Reading Out of Africa

Ask an American of colonial East Africa, and doubtless images from Out of Africa will come to mind. And, appropriately so. Set aside unhelpful-if-not-unfair “liberal” objections to the “romanticization” of colonialism, and you can gain some appreciation for an enterprise that was, in fact, quite picturesque, adventurous, and romantic in many regards.

I read Out of Africa while travelling through Kenya (and, in fact, visited the house where Karen Blixen lived and where many of the scenes of the movie were actually shot) and found I quite enjoyed it. Blixen (under the pen name of Isak Dinesen) writes beautifully and evocatively. What her novel lacks in coherent narrative and structure it makes up for with its poetic lyricism and prescient insights.

here are a few of my favorite excerpts from the book:

Describing the view from the Ngong Hills:

Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequaled nobility.

On being out in the wilds:

The civilized people have lost the aptitude of stillness, and must take lessons in silence form the wild before they are accepted by it.

On belonging:

I know a song of Africa,–I thought,–of the Giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Would the air over the plain quiver with a color that I had on, or the children invent a game in which my name was, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the driver that was like me, or would the eagles of Ngong look out for me?

On the Masai:

One, on the farm, I had three young bulls transmuted into peaceful bullocks for my ploughs and wagons, and afterwards shut up in the factory yard. There in the night the Hyenas smelled the blood and came up and killed them. This, I thought, was the fate of the Masai.

A Masai warrior is a fine sight. … Their style is not an assumed manner, nor an imitation of a foreign perfection; it has grown from the inside, and is an expression of the race and its history, and their weapons and finery are as much part of their being as are a stag’s antlers.

On visitors, when living in a lonely place:

In Pioneer countries hospitality is a necessity. … A visitor is a friend, he brings news, good or bad, which is bread to the hungry minds in lonely places.

On belief in ourselves:

Pride is faith in the idea that God had, when he made us. A proud man is conscious of the idea, and aspires to realize it.

On death rites:

The Kikuyus, when left to themselves, do not bury their dead, but leave them above ground for the Hyenas and vultures to deal with. … It would be a pleasant thing to be laid out to the sun and the stars, and to be so promptly, neatly, and openly picked and cleansed; to be made one with nature and become a common component of the landscape.

I quite enjoyed Out of Africa. It was evocative of Kenya–both of a time past, and very much of modern Kenya as well. Blixen herself is fascination–kind, curious, knowing when and how to fight, and when to surrender to her fate. She had an incredible and rich adventure of eighteen years–and did so with pluck, charm, and humanity.

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Empty Hotels, Empty Restaurants

Speaking of tourists … where are the tourists? Everywhere I’ve been so far has seemed a ghost town. Egypt, understandably so, in light of its recent revolution. (Still, it was quite surprising to visit the pyramids at Giza and not find crowds.) I also get the sense that Egypt may have overbuilt its tourist capacity, even for the best of times (visitation was growing at ~10% per year leading up to their revolution in 2011). So, I get that.

But in Kenya, too, the guest houses are empty. It used to be that safaris needed to be booked months in advanced. When I arrived, operators were beating the streets to find people to join their tours. And, while on safari, we were always the only group in facilities that could easily have accommodated a dozen.

In Uganda, it’s much the same, at least where I’ve been in Jinja and its nearby village of Bujagali. Here, much of the adventure tourism, which was thriving up until 2007, has disappeared under the backwaters of the Bujagali Hydroelectric Power Station. Completed in 2007 (constructed with money on loan from the World Bank), the dam completely drowned over half of the incredible rapids and waterfalls that made Jinja a world-class kayaking and rafting destination. (The White Nile below the dam is still quite incredible, but the White Nile is half of what it once was, in terms of international kayaking and rafting appeal.) Adding insult to the matter, the dam’s electricity doesn’t even illuminate Ugandan homes, being primarily sold overland to neighboring Kenya.

I wish I could have captured the image of walking along the dirt road in Bujagali at night, past a group of small shops (seemingly made of scrap lumber), each burning a candle for illumination, having no electricity, and looking quite small under the massive high voltage power transmission tower behind them.

As an aside: there’s another image I’ll never forget, and wish I could have captured with a camera to share. After our day of kayaking on the White Nile, we took out below Itanda Falls. Me, my guide, and our two kayaks and gear were to be ferried back to Bujagali base camp by the two 100cc motorbikes who brought us to the put in. Byron (my guide) and I are riding three-to-a-bike on the first one with its driver. The kayaks, bulky and brightly colored plastic things that they are, are stacked on the back of the second motorbike, perpendicular to it and a little lop-sided–looking very much unwieldy. We’re taking a muddy and rutted dirt road through a rural village. We come upon a herd of cattle being driven in the street, filling it and spilling out onto the very porches of the small huts on either side of the road. There’s no getting around, so we must go through. Imagine the scene of the motorbike with the bright, bulky, plastic kayaks strapped to it, and its driver, in flip-flops, a big red trucker’s hat and a shit-eating grin, weaving through the cows, sliding and slopping in the mud, dodging cows, calves, horns, and barely keeping upright!

