So, what IS the highest art of living? …

“The highest art is the art of living an ordinary life in an extraordinary manner.” – Tibetan proverb.

Mmmh. Does that make the lowest art the art of living an extraordinary life in an ordinary manner?

If so, then I’m afraid that’s exactly what I’ve been up to.

I guess, first I need to define “ordinary”.
Ordinary – a life that resembles that most commonly lived by the majority of people in one’s culture and society. In my case, I associate “ordinary” with working a 9-5, getting a paycheck, having an immobile home, with flush toilets, and a stove that requires neither denatured alcohol nor lighter. In an ordinary life, people wake up, get dressed, commute to work, spend the day on tasks possibly unrelated to their felt or imagined life-purpose, then maybe fit in some exercise for an hour or so after work, connect with friends, eat a meal, fall asleep, repeat.

(Please note that I count among my friends many who fit this description, yet each shine in a precise, unique way as to never EVER make their lives any less remarkable or fascinating than that of my other friends’, the wildlings, the transients, the roamers. But for the sake of labels and description, let’s use this definition for now.)

For the past 5, 6, or maybe 7 years, I have lived an “extraordinary” life.
Extraordinary – The opposite. No 9-5, no paycheck, no shower, flush toilets or kitchen, unless provided by providence, no schedule, dress-code, lunch breaks, coworkers, boss, time-sheets, no place to which to return at night, because home was with me all along.

Recently, after roaming the reds, tans and browns of the southwest desert for a few months, I began to crave green, as I often do this time of year.
I have that extra bit of hematite in my pineal gland, the same kind that launches flocks of wild geese across the globe. Twice a year, migration knocks on my mind’s door.
And when it does, I can think of little else.
So, I flew north. As they do.
Green meant New Hampshire this year.
New Hampshire meant driving 3,000 miles.
3,000 miles meant the complete bottom end of my saved funds.

Now, I could have, and have in the past, just tighten my belt, followed my whims and expected a miracle. This has been my M.O. for all of my extraordinary years. But this time, something was different. It wasn’t the fact that I got here fasting (and dropped about 10 Lbs) so that I’d have enough cash for fuel to even get here. I’ve written that particular story-line in my life often, and always with a happy ending. It wasn’t the fact that the Catmobile is approaching 280,000 miles and can barely break 35 mph uphill. My love needs love of the mechanical kind. Again, a familiar story-line, harbinger of miracles. It wasn’t, either, the pressure to conform, the need for security, or anything of that sort. I wasn’t tired of roaming, or confused or shameful about my lifestyle. No, none of these … my extraordinary had just become my ordinary, and I needed to shake things up.

So, I did something out of my ordinary – I got two jobs, and parked the Catmobile in a stationary spot. A spot where I have access to friends, a lawn, flush toilets, a shower, a shelf on a fridge and a 4-burner stove (and also, of course, mountains, rivers, woods, etc). Oh my!

I get to be a barista and a yoga instructor for the summer (at least). I am loving waking up in the morning and knowing exactly what I’m doing – I’m going to work. Yay! Normally, I sit on my tailgate for a while in the morning, pondering what, out of an infinity of possibilities, I should do with my wild and wonderful life for that day. Oh, the freedom of not having to decide or even think. I wake up with an alarm, at the same time every day – not when I feel like it or when the sun has made the truck too warm to continue sleeping, but at a precise number on the wheel of human arbitrarily segmented time. I then get to walk through the woods for 35 minutes. That’s my commute. I have to keep a fast pace or I’ll be late. If I’m late to clock in, even by a few minutes, a notice dings on the manager’s phone – because technology now allows such things to exist. Because I work for kind people, it isn’t an issue, but still, if I’m going to have a 9-5, I intend to do it well.
The next 8 hours of my life are not mine to ponder or manage. I make smoothies and fresh pressed juices for health-conscious, wealth-comfortable people. I create espressos, lattes, mochas, iced and steamed, and practice my budding latte foam art. I arrange health food on the shelves and ensure the cooler of iced teas and kombucha is fronted – which literally means bringing all the bottles to the front, in an OCD fashion. When the flow of customers allows it, I retire to the back parking lot with a plate of food from the selection we serve, for 30 minutes exactly. There is a beautiful field we call Narnia and a small beach by the Saco river down a dirt road from where I sit, but it would take about 15 minutes to walk to the river, so 30 minutes there and back, my entire lunch break. So instead, I just sit in the parking lot, in the sun, often with friends, who are also co-workers, and enjoy it. I have a boss. He tells me I’m doing a good job. I get a paycheck. It’s not a big paycheck – it’s not like guiding Grand Canyon or trimming 650 Lbs of marijuana. And because it’s a legal job, I have to give some of it to Uncle Sam. But, it’s a regular influx. And I don’t wonder what miracle will feed me next, because I know there’ll be a paycheck. And that is relaxingly nice, for a change..

