The nerves began to poke their little heads from the surface of my skin as we boarded a plane from Nelson, South Island, NZ to Auckland, NZ; no turning back now. In route to a beautiful rainforest sanctuary about an hours drive from Auckland, the excitement and anxiety was strong through my cool demeanor. You could feel the churning of emotions as we sat, in a transport van, with 12 strangers about to endure a challenging and demanding, both physical and mental endeavour absent from our experiential backgrounds. As the van turned up the long driveway, flanked by the thick New Zealand Rainforest, my senses began to sharpen sensing the positive energy in the air, while the realness, rawness, and richness of this place proclaimed unspoken stories of those that came before us. We were about to experience something far greater than ourselves and a technique to calm the mind discovered over 2500 years ago. An ancient, simple and an often overlooked way to live your life stewed in self-discipline, harmony, happiness, and selflessness. Halfway around the world, on the small country of New Zealand, we prepared to live an alternative life for 10 days and nights. Here we shall live like a Monk.
Noble silence commenced that evening as the last of the 30 men and 40 women completed the registration process, surrendered all their belongings (cell phones, car keys, books, journals), settled into their personal living quarters (an 8’ x 6’ room), and joined in the meditation hall for the first hour of what would be 104 hours of mediation over 10 days. For those of you not gifted in mathematics this would equate to a crap ton of hours silently being with yourself every day. Now do you understand why I was so nervous and downright concerned for my mental well being and sanity. A drastic shift from our slow travel, go where you want lack of schedule, to a polar opposite lifestyle in which every minute of the day is accounted for, no technology, no exercise (besides walking) and complete and utter silence. Not just silence of voice but a world absent of facial gestures, eye contact, and physical touch. We have began to live like a Monk.
It is difficult to not only abstain from communications with complete strangers in a new and exciting setting but to restrain oneself from physical contact and communication with your significant other elevates discipline to the next level. With strong determination and outright avoidance, neglect, and solitude, Rachelle and I maintained our distance in order to abide by The Code of Discipline.
Below are a few segments out of The Code of Discipline, description of Vipassana, and the daily schedule.. To see the entire description click here.
The Code of Discipline - The foundation of the practice is sīla — moral conduct. Sīla provides a basis for the development of samādhi — concentration of mind; and purification of the mind is achieved through paññā — the wisdom of insight.
The Precepts - All who attend a Vipassana course must conscientiously undertake the following five precepts for the duration of the course:
What is Vipassana Meditation?
“Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India's most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e., an Art Of Living. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.
Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.
The scientific laws that operate one's thoughts, feelings, judgements and sensations become clear. Through direct experience, the nature of how one grows or regresses, how one produces suffering or frees oneself from suffering is understood. Life becomes characterized by increased awareness, non-delusion, self-control and peace.”
Now I know what many of you might be thinking at this moment…”Why would you want to do something like this? 10 days of silence and you’re not doing anything but sitting, seems like a waste of time if you ask me!”
Now be honest, how many of you were thinking this? If you were go ahead and skip to the bottom and put a little comment in the box below...I won’t judge you. The fact is I was thinking the exact same thoughts pre-course and even 15 hours into meditation. Like many things in life, you have to ignore the little voice inside your head telling you this is stupid. Just put your blinders on and accept the process when initially the outcome seems blique.
Did we meditate before this experience?
The short answer is not really… We did begin to sit in silence, observing our breath for maximum 15 minutes, maybe 20 in order to prepare for our undertaking of 11 hours per day of meditation. Honestly the sitting probably did help a little but when you go from meditating for 15 mins per day to 11 hours a day the physical and mental fortitude is ever challenging. It’s like we were dipping a fraction of our pinky toe into ice water and then decided to jump in head first, swim to the bottom, and just make it to shore before hypothermia set in...let’s just say it was a shock to the system. But like any physical and mentally challenging endeavour your feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction is paramount!
What was it like?
While this experience differs from person to person, my personal journey morphed and changed constantly. Just when I felt like I was “in control” of my mind, my metaphorical consciousness threw a monkey wrench into my cogs causing a brief derailing of my perceived direction. It can be scary to be alone with one’s private thoughts and feelings. The voice inside most people’s heads will jump from one extreme thought or judgment, absent of transition, to another causing intense emotional turmoil and unrest. Take a moment today to just observe the many voices inside your head as you go to the market, commute home from work, visit with co-workers, walk down the street, and communicate with your partner or friends. Just observe what your mind in saying. Now notice how your thoughts jump around, in no reasonable order, and how crazy you would seem if you verbalized all these thoughts. You probably wouldn’t have to worry about offending a spouse, because you would no longer have one. You’d be jobless after your boss fires you for being a whack job. Family would create distance and holidays might pass by without an invitation to attend. What I am trying to point out is everyone has this uncontrollable voice inside their head, running their life’s, creating havoc and unrest, yet we listen to this voice. Now imagine this voice was your best friend who verbalized your own thoughts back to you...Imagine that hell. No longer would you have your best friend, as you ran from the authorities for suspected murder. We would loath the voice inside our head if we had to listen to the same content through an external voice, yet we spend 24/7/365 locked in matrimony with this neurotic creature.
THE COURSE TIMETABLE
4:00 am - Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 am - Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 am - Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 am - Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 am - Meditate in the hall or in your room
11:00-12:00 noon - Lunch break
12noon-1:00 pm - Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 pm - Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 pm - Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 pm - Meditate in the hall or in your own room
5:00-6:00 pm - Tea break
6:00-7:00 pm - Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 pm - Teacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 pm - Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 pm - Question time in the hall
9:30 pm - Retire to your own room--Lights out
What did you learn?
