Casket Quarry Hike (New Free Thing #1)

Usually, I’d say that hiking and other outdoor activities are the super easy Free Things to do in Duluth. They’re everywhere, and I’m sure some weeks I’ll count new trails among the New Free Things I’ll take in. But I knew this event wouldn’t be easy because of the social aspect and because of my insecurities about doing physical stuff with other people.

I pulled into the parking area by Quarry Park on time, as ready as I was going to be. Hike Duluth and Duluth Parks and Recreation partnered to do this series of Women Hike Duluth hikes. They meet monthly on trails around the city, but January had been cancelled on one of those days that everything was cancelled because it was the time of the Polar Vortex (read: windchills of -40F and below). All the parking lot spots were full, and cars were lining the street for a couple of blocks. The bigger the group, the easier to not talk to anyone – ha!

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We’ve had a bit of snow lately.

A woman came confidently striding up to me with a smile on her face and said, “Are you here alone, too?” After answering affirmatively and talking about the fact that neither of us have been to one of these Women Hike Duluth events, we fell into a somewhat awkward smiling silence. The people around us were also having conversations about similar topics, but clearly almost all of them had shown up with at least one known entity.

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Photo credit: Sandi Larson (group leader)

After a couple more minutes of standing around, the group leader told us about the route (up to the top of the ridge, then past the ice climbers below, along the ridge, back down and into the woods before looping back to the parking lot), urging the snowshoers to go first to pack down the snow a bit.

As we started hiking, I was right behind this same woman, continuing a somewhat halting conversation. As we continued to talk a bit, we realized that we knew someone in common, a woman I haven’t been in much contact with since she left Duluth years ago. Funny small town where you are seven degrees of separation from just about everyone…

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The hike itself was interesting enough. All 67 of us filed along, seeing ice climbers and artwork, and just being out in nature on a warm enough day. Here’s a video the hike leader took of us up near the top of the ridge.

20190223_13423120190223_134333After thanking the group leader and saying goodbye to the hikers who had already made it back to the parking lot area, I quickly scurried back to my car and drove down to Winter in the West where I saw a group of three women I’d been asked to take a picture of while out hiking. They assured me I had earned the free donut I was eating (do I seriously have to earn donuts??? especially free donuts????? hmmm…).

I figured I needed a rating scale for these events… I’m sure I’ll change it as I go along. Let’s go 1-10, shall we?

1: incredibly painful, either physically or emotionally,

3: it wasn’t great and I sure wouldn’t seek doing it again,

5: it was fine; had good and not-so-good aspects,

7: it was good for a variety of reasons and I’d likely try again if given the opportunity, and

10: one of my favorite events in Duluth, resulting in intense joy or satisfaction.

This would be about a 4. While I didn’t feel connected to the social aspect of it, I did like the hike and being outside on a relatively warm day (20 above!). And even though it was really a separate New Free Thing, I like donuts. So while I absolutely applaud the Women Hike Duluth idea, I think I’ll stick to primarily hiking alone or with very good friends.

Persistence Pays

If you’re reading this, you probably know me quite well (hi, mom!). And if you know me quite well, you probably know that I can… shall we say ‘struggle’ with decision-making? Many times, it’s not that I don’t know what I want. It’s that I want it all. Cake to be eaten. Promptly. I want to have the comfort of home, but I also want to venture out. I want to make a meaningful contribution to society, but I also want to sit around and read books. I want to train to run another half marathon, but I also want to have leisurely coffee on my balcony as the temperature rises ten degrees above what anyone would consider good running weather.

This inability to make and stick with decisions has sometimes made me the bane of people’s existence. I get it. Some things never change…

A couple of months ago, I met a guy looking for trekking partners (that’s what they call hiking over here, i guess, as i can’t seem to get anyone to tell me how hiking and trekking might be different, a question i once asked a gal hiking hadrian’s wall, only to be looked at with disdain and to receive the “it’s just… trekking” condescending answer). I was finding myself in my typical decision-making pattern, going back and forth as to why I would or wouldn’t go trekking with him from Chambok.

