An inspired road to transformation In India

Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

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On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

*

On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

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On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

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On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

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On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

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On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

*

On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

*

On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

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On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

*

On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

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On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

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On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

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On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

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On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

*

On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

*

On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

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On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

*

On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

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On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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A Road Trip through The United States of America

There’s a meditative hum to it, a drawn out Om that stretches down the highway. You forgot how much you loved the sound of tires spinning on pavement.

You’re behind the wheel, headed wherever you want. But there is only one place now. That placed you’ve been longing for. You’re on a road trip again in the American West.

You’ve traveled around the world trying to get away from this country—its hedonism and superficiality, its strip malls and fast-food chains, the resultant loneliness of militant independence. But when you are away you remember that it wasn’t all like that. There were quiet places. There were open lands with impossible vistas, earth colored blood red, big sky, resplendent stars; lands from a time before the country became lost in the gaudy pursuit of dollar bills. It’s a place of good friends, private adventures, meals cooked on an open fire.

And here you are, back in the Utah desert. No more finding hostels and places to eat. No more navigating foreign languages or checking your pockets to make sure your passport is still there. You love being abroad, but damn, there ain’t no freedom quiet like being back in a place you know this well. You’ve been coming here for years.

The hum of the tires changes a few octaves as it carries you off of the 191 and into Indian Creek. There’s a rapid buzz as you fly over a cattle guard. On your left, the erratic sandstone behemoth—the one that looks like a swollen submarine—bulges from the earth and marks your turn into the valley. There are the junipers that dot the highway and the old homestead on the right where cows graze. You saw cowboys galloping by there once and that’s the only time you felt like a tourist here, wanting to take pictures of them as the sun set in the distance.

It’s October and the desert is cool and dry. Its air is clean, highlighted by the smell of sage and the last cactus blossoms of the season. The road descends and begins to wend through the valley. Maroon crags and impossible rock towers arise in the distance. The view still forces you to pull the truck over into a dirt pullout, to open the door, stand amidst the brush with your hands on your hips, and take it all in. You found an oasis on Mars, or maybe you fell into a surrealist painting—sienna the artist’s primary color—or maybe you’re just dreaming in red.

You turn down an old dirt road, one that the rock climbers use to get to the cliffs. You drive until you arrive at a big, empty pullout with a fire ring at the edge and a cottonwood tree that rises out of the brush. You pitch your tent and then sweep out the sand that gathered as you were setting it up. You roll out your sleeping bag, smelling its synthetic perfume.

When the fire is crackling and you have a warm burrito on a plate in your lap and a beer in your hand, you look up and see the Milky Way making its slow dance in the void. Your only responsibilities are to fill your belly and drain your beer. You are lost and hope never to be found. You want to pause that moment in the desert and call life a wrap. But still, you hope for morning just the same, so you can once again see that spectacular sunrise, and fall in love with the Utah desert all over again.

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Living in a car in Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego has always been a distant jewel, a place where adventures start, a desolate wonder, a frontier island. The ‘Land of Fire’ that hooks out of Patagonia, the name a reference to the first people, indigenous Fuegians, who burned fires in front of their huts.

I’ve always imagined travelling this outlandish mass, half way between world and non-world, an in-between of realities. I drove there in February taking the crossing of Estrecho De Magallanes from Faro Punta Delgado to Bahia Azul. I wanted to capture images of the land, the seascapes and the wildlife but most of all I wanted to feel the wilderness creep into my bones.

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On Tierra del Fuego I follow a gravel track that becomes progressively worse and soon find myself in a cold dusk, a grand expanse of pampas drawing me in. Still the dark comes slowly as I drive deteriorating gravel tracks with Guanacos emerging out of the grey. Their lazy runs exaggerated by long necks and spindly legs, road signs warning me to beware of them. I watch them in the gloom as they leap long fences without a break in their stride.

