Morgan Sjogren ➸ Running Bum

Writing to protect the soul of wild spaces

 

 

The interminable intervals of green trees and worn farmhouses below heavyset clouds along Interstate 91 in Vermont tugged at the tears buried in my eyes. Behind them sit visions of long runs beneath 12,000 foot peaks on dry dusty eastern sierra roads when Gabe would paint pictures of his home state and mountains, “It’s so green. You’d love it Mo.” And it was, even greener than he ever made me imagine it to be. When I finally made it, I felt two weeks too late.

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Exactly one year ago both Gabe and I walked off the track in Portland likely for the last time as competitive track racers. I came back from months of injury and to PR by 1/10th of a second in the 5000 meters. Gabe struggled through a 10K after weeks of lackluster training. It can always go either way. I’m not sure either of us knew we were “done done” that day, but as we walked slower than I’ve ever walked before towards the car I felt painfully aware that the stoke of chasing numbers on the clock did not mean as much to either of us as it once did. I tried my best to cheer him up, to plant seeds of summer fun, of future racing and that there is so much more in life than racing or even just running. I didn’t want to drop him off and leave him alone in his hotel room that night but he insisted and so I did. When Gabe made up his mind there was no arguing, which is why we so often fought like brother and sister in between repeats in Round Valley or before getting on the bus. No mind though, Gabe was always first to incite an apology when it felt right on his watch, the same way no run was done until he decided it was done. Which is how many of his 20 milers became 23 milers.

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Gabe and I bonded over our love for the mountains and for running. Simple. Getting either of us to leave our 8,000 foot sierra sanctuary literally took an important race to push us out. Otherwise 12 months of the year we were holed up and logging miles beneath our beloved granite peaks. A distaste for leaving town left us to spend holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas together every year with anyone else that stayed back in town. Gabe came to Mammoth not knowing how to cook a damn thing and by the first Thanksgiving could cook a whole turkey with all the fixings—and nearly eat in one setting. Stuffed to the gills we’d sit around with our teammates and write haikus. I’ll never forget the one he wrote. It wasn’t a haiku at all, but instead the genuine sentiment made me realize that our band of misfit runners and local dirtbags was truly a family. “This was the best Thanksgiving ever. I am so full. I’m so grateful for my family here in Mammoth.” I kick myself for not keeping the poems we all wrote and shared around the table as the snow fell down outside in the night sky.

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Today the memories are still so real that they bombard me in real time. I can hear his voice and see his beautiful seamless stride flying around the track and down the mountain roads he loved. In between I can hardly focus on reality. I go between feeling numb and feeling everything at once. Our lives experienced upheaval from that day on the Portland track forward, just in vastly different directions. We both left Mammoth without much notice, with a feeling of needing something much different and far away from our mountains no matter how much we loved them. When Gabe and I ran together it was a safe place. Our conversations often went silly, wild, weird, deep, supportive, sad and silent. On one of our last runs together we ran past the Mammoth/Yosemite airport and piece by piece designed the ultimate new airplane that could drop each passenger off at their individual destinations. We’d have the ability to band together for a time and when we each needed to go our own way we could simply press a button, eject and take off on our own flight, our own desired course. I think this memory haunts me most because that is exactly what we did. From the original crew of runners that arrived in Mammoth in 2013 everyone has now gone their separate ways. Moves to new states. Starting new careers. Recharging running careers. Being crowned Kings of Cannabis. Getting divorced. Having babies. Gabe often expressed how hard it was to watch our family disbanding. With so much upheavel in his young life that began far far away in Ethiopia, he once told me that he wished we could all be one fucked up family together forever. When he left I could not blame him for getting out. Soon I left Mammoth too.

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Gabe’s final destination, back home in Vermont with his family, would be just one of the many places I passed through in the month on June. We all have our own ways of dealing with the chaos of life, especially when it hits us in tidal waves. For me, the response seems to be to keep moving and experience as much as I possibly can, resisting the urge to get hung up on any one moment. I stared out the window letting the green flash by in a moment that would thankfully last longer than most on my two-day drive from the east coast to Colorado. Alice In Chains interjecting my thoughts, “Am I wrong? Have I run too far to get home?” In my own quest to find a space to call home, living a nomadic life on the road and constantly having to move on from places and people that I love, I contemplated the strain that type of existence likely played in Gabe’s young life. No point in analyzing now. I’ll never understand the intricacies of what Gabe was dealing with, the past that haunted him, nor the pain that he lived with.

 

What I will always remember are the many laughs that we shared. That he started each day in the back of the Mammoth Track Club van studying Amahric, Arabic and Spanish. The way he’d quote rap songs in between intervals to pump us up, “Nothing can stop us, we’re all the way up!” When he learned to cook with salt for the first time. Sporadic pep talks when he’d pull me aside and tell me how much potential we both had in running—that we couldn’t give up, the best was ahead. Watching him run with his powerful and graceful stride down the dirt roads of long valley or crushing an uphill tempo at 9,000 feet. His c-walking dance moves that always surprised everyone in the room. Double days taking ice baths in the creek to ensure that we were completely recovered for workouts. Listening to his stories about the other mountain areas he lived in–Vermont, Gunnison and Ethiopia.

