If you wait for…

If you wait for the perfect moment when all is safe and assured, it may never arrive. Mountains will not be climbed, races won, or lasting happiness achieved.
-Maurice Chevalier

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“snowflakes are falling / i’ll catch them in my hand”

December 2011

Dearest friends, family, and followers of Going Glacial,

With the New Year upon us, I finally find myself in the position to remedy the fact that I have been absent from my Going Glacial alias for the past six months. I have adventured, traveled, concert-gone, laughed, cried, changed plans, made new ones, and returned to school in that time frame. As we near the beginning of 2012, I find myself in the same high-alpine location (currently shrouded in snow) that spawned the original inspiration for Going Glacial in the summer of 2010. After a successful (and, at times, turbulent) return to my undergraduate life at Stanford in September after approximately fifteen months of freewheeling and globetrotting, I am safely nestled in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains on winter break before resuming classes in mid-January. My time away from the pen and notebook has been colorfully marked by a solo, mid-July ski descent of a rugged alpine chute (a first for me in several regards, as I will soon explain); an on-foot adventure on the seldom-visited Italy-Slovenia border; a spontaneous ultra-run/hike across the posh and similarly seldom-visited Mediterranean island of Corsica (complete with exclusive lodging on the rock-hard Corsican ground); ample hours spent plugging and chugging in a sterile cubicle in suburban Pennsylvania to replenish my adventure fund so that I can continue to “go glacial”; and an unprecedented stint working as a volunteer farmhand on an organic vegetable farm in the rural wilds of eastern Iceland. Needless to say, I have much to report on in words and photos, and I plan to do so in coming weeks. In the meantime, stay tuned for a forthcoming series of photo posts featuring a mix of committed work and quicker snapshots, both of which capture the unbridled adventure and sublime surroundings that detailed the latter half of 2011.

Back in July, after recovering from a 32-mile, overnight, on-foot stunt in the steamy wilds of the Grand Canyon and a subsequent Alps adventure (more on that in forthcoming posts), I returned to the Salt Lake City area to catch up with friends and with the welcoming Wasatch Front. By a stroke of fate, I arrived back in Salt Lake City just in time for a concert held at a University of Utah venue that would mark the end of an exclusive summer tour by David Gray, my musician of choice and something of a dark horse in the acoustic/alternative music worlds. The lyrics to David Gray’s tunes are etched within the depths of my brain, but the Salt Lake City concert offered a new and reinvigorating music experience. Gray lovingly strummed his guitar and belted into the microphone for almost ten years before hitting it big in 2000 with the hit single, “Babylon,” which, to date, remains his most popular tune. “Babylon,” with its pop music vibes and catchy refrain, frequently obscures the softer tones of Gray’s earlier acoustic work and his later series of tunes that features prolonged instrumentals culminating in passionate–and resonant–vocal segments. Gray’s July concert in Salt Lake City served as the grand finale for his summer 2011 “Lost and Found” tour, during which he presented intimate, acoustic reinterpretations of the pop-influenced tunes that earned him success and acclaim over the past decade. For the full effect of intimacy, Gray strategically placed living room-appropriate lamps around the stage. Suffice it to say that Gray executed a successful effort to downplay the pop-like pretense of his more recent hit music and to thus reconnect with his devoted audience; I shed a few rare tears during his soft rendition of “Babylon.” Gray, in fact, had opted to seat himself at the beginning of the tune due to the “weight of the song.”

The days following this stirring musical experience were, par for the course, action-packed and replete with the unexpected. As I explored the craggy contours of Little Cottonwood Canyon, baked cakes, sifted through electronic piles of expectant photos, and eventually returned east to my equally expectant cubicle, I cued some of David Gray’s “underground” tunes as the soundtrack for my daily escapades. The playlist so much as accompanied me to Iceland, where the farmer-in-command [aptly] commented that I had selected “interesting” music to soften the otherwise painstaking process of planting individual arugula leaves in a field we had recently finished weeding–also by hand. Perhaps Eyglo, the matriarch of the Vallanes farm, had expected me–the sole American residing in the sparse mobile home on the edge of the farm property–to rake, plant, and harvest to the tune of David Guetta, Cobra Starship, Katy Perry, or something of the sort. (I am likely several months behind the vogue in writing this, but I think the comparison is clear enough.)

Backyard blues. The "Monster House," living quarters for international farming volunteers in Vallanes, Iceland. Photo: AK, 09.2011.