So,
I can live and hike in the most mind-bogglingly beautiful desert and barely notice, because my child-like awe for the world is filtered through half-closed eyelids, weighed by personal existential quandaries.
And/Or
I can make each latte, each smoothie the best I’ve ever made, with exact proportions and an extra dose of love with each added scoop of pea protein or spirulina, and align each kombucha bottle with precision, and feel as alive as I have in my most epic moments.

Was I living an extraordinary life in an ordinary manner? Am I now living an ordinary life in an extraordinary manner. What is the measure of one’s life’s normality? And does it even matter? What story do I create for and about myself when I meander the world or rush through the woods to clock on time?

Do I bring any added value to the world when I live one way rather than the other? Does it matter to the world what I do? Does it matter to the woods? Do trees find me less extraordinary because they suspect my destination? By a tree’s standard, am I more ordinary when I act like a wildling? Isn’t that what all the creatures of the woods do? Don’t they also just wake up when they do, look for food, and wander? If the paycheck allows me to buy a bag of nut I share with a squirrel, do squirrels find me extraordinary?

On the day when I had my interview and was hired as a barista, I walked across the parking lot – the same one where I have lunch now – back to the Catmobile. Right there on the ground, as though left for me, a humbly muddy piece of paper with an ancient-scroll-like handwriting caught my eye.  “The highest art is the art of living an ordinary life in an extraordinary manner. – Tibetan proverb” it said. I thought it was so fitting for the occasion that I pinned in on the inside wall of my bedroom, in the back of the truck. But with each passing work day, the less I feel this is right.

If the trees and squirrels don’t care what I do, and I don’t care what humans thinks about what I do, then the judgment is solely internal, a direct reflection of conditioning, a learned reaction to the perception of “ordinary” vs. “extraordinary”. And suddenly, both loose all meaning.

All lives are ordinary, all lives are extraordinary, and the amount to which we are able to love our lives, beyond any labels, I think THAT is the highest art of living.

Isn’t it?

 

witaker
(My daily commute to work. 🙂 )

 

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The Ugly Truth about Living Life to the Fullest

I hear it all the time … “YOU truly live life to the fullest!”
Yeah, way to go, Roaming Bobcat! You are such an inspiration. Way to be free from society, jobs, obligations and Old World expectations, roaming by the will o’ the wisp in your valiant Catmobile, all smiles, gratitude and high vibrations.

Well, I’ll tell you what: I DO live life to the fullest. And it is not all you’ve cracked it to be…

2 days ago. My facebook status read “Sometimes, I feel so blessed, that my only hardship is humility.”
Last night. A friend offered I sleep in his driveway because I was cold, hopeless, and crying.

Crazy Free - new cover from Scott.