The first three days were very challenging as this time was devoted to solely focusing the mind. It was not until the fourth day, the actual technique of Vipassana was taught. Each day built on the previous one with a task so simple the pure nature of it can feel so elementary and tiresome. Our task for the first day was concise, focus on the triangular region on your face encompassing the bridge of the nose, both nostrils, and upper lip. That’s it! Do that for 11 hours to find inner peace, easy enough right? Wrong! At the beginning it is shocking how quickly your mind wanders as you catch yourself no longer focusing where you should be. Go ahead, close your eye and try it...see how long you can focus your intention on this specific area. See if you can remain focused for 1 minute and tell me in the comments if you did it.
The instructions for days 2-3 were similar in simplicity to the first day. Day 2 we narrowed our focus from the triangular area to only the area right below the nostrils. Silently, continuously, and determined we simply observed the sensation of breath entering and exiting the nostril area as focus became easier and easier to obtain for longer periods of time. The third day we continued the trend but further narrowed the focus to the area below the nostrils and above the upper lip. Here is when it started to get interesting. By the middle of the third day I began to feel sensations in this focused area, I was becoming aware of the vibrations in my body as atoms violently bounced off one another. No longer was this a painstaking task stewing in patience as my fascination into understanding my physical body overtook the simplicity of the task.
Day 4-9 really began to blend together as the depth of mediation and focus ebbed and flowed like the tides in the ocean. Some sessions were better than others and just when you felt like you were in control of your mind it gave you a metaphorical slap in the face, breaking yourself down so it could be rebuilt. By practicing Vipassana your are observing the world as it actually is, not what you want it to be. So during mediation there will be periods of great pleasure as you feel vibrations through your entire body. As these feelings of ecstasy manifest in your body the initial response is to crave more of this pleasurable sensation. No longer does this amazing sensation satisfy your brain, it wants more, and as you mentally seek more pleasure, the feeling is lost...frustration and misery sets in. At the experiential level you feel how craving eroded an already great situation.
On the other end of the spectrum there are moments of pain and discomfort which arise throughout the body. These deep, gross sensation feel like a cramped muscle and can happen anywhere in the body. For me I would have these sensations mostly in my hips and back. Mentally you had to face the pain and discomfort by objectively observing it in your body and accepting the sensation of pain. The quicker this happened the faster the pain dissolved away. However if you focused on the pain and wished it to go away, the sensation only grew in intensity, until it was accepted as pain and objectively observed. Through dealing with both cravings and pain in your own body you learn to deal with these things in the outside world.
Who can benefit from Vipassana?
I strongly believe this practice and experience will be beneficial in anyone’s life, no matter your background, social structure or ethnic origin. Every human deals with life stresses, expectations, societal demands, family and relationship issues, and those quiet voices inside the mind. No one is insulated from the pressures and expectations of this modern, fast paced, ever-changing world. Interesting things happen when you learn to observe and objectively look at your life, habits, relationship, business, and decisions. You begin to understand why you do the things you do. For me the experience has not been all peaches and cream however. Throughout the many months following the the course so many questions and emotions starting bubbling up out of me. I cried more times in the last few months than the last 10 years of my life...tears would form and emotional energy would drain out of me, sometimes not even aware of the reasons for my sorrows. It has been extremely difficult re-learning myself and my emotions but I am confident there is a purpose for this process. In hindsight everything becomes clear.
Want more information?
If you would like more information on Vipassana you can visit their website at https://www.dhamma.org to view course schedule and where they are offered in your area. The worldwide courses are ran solely on donations as there is no fee to attend a 10 day meditation course which includes instruction, lodging, and delicious food. Based on your experience you can choose to make a donation on the final day. Therefore there is no financial barrier to learning this technique and is accessible to anyone. Here is a Newsweek article on the course as well. THE NEUROSCIENCE OF MEDITATION, AND THE VIRTUES OF SHUTTING UP.
Please drop us a line if you have questions and would like further information about Vipassana. Everyone will have their own experience which can different greatly from person to person. Remember your mind controls everything yet it is so often glossed over society.
Have you ever been in the middle of a voluntary decision to pursue a challenging endeavor only to ask yourself “Why did I make this decision and why am I putting myself through this?” I am sure a vast majority of the population can cite with this example at least once in their life. Really the determining factor to one’s self growth lies not in the initial discomfort of new and challenging experiences but the continuation and appreciation of these testing times. Not giving up or letting your mind tell you to quit, because “this isn’t for me” or “I can’t do this.” While society proclaims praise and adornment for those of select physical, skin deep beauty, too much importance and obsession lies in this physical arena. People are losing themselves and their identity as mass media, social media and print media depict and determine what is important in society; physical beauty. We have a society obsessed with appearance, focusing on a trait and attribute well beyond their control and subjectively judged differently by each and every one of the 7.5 billion people on earth...let that settle in and resonate with you for a moment.
Imagine you see 100 people in a day and how subconsciously and automatically judgment, jealousy, praise, lust, disgust, curiosity, and comparison (the most damaging) creeps into your mind. This act is self defeating and only further deteriorates mental strength and self confidence. Not only is this obsession with physical beauty self defeating but those dealing with an addiction, death of a loved one, stress, illness, broken relationship and general life challenges can pursue a concrete and fulfilling natural remedy. A remedy absent of FDA testing and synthetic chemical compounds. A simple solution to a vast host of humanized problems and stresses. We spend far too much energy and time viewing ourselves through the reflection in the mirror and the reflection of others praise, disgust, or lack of response. Remember of those 100 people you see today each and everyone if going to think and judge you differently. Instead of working to praise these strangers, who will be absent in your life much longer than present, expel this energy into someone who day in and day out matter most in your life. No not your spouse, parents, children, closest friends, family or coworkers. A being closest and so near and dear to your heart, always with you and codependent to your life on this physical world.