Soon I park on a road verge among an expanse of Pampas, cut only by a thin strip of corrugated gravel. I sleep through a cold night. In the morning I drive to Porvenir, a tired tin roofed city where the playgrounds are empty of children, even on a Saturday. I drive passed Gauchos on horseback herding flocks of sheep numbered in thousands, and then passed old Gold Mines, the ruts of hushings gouged deep into the earth.

Then I follow the gravels to Parque Pinguino Rey near Cameron where king penguins and Patagonian foxes battle against a fierce and freezing wind. The foxes hunkered down in the long grass allow me to get within an arms stretch of them. The penguins pushing against winds that race off wild seas. I stand with them a while, before the cold buries in me.

The next day I leave the Chilean border control and head towards Estancia San Jose in Argentina. I follow the gravel of no-man’s land till I’m driving over river gravel, a thirty foot river to my right. I can see the Argentinean border but I can’t see a bridge. Then the track stops by the water-edge and re-emerges at the opposite bank. If I get out to check I’ll probably not carry on so I drive into the river in first gear, steady, revs high so as not to stall in this channel between countries. I can’t see the river-bed but the car vibrates every cobble through its frame. The water comes to the wheel arches but I don’t stall, stop or get washed sideways. Soon I emerge on the Argentinean side with a slightly cleaner car.

I find the guards eating lunch in one of the houses, as they lead me to the office they look at the car, then back at me before shaking my hand. Clearly this crossing is for trucks and four wheel drives only.

It takes two days of driving before I reach Ushuaia, the world’s most southerly city. As I get close grand mountains jut through the clouds. Crags and ledges offer half-vistas, clouds slink into steep gullies so that only sharply descending arêtes can be seen. Soon the night takes all but a hint of them, stars fill the gaps and a faint moon skirts the edges of the mountains. I sleep in a lay-by.

As I wake I’m greeted by morning light catching the tips of snow-streaked peaks. Thinning clouds move along their flanks, my exhalations hold in the cool air. I sense a moment of emotional transcendence until I notice a disposable nappy in the verge.

At Ushuaia I take a three-hour boat trip on the sea named after Fitzroy’s and Darwin’s ship. As we set-off the Martial Mountain range behind us is punctuated by a vivid rainbow. Soon we reach the island holding the ‘Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse’ often confused as being the ‘Lighthouse at the End of the World’ written by Jules Verne. Here male sea lions outweigh the females by a vast amount of blubber. Shags and cormorants fill the rocks, southern terns wheel by. Two steamer ducks rush from us, their stunted wings beating like old Mississippi paddle boats.

As we near a huge raft of seabirds, alongside a feeding frenzy of terns and shags and albatross, penguins porpoising through them I feel that liberty has found me. Here, among all the life, I sense an escape from the cities of England. If only for a few hours on this mystical sea close to the end of the world I am free.

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Fly to the clouds and Dream in Bhutan

I smile each time I open the mailbox and spot the National Geographic Expeditions magazine surrounded by unwanted bills and junk mail.

A particular featured location lured me in – Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Temple). One of the oldest private monasteries in the country of Bhutan which was constructed into the side of a sheer cliff. This mystical image captured my attention every time I gaze upon the article. I imagine walking beneath the cascading, colorful prayer flags and marveling at the beauty it exudes, nestled between folds of the Himalayan Mountains with plant life peeking through cracks and crevices. I tell EVERYONE…this is a voyage I must make.

This fantasy became a reality on my 40th birthday. My compassionate and selfless husband booked an unexpected trip for me to visit this kingdom in the clouds. After years of having my head in the clouds, he felt it was time for me to see this holy site.

I have never been deficient in the dream category. In my reality, dreams, often like travel, take me away to unknown places. Being alone, and lost in my thoughts allows me to be free. When I travel, I break free from the confinement of my mundane everyday activities.