Pros:

  1. I love hiking, and I miss it tremendously.
  2. I also miss being out in nature, seeing green.
  3. I have been feeling a need to challenge my body, other than just running in heat.

Cons:

  1. It’s hot as hell here in April. I mean, have I mentioned yet how I sweat nearly a liter every time I just sweep the floor? (yes, yes, i know i’ve mentioned this before)
  2. The expense was not something I had in my budget. While it really wasn’t that expensive for the services, it’s just that I’m not trying to completely and totally run out of cash while hanging out in Cambodia. I like my landlady A LOT (she gave me more beers the other day!!!) and would like to continue being able to give her rent money each month.
  3. I don’t really know this guy and he could be
    1. a serial killer, or
    2. just annoying as hell.

There was also more than a twinge of fear that I wouldn’t be able to keep up on the trek (this is founded in the reality of past hikes, like when trekking gorillas at Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda – you’d have to buy me a beer to tell you this whole story), but I was able to give fear a big F-U. Still, indecision.

I eventually messaged The Dane, my to-be hiking partner, saying I wasn’t going, citing monetary issues. While he expressed disappointment, I agreed to still meet up with him later in his trip, trading the use of my washing machine for a bottle of his homebrew. And I know I’m good at drinking beer, so no fear there.

But as it turns out The Dane is a hella persistent guy, and each time I met up with him here in PP before the planned trekking trip, he kept trying to convince me to go with him (all the while succeeding at convincing me he was neither a serial killer nor annoying as hell). But it was actually a TED talk by Ruth Chang about “How to Make Hard Choices” that made me fully change my mind. She talks about hard choices being those with no truly “better” answer, which is what this decision was – definite pros, definite cons. Here’s what Chang had to say:

“So when we face hard choices, we shouldn’t beat our head against a wall trying to figure out which alternative is better. There is no best alternative. Instead of looking for reasons out there, we should be looking for reasons in here: Who am I to be? You might decide to be a pink sock-wearing, cereal-loving, country-living banker, and I might decide to be a black sock-wearing, urban, donut-loving artist. What we do in hard choices is very much up to each of us.

Now, people who don’t exercise their normative powers in hard choices are drifters. We all know people like that. I drifted into being a lawyer. I didn’t put my agency behind lawyering. I wasn’t for lawyering. Drifters allow the world to write the story of their lives. They let mechanisms of reward and punishment — pats on the head, fear, the easiness of an option –to determine what they do. So the lesson of hard choices: reflect on what you can put your agency behind, on what you can be for, and through hard choices, become that person.

Did I want to put my agency behind being a fiscally-responsible safety-seeker? Or did I want to be a slightly less financially viable, albeit sweaty as hell, experience-seeker?

Exactly.

I eventually caved, bought bus tickets, and joined him on an early Sunday-morning bus ride out of the city. Of course, everything was a great experience. We laughed (tons!), ate great food (also tons!), and got to see some of the culture of rural life in Cambodia (making rice wine, dancing and drinking beers for Khmer New Year, staying in a homestay, learning about medicines and foods from the forest, hearing the stories of the locals (ranging from stories of toasts made while drinking to stories of refugee camps), riding around on a tractor and bicycles…).

Okay, this is already TLDR, and I didn’t even talk about the trekking yet! Here, look at some pics of the whole trip (photo credit for half of these to the dane)…

Biking around the area:

 

 

Just some of the delicious foods we had:

 

 

Some of the sights and activities around town:

 

 

Our homestay:

 

 

Short day trek to Second and Third Waterfalls (where, as we were hiking down what our guide called an “adventure” path (read: most people don’t go this way), The Dane said, “If they want to expand their ecotourism, they’ll have to look at safety,” right before I completely bit it — my only fall this trip that left bruises):

 

 

… And the big day trek from Chambok to Kirirom National Park:

 

 

Feeling gratitude for persistent Danes.

Next undertaking? Another vipassana course (like this one I did a few months ago, but in Kampong Cham). Glutton for punishment, but putting my agency behind, trying to be for meditation and self-improvement. Here’s hoping!

