Begin the New Year with More Than Resolutions

*Photo taken near Ely, NV. 

Social media is full of New Year’s resolutions right now, an infinite number of promises people will probably break in less than a week. Why are we so willing to give up on taking care of ourselves? The layers of suffering we inflict on our own bodies, minds, and spirits are incredibly heavy. In the last several months, I’ve been getting very serious about getting my mental and emotional house in order—even though I have actually been working at the problem for a long, long time. Like since I was a teenager. And I’m middle-aged now. Interestingly, something about traveling had a lot to do with it. Ever since Michael and I hopped into our truck and drove to Casey, Illinois to pick up our Airstream, my life has been drastically altered. Obviously, traveling across the country is going to change anyone’s life, but when we traveled, we stayed away from our hometown for a long time. Years. Throwing miles and miles in our rear-view mirror became so much more than just a fun adventure: it became an opportunity to realize the mirror would force me to see myself in stark relief, and the dark places in my head finally got yanked out into the bright Nevada sun.

I’ve made arguments on this blog on plenty of occasions that travel will benefit anyone who gets out there to see beautiful things in our wondrous world. What I don’t think I’ve explained very clearly is how the world changes you when you make yourself a part of it with fresh eyes. Staying rooted in one place your whole life isn’t a bad thing—lots of people happily live in the same town their whole lives—but if you want to really explore who you are and what you want out of life, the road will show you. Countless movies and books and songs and poems have been created to describe the experiences of people who went on life-changing road trips. It’s not just to give us all a sappy night out or a cutesie song to sing at school events; it’s to send out a message that the road will change you if you allow it, and if you don’t, it might just wreck you. When Michael and I first came out to New Hampshire for his first travel job, we loved it here. But our travel adventure had just begun, and we were itching to get out and see where else we could go. We never really intended to go across the country right away because we weren’t sure how much we would like the travel life, but then the jobs Michael found on the East Coast weren’t paying as well as those out West. It became necessary to follow the money, so we ended up in Ely, Nevada. Holy cow, was that strange.

Our first month of living in Ely came as a rude awakening. Both of us struggled with normal, everyday things like making the bed or walking up a slight incline because the altitude is 6,500 feet. When you’re coming from about 1,000 feet or less, that’s a lot of height to gain. We struggled with everything for a while because we weren’t used to the thinner air, and then it wasn’t very warm. Like many East Coasters, we had absolutely no idea that Nevada is the state with the most mountain ranges in the contiguous US (only ranked behind Alaska for the most peaks), nor did we realize that much of the West is high elevation and quite cold. Living in our Airstream in what amounted to winter right away was not easy, but we managed. We’re resourceful. What really made the trip to Ely hard, though, wasn’t the elevation or the weather, but the fact that the town was so isolated it took three and a half hours to get to the next town. The local grocery store was always out of things, even staple items like bread, milk, and eggs. Sometimes it would be a week, sometimes longer before shelves would be restocked. We only found one restaurant—a pizza joint—that had food either of us was willing to eat. In general, the town had little to offer in terms of entertainment, either. While we were there, I generally went out and explored the wild places near town. If nothing else, Ely had lots of hiking. It’s the only thing I miss, and surprisingly I miss those wild places now. They grew on me while I lived in that lonely, forgotten place.

After Ely, we next ended up in the Carson Valley near Lake Tahoe, very fortunately stationed just below the chain of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and every morning when we woke up we pinched ourselves over the view. Even in Ely I would pinch myself to see the mountains across the road from our RV park, and I studied the odd cloud formations that formed around the mountains, creating strange patterns of rainfall, wind, and visibility. While living in the Carson Valley, we were introduced to wildfires, even occasionally seeing them up close. It’s an eerie sight to see the hills glowing red at night while the fires burn through the brush on the mountainsides. Once a set of fires were started alongside the road near our RV park, and on each side of the park the fires were burning close to the gas station and propane tanks. The firefighters were hasty about getting those fires extinguished rapidly, and we were thankful. Meanwhile, Michael worked his hours at all these hospitals, and I worked hard on my writing, and after a while I got lonely. Even though I loved the road, loved the places we were exploring, and truly felt amazed by how much I began to feel a part of all these places, I realized I took for granted the relationships I had when we were rooted in one place. And yet, at the same time I began to change. I became more of who I always was meant to be.