So, off I went on my adventure. Flying into the Paro Airport, which is nestled among the steep mountains of the Himalayas, I was terrified as our pilot took multiple attempts to land our plane. Eventually, a change in the atmosphere, allowed us to land. I stayed at Zhiwa Ling Hotel in Paro, one of the unique lodges of the world.

In the morning, I met my guide Namgay Tshering of ABC Tours and Treks. As much as I enjoy being alone, you cannot travel Bhutan without a local guide. Oddly, his presence and aura did not diminish my sense of freedom. In fact, his spirituality was refreshing and welcoming. As we started our hike up the mountain, I began to relish each and every step. Little was spoken between us, yet I sensed he knew something was happening inside me, here in this pious place, where I am taking the hike of my life.

I find myself eagerly walking into the unknown. I mentally detach from apprehension, as the air becomes thinner, my body aches for the summit. I focus again on my guide. Namgay walks this trail multiple times per week. This is motivation for me to continue. A tea break at the half way mark gave me the nourishment needed to make the final approach to the monastery. After an additional climb that took us over a bridge, and across a waterfall with a 200 foot drop, I could see the mystic wonder in front of me.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery was still blanketed in a low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to this place. To arrive was empowering and euphoric, I was no longer gazing at a glossy picture but positioned right where I had hoped to be – wrapped in prayer flags and feeling the energy of the land and proud of my achievement. I stood in my dream turned reality.

We walked into one temple, and witnessed the offerings to the deities. Many were wishing for their freedom, yet there I was, thanking the same gods and goddesses, for mine at this moment. There was deep inner contentment, as I inhaled the fresh and cool mountain air.

As we readied for the trek down, the fog lifted revealing the Paro Valley 3,000 feet below. I reassured my fellow adventurers slowly making their way, either on mules or with walking sticks through the switchbacks. The descent brought me magnificent and unforgettable views that were hidden on my way up. I found the rhododendrons, pine trees, and wildflowers to be much more vibrant with oxygen…mine!

As we continued to descend, I was able to learn more about my guide. Namgay’s knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt and his black dress shoes looked uncomfortable to me. I was thankful to be exempt from the traditional dress rule in Bhutan, a Kira for women and its equivalent for men, the Gho. My tennis shoes and yoga pants felt like a baby’s blanket. Namgay indicated the national dress code must be worn by any Bhutanese if he or she is visiting offices, temples and any important occasion or celebration. I thought about what he said…important occasion or celebration. This was, for me.

I celebrated my freedom to travel, the occasion to self-reflect, and the traditions of the Bhutanese.

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An Unexpected Discovery in The Philippines

As a child I was never one to spend time in the deep end of the pool. I swam well but diving hurt my ears. So it was a surprise to sit twelve feet under water in Cozumel, monitoring my breathing and having no pain at all. What started as a brief resort dive has become an obsession. It surprises no one more than me that I’ve mastered scuba diving after turning fifty. At first I was my boyfriend’s camera sherpa, struggling to keep up with him and carrying his spare. Now, over 300 dives later, I take my own pictures, keeping up with him if I want to.

Recently at the remote UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbatha Reef, in the middle of the Philippines’ Sula Sea, I learned again to keep up, but this time with a group of Korean and Chinese divers. They were mostly young, many dive masters, and dressed in some of the most colorful, designer label wet suits imaginable. Bunny ears on dive hoods! Cartoon characters on shins and bright pink fins. Aggressive divers, they would shoot out a hundred feet down to capture pictures of schools of fish, or paddle furiously to get close to manta rays, hustling close to whale sharks and lion fish. My camera was limited to macro shots, not as flexible as their state-of-the-art rigs and GoPros. My dive gear was worn, booties shredded, a split in a seam on the arm of my wet suit. On our dives together I poked around corals, peered into crevices and worked with the current to stay up with the group.