At the conclusion of my first week at Vallanes, I finally found the strength and mindfulness to overcome my post-farming exhaustion and munchies so that I could complete a solo-stroll across spongy marshlands sprouting even spongier (read: unpalatable) wild mushrooms en route to Lagarfljot, a narrow glacial lake that sluices across eastern Iceland’s forbidding landscape. In keeping with my summer soundtrack, I cued some David Gray “hits” (certainly a subjective interpretation) as I treaded away from the hand-painted mobile home past thoroughbred Icelandic horses and an abandoned antique car. Soon thereafter, I found myself engaging in my rote listening pattern: humming contentedly in sync with the initial instrumentals, all the while subconsciously awaiting the ultimate vocal crescendo. At the conclusion of “Slow Motion,” a lengthy song with sparse lyrics, David Gray belts: “Snowflakes are falling / I’ll catch them in my hand.” At once, this lyric bestowed perfectly fitting surround sound as I arrived at the banks of Lagarfljot and as the timid Icelandic sun, a mere speck against the expansively creamy melange of blue and white, danced toward the low horizon.

The seductive Icelandic sky gracefully dominates Lagarfljot and rolling farm-scape. Photo: AK, Vallanes, Iceland, 09.2011.

I had booked my ticket to Iceland scarcely a week prior, determined to conclude my time away from the university setting with a solo adventure of grand, but inexpensive proportions. “Snowflakes are falling / I’ll catch them in my hand” thus instantly conferred a sort of personal (and, of course, Going Glacial-appropriate) interpretation of the carpe diem adage, or “seize the day.”

We get what we get, and that is life’s reality in its simplest and crudest form. But the “snowflakes” refrain seems to enliven this truth by adding an active, positive dimension to our seemingly inescapable realities. That is, we get what we “catch,” and if we operate via the carpe diem tenet, then we are infinitely more likely to learn from and grow from those “snowflakes.” The powerful lyric recalled, more specifically, the spirit of reinvention and reconnection with which David Gray had imbued his “Lost and Found” tour, and more generally and personally, the spirit with which I had been fortunate to ski, run, hike, cook, and socialize during my year away from what I have come to know as the daily grind.

While I had firmly convinced myself that my return to Stanford would translate to a complete departure from the holistic, balanced lifestyle that I had crafted during my time away, I found myself pleasantly surprised as I settled back into life in the high-traffic, fast-paced Silicon Valley this past September. The daily “grind” took on new contours, as I was scarcely content to fall victim to the often irresistible traps of the local rat race. Rather than compartmentalize my distinct stresses and pleasures, I managed to import the [simultaneously] do-good, feel-good mentality from my time away, thus allowing me to realize fulfillment in the polarized spheres of life at Stanford. Mind you, I certainly encountered stumbling blocks along the way: foul moods, mild to moderate breakdowns, and intermittent attitude. But as I reflect and write from the mountains that have humbled and instructed me over the past year and a half, I feel fortunate to have come full circle–at least in its current incarnation. I find myself approaching daily challenges and opportunities with the fullest extent of my energy, curiosity, and dedication–on par with the exuberance I would commit to a sunset adventure in Little Cottonwood Canyon or to an 110-degree day on-trail in central Corsica. I know full well that each experience in the Stanford milieu is simply another in the mosaic of many experiences, and I can thus keep the gravity of any “situation” in check, if need be.

And for now? I am happily back at home in the white room, where I can revel in the opportunity to catch a few real snowflakes daily.

***

Please stay tuned in the next few days for vivid visuals of the aforementioned adventures. I promise to maximize visual effect and to at least attempt to minimize the writing.

Best wishes to you and yours for a happy and healthy New Year,

AK

Alta, Utah. 12.2011.

as real as it gets

I’ve been living more off the grid than most for almost seventh months, and thoughts about returning to the daily, familiar grind recede more with each passing day. I find that some of my most stimulating conversation occurs on the chairlift, and such was the case about three weeks ago when I rode the lift with a guy who I’ll call an “old ski buddy.” More than twenty years of age mark the territory between this gentleman and myself, and yet we somehow manage to bridge the gap in our sporadic and disproportionately passionate discussions about history, philosophy, politics, foreign languages, life in general, and, of course, skiing. What I lack in years in wisdom I make up for with my uninhibited verve. We frequently play devil’s advocate for one another, and I often find myself experimenting with new, challenging, and, at times, uncomfortable perspectives in our conversations. I was therefore surprised to find myself completely agitated by a chat, or rather batting of horns, that we had on the lift a few weeks ago.