My impression is that tourism is down throughout East Africa at the moment due to some of the isolated violence and unrest in the greater region. I believe that Americans (and I’ve been guilty of this myself) tend to see Africa as a monolithic whole (like Australia), rather than the vast continent made up of fifty-five distinct nations (like Europe) that it is. This, when we read of violence in South Sudan or Al Shabaab terrorist violence, we think that the whole of East Africa is dangerous, violent, spoiled by unrest. Being here, I can tell you that it’s not the case. Nevertheless, I think that violence in any part of Africa (or greater East Africa) likely harms tourism throughout the entire region.

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Pleasantness of Being a Tourist Index

Uganda is a traveller’s paradise, unspoilt by travellers. Four days in, I’m quite charmed with the place. When it comes to travelling in the developed world, there seems to be a certain virtue to getting off the beaten track.

In my experience, a large tourism industry turns tourists into a commodity. No one likes to be a commodity. As travellers, we want to feel special, unique, as emissaries, brave explorers who have gone beyond the borders of our own comfortable homelands. (Are we these things? At best, perhaps. More often, we’re carousing voyeurs, in search of “otherness,” poverty, the fantastic and exotic.)

Based on my anecdotal experience, less touristed places (in the developing world) tend to be more pleasant places to travel, in terms of opportunities to make genuine connections and freedom from hassle. Curious if the data on tourist visitation bears this out, I put together a simple chart, and calculated the number of annual tourist visits per thousand residents:

Country Name 2013 Visits 2010 Population Annual Visits Per Thousand   Residents 2013 Visits as % of Peak Visitation
Argentina 5,571,000 40,412,000 138 98%
Bhutan 116,000 726,000 160 100%
Cambodia 4,210,000 14,139,000 298 100%
Chile 3,576,000 17,113,688 209 100%
China 55,686,000 1,338,300,000 42 96%
Costa Rica 2,428,000 4,659,000 521 100%
Egypt 9,174,000 81,121,000 113 65%
India 6,968,000 1,224,615,000 6 100%
Kenya 1,434,000 40,513,000 35 82%
Mexico 24,151,000 113,423,000 213 100%
Mozambique 1,886,000 23,390,000 81 89%
Namibia 1,176,000 2,283,000 515 100%
Nepal 798,000 29,959,000 27 99%
Peru 3,164,000 29,076,000 109 100%
South Africa 9,537,000 49,991,000 191 99%
Tanzania 1,063,000 44,841,000 24 100%
Thailand 26,547,000 69,122,000 384 100%
Uganda 1,206,000 33,424,000 36 100%
Vietnam 7,572,000 86,928,000 87 100%
Zimbabwe 1,833,000 12,571,000 146 73%

I report 2013 visitation statistics, but have also included a column (2013 Visits as % of Peak Visitation) to indicate if the country’s tourist industry is experiencing a contraction. Egypt, for example, saw 14m visitors in 2010, but only 9m visitors in 2013.

India, with six visits per thousand people per year, happens to be my very favourite of countries I’ve visited, in terms of being a tourist. The Indians I met were as fascinated with me as I was with them. Hassle was non-existent, and every Indian I met was another opportunity for a genuine connection, person-to-person, and cultural.

Egypt’s score of 113 seems reasonable, until you consider that a few years ago Egypt received 14m visitors, and lately is receiving 5m fewer annual visitors than at its peak (one Egyptian operator I spoke with blamed President Obama and the Israel-loving western media for this turn of events, but I suspect it may be more related to Egypt’s recent revolution which, from the appearance of things in Cairgo, is not yet ancient history). In other words, competition in Egypt is fierce, the sector having been reduced by 33%, meaning that only the fierce of its tourist touts have survived the downturn.

Thailand, with its 26m visitors to its country of 69m residents (a score of almost 400), ranks high in my memory in terms of hassle, especially on the typical backpacker circuit.

With a mere 36 visits (per thousand residents, per year), Uganda ranks quite nicely on my simplistic ranking. Being here on the ground, the effect is obvious: Ugandans, from my experience here, take an interest in their visitors.

My tourist density proxy for pleasantness / hassle of being a tourist is obviously overly simplistic. Mexico ranks poorly (213 visitors per thousand residents per year), but I’d wager that 95% of those visits are limited to its resort towns and beaches. The interior of Mexico, I’d wager, is probably closer to 10 visits–a number much closer to my delightful experience of travelling through interior Mexico.

