We're not much older now

In the morning I made acquaintances with the North Fork of the Payette River in Idaho. It felt like meeting the other woman.

So there you are. I've heard a lot of good things about you. Yeah. Yeah. Nice to meet you too. Do you smoke? No? Do you mind if I do?

By three in the afternoon I was halfway home. Through the arid edges of Oregon. Into the dessert of Eastern Washington, the dark Columbia river, seat belt burning welts into my excruciating sunburn. Road sign by road sign, the city inches closer.

It's dark when I reach Snoqualmie Pass on 1-90. Rain and traffic and the highway spreads out to 5 lanes. Freedom, by Jonathon Franzen, my 24 hour audio book companion, comes to an end. I surprise myself by bursting into tears with the last line. I cry for every miserable character in the book.

I'd like to make it clear to the reader that, regardless of any conclusion they may have drawn during paragraph 2, I do not actually smoke cigarettes. 

And the North Fork was not entirely like meeting the other woman. I take poetic license. Another woman would be a lot worse. She'd be most certainly prettier than me, and more flexible. Still, being left behind for a geological formation brings with it its own serving of confusing ramifications.

But now I'm merging onto 1-5 and swinging around the bend with the city on my left. There is the purple jagged outline of the Olympic Range, the houseboat moored on the private docks of lake union, cars zipping in strips of white and red light reflecting off wet pavement.

There is the University where I went to school, the famous library, almost gothic, visible from the interstate. There's the house where I lived, the ugly half-high-rise dormitory, playing fields, the ave, 45th street crossing, restaurants, smoke shops, Cafe zokas, that will be 4.75 for the cup of coffee please, ridiculous neon bubble tea houses with twelve different kinds of jelly and tapioca balls to choose from, Asian pop music videos on an enormous HD screen.

The Ave above 50th, where a vagrant man threw up on my shoes one afternoon, I think it was deliberate. The 85th/Green Lake exit with its clusterfuck of double strollers,  too thin moms bopping along behind them throwing dirty looks around to anyone who dares cross their path and slow down their timed-to-the-second 2.8 mile run. The 2nd busiest starbucks in the world (2nd to Tokyo)  my cousins' recently purchased house where I've been sending letters to for 5 months, the CHINA KING buffet where my sister and I would eat after every minor disaster (SARS, 16 day bouts of insomnia, a 1/2 burned apartment, minor mishaps with the stove top burners, unreturned phone calls from boys who should have married us although, in Anna's case, he did marry her after all, worrisome mouth sores, sparsely attended music gigs.)

There's the house where I dug through a pile of my then boyfriend's possessions and unearthed a stack of letters, the parking lot where the car hit me on my bike, the Emergency Room  at Swedish where they just about issued me a speed pass, the secret studio where Pearl Jam records, and Dave Matthews. The letters were signed by another girl and dated back for more than a year. The city buses where days in a row I sat next to a different crazy man who bled profusely from the head.

More than six years of small crimes and contentment punctuated with beads of pure joy. Where I lived, age 17-23. 

But I don't need to explain to you how it feels to be back.
Whoever you are, you've left a place and then returned. You know what it's like. All I'm really saying is, it's good to be home.

Saw Tooth

After the first artist, only the copyist
- Renny Russell 

For anyone who has a love that's returned, whose love is not spread out over mountains or poured into rivers, I envy you. I remember sleeping next to my buddy beneath the covers and and breathing in his smell of soap, detergent, sweat and dirt. Thinking that this one would last. That this was the smell I would inhale for the rest of my nights. Getting used to sleeping alone, with no one to throw an arm around in the middle of the night, legs kicking in space, my body curled into a useless crescent around a memory, this had taken some getting used to. But you adjust. There are your pillows to take the place, blankets, books to divert your attention, pills if you need them. But camping alone is the hardest. Alone in your tent, your back flat and rigid against the hard ground, feathers and nylon and foam protecting you from rocks and roots. You breath a white mist into the cold air, curling deeper into your sleeping bag. Trying to block out the dark, the quiet, the memories of a warm buddy next to you. Your ears are hyper sensitive to the sounds of clicking animals and cracking twigs, footprints, strangers, avalanches. And your exhausted heart keeps running over the well worn memories of your buddy lying next to you in a red sleeping bag. Resting your head on his chest as he wraps you in warmth.  Do you remember what it's like to be woken up to the sound of rock falling in the valley? You imagine the rocks gaining momentum, smashing into your tent. The whole hillside rolling away. You turn over and bury your face into his neck. "Just a rock fall," he says, not quite awake but still aware of your fear, kissing you on top of the head. Camping alone has been hard ever since I left my buddy. Keeping the fire going and running out the batteries in the lamp, rearranging the things inside the tent to try and fill the space.  But gradually its gotten easier just as everything gets easier. Think of a fire lulling down to coals. You become familiar with being just by yourself again. Looking after yourself. It does become bearable again.

