Entries in gratitude (4)

Thursday
Jul062017

A different kind of public space

Highway rest stop, New Mexico

We have seen many kinds of public land in the past ten months—state parks, national forests, BLM holdings, etc.—but not having a bathroom in our trailer has given us an appreciation for a more basic kind of public space: the public toilet and shower.

My attitude toward public restrooms—especially the showers—helps me realize how much has changed for me in subtle ways since we began. At first, the challenge of taking a satisfying shower in my flip flops in some dank, spider-infested, coin-operated, concrete cubicle pretty much cancelled out the pleasure of the shower. How do I keep my clothes dry when there’s no shower curtain? How do I know when the two minutes that my token buys is almost up so I am not left with a head full of shampoo? And what IS that in the corner..??

Now, though, I feel nothing but appreciation for any kind of shower—dank or not. And over the last ten months of depending mostly on public restrooms I have acclimated to the parade of options, from the KOA that was lined floor-to-ceiling in fake-gilt-edged mirrors, to the most basic pit toilets—hole, pit, cover, door and that’s about it.

I am not sure exactly what caused this change—probably it just comes from repeated experience—but my initial squeamishness about unfamiliar conditions has been replaced, mostly, by ease. It feels normal now to be living so much of the time in public space. It feels normal to not own anything other than the toiletries I carry with me. It feels normal to walk a few hundred yards to get to the bathroom, or to stand in line to wait at “rush hour,” or to perhaps meet someone from another country during the wait.

All of this has given me a more basic sense of connection to the rest of the human race—to the reality that we share resources and fundamentally depend on each other for our survival, especially in our increasingly interconnected social structures. Using a public toilet is a visceral reminder several times a day that the way we conduct ourselves—our "aim" in life, so to speak—affects other people.

And, oddly, one of the best things about this arrangement is directly correlated to its inconvenience. Some of my best memories are from nighttime walks when nature called at two a.m.: the brilliant stretch of stars across a black canyon; the smell of frost on the grass; the chatter of elf owls calling back and forth between the trees; or just the vast simple silence of the night, full of the life-breath of the world. I would not have had these experiences if I had been able to stumble half-asleep into my own private indoor room.

I do appreciate a well-designed shower and have developed some opinions about what that looks like. I have joked that there is a career out there for me as a state-park-shower-stall-design consultant. (A shelf! They have been around for years…how hard is it to put one in the shower so your soap doesn’t dissolve and float away!) But the trend in my thinking this year has been toward more gratitude and less evaluation. That really anything that delivers warm, clean, running water (and even the warm part is optional) is one of the wonders of the modern world.

And it is easy to get entranced by bathroom design and forget what the purpose of it is and how it is connected to the rest of the world. My favorite toilets of the trip were the simple composting toilets designed by David Omick that many people have built in Cascabel. In fact, when we stayed there two years ago, the composting toilet at the cabin was one of the things that drew me back. It was a relief to begin to see how this most basic form of "waste" could be a resource instead of a pollution problem. Likewise, David and his wife Pearl have also created a simple outdoor shower that has a natural water-saving device: they can use as much water as they want, but they have to carry every drop they use from the holding tank to the simple gravity-fed shower bucket.

This is the main thing that is making me want to settle down again—the desire to do things like have a compost pile and an herb garden, or to build some simple structures for daily living that directly connect our bodies and the land. Until then, I am grateful that we can still get along well enough as a society to have public restrooms.

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We made a brief pass along the west side of New Mexico, but realized that we had seen so many new things by then that we needed some time to assimilate our experiences. So instead of going further into New Mexico and Colorado, after a few weeks on the Rio Grande River we angled briefly into the southwest corner of Colorado before traveling fairly directly (for us) up through Utah and Idaho to my family's farm near Spokane, WA. It felt a little strange at first to be in trees and green again, but it has been good to return to familiar landscapes and faces. While we may be getting comfortable in public spaces, we also appreciate the hospitality of friends and family who have hosted us along the way. Things seemed to work out just when we needed them, like our friend in Idaho being home briefly on the very weekend we needed a place to park the trailer for a few days in order to take a side trip to attend a funeral in Portland. Sometimes the flow of the river of life is more powerful than planning...

Lots of green things at Hyrum Reservoir, Utah

Wednesday
Apr262017

A little love letter to Cascabel

   Secret cliffs stand silent in dry canyons.
   The sun stretches from horizon to horizon.
   Every rock is hot.
   Still, some places keep their names close,
   and hide plants there that love shade.

   In the mornings, mountains wake up first.
   Like cats they are alert watchers.
   The plants mostly endure.
   Contained for years they wait 
   for exhibitions of dazzling excess.

   Ants build fantastic homes in the worst soil.
   Beetles multiply even in dusty pastures.
   Snakes thrive.
   At night the toads suddenly bend the darkness
   with their wretched love songs.

