Once again, I’m sitting in a room I’m about to leave. My belongings are strewn every which way across the floor, bed, desk, windowsills, doorknobs. Empty tupperware sit at odd angles on top of clothes piles and to the outside eye, there’s no sense in any of this mess. To me, it’s delightful.

I’m one of those weird people that loves to pack. It’s almost as exciting as deciding to embark on a move. Typically, I get so excited about packing that I start the process a week before I go, just to ensure I am as thorough and thoughtful as possible.

It begins with my clothes: I sort and discard at least every six months, which is my approximate relocation schedule. Clothes are easy to be ruthless with. I inevitably find pieces I haven’t worn for a year or so, pieces I told my self I should get rid of last time I packed, or just really hideous numbers I picked up at a thrift store last time I attempted to update my closet. A grey and white striped boatneck sweatshirt with a bow on the back–really?! Discard.

Then comes paperwork, piles of it that surround my desk. How do they grow so quickly? I wonder as I start shredding, feeling increasingly weightless as the machine whines.

Books, magazines. I am continually torn between which pages to keep and which I’ll never peruse again. This time, my copy of Backcountry Skier with the picture of neon adorned skiers on the front that clearly dates back to my birth year gets tossed in the reject pile. Outdated copies of National Geographic, however? Timeless.

Room decorations. Do I really need the sugar pine cones from California that are as long as my forearm? I decide to gift them to the lawn. But my pony bell from Nepal? It’ll keep traveling with me till the day I die.

The process goes on, each day more of my relatively few belongings are let go. And I feel lighter, free-er, increasingly excited to trade discarded things for new experiences.

The act of simplification never fails to satisfy, especially when it opens space for the next life adventure. Soon I’ll stash my reduced belongings in the basement of a house where I once lived. In three months I’ll stuff them in my Subaru, drive to Wyoming, open them up and once more begin the process of accumulation. In the time between, I’ll board a plane with only a bag on my back and pair of ski boots as carry on. What could be more wonderfully simple than that?

Last week, on a whim, I decided I needed an adventure. And so, I applied for a Frontier Airlines credit card and used my free signup miles to book a plane ticket to Alaska, where I’ll spend two and a half months of my summer with soul sister, Alayne Tetor. I depart on June 4th, barely two weeks after I made the decision to go.

My boss was shocked at the quick decision. “You’re leaving June 4th?! Holy hell,” he exclaimed. “But I’m giving you two weeks!” I insisted.

My roommates took it a little better. “So, I’ll put that Craigslist ad up right away,” Kelly responded. Fortunately my current room-in-a-house situation is month to month, without a lease, and with a group of fun older people who believe strongly in finding, and following, your destiny. “What an adventure!” she mused.

“You know, Homer isn’t right in the mountains,” Alayne warned me as we hashed out plans. “I know it,” I replied, “but honestly, Alayne, I’m so hungry for something new I don’t even care. And besides, I’ll be able to see the mountains from Homer…”

I’ve never been to Alaska, know very little of Homer besides what Alayne and Google have told me (fishing town of 5,000, home of the Homer Spit, southwest side of the Kenai Penninsula, artist and intellectual hub, barely reaches 75 degrees all summer), and there’s something about not knowing that is incredibly exhilarating. I can honestly say I have no idea what shape the summer will take.

Of course there are practical considerations at hand: I need to find a job, for starters. I have a handful of leads at restaurants in Homer, and Alayne has a few ideas up her sleeve. Finding work isn’t my biggest concern; even if the job sucks I’m still living in Alaska and only need to hack it out for two months.

Then there are the fun considerations: glacier skiing, salmon fishing, blackberry pie baking, wilderness exploring, hopping a plane to Juneau, a ferry to Ketchikan, experiencing an entire 24 hours of sunlight, making art and inspired writing, being immersed in all of the beauty and hugeness of the Great White North.

Of course, I have asked myself  ‘why do this?’. And I tell myself, because it’s there.

And then I ask myself ‘why not?’. I can’t think of one single reason not to.