Spending so much time away from where we had lived for so long really drove me to be more open and vibrant. Without expectations of the familiar people in our lives, it’s easier to just be who you want to be. No one is going to walk up to you and ask why you’re acting so strangely, because they have no idea what you used to be like. They only know you in that moment, and then you may never see those people again. It’s both delicious freedom and terrifying loneliness. And in that loneliness lies your lack of self-love, your willingness to accept less than you deserve, all the promises you ever broke to yourself, all the opportunities wasted. You both free yourself and have to face what you have allowed to happen over the years of your life. All the crud you allowed to be heaped upon your heart, it all rises to the surface. My poor, wonderful husband had to listen to me rant about the misery of my soul on many occasions over our time on the road, and he was mostly very patient. What I came to realize is that I had work I needed to do to clean house so I could start living the life I was meant to live, instead of the life everyone else expected of me.

Now that we’re sort of full circle and back in New Hampshire, it’s a good time to get my house in order. We have plans to build our tiny house in the woods as soon as we save enough to buy land. The plans for the house are hanging on the wall, a constant reminder of where we want to go. I’m meditating my brains out so I can clear my mental clutter. Recently I decided to go on a news diet so I could stop hearing constant negative streams of information, and instead I listen to either music or audio tracks of inspiring thought leaders like Tony Robbins, Jim Rohn, and a wonderful Instagram account called Her Namaste Life. I don’t always agree with everything they say, but they reinforce the positive thought processes that are instilling in me a new sense of purpose, a means for letting go of the past, living in the present, and enjoying my life instead of always wishing for the future to hurry up and get here. No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to start really living your life. What I love most about what I learned from the road is the fact that I fell in love with this country in a way I never expected, and now I feel as though Nevada mountains are as much a part of me as Western New York hills and New Hampshire forests. My heart grabbed onto those beautiful places, the endless miles of empty desert, the caves, the rock formations, the rivers, and especially all the animals we saw roaming through all of it. I loved every minute of looking out the window of our truck to take in the open spaces still left, smiling to see our Airstream coming along behind us. I am so ready to do it again. This time, I might even be ready to do it with my head on straight.

Listen, if you’re in a place in your life that allows for you to travel, don’t hesitate. Get out there and see the world. I think about how so many astronauts have come back from their trips to outer space and felt a new sense of awe and responsibility for the planet and all its peoples. Their hearts were ripped open by seeing the earth from space. When you get on the road and roam the countryside, travel to new places, have to contend with new situations and people, and you’re totally out of your comfort zone…it changes you. The air you breathe will smell different, the weather will surprise you, the plant life will make you wonder, and you’ll be uncomfortable in the best possible way. Nothing will be the same after you step onto the dirt of a new place. It gets under your skin and becomes a part of you. Because it’s part of you, your heart will want to take better care of it. While you stay rooted, we forget to look at the beauty of where we live. We forget to see the things we see every day, but even if you’re good about paying attention, the familiar allows us to take things for granted. Getting out into the world once in a while can give you a sense of both how big and small the world is, and how very important it is to treat it with love. Step gently in the desert to avoid killing the biomes in the sand. Keep hands off the ancient trees so they might stay healthy and live another thousand years. Only slip your canoes and kayaks into the clear lakes so they can be free of the oil and gas of motors. Pack out your trash in the woods. These little loving gestures make such a huge impact to save the wild places of our world, and if you see these places, you won’t want to spoil them. They become part of you, and you are part of them. We are one. We give and take. Oxygen and carbon dioxide. Water and air. Rain and soil. Ocean and land. Humans and plants. We rely on each other, and it becomes so clear when it’s you and a ribbon of road that leads into distant mountains capped with snow.

Instead of a new year’s resolution, maybe try new things, or maybe jump into a love affair with finding out who you really are. Forget the gym membership and that stupid diet. Eat your vegetables, drink your water, and go for the road trip. You only live once, and you never know when your time will end. The world is here for you. Really, it’s all for you. Go enjoy it.

Looking Back to Look Ahead

*Photo taken from Tahoe Rim Trail, overlooking the Carson Valley from Spooner Summit area.

