Climbing for Brian

Climbing for Brian

10553818_903535722993720_2619385696188103555_oTwo years ago my friend Brian died. He was climbing on Cathedral Ledge, doing laps on a route I’ve been on countless times before. I was in Peru at the time, a long way from home, a long way from the people I turn to when things get difficult.

I had plans to spend eight months in South America, plans to bounce from Peru to Chile to Argentina and all over and up to Central America. But it didn’t fit. After a month traveling in Chile I flew home.

Instead I went climbing: Red Rocks, Zion, Eldo, Rifle. Looking Glass. Rumbling Bald. The Obed. I wandered through 14 states over five weeks, clipped bolts, jammed cracks and hung on gear. I got scared. I got lost. I fell. I saw old friends and made new ones. I took the type of trip Brian loved taking. He and I had discussed a trip to the desert or to Yosemite, though it never happened. But I felt a connection to him out there, a recognition that “gone” and “with us” can be indistinct.

A month ago was Brian’s birthday. Facebook was kind enough to remind me. It popped up in my feed like he was still here, like I should send him a card or a gift. But he’s not.

13172996_1480482645311149_7238612379710389030_oA few weeks earlier I made it to one of the desert towers Brian and I talked about. The North Face of Castleton is a beautiful 5.11- up steep orange rock. My friend Jim just happened to be in Moab at the same time as me, and it was his birthday. He put a post on FB asking if anyone wanted to climb the next day. “Seriously?!” I said. “You’re in Moab?? Let’s climb Castleton!”

We met the next morning around 10 a.m. and drove to Castle Valley. It was noon by the time we reached the route, but at only three pitches we figured it would go quick. I took the first lead, a steep blue Camalot crack that ended in thinner cracks through a patch of white calcite. Two guys were repelling off as I started up. “Mountain Project says you need 6 number threes,” one of them said. We had two. Jim looked at me. “Maybe leapfrog that one below you?” I heeded his advice.

But the crack was straightforward, the climbing uncomplicated. I jammed and I jammed, making quick progress. I hit the calcite rested and laughing, enjoying the movement and exposure. No wonder Brian so loved such places—the red of the sandstone gleamed, and every jam felt handcarved. This was climbing at its best.

13147451_1480754145283999_7137182934756421799_oJimmy followed, pushing his way up the final exposed crux with a grunt, and we scampered up two more pitches, both excellent.

From the summit the Valley ran off in every direction, a landscape carved out from the red stone with snow-covered mountains as a backdrop. It felt like paradise, God’s country, the kind of place Brian would smile at.

There is a photo of Brian taken on top of another tower. He is sitting, his legs outstretched, writing in the summit register. A valley spills out below him. The sun is high, the sky blue. It looks peaceful. This is how I like to remember him. He was joyful, at ease.

It’s been nearly two years since Brian fell. I’m on another trip, roughly 20 states in, another handful of climbing areas. There has also been surfing and freediving and random beach visits. And yet this still feels like an homage to him. He keeps popping up. I started this post a year and a half ago, while I was on that first trip. It came back to me today, begging to be finished. I couldn’t ignore that call.

There is a sense of being lost in wandering, but there is also an open door, a chance to be reminded of people, events, places that otherwise fall into darkness. So quickly we forget, but wandering we remember. Some of that can be painful. Other parts are beautiful. Perhaps every visit to the desert will in part be Brian’s. I hope so. I see him in the beauty of the landscape. I feel blessed to share it with him. It may only be in my heart, but that is enough.

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Great Reefs and Little Rats

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Bleaching in the NYTimes.

In Australia things are a mess.

First, the Great Barrier Reef: mass bleaching has left huge tracts of this 1,400-mile wonder dead. It’s the worst such incident scientists have recorded, and the third event of this type in two decades. In some places as much as half of the coral has been left dead.

Bleaching occurs when water temperatures climb too high. The warm water makes the coral release its colorful algae, turning it white. And often once released the coral needs temperatures to come back down if there is to be any shot at recolonization. Corals that do survive such warming events often do not grow as rapidly as they should.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 10.12.13 PMSo that’s one. The other Australia story is also from the Great Barrier Reef, but this time from land: a small rat known only to live on one island is likely extinct, and the cause is us. Scientists are calling the Bramble Cay melomys likely the first mammal to go extinct as a result of climate change, and they haven’t minced their words:

“Anecdotal information obtained from a professional fisherman who visited Bramble Cay annually for the past ten years suggested that the last known sighting of the Bramble Cay melomys was made in late 2009.

The key factor responsible for the extirpation of this population was almost certainly ocean inundation of the low-lying cay, very likely on multiple occasions, during the last decade, causing dramatic habitat loss and perhaps also direct mortality of individuals. Available information about sea-level rise and the increased frequency and intensity of weather events producing extreme high water levels and damaging storm surges in the Torres Strait region over this period point to human-induced climate change being the root cause of the loss of the Bramble Cay melomys.”

“Human-induced climate change.” There it is. The rats have abandoned ship. Never a good sign.

