Friday, August 19, 2011

What does "This is water" mean?

I've had several people ask me about the significance of "This is water", so here's the story...

I have a very dear friend Cindy who is fond of buying multiple copies of books and giving them to her friends. The first book she ever gave me was This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. This is the text of a speech that was given at the 2005 Kenyon College commencement by David Foster Wallace, published as a book. 

Here is a link to the full text of the speech: This is water.

Cindy gave me this book at a very important turning point in my life, when I was consciously working on changing my own ways of thinking and living. This text has come to define for me the importance of taking an active, conscious approach to how I see the world. It puts into words my realization about how much my beliefs and views are a matter of choice. I am able to choose what I pay attention to and what I see as significant in my life.

David Foster Wallace articulates the importance of this realization in his speech, but nothing could illustrate more the seriousness of what is at stake than his 2008 suicide. Obviously, it's not that he didn't grasp these concepts on an intellectual level. As someone who has dealt with depression and suicidal thoughts in the past, I understand how easily my own thinking can start slipping back to its default setting. The choice of what to think about and what to believe is a choice that has to be made on a daily basis. I have to keep reminding myself, just like at the end of the speech.

"This is water."

"This is water"

This blog is a way of reminding myself of the beauty and significance of what's around me. It's about awareness. It's about noticing the water and choosing to believe in things. It's about learning how to be happy, and sharing that with people I love.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Midwest-ward Bound

A wet, moody mountain morning

Birch forest

Sunday was a lazy last day in Durango. We woke up to an overcast sky spitting rain, so we nixed our original plan to float the Animas one more time. We headed from our campsite outside Silverton to the Durango Diner, where all the food is greasy, ENORMOUS, and cooked right in front of you. The boys spent the day playing pool and watching the new Harry Potter movie while I hung out at a local coffee shop and did some writing and photo editing.  We had dinner at Durango Brewing Company and then went back to Jared's house where I got to meet some more of the housemates. It was sad to leave Jared the next morning, but I feel better knowing he's met a bunch of really awesome people and is in such a beautiful place.

Jared chows down some green chili breakfast burrito

Pike's Peak is in here somewhere

I was even more sad to leave the mountains behind. Before we left the Rockies completely, though, we made one more stop. Outside Colorado Springs, there's an area where the Great Unconformity is exposed. Shan had gotten a tip on the location from a geologist friend. My brother has been talking our ears off about the Great Unconformity lately, which is known as the GUn to geo-nerds. I tried to find a nice link with a simple and interesting explanation of what exactly the GUn is, but failed. I did, however, discover that the Great Unconformity has a facebook page: Like the "GUn" on Facebook! It was extremely amusing to witness Shan's reaction to these rocks, which was similar to that of a small child on Christmas morning. Even more amusing was the fact that Shan's rock hammer had been misplaced on another road trip two weeks before. He attempted to collect samples by chopping off pieces of rock with other pieces of rock, all the while chastising himself for being a rock hammer-less geologist. We stayed at the GUn site for a couple of hours, then commenced our retreat to the breadbasket. It was raining in the mountains as we drove out, headed for the endless flatness of the Great Plains. We stopped for one last view. As we looked back across a field lined with sunflowers, the sun was streaming through the parting storm clouds over the Rockies. It was perfect.

Shan Geo-nerding it up

Last view of the Rockies

We drove late into the night Sunday and slept at a rest stop in Kansas, leaving about 8 hours of driving for the next day. Although we took a rural highway instead of the interstate, the scenery still seemed bland after driving around Colorado. Also, I mentioned in one of my last posts that I had started reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs again, after having started it several times and never finishing. While I'm on the subject of things that are bland...I got almost halfway through Missouri, and halfway through the book again before I realized why I had never finished. The first couple of essays are vaguely interesting, but as the book goes on I start realizing that I really don't care about any of the stuff he's writing about, like professional sports, Pamela Anderson, and the Left Behind series. And I care even less about what Chuck Klosterman thinks about any of the stuff I don't care about. Basically, it's boring. I'm all about giving things a chance (obviously, since I've given this book at least four chances) but I officially give up on this one.

While the end of a trip is often sad, I had a bright star waiting for me in Terre Haute, Indiana. I got to spend some time with my niece, Emma Jean. She turned one month old this past Sunday. Being one of the younger kids in my family, I've not spent much time around babies, so it's really awesome to watch how quickly they change. She'd learned so much in the ten days since I'd last seen her. She can focus on our faces now, and she's started smiling and (more frequently) sticking out her tongue. My sister and I talked about how strange it is that we all went through this stage, but none of us remember it. We all start out as these little creatures that don't do much except eat, pee, poop, and cry. The people around us teach us what it means to be human, how to smile, laugh, and talk. We grow up to be these creatures that are so complex we barely understand ourselves. It's hard to imagine trying to teach someone else how to be good at being a human when I feel like I've only just started figuring that out for myself. Maybe that's the point, though. Maybe through the experience of teaching this tiny creature, you more fully realize what it is to be a human yourself. 

