Fear. Sea. Surf. (Part I).

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I didn’t learn to swim until I was 12 years old. My mom never learned to swim, and I could even go as far as to say she was traumatized from her water experiences. It was so bad that my mom even wore a life jacket in a pool that was 4 feet deep; she was 5’ 4”. Since my mom was so afraid, she never let me near the water because she knew she wouldn’t be able to save me or help me if something happened. So the easiest thing for her was avoidance which unwillingly trickled down to me.

So finally when I was 12 years old, I was able to take swimming lessons at the YMCA for a few months. I made it as far as becoming a “guppy” according to the YMCA standards. According to my standards, I was skilled enough to not drown. Since I had such a late start learning to swim, the water felt as familiar to me as walking on the moon would. Mixed with that, my parents didn’t take me to the pool, the lake, or the ocean to swim. The only time I was ever close to the water was when I was fishing with my dad.

I mentioned in a previous blog post that I have always been obsessed with bears, sharks, and moose. Ever since I was a little kid, I loved reading about the ocean and sharks. I think a lot of people have similar stories, but I remember seeing the movie Jaws when I was 9 years old, and I was making Easter eggs with my dad. For one, I was way too young to see the movie, and two I don’t think turning a majestic animal into a horror movie was the best idea. That movie changed the view of sharks for decades. The ripple effect of fear and distaste for sharks is still felt today. I was one of the many people who feared sharks, but I also knew sharks weren’t “killing” machines.

As I said, I was obsessed with sharks. When I was a child and my mom and I went to the Brookfield Zoo, I would always get something from the gift shop. I remember when I bought this set of ocean animal information cards. Each card had a picture of an ocean animal with detailed facts about the animal on it. I loved looking over and rereading the cards. It had everything from Great White Sharks to Hammerhead Sharks to Moray Eels to Polka Dot Groupers.

My parents also bought the full set of Encyclopedia Britannica which I read all the time. My favorite subject was the ocean and sharks; it was a whole other world. I would stare at pictures of the Anglerfish and the Viperfish and just be in awe that these creatures existed in the deep depths of the ocean. I also read every shark entry I could find. Even though I was informed about sharks, I still feared them. However, I feared them because they were so large and graceful and moved through the water with ease. They had perfected their craft of hunting marine mammals and fish, then mix in their blade like teeth that cut with surgeon precision; I respected them immensely. Sharks were all the things I wish I was. They just existed with ease, grace, beauty and this absolute comfortableness in the water. I feared their power; I feared the respect they commanded.

Then there is the ocean itself. I recognized the specialness of the ocean from the first time she spoke to me, and I laid eyes on her when I was 16 years old. The power and the vastness of the ocean is breathtaking. It is hard to not be hypnotized by the waves as they start to develop then casually, yet forcefully, roll towards the beach. The sound of a wave breaking makes me take a deep breath and inhale the salty air.

I really do have this entangled mix of fear, awe and respect for the ocean. Just as the waves well up, my emotions always do too when I am in the presence of the ocean. However, I always enjoyed the ocean from the safety of the beach. When I would venture in, I would linger around the water that was waist-deep. Friends would try to lure me out further, but I always stayed where I was comfortable. Now pair my swimming experience with my fear, but fear based solely on respect of the ocean and its inhabitants, and this made for a strained relationship

Throughout the years I tried to push my comfortability level though because I don’t like to have my life dictated by fear. So in 2004, I went on a cruise to Mexico with my mom, and I did go snorkeling in the ocean, even if I stuck close to shore and other humans (more potential choices for the sharks).

In 2008, I went to the south island of New Zealand for 2 weeks. Once again, I went snorkeling, but this time with seals. I may have clung to a lifebuoy for 90 minutes straight that floated on the ocean surface and frantically jerked my head in all different directions, praying that the 90 minutes of snorkeling would hurry up and end, but I did get in the ocean, with the sharks favorite meal, in about 30 feet of water.

In 2012, I decided to challenge myself in a new way. I had been a runner for 4 years at that point, and I cycled once a week for cross-training. I thought, “Why not do a triathlon?” I was very selective on which triathlon I was going to do. I picked a sprint triathlon that was 8 months away. The sprint triathlon was the shortest triathlon distance I could do. I also made sure the swim portion was in a pool because I wasn’t quite ready to venture into a longer lake swim (at this point I lived in Middle Tennessee so the only options for the swimming portion were a pool or a lake). The swimming portion was 200 yards, the cycling portion was 14 miles, and the running portion was a 5K (3.11 miles). The format worked to my strengths as well. I was a weaker swimmer, so it was nice to get that out of the way first. I knew I was a strong runner, and I had no problem running exhausted and tired, so having the triathlon end with the 5K run was a confidence booster for me.

Training and participating in this triathlon was a huge feat for me. I didn’t even enjoy swimming in pools in the summer time. I would always quickly dip in then just cozy up in the chaise lounge and read a book. Now I was spending two days a week building up my swimming strength in a local indoor pool.

When race day came, I was super nervous about the swimming portion. At this point, I still wasn’t overly confident in the water. I ended up lining up towards the end of the swim line because my time didn’t officially start until I jumped in the water. When I hit the water, I started off as I had practiced so many times. I freestyle swam with my face in the water, and every other stroke I tilted my head to take a breath. However, this only lasted for one length of the pool. My semi-formal swimming form quickly melded into something that resembled a lame otter. My head stayed poked above the water line, my feet flutter kicked, and my arms most closely resembled the breaststroke: a very loose interpretation of the breaststroke. I remember my dad walking the lengths of the pool yelling encouragement as I attempted to swim. (Later he told me I looked so awkward and slow and he felt bad for me, but he was proud of me for even doing it).