I head to Belize next month with two missions: one to work on a social service project with American high school kids, and two to check out their reefs, which had their own bleaching event in March, also the third in recent decades. So I’ll get a look firsthand at what warming temperatures do to undersea life. So that’s to come.

Outdoors On Sale

Outdoors On Sale

13116472_1487458877946859_7391871088256538032_oI have an idea.

It’s one I’ve been batting around for weeks, something I’ve been brainstorming with friends and trying to figure out how to bring to fruition. It’s pretty simple, but it has roots: I want to use the outdoor industry to change the world. I want to use the outdoors to sell, but not products. I want to sell things currently struggling to make themselves marketable: to use the cultural cache of rock climbing, skiing, surfing and #vanlife to push a conversation about the environment, about climate change, about the plastics ending up in our oceans, the glaciers melting on mountaintops, rising seas and corals slowly bleaching on reefs. I want to use the culture of outdoor athletes to sell more than just jackets. I want it to make a difference for more than just some corporate bottom line. I want it to save the world.

Tall order, I know. But the outdoors sells. In this era of the Instafamous, of Jeep and Subaru ads, Prana and Patagonia catalogs, Redbull and Rossignol videos, this can work. These brands all count on the cultural hook outdoor sports offer to sell their products, so couldn’t the outdoors also sell itself? Couldn’t we use its cool-factor to remind people the world is changing, that it is itself threatened? Couldn’t the outdoors sell something invaluable for once?

I turned down an actual job in the outdoor industry to try this. I want people to hear the word “Patagonia” and think of a place, not a company, even if the company is a responsible one. It’s a concept I would hope even Patagonia would be on board with.

I have long ties to the outdoor industry. I’ve worked in retail, am a guide and athlete and I’ve done stints working as a sales rep. That last one was the hardest—selling outdoor gear. I remember listening to conversations about how some customer would buy whatever was the nice this winter, that a new set of skis had to go with a new kit. The job was to push people to buy a new jacket so they could get into the mountains, even if they already had a perfectly serviceable jacket already.

I couldn’t do it. That was not why I fell in love with the mountains. The outdoors were a step away from consumer-driven culture, a haven in an economy all about growth. Backpacking, hiking and climbing took me away from the blaring images of marketers, away from the constant stream of advertisements. There was something beautiful in that.

But the outdoor world has been co-opted; now it’s part of the pitch. The allure of #VanLife is the adventure, but it’s mixed up with a trendy lifestyle image used to sell things. A huge part is about the gear, about tricking out your rig. Van aficionados pour over websites and forums discussing how best to achieve their van dream, sinking money into solar panels that match the stove. Keeping up with the Joneses moved to four wheels.

And it’s not just the vans. I know people who revel in the breadth of their climbing rack. Others boast about their gear closets and post pictures to Instagram. The bikes, boards, kites and ropes are called toys, and he who owns the most toys wins, even if you barely have the time to use any of it. There are outdoor magazine articles and Instagram feeds dedicated to this stuff, and people surf the pictures from their office computers.

The dedicated outdoors people I know, meanwhile, don’t care about gear. They use whatever is around. These are guides, pro climbers, the people who make their living in the outdoors; they aren’t fussy about carabiners or climbing ropes because anything will do. Whatever is cheap and will get them outside is what they want. To them climbing is about action, not accessories, and as a result they spend more time and less money on the thing they love.

But that vision for the outdoors isn’t sexy, and it isn’t what dominates the outdoor industry today. The conversation is all about what is newest and latest and lightest. What is the best gear of this year?

Who cares? What piece of gear actually gets you outside? Your feet mostly, something you already own. Maybe you need a bike or a paddleboard, but what about all the knickknacks they sell alongside them? Some basics are usually useful, but most are useless. They are ways to make money off your desire and your passion. Most outdoors people wind up with a closet overflowing with stuff they never use, stuff they bought because they heeded the whisper of consumerism, stuff that could have been turned into time off, time outside, or plane tickets had it never been purchased. But modern American outdoorspeople are caught in the same consumer frenzy as other sectors, and they buy in. We buy in. We let ourselves get pulled back, let the consumerist urges we originally sought to escape return. They never let us stray far. They waited for us to put down our guard, and then they pounce.

That was feeling I had when I was offered the sales job, and it’s why I turned it down. It just didn’t fit. Selling to get outside stands exactly opposite of why I go outside.

That feeling was present this Sunday as well. It was my first real dive in the Pacific: Point Lobos, south of Monterey. A daytrip alongside a handful of other freedivers, all of them more experienced than me. I showed up with a surfing wetsuit, $5 dive fins I bought off Craigslist and a cheap mask and snorkel. It’s the stuff I’ve used since the day I started a year ago, some I accrued, some I sought out, some I borrowed. It is cheap, and it works. Everyone else had $200 freedive fins, top of the line low-volume masks and dedicated 7mm freedive suits. I got suited up, no gloves and no booties, and attached my bright yellow snorkel to my mask. The crew looked at me and laughed. “You did a course with those?” my friend Mika said, pointing to my short little U.S. Diver fins. “They let you do that?”

