Thursday, September 10, 2015

"How was Alaska?"

Life is not what you alone make it. Life is the input of everyone who
touched your life and every experience that entered it.
We are all part of one another. - Yuri Kochiyama
Weighing in at more than half a pound, my Hydroflask was most certainly an impractical luxury item for the 28-day NOLS Alaskan Wilderness Backpacking trip on which I was recently an Instructor-in-Training. As someone who is 4'11" and under a hundred pounds, every ounce really counts, even if I don't want it to. I am of the mindset that I'd rather go slower with more weight, making due with what I have, rather than go for a newer, shinier, lighter item.

That ideal has to shift when backpacking in a professional capacity, I realize now, but I don't regret bringing the heavy thermos with me. Our 120-mile journey through the Southern Talkeetna Mountains year olds culminated in a cold, rainy all-night hike, and the hot sugary caffeinated concoction I had was well worth the extra weight.

Of course, I won't be bringing it on my next professional trip.

I've been putting off writing a post about Alaska. The task of compiling almost a month's worth of learning and experiences into a comprehensible blog post or trip report has been daunting.

Here's an attempt to sum it up:

We hiked up mountain passes and down into valleys and back up into passes, again and again and again. We walked through icy cold creeks and crossed rivers together in eddy lines. We made cornbread and pizza and cinnamon rolls from scratch. I made cheesy pancakes and oatmeal chocolate chip pancakes and cinnamon raisin pancakes and accidentally made pancake pizza.

I got bruises on my hips and blisters on my feet and sun bumps on my left ear and the climber's bumps on my heels peeled and peeled and peeled. I read Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. I read excerpts of writing about the construction of wilderness that challenged my existing notions of wilderness, wilderness education, access. I questioned what I was doing there, what I wanted from the experience, what I felt about being the only woman of color on the trip, what I felt about continuing to pursue work with NOLS.

The summer solstice came at the midpoint of our trip. We didn't pack headlamps. We went to the toe of the Chickaloon Glacier. We saw places on our map where glaciers that were there less than 10 years ago no longer exist. We saw caribou and moose and eagles, and some of us saw grizzlies. We ended our hike at the confluence of the Talkeetna River and Iron Creek, where jet boats picked us up for an exhilarating ride to the town of Talkeetna.

Before and after the course, I stayed at the NOLS Alaska base in the town of Palmer, where we grazed on beautiful salads from the garden and freshly baked bread daily. I lived for a few days in a canvas wall tent before the trip, and in a 3-person Kelty tent for the few days I was there afterward. My co-instructor Deev and I practiced acroyoga a few times.

And that was my June 9th to July 19th.

I flew back to Long Beach, read some poetry at Tuesday Night Cafe, performed a wedding ceremony for my good friends, then promptly returned to the Bay Area.

In a few weeks, I'll be out on another backpacking trip, this time as a wilderness instructor for Eagle Rock School. A 23-day trip rather than 28. Again with teenagers.

I plan to apply for a NOLS Instructor Course. If accepted, I'll go on the 35-day course next year. There's still a lot I'm mulling over. What it means to be a woman of color in a historically white male institution. The idea that wilderness conservation displaces indigenous peoples from a way of life intimately connected to nature, and the reality that my parents, who collect rain water and grow practically half of the food they consume, are potentially--likely?-- more in tune with nature than the majority of people who consume the outdoors.

Aparna, former Diversity and Inclusion Manager at NOLS, recently wrote:
It’s one thing to want to make people of color aware of a world of possibilities, to put outdoor adventure on their radar, or even to work to create an inclusive culture in the outdoors that is welcoming to everyone. But it’s quite another thing to presume that of all their choices, people will somehow feel compelled to leave the comfort of a roof over their heads to “rough it” in the woods. Camping, like stamp collecting or painting or driving fast cars or dancing, is not for everybody. And. That. Is. Okay.
I have been thinking a lot about how I've bought into a particular way of consuming the outdoors, consuming wilderness, as a rock climber, as a backpacker, as an outdoor educator. And that there are experiences that I want to pursue that bring up contradictions that are difficult to reconcile. And that I can play a role in the pursuit of a more equitable world even from a place of contradiction. That life is a series of reconciliations.

I started this post with my thermos. The heavy, bright orange vessel made it through the 28-day trip without a scratch. Between the jet boat ride out and the present, however, it's gained some small dents and chips. The latest was a couple of days ago, when I knocked it off the driver seat of my car and onto asphalt as I was loading things. It occurred to me then that all of the dents came after what most would consider a more trying environment for keeping things new. But while I was backpacking, I took better care of it. I usually did only one thing at once. I knew that I had to "go slow to go fast," as my WFR instructor Mazie was fond of saying. I took care of things well. And since I've returned, I've caught myself many times trying to go too fast, doing things while distracted, being less than present.

The outdoors gets sold as a place to get away from it all, to leave the distractions of daily life, the leave the necessary frazzled-ness behind. We talk about how nature allows us to be more in touch with ourselves, so we must preserve these "pristine" areas so that we can go and rejuvenate ourselves and thus perform better in the society as it stands. But the wilderness reminds me that there are so many parts of society that need to change, that need to be calmer, that need to be less fixated on more, newer, faster.

In a few weeks, I'll be trekking through the Gila Wilderness with teenage students. I'll be sharing with them the values that I've reinforced through being outdoors and the skills that I've learned through NOLS and GirlVentures and my personal experience. I'll continue to be perplexed by the complications and contradictions of identity, politics, conservation, consumption, capitalism.

And that's it. There's not really any way to wrap a bow around it. 

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