Ticks And Tea Leaves

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In the last week, I’ve run my first couple of youth-oriented outdoor education programs. The first was as an assistant with the Community School in Tamworth NH, and the second was School of the Forest’s first session of our “Family Nature Walk” series. In each of these, I got the opportunity to see kids interact with the outdoors, and that’s what this is all about, isn’t it?

The most fascinating aspect of this for me is seeing the incredible variation in what gets a young person excited about the experience. That little bit of information, or the sight of a particular plant or animal that makes the gears in the kid’s head start turning. It’s not always what you’d expect either. Just in these first two sessions, I got to see a beautiful contrast in personalities and what draws them to open the door and ” throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence.” as our old friend Muir said.

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In my time at the Community School, we focused on vernal ponds. Hiking through the woods to where the overflow of streams had created said pools the kids caught me up on what they’d been doing so far in their outdoor course. This group of middle schoolers had already started digging into topo maps, building three-dimensional models of local peaks. They’d even gone so far as to color coordinate them based on changes in terrain, and place markers for campsites, trails and other landmarks. When we reached the pools we talked a bit about the ecosystem that sprouts up in these short-lived bodies of water, and then the fun began. There is no joy like mucking about in mud and grime, and flipping stones looking for things that slide and crawl.

The longer you sit and look at anything in nature the more you see. As Margaret, the instructor from the school and I talked about the easy stuff to spot (Caddisfly larvae, frog and salamander eggs etc) the kid’s eyes were unfocused and bouncing around the pool as little motions and ripples hinted at things not yet seen. After the initial schpiel, the kids got turned loose with sifters and buckets, pulling up all manner of living things from the pools, and as we all sat on our haunches more and more of the tiny ecosystem in front of us started to become visible. Frogs that had been sitting still in the grasses were spotted, a salamander meandered its way across the pool’s floor.

One young man in particular simply sat quietly on a log, not really drawn to the pool as the rest of us were. However as the afternoon stretched on, he started to speak with fascination about ticks. It started an entire discussion among the kids, with opinions following the full range of “I thought I saw a Deer Tick on me, and it was terrifying” to a simple “EEEEW” (read at the highest vocal register possible). The previously mentioned log sitter passed through these two stages and came out on the other side with questions about a tick’s life cycle, and why they were currently in such abundance. As we talked about “the hatch” that was going on as the weather changed towards warmth those gears and cogs in his mind started to supply questions. Questions I could not answer but have been assured he’ll be able to very soon. Ticks. Arguably the most reviled of crawling things had ignited that first ember in this kid and sent him down a path of wondering.

 

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A Red Eft, the juvenile stage of the Eastern Newt.

 

So onto the next one. School Of The Forest’s nature walks are each centered around a specific subject. This week’s was tree identification and an introduction to the art and process of pressing samples from plants. I had sort of set in my mind certain “cool” little bits of trivia about each plant we talked about that I thought would artificially light that spark we keep talking about. The kids (and parents) found these interesting, but the whole “close but no cigar” trope was pretty applicable.

So I was incredibly surprised when the youngest kid in the bunch was drawn in by the idea of making pine needle tea. Something about this just burrowed into his happy little soul and I watched him drop each of his other clippings one by one as he filled his and “Pappi’s” pockets with pine needles to make take home for tea. It didn’t end there either, every five minutes as we walked from spot to spot, he’d walk up to me with a leaf or twig and ask about it’s chances of making his tea better.

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If I learned one thing from this kiddo, it’s that I need to up my knowledge of wild teas.

While building School Of The Forest, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do, but as I work more and more with young people I’m learning to ease up on the reins of each class a bit and let kids just flip rocks looking for Efts (pictured above), and pick potential tea leaves. It’s not about a strict outline, followed point by point. It’s about that spark, and how best to add air and fuel to turn it to an ember that will smolder into something more. Apparently, Ticks and Tealeaves make pretty good fuel.

 

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A Year In Review

I’m finishing up this piece sitting on a group of friends’ deck in Chicago. It’s fitting. A year ago I sat on the same deck with the friends I’ve known for years, trying to explain why I was leaving my life in St. Louis to go to a semester long course in northern Maine. 

I didn’t have a plan past that. I just wanted a break from the everyday. A chance to get my monsters in check, to sort through the events that led me to need a break in the first place. I went looking for nothing more than an interesting experience. What I found was a lifestyle that did away with previously mentioned monsters entirely. Jack Mountain, and the people I met, didn’t give me what I thought I wanted, but it gave me what I didn’t know I needed. 

It’s hard to explain the last year in a way that doesn’t come off as performing lip service to the school, fellow students and the instructors that have been instrumental in sheparding me towards a way of life that not only brings me more joy than I’ve ever known, but allows me the opportunity to pass that joy onto other like minded souls. Each experience I had that impacted me on a visceral level was crafted by people more experienced, and more knowledgeable than I am. I will forever be grateful to them for those experiences and the generosity they’ve shown in sharing their know-how with me. 

