The Running Bum

Running Wild With Words

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I looked at my once caged mind from the other side of the fence.

On my first attempt running up the Bears Ears I saw nothing but the blank white wall of a blizzard and strong winds slapping me in the face. It matched how I felt that February morning–cold, alone, sad and blind to everything in front of me and behind me. Today, I reached the plateau greeted by sunshine and an almost alpine world filled with spring flowers, chirping birds and views into endless new trails to take into the horizon. The scene matched my current state of mind–warm, content, free, beautiful and open to endless possibility. Knowing that every direction is mine…

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“In many so-called primitive cultures it is a requirement or tribal initiation to spend a lengthy period of time alone in the forests or mountains, a period of coming to terms with the solitude and non-humanity of nature so as to discover who, or what, one really is—a discovery hardly possible while the community is telling you what you are, or ought to be.”–Alan Watts

In fact the other side is far more beautiful than I could imagine that stormy day when I yelled to the sky, “What am I doing here?” as it threw icey snow in my face, taunting me, jesting back, “You can run….but you cannot hide…you will suffer…alone.” And it was actually the most alone I have ever been in my life. 30 years of siblings, roommates, relationships, dogs were now replaced with complete solitude. I did not make human contact with anyone for a day. No one except my parents had any clue where I was (and even then they were unsure about the location of this Bears Ears place). To add insult, my food and water kept freezing and I ate four days of dinner rations in one meal (I forgot how hungry running and being cold make me). Despite the self-induced suffering, I kept running all over the place–up the snowy pass, down the highway, in and out of dead end singletrack–crying, laughing and trying to salvage an experience of some kind for the story I was writing at the time. It seemed highly unlikely that I would ever return to such an inhospitable and unwelcoming place, let alone write about it. But then the circles began and I found myself repeatedly returning to Bears Ears without much premeditation. It all came back to me….

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The March full moon rose above the winding bumpy Moki Dugway when dawned on me where I was going on a spur of the moment climbing trip. Eventually the backlit Bears Ears filled the frame of my front window, and although there was no sunlight and I was not actually running, I cried out at the spirits above. After a few days of crack climbing, shenenigans and a run to The House of Fire (a route I originally intended to cover solo just two weeks prior) the second coming to Bears Ears felt like warmer ironic redemption as I danced down the trails with the biggest smile on my face.  No longer alone or cold, but rather surrounded by sunshine and new friends, I marveled not only at the rich history of the area, but at the deep realization that this place is still very much spiritually alive.

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Top photo–new friend and big wall climbing badass Lizzy Scully (Photo by Steve “Doom” Fassbinder).
Morgan Sjogren, House of Fire, Mule Canyon, Bears Ears NM, UT

Morgan Sjogren, House of Fire, Mule Canyon, Bears Ears NM, UT PC: Andrew Burr

On Easter Sunday I rose for the third time in the monument and finally ran up the Bears Ears plateau into an unexpected alpine world hidden high above the red rocks and canyons of the desert below. It was another solo mission but this time I did not feel alone. Instead I felt, for the first time in months, a strange sense of home. That familiar feeling when you awake and can make coffee on autopilot, stretch out and smile because it’s “church of sunday long run” and take your time to sip your brew and prep for said run because you are cozy, confident and content.

I smiled throughout the climb, sang songs in my head, ate cookies, bushwhacked up the actual Bears Ears, splashed in the mud puddles that are the remnants of that February blizzard. I let the miles come to me and slip away quickly, knowing full well that anything worthwhile will fly free and return in a new form with untold stories waiting to be shared. I stood inside the Bears Ears and let the wind leaned in to whisper something faintly nostalgic like returning home to a warm meal, the crackling of a wood stove fire,  an embrace from your lover, your dog wiggling its tail like mad when you walk through the door. Sometimes our home chooses us.

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I finally feel the constant buzz of being a displaced outcast with a spinning head and a broken heart dissipate.

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I sit on the floor and on the ground outside for hours, the longest stretch of stillness for me in months (many months). I allow the weight of gravity to hold me in place. I sip Gin and Tonics while painting the brightest glittering psychedelic desert scenes I can dream up to take myself into an almost mushroom like trance. I write and face the raw honesty of my own black words against the white screen. I finish that goddamn book that I’ve been carrying like an extra weight for months. For now I am far far away from the problems and pain of all those yesterdays that never seem to get better. Real solitude is an essential component of life for the creative mind.