Work, without rest and above all on yourself. That beautiful and complex organism sitting between your ears. A weak mind, tormented day in and day by the pressures of our synthetic society, will fail, as physical beauty itself is both subjective and self decaying. A strong mind however will triumph in the face of adversity, with mental fortitude and strength the precursor to a health, happy, and fulfilling life. You might be wondering the simplest way to build and strengthen our mind? Be with yourself in silence each and everyday, absent of distractions or obligations. Learn to meditate to calm your overactive and impressionable mind.
There are many forms of meditation ranging from 10 minutes a day to a longer more disciplined practice in which you spend multiple hours, every day, exercising your brain. In the next segment I will describe an experience Rachelle and I underwent in Auckland, New Zealand, which we spent 10 days in complete silence, absent of physical distractions, to more deeply understand and build the organism between our ears.
Vibrations. Variations in wavelength ultimately comprising the matter, and material to maintain this vast universe in equilibrium. Balance. Balanced are the sound waves, ocean waves, light rays, and energy waves. Peaks and valleys define the ups and downs of a wave, yet the motion is constant, the balance is undeniable. For every ‘up’, there is an equal ‘down’, and for each ‘down’, ‘up’ matches it’s lifelong partner. These vibrations have infiltrated, and saturated, spreading the balance of energy from the smallest atom to the Amazonian Rainforest ecosystem. Life ceases, as vibrations conduct their final wave (goodbye), simply transferring its energy to another, another who is made complete, by this infinite shifting and re-balancing of vibrations.
Nature perfected this ebb and flow, while humans aim and constantly strike at the integrity of this law. The Law of Nature, an absolute principle, carved and chiseled deep, at the core of earth. A law, non-perverted nor influenced by mankind, exercising its force and discipline, with no regard for any political agenda or corporate manipulation. The solution to this world soaked in misery, destruction, hatred, and violence is not behind a ingenious technological algorithm or overly complex humanized power-point presentation. The elucidation rests with Nature and once society learns to listen, and respect the land, our misery’s shall peacefully dissolve. Nature inscribed absolute universal law, and vibrational balance will eternally reign supreme.
Humans are an incredible species capable of unimaginable feats and possess an innate ability to adapt. Darwin proclaimed in his famous Theory of Evolution, “that all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual's ability to compete, survive, and reproduce.” However as technology, modern conveniences, smart phones, computers, wealth, cars, genetics and advanced medicine have reshaped our world so has it thrown a monkey wrench in the modern validity of Darwin’s 157 year old discovery. No I am not about to make a case for “Creationism” as I entrust Darwin’s science based explanation of life as opposed to blind faith proposed by Creationism. Yet the bases of Darwinism is being uprooted and questioned as our race experiences exponential growth in technology, science, and medicine. Recent “revolutionary technology” is quickly old news; the pace at which innovation is flung out of Silicon Valley is staggering. Remember dial up internet and how revolutionary it was to connect to the World Wide Web, enamoured as the screen loaded ¼ page at a time. Now we pull our hair out if a Google search extends past a few seconds and in return gives us millions of results. We adapt and conform to our environment, either good or bad.
No doubt technology has made our lives easier, more efficient, safer, and has drastically improved the amount of knowledge available world-wide. By no means would I want to go back to the stone age, relying on the Mammoth for my tribes food (or would I?). The Mind’s plasticity displays it’s true colors when faced with a challenging situation, adversity, survival, loss, success and shrouds itself when we are bailed out during a testing time or when fear clouds this world of opportunity. I’ve seen it in my own life, my family, and my friends. For some reason our species (and especially as we age), have given up on challenging ourselves in new and unique ways, opting to get bailed out by fear and failure. As a child the mind has no bias, nor judgement for the new world which stimulates and molds their young brains. Creativity and non-judgemental personal expression, exercises our most complex and precious organ stationed at the epicenter of our being. As a society laced in fear and overly obsessed with safety (especially in the Western World) we must remind and remember the days of our youth when fear did not put a tight veil over our eyes. You still possess the same brain, heart, lungs, liver, blood, and central nervous system you once did as a child. Your youth is still in you but first you must get rid of old stagnant thoughts and perceptions which, if not held in check, will confine your mind to a dismal fear, controlling fate.
Never has is felt so good to challenge yourself and in doing so be uncomfortable in your own skin. From the natural world to human behavioral science, one must first be cut down before growth can happen. Why does that crazy neighbor cut the grass weekly, when it could be groomed bi-monthly? First off he may just be OCD (and truly crazy!) but secondly, and much more importantly, is to stimulate growth. When placed in a stressful situation the mind thrives in it’s ability to problem solve or think critically. However instead of stimulating our brains, a portion of our society has turned to drugs (alcohol, pharmaceuticals, recreational, caffeine, stimulants, depressants), mundane television, fake news, consumerism/materialism and social media, to ease their suffering. In reality the brain is calling out for new stimulus because the modern, material world has sucked the life out of it. Why do the work - when it is “easier” to take a pill. No reward comes in simple tasks but those which challenge your plastic mind. The grass is relentlessly and continually cut down, but yet comes back thicker and more resilient each time. Who would have known, the secret to life is a simple and continual mowing of your own proverbial lawn.