So why did I go to Idaho, and be reminded? I got down on the ground and stirred at the embers and fed them pure oxygen. A glowing tent on a deep blue lake so far off the trail no one could ever find us. That splendid heart I once pretended to know. My buddy. His long arms that cast a flyfish reel in wide arcs and gutted the fish and folded me against him like origami.  Why pick at the scar that had come so close to healing, why, why, why.  I sat by the lake the morning of our second day in the Sawtooths, drinking coffee, knowing very simply that we would never be together. I know I love him beyond reason, I miss him more than any other person or thing on the planet.  I know that this is the very end, and, I guess, the time when everything starts over for me.

Never Been afraid of the Quiet Godsy

I pulled off the freeway in Iowa city and parked in town for an hour, long enough to get a polite but undemanding parking citation folded beneath the windshield wiper. Iowa city is home to the most famous and sought after fiction workshop in America- information that matters only to fiction writers, or more accurately the tiny circle within a circle of fiction writers who go to school, and then more school, and then more school. It is widely argued that any years spent earning a degree in writing is just a delay of the inevitable absence of money, friends and sobriety that mark the lifestyle of professional writers, but Iowa nevertheless boasts an impressive resume of novelists and success stories.

I found the town subdued, heavy with the pervasive Mid West quiet I'd read about in Jonathon Franzen and Jane Smiley novels. The students walking to and from class, their steps and movements muffled beneath clogs and Iowa branded sweatpants, were either so completely thoughtless or so completely lost in their own thoughts that they just plodded down the sidewalks, accumulated neatly at the intersections and crossed the streets in small herds with pleasant looks on their corn fed faces. Nobody said a word. Even the cigarette smoking tough kids with tattoos spiderwebbing over their very exposed flesh seemed to be quite unobtrusive and ash tray abiding. The Godsy people with their Godsy pamphlets sat on the edge of the tree lined promenade with ankles crossed beneath denim skirts and minded their own business, and frankly I felt the need to punch a wall with my first, or lay on the horn, or somehow break the feeling that I was walking underwater.

Later, still in Iowa, I pulled off at a rest stop as the afternoon rolled into early evening. I had a deadline I had to type up and get in before Iowa's free interstate Internet vanished into the decidedly crappier facilities of Nebraska. In the cool, white room, two boys walked in circles, glancing at the laminated maps for many more minutes than the maps would actually demand, unless they were very, very lost, which they didn't appear to be. They were both about my age and looked friendly, one was even cute in the shaggy haired climber boy look that never fails to get my attention.

But their presence distracted me and I typed with only a portion of the attention I needed, hitting the delete key often and wondering why anyone would linger at a public bathroom off of 1-80 in the center of Iowa. They hovered in front of the posters of innocuous grain-production trivia on the walls and didn't appear to be waiting for anyone. Finally, after circling the room twice more like a lazy fish, one of the two boys approached me. He was the less good looking of the two, with the slightly mousy features and uncertain facial hair you often see on the miserable fathers who star in Teen Mom.

"Sorry...." he began and I looked up, eyebrows raised, braced for whatever unappetizing proposition he had in mind. "This is going to sound weird. But you are absolutely gorgeous."

I stared at him for a moment. The fact that he could have been a nice normal guy saying something benignly sweet didn't even register, because I knew as an inarguable fact that I was, at that particular moment in time, a couple of galaxies away from 'gorgeous'. Even with my normal amount of self loathing, I still felt relatively unbiased and neutral on the subject of my current appearance. My hair was sticky with pool chlorine and the space beneath my eyes were puffy with sleeplessness and punctuated by the double indent of sunglasses. And the clothes I was wearing were the type of purely-for-function attire you pick out when you can bet your life on nobody talking to you besides the hotel desk clerk.

"Thanks," was what I ended up saying, and turned back to my computer screen so quickly that the boy had little choice other than to turn slowly on his heal and walk away. The fact that he left without a hint of protest, and with a smile that was undeniably kind, made me feel like a total asshole. The kind of self defeating person who dreams of attracting attention from anyone, strangers, anyone, but dismisses it immediately when it (so rarely) comes. I finished my work, shut the screen and got back into my car. 4:15 pm and 700 more exits until the great plains would give way to something from something alien, moonscapey, but nonetheless faintly Western.