So the past year. That’s what we’re here to talk about. This piece of scribbling could be longer than anything else I’ve written, but I’m just going to chat about the “big three”. Three moments in the last year that stick out in the tectonic shifting that shaped this new life.

1. Seeds of School Of The Forest

April seventeenth was the start of the semester I participated in at Jack Mountain Bushcraft school and guide service. Over those nine weeks I was introduced to skills and methods of living that will forever be the ground work for any program I teach. I learned about “frilufstliv”, or the idea of living a life that has a real and constantly evolving relationship with the outdoors. The moment in this semester that truly shifted my course in life was a rainy Thursday afternoon when I went setting trail markers with my instructor and friend, Tim Smith. As we walked we chatted back and forth about future plans and what I was getting from the course. As we wandered along the paths hammering blazes onto trees, we talked about my desire to bring people into this lifestyle at an earlier age. Tim mentioned off hand that he had run a youth program a few years back, and would love to see it revived. I expressed my interest in being involved, but didn’t think much more about it. It continued to lay low in my mind, dropping in and out of thought, always growing and making its call louder and louder. Now it’s my pleasure to not only be involved with it, but to be running the program itself. It’s a ridiculously underserved opportunity, but I’m grateful and excited that the project is off the ground and has courses listed on its calendar. 

2. Homecoming

I stayed for six months in Baltimore working, but mostly killing time until I could head north again. It was an eye opener after living a sustainable outdoor lifestyle for nine weeks. I’d always previoualy thought of good ol’ charm city as some sort of personal Xanadu. Now though, it serves as a reminder of how detached from the natural world our culture has become. Not by any fault of their own, the folks I worked with had no frame of reference to discuss the experiences I love having in the outdoors. Not the “adventures” or moments of internal/external struggle that invariably become the talking points when discussing the outdoor industry. People want to hear about the romance and the trials, but those aren’t the moments that keep me doing this. It’s those little moments where all is right. They are fueled by simple things, like a pot of trail coffee and the sound of snow falling, or a sit spot that you’ve watched go through its shift from spring to summer. These are the things I want to talk about, but are hard to discuss without a prior reference point for both indivuals. Baltimore cemented my resolve that school of the forest is a worthy endeavor. I saw detachment from, and fear of the world that brings me so much joy. SOTF gives me the opportunity to pass this on to young people and hopefully affect their internal lives for the better.

3. A community on the outskirts of the norm

This industry seems to attract certain types of people. A lot of the self described “lone wolves” seem to rise and bare their teeth in an attempt to make their presence known. In my experience so far, they end up whimpering and sulking away when the day to day work needs to be done. They want the romance of the life, and the ego stroking that comes with having a captive audience to be macho and “independent” at. My friend and associate Ben Spencer put it best while discussing this very subject. “Our best ‘survival skill’ has always been our ability to get along with other people.” 

He said this in passing on a long drive back from northern Quebec, and it wiggled its way down into my brain. It’s the most succinct explanation of humanities’ growth as a species and is becoming more and more relevant in an increasingly interconnected world. Words of wisdom from a fellow filthy vagrant. 

And that’s the amazing thing about this tight little community I’ve somehow tumbled heel over head into. They are an eclectic, intelligent, completely bizzare group of lost souls. Seekers of something more in this life. Something old, that lives in our deepest memories of primordial soup. Sure, half the time our conversations are crass and filled with the worst jokes of every category (dad jokes, groaners, thinly veiled threats of violence) but at the end of the day we as a strange little collective find the meaning we require in our sweat of the day mixed with the nuerons that fire as we sit around our cook fire at night talking about the desire for others to experience this amazing natural world we live in. The outdoor industry feels like home, and it does so because of the people who’ve welcomed me into it. They are too many to mention here, but they know who they are, and the effect they’ve had on me.  

Thanks for keeping up with my ramblings for the last year, and here’s to the next one. Let’s hope it’s filled with bad puns on trail and all the boots I can eat. 

Winter Living With The Cree (Finale)

Our last few days in Ouje consisted mostly of repition. Checking traps, nets and snares. We’d settled into a rythm of sorts, and that’s not something to take for granted. Life isn’t made up of adventures everyday, or constant excitement. This is the case in an office job as much as in a substinanence lifestyle. Call it “the grind” or a “rat race”, most days consist of repeated actions that sustain us in some way. 

We snared a few more rabbits, but also saw most of the traps come up empty. Laurence and Anna had been after a Marten that’s been roaming around the camp, and had set up a few traps in separate locations with this goal in mind. We snowshoed out to their locations everyday, and each time were disappointed by the lack of Marten in them. It’s a reality check of sorts. Expectation v. Reality is an ongoing struggle for some folks in the outdoor industry. Especially with the rise of social media. We only see the successful hunts, the selfies at mountain peaks and the perfect campsites. So it’s understandable that some of us (myself included) go into some experiences with a preset image of how said experience will go. That’s not how life works, let alone a lifestyle as dependent on uncontrollable variables as the one we experienced in Quebec. 