“Hi. I am doing a study on the homeless population in Sedona. May I ask you a few questions.”
The lady with the clipboard picked me first. Maybe because I was standing nearest the entrance at the Food Bank, waiting for my number to be called for a free bag of food to sustain me for the week. Maybe because of my three layers of down vests and jackets, the classic look of those of us without a heated space on cold winter nights. Or maybe it was my matted hair – she couldn’t guess of my choice to grow dread locks to celebrate my passage through menopause. Or something about my unhurried pace – letting mothers and people with jobs get ahead in line. I have nowhere else to be, and nothing else to do.
“I’m not homeless.” I told her. “I live in my truck, so I always have my home with me.”
She had a checkbox for that on her form. Vehicle dwellers count as homeless.
“No, I have no income.”, “No, I don’t have health insurance.” “No, I don’t pay taxes” “No, I don’t have electricity.” “No, I don’t use any substance, no drugs, no alcohol” … She had a checkbox for each of my answers.
“Well, I’m not your typical homeless person though,” I could hear the defensiveness in my voice. I mean, I live the way I live “by choice.”
She had a checkbox for that too.

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2 days ago, the Catmobile and I pulled into Slab City, California. The “City” appears on Google Maps as a small cluster of square blocks, complete with streets (Loners on Wheels Rd, Tank Rd, etc.) and neighborhoods (East Jesus, West Satan, etc.) But, in fact, it’s little more than a haphazard congregation of  “homeless” people of the wheeled kind, a mingling (not mixing) of nomadic hippie artists, air-conditioned northern sun-seekers, off-season disoriented burners, and Alexander Supertramp followers.


I fall slightly in all categories, but mostly in the latter.
The first time “Into the Wild” landed in my hands, I was a National Science Foundation Fellow with more annual grant money for my geophysics research than all the paychecks and under-the-table money I have earned combined in the 7 years since I threw caution to the wind and leaped into this strange life I now call my own. That book sparked something wild and unstoppable in me. I didn’t see the tragedy of a troubled young man’s untimely death; I read of a vibrant explorer with the balls to go for it, explore the edges, and follow only his own footsteps, to whatever end.

In time, I’ve become my own Alexander Supertramp. I’ve lived as I pleased, following nothing but my own wishes. I’ve run out of money, repeatedly – to a documented low of $2.62. I’ve slept in the dirt (as a thru-hiker) and on sidewalks (in Cuba). I’ve forgone showers and piled hundreds of thousands of miles on my odometer. I collected friends all over the country, with names as strange as Last on the Bus, the Big Elf, Grey Wolf, Weathercarrot, Quest or Rapunzel. Enough money has always appeared when needed, and not once did I use any one of my 4 college degrees. I taught yoga, posed as a nude model for art classes, worked as a Grand Canyon guide, painted buildings and houses, restored historical windows, dug trenches, shoveled pig and chicken shit, weeded organic gardens, trimmed marijuana, wrote a book about my adventures, and lived off the royalties for a while … and, I’ve had to borrow money, dumpster-dive (mostly for pies). I’ve sung Hare Krishna songs for a free meal, and occasionally relied on food banks and the kindness of strangers. Like Alexander, I joined the ranks of society’s misfits, roamed the desert southwest, and even moved to Alaska.

But our parallel stops there. Because his life stopped then, and mine hasn’t.

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Standing on top of Salvation Mountain, I sent Alexander Supertramp my love and gratitude for the inspiration. gratitude for all the adventures, the friends and the overwhelming freedom inherent to living life this way – our way! I then parked the Catmobile among my misfit peers, and basked in the glow of a gorgeous sunset from the comfort of my pillow. I felt like the Grand Winner of the Jackpot of Life, and fell asleep fully contented about everything in my world.

Alexander was older now. He was walking through the desert, but only I could see him. The rows of RVs had their generators going. That was in the world. So, the noise from the world was in my dream. I was relatively sure this was a dream. I could date Alexander since I could see him. He’d be my invisible boyfriend.
“You died just in time.” I told him. “If you had continued on, you’d have run out of steam, eventually.” He wasn’t listening, but he held my hand as we walked. “All that freedom, it’s exhausting after a while.” Still not listening. “It’s like having so many options paralyzes you, because how can you choose when everything is available?”
There was a banquet for a wedding. A table covered with delectable meals. All of which I had tasted already. He sat and ate.
“Alexander, I think I don’t want to be homeless anymore. I want a kitchen, and a bathtub, a garden to grow my own food, a room for my sewing machine, and a yoga studio nearby where I can teach, and a steady income to buy gear and pay for adventures.”
“Then stop.” He kissed my temple just before I drifted elsewhere, to another dream.

supertramp
skinny slit separatorThere were no restrooms anywhere in Slab City, and no bushes thick enough to hide behind, so I left before sunrise, at the urgent request of my bowels. Then I drove 2 hours and almost ran out of gas before finding both gas and a bathroom.