Wishing Lord that I was Home

She didn't think she would become the type of person who took pictures of broken and abandoned structures across America to make some point about nothingness and existence, but she did. At every gas station across the great plains, as she wiped the windshield free of insect bodies and butterfly innards, she spotted another desolate something to aim her lens at, an old hotel or restaurant, their signs toothless with missing letters, right angled against the brown and bronze striped landscape. The fact that three years ago this type of grotesquely open, unfamiliar landscape would have left her feeling empty, and more than slightly nauseous with homesickness, made the flat calm she felt today contrast with such defiance that she smiled to herself in victory. Her softy-soft summer was over and done and she had developed at least some semblance of inner coarseness, or aloofness, a light but effective callous over the parts of her she used to pick at until they oozed.

The fact that this sort realization, a realization of one's own inability to be so thoroughly defeated as to never stand up again, is a hallmark of anyone in their twenties who bothers to do even an inch of self reflection- that this sort of watered down self-epiphany has been the catalyst for countless tattoo artists to ink countless butterflies and Chinese characters into the ankles the lower backs of girls who will later pull down the waistline of their jeans to expose their branded skin while using terms 'road trip' and 'metamorphosis' interchangeably- this didn't bother her one bit. Nor did it dampen her enthusiasm to know (and she did know, somewhere in the tightly wound coil in her brain that every now and then grew hot with cynicism and annoyance for herself and everyone else she knew) that this type of solo motor trip, from the painfully bleached motel towels that can be thrown on the floor for someone else to pick up, to the wandering and often erotic thoughts that the mind churns out after being alone for 26 hours- was not anything new, by any standards, or unique, and didn't hold enough profundity to keep a candle flame glowing.

That's the thing about being all by yourself, you can think whatever you want without letting the unoriginality of your thoughts become a bother.

The very impracticality and social irresponsibility of driving yourself alone across 3,ooo miles and the notion that people like her- those who knew better but did it anyway- were the very reason the world was going to such hell, had very little impact at the moment. Every mile of her trip was selfish and solely for the purposes of her benefit. It was perfect, dangerous in the generic sort of way, and indulgent, and felt unreasonably earned.

The Big Midwest Fiction Blur

The autobiographer would like to point out that she has already outperformed her last road trip due to the fact that she has not yet mistaken a public fountain as a jacuzzi.

The autobiographer would also like to point out that, at somewhere West of Chicago, she is making relatively good time.

As well she would like to make it public knowledge that she has not yet bought any food. No hamburgers, no gum, no milk shakes, no chips, no snacks of any sort. For this she would like some recognition. She would also like a hamburger.

Amazing how listening to the latest Great American Novel and 1,000 miles on the same highway just makes the Midwest slide by outside the window. At night the waters of the hotel pool are so thickly chlorinated that when she immerses herself she feels instantly medicated. Alone in the water, again, she slips down and lets the water close above her. So many cities circumnavigated today. Cleveland, Toledo, musical Chicago, fearful Detroit. New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois. A sign, out of nowhere, illogically, towards Memphis Tennessee.

The autobiographer thinks it would be prudent to sleep now.

Today, Wednesday.

Today. Wednesday. I am sitting in the cafe of a bookstore pretending I am in Paris, France. I've been there twice before. I broke my school's "buddy policy" which was never enforced and explored it myself. It was evening, rainy, I remember riding the metro and feeling a little thrill of escape- I could never come back again! But then I was robbed by the police of almost $200, and I decided maybe I wasn't ready to make a break for it in France. I was fifteen.


The man working behind the counter, an effeminate boy with an androgynous name and curly hair down to his shoulders, is telling his friend about buying rope. He is squeezing chocolate syrup in a wavy pattern across the whipped cream of her drink. "I've been saving up for it," he tells her. "A nice long length of rope."

In my head I'm thinking, he wants this rope so he can hang himself. In my ideal world, everybody is constantly saying interesting things, even if it means some of them are wanting to off themselves. But he seems perfectly cheerful, and there is such a harmless manner about him with his glasses and porcelain bone structure. "A length of rope is just a good thing to have around." His friend, a stocky girl dressed in black and wearing a horrific necklace made from a ring and two strips of leather, nods in agreement and sticks her face into the whipped cream.

"This drink is going to make me very happy." She informs him.

And then he says, "A pizza cutter is also a good investment."

The truth is, I haven't traveled alone much, but I bet I wouldn't like it. I love myself just fine but I really, really love the people I travel with. Step across the ocean with me and instantaneously, you become more interesting and elegant, more beautiful, a better story teller, more photogenic, a better conversationalist, all sorts of things. You will become my favorite group of people in the whole world and everything we encounter is brilliant and worthy of the envy of others. This is with the notable exception of Quincy Saul and Mike Mann, who at the time of our trip to New Zealand were 16 and intolerable. By the time we made it to Mexico a few months later, we'd come up with some sort of treaty of silence and ignoring each other, and then they were alright.