Recently we were joined by my parents for some quality time together here in New Zealand with my sister Rachel being the catalyst for their trip across the globe. Well actually it is fair to point out the main culprit was the newest addition to the family, Meg, who was born on March 3, 2017! After the birth my parents joined Rachelle and I in Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook area of New Zealand. With mindfulness (having learned from our past mistakes) we pulled from recent experiences to put together a four day itinerary, including numerous hikes, backyard stargazing, hot springs soaking, and a buffet to really kick it over the top. Not only did my parents mow their respected proverbial lawns but laid down a solid layer of fertilizer. When faced with an uncomfortable situation they relished at the challenge as opposed to turning the other way. My mom and dad had an outstanding glow after completeing a steep, challenging hike to the observatory, then going for a spontaneous swim in chilly Lake Tekapo (preceded by a soak in the nearby hot springs), and finally driving 2 hours to discover a backyard observatory in Geraldine, only to return home after midnight! It was quite a day of comforts, challenges, dis-comforts, exhaustion, and learning, while the plasticity of all our brains molded to this new stimulus. The following day was spent at Mount Cook as we hiked to the terminal end of the Hooker Glacier and back, a 4-5 hour stroll. My parents did great after a number of long days and we all felt a magical energy among us.
As we get older we must continue to cut the grass shorter, and shorter so our roots will develop deeper into our splendid earth, and our strength and resilience will flourish to it’s true potential. Without constant maintenance, our own personal lawns grow out of control and weeds begin to engulf our lives. Let us all personally keep a golf course quality fairway, obtained through nurture and constant maintenance (minus the nasty chemicals). For the real stand outs you will need to purchase a new hand-push lawn mover, a mower to cut the putting greens.
An environment and scenery beyond words...so I shall use few.
If you asked 100 traveler’s what they were after in this robust life of constant movement and unfamiliarity, 90% of them would cite cultural experiences as a top contender. A generic answer sought after by those who desire a life of many hello’s and equal amounts of goodbye’s. Sacrificing one’s set of perceived ideals to hopefully gain useful insight into a foreign culture and their customs. Online research is pivotal for travel planning but in reality getting your boots on the ground, while utilizing your local resources will open up a world for more vast than any computer screen or travel guide could possibly provide.
Blessed am I with the opportunity to once again, after over 14 years, share a roof with my sister Rachel. For the first 16 years of my existence I spent time fighting, nagging, harassing, getting dressed up, into trouble, loving, protecting, and learning from my two older sisters. While some might cringe at the idea of living with a sibling once again, for me it has been an experience filled with old memories transporting me back to the days of my youth. Along the way I have met people not archived on any travel blog or guidebook but rather the true people who call New Zealand home.
Open to any new experiences, I found myself looking forward to November 22nd with the word “Lamb Tailing,” covering the white space on the calendar. Not entirely sure what I had agreed to as the neighboring farmer graciously accepted my eager eyes and hardy hands in this annual event surely to draw some blood.
Determined to fit in as a true Kiwi farmer I accepted Rachel’s gift of black, upper thigh length, shorter than a standard pair of boxers, known as “Stubbies.” Presenting my pale white legs to the world, I zipped off to the farm. It did not take long for me to fully realize what “Lamb Tailing” consisted of, as my shins and thighs quickly became covered in red droplets of iron platelets. Lamb’s blood. After separating the lambs from their mothers for only a brief 10-30 minutes they are reunited with mom, scared, bloody, and minus an appendix. Have you ever seen a sheep with a tail? Before this experience I did not realize lambs had a tail at one point. Ignorant to the process of farming, I relished in this learning experience. You might ask why the dismemberment of a tail was necessary to the life of the lamb or how this is humane? If the tail remains, the fly’s rejoice as the feces will collect in the wool near the anus, creating an optimal breeding ground for maggots and disease to enter the body.
A team of at least 5 is pivotal to effectively tail lambs. After mustering (aka herding) the sheep and lambs they are run through a chute, separating the lambs into one corral, while allowing the mothers to wait in the paddock (aka pasture). One bloke loads lambs, on their back, into a cradle which secures them. Another clips the ear to indicate ownership and sex. Right for a female and left for the male. I reckon it is easy to remember since the female is always right? Right? The third man secures a tight rubber band around the scrotum, ceasing blood flow to the testis. The final two secure the lamb as a propane powered hot iron slices through the tail, simultaneously singeing the blood vessels. The concluding step is liberally spraying an anti-fly solution to the anus of the lamb. This entire process takes about 10 seconds from lamb loading to tail dismemberment. I spent three days on the farm and assisted in the removal of approximately 2,000 white fluffy tails. A small task as another 4,000 tails were still required to complete the nearly 6,000 stock of lambs for the season. I decided it was best to leave the remaining tails for the professionals!
There is a certain lust and enamor when looking towards those who have decided to turn over a well set up life for that of the unknown. What makes a person desire the nice home with perfectly cut grass vs. an individual whose main focus is to elude a residence with a freshly manicured lawn? Homo Sapiens, the highest class of intelligence, encapsulate infinite choices when it comes to lifestyle. There are those conforming to a suburban way of life; corporate job, married, dog, house, kids, routine, family, and general control (or perceived control) over the direction of life. Then the polar opposite of the so called, “traveler.” These Sapiens work to travel, trading comforts of life to relish in the unknown and mystery of the world. This life presents a perception of a world without borders but might lack constant long term community relationships. I underline constant because these relations are strong and develop quickly yet the physical presence of these relationships are measured with days rather than years. The bond of travelers develop just as quickly as they dissolve, not for lack of connection but rather the absence of a common destination. Why do we do the things we do? Does it begin with a desperate random opportunity taken in your youth which then evolves into your identity as an adult? In a very short time between my early to mid 20’s to my, now ripe old, age of 30, something changed. It’s not the single grey hair, nor the slight wrinkling of my forehead. My mind has evolved far beyond its’ own good. Lost are the days of fearless failing in which I learned and grew abruptly. Now my brain runs a scan determining the probability of perceived success, when given opportunity. Then the fear of failure, or more so the fear of loss of time, on an unknown outcome blankets and halts the desire to attempt. Desperately I wish to turn off this scan, once again, and re-develop the days of my youthful successful ignorance.