In July I made it a point to pass through Gunnison where he went to college and earned two NCAA Titles in the 5K and 10K. Almost a month after I heard the news of his passing in Bears Ears and collapsed to the ground and yelled out into the canyons, the wounds were still raw. And along the way I had the beautiful privilege of seeing the journey that Gabe took with his running across the country to some of the most beautiful spaces imaginable. A journey that would eventually lead him to Mammoth where he would run a 2:12 marathon and 1:01 half marathon—solidifying him as one of America’s best distance runners and an Olympic hopeful.

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It’s been months since I’ve been able to open up this draft. It’s Thanksgiving today, the first in my recent memory without him, and his two heaping plates of food, and away from home in our mountains. I flash back to one of the last runs we had together at Laurel Pond across from the Mammoth airport. Over the course of a brisk paced 8 miler in even brisker temperatures we hatched a vision for a “self-ejecting” plane that allowed individuals to press a button and launch themselves in flight, apart from the rest of the crew and go their own way. The way they needed. I didn’t realize fully then, and perhaps he didn’t either, that we were both about to press the button on a flight far away from the Sierras that would completely alter the course of our lives. It’s only when we are forced to let go and move on from everything we’ve ever known that we can finally blaze a path all our own.

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It’s difficult for me to understand Gabe’s choice except that I never doubted him. He expressed a similar sentiment to me. Gabe ran his life on his own terms until his tank was empty. His smile and stride flash by in fleeting memories to remind me that everything can be gone in an instant, but the memories will always remain embedded on our soul. The pain of losing a dear friend still feels like Epsom salt in a blister after a long run, but with time my gratitude grows, it reminds me of what it is to live a life beyond the edges of comfort and safety. That it is better to run towards your passion until there is nothing left than to give up, or worse, never try at all. What a gift to have run this earth alongside such an incredible burst of a human. Thank you Gabe.

 

 

Afterward: It seems beyond fitting to me that Adrianna and Jeremy Nelson gave birth to their first child, Alexandra, on Thanksgiving. What a gift to bring a new spark into the universe and help give her the wings to chart her own course.

 

 

 

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Photo: Andrew Burr
Morgan Sjogren and Jenn Shelton run into the beauty of the unknown in the French Alps. Photo: Andrew Burr

The Disaster Training Plan

Morgan Sjogren   |   Jul 26, 2017
Story originally published on Patagonia’s Blog “The Cleanest Line”

“We just have to run 20, 30 or 50 miles a day over some mountains. What could go wrong?”

When I received my itinerary from Jenn Shelton to run the Tour du Mont Blanc, I took a hard swallow of quickly drying saliva, knowing that my background as a middle-distance track racer (specializing in the 5K) would not prepare me for the 105-mile Tour du Mont Blanc which passes through three countries (France, Italy and Switzerland) and gains 30,000 feet of elevation in the technical terrain of the Alps. While I lacked the typical preparations needed for a through-trail run of this magnitude—I don’t run 105 miles in a full week let alone four days—my stoke to explore a new mountain range was high, as was my willingness to hop on a plane to Chamonix and prepare myself for the biggest run of my life with just five day’s notice.

Granted, this particular method did not help me or my running compatriots, Jenn and photographer Andrew Burr, actually finish the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), but it proved effective enough to help me run farther than I ever thought imaginable in three short days, despite torrential downpours, wrong turns, snowy mountain passes and minor injuries. While it’s no scientific formula or rule book by any means, the Disaster Training Plan will help prepare you (mostly mentally) for maximum adventure and “fun” when you have the urge to take on something way beyond your current fitness, perceived ability or experience level. You don’t have to be a professional athlete or an ultramarathoner to complete an epic multiday trail run—you just have to be crazy enough to say yes and accept the inevitable beat down that will happen to you along the way.

Photo: Andrew Burr
The locals stare in wonder as Morgan Sjogren and Jenn Shelton giggle their way directly into the next storm. Photo: Andrew Burr

Pregame

Every runner knows that with less than a week until your event the only thing left to do is taper (to rest your body), carbo load and hydrate. I took this very seriously in the days before taking on the TMB—with an “easy run” straight up the vertical K in Chamonix “just to get a coffee.” Another option is to just lay in the grass and stare up at Mont Blanc as you study the guidebook. Individual definitions of the chill pill may vary. The result (hopefully): feeling in tip-top condition on the first day, so you have a true baseline of just how hard you will run yourself into the ground.

Pack Light

If you are using the Disaster Training Plan, you are already a glutton for punishment so don’t make it worse by bringing anything unnecessary in your pack that will weigh you down. I carried my trusty M10 Jacket, Houdini Pants, Nano Air Jacket, extra socks, water and lots of snacks. Bottles of rosé are important. Don’t forget those. They quickly help you forget about that next 5,000-foot climb up ahead.