Then on our last day we chose to dive with just two others, our live-aboard boat owner and our American compatriot over 75 years old, award-winning underwater photographer and author, Robert Yin. He counseled me on how to get close to fish, “They notice our heartbeats. If you’re excited, your heart pounding, you sound like a predator. Slow your breath and see if the fish react differently.”

On our last dive of the trip, moments after we back-splashed into the water, a giant manta lifted up from the fathoms below us at the reef wall. We held back as he flipped, swirling and then paused. That part of the reef is a feeding and cleaning station for the mighty creatures. Before he departed, we watched remoras and smaller fish skitter over his skin. The current picked up and Robert positioned himself behind a shallow pinnacle, out of the rushing water. A few moments later he darted out to shoot a school of Moorish Angels. The current challenged my comfort zone so I retreated to the top of the reef, again to shoot close ups.

In the shallows, out of the currents’ force, I spied a slow school of angel fish. Remembering Robert’s words about slow breathing, I started a yogic pranayama from my days as a teacher. My awareness shifted as my heart slowed. The school held steady and I slid into their presence. Instead of darting, they twisted to avoid touch but stayed close, sliding past my mask, my fingers and arms. It was such a rush, but I kept my breath steady, holding still. I’d become a rubbery, black fish in the clutch of dozens of little ones. Moments later, with a few spurts of air into my vest, I floated up and away.

I was the alien in their midst, so their acceptance that I was nothing to fear was so freeing. It had taken years of struggle with the mechanics of diving – botched descents, humbling mistakes struggling to master the gear, checking gauges, fittings, straps yet, there I was – transcending all that training with the simplest of tasks, the first action we take at birth, breathing. It didn’t matter how torn or flashy my gear was, whether I was keeping up or not, I found complete abandon in those few simple moments, breathing slowly in the depths.

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The Amazon Trial: Peru

Flying solo to the other side of the world from India to Peru to study field biology in the Amazon spelled independence for a single woman like me. Back home, the paranoia of me being in the jungle was high, even though I was part of a team. My challenge was to tackle a science project on my own – something I hadn’t done since 10th grade. But I had a bigger test – to show myself that I could sensibly navigate through this tranquil jungle.

Step one – Walk a two kilometre trail alone through rainforest with obstacles.

The trail to the lake was one where I had to walk on wooden planks so I wouldn’t sink into the soft mud. A cloud of mosquitoes followed me and whenever I stopped to climb over a fallen tree I’d get three new bites on my face. Before this, the Peruvian Amazon had seemed quite tame. The danger here wasn’t coming face to face with a carnivore, it was the possibility of sinking into a particularly boggy patch and not being able to get out. I was close to Cocha Lobo, an oxbow lake named after the giant river otters that had been spotted there in the past. Sighting them was incredibly rare but I had seen them before when I had visited the lake with my classmates from camp. This time I was heading down to the lake alone to observe some unusual birds called hoatzins.

Step two – Take the boat out into the water and row till you find hoatzins.

I had never rowed a boat before. Ever. A friend had given me tips for turning and braking and that was all I had to go on. I reached the dock, untied the boat, set it afloat and clambered in. I took it as a good sign that it didn’t tip over or float away before I could get in. The rowing tips paid off and I found that directing the boat was not as difficult as I thought it would be. The only sign of the dock now was some orange marking tape hanging off some branches. I rowed at a safe distance from the shore, not wanting to bump into the vegetation lining the edge, towards a clump of mangroves that began croaking as I approached. A pheasant-sized bird flapped out with a clumsy flourish and landed on a branch with outstretched wings. It had blue patches around its eyes and a crest on its head. Its long, dark brown neck speckled with white turned as it looked around. A second bird joined it and squawked loudly. I had found the hoatzins.

Step three – Face extreme challenge.

