Non-Conformist Nature

“I don’t like pine trees, they are so conformist.”

Her feet steadily followed one in front of the other, kicking up a minimal amount of dust, as she declared her position with a decided tone.

This was the beginning of the trail where the ground was still level, a straightforward and simple path.

Two miles later, we had began the set of twenty two switchbacks. The trail zig zagged in and out of the forest, becoming exposed for a few turns as we navigated across the rubble of a rock fall with delicate steps. I pondered how long ago it happened, guessing several years since there were plants thriving in between the cracks.

We returned to the shaded canopy and approached a dry riverbed. It looked like it should be crossed, but the trail was no longer clear. Could it be up that hill? It seemed unusually steep, and not well-trod. But going across the river would lead us on a downward path, the opposite direction of our destination. We paused.

Apparently there was an old bootleg trail here before the switchbacks were put in. It was steeper and undesignated, a rambling route created to throw off a scent. The trees alone know such secrets, sealed in sap and forgotten footprints.

As we explored the alternate routes, the ground surrendered underneath our weight with a slow depression. It held well, but the springy response hinted at another past. Awoken by the wind the trees began to clamor with an ascending rush. This is them at their loudest, but it remains sonorous to the point of peace.

The evidence of a louder occurrence was well hidden around us. It would have been a violent disruption, thundering down in a rolling tumble of split wood, dirt clouds, and the smack of granite colliding. The remains litter the floor, now reincorporated as debris from the generations that compacted over them. As the ground gave way underfoot it exhaled the breath of history, where a rock fall’s disruption was reincorporated back into a world of muted cracks and wind-rustled leaves.

We decide to trace our steps back down the trail a bit, only to find the switchback curve we completely missed when we walked straight ahead instead of rounding the corner like we were supposed to. As we resumed our uphill ascent, we passed a thick pine that had fallen at one point, then grown outward and curved back up, making a L-shape that stretched back towards the sky.

“This one is ok,” she declares, “it clearly isn’t conforming to anything.”

We stuck to the trail, and the trees continued to live as they do, independently reaching, cohesively existing, conforming and not conforming as nature tells its own story.

Teneriffe Falls

Teneriffe Falls, captured in the spring and much fuller than the dry trickle we witnessed today.

Something of Mindlessness

The bench was divided into two sections, I occupied the left side closest to the sun. I took out my book, Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, and surrendered my to-do list to the blue sky and rippled water of Green Lake.

An older couple came and sat in the other half of the bench next to me. They never say a word. For twenty minutes they held hands, resting their heads together as they gaze at the water, or perhaps something beyond it. The man had a knit green cap, thick brown corduroy pants, and a brown flannel tucked into his shirt. He must run cold, because I was already flushed from the heat and everyone else in sight was wearing shorts. The woman wore faded jeans and a dusty purple sweater. They looked ready for a fall breeze, not the beginning of summer.

Eventually they stood up, without speaking, and began walking away with careful steps. They continued to hold hands as they walked, supporting each other with each slow movement.

I returned to my book.
 

I would like to learn, or remember how to live. I come to Hollins Pond not so much to learn how to live as, frankly, to forget about it. (pg 14)
 

A woman rushed up to me, her curly short hair fluffed by the wind, and asked if her daughter can sit next to me while she ran to the restroom. I looked behind her to see a timid girl with bright blonde hair. I smiled and said yes, that would be fine.

The girl was wearing black capris and a white shirt with rainbow gems along the collar. Her hair was pulled back in a long, buoyant ponytail. I asked her name—India. I asked her age—8. I asked if she was in school—second grade. She said she likes it, but she thinks spelling and math are kind of boring. Her mom returned and they too walked away hand in hand.

A bird pecked by, and every few steps it slowly puffed out, wings extending, making a noise that sounded like a text message alert. It flits away and I gaze back at the yellowed pages.
 

I don’t think I can learn from a wild animal how to live in particular…but I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive. (pg 15)
 

A man parked his bike near mine and sat on the other side of the back-to-back benches. He rested one arm over the top of the bench and huffed in controlled spurts.

Behind us on the walking path a man strummed sporadic cords on an off-tune guitar. He spoke at random:

“I was born in an espresso stand but raised by wolves.”
“Keep it down doggies, I’m trying to talk to the community.”
“Like most people I hate TV, except when I’m on it.”
“I would love to make a dollar today.”

My biker bench companion smirked at me, eyebrows raised—“So much for peace and quiet.” He hoisted his spandex clad body onto his bike. “Good luck with your novel or whatever.” And he rode away.

I had five more minutes before I had to go home and have dinner. The sun was slowly sinking to dance with the water in a mirage of metallic ripples. The bustle behind me continued, the bird resumed it’s notifications, and I finished the chapter.