In Egypt, the first and most useful word of Arabic I learned was no (la). From the moment I hit the ground to the moment I departed, I was hounded by hungry touts, operators, guides, and beggars. Without fail, every time I was greeted by an Egyptian, it was a prelude to a hard sell, invariably on something I had no interest in). I learned quickly (though, perhaps, not quickly enough) to smile, say no thank you, and walk resolutely away any time when approached. I managed a few good conversations with Egyptians, but only those who I approached myself.

In Uganda, while en route to the South African-run compound where I was intending to sign up for a few days of kayaking on the Nile, I was greeted by several locals. Though initially quite leery, I hazarded a “yes” to their invitation to talk. As a result, to my complete delight, I had an opportunity to get to spend a couple days hanging out with really lovely and fascinating Ugandans, saved a bundle on my kayaking adventure, and got to spend my money with locals, instead of expats.

I am by nature, trusting, gullible, naïve. In Egypt, this made me an easy target. The gullible and naïve tourist in Egypt learns quick to be cynical, or gets eaten alive. I always mentally budget in some extra money the first few days I’m in a new country as I readjust to what things actually cost. Some of its a function of a culture of bargaining (without knowing the market value of a good or service, I find it hard to bargain effectively), and some of it is special msungu pricing (unlike in Sweden, no one here in East Africa mistakes me for anything other than a tourist from a rich, Western country).

In any case–I’m quite charmed with Uganda, and glad to be here.

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The Masai Mara

Kenya’s most famous people are its Masai tribe–an ancient tribe of warriors. Traditional tribal life all throughout the world is disappearing. Encountering the Masai en route to and around Kenya’s Masai Mara wildlife refuge (named for the Masai people of the region, and the Mara River), I expected to encounter degraded tribal existence, a la America’s Indian Reservations.

I was surprised and delighted to find something better than expectations. The Masai still ply their existence by herding goats and cattle upon the savannah, walking on foot from place to place. They wear their colorful traditional dress, and the women still shave their heads. Schools have proliferated, but Christianity has failed to gain converts (the Masai have no religion whatsoever). They live simply, but are not impoverished. Some households may own and herd upwards of 200 cattle, worth some 30,000 Kenyan Shillings (~$300 USD) each at the nearby market. Yet, despite this apparent wealth, the Masai still live much as they ever did. I took an early morning run through the area outside the wildlife preserver, and observed the Masai in the area to be living in mud houses with sod roofs, with few material possessions. Their villages were remarkably clean, without the usual proliferation of trash and litter that one expects of poor rural villages. They were friendly, and the children a bit curious at the strange white man running along their roads.  Which isn’t to say that all Masai have rejected everything modern. Some live in cinder-block houses with (limited) electricity, and a few have motorbikes, or Western style jackets. Nevertheless, the overwhelming impression is that the Masai see no need of any culture other than their own, which is alive and well.

That said, one facet of Masai culture is changing: their communal grazing lands having been grazed down to nothing, the Masai are building fences.

Judgement is swift and punishment severe in Kenya. Once nick-named Nairobery, Nairobi is becoming a safer city. Wanjau, our safari guide, remarks that “now, we are able to count our money, use our mobiles in in the street.” How has this transformation been accomplished? President Uhuru Kenyetta (who has been tried in the Hague court for murders after the disputed 2007 election) has ordered Kenya’s police to shoot armed robbers on sight. (Shoot first, ask questions later.)

Kenya takes the protection of its wildlife quite seriously. We observed this lesson first hand when denied entry to the Masai Mara for our sunrise game drive. Poachers had come over the border from Tanzania overnight, and the Kenyan Wildlife Service was conducting a military operation to capture the poachers. As the morning progressed, our guide received news over his local frequency CB radio (used by safari guides to help coordinate when certain wildlife–lions, say, are discovered) that two of the poachers had been shot dead, and seven more were in custody. The goal seems to be to send a strong message, and it appears this tactic is succeeding.

The savannah is a striking and wonderful landscape. For me, it was love at first sight. The Masai Mara extends seemingly to the ends of the eawrth in its gently rolling grasslands. It consists of great plains of tall savannah grasses. At the end of the rainy season, before the arrival of the wildebeest, the gently waving grasses stand as tall as a man. These rolling hills are punctuated here and there by trees–the iconic acacia and boabab trees–each tree with an acre of land by itself.

I love the desert for the fact that each thing in it has space, allowing for the appreciation of its individual constituents. On the savannah, the space between things is so great that the eye is immediately drawn to each individual, exulted thing in it. These are often acacia, boabab, or cadamia trees. But perhaps almost as often, the object that draws the eye is a family of elephants, grazing upon the plain, or a pair of giraffes, silhouetted against the skyline. These immense creatures fit perfectly in the savannah, and neither would make sense without the other.

Seeing the savannah makes me long to have seen North America’s great plains when grazed by herds of millions of migrating buffalo (North America’s version of the wildebeest).