Borneo to Bangkok

You know how sometimes you get so far behind on something that you just want to scrap the whole thing? Well, this is my attempt to catch up on blogging in one fell swoop. I’ve just been traveling a lot, which has been delightful — just not conducive to keeping up on anything else. I also feel that way about running. And about keeping up on sweeping the gotdamn apartment, for crying out loud.

But here’s another catch-up post… Not much to write, and just a few pics to share…

Directly after KL, I flew solo over to Borneo. When I landed in Sandakan, it was pouring, but I took a taxi downtown to check it out. I did a bit of the walking tour, but then ditched that and went and saw the new Star Wars movie (yes, I realize how ridiculous this is).

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Down by the waterfront, “downtown” Sandakan
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View from the movie theater lobby (and a break in the rain)

I headed over to Sepilok to the lovely Sepilok Jungle Resort for a few days, and checked out the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.

After a drenching walk to lunch at the Lake Bistro, I walked in the rain some more toward the Rainforest Discover Center. But as I started walking on the raised boardwalks (adrenaline bump!), it started to clear up a bit, giving some nice views of the rainforest.

As I got further and further in on the trails, I found myself in literally (actually, really, completely, literally) one of my favorite places on earth. Once I got beyond all the boardwalks and wide gravel trails, I walked for hours on the sometimes muddy paths, not seeing another human the entire time. Exactly what my soul needed.

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I’ve got a thing for magnificent trees, and there was one here that made the top 5 list.

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Those hours hiking were perhaps some of my favorite hours in Southeast Asia thus far. Which says a lot.

The next day, I took a bus past the kilometers and kilometers and kilometers of palm oil farms (read up on “The local impacts of palm oil expansion in Malaysia” if you so care, which I maaaaaaay assert that you might want to care) to get to the Kinabantangan River for a boat tour.

I love me a good wildlife tour, so it was no surprise that I absolutely loved this one. The tour guides said we were incredibly lucky to see the things we saw (orangutans, proboscis monkeys, macaques, crocodiles, mangrove snakes, and birds a-plenty — hornbills, bee eaters, herons, and a bat hawk), but doesn’t every guide say that to every group???

This feels like one of those places where I wished I could have spent another few days, just exploring a bit more, getting out into nature a bit more. Fortunately, though, I headed to Bangkok directly after Borneo to visit J, who had moved to Bangkok about six weeks prior. Not too many words to say about Bangkok, other than the food and especially the company were fabulous.

And, while I’m based in Phnom Penh, it seems like I’ve barely spent any time here because, shortly after getting back from Bangkok, I picked up a bit of work but then headed out to Lazy Beach out on Koh Rong Samloem for nearly a week (started as a 3-night stay with SLT1 and her beau, A, but we couldn’t bear to leave!). This, my friends, is the charmed life of Julie.

While we were on the island, A asked me about my journaling. “Do you write about events or about your thoughts about them?” My answer was both, but I find it interesting that this blog has really only contained a non-edited, quickly-scrawled catalogue of events for the past couple of months. Just wait — I’ll undoubtedly post a painfully introspective brain barf in the not too distant future. Promise!

Happy Trails

Many people, when they travel for a while, find that they miss certain things from home. The food. The sounds. The smells. The comfortable beds or the hot showers.

Personally, I miss the trails. Man, do I miss the trails. The way they smell, the fact that they’re quiet, the way the light filters through the trees, the vistas. I miss that feeling I get when I hop out of the car at the trailhead, put on my backpack, and step onto the trail. There is nothing I’ve found like it in the world, and I’ve been dreaming about getting back on the trails as soon as I return “back home.”

Buuuuuuttttt, then I found Phnom Penh Hike! It’s a group on Facebook (well, really one guy) that organizes guided group hikes around Phnom Penh on some Sundays. So, I signed up to go to the hike up to Oudong Mountain.

The group meets near Wat Langka (where I meditate), and on this particular morning, it was lightning, thundering and POURING rain. I decided to show up anyway for the bus ride out of town.