We did have a few other projects worth mentioning, the first being our snowshovels. The Cree carry small, hand carved snow shovels for the same purpose we use them for, as well as for getting ice out of a newly chiseled fishing hole. They’re beautiful to look at, combining the simplicity of purpose with vibrant colors and patterns. Traditional Cree snowshoes achieve the same concept. They are a tool, and the appeal of them comes not only from their asthetic appearance, but from the way they interact with their intended environment. Snowshoes, for example. The traditional model of a Cree snowshoe is decorated with small colored fibers on their upturned tips, and when they move through the snow the colors, the flexibility of the decoration combine with the motion of the shoes as they drift through powder, drawing the eye into the illusion of something with a life of its own. 

Seeing the process of making a snowshovel as well as taking part in it ourselves forced us to consider not only the shapes we wanted to carve, but the function we needed those shapes to perform. 

                                           Masters at work

There are limited power tools available in the bush. David shaped the forms of the snow shovel with a chain saw, then used an axe to flesh out the basic curves and lines. The understanding of the tool, and the hours logged using it become apparent immediately. Once the basic shape is pulled out of the birch, a crooked knife is employed. Traditionally, axe and crooked knife are the only tools used. 

As we worked the shovels into shape, Laurence and David watched. Their method of teaching was more like being a guide. When we had questions about a next step or a specific curve in the shovel, they simply told us to shovel some snow. It was a continuation of the practical approach they took to a tools use. When we used the unfinished shovel, we could see what needed to change in order for it to be more effective. There are few things as rewarding as making a tool, and employing it for its designated purpose. 

With the shovels carved, we spent the rest of the day rechecking traps, and helping dig out a collapsed shelter. In doing this the necessity of snowshoes in the environment we were inhabiting became apparent. The trail we walked to reach the shelter was hard packed, and didn’t require the distribution of weight that snowshoes provide, but once we reached the walls of the shelter itself we struggled to stay on top of the snow while we dug out enough snow to hop over the waist high wooden walls. 

While we worked with Laurence to empty the shelter frame of snow, we didn’t speak much. The quiet was only broken by small bursts of laughter when one of us slipped, or a leg crunched through the deep snowdrifts on either side of the frame. It was good to simply work, as always. 

By the time we’d finished, it was time for dinner. Our last meal with the Cree was a culmination of a lot of the work we’d done over the week. Stewed snowshoe hare, boiled sucker fish, and the biggest pot of moose meat you can imagine. A few of David and Anna’s children joined us for dinner, joking with us about the best parts of the various dishes we partook in. Even convincing Ben, Colin and I to try the brains of the snowshoe hares. I’ve had fried pig and calf brain sandwiches (Baltimore cusine; if you can fry it, you can eat it) but the rabbit brains were something completely new. Nothing went to waste from the animals we’d harvested. Fish heads, rabbit offal and every other edible piece of these animals was laid out in front of us. 

After dinner, Anna, David and Laurence came to our tent and told stories, sang Johnny Cash songs with us and prepared to say our goodbyes. Before we called it a night however, Anna showed us a special part of Cree culture; the care of infants. This started by bringing the skins of the hare’s we’d caught, now dried and stretched, and demonstrating how to cut and spin the hides into long rabbit fur ropes that would be woven together to make a child’s coat. 

As we sounds the skins, David told us more stories about his life in the bush, and about his memories of the shifting world he’s witnessed as the Cree started to modernize. Once he’d finished, and the rabbit “yarn” had been spun, Anna brought out a finished child’s coat for us to see. She joked that it was a shame none of us were small enough to try it on. As the bag of bones in the group, I offered to give it a try and draped the hood of the coat over my head, while holding the freshly sounds hides up to my face like a beard. Laurence laughed and said I looked like “Daniel Boone”. 

As Anna showed us more of the ins and outs of child care, it seemed that this was the most important thing she’d showed us. We could see the joy in her face as she talked about building the baby’s hammock, and how Cree diapers and swaddling had been practiced. As the night slowly came to an end, it seemed right that our time with the Cree ended with an insight into how their lives had begun. Or maybe I’ve read too much poetry for my own good. 

This experience was one I’ll think of often. We witnessed ways of teaching, and a philosophy behind it that was counter intuitive to our Western education background. We only got a glimpse of life in the bush, and I know for certain that I’ll be hankering for another taste until I get back up to the great white north. 


As always, if you’ve got questions about the experience, or want to know more about Ouje-bougomou and setting up a visit don’t hesitate to ask. 

Slainte Maithe

The Art Of Gear Checks.

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Whelp,  it’s almost time to head north folks.

I’m mostly packed up and to my mind that’s the most important part of any trip. Not the packing, but the preparation that comes along with it. Making a checklist of gear and supplies, and going through it a few times saves a lot of headaches once you’re on trail.