If you go on safari and have a good driver cum guide, you’ll have a good safari. If you do not have a good driver, its unlikely you’ll have a good safari. I was lucky to have an excellent driver (Wanjau). (If you yourself go on safari, I have Wanjau’s contact information, and would highly recommend any safari he drives.)

I was also lucky to have wonderful companions. Together for the game drives, and sharing our meals together, having great companions allowed for having a better experience by virtue of it being shared, experienced together, rehashed and experienced from others perspectives over our evening meals. Jessica and Sunshine, from southern California, are wonderful, interesting people. It was also a treat to get to share the safari experience with other Americans, who share a common experience of America’s national parks, of our American mountains and wildernesses. Sarang and Avinash are Indian soldiers, on leave from their UN post in South Sudan. The cross-cultural dialog was insightful and fun. It was sobering to hear their stories of their peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, of the thousands of Sudanese murdered along ethnic lines (and of the peacekeeping force’s failure to act, constrained by bureaucracy as an atrocity unfolded). (We were also joined for part of the safari by a Greek man and his Kenyan escort from Nairobi. Although she was lively and very pleasant, the situation was a bit odd and unsettling for me.)

I must comment in closing on the remarkable extend and effectiveness of conservation efforts in Kenya.  The Masai Mara is well conserved, and much of the western corner of the country is held by private conservancies. The animal populations seems very healthy and abundant, the Mara was unspoilt with development. It makes me very glad that such places still exist in the world, and will continue to exist.

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Some Thoughts on the Grand Canyon

95% of a Grand Canyon raft trip is flat water

Rafting the Grand Canyon is an expedition, more than a “trip.” One crosses most of northern Arizona, east to west, through the rugged and remote wilderness of the Grand Canyon, taking weeks to do so. Even with our group of only seven (on average), the meal planning alone accounted for 57 meals, or 399 portions. It’s worth overpacking a bit, since weight is less of a consideration than the possibility of needing something you don’t have.

River life has its own pace and rhythm, both day to day and hour to hour. You haven’t truly arrived in the Grand Canyon until you’ve settled into the rhythm of rafting life. You wake early, pack your things, then gather around the morning’s first pot of coffee while a hearty breakfast is cooked (most trip participants, myself included, reported eating better on this trip than at home–good food being one of raft life’s many pleasures). With breakfast dishes done, camp is packed, boats are rigged, breakfast beers are cracked, and we push our boats into the current. We raft the day away, stopping for delightful and often expected hikes, rapid scouts, and lunch along the way. On a good day, we reach camp by 2:00 or 3:00 pm (before the afternoon’s strongest upcanyon winds), set camp, open books, and enjoying the evening meal and conversation around the fire under darkening canyon walls. With fair weather, you sleep under the stars, wake under blue skies, then gather around the morning’s first pot of coffee.

Time on the river itself, typically three to five hours per day, passes at a highly irregular but predictable tempo. Mostly, time passes languorously, the hours floating by in quiet contemplation of the canyon walls, chit chat, beers, music. These long idle hours are punctuated by interminable periods of intense anticipation, in which time passes in slow motion. The big rapids can sometimes be heard from a mile away, building anticipation fifteen or twenty minutes before they can be seen. The pulse quickens and languorous senses are quickened, brought to attention. The ten minutes between when a rapid is distinctly audible and that moment in which the raft passes into the rapid can last longer than the two hours of flatwater prior. This sensation of time slowing down is augmented by the physical reality that water often pools and the current appreciably slows above big rapids.

A dory enters Crystal Rapid

The largest rapids are often scouted from the river bank prior to being run, increasing anticipation further. The heart pounds in the chest. Then, at the culmination of the anticipation, when the rapids roar their loudest and the entire horizon is filled with the heaving tumult and crashing spray of the rapids, at that very moment when the raft passes beyond the point of no return, the tempo changes again. The raft perceptibly picks up speed and momentum. Things happen faster now. The anticipation evaporates in an instant, and one becomes fully and immediately present in the moment. These moments of river running–the most chaotic of any–produce in me a Zen-like state. The roar of the rapids recede. The water’s heave and tumult is taken in stride. All that exists for those few precious moments in the reading of the water, the anticipation of its push and pull on boat and oars, and the strokes necessary to keep one’s line.

And then, sometimes, “oh, SHIT!” bursts the Zen balloon. The river snatches oars and passengers away as swiftly and deftly as a cat bats a mouse. SUV-sized boulders appear from no-where, collision is eminent, waves crash over and fill the boat, it’s two-thousand pound mass tossed about as a teacup in a tempest.

