Clearing the air

Los Angeles: the city of angels, a false idol, a circle of smog. Irvine: quintessential suburbia, the safest city in America. Laguna Beach: a beautifully Mediterranean yet tightly packed coastal community that was featured on reality TV in a past life.

These images don’t necessarily summon any kind of escape with a clarity-seeking intent. They are not exactly epitomes of quiet, monastic living, nor of the natural sorts of havens I tend to crave.

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And yet, while visiting both places this past week, I found the kind of headspace on which I’ve been scrambling to get a grip.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. For one thing, the pockets of this area I chose to step into – Griffith Observatory, the Last Bookstore, my friends’ impossibly surfy apartment in Irvine – did hold the promise of stillness and creativity.

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For another, over the course of this year, I have been trying to believe that one can find space to breathe, to think, and to simply be just about anywhere. But it’s a hard thing to absorb at home, and especially at home in the city. Packed tight as it is, some of us tend to wiggle into roles that barely fit us, and then wonder why it is so hard to relax and be ourselves. No one ever told us that it was possible to seek out a different role without dropping everything and starting over. But truly, who can afford to drop everything in such a dramatic way?

There are certain parts of American culture that ring with the heaviness of mythology, and to me, this is one of them; that is, the idea that in order to become yourself, you must go west, or east, or elsewhere – get away from your past self, escape your old life.

There is some truth in this story. Experiencing other cultures, for example – even traveling to another, unexplored American region – adds such layers and depths to what we think we know. It does one more good than ill to have one’s frame of reference flipped. If I had enough money, I would fund a semester abroad for everyone I know.

But the need to be elsewhere, alone, to be free? The idea that we are all rugged individuals? That, I am increasingly convinced, is a myth, and an occasionally dangerous one.

That said, I am also more and more convinced that the reality is better than the myth.

By this, I mean that coming to learn the truth of oneself – who you are, who you were made to be – can happen at home, turning an environment of relative discomfort into something not unlike home.

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This is a hard lesson that I am still learning, and perhaps will never cease to learn. But there’s a richness there, and it eased this visit to a place I did once call home.

Orange County was a place where I had a challenging time finding peace. California, of all places, is supposed to be where you can try anything and be anyone. But inner pressures and hidden corridors within oneself – when they remain closed, sealed, and locked – make those possibilities seem impossibly distant. Even if they are actually within reach. Perhaps especially when they are within reach.

For example, I’ve known I was wired to be a writer for essentially my entire life. I’ve also known I’m interested in health, wellness, and food culture for quite awhile. There is no shortage of opportunity to pursue these on the West coast, but fear is an amazingly good roadblock.

One year later, not much has changed in Orange County, at least not visibly. And, granted, one week is not quite enough time to dig up anything meaningful.

But the main big change – that happened within, and it is a continuing process. The change was of my outlook, which is vastly different than before. This is partially because this visit was a break from my daily reality. Yet even in observing the uglier points of LA and OC – traffic, smog, homelessness, suburban sprawl, and corporate dominance – the beauty peeked through. It was not – is not – entirely lost.

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You open yourself up to it – to the beauty.

Back home in Virginia, nothing much is new: there are more holiday decorations sprinkled about, and it’s about 10 degrees colder, with a more intense wind chill. We are all a step closer to the unpromised maybes and hopes of a new year.

And what lingers within, in this moment, does not have to completely disappear, even as it fades. It is as true for a season of love and light as it is for an adventure away from home. There is the excitement of creating something new out of what once seemed drained and empty, per LA’s Grand Central Market.

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There is the emergence of the natural through the cracks in the pavement, as is happening slowly in Costa Mesa.

And there is the idea that, maybe, new life can exist where it was never thought possible. That maybe, by working within certain confines, you can come to find that there is more than one way to be your limitless self.

To me, that is the reality. I’ll take it over the myth any day.

How to get free: step one is to run

I run quite a lot. Not to an ultramarathon extent, or, frankly, even a marathon one, but maybe a little more than what’s considered average. It’s the path I’ve chosen for over 12 years now; while there’s no real physical reason to have kept with it this long, it’s proven to be mentally and emotionally stabilizing, so there it stays, a mainstay of my days. Give me a quiet morning, a riverside trail, and a solid pair of trainers, and I’m at peace for the rest of the day. Or at least a few hours, anyway.