Higher up, on one of the trees, a branch swung in the telltale movement of a monkey having leapt off it. I positioned the boat away from the shore in the middle of the lake and sat quietly, waiting for whatever it was to show itself. I could hear the swish of wind some distance away. After a couple of minutes, a capuchin monkey stuck its head out of some leaves, grabbed some foliage and stuffed it into its mouth, chewing energetically. Another followed and I sat watching them. It suddenly struck me that the sound of the wind had grown louder but the water was absolutely still. My boat wasn’t moving either. I looked around, wondering what was happening. As I watched, a sheet of rain came across the bend of the lake at an alarming speed. I dumped my camera and binoculars on my lap and covered it with my rain gear before the rain soaked me, all before I could finish screaming, “ARGH!”. Trying not to panic, I pulled my hat on my head and began rowing into the wind so I wouldn’t be buffeted toward the shore. I peered through the rain to see the sun shining at the other end of the lake and headed towards it.

Step four – Bask in the sun and be humbled that you experienced a natural event that you could handle by yourself.

After about four minutes, the downpour abruptly reduced to a misty rain. The sun was ahead of me, the rain behind me and a rainbow stretched from one shore of the lake to the other. I stopped rowing and let the sun warm me up. Ahead of me, the surface of the water broke and two grey heads popped up and began crossing the lake – the otters! A third followed but stopped to look at me. I didn’t dare move. It opened its mouth and raised itself up till I could see a patchy white throat. It grunted loudly and swam into the mangroves.

I considered that my real reward.

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Floating My Inhibitions Away in Australia

Pointing to the skydiving ad, I looked at my friend while doing a poor attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Let’s do this! Please? It would be so epic if we skydive together,” I impulsively said in a rare show of my inner daredevil. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. I probably was at the time. We’re talking about the easily frightened me from four years ago here, who wasn’t so thrilled of extreme rides and animals.

Even when my friend outright rejected my offer, I started convincing her relentlessly. One time we were eating and she started spouting reasons why she’s afraid of trying it.
“Oh, but the jump is 14,000 feet high! Can you imagine how high that is?”
“It’s advertised as the highest tandem jump in Australia!”
“What if the parachute doesn’t work and we die?”

Up to that point in time, I didn’t really think things through. I didn’t bother to know the details for fear of losing my nerve. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when she pointed out the facts, I started to think that maybe skydiving wasn’t such a good idea. Sure, I enjoyed the indoor skydiving simulator in Malaysia but this is the real deal. From someone like me, who doesn’t ride roller coasters that may result in wetting myself, my all-too-familiar cowardice came back in full force. Then my friend chose that moment to change her mind.

My friend ended up paying for me so I won’t have any choice but to go skydive with her since she knows I can’t stand wasting money. Then the countdown to the day I’ll be skydiving began. I was a jittery mess to say the least until I found myself on a plane. “There’s no backing out now,” my tandem master told me. How comforting!

I tried to delay the inevitable for as long as I could by asking people to go before me until it was my turn and I was on my back ready to fall out of the plane. Arching like a banana as practiced, my tandem master who was strapped to me did a backflip into the open air. My eyes were closed and my heart dropped when he did the backflip.

The next thing I knew, I was floating and I could see blue skies and the expansive horizon before me. I loved the magnificent views and the serenity from the silence that greeted me from high above! I felt the rushing wind while taking in as much of the view as I can with a smile that could have cracked my face wide open.

I won’t forget marveling at the sea of clouds beneath me, the ocean kissing the shore and the breathtaking aerial view of Byron Bay. It was sensational and the most alive I have ever felt. At that moment, I felt free as a bird like I could do anything. I was flying over people like Supergirl, for goodness sake! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just a crazy woman who jumped out of a plane!

After experiencing the most glorious seconds of my life in mid-air, I wondered why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere all day every day. Then I thought about people and how we’re so shackled by our preconceptions and fears. If I went with my fears that kept screaming: “Jump out of a plane? Me?! I must be out of my mind! I could fall to my death,” I would have been thinking “if only” instead of saying “I can and so I did”.