“Then stop.” he had said. Well, but, I can’t. Just like I can’t stop in Slab City if I need to poo. There’s this urge to always move on. A fear of missing out if I don’t. I can’t go back to where I was before I got on this journey, because, at this point, it’s so far ago and I’m such a different person that I wouldn’t even fit at all “back there.”
And, also, I don’t want to stop for the sake of stopping. I want to stop because I find a spot or situation that I deem worthy of stopping. I’m not just gonna pull in the middle of the desert and say “I stop here. Here’s just fine.”

And what if I did stop? There were towns along the way where I’ve considered stopping, like North Conway, NH or Sedona, AZ. Would I build a peaceful hole to call my own? Get a steady job? A job would bind my daily hours, and the assorted taxes, insurances and utilities would bind my income. So I’d have the money for adventures and gear, and no time to partake in them. The eternal dilemma … I think I’d just shrivel up under the weight of a life ill-fitted to my particular genetic makeup. In fact, I’ve tried to stop in each of these towns. It didn’t take.

When I finally pulled into Sedona, and caught my first glimpse of Thunder Mountain, tears welled up in my eyes. Tears of sadness. An overwhelming sense of stagnation washed over me. I was here again. I always returned here when I didn’t know where else to go. Why? Why always Sedona? Because it’s easy. Because I know I can camp out in the desert, and get my mail at friends’ addresses, and meet people for tea, and hike trails I’ve hiked a hundred times without having to buy a map or ask strangers. I have a “spot” here. Just having this “spot” made me feel stagnant. So, not only I can’t stop, but I can’t return too often either. A pretty dire case of wanderlust!

Then I drove through town – for the first time in over a year. My favorite yoga studio is now closed, as is my favorite coffee shop. Most of the pullouts in the desert now have “no camping” signs, and worse … there is a “camping” sign on my secret road, leading straight to my secret spot – “My” spot, where I have spent months, where I know each cat-claw bush, coyote song and firewood pile. There was a massive camp in “my” spot, with enough water to last an entire season.

So, here is where it stands. The Sedona I always return to no longer exists. It changed while I was gone. So, I can stay here and pretend it’s a new town. and I know I’d discover new “spots” and meet new people. I could even find work here – I have contacts- and save enough to hike the CDT – my next dream adventure.

Oooor … I could go somewhere else, someplace new. Anywhere. I can go anywhere at all. I can go soooo anywhere that I don’t even know where I’d go.

And THAT is the ugly truth about living life to the fullest. How do you define who you’d like to be when infinity represents the boundary of what you can create? How do you narrow it down? How do you remain content with your choices when you can just look over the fence and see the green grass of a small home with a kitchen and a bath? How do you ward off stagnation when movement becomes your norm? How do you reconcile growing your own organic vegetables when you are addicted to the view outside your 32 square foot window to always, always, always be different?

What would Alexander have done, if he hadn’t died?

desert

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P.S: So … I started writing this posted “The Ugly Truth about Living Life to the Fullest” intending to write about how, often, people think I live in a state of La La Land-happiness about how awesome my life is. And anyone on Facebook could easily think that, because I only post when I’m happy. The “Ugly Truth” I wanted to write about is that life comes with great joys and deep sadness, moments of despair and confusion, the whole gamut. The key to “living fully” is NOT to be happy all the time, it is to live everything that happens. Reject nothing, it’s all good … that’s what I came here today to write about, and then, my fingers wrote something else entirely. Probably something I needed to read myself, to know where I’m at. Live Blog Therapy, of sort.