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

“They’re not freedive fins,” he said. “If you can keep up you must be twice the diver of any of us.”

He was right, and I was not. I watched the other three speed beneath the surface with each drop, kick after kick sending gushes of water upwards. Their equipment far outpaced mine, and they got deeper because of it.

But it didn’t matter. I wasn’t there to set records, I was there to explore the Pacific, to see the kelp forests and learn more about freediving. I was there to meet new people and to keep practicing this sport I’d discovered a year before, to get a glimpse of the underworld aquarium we call the ocean, to take a step outside of climate controlled and see the world in its raw state. There was no race. I wanted to be outside, in the water, and $5 fins were fine for that.

“I love the gear,” Mika told me later. “Half the point of any sport is getting the gear.”

Consumerism has found us. Going into the outdoors is no longer an escape.

But the originals, guys like Yvon Chouinard, Ed Hillary, Royal Robbins, they didn’t buy in. They may have made millions from the outdoors, but their own adventures were about making due. They figured out how to survive and adventure with what they had, never bought their way in. There wasn’t even the option in those days. They pressed things not intended for adventure into service, made them fit the fight. The first climbs of Royal Robbins were with a clothesline. The first ascents of Yosemite bigwalls required pitons carved out of stovelegs. Those were the hours of adventure, the moments of invention.

Not that we need to go back to stovelegs though. Without modern ice tools, screws, ropes and gear I would probably quit climbing—the risks those pioneers took were too much for me. Were I to attempt a grade five ice route with the equipment of their first ascent I would cower in fear. I know that. It is part of what makes original ascensionists so inspiring—they did it, and they did it with less. They did it when the oceans of rock above them were still a mystery, when there was no guidebook, no topos. They have shown us what original mettle looks like.I can only chase their accomplishments. There is something beautiful about that, something the advances technology can never equal.

I will eventually get freedive fins, and I will eventually get a dedicated freedive suit. But they will always be secondary, the necessary accessories rather than the point. Consuming is a part of existing—the lion eats, as does the mouse, and we are no different. It is neither good nor bad. But it is a pursuit in itself that remains without a purpose. Consuming for the point of consuming—I strove to escape. I went into the woods so I could live deliberately. And it has followed me here.

So I want to turn it around. I want the world to look at beauty I discovered in mountains, on cliffs, on the ocean and in the woods and see what I see. I want people to see the rawness of it and instead of thinking about buying think about saving. Think about the places so precious and rare, so tenuous and so perfect. I want them to think about those places as places, not brands. I want them to want the places to survive more than they way the goods to explore them.

I believe that is what the outdoors truly sells. I believe there is a market for that too.

#RoadLife

#RoadLife

13458592_1515161745176572_1345580628585994972_oHow do you let go of control?

How do I let time become an ocean, trust its buoyancy, its random eddies, breezes and currents? How do I swim with them rather than against?

On Friday I caught a plane out of Fort Lauderdale at 8 p.m. EST. I landed in San Fransisco at 11 p.m. PST with the salt of the Caribbean Ocean still in my hair. I grabbed my car, which a friend had just driven from San Diego to San Fransisco on her own adventure, and drove to another friend’s house who had sent me a note a month before after 10 years of no connection. Barely a few hours before I’d been on a diveboat with two other friends, one new-ish, one brand new, who welcomed me to join part of their roadtrip from Maine to Colorado by way of the Florida Keys. We rented a houseboat, spent mornings practicing yoga on the roof deck, paddled kayaks and paddleboards into the gulf, shared conversations and splendid silence.

 

Life did that. Life brings magic. It brings connection and friendship and splendid moments. It brings awe and mystery and graceful elegance. This week I got to see it, first in the burning oranges of a sunset, then in the wings of a ray, and again in the smile of old friends.

People ask me about being on the road. “You’re living the dream,” they tell me. That happens a lot.

Whose dream? I often wonder. There is an aloofness, a loneliness to endless travel. There is tremendous emptiness, moments of overwhelming quiet no amount of Facebooking, texting, singing to the radio or laughter can quench. Over miles of stretching blacktop, or waiting at airport gates, or sick in a hostel surrounded by no one you know, the inherent solitude of life comes calling. It’s possible to drown it for a time, maybe with a random conversation, a run, someone else’s warm body for a night, but it comes back. It keeps coming back.

It comes back at home too, but at home it’s possible to pretend you’re building something, that all your running in place is working towards an end, that the empty quiet is outside, has not found its way into your heart.

On the road, however, it’s different. On the road you are bouncing, caught looking for flashes of beauty and moments of connection. There is no keeping out the quiet. It floods in, and you accept the drift of time, the buoyancy of life, trust it to carry you.

And in letting go, the world reveals itself. It reveals both the loneliness, the sadness, and the light. Everything exists in one place. It is overwhelming, painful even. Unsteady. Long.

“Living the dream,” they tell me. I’m not so sure. Their idealized vision of a life unsteady forgets the costs of carefree. It is a practice of accepting constant discomfort, accepting always not knowing. Just like their lives, mine is beset by fears, only different fears. Will the money run out? Will the next opportunity show up? Will I find a place to sleep tonight? If it is all a dream, it is a confused mess of one.