Homer, AK, curtesy of bayrealtyhomes.com

Homer, AK, courtesy of bayrealtyhomes.com

This month, thousands of trekkers and climbers flock to Everest to try to their ice picks, crampons and telephoto lenses on the world’s largest pile of snow, ice and rock. Here, a few verbal snapshots from my journey to the Mother Mountain:

Treeline broke late this morning and spit us out into scrubby alpine tundra. We stopped for an early lunch in Shomare and I scrambled up the mountainside in search of a flat spot to stretch into some yoga and meditate. The Dudh Kosi (milk river) rolling below was the loudest sound in the air as I eased my muscles out of their stiff states and into fluidity. After stretching, I sat crass-legged on a rock, knees below the hips, back and neck in line, and I slid into the wind brushing my face, the water rushing below, the bold stature of Ama Dablam directly ahead, the endless ocean of snowy ridges stretching beyond the valley. I sat within, the whole world breathing and exhaling, all of its unified parts simply being, one. 

As we drew closer to Everest, the landscape became increasingly inhospitable. This from a village we reached two days before base camp:

Nuptse is growing as I write. Seriously, every time I look away and back again, the prominent peak appears even more enormous, unreal, as though it grows before my very eyes.

We are in Loboche, a dusty, lodge-dotted wasteland situated at 16,000 feet. The landscape is comprised of rocks, dirt, dead tundra grass, scree and, higher up, snow. Long rectangular stone lodges are the only buildings here and they are bustling with trekkers, scurrying around like Gor-Tex clad ants en route to Everest, Kala Pataar, Gokyo Lakes. Ponies and yaks, both here purely for the purpose of transporting gear and cargo, are the only animals present in the lunar surroundings.

The peaks, though, are mind-blowing. Six thousand and 7000 meter summits encase us from all angles. We are dwarves in their cold shadows. With each glance around, I see a new peak pop out of a ragged ridge line. The river is ice-crusted, an indication of temperatures to come? 

At the stone table where I sit outside, I overhear two Swedes, and Aussie and an American discussing the availability of Swedish meatballs in Thailand. A German man smokes a cigarette across the table from me. His climbing partner joins us and we all rest in the glaring sun, sharing this space at 16,000 feet. Despite our different backgrounds, we speak, in one sense, the same language: mountains.

Yak baring their burdens, 17,000 feet above sea level

Yak bearing their burdens, 17,000 feet above sea level

Shoes crunch wet spring snow

juniper shapes are smudged, laden branches bent

IMG_0142ghost vapor swirls

’round the gnarled trunks,

drowns out the world’s sounds,

even May Day bird songs.

One of the most invigorating aspects of spring, particularly spring in the Rockies, is the total unpredictability of the whole affair. Two days ago I ran down a dry dirt road in shorts and a sports bra, my shoulders taking on a deep, red sun kiss. This morning I hiked into the chilled quiet of a snow coated juniper forest, my body warmed by wool layers, fingers adorned in thick gloves. Spring produces bipolar Rocky Mountain weather at its best.

Not all in the Roaring Fork Valley are thrilled about the drastic swings. During a phone conversation with an Aspen friend this morning, the friend declared, “I’m over the snow.” But it’s so pretty! I protested, to which he replied, “I’m over the beauty, too.” On entering the Carbondale library this morning I overheard the librarian apologizing to an out-of-towner for the weather. And on the street one man exclaimed to another, “This is crazy! But it’s a choice, I guess, to live in the Rockies.”

Sure, freak snow storms snarl traffic, slop up sidewalks and make spring flowers bloom a little slower, but they also provide the perfect reason to slow down, take in the scenery and admire weather doing what weather does: anything it wants. It also reminds people of something essential: they can’t control everything. In an age when we can control our work schedules, food choices, the temperature in our cars and the music on our Pandora radios, it’s comforting to know that ultimately, nature still rules.

In due time, Colorado summer will deliver long, 90 degree days of endless sunshine that stretch on for weeks at a time. Until then, I’ll enjoy this final burst of winter beauty, and hope that a few more unexpected bursts are on the way.

When we crested the ridge, shirts stuck to sweaty backs, blood pushing through veins, lungs swollen then empty, I caught my first glimpse

and I gasped and laughed. hours of uphill effort disintegrated

my hungry eyes grabbed the mountain scape, ate the view, fed my soul.