Over and over again, this is about overcoming inertia. Not just of my physical self, but of my mental and emotional selves, too. It takes trying (and/or trials) to get something new out of running, and likewise, out of life. We alone contain our brightest ideals and shadowiest fears, and the work of overcoming inertia is that of choice. Do I choose to believe in the bleakness, or in the brightness? Do I choose balance? What will it be today?

Running through the woods is beneficial, yes, but only when I choose to (a) actually do it and (b) put my heart (and lungs) into it. Or, as some say, “embrace the pain.” What I mean is, even though it’s a habit, sometimes it’s still a hard choice to make. But it’s rare that I regret choosing it.

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Sometimes that pain-resisting instinct – the one that makes decisions difficult – is part of my running and regular life at the same time.

For example: have you ever used physical pain to try and numb the emotional kind? I have, more times than I can count. The worst time was a sunny spring day in Southern California – mid-morning, dusty, and hot. Deciding to go far and fast enough to escape seemed helpful at mile one, but by mile four or five, there was a sinking realization that I wasn’t getting anywhere good. Just angrier, thirstier, and more confused.

It’s too easy to forget that pain can have purpose, and so much of life can be redeemed from its dark corners. Avoidance, resistance – can there truly be resilience when those two lead the way?

No, but a hard look at oneself – embracing that pain – can change everything.

Sometimes when you face the hard things, you come out on top.  There was another run on the North Shore of O’ahu, where I was living at my hanai aunt’s and dogsitting for the summer, on a gut-wrenching trail frequented by those who want to reward their physical efforts with a gorgeous sweeping view.

The day before I took on this steep switchback had been a tough one, workout-wise, and my legs were zapped. Yet somehow it seemed right, on this particular day, to get submerged in the thick greenery, choke down just one more bite of challenge.

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It was a rainy morning – not a rarity here, but still captivating in a gentle way. Permissive, not foreboding. It said, “Go ahead. It’s okay to feel this. This harsh uncertain feeling. It will be useful to you.” The grade was steep and the rocks were slippery, but the end of the climb did not disappoint. Gasping for air, already tired after three miles straight up, I looked across the expanse, to the ocean and the trees and the island rolling out in its majesty.

The challenge was redeemed. As they always are, even though it’s hard to see in the thick of it.

I like to think that’s what is so compelling about the natural world, even in a time when we live in houses and apartments and, generally, places with walls and roofs. Our spirits – they belong to the forests, the oceans, the rivers, and we can see ourselves more clearly there. Through the refracted light of the clerestory and canopy. A long trail jaunt, instead of a means of running away, becomes one of redemption.

Here are some of the places I find that respite in the city:

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  • Pony Pasture (pictured above), a beautiful quiet place by the James.
  • Buttermilk Trail, for when you want to disappear for a few hours and be absorbed in the natural world. The ups and downs and obstacles make for a better adventure than I ever dreamed I’d find here.
  • Monument Avenue, aka the street where we live. Can’t get better cushioning than eight miles of straight grass.

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  • Bryan Park (pictured above), not for mileage but for peace. This is a gem.
  • Byrd Park, a quick jaunt south on Boulevard from us. Makes me feel like I’m in a bigger city, and the fitness loop is pretty fun!

And for you globetrotters, some faraway faves mentioned in this post:

Eastward expansion*, part 2

*My filmmaking friend (and fellow East coaster) Brittany gave me this phrase, in case you’re wondering. She a forward-thinking, fun, and talented producer/photographer/videographer who is also kick-ass at life and at being a friend. I do not exaggerate when I say that I would not have survived California without her.

Today, she came to mind because I am thinking about the ways we need each other, and especially how being honest about that need makes it possible to experience what may have seemed very not-possible.

This part of the story is a little longer, but only because I don’t know how I could extricate one part from the rest. But I do know that Rogerson Service came first.

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Rogerson is also apparently home to the second best water in the country. Coming from Cali, ya, I’d say it was pretty righteous

That place is the best dang gas station in the United States (probably). But, I imagine that if you’re reading, you’re wondering what a service station/café/convenience store has to do with anything. That’s not unlike what I wondered when we stopped there to look for firewood on our way to Lud Drexler Park.

It turned out to be more relevant than relevant – a piece of Magic Valley magic, perhaps? – as it was where an amazing, hardworking woman named Terri hooked us up with two nights’ worth of logs, no charge, courtesy of her friend who had just chopped it that day. Magic, indeed. Not sure I’ve ever slept as well as I did that night.