Geoff rows an "oh shit" moment in Gneiss Rapid

While scouting Lava (the largest, and perhaps most fearsome rapid on the canyon), we watched the party ahead roll the dice and ply the oars. One, two, three boats–clean, successful runs. Then, boat four enters with its passenger at the bow and captain at the oars. Halfway through, a rogue lateral wave plucks the oarsmen from his boat–one instant rowing his boat, and then in the next instant gone from sight entirely. The boat and its passenger continue on, oblivious, oars bouncing wildly in the waves. The river is merciful, and the raft passed head-on through the towering haystack waves at the bottom of the rapid. Only then, when the worst is over, when time-lapse once again becomes real-time, does the passenger look behind to discover his safe passage has been delivered by a phantom oarsman!

It’s impossible to say if time quickens or slows when one enters the tongue of the rapid. Perhaps it does both. The fifteen seconds its takes to pass through a rapid is over in an instant, yet lasts an eternity. Then, one fights through the eddy at the bottom of the rapid, and life resumes its former tempo of languorously soaking in sun and trying to fathom the size and height of the surrounding walls.

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2014 Year in Review

I can think of no better way to begin the year than with good friends in a beautiful place. 2014 began with playing in snow in Montana with Quadlings.

Quads Cabin Trip 2013 (Photo credit: Gordon Nelson)

In February I went ice climbing for the second time. Abram, Anne, and co. set up an awesome weekend of climbing in Ouray.

The winter and spring allowed for no shortage of sliding on snow. I was lucky enough to get 49 days last season, including a tremendously fun trip to Aspen (Snowmass) in February with Scott, Chris, Sagar & Co, and a March ski trip to Jackson Hole with Sagar and Jon:

Getting after it at Jackson Hole. (Photo Credit: Sagar Gondalia)

Other highlights of the season include the New Belgium scavenger hunt at Loveland with Abram, Sagar, and Jon:

Sagar, Abram, Jon, Me

Beach days at A Basin (with mono ski!):

Lokie and Matt at an Arapahoe Basin Beach Day

Arapahoe Basin Pond Skim

And some good backcountry corn harvesting on Gray’s and Torey’s peak:

John harvesting spring corn snow down Torey's Peak's Tuning Fork Couloir

In April my Dad ran the Boston Marathon (which I was able to attend and cheer at), and he retired in May.

My sister turned 40 the day after Christmas, which I was able to celebrate with her, her awesome husband Tory, four kids, my parents, brother, and Tory’s family.

I baked a lot of pizza and bread (and finally feel that I have my pizza dough down).

In May we took a trip to Indian Creek some climbing and to celebrate Sagar’s birthday.

Sagar Climbing in Indian Creek

In June I went to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival with TJ and Candice.

Candice enraptured by Jerry Douglas

Jason Isbell's Nightgrass show is one of the most powerful and transportive I've ever been lucky enough to attend.

I celebrated the 4th of July with Griffin, Ali, Todd, Aaron, Joe, Emily and a host of other good folks in Taos. Festivities included downhill mountain biking and paddling through the Lower Taos Box in the Rio Grande.

Lower Taos Box in the Rio Grande

In July, Sagar, Candice and I went into the Indian Peaks wilderness to train for Rainier. We camped in beautiful Moose Basin, and climbed Skywalker Couloir.

Skywalker Couloir on South Arapahoe Peak

Our training paid off, and Sagar, Candice and I successfully climbed Mount Rainier via the Emmons Winthrop route a few weeks later.

Candice at Camp Schurman

Sagar and Little Tahoma

Jon taught me the rudiments of mountain biking this summer. Fall highlights include hiking down Mount Elbert with Jon, and a Moab mountain biking trip with Joe, Emily, Cole, Griffin, Emily, Jon, and crew.

Jon and Mark with Mountain Bikes at summit of Mt. Elbert

Jon riding trial down Mt. Elbert

Moab Mountain Biking

I ran the Rim Rock Marathon in November, finishing 7th in a field of ~100 runners.

Then, it was off to Mexico for an extended road trip. Highlights include spending Thanksgiving with Bri and Curtis in San Cristobal de las Casas, and the friends we made along the way.

Curtis, Mark, Bri in San Cristobal de las Casas

Last but not least, I studied for and took the GMAT, and applied to grad schools. I’ve applied to eight different data science and data analytics programs.

Wrapped up the year by once again returning to Bozeman. I am blessed to have once again welcomed the New Year a dozen Quadlings and dear friends.

Quads Cabin Trip 2014

These were but the highlights of a very fun, fulfilling and rewarding year. I’m grateful for the experiences, the fun, and the good friendships that filled 2014. Looking forward to carrying on the fun in 2015!

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A Better Version of Myself

I ran the Rim Rock Marathon today in three hours and thirty minutes. That’s a respectable time, though hardly a course record. But it’s important because it marks a transition in me from someone who has skated by in life on natural talent to someone who sets goals, works hard, and achieves them.