   And the people? They too endure,
   holding something rare away from the wind,
   keeping watch—
   and like the bees, gather the slightest slips of sweetness
   into a golden labor of honey.
Saturday
Nov192016

Days 51 - 67: Malheur and more

Sunrise over Frenchglen at Malheur NWR, Oregon

Days 51 – 60: We stayed ten days at Malheur NWR (Oct 26 – Nov 4) and thoroughly enjoyed spending time with a group of photographers who camp there every November to photograph the mule deer rut. Some of the best bucks this year were right in our campsite, wandering around our trailer with their necks outstretched, sniffing the air looking for that special doe. Thanks to our new friends, we got to see the herds of wild mustangs, almost get stuck in the snow on the top of Steen’s Mountain, learned more about living in Harney County, and cooked and ate our first Wamdingers. We also now have a new regulator for our propane tank (and know that it is not supposed to stop working when it freezes) and we figured out which end of the tool to use to lower the spare tire for the truck (thanks, Jeff, for reading the directions!)

Most importantly, though, is the ongoing opportunity for us to stay open to different views and experiences. Our world in Seattle had become isolated as we focused on what was comfortable to us and what we were good at. As we travel, we keep learning again and again how much we don’t know. We are humbled by the warmhearted generosity, hospitality, and help we have received from so many people. We are challenged by the different truths that arise out of different landscapes and economies. This is not to discount what is true in our own lives and from our perspective in Seattle, but rather to add to it. I hope that our hearts can expand a few sizes to be able to hold more of the suffering and wonder, discord and beauty, and incredible variety of the world.

On Nov 4 – 11 (Days 60 – 67), our adventures in contrasts continued, as we traveled to Caldwell, Idaho to visit friends from Whitman. I attended a Buddhist church (where my friend is the assistant minister) that was started by Japanese-Americans who moved there after being released from WWII internment camps. We experienced the election of Donald Trump in a town where I didn’t see a single “Hillary” campaign sign. We attended the International Students’ talent show at the College of Idaho where our friends teach and mentor, and enjoyed the energy, talent, and bravery of these young people from all over the world. One student ended his performance poem with: “Donald Trump made a mistake / America is already great / because of us!”

Thursday
Sep292016

Well, I can never eat corn again

Day 13: Our first night at Cape Disappointment State Park, we shopped for groceries at Thriftway and bought fresh corn, not so much because we intended to get corn, but because it was labeled Sauvie Island Corn, so was (relatively) local, and we have fond memories of birding together at Sauvie Island when we were both just learning. So in the basket they went—four ears, two for each of us—though each of us being raised on our father’s corn which must be picked in the hour before eating or it was “too old,” we did not have high hopes.

Once back at camp, I realized I did not want to boil a pot of water for four ears of corn inside the trailer (so much about trailer-living in wet climates being about managing moisture.) Well, we have wood—how about roasting? Neither one of us had ever roasted corn over a fire, but Tom suggested I stuff some butter in the husk, wrap the ears in foil, and put them on the built-in grill over the fire pit. So that’s what we did, and after about 20 minutes of turning and peeking and wondering, we had The. Best. Corn. We-had-ever-eaten. EVER! Smoky-flavored and crisp and sweet, and somehow when we bit down on the cob, the whole kernals would pop out like little nuggets of toasted delight instead of the tough, mushy, sticky things we expected from store-bought corn. Must be the roasting, I thought. That’s the secret!

So last week when we arrived in Skamokawa, Washington (Day 18) and found ourselves just in time for the Puget Island Farmer’s Market that listed “CORN” as the feature of the week, I bought six ears. Back at camp, we eagerly bustled about—making the fire, poking butter into the leaves, wrapping the ears in foil. Now we know what we are doing! This is great!

But when we unrolled the charred packages we discovered what we expected before—kind of tired, end-of-season corn, with that soft, starchy, slightly-overripe texture that mushes instead of crunching, and leaves a flock of sticky corn-skins stuck in your teeth. And not only that, but it was a little too late; the wood a little too wet; the fire too smoky; we were too tired from traveling; and the neighbor RV’er was just too loud…

Let me say that the rest of the generous bag of goods we bought at the market was amazing.  REALLY amazing, especially for September—crisp leaf lettuce, perfect brocolli, plump zucchini, tender carrots, fresh-baked focaccia and chocolate chip cookies. That market was a blessing to us in what can sometimes feel like a desert of canned and packaged vegetables. But I should have known better about the corn, known that you can’t step twice in the same river. I should have been content with what I had instead of trying to recreate a perfect evening.

This is what happens so often when we get something good. We want more of it. We want it again. We want certainty. We want control, instead of simply trusting the good graces that brought the good thing to us in the first place to bring us the next thing in its own time, unasked for and unearned, and possibly after a string of not-so-good things, but coming to us as certainly as one season after the next.  Because that goodness is all around us, and inside us. It is already there without being sought out, created, or preserved. It only needs receiving and re-receiving on its own time. Always fresh. Always unexpected. Always new.

So I will likely have corn again, as I do like corn; and really, even when its bad, it’s pretty darn good. But I might wait for awhile. And I won’t expect it to live up to that first corn-roasting experience. I will recognize that that night is unrepeatable. That though it is precious in my memory, it has passed on, like every other thing, both good and bad. I’ve moved on; life moves on. That is the way it is. Traveling like this makes that clearer to me. But the more I know this, the freer I am to step into each moment, whatever it brings, with my whole heart, and with all my feelings, just experiencing everything for what it is.