Honestly, I was proud of myself. There were only two other people who had a slower swim time than me, but I did it. Every time I swam in the pool I was uncomfortable, but I continued to push myself. I successfully completed a triathlon that I never imagined I would have even attempted.

In 2016, I went to Hawaii, more specifically Maui, which is where Tiger Sharks love to hang out because it has a protected ocean shelf. I have to say it is pretty hard to go to Maui and not get in the ocean though because it was like a warm, inviting hug. I did find myself in the water up to my shoulders as I playfully ducked in and out of the waves. Swimming in the ocean and turning back towards the shore to see the mountain peaks wearing the clouds like a halo was a treat. Once again, I even went snorkeling. This time I spent more time engaging with the fish and turtles instead of panicking about the possibility of a shark encounter. Now, I wasn’t totally reformed because I did still have a few moments of fear, but I was able to smile and take in the underwater scenes.

In 2011, I made a promise to myself that if I ever moved to Oregon, I would learn to surf on the Oregon Coast. At that time, Oregon felt so far from my grasp that it felt like an easy, empty promise to make, and considering it took over 5 years for my move to Oregon to happen that promise drifted from my mind like a rogue cloud.

That is until July 8th of this year.

The Last Frontier

PinkHueMy flight landed at 11:24 p.m. on Thursday (June 15th) in Anchorage. The sun was setting, yet it was still daylight, or otherwise known as civil twilight, and the snow-peaked mountains glowed with a pink hue. I had arrived to run my 25th half-marathon in my 19th state.

I was tired after my flight, but the moment I was driving in my rental car, in the daylight, I re-awoke. I felt like I could have went out for a night on the town. When I arrived at the hotel close to 1 a.m., it seemed the other guests in the hotel lobby felt the same way. Alaska was like the casino that pumps oxygen in to keep the gamblers lively and awake unaware of the hours that have passed them by, except Alaska was pumping its visitors full of light essentially creating the same effect.

That night, well early that morning, I finally lay down at 1:30 a.m. I saw the light nosily pushing its way in on the sides of the metal blinds. But I was able to roll over and ignore the intrusion…for 4 ½ hours.

Then, I found myself wide awake at 6 a.m. I continued to turn back and forth in the queen-size bed forcing my eyes shut because I was tired, but the light did not relent. In fact, it was encouraged, so I conceded.

My three main goals for this new day, that never really ended or started but just sort of continued, were try this vegan, but still served meat, restaurant named Middle Way Café, get my race packet at the Alaska Airlines Center and go on an epic run.

I am happy to say I loved Middle Way Café. In fact, I have eaten breakfast there three times now. I am already a vegetarian, who still eats eggs and fish, but my doctor informed me I had a milk intolerance. So now I am essentially a vegan, who still eats eggs and fish. While there is no “category” for me, I guess if I haveNe to classify myself I would say I am a disgruntled milk intolerant, no meat eatin’ gal who loves farm fresh eggs and fresh fish. So my vegan breakfast burrito, with an egg added, was actually amazing, even though it was cheese free.

Next, I headed to the AAC (Alaska Airlines Center) to go to the race expo and pick up my race packet. Outside the AAC was a very large green blow-up seawolf head, which is the mascot for the University of Alaska Anchorage. In case you are wondering if you missed some new hybrid species of animal, you did not. The seawolf is a mythical creature that is part of the Alaskan culture. It is strong, generous and humble. I thought this seawolf was the perfect creature to embody for my race on Saturday. After watching a large group of exuberant runners take their picture with the large green blow-up seawolf head, I walked inside and briefly perused the expo and received my race bib as well.

The day was shaping up to be beautiful and productive. It was right at 60 degrees with clear skies and sunshine. I ended up asking a local runner, and worker, at Skinny Raven Sports where there were some non-road running paths. She was awesome, and told me 3 different areas to run, but she also warned me about black bears. Apparently they were quite active this time of year and of course Alaska was bear country. I heeded her warning and decided to run on a popular bike trail that followed the coast named Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.

There were many places to pick up this trail, and I decided to begin my run at Point Woronzof Park and run towards Kincaid Park. Before I headed out on my run, I decided to Google what I should do if I should happen to encounter a black bear, and a moose for that matter. I have been obsessed with bears since I was a young child, so I already knew black bears were more shy and timid, but they are wild creatures and deserve respect as all animals do. In case I did encounter a bear, I was supposed to walk away from the bear without turning my back, make my presence known by calmly speaking to the bear and slowly wave my arms in the air. The one cardinal rule was never run from a black bear because it may trigger the bear’s chase instinct. This all seemed simple enough. Basically if I encountered a moose, I should give it space, and if it decided to charge I should try to get behind a tree. If I didn’t make it to a tree and it decided to stomp me, then I should curl up into a ball and protect my neck.

So after reading what I should do in case I encountered the different Alaskan wildlife, I took a brief walk down the road and picked up the trail. The weather was warm, the trail was inviting and the trees felt like old friends. I instantly felt comfortable and my legs were energized. If running through the woods wasn’t an enough of a reward, the view of the coast would periodically show itself through a break in the trees.

I was the only runner on the trail, but there were a lot of cyclists and people leisurely strolling along with cameras and binoculars hanging from their necks. There were enough breaks in people though to where I was able to enjoy one-on-one time with the trail and the surroundings. I was only going to do a 3-mile run, but I didn’t want my run to end, so I thought a 4.50 mile run sounded better. I ran farther out, so I could also enjoy a nice walk back to my car to stop and sightsee a little more intently.

So when I was about 3.25 miles into my run I realized I hadn’t seen any other people in about 5 minutes. I was coming around a bend in the trail, and there ambling down the trail in front of me with his head down was a black bear. I instantly stopped running because I remembered the one cardinal rule of encountering a black bear: don’t run. I couldn’t believe this was happening.