I’ve been gifted in life with an abundance with the sort of intelligence that makes it easy to excel in academic environments. But, to my chagrin, I have most often used my intelligence to shirk rather than excel. In high school, it was a point of pride to earn “A”s on exams while completing none of the homework. I’m living proof that it’s possible to ace tests without ever actually learning the material. I’m good at taking tests; I always have been. High marks aside, my math skills today are notably weak. Not because I’m incapable of it, but because I’ve never worked at being good at math. And math is but one example.

College was much the same. It was less a point of pride to be a Dean’s List slacker, but I nevertheless persisted in the mode of doing the bare minimum required to outperform the majority of my peers (as though the point of college was to earn relatively high marks, rather than to learn). In retrospect, I’m ashamed of the opportunities I’ve had that I’ve squandered on being mediocre. Naturally talented, but lazy.

Well, the joke’s on me. It turns out, in the real world, being naturally talented can only take you so far. Being talented and saying yes to opportunities as they arise can take you places–good places even. But if there’s something you truly want in life, nobody is going to just hand it to you. I’m learning that you have to work for it.

Which brings me back to marathons. The first marathon I attempted, I didn’t train and managed only half of. I should mention that I’m a naturally talented runner. I’ve got great genes. My dad has qualified for the Boston Marathon five times, and run it twice. My brother similarly a strong runner. Two years ago, I ran the Colorado Marathon. I trained halfheartedly, bonked, and crawled across the finish line in a measure of time unbefitting a capable 26-year-old male athlete.

What makes a marathon a great accomplishment is that you can’t skate by in a marathon on natural ability or good genes. Running a marathon requires work, commitment, and training. Which is why today’s marathon is important to me.

I’ve had enough of just skating by in life. I am remaking myself into someone who works hard for the things I want. Someone who leverages natural ability with a greater measure of hard work. Someone who makes the most of everyone opportunity given, and who creates his own opportunities. I am learning to be a better version of myself.

Today is symbolic of that. And I hope that today is the first and least of many accomplishments to come gained by hard work and dedication. My accomplishment today is a mild one, shared with the half-million other Americans who run a marathon every year (many of whom run much faster). But today I add a new item to the short list of things in life I’ve done that I’m proud of. Not for the accomplishment of running 26 miles, but for the work and training I put in before hand. This is the new person I will become.

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A Day in the Life in Golden

Colorado is far from the ideal place to be studious.

  • Today: ran S Table Mesa (PR, top 5 Strava), great dinner in Denver with friends
  • Yesterday: rode Chimney Gulch to Apex Park. Almost cleared Enchanted Forest, then got a pinch flat. Carried bike down in time to host Community Crevasse Rescue BBQ. Not a lot of training, but BBQed for a great group of awesome friends.
  • Tuesday: RoundHouse Distillery tour with friends. Free drinks till way past close.
  • Monday: Mountain bike ride. Broke chain while climbing Chimney Gulch. Rode home with tail between legs.
  • Sunday: Ran Wheeler Peak in NM. Tagged another state high point, and set a Strava course record for the climb and the descent. Drove back to Golden. Drinks with Sagar and Jon at Cannonball.
  • Saturday: Breakfast beer. Paddled the Rio Grande through the Taos box canyon. Desert canyons are a special place.
  • Friday: Downhilling at Taos resort. Berminator, berminator, berminator. Grilled for 18.
  • Thursday: Fulfilled destiny as Colorado native by loading mountain bike and kayak on roof of car at the same time. Then added another kayak, and put a 14′ raft and two friends in car for the drive to Taos.
  • Wednesday: Rode Green Mountain with Aaron
  • Tuesday: Studious.
  • Monday: Climbing session at EarthTreks
  • Sunday: Paddled Poudre river, after a solid mountain bike ride and solid run near Horsetooth Reservoir in Fort Collins. Good BBQ after.
  • Saturday: mostly slept
  • Friday: Climbed first Flatiron with Kendra. 1200′ of climbing awesomeness above twilight over the Eastern Plains. W00t!

And all this while squeezing in full time, productive work. Damn hard to find time to study, though. Alas. <3 Summer!

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A Close Call

We hiked in under perfect blue skies. South Six Shooter stands like a pillar atop a shrouded altarpiece, rising up from the desert to the heavens, towering above the surrounding landscape. We’re to climb the tower as a party of four–an ungainly number to for a climbing party–but the climbing is anticipated to be easy. Reaching the summit will put us on top on of the most prominent and recognizable features in the area.

By the time my anchor is set at the top of the second pitch, it’s starting to spit a bit of rain. Jon reaches the belay ledge and clips into the anchor. He shouts into the wind–”off belay!”–and I wait an interval for Melissa to tie in, midway, to the rope. Melissa is not yet in sight when I hear a sound like velcro ripping–an unnatural sound in this setting. Jon doesn’t hear it–until it comes again, stronger and louder this time, like the sound of high voltage power lines. The wet sandstone that we’re standing on is literally crackling with static electricity, punctuated by the sound of distant thunder.