I attribute much of my early success in real estate to a petty knowledge of the world beyond keg parties, girls, and the blissful existence of my college days. The problems and stresses in the professional working world of 2008 meant nothing to me. The ability to pass no judgement or restrict my potential, in light of the catastrophic real estate market collapse, fueled the next 6 years of my career presenting this opportunity to travel. Skills and hard work contributed to my success, however I am not that naive to give myself all the credit. Give credit, when credit is due. The most imperative and influential factor was (and still is) my father who, like when I was a child, took me under his wing of wisdom, downloading his database of knowledge so patiently and graciously. Secondly I got lucky. For if I was 4 years older my life would look substantially different now. Surely the overall prosperity of the pre-2008 real estate markets would have benefitted my investment career, only to sink it in 2008, similar to so many other great souls, as a result of greedy Wall Street. Timing was beyond my control yet blessed my early success. I was not afraid to fail and therefore succeeded.
I have been extremely blessed to have this ability and desire to travel without time restrictions. Living this nomadic lifestyle, just like anything, has its' pros and cons. Some days I desire aspects of a suburban lifestyle with stability, constant friends, and routine while many other days my passion comes in a form of a new face and first time experiences. The truth is, like many others, I get overwhelmed attempting to figure out the meaning and direction of my life as well. It may sound silly but when presented with infinite options and time, it has been more difficult to choose a life direction. Humans, when given many options often choose none. Perception is a strong force swirling around in your mind and body. When it comes down to it life is how YOU make it! It's that burning desire, which can be scary to share with the world for fear of ridicule from mainstream society, that should guide you. I am not talking about quitting your job and hitting the road, because for some this is not a burning desire in their heart. Just DO NOT let the fear of unacceptance from society dictate your direction in life, because the reality is no one really knows whats going on! What is the purpose of life? An impossible question for anyone to answer but yourself.
"You ask advice: ah, what a very human and very dangerous thing to do! For to give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal — to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself." Hunter S. Thompson
Time to go. Time to go once again. Time to dip those warm toes into the icy world of the unknown. Time is a data point us humans have assigned seconds, minutes, hours, and years; in order to track the fall and rise of the sun throughout history. Countless days our beautiful species has been unconditionally greeted by this glowing ball of fire. Instinctively, living north of the equator, my orientation draws to the South when gravitating towards the sun’s everlasting warmth. For the first time, in 8 years, those navigational directions and glow of the sun has rotated, 180 degrees, with the sun now shining brightly on my face from the North. Returning once again to a land of soul-warming beauty, indescribable through the lens of the best camera, igniting an intimate relationship with the environment; organically, the way it was meant to be viewed.
Nau mai New Zealand (Welcome to New Zealand)!
The gravity of my situation eluded my rational thoughts for 99% of the time leading up to my departure from LAX to Auckland, NZ and ultimately setting wheels down in Dunedin, NZ on the southeastern coast of the Southern island. Time had advanced, unlike the last 3 minutes of an NBA basketball game, at a furious pace. Yet during those 3 weeks from ticket purchase to departure, my mind never doubted the plans I had signed up for. And why would it, as I prepare for a destination, second to none, in natural diverse beauty. Weeks, before this migration to Aotearoa (New Zealand), gave way to days, hours and finally the moment had arrived to check into The Bob Hope International Terminal in Los Angeles. Defining a light traveler did not come to mind as Rachelle dropped me at the curb with 3 large bags for my extended stay on this beautiful island, convinced their contents tipped over the 23 kg maximum weight mark. Rachelle would be joining me in a few weeks as her desire to spend time with her family was heavy on her heart.
It was time to start heading back North to the US border just outside Tucson. The last couple weeks had been filled with too many emotions to count and it was time to move on from our time in Puerto Vallarta. Rachelle had signed a 3 month travel nursing contract in Boise, ID which was set to commence on May 2nd, 2016 giving us enough time to stop over in Laguna Beach for a wedding, spend a few days in Park City shuffling out gear, and make the final drive to Boise. The calendar was beginning to fill with hard dates as the last year of our lives had been spent living in a new place every other night. Both of us were tired, not physically, but emotionally drained and not as inspired to explore much more of Mexico. We had lost the zest for new exploration, clearly telling us we needed a break and a little familiarity.
Instead of going through the details of the drive back home I am going to highlight a few memorable experiences along the way. Really the drive was pretty uneventful (which is good) as the military checkpoints were few and far between, when compared to Baja, and luckily the Rambler made it to the border even though the "check engine" light illuminated at the beginning of our 1,000 mile trek to the border. I figured it was the sulfur rich diesel fuel which caused the light to come on but then something else happened...the van began to vibrate when idling, not optimal. Our short 3 day trip to Mascota coincided with an unusual snapping sound from the engine compartment as we crested the hill and began to descend into Puerto Vallarta. Immediately coming to a halt at the nearest turnout my stomach began to cringe with the thought of a broken part just as the trek north was about to begin. My limited mechanical knowledge shone through as I peeked under the hood confident I would find a broken part...if I appeared as if I knew what I was searching for, I did not. Shrugging my shoulders as Rachelle looked on from the passenger seat we continued down the hill until coming to an abrupt stop at a police checkpoint with no less than 80 police trucks lining the road all the way back to Puerto Vallarta. I hope they found what they were looking for! Here is when the van began to vibrate at idle as the realization something seriously went wrong came about us. I am not one to ignore a problem but in this case I crossed my fingers and toes because the last thing I wanted to do was explore the unknown of a Mexican mechanic, as even our local Mexican friend had discouraged it.
Life is a precious existence; often taken for granted until you are familiar with a soul who has exited its earthly being. Death is tough, period. Whether you have lost a friend, parent, grandparent, son, daughter, acquaintance, neighbor or perceived enemy; one’s heart aches and your own mortality comes into question. Most have experienced the loss of a loved one through a variety of circumstances; natural aging, cancer, car or sports accident, stroke, heart failure, suicide. Death is the only certain thing in life so why is this 100% unquestionable part of existence so difficult? Why aren’t we better prepared for it? What makes the death of a loved one harder than the death of another? Is it the circumstance or timing in one’s life? The heart suffers.
Rachelle and I have both experienced loss in our lives, however I still consider myself very fortunate as I have been able to perpetuate many close family and friends. Our travels throughout the USA, Canada, Colombia, and Mexico over the last year has opened our hearts to beautiful landscapes, dignified cultures, language, every lasting friendships, and a deeper understanding of the world beyond our borders. We carefully planned and prepared for this Starlit Adventure but neither preparation nor fortitude could equip us for this reality.
On the morning of March 25th, 2016, alone, I stood in the hand-built bathroom with our friend, host, a father, a grandfather, and compassionate heart. While his earthly being rested on the floor; his beautiful soul had departed to encompass those he loved. The realization of the previous evening's unexplained events came full circle. The sounds, the feelings, the questions, the uncertainty, the uneasy sense something was not quite right. The tragic dots connected. Fear filled my bones. I departed, in a panic run, from his palapa style bedroom down the 40 some steps to our palapa guest room. It was 8:00 am and Rachelle lay peacefully sleeping in the bed while the waves of the bay crash heavily on the rocks beneath the bedroom window. I stood, staring, as her body lay at rest. I paused, afraid to wake her in this manner, my choices were slim as I move her shoulder back and forth. “Get up Rachelle, we have to go! Les is dead...they killed him.”
Colombia was filled with adventure, excitement, fear, sadness, hope, relief, and a new found perception of how precious life can be. Rachelle’s injury naturally created doubt and caused us to question our plans for the remainder of our travels. One thing was certain, we must return to San Jose del Cabo in order to get our home, The Rambler, out of the airport storage, silently hoping it was still there. The idea of driving back north to the States was short lived as Rachelle would have crawled out of her skin if she sat back in a cold, winter climate not being physically able to participate. And really we didn’t have a home back in Utah or South Carolina. Of course both Rachelle and my parents would welcome us with open arms, however our home was where we parked it. Broken back or not the comfort of home was currently parked in a storage lot near the San Jose del Cabo airport in Baja Sur.
We were blessed to have help from the interior of Mexico. Our amigo, hermano, comrade, maestro, jefe, primo; Señor Victor Zambrano. This man has a cousin in every town of Mexico and was instrumental when language and distance impeded our ability to plan parts of the trip. When it was time to book a ferry in order to make the portage from La Paz (on Baja) to Topolobampo (mainland Mexico) somehow Victor managed to reserve a cabin for the 9 hour trip along with transport of the Rambler for less than just the Sprinter transport was advertised online. It must have been his accent when he talked to the call center.
It was the first day of March and questions were ping-ponging around in my brain, standing on the mountain top in San Felix, Colombia. Properly secured to 25 meters of parachute material via spectra lines, now resembling that of a crows nest, as I stand safely on the ground looking to the sky. Moments before Rachelle made an approach but overshot the intended landing zone as I stood admiring her paragliding skills from the ground. The last 90 minutes of our lives were spent together in the sky above Medellin, Colombia, a city once dominated by the powerful drug lord, Pablo Escobar. Pablo’s foot print is strong in the history of the city, originating the Medellin Cartel, at one time responsible for 80% of all cocaine smuggled into the USA. Medellin, the place where Pablo took his last breath on December 2, 1993, along with Colombia as a whole, has been working diligently to disprove the global perception of nearly a quarter century ago, while rebuilding the reputation of this beautiful country.
From launch at 7900 feet the views of Medellin were all encompassing through a translucent haze settling over the city from above. With strong lift and confident piloting, after 10 days flying in Roldanillo, both Rachelle and I found ourselves at 9500 ft now exchanging our objective of going up to descending towards the earth as the site restricted flying above 9000 ft since it was active airspace for much bigger and powerful forms of flight…747 jet wash = throw your reserve! Sending the glider into a spiral the blood flow favored my feet, bleeding altitude and increasing endorphins before softly touching down in my original origin. There goes Rachelle over shooting the landing as I un-hook myself from my personal airplane, stowing electronics, as my mental seat belt sign de-luminates. This is when the questions initiate and only rapidly increase as I look to the sky. “Where is Rachelle? Did she decide to go back up? Maybe she is just out of sight flying?” As my head sits erect rotating while surveying the sky her purple glider is no where to be seen. Not content with waiting on the ground I hook back into my glider, double checking my leg straps, chest strap, reserve handle while spreading my limp glider across the grassy knoll. “Launch,” I proclaim as air fills my glider with life, transforming this limp piece of nylon into a capable aviation method. Once in the air it became utterly clear where Rachelle had gone and it was not up or behind the tall trees…she went down as her purple glider lay out stretched on the hillside still attached to her petite frame. Flying closer she sat slumped over on a steep hill and the only thing I thought to yell was, “Are you okay!? Are you okay!?” She was conscious but lacked an audible response to my somewhat trivial question, as thoughts began to race through my skull bouncing back and forth as to what happened. Without the advantage of communication, perceived answers attempted to prove fact to my personal theory. “Did she sprain or break her ankle? Her knee? Leg?” Finally a response came in the form of a whisper, call it an inside voice, in this outside venue. “No,” a simple word electing a powerful, emotional, focused response. My immediate desire had me on the ground as soon as possible as I assessed landing right next to her. Fortunately my logical thinking overrode my emotional impatience concluding if she crashed here why would my fate be any different? Grabbing the next thermal I elevated away from her with the main landing zone my only conscious thought utilizing all my skills in order to safely but rapidly get to the ground.
Our week long paragliding tour had come to an end in Roldanillo, but the fun and traveling was far from over. Fortunate with our ability to have a “flexible schedule” and gypsy lifestyle, we decided to explore more of the Colombian country. We estimated our stay in Colombia to hover right around one month but didn’t want to make any hard plans on our return to Mexico. So as of now we had no return flight from Colombia mainly because we didn’t know where in Colombia we might be and how long we felt like staying. The more we travel, the less we plan, allowing our feelings and thoughts on an area guide us through our experience.
So here we sat on the local bus in route to the Armenia bus station in order to explore a small pueblo in the mountains called Salento. Salento is no doubt a backpacker’s destination, especially the famous Valle de Cocora where the tallest Wax Palm Trees in the world elevate over the valley floor. We departed from Roldanillo looking more like pack mules than backpackers as our identities were masked with our large paraglider on our back and our regular backpacks impeding our sight on the front. Embarking on a backpacking trip with paragliders brings new meaning to packing light. I am carrying an aircraft on my back…try packing lighter than that! Once on board the bus from Roldanillo to Armenia, I kept getting a faint scent similar to that of a farm. Maybe it was the passing landscape occupied by cows and other animals. Or maybe it was the farmer sitting in the seat across from me who had stepped in a pile of shit. Or maybe it was the goose and rooster he had in tow with him only being uncovered as he exited the bus at his designated stop. As the farmer stood up and uncovered his cargo; a goose head and rooster head, the bus’s energy grew as the farmer managed a small smile out of the corner of his mouth.
Park City, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Miami…..the stateside 4 AM start to the day ended with a 10:30 PM arrival in Cali, Colombia. The long day of flights held an overtone of sickly tired indifference with joyful beams of happiness escaping our eyes. Through exhaustion, we reached for the excitement of being in the beautiful countryside of Colombia. As we zealously attempted conversation in Spanish with our driver, he whisked us from the airport to Roldanillo. The mere 3 hour night drive further gave way to peering through the darkness at the nearly deserted highway, taking in the abundance of stars, and imagining what must fill the unseen landscape. These wistful moments of pure deliriousness were often interrupted by the jolting vehicle changing course to avoid farm animals, lightless overloaded motorbikes, and sluggish sugar cane transport trucks that pulled containers the lengths of some trains. Finally arriving in Roldanillo we were warmly greeted by the driver's family at his local restaurant, as we realized he was unsure where we would be sleeping for the night. Not having been communicated the whereabouts of our destination (and being the hour of the night), our loss of words were profound. Finding the optimism in the situation, we settled on completing the somehow challenging task of withdrawing necessary monetary funds from the nearby ATM. Just as the ATM decided to work properly so did the driver recall the whereabouts of our living quarters for the week.
Neither Rachelle or I grew up on the ocean. To us the ocean was uncharted ground as our comforts align with the mountains and rivers. Sure we have both spent time in and around the ocean but nothing prepared us for our first day kiting in Los Barriles. Quickly we realized just how friendly those flat and shallow waters of South Padre really were. Confident with an artificial realization of our kiting skills we made our way into the deep blue to spend time with the world below the horizon. The swell was like nothing we had ever experienced, as the salt water burned our eyes while bobbing like a floater with the marine filled depths surrounding us from the neck down. We’re not in South Padre anymore as my first attempt on my newly gifted 5.5 surfboard from my uncle Gary gave me more challenge than enjoyment. It all makes sense as the past advice from our instructor Lisa Tedford came ringing through my ears. “Go to Los Barriles, it will make you a better kiter. If you can kite there you can kite anywhere.” As both Rachelle and I got blown downwind, Taylor was there on the ATV to come retrieve us with a slight smile on his face. A silent smile which spoke a thousand words. Welcome to kiting in Los Barriles, you’ve got some work to do!
Our first afternoon and evening on January 6th ended with a relaxing soak in the local resort hot tub and a reunion with a family from my childhood. Much of my younger years were spent at Dan and Kym Meehan’s house in Lower Deer Valley as I heard stories of another life in Mexico. Never could we understand how Taylor's skin complexion resembled that of a culture south of the border while the snow fell in Park City…he must go to the tanning beds. Taylor lived a silent double life, one that was not talked about in our group of friends. We all knew he spent time in Mexico but not until this recent trip to Baja did I quite understand what he was doing during all those school breaks.
I recall reading a travel blog which asked a very serious question. “What do you do for heat in the winter?” A puzzling question every van dweller must ponder as the days become shorter and the temperatures plummet. So what is the best method in order to warm your space and have a little comfort in this minimalist lifestyle? Well there is a slick diesel powered furnace which taps into the fuel tank so heat is available as long as the tank is full. Others have gone with the cheaper propane powered indoor heater or a less efficient electric powered space heater. When temperatures dropped to -16F in Park City just after Christmas the answer to this highly debated question became utterly clear… just drive south!
Judging from the title of this blog I am sure you can hypothesize what life event recently transpired. So let me save you the suspense, she said “Yes,” or I think she said “Yes?” Yeah she said “Yes” after what I would call silence, shock, disbelief, terror over getting old, and tears, tears of joy. This once in a life moment was perfect in every way; well every way possible except I totally botched the Proposal, forgot to get on a knee, didn’t have a ring, and was finally satisfied after my third proposal attempt in less than 12 hours…scary she said yes, right? Not to mention we were on night one of a six day, five night, 75 km (47 mile) backpack, rated the hardest trail in Canada and the Top 10 Hardest Trails in the World. The West Coast Trail is a special route not for the faint of heart. The terrain is rugged with the feel of an adventure as opposed to a run of the mill hiking trail.
Saskatchewan Crossing #2
With the grim weather outlook heavy on our minds we stumbled once again into the Jasper Backcountry Office on September 1st. We were reconsidering our start of the Brazeau Loop, an 80 km, 5-day backpacking trip in Southern Jasper National Park. Jeremy had already determined that it sounded like an unwanted experience in such wet cold conditions; I was a bit on the fence finding excitement in the struggle. The upbeat park ranger equally increased our energy towards tromping around in the wilderness with subzero temperatures, snow at the peaks, and rain in the valleys. With confidence, we were off to conquer our next adventure, even if it might only be celebrated once we successfully finished.
Approaching the Sunwapta Pass with the Brazeau Loop trailhead nearby, our energy came to a sudden halt. It was pouring rain even at this high elevation pass with no signs of deceasing and actively snowing at the highest peaks. The thought of being drenching wet in the valleys, then hiking above the snow-line to be frozen for 5 days put a damper to our excitement. Crossing into Banff National Park, the Rambler seemed to be incapable of coming to a stop as we slowly passed the trailhead. Silently agreeing that even though the toughest scenarios are usually the ones you remember most; sometimes you should just throw in the towel. Especially without the reward of beautiful mountain vistas covered by the ongoing storm. So what better way to feed your questioning mind (if you made the right decision or were you coping out) by returning to the known beauty of Saskatchewan Crossing. Deciding on another riverside location just down from our first campsite weeks before, we found joy in the view, opportunity to catch up on some writing, and the pleasures of baking. There is a certain comfort that comes from baking in the wilderness.
Canmore was our first stop as we merged back onto the Trans-Canadian Highway 1 from our beautiful adventures on Highway 40 in Kananaskis Country. Canmore reminded me a little of Jackson Hole, Wyoming with new development and sharp dramatic mountain peaks. Our stay in Canmore included a trip to the grocery store, a really crappy campsite (adjacent to the Interstate), and a bike ride in the area. Canmore is located on the edge of Banff National Park and seemed to be the more affordable option compared to the town of Banff. After some small talk with a local in line at the market we decided to ride at the Canmore Nordic Center because it had a wide variety of cross country biking trails nearby. The biking was pretty decent but nothing to get all aroused by; lots of fun sections but weird layout with confusing intersections frequently. Im not complaining as it was a welcomed morning to get back on the bike after time away from the mountains.
Imagine a pitch-dark curvy road on the side of a high mountain pass with occasional views of a distant red glowing furry allowing for very little between your remodeled Sprinter van and the edge of abyss. Now imagine someone took an ice cream scooper and made large uneven sudden drop offs in the middle of this road in random locations. This is called Hwy 49 and connects Browning, MT with the Southeastern portion of Glacier National Park. Keep in mind this gnarly mountain pass is not the only way to reach Glacier, but late at night after navigating through the decimated construction site dirt guttered roads of Browning you may find yourself somehow being routed through this pass. Ever since the pavement abruptly fell to unmarked dirt paths you have been asking yourself “Am I in a 3rd world country? I swear I’m in the U.S.”
After driving through the desolate flatness of Eastern Montana the Rambler found its way into the Blackfeet Indian Reservation through Browning and onto the high mountain pass of Hwy 49. With feelings of hesitation on parking overnight on Reservation land, no less on the slopes of the heinous pass, I gradually became overruled by exhaustion and Jeremy’s rationale that no one would bother us. Despite all the Hollywood ideas I could muster up on how unhappy the Blackfeet Indians would be by us trespassing on their land, we woke up safe and undisturbed to a gorgeous mountain view and a quick descent into Glacier. Our sights were set on acquiring backcountry permits for a multi-day backpacking trip that would begin as soon as possible. We were feeling excitement to be back West, in the mountains, and away from the general public. As we spoke with the park rangers at Two Medicine Ranger Station it became clear due to August being one of the busiest months in the park it was going to be difficult to obtain the permits we wanted if any at all. Apparently, like us, other people were not deterred by the 200-acre Reynolds Creek fire that shut down the popular Going To The Sun Road. Settling on a self-shuttle 3-night backpack in the most southern portion of the park from Walton to Two Medicine Lake, we began to prepare for our outing with increasing excitement.