I’ve become fascinated with trip prep over the years. It’s not something we see a lot of in books, movies and stories about expeditions, but it’s probably the only reason those expeditions could happen. Folks planning long periods of time away from the conveniences of life have to think of every factor possible. That’s hard enough to do for yourself, let alone a large group of people. In the stories of glory and adventure we tend to see in fiction of any kind about the outdoors, it gets left out. No body wants to see fourty five minutes of a movie in which the two main characters argue about whether or not to bring the extra tarp. (An actual experience I’ve had. I still stand by the fact that we needed the extra tarp.)

Almost all of the books I’ve read on guiding stress the importance of checklists, gear checks etc. That goes without saying. What hammers it home is hearing anecdotes from others about some vital piece of gear, or seemingly obvious part of the list that was left sitting on the kitchen table, or countertop when everyone piles into the truck. People are excited to get out on their trek. Of course, as a guide you are too. That doesn’t excuse your responsibility to the group to make sure every knot is tied correctly, and every ingredient of the meals has been measured and packed.

One of my favorite exercises at Jack Mountain was writing up meal plans for our expeditions. It was a mundane, necessary, and albeit somewhat tedious task. You keep track of your food intake over the week, then use that data to plan for the trip appropriately. This method of planning takes a bit of forethought, and an understanding of what you really need. Not to “survive”, but to be comfortable enough that being on trail is what it should be. Relaxing, and an experience that you’ll remember fondly instead of looking back on it as “that time I didn’t bring enough flour and was miserable the last two days of hiking.

It doesn’t just apply to food. I’m a natural “but what if I really NEED these twelve extra axes?” sort of packer. It can be a problem if you don’t really step back and look at your habits on trail and make sure that what you pack is what you need. Sure, bring along an extra item or two, if you think it’ll bring something to the experience.

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                             (You know, like a shield. That you need. For obvious reasons)

In some downtime during courses, I read a book called “New York to Nome” by Rick Steber. It’s an account of the experiences of Shell Taylor and Geoffrey Pope paddling from the Hudson bay, across North America, all the way to nome, Alaska. In it they see all sorts of incredible things, but they also go into details about how they set up food and gear drops, rationed out food when necessary etc. That makes it all seem pretty well plotted out. I’ll let you read the book yourself and see why it was decidedly not that.

 

It’s tempting to fly by the seat of your pants when you go on a vacation, or even just an over night trip somewhere. In most modern getaways, you can do that and be just fine. It’s important for either solo outdoors folks, guides, or even parents taking their family out for a weekend to keep in mind the limitations of being out and away from the conveniences of life, and plan for them accordingly. Hell, even if you’re just going with a group of friends, it can’t hurt to plan for the inevitable “Oh geez, I didn’t even THINK about bringing a sleeping bag” friend (We’ve all got one) and toss an extra blanket in the trunk.

This article is sort of short, as I’m putting the final touches on little details for the next coming months of school and snowshoeing with the Cree in northern Quebec. As well as hammering out little nagging thoughts about the project that’s coming afterward.

Oh, and it’s the holidays? Whoops. Knew I was missing something.

 

Watch this space. Big stuff coming.

Slainte Maithe everyone.

 

 

The Calvert Cliffs


I forgot how much Maryland has to offer. It’s “America in miniature”, after all. An hour or so in any direction will put you in a completely different ecosystem. My favorite has always been the marshes here, especially the ones on the coast. That “in miniature” aspect of my home state is compressed even more in them, and I’ve never seen a better example of that than the cliffs of Calvert. 

Calvert cliffs are about two hours south of Baltimore, almost at the edge of the Chesapeake bay. I didn’t even know about them until my uncle sent me an article. I invited my grandfather along. He’s always had a camera in his hands, and since he retired that’s become even more true. I figured it’d be a nice outing with him, and a chance for him to snap a few shots along the hike. 


The trails aren’t long (none of them are more than two miles) but that’s sort of why I loved them. They compress the hardwood forests with the beach ecosystem and create a marsh of brackish water in between them. Beavers have dammed the stream that runs through the park and flooded the area until a wide, still pond was born. It’s been populated by all manner of wildlife and in most places enough water lilies to obscure the water itself from view. 

The park is a hotspot for fossil collecting. There were quite a few families on the beach sifting through the sand looking for shells and fossilized shark’s teeth. Gramps and I spent forty-five minutes or so meandering around the beach looking for driftwood for my grandmother, and enjoying the sound of the waves. I found a few fossilized scallop shells, and waded out into the sea (no matter how cool the weather, I can’t resist the chance to get into the water). 

The outlet of the stream into the ocean was my favorite part of the hike. Seeing the reeds and cattails give way to sand, stone and salt water just had something beautiful about it I’ve yet to find words for. 


The park itself seems to be a pretty popular place for people to visit, and that meant a scarcity of wildlife, but it was clear that life was there. Heron tracks ran along the small stream where fresh water turned to brine, and beaver dams and old lodges littered the ponds. I’d love to visit on a weekday, early in the morning and watch the herons Wade through the brackish water, capitalizing on the overlap of freshwater prey, and trapped crabs and fish from the ocean. 