While I knew I wouldn’t get the full experience I wanted since it was a group hike, I was excited to get “out there” again! Wellllll, we all know that expectations reduce joy (or at least we all know that I say it), right? Yeah. This turned out to be less of a hike than a tour of multiple temples, but I actually did a great job of dumping my expectations and really enjoying the day, especially since the rain dried up and the sun came out.

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But I’ve realized there are so many other things wrapped into my hikes that I’m really missing.

I miss the physical activity of hiking and trail running. I miss the adrenaline and the sense of accomplishment when I’ve really pushed through a few miles or have covered a significant distance. I can get those things other ways (I’m still running streets a bit even though I’ve quit training for anything, and I do some other exercise), but it’s not the same.

I miss being so close to wilderness. I was so lucky to live in a place where, in a matter of minutes, I could be on a trail or a beach where I felt so far removed from “the city” (I put this in quotes because I lived in a darn small city, but still). I could find silence and a connection to nature so easily.

I miss my ability to get out of the city at will, in the moment that I want to in the direction that I want to for the duration that I want to. I used to be able to decide where I wanted to go, pack up the car, and go. I was also be able to, in the middle of those plans, change my mind and go anywhere that sounded good in the moment. Now, when I get in a tuk tuk or get on a bus, it’s extraordinarily difficult to change direction. Not impossible, but not usually worth the effort. (I mean, have you ever tried to change plans mid-tuk tuk ride? Yeah.) I didn’t realize this was something I was missing until I thought about it last week. And I think that’s why, when I got on my new bike and started pedalling, I felt a freedom of movement through space of my own volition that made me giggle like a schoolgirl while I rode down the street, my hair (and my skirt – thank goodness for pantaloons of sorts!) whipping behind me.

I miss being alone. While I have a room with a door here, too, I only very rarely feel like I truly have my own space. I’m living with people with whom I work (at times my boss, at times other instructors for the course I’m coordinating/teaching). If you either (1) are an introvert or have introvert/ambivert tendencies or (2) know or have lived with an introvert, you know that sometimes having to just look at other people can make a person crazy. Or feel draining. I know it’s stupid, but sometimes I sit in my room with the door closed, debating whether or not going out to get another cup of coffee in the kitchen is worth the possible price of having to have a conversation. Don’t get me wrong — the people I have been sharing space with are all delightful humans, and I’ve enjoyed the conversations I’ve had with them. Sometimes, though, it just takes something out of me that I might not have to give in the moment.

The combination of all those things above makes hiking (and getting to the trailheads) so appealing to me. I didn’t take my ability to go for hikes for granted, but I don’t think I realized how many needs those moments helped me meet. While I thought I couldn’t possibly be more fond of The Trail I frequented most, absence has truly made my heart grow even fonder.

Until we meet again, Trail…

Jaunty Jingles

The initial reason I traveled to the UK was to hike Hadrian’s Wall, an 84-mile national trail across the width of Northern England, following the course of a ruined wall from the Roman Empire. My friend Sue had suggested the hike, and in true style, another friend Terry and I signed on without question (charmed life example #462). While we were hiking Hadrian’s wall, I found that my mind would run and run and run while I walked and walked and walked. I’ve learned enough in my life so far that, if I don’t give my mind something productive to do, it will come up with plenty of destructive things to while away the hours. Now, granted, I use the term “productive” pretty loosely here, so don’t get your hopes up.

I enlisted Terry to teach me songs from her Girl Scout days. Now, I was never in the Girl Scouts. No cutie little outfits or badges, no week-long camps, and no sweet, sweet boxes of deeeeelicious cookies. I did have Lutheran Girl Pioneers, the Wisconsin Synod equivalent of the Girl Scouts, but all of our songs had a whole lotta the Jesus in them, and I just wasn’t in the mood for him on this hike at this point in my life (although “Father Abraham” did make his way briefly onto the set list at one point). But it seems like these Girl Scouts know what they’re doing, because Terry taught me a great hiking song that ends with a very rousing chant of, “Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty miles a day – HEY!”
(Note: I will never pass up an opportunity to throw some jazz hands in the air and punctuate a marching song with “HEY!”)
(Another, less-related note: As I cleaned out my mementos this past year, I came across a pin from my Lutheran Girl Pioneer days: the LGP Perfect Attendance pin. Such were the accomplishments of my youth.)