And also, this morning, as the story was writing itself, I got an offer to go live in a cob house with a friend in Colorado. I’d still have the truck as a bedroom, but there would be a kitchen and bathroom, and a wood stove, and a room I could make into an office to finally record that audio book I started years ago. And it’s in a spot I’ve never visited before. So … ??? Stay tuned.

Thank you for reading! XOXOX

[drawing of the two ladies on the cliff by my friend N.Scott Driscoll as a potential new cover for Crazy Free]

 

 

 

 

 

Trail journal from the most beautiful highway in the world

Day 1 – 10 pm. Both Kristo and I got lost right after crossing the border, and that was the last of our hardships. Traveling up the Cassiar hwy was a dream. No unfamiliar places. I have been up these parts before. But my eyes are different – these eyes now are on their way to Alaska. And everything tastes just that much more delicious.
We are sitting on coolers and tailgates in old western caravan style with Ally, a new vehicle-dwelling friend from Victoria. Kristo is strumming the guitar,  elks are singing the song of their people. We have shared bear stories. Summit Lake is pure Stillness. All is peace and quiet … Except for us, according to one local. He came up the hill to see “what the ruckus was all about”. He said he’d worry about us more if we were quiet. Obviously, if we were up to no good, we’d be more discreet. In other parts, this would have been a “you can’t park here. Move along.” but, this is Canada. Instead, he gave us recommendations on what not to miss on our journey north (Liard hot springs, a must-not-miss) and welcomed us to use the toilet behind the hall. “There’s even toilet paper.” Oh Canada!
The 10 hr drive went by in a flash. Every ten minutes BC outdid itself in beauty. Especially down by the border where the road climbs up in pines trees along the Fraser River and the freeway clings to the flanks of snow-capped mountains. And that sunset. It went on for 3 hours with 2 sets of double rainbows. For a while, it looked like the end of one rainbow was right on Kristo’ s truck.  It probably looked like it was on mine from Ally’s, whom we hadn’t met yet.
Today was a very good day.
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Day 2 – I kept a list today. 12 bears (including one in a tree), 3 cubs, 7 moose, 5 elks, 4 bighorn sheep, 7 porcupines … then I realized how ridiculous. How very human of me to reduce this experience of pure happiness to a list. It cannot be comprehended, so let me catalog it. Numbers are safe. We drove for 14 hrs. It felt like 2. Kristo’s truck passed 250,000 miles. Meanwhile, the spectacle explodes my mind. I already now it is futile to try to describe it with words and possibly rude to try to capture it with a camera.
Gratitude for perfection. We are parked across the road from the Liard Hot Springs.
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Day 2 – I want to meet a man who makes me feel the way the Alaska Highway makes me feel. I would marry that man.
It goes beyond the hot springs before breakfast, the remote untamed wilderness, the glaciated peaks, the forest, the lakes, the adventure, the freedom, the quiet stillness when the engines are off, and that space, so much space … It’s not about any of that. I don’t think it can be explained. It only can be experienced.
A magic journey anchored by dramatic landmarks. “welcome to the Yukon” Yes, Yukon, you are indeed larger than life. A reunion with the Yukon River, like a visit to a former lover for whom I still have feelings – too brief, too superficial, too much time has gone by. My favorite coffee shop in Whitehorse was closed. I found a baby pine tree in the trash at the gas station. I will plant it at the ranch.
It’s 11:30 pm, broad daylight. The view from my pillow is of the Kluane National Preserve, with the Wrangell mountain range framed in the opening of the truck.
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Day 3 – “Pinch me” Kristo said when we got here. I don’t think he’s leaving – ever. Today was a short driving day by our standard. We got into Tok in mid-afternoon and stopped by the grocery store. Goose and Pinky recommended the 3 bears grocery store –  5 aisles of guns, amno, fishing gear, camo clothes, bear spray, 1 aisle of potato chips, 1 cooler of beers, 1 cooler of ice creams. I expected as much. It felt like a stamp on my passport. Yep, I’m in Alaska. I walked around minding myself to not look too much like a tourist. I looked at all the guns, and all the knives, got some fuel and drove on. 100 feet further a second 3 bears grocery stores, with actual food. ahaaaah!
We are here.
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2,800 miles in 3 days later. I live on a ranch in Alaska.