We can live any way we want…The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t “attack” anything; a weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity. (pg 16)

Green Lake sunset

Solo in Scandinavia: Week 1

The coast and the country mingled together beneath the descending airplane. Water rippled and rested alongside fields and farms. The cows and sheep roamed in the emerald grass dotted with large white bundles that looked like giant marshmallows. I would later learn that these are actually hay that has been tightly packed and sealed enough that they can remain outside, but they are jokingly referred to as “helicopter eggs.”

Land here is not divided in the perfect squares or circles that you might see from above in the central United States. Instead it waves and curves with the undulating landscape, simply existing in a state of unprocessed pasture. Every crossroad is a roundabout, extending the ebb and flow of land and sea, people within the place and the place within people.

View overlooking the Stavanger area

View overlooking the Stavanger area

Two hours after landing in Stavanger, Norway I had walked along an alcove of beachfront, exhaled in the shade of a historic church, and took a “short walk” to climb a mountain. At the top I could see the small bits of civilization nestled between each hillside, lake, and fjord. It is a small town by American standards, but by Norwegian standards it is the Goldilocks version of “just right.”

The next day I got to explore downtown Stavanger’s quaint collection of shops and the International Oil Museum. Stavanger is considered the oil capital of Norway because 38 percent of Norwegian oil service companies are located in the region, and many international companies also have their headquarters there (ww.greaterstavanger.com). From an American perspective, where oil companies are often viewed cautiously as a big business destroying the environment, it was quickly apparent that a more positive aura surrounds the oil companies in Norway. Not only are they a significant contributor for the country’s financial wealth and employment opportunities, but in true Scandinavian modernity there is a hopeful perspective for the possibility of gathering a natural resource in a sustainable manner. The oil museum showcased this view point and was candid about the complexity of the situation in an enlightening way.

models inside the oil museum

models inside the oil museum

In a quick turnaround, I left the following day to travel north to Kautokeino for a three-day conference on topics related to Nordic indigenous literature. Kautokeino is technically in the Sápmi, or Finnmark, region and is considered the capital for the Sámi indigenous people. To get there, I had to fly from Stavanger to Oslo to Alta and then take a two hour bus ride. The landscape reminded me of Alaska’s inland areas as fall was already in full-swing and the trees grew smaller in the tundra’s expanse.

On the first day of the conference, that expanse grew beyond the landscape and into the realm of knowledge. I was struck by my level of inexperience in the field and overwhelmed by being the only one without a doctorate and who couldn’t speak Swedish. Intelligence, just like everything else, becomes relative in the face of others who seem superior.

This moment happens to all of us when we are in a new context though. It stems from illusions of self-sufficiency and confidence that is puffed up by fear or insecurity. Otherness is what humbles us enough to remind us of our need for that otherness.

I was incredibly blessed by two things: friends from home who responded to my panicked text messages with encouragement and affirmation, as well as some of the younger people at the conference who also encouraged me after I admitted my insecurities.

My feelings of inexperience changed to hope thanks to another unexpected source: a silver gallery we visited in Kautokeino. The building was not only impressive in its architecture and the jewelry showcased inside, but also because of its story. A couple started the business over fifty years ago despite having no experience. Their interest in the native Sami people drew them to the location, and the evident need in the area for a jeweler to repair old treasures started them on a path that would become a lifetime’s work. The building and business expanded each decade, growing larger and more successful with experience and time. In the same way, I knew that my inexperience was just because I am at the beginning of my own life’s work. It may change each decade and expand to include things I can’t imagine now, but in the end something beautiful can come from hard work.

After the first week, I felt that the same thing was true both long-term and short-term. This trip is a short-term piece of my life, but as I collected the experience that comes with time I felt more confident upon leaving than I had just a few days before. I’m sure that this will continue to prove itself as I go through the rest of the trip as well.

Since the conference group was small, and we all had to take the one bus to get on the one flight out to Oslo that day, we got to say our goodbyes in the airport. By the end the pressure of academic performance was behind all of us; what remained was the memory of a few short days in an unforgettable landscape and lessons about how simple the seemingly complicated can be.

overlooking Kautokeino

overlooking Kautokeino

_____________________________________________

Although technically I’m almost done with my second week here in Scandinavia, I wanted to give you all a update on the first week, and then on Sunday (hopefully) I will write a separate post about week two (which is right now). Tack!

Have you ever felt inexperienced or unprepared for something?

How has traveling, or just new experiences in general, helped you grow?

New Mexico National Parks and Monuments

Although New Mexico may have a mess of cons (see my first post on Albuquerque), it’s selection of outdoor wonders is a definite plus. There are a total of 13 different national parks and 58 national landmarks or monuments. By comparison, the last state I lived in (Illinois) had only one national park and two historic sites, both of which are historic homes of presidents (so not very thrilling unless you are a history buff). 