The walk back to the car was a great chance to chat with my grandfather. I’ve always admired his quiet way of seeing the world. He lives in a family of talkative, argumentative folks, but he just sits and listens. He notices things that a lot of people wouldn’t, and takes his time forming opinions. He talks a lot about being proud of his children and grandchildren for being educated, but doesn’t consider himself to be “smart”. The truth is, he’s the wisest person I know, and it was good to just walk through the wild with a person who imparted the love of it to me, and talk about life, and the things we find beautiful in it. 

This may have been the last little weekend trip I take, and I’m glad I got to spend it with Gramps. I’m beyond excited to get back up north, but it’s going to be hard to leave my marshes and wetlands behind when the time comes. 

Eating The Red Berries


Spicy food is an odd thing. It’s an evolutionary attempt by plants to keep us and other animals from eating them. It makes sense, if you eat a pepper once and it hurts your mouth, you’re not likely to try it again right? 

Not our species though. We’re notoriously bad at learning from our mistakes, and the mistakes of those around us. There’s a theory out there about”eating the red berries”. An older, more experienced ancestor would know from experience what berries were toxic, and avoid them. So a younger member of the tribe/group would learn by watching them and the knowledge of what’s safe to eat gets passed down this way. 

We’ve sort of lost this ability, or at least some of us have. We revel in attempting things that we know are impossible, or at least uncomfortable. To keep going with the food topic, think of the various”challenges” that show up every couple of months. Cinnamon was the challenge of choice when I was in highschool, and then I got to witness one of the most objectively intelligent people I know attempt the”Gatorade” challenge during a course in Maine, knowing factually that it would make him feel sick. 

Even after seeing plenty of examples of others failing these challenges, some of us still have this innate need to try them anyway. Food with kick to it has even become a cultural staple in some cases. We love the tingling burn it leaves on our lips, even if it’ll make us feel awful in a few hours. We all want to be the person to sample the red berries and come back to the group saying “look, this is ok”, and if we can ALL eat them as a group it becomes a bonding experience, and the natural end point of passing of knowledge. 

That skill has a purpose, but we live in a time where it isn’t necessarily required. The knowledge we’re hoping to acquire first hand already exists, and is easily accessible. So what is it in some of us that aches to attempt it anyway? Arrogance and ignorance, if you’re asking me. 

We can apply the same line of thinking to outdoor activities fairly easily. We go to “inhospitable” places, and for some reason bask in the glory we perceive we’re garnering by doing so, and that glory isn’t just from the outside. Society lifts up explorers and people who summit Everest etc, and it makes sense. They’ve eaten the berries. They’ve come back saying”look, we can do this. YOU can do this”. 

Look at Everest. We know the names of those that attempted the first summits, but now it’s something plenty of people do every year. That’s not to diminish the personal accomplishments of those who came after, but to point out that once something’s been shown to be doable, folks will do it without reservations. 

This has translated into a slew of modern day “adventures”. People who make their living by going out and having experiences in the natural world. They lead rough lives, lives that physically tax them to the extremes, and for no reason beside the experience. The map’s pretty much been drawn. They aren’t discovering new places, or climbing previously unsummited cliffs. 

If you ask me, thats pretty amazing. Breathtaking experiences aren’t only for the red berry eaters anymore. Or rather, we all get to be red berry eaters now. We all have the opportunity to be the tardiest of explorers, increasing the knowledge of a place for the group, but still having personal experiences that allow us to grow exponentially. 

There’s obviously problems that come along with this. Unprepared folks that end up injured, less than ecologically minded people who leave the places worse then they found it. Those are valid issues, that can only be remedied by education and understanding, and to an optimist like myself, the fact that these people are going to these remote places to begin with means they’re open to expansion of their understanding. (This optimism thing is likely to plant both feet firmly in my esophagus.) 

But, as far as I can tell those are the real issues of a societal shift towards personal exploration. There are plenty of complaints and think pieces naysaying those of us who crave this lifestyle. It’s understandable, and a lot of it comes from people who are caretakers of the wild places that are being explored. It’s a fair point, and paired with an appropriate educational plan for visitors will hopefully help. 

(Sharing what I know. Trying at least)

And that brings us back around to that”shared knowledge base” we talked about. Information is as easily accessible as the places we want to explore. While it’s tempting to go into them blind, assuming we can handle whatever it throws our way. That’s the wrong approach, or at the very least the arrogant one. 

All this knowledge has been gleaned by this that came before us. They are the red berries for us, and came back telling us we could too. They also came back telling us about which ones we shouldn’t. We’d be idiots not to listen. 