After conquering my fear of heights in the most epic way, I came to the conclusion that
daredevils may die early but the cautious don’t live at all. Now I constantly challenge myself and try to let go of my inhibitions to enjoy life freely even in cases when my conservative and overly concerned Catholic family might disapprove. Wear a bikini to the beach? Watch me flaunt what I got. Bathe nude in a Japanese hot spring with other nude women like it’s totally normal? I got this. It’s liberating to be comfortable in my own skin. Most importantly, now I know that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want to and that I’ve got the smarts and the heart to make it happen.

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Letting Go in Kyoto, Japan

On a high-speed train to Kyoto from Tokyo, I mention to my son we will be walking Philosopher’s Walk, a stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Also known as Tetsugaku no michi, named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers.

Our timing was impeccable, in early April the enchanted cherry trees explode with color. I tell my seventeen-year-old son, there is a chance you might discover the meaning of life. We will be walking in the footsteps of many great philosophers who have plodded down this very path for centuries. He gave me the Here-we-go-again, look. I could see it written in his rolling eyes, Mom-is-taking-me-to-another-museum. We have a history of travel trade-offs wherein I take him to historical sites, and in turn, I later yield to his penchant of more adventurous locations. I continued on and informed him how the path got its name.

When we arrived at the Philosopher’s Walk, we were greeted by a spiritual energy with an intense joy and radiance you could feel in the air. I could visualize philosophers pondering the curiosities of life and it strengthened my own critical thinking. My senses were invigorated while listening to the harmonious rustle of the trees swaying and gazing at the extraordinary beauty of the fluttering pink petals showering onto the slow moving water and stepping-stones in the creek beside the path. Perhaps I now understand how it got its name, as it certainly made me think. There was light permeating through the aged branches illuminating my way as bumblebees buzzed in my ear, reminding me to stop ignoring my own nature and make that necessary connection to the ever-present nature around me.

For me, the freedom of ‘letting go’ has always been a challenge. I am frequently in on-the-go mode. Lately, I simply remind myself to stay in harmony with my own nature. In fact, Socrates, one of the most recognized philosophers in our time once said, Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” He reminds me that busyness can leave me feeling constrained.

The idea of simplicity and naturalness startled me with its direct approach on this path of enlightenment. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of the harmony between one’s self and nature. In fact, I believe this is what our ancient fathers of philosophy discovered. Nature and its healing powers, soothe and restore us to balance. Nature and all its wonders has become a mysterious living space that exists and yet we still struggle to define or grasp the therapeutic powers it provides. The philosophers of long ago applied these theories to their own lives and have taught them to us for millennia through their writing. Still, somehow, I continue to complicate nature and the autonomy it represents with future plans and past regrets, but I doubt that I am alone in this.

An inner peace arrives when I surrender to the present moment, specifically, when I stop and reestablish my place in my natural surroundings. When my distance from nature is realized, coming back to the present requires the ability to let go. However, it takes time to cognitively connect with this unseeable realm and make it a daily priority.

My son interrupted my deep-thinking and reflective moment and made the kind of sarcastic comment that only a teenager can dredge up, Wow! This place is incredible . . . Not! He wandered ahead on the square-stoned path delicately covered in cherry blossom petals. A few minutes later, he circled back with a change of mind to inform me of the moss garden, temples, and cafes along this streamside path. He had chatted with a professional photographer who informed him the canal was built during the Meiji Period in order to revitalize the stagnating local economy, and was used to power Kyoto and Japan’s first hydroelectric power plant. He whispered, How cool is that! The ability of a teenager to make his mother’s heart plummet and soar in the space of a heartbeat, should never be underestimated.