Everything took a turn after that encounter. For one thing, since our campsite was a different one than I’d initially planned, we were slightly ahead of schedule. Eastern Montana was the intended stop, for no real reason other than the romanticization of Montana. So why not, instead, pass through part of Montana on the way to Yellowstone?

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cleansing in every sense

Why not? It’s only the most unparalleled preservation of beauty in the U.S.

It was rivaled, though, by Granite Pass. As we continued on to Sheridan, our route included this tricky, treacherous path through the Bighorn Mountains, and layers of ancient (truly, beyond ancient) sedimentary rock. It was terrifying, steep as the grades were, but fascinating and fun to learn about the different ages of the rocks that surrounded us. I guess, technically, most of the rock out there is prehistoric, but every section of it was marked here. Plus, how many areas can claim to be the home of certain dinosaur fossils? That alone was worth the danger. We might have missed out on a real marvel, otherwise.

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Photo courtesy of another blogger at Lincoln Highway Ride (http://www.lincolnhighwayride.com) because my hands were gripping the steering wheel too tight to snap one of my own

I read after getting back that the Bighorn Mountains are considered sacred to the Cheyenne. It’s easy to see why.

We skipped camping that night in favor of knowing where exactly we were. Even that had its unexpected pleasures, albeit smaller in scale. Java Moon was the main one: should you find yourself in Sheridan, this place and its DIY oatmeal are a must. And maybe finding yourself in Sheridan is a good idea in itself – we loved what we saw of the small town. It seemed like a remnant of a West that maybe only exists in our collective memory.

Or maybe it’s real, and vibrant, and filled with the most unexpected of people and places. That’s what will stick with me, anyway.

Places in this post:

Eastward expansion, part 1

Now that I’m about 2700 miles away from where I spent the last year, I’m sort of swimming in the retrospect. It almost feels as if that year in Orange County was an extended road trip. Since getting back to Virginia, I’ve kept stumbling over this sense that almost no time has passed, and I’m just picking up where I left off last October. That maybe, after my mom and I drove to Irvine and she flew back to Northern Virginia, my dad met up with me in Thousand Oaks just a week later, and we drove back together.

It’s an idea I find interesting in a lot of contexts: what if the reality you think you’re living is not entirely … real? If perception is reality, then this is both true and untrue.

This sense also may be a sense that comes with the territory when you travel through a thousand towns in the space of a week or less. And at a time of year, too, that drags along with it a particular breed of nostalgia that no one can seem to escape.

Road trips, man. They make you think. (Maybe too much. Or maybe not enough.)

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My dad (Tom!) and I left Southern California on a Friday; on that Friday, we landed in Mammoth Lakes. We had our first (gentle) encounter with plans and un-plans there. (For this trip, anyway.)

It started with our campsite, Lower Deadman: I found out just a few days before our departure that it was closed. Apparently, it likes to snow in the mountains. That was easy to solve, though: we just decided to look for a new one once we were near Mammoth.

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Once we arrived to the beautiful gorgeous place, no exaggerations, we started asking around about the Hilltop Hot Springs. We ended up finding not only the route, thanks to the clerk at the health food store, but also the Mammoth Brewing Company. Not exactly a secret spot, but not a place either of us had heard of, either. In an age of Internet research and experiential travel, that’s kind of refreshing. Serendipitous.

We didn’t taste but a few, but if you get the chance to try the fruits of their labor, I heartily recommend their seasonal beers, especially the Owens Valley Wet Harvest Ale. I thought it was the perfect fall beer – a black IPA with just enough bite and a warm, toasty finish. Just be sure to be really hydrated if you’re drinking it at altitude. (Another new lesson I learned…)

As for the Hot Springs, they can be found by turning off the 395 by a green church just south of the Mammoth Lakes airport. If you drive down the dirt road and pass two cattle grates, at the bottom of a hill, there they will be. Not to be missed if you’ve been hiking, skiing, or sitting in a car all day (ouch).

hot springs folks

And you probably will be sharing the space, so get ready for good conversations with strangers, which was what we got, too. I always get nervous at those kinds of situations, anticipating what people will think, but maybe everyone gets like that. Either way, there was no need: our group was wonderfully relaxed, welcoming, and happy. We even got to meet the Internet-famous Anais + Dax (pictured above!).

Planning the trip was exciting, perhaps only because I didn’t have much else to do at the time, but each day, I learned again that the best parts are the detours that you could never plan. A platitude? Sure. But a true one. Maybe that’s why it’s a platitude at all.

Part two to come!

People and places in this post: