April 26, 2007

Sheep Hill

Perched on one of the tallest mountains over the Salmon River in Idaho's Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, Sheep Hill Lookout made for a cozy little home for 5 weeks at summer's end. Scanning for fires, hauling water, chopping wood, stoking the wood stove: It was life whittled down to its simplest, most basic routines. It was also a humbling experience, being part of the food chain, alone and exposed in a raw environment hours from any town or sign of civilization, one that made me feel vulnerable and at times very small and insignificant; at other times, it was empowering and inspiring beyond words.
The solitude was sometimes frightening. Alone with my thoughts, fears, emotions for weeks on end, venting only to a small white dog, I was surprised by some of the feelings that surfaced. Here I was, being paid to LIVE, to live on a mountaintop where my nearest neighbors were 3 bighorn sheep and Tim on Oregon Butte Lookout, the horizon to my west. A seemingly easy task turned out to be a significant undertaking: the living was easy. Being alone with myself however was the most challenging thing I have ever done.

The first big lesson I learned was that life on the lookout is all about routines. In the beginning I sort of aimlessly wandered through my days, having all the time in the world to accomplish the tasks necessary for survival. Despite the obvious serenity and peace that should have come from being alone in a beautiful place, I felt unsettled and antsy. I started to feel depressed and lonely, like I had no purpose there, and no one to talk to about it. One day while at my wit's end trying to lit a fire in the woodstove with strong wind gusts blowing down the chimney, scattering my pile of tinder, I found a scrap of Karla's paper in a tin of paper's meant to be burned. Upon digging, I found more. They were written on the familiar gridded yellow sheet of the Forest Service's IDEAS pads: To-Do lists. She had written down even the most rudimentary, ordinary tasks, such as eating, going to the spring for water. Writing. Yoga. So this is how she had done it, stayed sane up there all those years. A little direction and the satisfaction of accomplishing something on a daily basis must have been her saving grace.

From that point on, I followed her lead. I wrote myself lists each day, and crossed things off as I did them. I felt much better about being on Sheep Hill and started to get used to being there. Stinky and I fell into a routine, and it started to feel normal to be living at 8500 feet on a mountaintop.

The second big lesson was learning not to feel guilty about not working all of the time--not actually going to work everyday but still getting paid was a new concept. There were tasks that were considered to be work, and occasionally my head would feel like it was spinning 360 degrees—“like the exorcist baby”, to quote my fellow lookout friend and mentor Rusty—trying to get a view of where the lightning was striking around me, near and far. I would turn the radio off when it got too close. Hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I could feel the buzz in the air. My pencil would fly as I marked down azimuths in the direction of the strike, so that I could monitor it later, even weeks later in the event of a 'holdover' fire. Sometimes a struck tree can smolder for days before flaring up, waiting for the right conditions: low relative humidity, high temperature or a good gust of wind. These are the fires that I feared most. What if I forgot about them and they just raged because I wasn't monitoring the area closely enough? What if I missed one and it got out of control before anyone could get there?

The third big lesson was learning to let go of irrational fear and paranoia. Just because I felt small and vulnerable, didn't necessarily mean that I was. Having confidence when alone in the mountains isn’t easy after the coddling and false sense of security we get from living amongst large groups of people in our cities and towns, but the reality is, most of us are safer in the wilderness than on the streets of America. Logically speaking, bears aren't likely to attack, the lone hunter on horseback probably isn't a rapist or serial killer, and if I take care when hiking I am not going to slip and break my ankle and be stranded out in the Wilderness with no help on the way. Not letting the mind go out of control with such Hollywood influenced thoughts was essential to maintaining whatever shreds of sanity I had. Being alone in the mountains is an indescribable experience: really truly being alone in real and true peace and quiet can be enlightening. I had many, many moments where I felt I could see everything and nothing, when not seeing a lick of civilization made me feel somehow more connected to it, more connected to myself. To life, big and small. Seeing icy trees and snowy mountaintops after the first winter storm (in September!), against a backdrop of the purest blue sky felt like the closest thing to heaven that I could fathom; in fact, it was my own private little heaven that I got to live in every single day.

The second winter storm was like an arctic blizzard. I hadn't even thought to bring any other footwear besides Chacos and running shoes, a testament to my gradual departure from being a woods-wise woman over the years, so getting around in the snow was sketchy at best. Going to the spring was out of the question for a few days; really going anywhere was next to impossible. (I have to thank Karla right here and now for hauling all that extra water over the summer, because the stockpile saved me! I am pretty sure I left a few cubies there for next year). With a radius of about 50 feet, activities were limited, and low, low clouds shrouded the tower like a fluffy down comforter, limiting visibility, and making for some claustrophobic days. A lookout is all windows, so you feel very affected by the weather conditions because you just can’t escape them.

After three days of living in a white out and doing every possible art project under the sun, including sewing a doggie jacket out of a fleece blanket, and being completely amused that it looked hauntingly like an Elfin cloak from Lord of the Rings, both in color and style, the clouds lifted and the world opened up again. It was magical: the visibility was crisp, and I could see mountain ranges I had never been able to make out, all covered in icy white. About 2 feet of snow had fallen, and although no more was in sight with blue skies overhead, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would ever get out of there. It was only the middle of September, and my supervisor Josh had told me on the radio that I would be up there until October 1, that this was just the first snow and that it always melted this early in the season. All I could do was believe him.

