumped, leaving the beast to the rodeo clowns.

It was incredible, perfect. It still feels like someone else’s memory.

CDS: Where the Avalanches are

frank-caras-snow-ranger
Joe Klementovich photo

CONWAY — The high summits have their first brushes of snow, which to many winter aficionados means one thing: Ski season is almost here.

Not everyone prefers the manicured slopes of ski resorts. Some look to the backcountry and the white-peaked Mount Washington for their sliding fix.

For them, early-season concerns aren’t limited to what type of skis to purchase or whether it’ll be a good snow year.

Their favorite sport arrives with risk. The snow is back, and with it comes avalanches.

But this year is one of transition for the Mount Washington Valley avalanche community. The U.S. Forest Service is in the midst of hiring two snow rangers for the Mount Washington Avalanche Center, which forecasts conditions and conducts rescues in Tuckerman and Huntington ravines.

Half of its four-person staff has departed. One of the positions being filled is that of longtime Lead Snow Ranger Chris Joosen, who ran the Mount Washington Avalanche Center for more than two decades.

“We have some pretty big shoes to fill,” said Justin Preisendorfer, assistant district ranger for the Forest Service’s Androscoggin district.

Both Joosen and Jeff Lane, who also left in the spring, spent decades digging snow pits, watching the weather, learning how avalanche hazards affect the mountain. “Lots of on-the- ground knowledge and skills there,” Preisendorfer said.

Preisendorfer himself was a snow ranger for eight seasons before moving to the district office.

He knows what the job requires. Mount Washington is like almost no other avalanche-forecasting spot, he said.

In most places, assessments are for entire mountain ranges, spanning miles and including varying aspects and thousands of feet of elevation change. But here it’s just two bowls: Huntington and Tuckerman. Individual gullies are examined.

“Forecasters develop an intimacy with the terrain you can’t get most places,” he said.

Plus forecasting is only part of the job. From Dec. 1 until the end of May, snow rangers also are in charge of all rescues within the Cutler River Drainage, which includes Tuckerman and Huntington, No one else does that.

There is also education and outreach. Each day after the advisory goes up, snow rangers go out and meet with skiers and climbers to talk about current conditions. That, too, is not the norm in avalanche-forecasting positions.

A lot of the complexity in forecasting Tuckerman and Huntington is because of the people.

“The biggest challenge with micro-forecasting on Mount Washington is we have an unorganized fleet of volunteer stability testers,” Preisendorfer said. Every day, swarms of skiers and climbers put assessments to the test.

So far, he said, the Forest Service is in the midst of the hiring process, and there has been a lot of interest in the positions. But Preisendorfer doubts they will both be filled by the time Dec. 1 rolls around, when the snow rangers take over responsibility for rescues from New Hampshire Fish and Game.

Luckily, the Forest Service has a handful of former snow rangers who have agreed to fill in, but the time crunch leaves Preisendorfer a bit conflicted.

“On one hand, I’m praying for a heavy, long winter,” he said, but on the other, it’d be nice if things stayed quiet until both positions were filled.

One of the two remaining snow rangers, Frank Carus, said he’s looking forward to new blood at the avalanche center. After years of the lead snow ranger working both as safety officer for the White Mountain National Forest and forecaster at the avalanche center, the new position will be at the avalanche center only.

“I’m actually excited for the change,” Carus said. “Having a full-time director will be great.”

The new job will engage with the public more, heighten the awareness of the center and work with groups like Friends of Tuckerman Ravine and Friends of the Mount Washington Avalanche Center to support center operations.

The avalanche center is one of the White Mountain National Forest’s most popular programs, and one the public interacts with most. The new director will have plenty to do.

Not all awareness education falls to professionals. Enthusiasts and former avalanche workers are stepping in to fill the gap.

The Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop is one such effort. Set for Nov. 5 at Leura Hill Eastman Performing Arts Center in Fryeburg, Maine, ESAW is a one-day seminar organized by volunteers who are mostly snow rangers and former snow rangers. It will provide a venue for avalanche workers and backcountry aficionados to hear presentations and discuss new techniques and technologies with experts in the field.

“It’s a grassroots effort to get people educated on snow science and avalanches,” said Joe Klementovich of North Conway, one of ESAW’s main organizers and a former snow ranger.

The idea of the workshop, he said, was triggered “by an uptick in midwinter activity.” It used to be that most skiers came to Mount Washington in the spring, when warm temperatures had cooked most of the instability out of the snowpack.

But these days, more and more people come up looking for powder. They are on the mountain in midwinter, a time of much greater avalanche risk.

“There’s just so much people don’t know they don’t know,” Klementovich said. From spring to winter, the snowpack “becomes a whole different animal.”

It is the sixth year of an ESAW. Carus, who will be a presenter, said part of the goal is to reach younger enthusiasts and to counter images they may see that show people skiing in front of avalanches or surviving slides like it’s no big deal.

These portrayals don’t show the teams of rescuers poised just behind the ridge ready to respond should there be a problem, said Carus, noting, “It’s deceptive.” It makes it look like these pro skiers take huge risks without any safety net. “That’s what we need to compete against.”

The avalanche center has been working with friends groups to purchase video equipment in an effort to provide more multimedia content from the field, “integrating modern messaging techniques,” Carus said.

And, at ESAW, “it’ll be a little less nerdy than in the past,” he said, with more focus on terrain considerations and how to evaluate risk than the intricacies of snow science.

Klementovich highlighted, as well, the need to reach younger skiers.

“That was one of the founding tenets of the whole thing,” Klementovich said.

Because, like every skier, they, too, are looking up at a white Mount Washington with anticipation and sharpening their skis.

Klementovich and Carus both want to see them sharpening their avalanche skills, too.

ESAW registration information is available at esaw.org. For Mount Washington Avalanche Center information, go to mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org.