But it is one brightly punctuated, one so full overfull of emotion at times I wish life was a ride I could pause. Nights can be dark and overwhelming, but they can also be stunning, technicolor, so bright it is nearly unbearable. The richness I find over and over again, the connections I make, the fascinating complexity of the world I am lucky enough to bare witness, these are the gifts of living unstrapped, allowing the ocean of the world to carry you, allowing time to sway as it will. Seldom is this existence dull. Life on the road is raw to the quick, and every step is an experience. The only choice is to let go, to release myself into the stream and see where it takes me. Anything else would leave me drowned.

And maybe that is the dream—a life of feeling, even if the feelings run dark at times and always out of control—for all those people leading some different version. I don’t know. I look at my friends homes and growing families and I see the dream there too. A piece of it, at least, an experience punctuated by beauty. The differences between us, between their lives and mine, are few, maybe none. An illusion, perhaps, a dream. The one we are all living.

The Project Stands

The Project Stands
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Andre and I below the Enduro Corner.

Not every project goes down easy.

Sometimes a route takes two tries. Or three. Sometimes more. Sometimes it’s days, or weeks, or months.

Then there are those that take years.

I remember the first time I read about Astroman. I was 19, only a handful of leads under my belt. I’d never been to Yosemite, or anywhere really. I’d grown up climbing on scrappy crags on the coast of Maine, made my way to the Gunks and Adirondacks and now was out in Colorado for my second try at college. But the plan was really to climb—Eldo and South Platte rock, ice in Ouray and Vail. School was an excuse to play in the Rockies.

That’s where I first I read about it, “The best rock climb in the world.” 12 clean, hard pitches up the steep east face of Washington Column. The Enduro Corner. The Harding Slot. First ascent by the Stonemasters. Freesoloed by Peter Croft. This was the land of legends.

I, meanwhile, climbed 5.8. I carried around a rack of hexes like cowbells, and if there wasn’t some kind of sling running bandolier-style across my chest I wasn’t leaving the ground. My rope had never seen a leadfall. Astroman was a dream, a myth shrouded somewhere in the distance. I had no idea what such a thing truly meant.

15 years, however, has a way of changing things. Some projects, afterall, take years.

My first swing at the legend was six years ago. My partner Jim was an old school hardman, the kind of guy you want on an over-your-head mission. I’d climbed a lot of Valley moderates, long free climbs up to 5.10 or those with short 11 cruxes, and put few walls under my belt. Now I wanted the prize.

We warmed up, got ourselves reaquainted with the physical nature of Yosemite climbing, and then got on the Rostrum, the supposed training-wheeled version of Astroman. The route went, with Jim and I onsighting pitch after pitch of perfect crack. The 11c crux fell quickly, a few pulls on fingerlocks. The only ugliness came on the offwidth, which I grovelled up pulling on cams. It was a good reminder that in Yosemite the wide is often the crux.

We topped out and over pizza made plans for the main event: rest, then Astroman.

If only things always went according to plan…

We started early knowing the route might need a long day. Jim strung together the first couple pitches. Soon we were below the Enduro Corner, a shimmering dihedral of overhanging thin hands. I racked up.

It started well, I felt solid on the jams, stuffed gear as I climbed. But the Enduro doesn’t relent: 40 feet later I was still in small hands, then still 30 feet after that. Then it pinchs down. The feet were small, the rock so clean it felt like glass.

I fell. I fell again. And again.

Soon I was aiding, so gassed I could barely bare to shove my fingers into the crack. I was miles from the anchors. I shouted “Take!”

Make a move.

“Take!”

Make a move.

“TaketaketaketakeTAKE!”

And again. And again. The pitch felt went on forever. Barely a jam or a stance revealed itself anywhere.

Astroman. The stuff of legends.

By the top I was dry-heaving, my skin was in tatters. My tremendous rack was gone. I built an anchor and just sat down, dejected. This would not be the day.

When Jim made it up he looked at me. “Let’s do another pitch or two and get out of here,” he said. I nodded, still too tired for a discussion. We climbed two more pitches to the base of the Harding Slot and bailed. The greatest rock climb on earth would have to wait.

Fast-forward six years: February 2016. A group of friends are planning a climbing reunion. We met climbing in the Caucasus Mountains of Armenia and Georgia, and now our Armenian host was coming to the States to sample American rock. I called my friend Andre: “Yosemite. Will you meet me? I want to climb Astroman.”

It’s funny how an idea can endure, how it can stick in your brain through tremendous changes and come out unscathed. Barely out of high school, more a hiker than a climber, I first fell across Astroman, printed myself a rudimentary topo. Now 15 years later, just off trips to Cuba, the Caucasus and Scotland, I was itching for another swing. This, I figured, was my shot.

13173571_1482271455132268_4317104870608104184_oWe met in Indian Creek, started the tour with sandstone splitters. From there I took a detour to Castle Valley and a quick run up the North Face of Castleton, then on to Red Rocks, where the Armenian (his name is Mkhitar, which he helpfully shortens for Americans to MAH-heek) and I ran up the nine-pitch Texas Hold Em. Things felt good. Astroman was waiting.