As it turned out, Josh was right--like any good Idaho boy, he knew all too well the ways of the weather in the mountains. We were back to clear skies and warmer temps, and ended up staying for almost 2 more weeks. We hiked out in T shirts on a perfect fall day.

It really was an unforgettable experience. I can honestly say it was one of the most amazing things I have ever done--on par with travelling really, and I only had to go out my back door to get there.

Photos, top to bottom: Sheep Hill LO; Karla and Me; Bandit's and Stinky Lakes; Lookout Drying Rack; The spring with 5 gallon "cubies" used to carry water; Icy Lookout; The Bitterroot Mountains, NE of Sheep Hill; Inside the Tower; Sunset

April 24, 2007

Just Some Photos

Zicatela Yoga.

Ricardo throwing the drogue.

Oliver, Hans and Me, Christmas Boogie, 2006. Photo by Buzz.

Panita + Surfer, Playa Zicatela

Kelly, Jeanne, and Erdie. Puerto Escondido, November 2006.

Gringas Locas, November 2006. Photo by Pana.

Pana Swoop, Cuautla.

Erdie in the Sky with Diamonds. November, 2006. Photo by Pana.

Stairs to Carrizalillo Beach, Puerto Escondido.

Amen. Photo by Pana.

April 19, 2007

Birds of a Feather

He carefully preened his tail feathers, adjusting and smoothing until each one met his standards. Perched on the edge of a white plastic table, squawking and folding his wings into place, he approached the coconut and began to peck at the milky white flesh. He ate with as much care as he groomed.
Tono was grass green, with a bright yellow beak and stunning turquoise tail feathers. For a parrot, he was huge, standing at least a foot tall, not including his 10” tail feathers, and the biggest parrot I had ever seen.
Birds fascinate me; pet birds that live outside of a cage even more. Tonio had full range of Restaurant Cocodrillos, yet he seemed content to stay on the table—a stomping grounds that was a far cry from his native Amazon, in terms of both quality and quantity. Sure he was at the beach, and life was probably pretty good, but I had to wonder why he didn’t try to test those wings and check out some of the tropical foliage that would have been so reminiscent of his native lands.
We were sitting on Playa La Ropa in Zihuatanejo, comfortably nested under an umbrella for about an hour before we noticed Tono in the restaurant near the bar area. His buddies—pint-sized versions of himself—were also free ranging parrots. They stood on a perch strung between two palm trees, their cage hung behind them with the door open so they could come and go as they pleased.
Restaurant staff played with Tonio as they passed by, tickling him as he lie on his back, squawking and clawing at them with enormous and slightly intimidating claws. The squirrel—who didn’t have a name—descended the palm tree and hastily began to eat his half of the coconut, seemingly in a hurry. Somewhere to be, I suppose.
As we were getting ready to leave, just before sunset, I glanced over my shoulder to the open-air bar, only to see a huge pelican standing there, as if he was waiting to order. “Pancho doesn’t like to fish,” said the waiter, “he is waiting to be fed his dinner.” Pancho the pelican was certainly demanding and seemed impatient about being served: every 10 seconds or so, he would let out a great squawk, his huge bill opening wide, flapping his enormous wings, apparently trying to expedite the service. I wanted to tell him, “Guey, you are in Mexico. Tranquilo,” but somehow I didn’t think it would calm his nerves any. Tonio just looked at him, as if he were shaking his head, with a slightly disgusted look on his face. I don’t think they are friends.

April 11, 2007


I have always been somewhat of a collector of quotes. I scribble them on napkins, in notebooks, on junk mail envelopes, and in my journal when I come across one that inspires me in that moment. They are everywhere, things people say that evoke my imagination, make me think about something in a different way; even yoga class seems to be full of them. Instructors have a way of finding or sensing exactly what it is that I need to hear. Since it would be rude to pull out my notebook and start writing, I am left to exercise my brain trying to remember the quote by saying it 12 times fast, while upside down in headstand. It is a tactic that isn’t always successful as it is very distracting to what is supposed to be a very focused activity.
Friends often come up with the best, whether they are clich├ęs that somehow still manage to ring true, a regional dialect I have never heard, or just heart-warming advice given in the form of a familiar quote.

Here is a mixed bag of current favorites that came from all different kinds of sources:

“Leave the party while you are still having a good time”
(all time fave)

“Friends are More Important than Money”

“Do what you believe in. Believe in what you do. All else is a waste of time and energy” (Yoga Class Classic)

“And finally, did you wait for the end of your life to decide what your life should be about? Did you wait until it was too late?” (another yoga quote)

“Do something everyday that scares you” (unkown)

“An adventure is something that is happening when you wish it wasn’t”

“Just fly and be free” (my friend Buzz)

“Live an ordinary life in an extraordinary way” (my friend Whitney)

“Breathe. Breathe deeply. Exhale.” (Yoga, of course)

"Life is a book; those that don't travel read only a page" (unknown)

"Show your Love" (a pin I saw on someone's hat last week)

I dedicated an entire section of my notebook to my friend Woody, who spews great quotes with ease. The title of his special pages in my tattered Dewey Howard notebook is simply “Woody-isms”.

Here are a few:

“Ass, grass or gas: Nobody rides for free”
(Bear in mind he is a skydiving pilot)

“Plan for the worst, hope for the best”
(while he was teaching me to pack my parachute)

“Puerto Sucks!”
(inside joke, referring to Puerto Escondido, Mexico, which doesn’t suck at all)

“Never draw attention to yourself”
(coming from a man with more than 10,000 skydives, yet many
people here don’t even know he is a skydiver [because he is always flying the plane and never bragging about jumps he’s done])

Words are powerful. Writing is an outlet, an escape, an adventure; stringing together the right sequence of words is often a formidable task that takes a lot of work. I have a lot of respect for a well written one-liner that requires only a few well-chosen words to convey the message.

I would love to hear some of yours! Feel free to comment and leave your own snippet.

April 10, 2007

Swell City

A big swell is arriving today, the product of a storm in Chile a few days ago. The timing couldn’t be better, really—a good spring cleaning is what Zicatela Beach needed after a tough week accommodating the hordes that descended upon her during Semana Santa. The powerful, vicious waves are flooding the beach, washing away the filth of a long, hard week of Spring Breakers.

More than 30 feet tall, these waves are serious. And can only be surfed by the serious. Coco Nogales, the local surf hero, cruises behind his Red Bull wave-runner, through the immense foam pile and up and over the next wave before it breaks. We lose him for a second, as the wave peaks, taller than the horizon line, hiding everything behind it. The wall moves toward shore, seemingly in slow motion, a hang time that seems in possible for such a huge quantity of water. A froth builds on top of the wave, signaling it is about to crash. Down, down, down, a thundering roar and it all spreads out as fast as it swelled, rushing inland, pushing all the water in front of it way up onto the beach, almost reaching us. We are sitting on the highest bank around, and the water is pooling 2 feet below us.

Coco reappears. He is there right behind the first wave of the set, being towed into the next monstrosity coming our way. He lets go of the reins and the wave-runner clears out, going behind the wave to shadow the surfer as he makes his way down the tube. Carving graceful but powerful turns up and down the face of the wave, Coco makes it look way too easy. Nicholas and I both have chills watching him: partly out of utter admiration, but also out of slight fear for him. But thankfully he pops up and over the crest, before it breaks, landing safely behind with the wave-runner close-by. Getting worked by one of these waves would not be fun.

Camera and video set-up, Daniel is watching, artistic eye scanning the sea. ESPN is here, right next to us, filming away, huge cameras with even huger lenses. The shots are amazing, but I feel lucky to be here on the Mexican Pipeline seeing it live rather than on TV.
We watch for awhile, now there are three of them out there, in and out they go, sometimes making it out, and sometimes getting thrashed in the pile. I always thought that big wave surfers were hard-core; seeing them in the flesh confirms that notion.

Later in the day, the waves are calmer, but the winds have picked up. White caps dance on the surface, as far out as the eye can see. The water is still far up on the beach, threatening to wipe out the restaurants lining the shore. I love the stark difference between this week and last week: Hundreds of umbrellas and beach loungers crowed the shore, a mess of beer bottles and people lounging beneath them. Today, the beach is completely vacated. Not one umbrella remains, just sand and a clean slate. The emptiness is perfect; it suits feeling in the air, of a strange calm during the storm. I take advantage of the moment to let myself be empty as well, of thoughts, worries and fears. To just be here, observing, in the moment.
I can't wait to see what remains after the Swell. How the beach has changed, what is left if it gets bigger. Daniel said last night as we were watching the beginnings of the swell how small he felt sitting here with all that power out there. I couldn't agree more: it is humbling to realize you are definitely part of the food chain, definitely always at the mercy of Mother Nature. Always knowing that in one second, a huge wave could take us all out--and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.

I write this looking out over the sea, from a second story terrace. Sitting cross-legged on my yoga mat, a cool breeze steady on my face, I watch our bright orange Performance Designs flag we use as a wind sock flapping in the strong wind--a strong onshore wind. I smile to myself as I look at our landing area. We can't even land our parachutes on the beach today: there is no beach to land on. It's kind of a nice feeling really, knowing that just like that, our 'purpose' for being here is negated by a storm that happened in Chile a few days ago, a real reminder of how dynamic life really is, how interconnected we all really are: processes, people, and places. That for every action there is a reaction. Finding those connections, being malleable with them, like the water I am watching, constantly moving and changing; welcoming them, observing and appreciating the dynamic nature of our world: This is living. Nothing else really matters.

Photos: By Daniel Angulo, top to bottom:
Dangerous Beach: No Swimming!; Vacate the Beach; Through the foam pile; Coco tears it up; Camera Crews galore; Arch View; Hilary and Me; Mamasitas; Great Sunset