My perspective: in our day and age and society, it seems increasingly difficult to truly “live in the now” and to embrace the immeasurable opportunities we are granted by life, itself, and by the natural world. Taking time away from academics has given me the rare and unexpected mental/physical space to consider deeply how I would like to live right now and in the immediate future. Easier said than done with the seemingly insurmountable societal pressures to study, to get a job, and subsequently, to help perpetuate the system. While on the trail in western Bhutan in the middle of October, just about as distanced from this system as is possible, I spent numerous rainy nights in my tent reading Claremont psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famed Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Rather than recap Csikszentmihalyi’s extensive and varied ideas, I’ll share the broad concept that resonated with me as I pored over each page of the book: mode of existence. Mode of existence: to me, not just how we live because we live that way, but because we’ve allowed ourselves the time, respect, and consideration to determine how we wish to live in the interest of “optimal experience.” Optimal experience: to me, the feelings of being in the right place at the right time, of finding joy in the simplest of thoughts of interactions, of feeling as though life is being lived for the “right” reasons. Of course, this is all subjective. I was compelled by Csikszentmihalyi’s proposition in Flow that the meaning of life (!) is the pursuit of meaning, itself. Wow. Take a minute or two…or as many as you need…to digest that one. If that is indeed the case (and I think it is), then life is to be lived and is exactly what you want it to be. Theoretically. Back to the storyline…

His perspective: It’s unrealistic, and perhaps even reckless, to operate under the impression that life can be lived on your own terms–according to your model (rather than that encouraged by the “system”), your desires, and/or your personal rendering of “optimal experience.” Life, for better or for worse, is about practical action: going through the school system, obtaining a university degree, getting a job, perhaps getting married, and you know the rest. “Annie, your head is in the clouds. Sure, you can have this temporary fix, but this isn’t any sort of a long-term solution. You’re being a maverick right now; you’re not being at all pragmatic. When are you returning to school, anyway?” My response, mumbled as simple and undeveloped as they come: “I just don’t know.” “Well, you will figure it out soon enough. But I do predict that you’ll come to understand that life isn’t just about fun and games, about always doing what you want to do, or even about enjoyment. It’s all about practicality and doing what you need to do.”

I interpret “doing what you need to do” in the most liberal and liberalizing sense.

Sure, my head is in the clouds–literally and figuratively–from time to time. I am certainly not operating under the illusion that life is meant solely for fun and games, for cheap moments, or for easily earned moments of joy and ecstasy at every turn. The “do what you love and f*** the rest” approach is even a bit too liberal for my taste. This isn’t about the “easy” way out, about living life without any form of adversity, or about completely ducking the structures that be. The system has, at the very least, some value. But we still can–and should–strive for “optimal experience”: living at the intersection and harmony of physical engagement (through connectedness to the natural world) and a firm (but ever-evolving, of course) set of guiding virtues: hard work, purpose, a moral compass, and the notions that struggle can/should be joyful and fulfilling and pain, often rewarding.

So why my mention of the mountains yet again, other than to sprinkle a little Muir in my post, par for the course? As I mentioned (and have probably mentioned enough times previously), I’ve had the opportunity–pivotal, eye-opening, and perhaps life-changing (dare I venture into the terrain of cliches?)–to spend the past seven months exploring the wilds of Utah, Bhutan, and Nepal (yep, worlds apart) on skis and on foot. I’ve shared some of my reflections from Asia in previous posts, and as promised weeks ago, I will share more in the coming weeks, so I will focus on my experience in my current high-altitude paradise in this attempt at denouement…900 words later. Thanks for sticking with me. I ski a well-trodden traverse almost daily en route to the “goods,” and I frequently find myself sliding to a halt at a particular point where the mountainside gently switches from northwest-facing to west-facing (thanks, Avy 1 course…and I guess common sense). The spot: partially guarded by a dense cluster of spruce trees that cling to the steeply sloping hillside, partially drenched in warm rays of Wasatch sunshine. Only a neutral, “no-man’s land” of this sort could evoke the same response from my mind and body each time I round the bend in the hillside. I perform the knee-jerk adjustments: ski boot buckles, check; glove straps, check; jacket pockets zipped, check; goggles and helmet aligned (the horrors of a beater gap…!), check); and finally, a sigh. I trace my breath as it travels across the indescribable landscape dressed in layers of white: the mountains, they don’t judge.

Note: contrary to the above description, this is NOT the "spot."
Muir was onto something...