But the Valley is not the desert, as Yosemite would soon remind me.

We crossed through the tunnel into Yosemite Valley at midday. We were packed and ready: I wanted a shot at figuring out the Enduro Corner moves, to treat it like a sport climb almost, so at 2 p.m. we started up.

It was hard, but not impossibly hard. I found feet, and rests, and places to jam. But I still took. A lot. The pitch would go, but it would be no easy feat.

The next day we came back, Andre wanted his shot. We were fired up for the top; after the rehearsal the day before we thought it might go. But it was to no avail. The Enduro spit Andre out, left him as smoked as it had left me. We climbed to the Harding Slot and descended.

No big deal. We had time.

13131031_1484702884889125_5028181883377873951_oA few days later we were back. We eschewed the second rope, got an early start, sprinted up the first few pitches and were soon looking at the Enduro once again.

“Go,” Andre said. “You’ve got this.”

I started up. The jams felt solid. I dropped in a cam, climbed, then dropped in another. I punched it, placing less than I’d like but enough to be safe. The clock was ticking. The first rest was 40 feet up, a handjam with a stem. I had to get there. So I went.

Over our repeated missions I’d discovered enough jams of substance to know I could hop between. It meant running it out a bit, but cams in amazing granite kept it safe. I jammed, placed, then punched it. Again. And again. Soon the end was in sight.

Then my foot popped. I was off, flying through the air.

“CRAP!!” I yelled as the rope came tight. “I wasn’t even pumped!”

It was a lie, I was pumped, but I wasn’t out of gas. Inattention that caught me, poor technique, not a lack of forearms. I yarded back to my last piece, got back on route and climbed to the anchor.

Andre was next to me a few minutes later. “Well,” he said, “what do you want to do?”

“Keep climbing,” I said. “I want to send that pitch, but we might as well keep going up.”

The fall, however, broke my resolve. We climbed to the Harding Slot, which I started up, but when things started turned physical I backed off.

“I want to send this thing for real,” I told Andre back at the anchor, “not hangdog my way up it. I want to go down and come back later.”

“Later?” Andre said. We had one day left, and neither of us would be in shape for another go tomorrow.

But some projects take days; others, weeks; others, months. And some last years. The best climb in the world would have to wait.

“Later,” I said threading the rappel.

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This piece appeared on the Trango website. Trango generously supports my climbing, so please check them out, buy their gear.

A Collaborative Dance

A Collaborative Dance

Moz-1020781Nothing gets accomplished alone.

We are a country of rugged individualists with celebrity dreams. We dream of making it big, succeeding, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, a metaphor that indicates we can create our own salvation.

But nothing happens alone.

I have amazing friends. Some are climbers, adventurers, others photographers, videographers, others writers, teachers, environmentalists, businesspeople. Massage therapists and waitresses. Nurses, engineers and retirees. Together they make my world.

I have big ideas. All the time. Once I came up with writing a book. It died on the vine. Once I tried to fly to Haiti after the earthquake. That didn’t go anywhere either. Another time I came up with another book idea. It ended the same place as the first. All of these were ideas I took on alone.

Once I had an idea to go to Iraq and work as an embedded journalist. This idea I shared with a friend who also happened to be the news director at New Hampshire Public Radio. “Alright,” he said, “let’s make it happen.”

Three months later I was flying into Baghdad, utterly terrified about what I’d gotten myself into.

But I wasn’t alone. That made all the difference. Three weeks later I flew home having done what I set out to do. Nothing else compares to that.

klementovich-20160531-_JCK2368A few weeks ago I came up with an idea. It’s an idea bigger than I am, one that has to do with writing, reporting, adventure, the environment, the future of the Earth and the human race. It’s an idea I don’t want to let go of, one I don’t want to die like so many ideas before it. It’s an idea I need help with. So while it was still fresh, instead of rushing headlong into it I did something simple: I picked up the phone. I called my friends.

My friends can do anything. I watched them climb mountains, write books, build rock gyms, start photography businesses, start nonprofits, reinvent themselves and then reinvent themselves again. I’ve watched them change the world. I’m lucky to have such friends.

But I never understood how they did it. I always looked at my efforts, looked at my ideas, how quickly they withered, and wondered what they knew that I didn’t, what they had that I lacked.

Then one of them asked for my help. She had an idea, a project bigger than herself, something involving climbing and mountains and scientists and conservation and a documentary and college kids, something overwhelming and beautiful. She asked for my help, and then she asked for help from everyone who would listen. And the project grew. It built speed, became something real, took off. There were setbacks, but she kept pushing. It was a beautiful, inspiring dance, one I was honored to have a hand in. It was so big, so complex and powerful and challenging and different, I couldn’t understand how she kept it all going. But then I realized: she asked for help.

Want to do something amazing? Don’t do it alone. Share your idea. Trust it with people who inspire you, with people whose vision matches yours. Let them water it alongside you. Loosen control. Let it see where it takes you. You will not be disappointed.