I had so many emotions running through me. As I mentioned earlier, I have been obsessed with bears since I was a child. My parents had bought me an encyclopedia set (yes, pre-internet) when I was around 9 years old. I read and reread about all the different bears, moose and sharks and fish of the ocean. My mom and I would also go to the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois every weekend. I spent hours watching the bears sleep, feed, fight, and roughhouse. So needless to say, the first emotion I felt was awe. I thought, “Holy shit!” I started smiling in disbelieve, but it also started to register that a bear was walking towards me because my thoughts went from “Holy shit” to “Oh shit!”

I started to walk backwards slowly, but I realized the bear still had not seen me. He was walking towards me faster than I could walk backwards. I know black bears don’t like to be surprised and that is what can cause them to react to a human. So I thought I better let the bear know I was there, but let me tell you it goes against your instincts. So when I first tried to alert the bear of my presence, I apparently wasn’t speaking loud enough, and I may have been using my library voice, because he never looked up. I realized I was going to have to be louder, so I started my one-sided dialogue again while I slowly waved my arms in the air, “Mister Bear?!” I called out. (The bear continued to follow the trail towards me with his head down). Shit, he still didn’t hear me. I cleared my throat, “Mister Bear?!” (Damn, I hoped this wasn’t a female bear, and now I offended her because I confused her gender). The bear finally looked up and made eye contact with me as his ears pointed upwards. Great, I finally got his attention…now what. As I continued to wave my arms slowly I calmly said, “Mister Bear. Hey, um, I need you to get off the trail please. Okay?” He stopped walking and looked at me just for a second more, and then he veered off the trail into the woods.

It was at that point I realized my heart was pounding like a war drum. My palms were damp, and my jaw had dropped open. I stood astonished for a few moments feeling my blood surging through me. I thought I better wait a few moments before I started running again, so I turned around and started to walk back in the direction of my car. It was then I started smiling again. I just had a beautiful and safe interaction with an animal I had loved and respected my whole life. It was just him and me there on that trail. I felt so thankful. I could not believe Mother Nature gifted me this present.

It took about 5 minutes before I started running again, but my smile never left my face.

Sacred Interaction

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My latest adventure had me on a plane to Phoenix, Arizona on May 26th to run my 24th half-marathon in my 18th state. I decided to run a trail race in Kaibab National Forest which overlooks the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. This race consisted of a half-marathon, a 50K and a 50 miler.

Running is one of my biggest passions, and trail running is a seductive extension of that. The trail is like a snake charmer, and I am the snake. I am lured into a trance. It makes me think of something my belly dancing teacher once said when we were learning how to do sword balancing on our heads. She said, “The sword, or whatever you are performing with, is your dance partner. You essentially become one with it. You have to feel it and move with it. The moment you take your focus off your dance partner, the sword, it will fall.” That is exactly how I describe trail running: Nature and I commune as one. It is a sacred interaction. The moment I am not giving the trail my full devotion she lets me know. (I can’t count how many times I have tripped, fallen or skidded up or off a trail). Once I am connected to the trail, I move with her over rocks and roots; in stride, I leap over fallen branches and logs, I wind up and over hills, and hop-scotch over washed away trail sections. Even though trail running is more strenuous and tougher than road races, the reward is much greater for me; trail runs and races are always an adventure.

Even getting to the start of this race was an adventure. Once I was at Kaibab National Forest, I drove 28 miles of rocky, dusty road that twisted through a mixture of Douglas Fir, Aspen and Ponderosa trees. Walls of tan and red rocks were the backdrop, and Kaibab Squirrels were scrambling about with their stark silver tails waving behind.

Once I arrived at the start of the race, which took almost 90 minutes, it was an intimate affair. Between all three races there were 425 runners. Trail runners are a different breed of runners but in a good way. There is an aspect of loving and respecting nature, possessing a certain amount of grit, and mixing in a little bit of bad ass. Trail runners and races seem to be greener as well. Case in point was the bathrooms. There were two rows of 10 “bathrooms” back to back. They were tall, skinny camouflage tents with zippered doors. Upon entering the tents, there was a large yellow bucket with wooden panels over the sides of it and a toilet seat. Instead of the typical blue chemical filled port-a-porties, these bathrooms offered buckets of sawdust and a scooper to cover up one’s excrement. It seems funny to be discussing the bathrooms at a race, but if you are a runner you understand the pre and post-race importance of the bathroom. I loved that this race was thinking and acting in the environment’s best interest.

The three different race distances all started at different times. The 50 mile runners had started their race at 5 a.m., the 50K runners had started their race at 6 a.m., and the half-marathon runners started their race at 7 a.m. The excitement around the starting line rose as the race inched closer to the beginning. Even though the half-marathon started later it was still chilly, which was putting it mildly. Runners were huddled around fires absorbing any warmth they could, and the Ponderosa trees allowed the sunlight to filter through as well.

The race announcer called everyone over and started the countdown to the beginning of the race, and his voice echoed above the crowd, “Three, two, one, Go!” And the 190 half-marathon runners poured onto the trail. I knew from the start I would have to walk parts of this race. We started at about 7,000 feet of elevation and in the first 1.5 miles we would be gaining about 1,000 feet of elevation. This ascent began almost immediately after the start of the race. I hiked this first part as hard and as fast as I could keeping a steady pace, and so did many of the other runners. When the hill, or what seemed more like a mountain, peaked we were met with our first water station and check-in point. One of the things I really love about trail running is the aid stations. Unlike road races that have water stations almost every mile or two with plastic cups, trail races are much more limited due to the trail space, and there are typically more solid foods to eat as well. Since most trail races are green, they don’t offer cups either. You are expected to carry your own bottle and fill it up. At this first station, I checked in and my race bib was marked, and I refilled my water bottle and was able to begin running.