It’s a sound I know from reading of Ed Abbey’s summers spent high up in metal fire lookout towers. It’s the exact crackling of static electricity that Abbey describes as a hair raising presage to a lightning strike. And there’s nothing we can do but belay the rest of our party up, abandon our climb, and rappel down as quickly as possible. And so we do. Vivian is the first to rappel, and I send her with a Prusik backup as a safety measure against losing control after a lightning strike while on rappel. The rock crackles menacingly as she drops over the lip out of sight.

Forty-five minutes later, we’re all back at the truck, a thousand feet below the peak, toasting beer to having made it off and down without incident. The sun reappears as we drive back to camp at Creek Pasture.

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Out There, Down There (A Solo Self-Supported Trip Through the Grand Canyon)

Day Seven: Phantom Ranch, Arizona. I wake to rain. It’s January 29th, cold, and wet. Phantom is deserted save for a few staff and adventuresome hikers from the Grand Canyon’s snowy southern rim.

Me, I didn’t come from the canyon’s rim. I came by way of the river. The Colorado River. In six days I’ve navigated 90 miles and countless rapids to get here. I have nearly 200 miles yet to travel.

One week ago today, it’s a crisp, sunny morning when I call my mom from the boat ramp at Lee’s Ferry. It’s her birthday. I wish her well, and once again try to assure her that my trip is a good idea, and that I’ll be safe.

My mom asks about the missing girl. The ranger says, given the timing and the lack of other parties on the river, I’m likely to find her body. I don’t tell my mom this. Still missing, I tell her, then, “I’ll call you in two weeks. I love you.” I turn off my phone and tuck it into its dry bag to be loaded next.

My boat—an 11’ rented kayak with a leaky stern and broken skeg—is already loaded heavy with the food and equipment that will support me on my two week solo journey through the Grand Canyon. I finish packing, settle in, push off, and paddle out to meet the Colorado River for the very first time.

The missing girl in question is a 21-year-old, also from Denver. She disappeared at night two weeks ago, on a private river trip with friends. That evening, she was with in camp, at their fire. The next morning, she was gone. The ensuing search found no footprints leading away from camp—only their mingled tracks to and from the river.

The strong, green current carries me downstream. I put these thoughts aside. I paddle lazily and take in the cool winter sun and rising canyon walls. I’m delighted and thrilled to be on the water, and feel eager for the adventure ahead.

The next morning I wake to frozen water bottles but clear sky. The sun works its way down the canyon wall opposite, and I’m soon on my way.

I’m feeling confident and decide not to scout when I arrive at House Rock Rapid late that afternoon. I successfully avoid its eponymous house-sized rock, but am caught and crushed in the heaving tumult below.

One minute I’m fine. The next, I’m out of my kayak and disoriented. I’m tossed about and pushed beneath the frigid water. I briefly surface and gasp for breath. Then the water grabs me, whorls me around, and stuffs me under. I struggle punily, lost in a vast, churning sea of water, itself a mere thin ribbon in the heart of the canyon, incised deeply through a yawning, harsh, and uninhabited wilderness.

In such a moment, the mind transcends terror. As I resurface, the waves disappear and the deafening roar of the water goes quiet. I find a strange peace in the midst of the maelstrom. I’m conscious only of my strong flutter kicks and the closing distance between me and my boat. I catch my kayak and kick hard for river left. I reach an eddy and escape the crashing waves and current. Then the tranquil eye of the storm breaks. I cling to the bow of my boat and quake with adrenaline. My breathing is ragged and shallow, and my eyes sting with tears. The suppressed terror opens upon me, washing over like a powerful wave of its own.

Two days later, I swim again. At dusk that evening, light rain begins to fall as I pitch my tent. It rains heavily through the night. The next day, I wait for a break in the weather before packing and launching.

I sit in my tent and stew in my thoughts. I’m humbled, scared, and desperately lonely. I find myself wishing that there was a way to bail on this ill-conceived adventure—that I could just call it quits, come back some other day with friends, the right skillset, better preparation. I wish I’d brought a satellite phone. I think that I should have just listened to my mom and never come here by myself in the first place.

But it’s not possible to bail, now. I’m in and committed, and there’s only one way out—down the river.

I listen to the rain all day and through the night. Finally, a few hours after sunrise, the rain relents. I pack, paddle hard, and by mid-day float under the black suspension bridge spanning the river at Phantom Ranch.

Which brings us back to the present. I breakfast on hearty bread, hard cheese, and bitter instant coffee. I pack into my three slender drybags and pull on my drysuit. At the beach, I gather my scattered gear, force my bags into my boat, and install the stern-hatch cover. I run through my mental rigging checklist—helmet, skirt, groover, PFD, paddle, pogies—then drag all 150 lbs of boat and gear to the water’s edge. I, pause, recheck my checklist, then push off into the swift current.