Ready, Set, Hike

On game day, we set a not-so-strict start time of 9 a.m. and took off … at walking pace. This confused the hell out of me because in track I run fast, not slow, and walking is not even in my forward motion vocabulary. However, I learned this strategy will save your legs for the long mountainous stretches of trail in the days to come. Three days later I sang the praises of the stage one “Tour of Sidewalking” as I crawled, exhausted, shivering and with trench foot, up two 5,000-foot Italian mountain passes in a massive rain/sleet/snow storm. I will never scoff at the notion of walking ever again.

Photo: Andrew Burr
When disaster strikes, just furrow your brow, look it in the face and laugh with the madness of truly living in the moment. Photo: Andrew Burr

Refuel

On long days, make sure you are eating plenty of real foods—things like spaghetti and meatballs, beer (yes, that’s a food group), candy, Nutella and hard-boiled eggs. There is no science behind this. You have two options in the disaster plan: Eat what tastes good or eat what is available. A soggy tuna sandwich can quickly become both when you are lost in Italy with many hours of running ahead of you over yet another mountain pass.

Shake It Out

When you complete a section of a multiday adventure, don’t immediately sit down and start drinking wine. Open the bottle and stretch it out. A bit of active recovery in the form of yoga, light walking, medieval sword fighting or even dancing will help keep your blood circulating and your muscles from cramping up. Remember: You’re not done yet, so don’t act like it.

Read the Maps, Guidebooks and Signs

You’re already going much farther than you have any business going. Don’t screw it up with a wrong turn and make your day exponentially longer. Of course, this is the disaster plan and you likely didn’t even take weather conditions into consideration before you started. All it takes is one heinous storm of slashing rain to leave your map in less-than-useful condition and the signs impossible to find through the mashed potato thick fog. When this happens don’t forget to smile and find other uses for it like toilet paper, tissue or even a rain hat.

Photo: Andrew Burr
Jenn and Morgan consult useless rain-soaked maps in a quest to find the next refugio. Switzerland. Photo: Andrew Burr

Expect the Unexpected

When the Disaster Training Plan is followed properly, you will have a distinct advantage over your fully trained compatriots: no preconceived expectations. Even the most skilled, talented and prepared adventurers will face challenges and major obstacles, but a bold soul like you expects this and therefore is much more resilient in the face of adversity. It’s what you signed up for. When disaster strikes you will furrow your brow, look it in the face and laugh with the madness of truly living in the moment.

Heart Trumps Training

The mental training required to complete a big mountain mission can’t be overlooked. Andrew—a climber who admittedly did not run more than six miles (ever) before the TMB—is likely an alien or has magic powers, but he swears that he is able to keep pace with professional runners (all while carrying heavy camera equipment) because of his mental game, “If you love adventure, you have to be able to turn your brain off and enjoy the suffering part of the process.” So yeah, it’s going to hurt. Deal with it.

Accept Failure and Enjoy the Journey

Some rad dude (Yvon Chouinard) once said, “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” Disciples of the Disaster Training Plan are seeking just that. You didn’t jump on this trail to get a finishers medal or set a Strava record. This is a transformative experience. One that will break you down to nothing more than your underwear (because your clothes are permanently soaked) as you eat yet another plate of pasta at an Italian refugio while the rain beats down upon the tin roof. You will wonder how you will take one more step, but you go on anyways because you have no choice—the nearest train station is an entire country away over, yes, another mountain pass. However, the Disaster Training Plan does not discourage making the bail-out option your new goal. Sitting through a marathon travel day of hitchhiking, plus multiple trains and buses, in your rain- and cow-shit-soaked clothing is a right of passage all its own.

Photo: Andrew Burr
Rain-soaked gear? No problem! Morgan dines in her underwear and demonstrates one of the benefits of the Disaster Training Plan: always having a great bar story. Photo: Andrew Burr

Be Willing to Recover

Don’t expect to walk away from this game plan in one piece. Afterwards, you will drink whiskey. You will need ibuprofen. You will buy cheap frozen peas to reduce the swelling. Your ass will be laid up on the couch. You will elevate your swollen limbs. But you will accept and ingest all of this with a twisted smile on your face basking in the glow of proving the naysayers (most likely your own body parts) wrong.

While the Disaster Training Plan may not leave you fully ready for the heinous slog you are about to begin, it will save you from the worst type of agony possible: the regret of not even trying. At the very least you will always have a cool bar story, and maybe a few battle wounds, but more than likely you will uncover a piece of yourself that can only be found deep in the wilderness while traveling under the power of your own motor along the edge of a path unknown.

 

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Morgan (“Mo”) Sjogren runs wild with words anywhere she can get to with running shoes and a pen. A lifelong competitive runner, Mo is a newcomer on the trail and mountain racing scene. She currently lives out of her Jeep Wrangler at the best trailheads all over the western United States.

The mountains strengthened her legs, lungs heart. But the desert, it strengthened her soul. It’s silence sang loudly and it’s dirt danced wildly around her. The one place the kept calling her back.

She cracked open the windows and let the summer rain inside and set her spirit free. There were burritos to make…

A few attempted cracks of the beer cap on the ephemeral sandstone rock saluted the world of open freedom. There was nowhere to go but a place as still as this one allowing a whirlwind within to unlock the magic.

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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.

-9

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.

-6

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

-4

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….

-7

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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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