I remember when the first signs of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon began peeping through the trees. I shouted to the runner ahead of me, “Look to your left!” Then I felt a surge of energy and begin pushing ahead. Less than a ½ mile later the view of the Grand Canyon came into full view. All I could say was, “Holy Shit” which I did say aloud. It looked like a proud warrior with his chest puffed out. It was a rich shade of red, and it layered up like a tiered cake. I felt a deep sense of love and joy creeping up from my belly. I felt so grateful to be in this race, on this trail, in this moment. I heard a woman behind me exclaim to her friend, “Oh my God! I think I might cry! I saw the Grand Canyon before I turned 50! It is amazing!” I knew the exact feeling she was having.

After about a mile or so of a steep and slippery, yet rocky, downhill, I entered my meditative zone. My legs felt fresh and light; the trail was calling me to follow her. The trail gently rolled along for a few miles, and I ended up passing 10 people because I felt so damn good. The second check-in and water station was upon me which seemed so quick. I told the race volunteers I loved them because they had potatoes at the check-in station. Potatoes!! So when I am on long runs, the one food item I crave and actually dream of is mashed potatoes. So creamy, so buttery, so potatoe-y. So I happily grabbed a piece of boiled potato, made sure I checked in, and I filled up my water bottle and headed out.

The next section of the race was an out and back. The great thing was this section of the race was all downhill. I was able to coast and use different muscles in my legs. But what wasn’t so great was watching the people struggling coming up the hill I was now running down. I knew what lie ahead, but I stayed in the moment and enjoyed this part of the course.

At the end of the downhill was another steep climb which led to Crazy Jug Point. It was another lookout point, and it was a check-in station. The view just opened up and the vastness of the Grand Canyon could be seen. The red and tan layers of rocks spread out like a buffet. The base of the Kaibab National Forest was covered in green trees and reddish- orange dirt. I stood mesmerized just for a moment to take it in. The view, the air, the joy, the pride, the gratefulness. I said a silent thank-you to the Great Spirit and bowed my head. Then, I marked my bib with the red marker to show I had visited the check-in station, and I was on my way again.

Since this was the out and back section, runners were now headed in both directions, and all the different runners in each race had started to cross paths. The beauty of racing is the camaraderie. With every last runner I passed, we exchanged encouraging words, “Nice job! Keep going! You’re doing great! Good work! You got this!” Some people even offered heartfelt smiles and high-fives. There was a feeling of unity and understanding because we were all in this together. We were having the same shared experiences.

I knew the downhill I just enjoyed was turning into an uphill now. So I turned my run into a fast-paced hike again and just settled into my new pace. While the start of the race was cold and brisk, it was no longer the case. The sun seemingly laughed and was now showing how bright and hot she really could get. I had a hat on, but I pulled the hood of my running shirt up to protect my ears and neck. It actually trapped a nice breeze that flowed down my back.

The hill finally started to yield, and I was able to pick up my pace again. I ended up at the check-in station that I first checked in at before the out and back section of the race started which meant I had boiled potatoes waiting for me again. I made sure to check-in, fill up my water bottle and grabbed a potato. I started down the trail that would eventually lead me to the finish line.

A mountain biker who had unfortunately came out for a ride on this day was trapped among all the racers, but he offered me the best news I had heard all day, “This last part of the trail is all downhill.” I made him promise me he wasn’t lying, and he was convincing enough. So I trusted him, and luckily he was right.

My legs were tired and the day had turned hot, but this was a great section of trail. I had the whole trail to myself. I couldn’t see anyone in front of me, and there was no one behind me either. I was left with my thoughts, the trail, the shade trees and the sunshine.

As I continued my journey down the trail, I started to see runners who had finished the race already and were walking back to their campsites scattered throughout the woods. They shared words of encouragement, “You are almost there! Nice work.” I picked up the tempo of my feet and started to push even harder. I heard another runner who had completed the race say, “You’re almost there; it’s right around the corner. Finish strong!” Just as the runner had stated, the trail suddenly opened and I could see the finish line and the race tents.

As my sweat dripped down and the trail dirt stuck to me, I was covered in proof of my accomplishment as I passed under the finish sign while my fellow runners clapped.

Crucial Connection

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Being an Adventurer-Explorer doesn’t strictly mean traveling for me. It also includes staying connected to the things I love and exploring them in different ways. I also like to try new things and have new experiences. So part of my journey has not only been to see as many places as I can but to follow my whims. I spent a vast majority of my life trying to please others, and I lost myself somewhere in the process. I am the dusty trunk in the attic waiting to be opened with all the forgotten treasures inside. So I have been trying to rediscover myself. I don’t like to say I want to find myself because I never lost myself; I never went anywhere. But I did hide away in the dark corners of myself, and now I just need to coax myself out.

I first started to focus on the things I knew I already loved and enjoyed. Those activities that made me spontaneously smile, feel peace, and made me feel like I had just been birthed into a bright, new world. Since July 2008, I have been a runner. It has spoken to me like a lover whispering a secret. The way I feel on a run when the sun is smiling down, the sky is filled with white puffs of clouds, the breeze is blowing, and my leg muscles are churning is unmatched by anything else in my life. The meditative pounding of my feet and the interaction and connectivity with nature genuinely makes me feel like a balloon that may burst from being too full.

In July 2015, I started a regular yoga practice. I have been lucky to find yoga studios that spoke to my heart. In Colorado, I went to Cambio Yoga Studio, and here in Oregon I go to Seaside Yoga. I can’t even begin to explain all the principles of yoga that have crept into my daily life. On and off the mat, I am able to practice being fully present and attentive in a moment, breathing deeply, and to accept where and who I am at that exact time, not even to mention the strength and flexibility I have gained. To have yoga teachers who know how to reach inside their students and pull out all the light and the shadows and have them harmonize together and to have their students come back and crave more peace, more self-acceptance, and more love is a special gift.