I am making phone calls now. And my friends, those people capable of doing anything, are answering. It’s almost as inspiring as my idea. Maybe more so.

Gulfside Fire, Light and Life

Gulfside Fire, Light and Life

IMG_8066We pulled in after dark. A burning orange sun had plunged into the Gulf, streaking clouds red and purple and gold, and now the sky was a cool bluish-black. The night was warm and wet as lion’s breath. A stiff wind blew palm fronds skyward. Waves slapped the jetty. Our houseboat, Lil’ Bamboo, sat rocking at the pier.

“It’s perfect!” Sineah said. “I call the hammock.” Bethany laughed. We all went inside.

The ceiling hung low but the cabin was spacious, with three beds, a small kitchen, a bathroom and good air conditioning. One bed sat tucked under the helm. “I feel like Harry Potter,” Bethany said crawling in. Another hung in the back; I took that. Sineah claimed the third, a deep bench couch that served double duty. Our host showed herself out, but not before pointing to the roof deck: “Best sunsets in the Keys,” she said.

The three of us made our way topside without a word. Waves licked the hull 10 feet below, pushed tall by the breeze. We sat quietly, a bamboo awning overhead surrounded by miles of Gulf sky. Sineah was right: it was perfect.

The next morning the stiff wind held. I called a dive company to ask about going to the reef. “Anyone who takes you snorkeling today is just stealing your money,” the man said. “It’s three-to-four foot seas, far too rough for snorkelers. Tomorrow will be better.”

I hung up the phone and looked outside. Even here on the Gulfside there were whitecaps, I could imagine what things would look like offshore. But I was here to dive. The whitecaps outside didn’t look imposing, mild chop, so I grabbed my fins and mask. “I’m going in,” I said.

“I’m going with you,” Sineah replied.

Sometimes wildness seems far away. Sometimes it lives at your doorstep.

I waded into the water, fins tucked under my arm. The bottom was sandy, but soon it turned to seagrass filled with upside-down jellyfish. I would need to lift my feet and be swimming before I got to the grass, even in water barely waist-deep. I spit in my mask and rubbed it around the lenses, then pulled the mask over my head and put the snorkel in my mouth. Sinking into the water I pulled the fins on and set out. Sineah followed close behind wearing goggles.

We swam. 40 feet from Lil’ Bamboo was barely eight feet of water. The seagrass swayed everywhere, festered with bottom-dwelling jellies. Parrotfish jetted about. We dove and resurfaced, dove and resurfaced, exploring the world beneath the waves. Anemones hung from pilings and drowned mooring buoys, two-foot barracudas lurked nearby. Even here there was much to see. I held my breath and dove, clearing my ears as I sank, awash and floating in Caribbean warmth.

That’s when it came: dark, the size of a small grizzly floating just beneath the surface—a manatee, mere feet away. His face looked like a bulldog, nose pressed too close to his eyes. He flaunted a disk the size of a large pizza for a tail. It swayed up and down like a tremendous wave propeller. His body, both fat and sleek, glided. I saw him first, but Sineah was right at my side. I let out a shout through the snorkel, a twisted version of “OH MY GOD!” His head hovered a few inches from the surface as he drifted past, an underwater ghost. Nothing so ungainly ever looked so graceful.

I did not follow him. He moved peacefully, and I didn’t want to disturb him. He disappeared into the inky distance. In his wake the water seemed quieter.

“If you want to see wildlife, it is on foot, and quietly, that you must explore a forest. It is the same with the sea. You must stroll at a walking pace, so to speak, to see the wealth and abundance that it holds.”

– Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Sineah and I kept swimming, kept poking around for more, waiting for another encounter with such a majestic sea mammal. But the show was over. We worked our way back to the beach. Climbing out I pulled my fins off.

“What time do you think it is?” I asked, spitting out my snorkel.

“I don’t know,” she said, “maybe 9 a.m.?”

Morning of day one. Welcome to the Keys. ⛵️

Storms, Rays and Cyclones

Storms, Rays and Cyclones

IMG_7875The ocean hides amazing things.

I grew up on the ocean. As a kid I spent my summers playing among schist outcroppings and granite boulders on the coast of Maine, hopping from rock to rock and splashing in tidepools.

In middle school, however, my relationship with the ocean changed: I got my lobster license, a dingy and a handful of traps. A 10-year-old kid, my working days began early, often before sunrise. I would row around, hand-hauling traps off the stern, collecting lobsters, rebaiting as I went.

It sounds idyllic—summer sunrises over a glass-calm ocean—but to middle-school-me it was not. It was hard work, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I remember finding out I’d brought in several lobsters that were just under the legal limit; I didn’t understand at 10 that “close” didn’t count in measuring shellfish. No one had gone over it with me step by step. I had a boat. I had traps. But when it came to the details, I was on my own.