Most of these parks are in the far corners of the state, so I was only able to visit three officially during my time here. I’ve included a description, a review, and visit tips for each one below:

#1. Carlsbad Caverns, Southeast New Mexico
The natural entrance to the cave, also where the bats fly out at night.

The natural entrance to the cave, also where the bats fly out at night.

It was roughly 7:30 pm when the bats emerged, earlier than usual, at least so said the ranger. He had just started his informative address when the sputter of small black bodies began, sounding like a gentle misting rain as they fluttered into the preparatory whirl. Around, around, and out into the fading sky. Their sharp black figures become distant specks as more come to supplement the steady swarm. Against the sedimented rock that arches to form the cave’s entrance, the bats are a mirage of movement, barely discernible as they circulate out.

I had expected a thick, ominous cloud where are the bats would expel from the cave within minutes. Instead the patient, continuous stream was like a slowly voluminous leaking. Each bats rapid wing shifts combine together, fanning the buzz and aroma of their dank, musty hideout.

After spending several hours beneath the surface myself, wandering through the murky lighting and humid chill, I wondered if they feel refreshed upon exiting. Free of the tight quarters and clustered living, they now embraced the soft breeze of desert twilight. Perhaps it is like taking a cold shower after being in a sauna. Yet they also remained close to the extending ripple of those ahead and behind, wavering into the distance where their vast quantities dissipate into the arid expanse. Only a few departed from the group, darting off in their own direction, truly ready to be free.

This is the perfect way to end a day trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. We hadn’t planned the trip very far in advance, so we didn’t know about the bat flight (which happens every night during the summer months) and had planned to drive back that night. We stayed in Roswell the night before, but that meant we had to do the four and a half hour drive back to Albuquerque all in the dark and didn’t arrive home till 2:00 AM. If you are visiting the park from further away I suggest driving out in the morning, allowing for three hours to wander through the caverns (or they also have guided tours which looked good), waiting for the bat flight, and then staying in Roswell (an hour and a half away from the park) for the night.

No matter how you arrange it, Carlsbad Caverns is a must-see in New Mexico.
Deep inside the caves, 750 ft. below the surface

Deep inside the caves, 750 ft. below the surface

#2. White Sands National Monument, Southern New Mexico

Driving south from Albuquerque, New Mexico continues to provide surprising landscapes that are anything other than your stereotypical desert. Through rolling hills of rural communities, to boulder fields of cacti among charcoaled volcanic rock, the scenery was just as beautiful as driving through Utah or Colorado.

We arrived at the park around 6 pm, deliberately coming in the evening to see the sunset and get at least some relief from the heat. The ranger at the visitor center informed us about the popular practice of sand sledding, so we quickly purchased one and headed out with renewed enthusiasm.
Sand Sled
The crystallite fields aren’t visible until you enter the park boundaries. Slowly the rubble of desert shrubs thins out as the sand consumes any vegetation and only pure white remains in cursive strokes across the skyline. Still air permeated with the sun’s descending rays, no wind was present amidst the hush. Although there were other visitors there, it took less than a minute to lose ourselves in the dunes, invisible to every other surrounding.

Amid miles of undulating dunes, the one I picked to sled down seemed mild–until the sand slipped me into a rushing plummet. The flimsy plastic beneath me rippled and the acceleration finally created a breeze against my flushed cheeks, allowing for time to pause in the exhale of gravity’s control. Slow motion falling is not only for the movies, it exists on the downhill of any moment where we relinquish control to the magnetic pull of matter to matter. For a brief second, we can remember our common composition, the atoms that hold us all together across a planet, turning us into sand-like particles. Dust is to dust.

The sunset was simply a cherry on top, a sundae which we consumed with care until that cherry had disappeared behind the mountains and our souls were satiated.
White Sands Sunset
Thus White Sands proved itself to be another must-see in New Mexico. I highly recommend sledding, and coming at sunset. They have a lot of great picnic tables if you want to bring dinner in to the park, which is what we did by stopping for sandwiches in the nearest city, Alamogordo.

#3. Petroglyphs National Monument, Albuquerque

Sadly this one truly is last and least. Although it is within convenient driving distance of the city, the petroglyphs left me wanting more. There is some interesting history to how they got there and why, but it leaves me wondering if graffiti will be a national monument five hundred years from now. The etched drawings are rudimentary, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear connection or story between them.