So by all means, eat the red berries, but when those who’ve come before us have given us  warning of what NOT to eat, we’re obligated to listen to that part as well. Enjoy your time in these beautiful places, but don’t assume you know better then others, and listen to them when they advise you. Not only are you helping preserve the places for others, you’re hopefully adding to the communal knowledge and helping those who come after you. You’re eating the red berries for the generation that comes after you. 

“Like them I left a settled life, I threw it all away”

The song “northwest passage” is my favorite song by Stan Rogers, and the line that grew into the title of this piece is why. 

When those of us who’ve tasted the road and the wilds at either end of her,return to real life its jarring. We see old friends and enjoy ourselves, but there’s something different in our interactions with them. 

On my trip back to St. Louis for a friends wedding, I got to spend time with my best friend and former roommate. It was wonderful, but we’re on different paths now and it was glaringly obvious. He’s enjoying domestic bliss, working a good job that he enjoys and for all I could tell is really happy. It was wonderful to see, but afterwards I was even more certain that sort of life isn’t for me. It’s that “settled life” I was sliding into working for Governor Holden, and the exact life that was keeping me miserable. 

We trade things to live this life don’t we? Things we don’t even know we’re trading when we make the deal. We know them in an abstract sort of way, but as we get further down the road they get pointed out in a more realistic way. We see friends start families, and live in a way that seems alien to us. We try to stay in touch and keep up with them, but it gets harder and harder. Relationships of any kind take work, and maintenance, and that’s tough to achieve in a normal situation, let alone one that involves miles between and spotty cell service. 

It brings acorns to mind. Our friends and family have found a good patch to settle into, and have started laying roots. It’s good, it’s what acorns are supposed to do. It’s not a criticism of anyone to say they’ve settled down. The only people I’ve known who sling that phrase like mud are those that can’t find happiness in the joy of others, or that want to do the same thing but haven’t managed it yet. 

Then there’s acorns that drop into a stream and get carried a ways. Sure, most of them eventually find a mooring along the way and start putting down those roots. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to do that, but I’m not counting on it. For now I’m just enjoying the ride towards wherever this stream takes me. 

It’s what I’ve always wanted, and what I’ve known for a long time. The road, and the places along it are my loved ones, and it’s important to think of them that way. The road, and all it brings can be lonley things when you think of them as something in-between stages of life, instead of acknowledgeing that the road is an entity. More than that, it’s the entity you traded security, relationships and so much more to be with. She offers you something no other way of life could, and in return you’re expected to forego a lot of other aspects of life. I’ve seen people who can juggle both lifestyles, and I applaud them for it. I can’t, at least not right now. 

(I’ll take this over anything)

Its difficult not to think about the allegory of the cave here in some way. Except that it’s not that either party has reached a higher levof understanding. It’s more that they’ve exited the cave on opposite sides, and found something good on both, but have no frame of reference to explain it to the other. My experiences in Maine, and the goals I’ll be trying to accomplish with my next project are pretty counter intuitive to someone who doesn’t see anything wrong with existing in a city, or falling asleep to the constant sound of combustion engines.

(Attempting to bridge the gap between lifestyles)

 Just as difficult, is convincing me that the things that come along with their lifestyle is something I’d like to do outside of a visit. I’ve always had a bit of the zealot in me, and it’s a struggle to not be dogmatic about this life, especially when I’ve personally seen so much improvement in my life since I started the shift towards it. I would turn it into a crusade if I didn’t keep reminding myself that what works for me, won’t necessarily work for everyone else. 

That’s the toughest part of self discovery in life I think. You find something great, and you want to share it with people you care about. The danger arises from assuming they want to hear about it. 

 
So, what’s the point of this little scribbling? 

The truth is I don’t know. I was hoping that as I wrote my thoughts down an answer would appear between the phrases. All I got was observations, but at the very least they’re out of my head and on the page now. 

Hit the road, and hit it hard my friends. 

Three hundred thousand miles 

I just went on a road trip back to the Midwest, and that road trip ticked my odometer over the 300k mark. 

(Admittedly, I replaced my engine two years ago. Otherwise Jeep Prime would be dead by now)

Now, this isn’t a review of Jeeps, or a love letter too cars. This is about mileage.

I think of that mileage the way a geologist would think of digging down through layers of rock. As they go down they find different indicators. Stone that was probably carried by melting glaciers, volcanic rock from long dead magma. 

That’s what the miles on my Jeep mean to me. I can look at a certain stretch of miles and remember the places I was. From 299k to 300k, will always bring to mind this last trip. Stu and Morgan’s wedding, where I got to see two lovely people celebrate how happy they are, and will be as long as they’re with each other, and catch up with people I haven’t seen in years. Time spent with my closest friends in Stl, writing Tom Wait’s style songs about a woman who smells of Potato salad on a warm day, and time with the Chicago gang, building them a fire, having a few beers and reminiscing on life, and the paths we’ve all been taking. 

Somewhere around 250k I was on my way to Georgia, to start my attempt at the Appalachian trail. I only made it halfway through that hike, but it was still the moment when what I wanted became clearer. When I knew the outdoors was where I needed to be. That wouldn’t come to fruition for a few years, but it started there. 