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Eclectic, random and isolated tiny homes in the desert are seeking me. I may be a nomad, but everyone needs a space of refuge to call home, even if only for a weekend. This one, out of them all perhaps suits me best. It is so hand-made that not a single board, line, pipe, window or painted wall inside is straight. (Evil spirits travel in straight lines is one of my favorite zen proverb. Or did I just make that up?) There are old drawers rudely hammered together as makeshift panels to create the illusion of rooms in a single wide that features a broken toilet and heatless bathtub inside the kitchen. Perfectionism be damned. There’s a quirky and fearless charm about the place—emerald green walls dotted with constellations of white stars, white twinkling lights strewn around the ceilings (which are so low that even my head nearly touches), children’s paintings tacked in the corners and hand painted artwork on the very trailer itself professing simply, “I love Castle Valley” and “Love.” Which is the actual draw of this place to begin with. To be here is to receive a giant hug from the panoramic wonders of this valley—Castleton, the Rectory, the Nuns, the Priest and the Convent viewed out the front window. Porcupine Ridge out back and the La Sal mountains up the road.

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When night falls the moon is so bright that no lights are needed to cook burgers over the campfire that faces Castleton–a real life palace surrounded by a magic kingdom fit for for a dirtbag queen. The blustery wind ignites drippings of bacon grease into sizzling  fireworks–a reminder that everything that falls away from us will return yet someday, in a new more spectacular form.

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Keep the hope alive.

Run, love, laugh around towers in the sky.

Make the darkness a mirror to your light.

Set your dreams off in flight,

beneath the pink moon,

your life ignites in bloom.

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▲ //I drank the cool fizzy pleasure of making the whole damn desert my canvas;
splashing it with color, drawing crooked lines in the sand and embracing the imperfections that come with truly being free. I ate cake for breakfast, spiked my vodka with pickled tears, watched the world flash past my stillness through Neon colored lenses, threw glitter in the dirt. I found a place to call home in my own body. I turned on the channel to my mind’s eye. I tended to my garden of clouds and stars in the sky. I fell asleep standing up, ready to awake at any moment and run towards my delicious dust storm life.//▲

 

Holy shit. What have I done. Where am I?

I left everything I know to focus on what I know best.

Just two weeks earlier I spent 36 hours in this tiny town I’ve never heard of before in southwest Colorado. I liked it’s charming single block downtown, panoramic mountain views and relatively warm weather for 7,000 feet elevation in March enough but did not anticipate in any way that I’d be spending the month of April altitude training here. It’s funny how one road trip leads to an epic run turns into a climbing trip and suddenly I’m staying with a super rad couple (Sarah and Thor who own and operate Alpacka Raft) whom I met at one dinner party where we feasted on mushrooms, wine and communal tubs of Ben and Jerry’s. Today I woke up in a valley surrounded by nothing but mountains, a front yard pond reflecting a cotton candy sunrise over Mesa Verde National Park and aeropress coffee ground prepared fresh while Thor listens to opera.

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I sip my coffee and flash back to a backpacking trip in the Sierras two summers ago where I chatted my love for wilderness and solitude with a guy on the trail, “Be careful, you’re gunna keep moving farther and farther into the sticks. Mammoth is going to feel like a megalopolis soon!” And it kind of does now. After two months on a remote 13 acre ranch in Arizona I’m now settling into life on 35 acres even farther removed from strip mall society, suburbia and the safety of living a conventional life. Thank fucking goodness.

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I’ve been warned that there isn’t anything to do here in this town of 1,000 people but I wonder what they are talking about? There are endless trails begging me to explore them (including snow free dirt roads at 8,000 feet and singletrack winding through ancient ruins), a bakery lined with Grateful Dead banners to satisfy the fat kid in me, a brewery with a tasty porter, a cute yoga studio, girl’s night shenanigans with Sarah and my new friend Lizzy, a beautiful porch where I can write stories. I’m two hours out from all of my favorite places in eastern Utah. There are no less than 50 singing birds to watch outside the big open windows throughout the day. I am literally growing new red blood cells even when I’m doing nothing at this ideal elevation. The yoga teacher asks us to chant, “I am that. I have arrived. I am home.” Right here, right now I am all of these things. I am.

This region is brimming with ancient history, ruins, art and stories. Ironically, in my current nomadic state, I find myself gravitating to trail runs that take me past archaeological sites and cave dwellings hidden deep within the canyons of the southwest. The ancient Puebloans, who lived their life literally on the edges of these canyons, vanished without a trace and no one to this day knows exactly what happened, where they went or why. What were they running from? As I move past the abandoned homes I instead wonder, “What were they running TO?” I’m still figuring this out for myself, but it seems like the neighborhoods of the ancient ones are surely a stop along my way.