Two of the trails were closed, so we picked the Boca Negra Canyon trail, which we were told would have almost 200 petroglyphs to see in a short walk. The walk was short, but the petroglyphs weren’t prominent or impressive in number. The trail went in a loop over a steep and uneven rocky hill. Although you could see the Sandias in the distance, a housing development dominated the foreground and erased any sense of natural reservation.

I have heard that there are some interesting trails on the opposite side of the park where the small, dormant volcanos are. Due to time constraints I wasn’t able to check that out, but even so my sense of disenchantment with the first half of the park has hindered my hope for the rest of it.
Petroglyphs
If you have half an hour to spare and are interested in undecipherable doodles, then go ahead and see the petroglyphs. If not, this is one you can skip without remorse.

Tomorrow I leave bright and early to say goodbye to Albuquerque and drive back to California. Check back either tomorrow night, or Saturday depending on the drive, for my New Mexico farewell post.

Have you been to any national parks or monuments in New Mexico?

What did you think?

Where Mountains and Desert Converge

Yesterday I wrote about the city of Albuquerque in all its idiosyncratic glory. Today, I want to share my favorite part of the city: it’s outdoor landscape and activities.

On an early Saturday morning, the drive across Tramway Boulevard is still in the shade as the sun rises behind the Sandia mountains. Sandia, the Spanish word for watermelon, seemed an appropriate name to the early settlers of New Mexico who saw the radiant pink hues on the mountain face at sunset, resembling the refreshing summer fruit.
Up close the pink hues of granite rock in the Sandias is subtle, but when the setting sun hits the mountain altogether and from a distance it becomes a mass of watermelon red

Up close the pink hues of granite rock in the Sandias is subtle, but when the setting sun hits the mountain altogether and from a distance it becomes a mass of watermelon red

Refreshing is also fitting for the Sandias, since it is often twenty to thirty degrees cooler on top of the mountain than at the bottom. On hot summer days, the trails across the Sandias are filled with colorful wildflowers, serene vistas, and the soft murmur of the wind rolling through the cliffs. It is an entirely different world from the desert below.

In fact, if you hike the 8 mile La Luz trail from the foothills to the top, they say you pass through three separate types of ecosystems. The harsh desert landscape at the bottom eventually traverses through pines trees, still mingled with cacti and sagebrush, until the landscape transforms into a dense canopy of mountain pine and grass. Even black bears are present on the mountain, hidden across the undisturbed ranges of forest.

Thus Albuquerque has unique access to both the mountains and the desert. In theory, you could see a black bear in the morning and a rattlesnake in the afternoon. Back down on the city floor a number of trails are available for a variety of outdoor activities. Biking is especially common in the city, despite the number of sharp, thorny goats heads plaguing any outdoor space. Both the Diversion Channel and the Rio Grande Bosque trail provide long, scenic bike routes free from the crazy drivers on Albuquerque’s streets.

Most Albuquerque natives I’ve meet like to claim that you can’t beat the weather here. Although I will admit it remains relatively temperate for being in a desert environment, I am originally from San Diego and that is a place where you truly can’t beat the weather. Albuquerque, on the other hand, suffers from summer “monsoons” coming up from the Gulf of Mexico which led to multiple summer thunderstorms during my stay here. The rain was a welcome gift to the parched landscape, but I wouldn’t call it ideal summer weather.
My brother's dog Luna loved hiking with me. Here we did a trail at the base of the Sandias, still amongst the desert environment

My brother’s dog Luna loved hiking with me. Here we did a trail at the base of the Sandias, still in the desert environment

I do appreciate the variety of plants and flowers that thrive in such sparse conditions. Wildflowers on the desert floor are entirely their own, born between the cacti’s spears and extending high above the bristled grasses they are not delicate nor hefty. We often stereotype the desert as an empty expanse, but its riches are more like ripples than waves. There is no need to compete for height or breadth of branches and leaves, roots do undercover work and the surface remains inconspicuous in its survival. Grass is not the deep green of rolling plains, but tufts of grayed mint, off-white, and mustard yellow. Life is harsher no doubt, but a rough exterior doesn’t disqualify the land from its own unique heart and soul. 

Do you have a preference for desert or mountains?

How does the landscape of your city inspire you?

Playing hookie in Yosemite

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve missed a couple days of posting, and indeed I owe you an apology for disappearing without notice. It’s strange to even think anyone missed it, but I must be accountable even if it’s only to myself.

Currently I am in Yosemite National Park enjoying a week with the deer and trees and granite mountains. Unfortunately for my blogging purposes that means almost no Internet and no posting. Yet it is a fortunate thing too because being disconnected allows my mind some time to breathe in the fresh mountain air.

I plan on telling you more about the trip when I return home next week, but for now I must resign to the whispering pines calling me back to nature. I hope you all are having a great week, go enjoy some time outdoors if you can, it really does bring a new life to things :)