Or the miles could bring to mind a drive to new Orleans with my other universal movie monsters. A week of revelry and excess. Getting to experience new Orleans away from bourbon street, meeting fellow Baltimoreans and loving the surprising common thread. 

The further back I go with this, the more nostalgic it becomes. Road trips with former girlfriends, driving back home to Maryland to see family. Cavorting around st. Louis with my friends (that last one is a phrase my father used to describe my wayward ways during college. In retrospect he’s right. I should have been studying instead of driving to parks and bars)

And that’s what I like so much about this method of memory. Jeep Prime (yup, that’s still his name) has been the biggest constant in my life, and due to that, can be linked to all the events. Bringing Rep home for the first time, getting rear ended by an old woman who was more concerned with the tiny dent in my bumper than the folded up hood on her little Prius. 

The mileage thing might not work for everything, but it’s important to find something like this to attach memory to. Sure, journaling is a great option, but words don’t bring back sensory memories the way other forms do. When I remember miles 299k-301k, I’ll be flooded with the smells of fire, and gin buckets. The sounds of Morgan and Stu laughing during their first dance, and everyone cheering for them as they start their new life. The ache of my ribs after laughing long into the night with the guys in Chicago. 

So find something you can make little mental notches in. Boots are good, if you’re a hiker. Or a collection of playlists, each one reminding you of a period of time. 

For me though, nothing’s going to beat Jeep Prime as a reminder of all the places I’ve been, and things I’ve seen. 

Cranky bones, transform and roll out. 

A Follow Up On Angie

Six months ago I was on my way north for what I now know was the most important course I’ve ever taken. I was wrapped up in my excitement and joy to be leaving St. Louis. At a small rest stop in Indiana I met Angie, and I was so struck by our conversation that I wrote about her on my site. It had nothing to do with the content of my usual work, but I was so profoundly heartbroken by this woman’s story that I couldn’t help it. It was something I simply had to do, because I couldn’t do much else. It’s since become the fourth most read article on primitiveaddictions.com

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And the truth is, it should be. If anything it should be the most read. Because the things touched on it will always be a part of our lives as human beings. People like Angie will always need our help, and we should be as forthright with that help as we can be.

 

But that’s another article. Today’s is in a much happier tone. A few weeks ago I got an email from an address I didn’t recognize. The subject line simply read “Thank you”. Now, as the bleeding heart hippie I am, I’m subscribed to a lot of political/environmental awareness newsletters and almost didn’t open it, assuming it was another ad about some political victory that I had nothing to do with, but some organization thought I “needed” to know about. On this basis I didn’t open it.

 

Boy am I glad I did so later. It was from Angie.

It wasn’t long, and it wasn’t detailed, but in it she let me know that she had found work, and a place to stay, and was writing me from the library, where she had just read my article. She asked if she could pay me back for the cliff bars.

I’ll admit, I choked up when I read that particular line.

She explained that she’d kept my website’s name, and forgotten about it until she found it in the console of her car. Through the website she found my contact information and wanted to get in touch.

She ended the email with “thank you for the words.” That phrase will be the new bench mark for my writing, because it sums up why a lot of us write. Sure, sometimes it’s a simple exercise in expunging a thought, or a way to organize a stampede of them that we can’t wrangle otherwise. A lot of the time though, it’s an attempt to reach out. Not to anyone in particular, but to some unknown person or group. We put it down on paper or megabyte and say “look, this is what I’m thinking and I know it’s got to resonate with somebody out there.”

I can’t really put into words the feelings I have about her statement though. On the one hand I know cerebrally that I didn’t DO much of anything. I scribbled my thoughts down, put them up on the internet and then forgot about it. I did the least amount of work I could without actually affecting my life in anyway.

On the other, something I wrote touched someone’s life in a positive way. I don’t know how to explain what that feels like as a writer. I don’t even KNOW how to describe exactly what it feels like, but I wish more people could feel it.

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The truth is they can, and in bigger amounts than I did. By giving, by helping. As I said, I did next to nothing. I wrote. I didn’t help her get a place to stay for the night, or anything that really cost me a damn thing. I will do my best to make up for that in the future, and if you take anything away from this, or the previous article, I hope it’s a drive to pay attention to unimportant people. By that I mean people that you could walk by, look at and move on without the interaction having any effect on your life. My generation CRAVES meaning in our lives, and I think at the very least this is a good place to start. If you have excess of any kind (time, money, things) and are comfortable with having a bit less, look for people who need that little bit you’ll take off the top. I know a lot of young people read this, and I know that it’s hard just to get by right now for some of them. I’m not advocating giving away so much that you can’t take care of yourself.