Getting burped by mommy while daddy kisses the tootsies

Shelley and Emma

She looks at me now!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Colorado, Part 3

Colorado part 3

Night in the mountains

Morning in the mountains

We woke up at 7 am to the sound of a group of chatty women beating the trail to the peak. It was another clear day, perfect for a hike. After eating a breakfast of seven differently-flavored oatmeal packets all mixed together, we filled Jared's daypack with water and headed up the trail. I let the boys go ahead at their own pace, which is fast, while I took my good old time, making frequent stops to take pictures or catch my breath. There was a time in my life when I would have insisted on keeping pace with the guys, just to make the point that I could. Those days are gone. I'd rather enjoy myself; I've got nothing to prove.

The boys up ahead

The first thing I realized about this mountain when we got up past the grass line is that, while from far away it appears to be one massive piece of rock, it is in fact just a massive pile of rocks, with maybe a big piece somewhere underneath. "Climbing the mountain" was really just scrambling up a really big, steep rock pile. It reminded me of climbing the huge pile of limestone gravel by the soccer fields in Lancaster as a kid, which I remember seemed like a mountain at the time. Obviously the scale is a bit different.

There were tons of great photo-ops, seeing as how the view in every direction was like a postcard picture. The sky was clear and blue and the air was still. We passed the group of women on their way down, so we were the only people at the peak, which was really nice. We hung out up there for a while before heading back down, which was actually more difficult than going up in some ways. When I was a kid I would slide down the gravel pile on my butt, getting limestone dust all over my pants, but that strategy was definitely NOT going to work for this rock pile. I took my time getting back down, definitely sliding and falling on my butt plenty of times in spite of myself.

Around the time I got back to the camp, I started experiencing what I would eventually determine to be a light case of altitude sickness. I had a splitting headache. "Drink more water!" Shan commanded. I knew I wasn't dehydrated. I am constantly drinking water, high altitude hike or no. I thought it might be my sunglasses pinching me behind the ears. When we got to Silverton that afternoon, I thought maybe caffeine would help. It didn't. In Ouray I broke down and bought a bottle of Excedrin Migraine, which seemed to take the edge off a little, but the headache persisted. We were, of course, hiking and driving all over the place that day, going from almost 13,000 ft. at the peak of Mt. Engineer to 9,300 in Silverton to 7,800 in Ouray. I felt like I had a horrible hangover, and it didn't let up until we got to our campsite that evening and I took a short nap at a steady elevation. Later, I looked up elevation sickness, and found that it is often described as similar to a bad hangover.

Between Durango and Silverton

Between Silverton and Ouray

Despite my headache, I enjoyed the drive. The highway twists around the mountains in hairpin turns, and there are remnants of old mining buildings clinging to cliffs and spilling down hillsides. Ouray is called "the Switzerland of America" and it is definitely picturesque settled among enormous peaks. We wanted to camp somewhere really awesome, but all the usual places were packed because it was a Saturday during peak tourist season. We ended up going back to a place where we had randomly pulled off the road between Silverton and Ouray which turned out to be the site of an old mining town that was mostly destroyed by fires in the late 1800s. It was perfect, really quiet and secluded. No bears, but when I got up to pee sometime in the early morning I could hear a pack of coyotes howling somewhere not too far away. It sounded as if they were singing.

We camped at the site of this old mining town

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Colorado, Part 2

Did that get your attention? I hope so. I saw a huge black bear, up close, in the wild! Was I scared? Well yeah, but only for a minute.
I heard a rustling off to my left while hiking in the forest. I knew Shan was ahead of me on the trail, but this rustle sounded distinctly non-human. I stopped and tried to determine the source of the rustling, and spotted the sleek, hairy back of a very large bear, about twenty feet away. I didn't think he'd spotted me, so my first reaction (besides thinking Holy Freaking Crap I'm seeing an actual bear) was to slowly and silently turn and walk back the way I'd come. There were definitely a few seconds where my heart was pounding and I was entertaining the possibility that I would be chased by a bear, in which case I had no idea what I should do. Should I curl up in a ball? Should I just stand there and let it sniff me, like a strange dog? Should I try to scramble up a tree? Should I leap off the nearest cliff and hope for the best?