And despite this simplicity and beauty I still I felt myself being overwhelmed by the newness of it all. The freedom of that blank canvas—when I released expectations and planning to let the muse take over life started to get more colorful than I ever imagined.   Rainbow is my favorite color and the spectrum of brilliance is expanding before my wide eyes. Sometimes it’s so bright it feels blinding. The pace towards my dreams began to accelerate to a pace that took my breath away and left my heart racing. Be it running, driving or even sitting in place my life is moving, shaking, dancing, living, breathing. Often I feel so many emotions all at once and it can often feel like too much to bear, comprehend or certainly explain. And then I whisper to myself, “I am that. I have arrived. I am home.” At home in my own body, my own soul. A place on the edge of everything and anything to love and call my own.

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I wanted to lay down on the trail to feel the beautiful strangeness of it all–the cold snow under my back, warm sun kissing my cheeks, limbs kicking the sky and lungs laughing at the irony. I rolled around with the dogs in simple ecstasy, knowing life would never be the same. And then I picked myself up….and I ran.

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I’m standing in front of four neatly stacked brown boxes that are taped shut in my friend’s garage. I have not seen the contents inside of them since I left Mammoth Lakes two months ago, and despite being nearly all of my worldly possessions, they suddenly seem so foreign to me. And like a burden. How could I possibly have so much stuff? Really it’s only clothes, shoes, books and some family heirlooms but despite the minimalism for most folks there is absolutely zero chance that this will all fit in the Jeep. Or that I will actually use them.

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For two months I’ve driven circles around the Southwest (California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and two minutes in New Mexico) essentially living out of the Jeep (and using “The Ranch” in AZ as a basecamp) with only the essentials: my camping gear, running clothes, maps, a journal, a laptop, three books I have not read and a few ridiculous outfits that include tiger print bell bottoms, a black felt hat and moccasin boots (a writer must have her uniform). It quickly became second nature to use less and less in this scenario. In fact I find myself gravitating to the same clothing items over and over again in my purple suitcase (hmmm this doesn’t smell so bad, I’ll just wear it again) needing less and less of the less I brought along. With each mile of tarmac or dirt road that rolls behind the Jeep I slowly forget what I even have in my trunk. I strip down to the only things that matter, like the present moment, which are already on my body….in my body.

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Moving around from place to place incites the explorer in me. To turn a corner or crest a hill and see something I’ve never seen before. That’s how you start a trip in Southern Utah and “somehow” end up in Moab….or Durango in less than one week. Along the way I’ve undoubtedly seen things that I am stricken by, inspire me or perhaps even love–singletrack trails, silky sand dunes, soaring hawks, moon rises, beautiful people and coffee shops with the most amazing cinnamon rolls in the world. But like the fleeting rainbow colors of each sunrise and sunset I know that I cannot posses any of this. I will have to let go and keep moving as is the way of the nomad. Trying to hold on to each place or people I meet along the way is as far-fetched as fitting anymore gear into the Jeep than is already stuffed there. Like running with every beautiful piece of rose quartz or obsidian I find on the trail stuffed into my pockets.

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And so I fall madly in love with each sparkling moment until it becomes so magical that it BURSTS! I watch the bright flames flicker and jump until they eventually smolder and burn down as I run on and let them go. But that feeling of smoke hitchhikes with me in every pore, strand of hair and thread of cloth wherever I roam. And even when that fades I can’t wash those moments from my memory and heart (and of course my journal and camera roll too). The smell of a campfire can transport me back to sleeping in a cave in Utah, the sound of a hawk to the day I first left the Sierras, a chill against my skin to rolling around in the snow with Matty and Roam, the squish of mud beneath my feet to a spontaneous evening spent at Grand Falls, the taste of coffee to each amazing sunrise I’ve woken to in so many gorgeous new places.

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Rather than going through all of my possessions and weighing the pros and cons of how much I need or want each thing, I’m taking a different route. I’m setting aside ONLY what I need and from that only the things that I love and need (or need to live). The rest, no matter how much it pulls on my heart strings, is just not possible to carry along. To move quickly through the wilderness one must travel light, and the same is true of life. In letting go of my tight grip on these things, and places and even people, I’m not erasing their significance. Oh no, quite the opposite. I love them all enough to set them free. I’m also placing my trust in the notion that there are many more beautiful moments ahead, that the universe will provide. I own (almost) nothing and yet my life lacks nothing. An empty glass begs to be filled. A full glass may overflow, but it can never hold on to more than it’s capacity.