 

What I am advocating is “a little off the top”. That weekend you planned on sleeping in till noon? Skip it. Find an opportunity to give that little off the top. There are volunteer organizations in every town, and they need help. I guarantee it. It doesn’t have to be a homeless shelter. (But I hope it is) Sure, you’ll miss those extra hours of sleep, but if at the end of the day you feel anything close to what I felt reading her response, and just knowing she was ok? It’ll be worth it. You’ve got ol’ cranky bones’ word on that.

Here’s a couple of links that I posted with the last one. You know, just to get you started.

http://www.homelessshelterdirectory.org

http://www.salvationarmyusa.org

http://www.chicagohomeless.org

 

 

The Big Shift 

I have been a student all my life. I plan on continuing to be one for the remainder of it. However, starting next year, I’ll be making”the big shift” from student to instructor. I’ll be moving (again) to New Hampshire and helping the owner and head instructor of my school in Maine start a youth program

Now, in retrospect I’ve been helping with courses like this for a long time. Different subject matter, but similar formats. In highschool I worked for my fencing coach on occasion, going with him to fencing demos at schools, and teaching/performing at Renaissance Fair’s. Eventually, doing a few demo’s on my own when my coach couldn’t find the time. I helped facilitate groups attending Heifer international’s poverty courses in Arkansas, and organized youth programs for the Midwest-US China association. 

Its a big change in mindset though, to go from student to teacher. It takes a basic comfort in the subject, paired with an understanding that the people you teach may be completely oblivious to the little details of it that you take for granted. 

On top of that, it’s likely the most responsibility I’ve ever shouldered. The purpose of the courses I’ll be running is not just to inform, but to help young people find something that is missing from modern life. A closeness, and deeper understanding of nature and our place in it. I am of the mind that this is at the root of a lot of modern issues, and I’m not alone. In his book “Last child in the woods” author Richard Louv lays out a description of modern children and the way they are educated that lacks any real immersion in the outdoors. He refers to a “nature deficient” generation, that I was born into, but due to the choice of my parents to homeschool my siblings and I, observed from the outside. As Louv talks about all the things previous generations were able to partake in (Unstructured outdoor time, gardening, nature walks etc) that young people today simply don’t do, some mental and emotional puzzle pieces that have been irking me for a long time started to fall into place.  

I was lucky in my young life to have a school structure that encouraged me to be outdoors (this is all your fault Ma), it allowed curiosity to grow that was stifled in the one year I attended a regular grade school. Once I completed the scheduled curriculum content, that was it. Information and understanding was a step in a ladder that teachers would only allow me, and the rest of the class to climb so high on, because if we went to far ahead, what would they teach tomorrow? It created boredom, and a tendency to create problems for teachers. Which really meant I took time away from other students during some classes. To them I apologize wholeheartedly. 

So, the antithesis of this is the guiding factor as I create lesson plans in preparation for this new project. I want to have to say “I don’t know” in answer to questions on occasion, and follow it up with”why don’t we figure it out?” Not only does this mean that I’ll be learning as I teach, but hopefully it will help students to light that spark of curiosity and gently give it air, and fuel until it’s a roaring fire they can cook their ideas on.

Between that as my guide, and the fact that I’m also responsible for these kids safety. (Outdoor activities involve a few potentially dangerous tools, if not used properly, as well as the simple fact that kids fall a lot) the task can seem pretty daunting. However, when I remember all the time I’ve spent outdoors, and the training I received at Jack Mountain, and in all those other projects mentioned earlier, I know I’ve got a good set of skills to start with but plenty to learn as I go. 

So, that big shift? I pretty well stoked for it. Now I just have to ask my siblings about all the stupid things they remember us getting into when Ma took us hiking so that I can keep an eye out for students attempting them. 

And that’s another reason I’m excited for this. Some of my favorite memories involve my youngest siblings and being outside with them. When there’s six of you, there’s a pretty big age gap between the oldest and the youngest. Which meant that I could help them as problems arose, or answer questions if I knew them. 

In particular I remember going to Rockwood state park with my youngest brother, Pj. He couldn’t have been more than seven or eight at the time. Inside the visitor center was a row of terrariums, filled with local reptiles and amphibians. One of them contained a large, fat tiger salamander that Pj instantly became fascinated with. I don’t recall being particularly drawn to it, but I remember helping him read the placard below its tank. With every new bit of information his eyes hungered for another bit. At the time I remember mostly being annoyed that he couldn’t just read it himself, but in hindsight I see the beginnings of something that’s still a bit part of his life. PJ has had a whole menagerie of lizards, snakes, frogs, fish and anything else you can think of. With that comes a knowledge base that is entirely built on his own curiosity about them. 

Moments like that are what make being an instructor of young people so simultaneously daunting and exciting. If I had let my annoyance at his inability to read stop me from helping, maybe that curiosity would have had one less match lit under it. On the other hand, I have the opportunity to help light more matches along the way, and I likely won’t even know I’ve lit them most of the time, but I can tell you all this, I hope I help regardless. 

I’ll be sure to let you all know as things progress with the program, and as always if you have questions don’t hesitate to ask. 

Slainte Maithe everyone