I paddle for a minute or so, each stroke considered and careful. I gradually find my center of gravity as I bounce through Bright Angle Rapid.

It’s big water. At these flows, an observer from shore would see a volume of water equal to a dozen Olympic-sized swimming pools pass every sixty seconds. In my 140 liter boat, I feel like a rubber duckie at sea.

By the time I pull over to scout Horn Creek Rapid, the sky is spitting sleet. Dark and foreboding clouds swirl amongst the cliffs and pinnacles towering above. Failing to find a line likely to deliver me through upright, I opt to portage. It takes three trips through the sleeting gray to walk my gear and boat past the worst of the rapid.

I repack and push off toward the massive haystack waves below. I focus on my balance, trying (in vain) to read the waves, the boils of water, the contradictory currents. I pull hard upstream, slap desperately across the eddy line, and slide into the bouncing waves beyond which carry me down.

Day Eight: The river is a thick reddish brown, loaded with sediment from the rains. The water is opaque, like chocolate milk. It seems higher and swifter this morning. It’s raining again—the fourth consecutive day. I’m tired, cold, lonely, and scared.

I’m unmatched for the river. I can count my previous paddling experience on two hands (with fingers to spare). I’ve never seen water this big. Nor have I ever been without the possibility of unassisted escape. The one thing I didn’t bother to consider before embarking now consumes my thoughts: what happens if something goes wrong?

There’s a sticker on the bow of my boat. It reads: “Lean Forward / Paddle Hard.” These words pinball through my head at night. They focus me each time I’m enveloped in another upheaval of crashing water. They impel me forward in defiance of strong headwinds, across long, weary stretches of flatwater. They’re all I know to do, and all I can.

A few miles down, I enter an easy rapid. An unexpected wave crashes over me, covers me whole, bowls me over into a disorienting world of tug-o-war. I tuck forward, set my paddle, and sweep—praying for daylight and air. I get half a gasp and then fall back under. My skirt implodes from the weight and pressure of the water. I reset my paddle, sweep, and this time re-emerge into the realm of precious oxygen just as I drop over a ledge into the gut of a roiling hole. Somehow I stay in my boat and we’re carried over and out.

I awkwardly paddle my swamped kayak toward the rocks on river right. The shoreline of black, broken cliffs seems shallow enough for me to stand. I fall out of my boat and find footing. Relief washes over me. Cold water sheets off, and I pant for breath from exertion.

After a few minutes, with trebling hands, I heave over the boat and pour the river from it, as much as possible. I clumsily get back in and paddle back into the current.

From time to time, I consciously attempt to appreciate the beauty of the canyon. Sadly, it’s largely lost on me. I’m like a man, naked in the Alaskan bush, trying to appreciate the beauty of a stalking wolf. The subtle appreciation of grandeur and the sublime is lost below fear and will to survive.

I’ve seen no one since Phantom Ranch. For company, I have the sticker on my boat, and a missing girl’s ghost. It is still thirty miles until I’ll reach the camp where she disappeared, and yet I already begin to expect her. Around every bend, my eyes strain to distinguish rocks from sticks from apparitions. I find myself paddling to some unknown object on the horizon, to find with relief that it’s only a chunk of driftwood this time, or a protruding boulder another.

Day Nine: The sun is shining as when I reach Tapeats camp, where she disappeared. Signs of a search are obvious—the usual eddy detritus has all been dragged from the river to the beach. Footsteps comb both banks. I get out, make a brief search of my own, then paddle on.

Day Eleven: Yesterday I paddled through Lava Falls—the most notorious rapid on the river—without incident. I skipped past Tequila Beach, below it, having neither tequila nor the inclination to let loose.

I’m now past the worst of the whitewater. This evening, for the first time, I find myself able to relax and appreciate my surroundings. I hike to a black, volcanic promontory, seeming to follow a trail long since fallen into disuse. Back in camp, I build a fire, the first of the trip.

As the sun sinks below the western horizon, the sky darkens to a midnight blue as pure and palpable as an electric shock. I found myself feeling expansive, delighted. I revel in the shapes and hues of the darkening rounded slopes and sharp ridges of the surrounding canyon walls. In the night sky, Juniper appears, then Venus, and then the whole host of celestial bodies. I retire to bed, content.

Day Fourteen: Ill-conceived and underprepared, I’ve nevertheless travelled approximately two-thirds of the width of Arizona by boat. Through ill-preparation, however, I’ve largely robbed myself of the rest, renewal, and inspiration that should be the rich reward of such a trip.

I rise early to paddle the last 18 miles of Lake Mead’s silt-laden flat-water remaining between me and the conclusion of my journey. I fix my eyes downriver, lean forward, and paddle hard.

(Post Script: Kaitlin Kenney’s body was recovered by the National Park Service in late February, approximately 30 miles downstream from the campsite where she disappeared.)

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