As I take the constrained high-speed train on its strictly defined path away from my newfound sanctuary, there is ample time to reflect and collect my swirling unrestrained thoughts. Gazing out the window on Hiroshima, I had another Joycean epiphany — the fleeting, surreal moments walking Philosopher’s Walk had left a mark on my heart. As I travel, I learn more about myself and continue to find the freedom to simply stop and smell the fragrant flowers and bask in the sunshine that brought them to me. I believe my natural surroundings hold answers to the meaning of life. It is my job to trust the invisible force that surrounds me as I live, walk, and exist within its mystery.

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Travel Light and Let Go in Peru

“I will not be the reason that they don’t go on this trip.” His words, just a memory to me now, still sting like alcohol on a wound. I was fortunate enough to see him in his last few days, but it did not—could not—take the pain out of losing him. My Grandpa died three days after his 95th birthday, and just three days before I boarded the plane for Peru.

Rewind four weeks and you’d find me, sitting in the grass. Alone. I’d just graduated college, and I’d also just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. In that moment, alone in the grass, I’d thought I was experiencing the worst pain of my life… my first true heart break. Looking back now, I realize it was just the unfamiliar, momentarily uncomfortable, feeling of letting go, of freeing myself.

I’d bought a new journal just for the trip. Spiral bound with a red leather cover. On it’s first page I’d placed an old photo of my Grandpa. I’d asked my nearest and dearest to write me notes on the following first few pages. Knowing I’d be home sick—knowing I’d, at some point, need the words of encouragement to reflect on when the going got tough. When I sat on the first flight of the day, I decided to read them all. An instant pang hit my chest remembering I’d asked my ex-boyfriend to write me something. Half of me wanted to rip it out that instant, the winning half decided to read it once, and never again.

I’d known about a week before we left that my backpack was overstuffed. If you’ve ever read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, it was an identical twin to her “Monster.” I had a hard time discerning between the things I wanted, the things I needed, and the things I couldn’t bare to be without—in packing, and in life. So, I packed everything. Once we hit the trail, I truly started cursing my inability to leave, and let go of, what I didn’t need. (For reference: I had a teddy bear, books I knew I’d never read, a literal pound of raw cashews, and three of my ex’s shirts because I “wanted him with me”… Ick.)

I struggled, wobbled, winced, and damn near cried, for the first hour of our trek on the Inca Trail. I was embarrassed, and worse, disappointed in myself. While I wasn’t certain I’d have the physical strength to breeze through this hike, I thought I had the mental strength to push through. My brother, two years older than me, and kind to the core, took me by my shoulders. “If you can’t do this you’ll have to turn around and go back down by yourself,” he told me “you can do it Marge, just stop getting in your own way.”

This became my mantra for the hike. In rhythm with my steps I’d say to myself, “get out of your own way.” By the end of the second day I’d found a strength inside myself, a willingness to let go of the disappointment that I wasn’t an expert hiker—or packer for that matter. A decision to let myself off the hook for not being what I’d envisioned, and an allowance to make peace with the fact that I was, truly, doing my best.

As the trail weaved on I lightened my load. At each pass I’d dole out cashews to fellow hikers. A heaven-sent porter from our guide group offered to carry my sleeping bag to alleviate some weight from my pack. By the time we got to our last camp site I had also given away all of my ex-boyfriend’s shirts. I’d discovered, at last, that I didn’t need them—didn’t need him—anymore. I was ready to take my final steps on the trail. Ready to reach Machu Picchu.

I felt lighter, physically, and emotionally.

I’m a big believer that the ones we love send us signs that they’re ok, that their spirit is at peace. While I hadn’t verbally asked my Grandpa to send me one, I believe he somehow intrinsically knew that I needed one. We walked around the grounds of Machu Picchu taking in all that it had to offer, the views, the history, the alpacas… Finally, we sat down to take a breath. No sooner did I land in the grass than a tiny butterfly landed right on my knee. Grandpa, was my first thought. I caught it in my hands for a moment, chin quivering, and smiled. I believed he was at peace, and for the first time in a long time, so was I.

I opened my hands, and it set it free, watching it fly away from me.