A year ago in early July, Michael and I were just getting to know the Carson Valley of Nevada. It’s hard to imagine a whole year has passed since we crossed the Martian landscape of Nevada and arrived in the much greener valley near Lake Tahoe. This week of renovations has been brutal and exhausting, as we now have a deadline towards which we must push hard to get ourselves to New Hampshire with a finished house to sell in Olean. The soul-sucking nature of the tedious work over the last week has caused me to think about where we have been, and where we are going, because it helps me to dream a little to get me through the present moment. I decided to offer up an old memory from our early days in Nevada last year, a particularly lovely memory of hiking the trails there. Several trails became regular spots for me, but I think my absolute favorite was the Tahoe Rim Trail. Along with a pair of hiking experiences, I share that I learned a breathing and stepping technique which helped me hike more efficiently. I’ll put a description at the end of this blog post in case anyone is interested in trying it. Enjoy my little drop of honey from last summer!

July 7, 2017

 I believe I am falling in love with the Tahoe Rim Trail in much the same way that I fell in love with the Adirondacks. Today we hiked along part of the Rim Trail for the second time since our arrival in Minden, NV, starting from the Spooner Summit parking area and heading North this time. This trail covers over one hundred miles through the forested mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe, with well-marked paths which are well-traveled. The smell of pine fills the air, and one catches frequent glimpses of the incredibly blue lake as you hike between the trees and large rock formations which litter the trail’s edge. Though the trail itself is fairly easy to moderate hiking, it does require some acclimation to the altitude if you are not accustomed to being above 6,000 feet. After spending three months in Ely, NV at an elevation of 6,500 feet (and hiking there, too), Michael and I are quite used to the elevation by now.

 As we made our way through the woods, yellow swallowtail butterflies flitted atop the scattered foliage, ground squirrels and chipmunks scampered under the brush, and a light breeze blew the pine aroma to our noses. I find it quite refreshing to hike the Rim Trail, as Carson Valley below the lake is hot and exposed, and hiking in the sun there can be brutally punishing. Being in the trees and up a little higher, one gets both a breeze and shade, a boon in this desert climate. The beauty of the woods here does remind me somewhat of the woods in the Adirondacks, though there are not as many rocks to climb, and certainly none to scramble up and over on the trail. Still, that alpine quality of the high desert, along with lots of rain and snowmelt to supply the plants with flowers and green is very welcoming.

 Less than a week ago I hiked with a former mountaineer I met at a meeting (a spin-off from the Women’s March in January, called “Huddles”). She offered to take Michael and I hiking, so I jumped at the chance to find new trails. As it turns out, Michael was much too tired to get himself up early enough to get out for that first hike, but I made it there by myself. It was a good thing, since the day was hot, the mountain had absolutely no shade, and the hike was all sand up a rather steep slope. The dogs would not have done well with those conditions. Nevertheless, I hiked up Hot Springs Mountain with the group, and learned a tip which I already feel may have utterly changed my athletic life. For my entire adult life, I have suffered from exercise-induced asthma, a condition which isn’t terribly serious, but is annoying when you want to hike mountains, ride fast on your bike, swim, or run. Well, anything that gets me breathing hard when my heart rate goes up is going to get me turning blotchy and red, and then my lungs start to shut down. I mentioned this fact to my guide, and then she graciously taught me a breathing technique which mountaineers use “to get up Everest,” she said. In trying this technique, I found that my stunted oxygen intake was vastly improved. Long before my lungs gave out, I was finding my legs locking up with lactic acid! Wondrous! I can’t remember the last time THAT happened.

 So I once again used this technique to head up the Rim Trail, also employing the “rest step” as taught to me by the former mountaineer. As if magically transformed, I was charging up the switchbacks, straight up the path which only a week ago would have had me gasping for air and stopping every few minutes to catch my breath. Instead, I found myself nearly freed of the confining trouble my lungs have cost me for decades. I walked up the mountainside with what felt like the agility of a mountain goat, and then when it was time to turn around I gleefully RAN down the slopes, once again freer than ever before. What a gift! For such a long time I have struggled with this silly condition, never really wanting to use an inhaler because I just don’t want the expense nor the hassle of medication, and I also really don’t want to have to use chemicals to treat a condition which isn’t really a medical emergency. Instead, I keep at the exercise and try to make my lungs stronger, but this new breathing technique has done more for me in a few minutes than all my hard work since I was a teen. Hooray for oxygen!

 In any case, Michael and I have thus far been enjoying our return to civilization. Being in the Carson Valley has proven to be a delight with all the sun, trails to hike, places to shop and eat, and friendly locals who keep inviting us to do things with them. I find myself often missing the green of the Northeast, particularly missing our first home away from home in Keene, NH, where Michael fulfilled his first contract as a travel nurse. However, I really don’t miss the frequent clouds and rain, and this year the Northeast seems to be suffering from some particularly bad weather for this time of year. Lots of cold and gloomy and rainy days since winter supposedly ended. [This summer has been rather rainy and gloomy, too. Ugh, climate change….]