Since I was a child, I have always loved the water. I have a kinship to the ocean, but I love being out on the lakes and rivers as well. I think my initial love of boating came from my dad. He was an avid fisherman, and I learned pretty quickly that the best way to spend time with him was being out on the bass boat fishing. Then I had the opportunity to kayak, and I fell in love with it. My first kayaking experience was in March 2008 in New Zealand when we kayaked through the Marlborough Sounds to Lochmara Lodge. To be out on the rocking waves seeing seals lazily strewn across the rocks, penguins coasting through waves, and jellyfish with long tentacles flowing behind showed me there was no other way to explore or experience water. It was like sneaking into a movie my parents told me I wasn’t allowed to watch. I was exposed to a previously forbidden world that I never would have seen if not for kayaking. So in April 2015, I bought my own kayak. I have continued to kayak lakes and rivers encountering eagles, deer, sea lions, hawks, cows and goats, and just the beauty of the landscape itself.

Which leads me to all the activities that I have just recently discovered. Over the past 7 months, I have started to explore things that piqued my interest. One of those things was art. I have never been an “artist.” If I had any sort of artistic talent the closest thing I have is writing. But somehow I was drawn to art. Even though previously I would classify myself as one of those people who could barely draw a stick figure, I wanted to break that limitation I set for myself. I wanted to crack that mindset. I wanted it to be more about the feeling of creating than the actual final outcome. So I have taken an acrylic painting class, a drypoint class, and a collage class. When I am working on a piece of art, I am completely enthralled. It is like a mother consumed with her newborn baby. I have never had my mind so quiet. I have never been so present and involved in an activity. One of the only ways I can explain it is like being in a trance; it is hypnotic for me. I will be working on a project and the teacher will say, “We have about 30 minutes left.” I look down at my watch, and 3 hours have passed. Art transports me to a creative world where I am free. It has helped me break down walls I have set. Those walls that say, “I can’t do this; I am not an artist. I don’t know how to paint” or “I have never done or even heard of drypoint before.” Now, I just let myself be and create.

The other activity I have found that has challenged me but also helped me unlock a new side of myself is belly dancing. I have always had an interest in belly dancing, but I never pursued it. I never knew where to pursue it. Then one day, I was walking my dog and we passed by the Astoria Arts and Movement Center and there was a sign in the window for belly dancing. When I saw that sign, I knew I had to go. I have never taken a dance class in my life. Well unless you count the few months of ballet in 2nd grade. But I love to express myself through movement. I may or may not have weekly 80’s and 90’s dance parties in my living room.

I think the first lesson that became clear was belly dancing required me to let go. I am driven and competitive which makes me always want to be the best at what I do. But the more I stressed and tensed up, the less I was able to do in class. I always have high expectations for myself. In belly dancing, my body was learning things it had never attempted before: ¾ shimmy walk, body rolls, and hip twists in relevè with my left arm down framing my hip and my right arm up curved above my head. I found myself getting frustrated at first. Instead of connecting with the music and my body, I was fighting my own body and mindset. I found myself saying, “I can’t do this. My body just won’t do this.” It finally clicked that I first needed to just let go of perfection, and all I needed to do was practice. It took me several weeks to finally be able to do a hip twist in relevè, and it is still a move I am working on. Then I was introduced to the ¾ shimmy walk. In a very fast tempo the right hip must go up, down, and then out then the left hip repeats this motion. This continues back and forth to each hip while I have to try and walk. Right now, I am unable to do it very well. But after two months of taking classes, I have eased up on myself. I do the best I can in class then I go home and practice but even more important I connect with my body.

The second lesson I learned, which stems from what I learned in my art classes, was belly dancing is about feeling. It is about being present on the dance floor, feeling my feelings and conveying feelings. I may not have the best ¾ shimmy walk, but if I am connected to the music, to myself, and to the audience (when applicable) that is the most important thing. I have not always been the best at connecting to my feelings or to my body, but it is something I have been actively working on for years. Belly dancing was another avenue for me to work on it. I have went from fighting with my body to appreciating the muscles that move rhythmically with the music and seeing my growth with every class I take. Now I see it is more about feeling good than being good.

I think the most exciting and surprising thing for me is I have agreed to perform our 4 minute belly dancing choreography at the Liberty Theater with 8 other women for Astoria Pride in a few weeks.

I can only hope to embrace my beauty, my body, and the music and let myself just be.

Goddess in Paradise

NassauWhen I travel, there is so much to see in the world that I rarely go back to the same place twice. But there are a few places that lure me back. (And I actually moved to one of them). One of those places is Nassau and Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Every time I visit I seem to connect with others and leave with a deeper understanding of humanity and myself.

My most recent trip was in January of this year. My aunt was looking for a spiritual getaway, and I had been to the Sivananda Ashram on Paradise Island and thought it was the perfect place for her, and me as well. Our initial plan was to take the daily yoga classes, swim in the ocean, and attend a three-day workshop about divine timing and synchronicity. As irony would have it, or divine timing, the workshop we were going to attend was cancelled. The only other workshop available was one about cultivating your inner divine goddess. As the Rolling Stones said, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes well you just might find you get what you need.” Cultivating my inner divine goddess was exactly what I needed.

This trip’s theme ended up being about connecting deeper with other women and with myself. It was a beautiful experience but quite trying. All I have ever wanted was to be seen and understood for who I was. No masks, no hiding, just being vulnerable and honest. Even though this was what I wanted, I didn’t realize how hard it was to let it happen. There was an initial fear associated with standing in my own power of who I was. It was funny how deep doubt can be ingrained all the way to the cellular level.