Everybody has to muddle their way through youth somewhere. Much of mine was done on a lobster boat. The fish oil would permeate my skin, causing my hands to swell then the skin to die, peeling off in long strips. Back at school each fall I would have to explain why my hands were shedding. I spent off days working sternman (think “lobsterman assistant”) for a friend of my stepfather’s. His name was Earl. He was older, groaned every time he had to sit or stand, but he was kind, loved to tell jokes.

He also loved cheap cigars. And his black lab came fishing every day. I spent 1o hours a day filling baitbags with dead fish, breathing a combination of them, diesel fumes and cigar smoke. It was enough to put me off the ocean.

That was when I was 15. Almost 20 years later, after two decades spent among mountains, the call of waves came back to me. The space I needed from water was over.

Then last week I came across this:

 

I spent my youth at the ocean’s edge, whether that was at the shore or the surface. But of late I’ve been looking below. Or more accurately, within.

Today I fly south to spend more time within: the Florida Keys. I’m headed there for four days on the water, in the water, within the water. My blown eardrum is hopefully healed, and the third named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season is hopefully going to blow out to sea, leaving the water calm enough to enter. We’ll see.

But a dream of mine is a cyclone of another kind: the one of manta rays pictured in Peschak’s talk. That is a rekindling of the oceans draw that might leave me spinning, but this time I wouldn’t object.

Next trip. Or soon at least.

For B, in Gratitude

For B, in Gratitude

10491231_958451607514258_8227570007696309004_n“Life and love are confusing things, and too many nights are spent sleepless.”

A friend sent a note the other day, and those were my words typed in solidarity with someone trying to figure it out. It had a certain ring to it, flowed in a writerly way I strive for all in all my work.

And it’s true: whether in life or in love I have no idea what I’m doing, and many nights are spent tossing. If the world overwhelms you, if it seems too bright or too fast or too complicated, I get it. I too am doing my best to hold on.

I read a book the other day by Oliver Sacks, now-deceased professor, writer and neurologist. The book was called Gratitude. It’s small, took barely an hour, four essays Sacks wrote in his final years. It chronicles turning 80, the revelation he has cancer, and his final thoughts before his death at 82. It’s short enough to read in an hour. And like any book addressing death directly, it’s powerful. A Washington Post reviewer called it Sacks’ posthumous gift.

Perhaps anything that grows so directly from death is bound to be moving, bound to contain poignant reminders our days are few, that life will not continue forever. A year ago my step-grandmother died, and the piece I wrote about her was similarly affecting.

But death is not only sad; it also a doorway, a secret entrance, the key to god and the universe and life and love and everything. It is both. It is everything. It is all of it at the same time.

How? Simple: You are already dead, so there is nothing to fear. Ever. Nothing.

How easily we forget. How easily we get distracted by work and bills and advertisements and immediate needs. But we will die. We will not escape. We are there already. Time has bent and death is upon us and every thought we have from now until it arrives is but a dream, the briefest hallucination.

Death will come, and when it does it will come fast, fully, completely. And in that moment it will feel like your life was a blink, a sneeze, a flurry of activity ended premature. There is no way to sidestep, no way to avoid that which everyone before has succumbed, which everyone we know will succumb, that which we ourselves will eventually also submit.

But there is something comforting in that. You will die, and I will die, and no matter how many people surround us in the end it will inevitably be alone. But it is a doorway everyone passes through. We all walk together to that aloneness, united in something we cannot but do by ourselves.

So we know it is coming. There is no stopping it. And we know it will happen alone. But in that truth we are united and no one is ever alone. So let go of the fear. To fear death is to expend energy that makes no change. Instead we can welcome it, look with openness and wonder as it approaches, greet its coming with a willingness to see what adventure it holds, the final and most brilliant version following a life of mini-adventures.

That switch, that walk through death’s doorway with openness and grace, makes all the difference. It transforms everything. Death is coming, but exorcised from fear it loses control of us. It becomes just another step, another dance we are lucky enough to experience. And in becoming that it allows us to let go of ourselves. Death’s inevitability becomes just one more step, one more mystery to uncover, one we can do with grace.

Because mysteries are the most amazing parts of life. Falling in love is the mystery of meeting someone new, watching the story of them unfold before you. Life is but the unfolding of your own mystery. Death is just another version, a new step in a dance we are privileged to practice. Like life, like love, it is an experience to cherish, something to be lived fully, felt fully.

And stripped of fear, stripped of the need to control every step, those moments before death arrives become brighter, richer. There is no reason for fear, no reason for regret, no reason to look back and say “I wish.” Because stripped of fear, stripped of angst and worry, we live fully. Love falls deeply, wildly, uncontrollably. Life runs reckless, perfect and free. Every moment becomes a chance to fill the space we are offered with beauty, grace, wild blasts of perfection, moments that breathe and then die just like we do. We do not look to hold onto them after they are over, because they, just like us, are temporary. And in the briefest spark burns the full essence of life.

Life, love, sleepless nights and the promise of an adventure far greater than anything our memories hold—it is all before us, within us, surrounding us completely. We cannot get away from it, the raw beauty of a world stripped clear of pretense and fear. It whispers in the wind, hides the air we breathe, courses alongside the blood in our veins. It is all that we are.