Luckily, I wasn't forced to act on any of these hair-brained ideas.  I put a little distance between myself and the bear, and heard no sounds of pursuit. But what should I do now? Shan was up ahead, and I didn't know if he'd seen this thing. Obviously I was not well versed in bear protocol, and it seemed to me illogical to make any noise that would draw attention to my presence.  Shan broke the silence for me.  
"Angela! Be careful, there's a bear over here!" 
"Yeah, I saw it! I ran away!" I shouted back.
"What are you doing? Come up here!" 
"No way!" I replied, "There's a freaking bear over there!"
Shan impatiently urged me to continue, so I headed back up the trail, keeping a cautious eye to my left.  Shan was in a clearing up ahead, standing on a big rock. When I made it to where he was, we both had just a moment to say, "Wow, I can't believe we just saw a bear!" before one of us said "Hey look, there's another one, over there!" A little further away we spotted another bear with its front feet up on a rock, looking around. Now that we were together I wasn't afraid, and this bear was a baby! We just saw it for a minute before it turned and scampered off.  Baby bears are way too cute to be scary.

Jared walking down to the Historicorp site in the morning sun

A really cool old stove in the cabin they're restoring

Our bear encounter occurred on Friday morning. Shan and I had dropped Jared off at the site where he was working for the week. He was helping out a Historicorp crew, which was busy restoring an old cabin nestled in a beautiful valley up in the mountains 45 minutes from Durango. Historicorp is an organization that's separate from Americorp. They work on restoring historical sites, which is really cool, and they're almost 100 percent volunteer. The group we met at the site was an interesting mix. Jared was definitely the youngest person, with the others present ranging from probably early 30's to early 70's. Some of them looked like they'd just stepped out of an old Western movie. They fed us an amazing breakfast. Their main cook, Skinny, told us about his favorite hunting trail, which is where we met our bears. "You won't see any other humans up there," he told us. He was right. 
Skinny also told us to bring our cameras, and with good reason! After we passed the area where we'd seen the bears, the landscape opened up and we were on the rim of a high cliff, where we could survey the land. The landscape was amazing.  Clear blue skies, green alpine forests and meadows. We could see the valley where the cabin site was, a larger valley with big blue lakes, and great views of the surrounding mountains. One particular mountain caught Shan's attention. It was the tallest in the vicinity and looked very rocky and interesting. We didn't know yet that that evening we would be camping at the base of that very mountain, and that we would climb the peak the next day.

The Historicorp group only worked a half day Friday, so we met Jared back down at the site a little past noon, where we were fed another delicious meal. We shared our experience with the bears, and listened as the old timers told a few of their bear stories. Everyone agreed that our next stop should be Cascade Creek. Jared had already mentioned this place, although he hadn't yet been there himself. He described it like this: "It's this place where you jump off a big waterfall, and then you have to jump off, like, seven more waterfalls before you can get out at the end." I thought it sounded a little crazy, but we loaded back into the truck and headed for the creek.

We came to a spot along the road where people park while they swim the creek. After our experience floating the Animas the previous day, Shan and I were a little wary. That mountain water is COLD. We walked to the edge of the gorge and watched as a group made their way down the creek, which was beautiful. We could hear them squealing each time they plunged into the water, screaming about how cold it was. We got our water clothes on and made our way down to the water. It was definitely cold, and we were still a little hesitant, especially Shan. Then Jared piped in with "Hey guys, remember that time we almost jumped off those really awesome waterfalls, but then we didn't because the water was cold?" 
Point taken. We waded ahead to the first point where we had to jump and congregated at the edge, Jared wondering aloud if the water was deep enough for him to jump in from the ledge he'd climbed onto. Shan and I edged our way out onto a tree trunk that spanned the water. We all just stood there for a minute or two, nobody wanting to make the first move. I decided something had to be done. Plugging my nose and steeling my nerves, I leapt into the freezing water. I came up for air and let out a whoop...I'd never been submerged in water that cold before in my life! Not willing to be shown up by a girl, Shan jumped in after me, followed by Jared, jumping from his ledge. 
Now we fully understood the cries we'd heard coming from the group we'd watched from above! We plunged ahead through the series of jumps and even a big slide. The last jump was the highest, and looked pretty scary, but at that point there was no going back the way we came, and we were so cold we would have done almost anything to get to dry ground. One after another, we jumped, and swam to the edge of the pool where we scrambled out onto the rocky shore. It was a ten minute hike back up to the car, by the end of which my frozen hands were just starting to come back to life. The inside of a hot truck in August never felt so good!
After a short drive up the road, we arrived at our destination for the night. We parked at the beginning of the trail head leading up to Mt. Engineer, a 12,970 foot mountain. We would backpack up to the base that afternoon and set up camp for the night. The hike up to the base was gorgeous, a steep winding climb through alpine meadow and forest. The beauty of an alpine meadow is almost surreal, especially under such a perfect blue sky. There are wildflowers of all colors: daisies, asters, bright orange and pink paintbrushes, columbines, hemlock, larkspur. Our campsite was amazing. It was near a stream, under shady pines on the edge of the open meadow leading to the base of the mountain. After cooking dinner and playing cards for a while, we headed to bed early. It would be a chilly, peaceful night in the mountains, full of strange high altitude dreams.

The beginning of the trail

Alpine meadow

Mt. Engineer

At the campsite

My tent!