The workshop was held on a large wooden platform outside as the ocean air blew through and about 20 women sat in a circle. I was surrounded by women who were powerful and beautiful and looking around this circle making eye contact with all these women created a palpable energy. I started to see more in these women than just what was tangible. Locking eyes with each individual woman felt like a camera that sharply catches its focal point then everything in the background is hazy.

The workshop leader asked many questions which we answered and shared with the group. The one question that caught my attention was, “How would life be different if I believed the divine goddess worked through me?” The question made me realize how I still felt separate from the divine, how I still felt separate from myself. I could see it present in others but somehow it wasn’t in me. But if the divine goddess flowed through me, I would have no fear of standing in my truth. All the self-doubt, criticizing, and giving my power away to others would slip away. It was a huge turning point for me. I had this moment of clarity and self-acceptance. This moment of feeling connected to myself and every person around me. To hear other women share their same stories and to hear other women share how they already honored themselves was refreshing. As these discussions continued, it felt satisfying to have these conversations with other women. To be honest without any repercussions or judgments and to feel supported.

One of the things I love about visiting the Ashram is the questions people ask one another. When we normally meet someone in our everyday lives, the first question we ask, after getting someone’s name, is “What do you do?” This question bothers me so much. I have always felt we are so much more than our jobs. It is a surface level question; it is safe. It probably doesn’t help either that I don’t have an answer that most people understand. But at the Ashram, the first question asked, after we get someone’s name, is “Why are you here?” It is such a simple question, yet it always has rich answers. Everyone at the Ashram is on a journey and seems to have an amazing story.

I remember one morning after breakfast I headed to the beach. I was wading in the water watching the cool waves roll into my thighs then pull the sand and small shells out from under my feet. A beautiful young woman was standing 10 feet away doing the same exact thing as me. We made eye contact and smiled. She said, “I will do it if you do it.” We both had been standing there for quite some time deciding when the ripe moment would be to duck under the surface of the waves but neither one of us had made a move. I let out a long sigh through a puckered lip smile and hesitantly said okay. While the sun was sitting brightly in the sky, the ocean still had a chill to her. But we counted to three and both bobbed under the surface. I stayed under for a while to let my body adjust to the new temperature. I popped back up and the young woman was floating close to me.

We started with the “Ashram” introductions as we treaded water. Her name was Erin, and she was on escape from life. She visited the Ashram at least once a year because it replenished her body, mind and soul. Right now her life was hectic, and she needed some quiet reflection time. The Ashram always offered that to her. She was a successful business woman who moved from New York to London. She was single, never married and didn’t have any children. She had spent her 20’s traveling the world then she settled in London and started her own business. She could have fooled me. I thought she was in her 20’s still, but she was in her 40’s. She had a youthful, gentle energy and a radiant smile and skin. She said she loved owning her own company, but it took so much of her energy. She wasn’t able to travel and do all the things she loved like she had been able to in her 20’s. She thought about selling her company so she could be freer, but she was afraid she had become too accustomed to the lifestyle she was living.

She shook her head with a smile on her face then asked about me. Why was I here at the Ashram? I told her this was my second visit here. This time I came with my aunt who needed an escape as well and wanted to have a spiritual getaway. At the time, I didn’t call myself an Adventurer Explorer, so I always said I wasn’t actively working because I had been afforded some opportunities that allowed me to take some time off. In actuality, and this applies now as well, my job is me. My job is to rediscover myself, to take time to have fun with myself, and truly experience the joy in life. I normally didn’t share much more than that, but there was a rapport with Erin. There was an ease to our conversation. My story began to unfold right there in the ocean. I told Erin both my parents had passed away from cancer in 2014 six months apart from each other. While my parents didn’t leave me with millions of dollars, I was still left enough money to be able to spend some time traveling and exploring and following my whims.

Death is always an abrupt wake up call to life. Watching two people pass away who wanted more time to live is unnerving. When they passed, my mom was 61 and my dad was 65. I don’t think I ever took life for granted, but I think it is easy to get lulled into auto-pilot when cruising through life. And I don’t want to miss the ride.

After I finished my story, Erin nodded voraciously understanding the need to not just live, but to experience life. She was a fellow life traveler and appreciated others who shared that common interest.

There is power in connecting with another human being. Erin and I talked for 30 minutes in that ocean. We shared hopes, fears, joys and concerns; we were vulnerable; we were honest; we were our true selves. In that short time, Erin inspired me, and I was in awe. She had amazing experiences of traveling that she shared with me from spending time with monks in India to experiencing an intense Native American ceremony in Oregon. It made me crave traveling even more. To hear her story of how she started her own company and moved to another country, another continent, alone elicited excitement in me for all the possibilities that life has to offer.

She was proof of what could happen when we take chances and risks and believe in ourselves.

For-Evergreen

DeceptionPassIslandIn 2011, I decided I wanted to run a half-marathon in every state. Combining the two things I loved, traveling and running, seemed ingenious. One thing I realized was there was no better way to see a city than to run through it. Running through streets, downtowns, neighborhoods, state parks, mountains, and everything in between was like seeing into the soul of a city. As I stated in my last blog, I was working on my 17th state last week, which I did accomplish. Up until this point I have run in Tennessee (Nashville), Virginia (Roanoke), Oregon (Portland), Illinois (Chicago), Louisiana (Franklinton), West Virginia (Charleston), Utah (Midway), Colorado (Grand Junction, Aspen, Colorado Springs, Georgetown), North Dakota (Fargo), Georgia (Lawrenceville), California (Santa Cruz), Wyoming (Green River), Texas (San Antonio), Hawaii (Lahaina on Maui), New Mexico (Albuquerque), Nevada (Boulder City), and now Washington State (Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island). Currently on the schedule for May and June is Arizona (There isn’t even a city for that race; it is just GPS coordinates! But it is in Kaibab National Forest.) and Alaska (Anchorage).