But we forget. We wander and stray. We fall into ourselves, trapped in a conversation so easily distracted.

But not to worry, Death will greet us all someday. You will be reminded. And when that time comes, I will be next to you. As will everyone.

 

CDS Column: Cuba, A One-Hour Visit

CDS Column: Cuba, A One-Hour Visit

IMG_8150How do you explain a country?

It’s a presumptuous task. I’ve taken six trips to Cuba in the last year, spent a little over two months there, visited a handful of towns, climbed in the western mountains, swam in the clear blue Caribbean, danced in Salsa wherever I could and wandered the Malecon. I’ve also listened to multiple professors discuss topics from trade to transgender rights, studied their history and talked politics with the people.

But still. The Cuban/American relationship is so embattled, so complex, how do you boil it down to an hour talk?

GEMM9041
Jamie Gemmiti photo

That was Thursday night. The North Conway Public Library asked me about giving a slideshow on Cuba, about what it’s like to go there. I agreed—I fell in love with the country, and after a handful of visits it was clear the island was vastly misunderstood at home.

How? Communism, for example: Cuba is a country of small-scale entrepreneurs running restaurants and rooming houses out of their homes. There is a hustle to these new businesses, a creative energy akin to the growing food truck culture of the United States.

These enterprises exist against a backdrop of state-run restaurants and hotels that Cubans themselves will tell you are bad, not worth visiting. The state-run enterprises get government funding, but they also suffer from the endemic sluggishness of businesses allowed to bloom without fear of competition. Communism exists in Cuba, but it is no longer ubiquitous. It is the dead skin the country is still working to slough off.

And history. Explaining the longstanding Cuban desire for an independent state to Americans is an upstream paddle. We remember the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile crisis but have forgotten the Spanish-American War. Cubans remember both. And their version of those stories are different from ours.

Cuba was a Spanish slave colony for hundreds of years, a satellite possession rich in sugar. But that wealth was siphoned off. The island was populated by serfs and a few wealthy masters who minded the plantations.

But in the mid-1800s a handful of those masters grew distasteful of the inequality surrounding them. Like American patriots 100 years before, they began writing and speaking about a freedom and building a national consciousness where previously there had been none.

Then in the 1890s they went to war with Spain, and the United States joined the fight. Cubans reasoned American assistance was offered in solidarity—America too had once been a colonial possession. But when the war was over and Cuba “liberated” freedom proved to be in name only: the country traded one overlord for another. Their protector became their new master.

That is not history most Americans remember, or how most Americans remember that history. But island stayed as it was: a land of serfs ruled by far off masters. Their dreams of freedom were deferred.

Enter the revolution. In American eyes it was the insidious growth of communism. But to Cubans it was the realization of a long held dream, one of national self-determination and governance. Nearly 200 years after Americans threw off the yoke of colonialism by kicking out the British Cubans got to do the same, but the oppressor they had to expel wore the Stars and Stripes.

Again, not a story Americans are used to hearing. But walk around downtown Havana and you’ll see indications of just how much influence the American Revolution had on Cuban thinking. Statues and depictions of U.S. presidents dot the city. Their words are inscribed on Cuban monuments. Cubans feel a brotherhood with anyone striving for freedom, regardless of past (or current) animosity. It is a refreshing view of the world.

And that’s how the people are too: not once in six trips did I have a Cuban cuss me out for being American. Indeed, what I experienced was the opposite—excitement that I was visiting their homeland, that I was interested in their country. Tell a Cuban you’re from America and they’ll smile wide. They’ll grab your hand and shake it vigorously. They clap you on the shoulder and tell you “Welcome!” This is not the response of an enemy; it is the reaction of a long-missed friend.

And that’s what’s so hard to explain. To Americans Cuba’s isolation and glaring absence from the standard diplomatic worldview has gone largely unnoticed. And when it pops up it is something askew, a decision that is their fault, the result of their bad behavior. That is our reading our history.

But for Cubans the country they feel most akin to walked out on them. Their cultural touchstone, indeed their inspiration for independence, shut the door on them. That it is now cracking back open is a joyous thing.

I gave a slideshow on Thursday about Cuba. It was mostly words and pictures, sunsets and sand beaches. Those things are beautiful, and Cuba is rich with them.

But it’s much harder to capture the island’s palpable emotion, the joy that rekindled relations has brought the Cuban people. It’s a warmth of welcome Americans struggle with—our enemies of 60 years are often deeply demonized, universally denounced as “evil.” Few people say of Iraqis and Afghans, Iranians, North Koreans or Cubans “but the people, they are our kin.” They are more often viewed as hostile collaborators, willing supporters, people to be feared. The governments and the governed are viewed through one lens.

That is where Cubans are most refreshing: 60 years of exclusion and they still haven’t lost their sense of nuance. The American people are not the embargo, nor are they the travel ban. They are people, just like their Cuban counterparts, and people are meant to be welcomed, embraced, warmly greeted, regardless of politics or history. Cubans know that.

Amid the pictures of Afro-Cuban street musicians and colonial cityscapes I would have done well to mention that more.

 

This piece appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.