Freedom, for me, was letting go.

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Skiing to Freedom

Jules Older

During the winter of 1981, normally peaceful New Zealand was ripped apart by rugby. The government had permitted the Springboks, apartheid South Africa’s national rugby team, to tour New Zealand, playing against our revered All Blacks.

“Ripped apart” isn’t hyperbole — the tour pitted brother against sister, parent against child, Maori tribes against each other. We talked of nothing else; think the Simpson trial, the Bush-Gore election and Trump vs. Clinton all rolled into one heated argument. After a surfeit of demonstrations, police baton charges and 24/7 news coverage, I took my family to the mountains for five days of peace.

We settled into a big, rustic ski-club hut with an amiable group of strangers. For four days, we never spoke of The Tour — and never spoke of not speaking of it. When one guy broke this tacit vow of silence and weighed in with his opinions, he was swiftly and firmly shut up by the friends he’d come with. Instead of national politics, we spoke of the reflection of the Southern Alps in the blue waters of Lake Tekapo, of sunshine and soft snow, of how fast our children were learning to ski.

Ten years later, I spent a week skiing with the National Brotherhood of Skiers at the bi-annual Black Summit in Park City, Utah. The 1991 Summit coincided with the second week of the War in the Gulf. Though every other topic was thrashed and trashed, though most of us were grabbing snippets of CNN at every chance, though some folks had relatives battling tanks in desert sands, the taboo against talking about the war was every bit as strong as the silence in New Zealand a decade before. Instead, we spoke of the splendors of the Wasatch, the terrors of Jupiter Peak, the pleasures of lunch on the sun-soaked deck of Mid-Mountain Lodge.

I offer these examples as evidence of the freedom of skiing. Both in the Southern Alps and the Wasatch Range, we set ourselves free from the angst, the anger and the arguments that raged back home.
What is it about skiing that lifts this sport out of the ordinary and and lets it set us free?

The first step to freedom is getting away from the humdrum of ordinary life. And to ski, almost everyone has to purposely go somewhere, to leave home. That, alone, sets it apart from softball and billiards and golf.

Not only do you have to leave town to ski, you must go to the mountains. Long before the Sermon on the Mount, long before Moses climbed Mount Sinai to collect the Ten Commandments, long before Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, mountains have been hallowed places. Maybe it’s because you have to struggle (“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder”) to reach the peak, maybe because they’re the closest points on Earth to heaven. Whatever the cause, mountains are sacred. And the sacred, the holy, brings with it a feeling of escape from the ties that bind us down below.

We also get a feeling of glorious freedom from scenic beauty. Framed by cerulean sky, green-needled trees and the incredible whiteness of snow, skiing is a pastime of exalted beauty.

But location, no matter how vertiginous and comely, is mere backdrop. I believe it is the sport, itself, that really frees mind and spirit. Ever try to figure your taxes while traversing a steep trail? No? How about planning a sales pitch while tree skiing? Not that either? What makes skiing extraordinary is that it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else while you’re doing it. Skiing is all-consuming; it demands total attention. And not just on how to get through the next twist in the trail. Often the focus is the giddy, lightheaded feeling that comes when your turns are round, your skiing effortless and your skis carving perfect arcs through perfect snow.

One final example. The day I most needed the freedom of skiing was on September 13, 2001, forty-eight hours after thousands of Americans were massacred on American soil. During those hours, I wandered between the computer, NPR and CBS. My wife and I did a lot of hugging. We spoke to our far-flung daughters three, four times a day. My voice was rough with grief. My heart — my whole body — felt weighed down by sorrow. My predominant feeling oscillated between massive hurt and burning rage.

Again, I took to the hills, this time to Whitefish, Montana and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Again, skiing freed my troublin’ mind.

In New Zealand and Utah, Montana and Vermont; during division and disturbance, destruction and death, skiing has brought me peace. Peace and freedom.

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