When I travel, I will generally drive anywhere that is within 8 hours from me. Anything over 8 hours, and I will usually opt to fly. But there is nothing like a road trip. This last adventure kept me fairly close to home. The drive from Astoria, Oregon to Oak Harbor, Washington State on Whidbey Island was 4 ½ hours. There is nothing quite like the open road. It just happened to be sunny that day. I had the sun roof open, my left leg propped up close to the dashboard, and my music floated out the speakers. The evergreen trees lined the roads and skyline like dutiful soldiers standing tall. Eagles soared in circular patterns never flapping their wings. The sun gently laid her warmth on my skin and the top of my head. (The sun also highlighted how dirty the inside of my windows were.)

En route to my hotel, I stopped at Deception Pass State Park for a hike. I started at Rosario Beach to Bowman Bay and Lottie Bay and up to Lighthouse Point and Vista Point. One thing I noticed was when I was outside, and especially in the woods hiking, it was hard to not breathe deeply. The same air I was breathing was the same air that rustled the tree leaves and blew the blades of grass in a synchronized wave. There was such a peace and relaxation that I just wanted to take it in and be a part of it.

The trail wasn’t overcrowded, but there was a steady amount of people until I arrived to Vista Point. It was there I had the cliff edge all to myself. The silence hung in the air like a framed picture on the wall. The water crinkled and reflected the sunlight, and Mother Nature decided to put on a show. Porpoises arched out of the water breaking the rippling surface. All around seagulls dove at the water surrounding the porpoises, grazing the surface, and pulling back up into flight. The sound of heavy breathing and spraying water caught my attention in the silence as a sea lion swam onto the scene. For quite some time, I sat mesmerized under Mother Nature’s spell; she exposed herself in my own private peep show.

The hike back to the car felt light. I seemed to glide right over the trail, rocks and roots. The path wound around the bay’s shoreline, then dipped into the woods, and then out into a park and open field. The trail picked back up by some campsites where the woods cloaked the trail but occasionally opened like a curtain to showcase the bay, cliffs and islands. The trail eventually led right back to the wooded parking lot.

The other big part of my trip was my half-marathon. It wasn’t sunny on race day, but it wasn’t raining either. The skies were gray and white with just a hint of blue in the backdrop. A strong breeze was blowing in off the bay, and pre-race the runners were hiding behind port-a-potties and buildings to try to block the wind.

The race was released in waves. About 200 people started every 90 seconds; there was about 1,200 runners participating in the half-marathon. I seemed to be surrounded by the half-marathon newbies. It was fun to hear the nervous chatter, and the vows to just survive and never do it again. (I may have uttered those words before my first half-marathon, but I am now 22 half-marathons in, so I don’t think it had much validity).

For each race, I always set three goals. One goal that I know I should be able to accomplish; one goal that is tough and pushes my limits but still within the realm of being possible, and then one final goal that is just out of reach, but hell I never know. Any given race day, right? With my goals in mind, I hovered around the 2 hour and 15 minute pacer before the race began. This race was an out and back on the road that hugged the shoreline. The race started flat for about a mile. Then the road continuously rolled up and down as if it was a wave itself. I decided to not try to stay with the pacer I initially started with and lagged behind. I watched her lean figure with a swinging ponytail get farther away, but I could still see her star-shaped sign she was holding up. That can be hard to do especially for someone like me who is goal-oriented and results-driven. But I decided to run my own race. Halfway through the race, I did pass the pacer. I know I am always a slow starter. Oddly enough, I get stronger as a race goes on. So I always try to keep in mind that I know myself and my own body. A pacer is always an awesome tool to have in a race, but only I know the best way for me to run. I am able to gauge how I am doing around the halfway mark, and then mile 10 is the marker I start to get a good idea of how my race will pan out.

This ended up being my fastest race time since I had knee surgery. My accomplishments are now referred to as pre-surgery and post-surgery. So I guess I had a post-surgery PR. My pre and post-surgery goals and accomplishments have not crossed paths, yet. So they still need their own categories. (That is a discussion for another blog, but there is nothing like tearing your ACL and both meniscus, as well as spraining every other 3 letter acronym in your knee, and then throwing in a cyst for shits and giggles). I took 2 minutes and 28 seconds off my post-surgery PR. It always feels so good to see the finish line sign jutting up above the crowd.

And then realize on this day, I would be accomplishing my goals.

 

 

 

 

Wanderlust

As I wait for my next adventure, Whidbey Island in Washington State, I have been thinking back on what first sparked my hunger for travel and exploration. I am consumed with the need and want to travel like it is my first, and okay maybe only, love. I am running a half-marathon in every state, and after this weekend, Washington State will be number 17. I have also decided to run a half-marathon on every continent. Obviously North America has been conquered, but next on the list is Antarctica in 2019. And if I am being honest, I am sure Europe will happen in 2018. Seventeen years ago, I wouldn’t have fathomed that traveling, hiking, running, meeting people and hearing their stories, and seeing different lifestyles and cultures would be my life goal and healthy obsession.

Growing up, in Berwyn, Illinois, my parents did not share my now enthusiasm for traveling. My mom and I took small trips to different cities throughout Illinois and neighboring states, mainly Wisconsin, but that was the extent of my travels. My first time for a true “family vacation” was with my best friend and her family when I was 16 after my parents had moved me to Estill Springs, Tennessee. We left Tennessee and headed northeast. The official vacation started in Washington D.C. then we just traveled down the coast with stops like The Smithsonian, Monticello, an annual Irish Festival in Richmond Virginia, and the beach in South Carolina. This was the first time I had ever seen the ocean, and her waves, size, and beauty imprinted on me. But this still wasn’t what captured my attention. No, that would happen 5 years later, just a month after I turned 21.