There were pyramid shapes

in any direction

snow basins, pregnant snow bowls

crusty ridgelines, seams

dividing one peak

from the next,

velvet snow fields

speckled by evergreen tips

All small in our eyes

but we were the smallest

tiny, our presence an instant, a fraction

And the mountains’ presence

monumental

the reason, in fact, we lived that day.

IMG_0118

A friend recently proposed a project: take a photo of something random each day, then spend 20 minutes free writing about that photo. You can write whatever you want, just let the image shape the words, scenes and thoughts you present. Below, my first go at it. More to follow…

Driving a two lane in northern Colorado

Driving a two lane in northern Colorado

How, I wondered, fingers gripped to an icy steering wheel, do I capture this place? Glittering snowfields rolled out from the roadside, meeting peaks, ridgelines, aspen groves, bare branches extending into seemingly endless colbolt cloudlessness. A lone peak jutted skyward. Could I ski it? Approach from the north, ski down the way I came? I consider as I perch my point-and-shoot shakily on the dash. If only I could  sweep this landscape up, gather it in my arms, frame it on an empty wall. This is my life, this entire world of mountains, snowflakes, wind gusts that blow my Subaru to the yellow line, the snow banked roadside. If only the whole world could experience the freedom of this landscape, the liberation. Would the world be better? Who’s to say? On the radio, Robert and Jad of Radiolab speak of snowflakes, perfect figures, no two are alike. I gaze, my mind working across the snowfields, one by one by one by one the flakes that make the snowpack. I’m blown to the side of the road, again.

I was standing in a bike shop called The Pedal House in downtown Laramie when I got the threat. There were two bike techs in the shop, both looked to be about 30 and fairly fit. We were making Laramie small talk.

“You know,” I started, “I wasn’t too sure about Laramie before I got here. I just kept picturing rednecks, cowboy boots and tumbleweeds blowing across the streets. But it’s actually a really cool place.”

“Oh yeah,” replied the guy who was fixing the rear brake of my bike. “It’s a great place. The best part is that nobody but people who live here know it.” He paused and looked up at me. “So you better not write about it, or we’ll come hunt you down.”

He was probably joking (or at least I hope so) and my name isn’t directly associated with my blog, so I’m not scared…really… But he hinted at the essence of Laramie that makes it an ‘it’ place without the hype, the yuppies or the affluence that ruin so many once-cool western towns. Laramie is cool because nobody thinks it is.

Take the downtown. The core is rustic stretch of brick buildings, some that date back to 1868. There are funky coffee shops, new and used bookstores, yoga studios, a well-stocked food co-op, a couple of cowboy bars, a couple of fancier bars, Thai, vegetarian, Italian, Mexican and American cuisine, a gear shop, and, of course, a western wear store where you can get your cowboy boots custom fit. Essentially, it has everything you need.

It has just enough of what you want, too. A 45 minute drive will get you to powdery (albeit windy) slopes in the Snowy Mountains west of Laramie. Drive 20 minutes east and you can climb some of the best off-width crack climbs in the country at Vedaouwoo. Fifteen minutes will get you to miles of cross country skiing, mountain biking and hiking trails. And if you don’t feel like driving you can ride your bike to the edge of town and wander the vast prairie, often with herds of Pronghorn antelope for company. Not to mention the University of Wyoming hosts over 13,000 students, including graduate and PhD levels, who keep the town young and openminded.

This isn’t to say it’s paradise. The nine-month winters are notoriously fierce and windy (think -20 with 50 mpg gusts). Massive Ford F-350, Dodge Ram diesel pickup trucks roar through town and peel out of intersections on an hourly basis. The NYTimes published this article about Wyoming conservatives reaction to Obama’s re-election, which gives little hope to the state’s liberal inhabitants. West Laramie has a bad and infamous meth habit. And on Friday and Saturday night the downtown bars are flooded with hoards of “dirty undies” (undergrads) who are belligerent drunk and doing everything you forgot–or remember most fondly–you did in college.

Altogether, the bad and good give Laramie a gritty realness, but also an intellectual edge that, when put together among 30,000 people, make it an unexpectedly cool place to be. (An added bonus is the cost of living–a mere fraction compared to Colorado ski towns). As I meet more people I find that most of them love it here, some even ended up here accidentally through jobs or friends and decided to stay. “Laramie is a good place to be,” they say, “but shhh, don’t tell anybody.”

Just say you didn’t hear it from me.