 I suppose weather concerns are part of what drives me to see the country now before it changes too much more. Before fires have a chance to destroy the Sequoias, I got to see them in their natural habitat, vast and majestic and impressive as they are. I am seeing the desert while the weather still allows it, before temperatures become intolerable for humans (like Death Valley already is at certain times of the year, with temperatures into the 120s at times). I hope to see glaciers before they melt, see the Arctic Circle before it turns to mush, and see some of the beautiful coasts before they vanish. Our trip to Louisiana in the spring, just prior to leaving New Hampshire, allowed us a side-trip through New Orleans. Though I didn’t feel the same desire to sightsee in the city that most might, I am glad we drove through the French Quarter and that I got to eat a meal in the city which has a very special history with food. Really, I feel so lucky to be living on the road right now. Michael and I both still come home from a little jaunt and see our Falcon parked in its temporary home and remark on the fact that we still can’t believe it belongs to us. Both of us feel completely thrilled and fortunate to be doing what we do, especially to truly experience a place for long enough to fall in love with it and to stop seeing it as just a vacation. We end up seeing a place as home, which really causes a different sense of being in a place. Vacationing is nice, but I am loving the chance to not only find the fun, but also get to know the people, enjoy the life of a place, and feel part of the land under that section of sky.

I found it serendipitous that I was looking through my past writing to discover my glowing desire for New Hampshire to be home has been there all along our travels for the past couple of years. Now that we are moving there to call it home for a time, and to plant our roots before hitting the road again, it is a joyful ambition. My heart yearns to finally live in a place where I feel fitted to the region, the people, and the love of what I can do and be there. As an artisan, New Hampshire promises to kindle a new opportunity for my art and writing, and the woods calls to me like a barely-heard humming in the wind. When I was a child, I read the Chronicles of Narnia over and over again, never getting enough of the excitement, the magic, and the aching sweetness of good deeds being done. Somehow, New Hampshire feels that way to me, like a magical place where at any moment, the wood nymphs will come out to play, satyrs will dance, and the animals will laugh and sing. When home calls, it’s a delight to answer. No matter how impossible it may seem to reach for the stretch of sky you want to see overhead, the river you want flowing in your yard, or the view you want to see out the front door, it is possible to have it. If you can see it in your mind, keep it there like an eternal flame, a beacon for your soul. Trust that if you know it will make your heart happy, you are meant to have it. I truly believe this life is meant for happiness, no matter how hard it may be now, or what you may have already endured. There is room for joy. Find it. Create it. Nurture it. Be alive right this minute, because you never know when this life may end. Live it like today is your last.



The exercises: First, I must credit Trish Ackerman for sharing these hiking tips with me. She attended a program to become a mountaineer many years ago, and has since retired to offering guided hikes with locals around the Carson/Tahoe region. I will do my best to describe the techniques she taught me so that anyone else who suffers from exercise-induced asthma may find the same freedom I found. First, the breathing: Take a deep breath in through your nose, and do your best to fill your lungs. When taking a proper deep breath, your belly should pop out a little, and your shoulders remain square. If your shoulders go up, put your hand on your belly to focus on making the belly pop and the shoulders stay down. When exhaling, force the air out of your lungs as hard as possible, using your diaphragm to push the air out hard. It may feel almost like coughing, but instead of a cough, you make a “ch” sound when you exhale. The exhale is the most important part, as this is what causes your lungs to utilize all the alveoli and have a higher exchange of oxygen and CO2. If you get working really hard, it’s fine to inhale through your mouth, but keep going with the hard exhale.

Couple this breathing with a “rest step,” which is similar to what you might do when climbing stairs. This is especially useful when hiking up steep slopes with a lot of scree, loose sand or dirt, or snow. Stab the toe of your shoe into the slope as you would when stepping on a stair. The back leg should now straighten as you place weight on the foot you “stepped” forward. As your front foot takes the weight of your body, the back leg is now “resting” to use less oxygen and less energy as you climb, and the main work is being done by the strongest muscle in your leg: the quadriceps (large muscle of the thigh). By using this stronger muscle to pull the body up instead of pushing yourself upward with the back leg, you save energy and can climb more efficiently. Combine this step with a breath, one to one, and discover the wonder of how athletes climb Everest.