Another song Terry taught me, reminiscent of the “Tikki Tikki Tembo” story of my youth, was “Eddie Coochie Katcha Kami.” (Yeah, it may be the coochie bit that that kept it out of the LGP world.) Now, both the Tikki Tikki and the Eddie stories are about a young man with a very long name who falls into a well then drowns when no one can say his name fast enough to get help to him in time. So uplifting, eh? But fun as hell to sing! So, I learned what I now affectionately was referring to as “The Eddie Coochie Song” by repeating it over and over and over and over and … yeah, and over. But I finally learned it to the point where, several days into hiking, I could sing it nearly as quickly as it ought be sung.

With that accomplished, I needed another challenge to keep my brain a bit busy during the full days of hiking. So, in keeping with the natural progression of all things musical, I came up with a dance that goes along with the chorus (Eddie’s full name). I secretly choreographed it in my mind, practicing it during little side trips I took off of the trail while my hiking partners trudged on (with Sue, telling me it was “good for me” to burn off energy on my little side treks – ha!). Once I had the dance down, I told Terry I had come up with a game. I was going to do a dance and see if she could see what song I was silently dancing to. I know that you are all wishing you had video of this dance I did (beg hard enough and it may come), but here’s how it goes:

Hands with open fingers circle two counts to the right (“Eddie Coochie”)
Hands with open fingers circle two counts to the left (“Catcha Cammi”)
Straight arms alternating forward and back, four counts (“Tosanery Tosanosa”)
Hands with open fingers, palms out, right clockwise, left counterclockwise, two counts (“Samma Camma”)
Arms up with jazz hands, just as in ‘HEY’ noted above, two counts (“Wacky”)
Hands down, out from sides, continue jazz hands, as long as you choose to hold out the final word (“Brown”)

(And, yes, I can see you out there trying to recreate this dance. Post a link to your video in the comments below and you shall be rewarded. Not kidding.)

So, I tell Terry to guess what song I’m dancing to as I show her my amazing dance creation. She guesses “You Are My Sunshine.” I show her the dance again. She guesses the Beatles. I dance again. She guesses goddamn Pink Floyd.

“Terry. Seriously? Come on. You must not even be watching me.” And I kept repeating my dance. Over and over and over and over and… yeah, and over. Eventually, I sadly had to give up and tell her which song I had so brilliantly choreographed. But neither of us peed ourselves while laughing so damn hard, so really we both won.

Now, I’ll admit it’s the worst game in the world, but a couple of local pints and a couple more shots of Famous Grouse later in a pub at the end of our hike, I regaled my newest friends in the world about this horrible idea of an intentionally impossible game that was actually a blast. Not only did they laugh hysterically at my story, but they STARTED PLAYING MY GAME. Now, mind you, they turned it more into a bit of charades, only with dancing instead of acting out specific words, and with one of the men consistently shouting encouragement like, “You’re doing really well! You’re doing a great job of it!” (About a game that can’t be done well.) But if you’ve never bonded with a bunch of bicycling British men and a hiking Australian woman you’ve just met over a game you made up while hiking Hadrian’s Wall, I hope that you are working to create equally as memorable stories.

While the whole trip was a series of amazing, gratitude-inducing events (touring London and seeing the Royal family! punting and walking the streets in Cambridge! hiking England coast to coast after dipping my feet in the North Sea, staying in amazing B&Bs along the way! buying a delightful dress in Edinburgh! traveling to the Highlands of Scotland including Loch Ness! spending hours in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland under the midnight sun!), I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…

Life, for me, is about creating stories. And the story of creating a game on an international thru-hike that then gets played by newfound friends in a pub in Bowness on Solway is one I will undoubtedly continue to tell for years.

Complete with re-enactment of my now infamous dance.