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Oh but what about love? Love is not a thing that can be held. Love is all around us. Love must be released, shared and allowed to blow with the wind. When it’s really love, any way shape or form of love, it always comes back to us. 10 fold. Maybe not in the ways that our culture teaches us that love means, but if we tune our instruments (our hearts and souls) we can feel it’s vibrations all around us…..

“The empty blue sky of space says ‘All this comes back to me, then goes again, and comes back again, then goes again, and I don’t care, it still belongs to me.” –Jack Kerouac, Big Sur

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On my last morning in Arizona the sky set itself ablaze, not from any force but its own. The orange glow burned strong, I turned my back and walked down the golden road and thought, all this may fade but it never goes away.

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“Instead of loneliness, I feel loveliness.”–Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

I awake with a buzzing feeling that urges me to leap out of bed and run out the front door. It’s worth it. The sun lights up the sky in a panoramic rainbow of colors. With no other nearby buildings other than the small cabin and larger barn, Lucky 13 Acres welcomed me to this remote corner of northern Arizona with a Bob Ross episode all to myself. Matty, Roam and I leaped over fallen piñon logs, cacti and the occasional animal bone. This spectacular place is where we will call basecamp for the next….

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The morning ranch rituals continue as follows: wake up with the dogs laying on top of me (often with a strategically placed bum in my face) at the glint of first light. Turn on the stove to boil water for the first cup of coffee before heading out to let the dogs pee. Usually by the time I hear the tea kettle whistle it’s time to go back in a make myself a single pour over cup of coffee (slow, but there is nothing better) and then take the cup back outside to watch the electric kool aid acid trip light show that is sunrise over Sedona. My front porch directly frames a view of the red rock oasis with the Bell Rock vortex at bulls eye. Matty and Roam race around the yard chasing birds, rabbits, deer and the occasional javelina.

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In February these mornings were quite cold, or rainy, and I bundle up in many mismatched layers with a pair of gray galoshes to splash around in the thick desert mud that sticks to just about everything in an impossible to remove way. The desert is a habitat that always reclaims what belongs to it in the form of dust storms, flash floods, migrating sand dunes. I feel the mud holding me and the dogs tightly. This is where you need to be.

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The pace of each day marches quicker towards spring, a rhythm you can also move to if you dance with it at the start of each morning. I feel the temperatures warm as peel off one extra layer each day), the flowers bloom, birds chirp and pick at the trees (including the most brilliantly mowhaked red bird I’ve ever laid eyes on) more critters out in the yard and coyotes singing louder than ever. Eventually the desert heat rises and makes me beg for a cool breeze. I spend more and more of my days after that first cup of coffee outside on the porch, in the dirt yard and exploring the trails and hidden secrets of the Coconino National forest that pushes up directly on the property boundaries. By mid-March leaving windows open is not enough. I move my room outside.

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“There are lonely hours. How can I deny it? There are times when solitaire becomes solitary…and the inside of the skull as confining and unbearable as the interior of the house trailer on a hot day. To escape both, I live more and more in the out-of-doors. I dragged the wooden picnic table close to the fireplace and this became my office and dining room. Finally I set up a cot and my home without walls is complete. I can sleep at night with nothing but space between me and the stars, comforted in the knowledge that I am not likely to miss anything important up there.” (EA, Desert Solitaire)

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I wake up on the ground. The familiar feeling of being home. I spent much of my childhood and teenage years sleeping outside under the stars in my backyard in the desert town of Riverside, CA. I always slept better outside on the ground all alone (sometimes my Mom would join me to chat until we drifted off to dream world). The rich black dirt, sludgy like coffee grounds and the deep aroma of Eucalyptus trees that drew my eyes up from the ground towards their skinny tops towards  the clouds and to the place where dreams live. It’s okay to live in the clouds, there your neighbors are dreams. They live in even the harshest and thorny of places, poking and prodding at you to set them free.

“But how, you might ask, does living outdoors on the terrace enable me to escape that other form of isolation, the solitary confinement of the mind?” (Ed again)

Outside the four walls of any structure my senses come alive. I hear the silence, eyes focus in on the darkness lit up brilliantly by the stars and moon (no lights needed), the cool breeze brushes my cheeks and I can feel the beat of my heart playing to the tune of my breath. When I step away from the constructions of the modern human world I am filled with the ancient memory of simply being an animal in outer space. How amazing! My eyelids fall shut in contentment and the smile, perhaps the most special of human abilities, grows across my face. I feel right at home in my dust covered skin.

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