Wow.

And so it begins …

Alaska!

Wow, this is it! Tomorrow morning, first thing, the truck points North, up the Al-Can, across Yukon and to Alaska. Destination known. Return uncertain.

I still can’t believe it.

Seriously, 2 months ago, I changed the background on my laptop to a picture of Denali. I figured the constant visual reminder would help me manifest a trip north. As the Roaming Bobcat, I can go anywhere, anytime. But to Alaska, I didn’t want to go alone – because such beauty should be shared – and I didn’t want to go as a tourist – because I’d quickly run out of money, and then what? And it all landed on my lap perfectly, better than I could have asked. Someone quit, a team of two was needed, Kristo (one of my favorite people in the whole wide world) was on his way to take one of the positions, and I was at the exact right place, along the way, at the exact right time, when the other man quit.

Our destination is a yak-hog-alpaca ranch in Gakona, ran by a couple of thru-hikers. They were 3 days behind me on the PCT in 2012. I never met them, but Kristo did. The Cats (Lion and The Bobcat)’ first task will be to build an outdoor shower – it seems we need to build it, if we want to shower – then a long fence around a large pasture, then we’ll get the pasture ready for the animals.

The couple at the ranch, Goose and Pinky, systematically tried to dissuade me from taking the job. There is no social life whatsoever, they said. The nearest town is 5 hours away. Trips to town for groceries are once every six weeks. The ranch is at the edge of the St. Elias mountain range – the largest continuous wilderness preserve in the world. There are wolves, grizzlies, and mosquitoes so fierce that I’ll go crazy before the large predators can get to me anyway. The perimeter of the property is guarded by geese (which scare me more than wolves or bears), but any intrusive predator will be shot on sight (to the girl who feels murderous pulling weeds out of a garden!) Also, the sun set for the last time 3 days ago. It will be daylight 24 hours a day when I get there, and the sun will not set again until after I leave. Most people feel too isolated, and quit.

I heard “adventure, more adventure, best adventure ever!” and my heart almost exploded from excitement. It’s like my life was waiting at the train station, feeling a little stagnant, and looking at the time table and wondering which train, out of the infinite number of possibilities, it should jump on. And then I saw it. It was blindingly shiny, and I ran and yelled “I want on, wait for me” and jumped up at the very last second. And I can’t even believe how lucky I was to catch it. But now, it’s going and all my life choices have been reduced to one certitude.

Rapunzel, the lady of the organic farm where I spent the last 3 months, prepared for me an assortment of seeds and plant starts. There will be no fresh greens at the ranch, unless I plant and grow them. I also have some mung beans sprouts growing in a tupperware and a fresh batch of kombucha brewing in a crate next to my bed in the back of the truck. It should be ready right when I get there, and I’ll be discreet about it.

Goose and Pinky warned me, “We don’t want to be the weird hippies up on the hill”. The county of Gakona is home to conservative authentic Alaskans, about 3 of them per square miles. I can expect big trucks, wolf skins and “Vote for Trump” signs. We make no waves. We don’t engage in political debates. This is important. I’m thinking that if I meet a man wearing a wolf skin, I will likely have a lot of questions, and none of them of a political nature.

So, that’s a full inventory of what I know about what I’m getting into. I should have wifi at the ranch. And I am expecting there will be stories.

In about 10 minutes, five friends from the PCT, class of 2012, will arrive at the farm for a mini family reunion and to send Kristo and the Bobcat off to Alaska in style, so I leave you here for now.

May all your adventures be spectacular.

Wooohooooo hoooo hoooo!

XOXO – TRBCMount Mckinley
(the picture that started it all – from Google)