I was a poor college student as many college students were. I went to school full-time, worked part-time at Home Depot, and paid my own rent and bills. When money was really scarce, meals consisted of cans of corn and boxed spaghetti noodles mixed with ketchup, and the beer was cheap and basically alcohol flavored water. But there were those moments where I actually had an extra 50 to 100 dollars. In true college student fashion I normally would have had to get a cute new pair of shoes or a new top to go out in. But in July 2000, I used my little bit of extra money to buy a bus ticket. Yes, I was going to take a bus from Clarksville, Tennessee to Los Angeles, California.

This was not a random trip. One of my best friends, Dave, was being deployed to Korea and before he left for Korea he was heading home to see his family who were sprawled across the California coast. Dave and I wanting to see each other one more time, and I also wanting to escape Tennessee for a bit, thought it sounded like the best idea for me to go to California. Plane tickets were too expensive, and driving all the way by myself would not have been a logical solution. So the bright idea was for me to take the Greyhound Bus. It was inexpensive, I would make it to Los Angeles in a few days, and I would get to see California for the first time. The farthest west I had been up until that point was North Dakota, but I was a small child and do not remember the trip. So the farthest west I had ever been that I can actually remember was Missouri.

I was absolutely ecstatic. Not only was I going to see my best friend, I had a free place to stay, I would get to see the ocean and beach again, but I was going all the way to California by bus. It seemed so adventurous and out of the norm of anything I had ever done. However, my parents did not share in my enthusiasm. My dad expressed his displeasure by saying this was a stupid idea, and he didn’t support me going. (I wasn’t really asking for permission though since I had already bought the ticket, and there wasn’t much he could do to stop me anyways).

So a few weeks later I was packed, my roommate dropped me off at the bus station, and I waited for my departure. When that bus finally departed the station, I spent a lot of my time staring out the window watching the blurred scenery distort and blend together. I also spent a lot of time listening to artists whose songs had become the soundtrack of my life that summer: James Taylor, Moby, The Bloodhound Gang, Tom Petty, and Fatboy Slim.

My first true interaction I had on the Greyhound Bus was with a middle-aged woman who was headed to California as well. She joined the bus on the stop in Dallas by way of Virginia. Her nerves were vibrating off her like a plucked string on a guitar. Not too long into the trip she began to open up. She told the story of her first love. Sometimes, as with first loves, she explained they went their separate ways. She said she ended up marrying another man and started a family, but it ended in divorce after her children were grown. Through the beginning of the social media craze, her first love found her and reached out to her. Coincidentally, he too had married another person, and it had recently ended in divorce. Through this new chance online encounter, these two previous loves were able to reconnect. They had spent the last 6 months getting to know each other on the phone, through social media, and email. They hadn’t seen each other in over 5 years, and at that time, both of them were still married to other people. Before she found herself on this Greyhound Bus bound for L.A., her first true love asked her to marry him. Even though they hadn’t seen each other in person for quite some time, she said yes. With that, she decided to sell her house she raised her children in, move across the country, and they would get married when she arrived in California. He sent her the engagement ring through Fed-Ex just a few weeks prior to this trip. She had delicately slipped the ring off her finger and smiled as she twirled it between her fingertips as the gold band and diamond reflected the sunlight peeking through the bus windows.

She continued, sharing her excitement and fear with me. She said the connection she felt with him hadn’t changed. In fact, it was magical. Even though they went in their separate directions after high school, their lives intersected at so many important points still. But she was still fearful. Since he last saw her she had gained some weight, and of course she was older. She acknowledged he had seen pictures of her, but it still wasn’t the same. But the beauty and romanticism of this story was not lost on me, and I was able to genuinely offer reassurance and comfort.

First, I was just so inspired and in awe by this love story. I didn’t know this then, but reflecting on it now it is really highlighted, but there was a no-nonsense, no bullshit aspect to this rekindling of love. At 21, it was just a romantic love story, and I hoped to find true love as well one day. But now at 37, I see another layer and have a deeper understanding of what it is to want to just be seen and vulnerable and cut out all the excess games. Well, not even the excess games, all the games. That was truly apparent in the telling of her story. This story was just about two people who wanted to be real together.

Second, she looked beautiful to me. Once again at 21, I don’t know if aging was high on my radar of concerns, but definitely almost two decades later, the pressure to not age is strong. Yes, she had a few smile wrinkles and a few extra pounds, but her sweet demeanor and loving spirit truly shined through as well. I saw the beauty in exactly who she was, and I knew her future husband did and would.

When we arrived in L.A., I wished her all the luck in the world and a huge congratulations. As strangers, yet as new momentary confidantes, we gave each other a hug.

When I was in L.A., I did have the best time with my friend. We spent several days at his family’s beach house in Huntington Beach literally just donning bathing suits the whole time. The ability to step from the backdoor onto the sand is an experience I will never forget. There is something about the beach in the middle of the night, dark with the moon offering her light, the waves rolling over one another, and the cooled sand spreading out under my feet that ignited me inside. We even took trips through the cities of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, to the Los Angeles Zoo, Six Flags Magic Mountain, and maybe even stole a huge paper sign out of a laundromat that became a staple in my apartment.

Even though this blog is about traveling, my interactions with people are just as much a part of traveling as seeing the world is. This trip made me want to fan that fire that started inside me. It opened my eyes to all the people that we see and pass by every day, yet know nothing about. All the people in this world who are on their own journeys and explorations with stories to tell. It opened my eyes and made me realize all the different landscapes and cultures each city, each state, and each country has to offer.

That was the moment I realized, I wanted to see it all.