Love on water

You never should have spent that winter by the ocean
alone in the windstorms beside the slowed surf
where you went walking each morning
over frozen sand
the sun bled over a pale sky, the stars tired holes
you told you would arrange driftwood, down
on your knees on the armory of ice
the patterns you made would stay for days, and days.


I wrote this poem when I was in college and yeah, I know that 'armory of ice' doesn't make sense. That's why we pay money to go to creative writing school, so we can be especially proud of a line and then be told by a room full of blank faced sophomores that our brilliant imagery is flawed. Same thing happened to me with a poem about kids growing up in the country 'at ease with their solidarity.' Solidarity, I learned, does not mean solitude. Sort of the opposite, actually.

The University of Washington sits more or less on the shores of the stormy Puget Sound, but that poem is actually written about the Atlantic- the slate colored, frigid waters of my memory. For a kid growing up on Boston Harbor, there is nothing as vast or terrifying as the ocean. My mother would take my sister and I to peer over the wall at Fisherman's wharf and look at the alien jellyfish floating below, and I would have nightmares for weeks. Even the bright red lobster lollipops from the fish warehouse were concerning.

As a junior in intermediate short story workshop held by a completely hairless sports writer, I wrote a story about a light house keeper on an island. He spent too much time alone listening to the waves pound at the shore and grew convinced that the ocean was a monster that was coming after him.

Such is my preoccupation with the waters of the Atlantic, fueled by the dark music I grew up listening to. I'm not sure whether or not I've mentioned it here before, but one of my idiosyncrasies is my nearly fetishistic love of maritime folk music of Maine and Nova Scotia. It still tops my playlist after 25 years. Songs of fishermen lost and tall ships wrecked in the winds and schooners decaying like skeletons beneath the sea. The Atlantic that eats ships and sails and men, winds that pick up the elements of life be them good or bad, crushes them to sand and spins them out to sea.

In my current state of existentialism and love-lost, I was eager to be heading towards Maine for a four day sea kayak trip off the coast of Acadia. It was the ideal time for me to navigate through rough waters, sit on the history soaked island, soak in salt spray and tap into my misery in a place that would understand it like none other.

But the Atlantic was nothing like what I had thought her to be. I found her to be resoundingly cheerful. My experience was something akin to my first drink:

When I was newly 21, something went wrong with a rent check or a boyfriend. Probably both because I didn't balance my check book and I was dating a big giant error in judgment. Either way, I went to the bar to have a drink. It was 2pm in the afternoon. I had never gone to a bar alone and never before 9pm. I was determined to sit there and be dark and morose. I hunched over the menu and ordered the first thing that looked decent and remained hunched until the drink arrived.

Which it did, promptly, served in a coconut, with a parasol and four plastic monkeys hung on the rim by their curling tails. The most fun, the most cheerful of all drinks ever to be served. My fault, surely, for going to Seattle's only Hawaiian inspired bar, but still a disappointment.

Now watch as I bring it back to my trip to Maine. I came to the islands ready to feel the darkness of the place. To feel the ache of fishermen losing their livelihoods and the widows and lost ships and the indifferent violence of the ocean that cares not for petty emotions. But the waters were calm and sunny and full of rowdy lobster men and seagulls. And the waves kept spewing heart shaped crap all over the shore, and I kept finding it.

There was more than this shell, of course, but it's the only thing I took pictures of. I tried to ignore them, the heart shaped rocks and rose colored sea and if those weren't obvious enough there was this. The girls were sleeping on the decks of their boat, there was nobody else on the island, no ships on the horizon, it was just me alone, taking a harmless walk along the shore, and I practically tripped over it:

Some previous visitor to the island had spent a long time on their hands and knees, carefully spelling it out above the intertidal zone where nothing could disrupt it, just in case some lone walker needed a mental pick-me-up.

That's it. All the cheerful omens of the universe are targeting me. Nowhere can I find my solitary respite to stew over the errors of my life and the love that blew away. I keep running across this stuff. Standing in front of the LOVE pile and feeling disgustingly inspired- I can't help it!- I had a grisly thought. It's only a matter of time before love shaped rocks turn into angel shaped kitsch. I'll begin finding inspiration in cherub trinkets and Precious Moments shit and soon it will be all over my house. I just know it. I'm destined to become a cheerfully oblivious older woman who wears lilac and shows pictures of grandchildren to uninterested strangers on airplanes. It's too much, it's all too much.

The last night, I retreated to my tent to escape the sea and all the pretty little tokens of love and hope it was spitting out. I turned on my contraband Ipod (I'm the only one who brought one, shallow to the core perhaps but no one is going to strip me of my right to listen to my sea shanties while in the Atlantic), stretched out on my sleeping bag and am pulled down by the most miserable song ever written. A song of women left behind by men who head out to sea.

What is a woman that you'd forsake her, and the hearth fire, and the home acre, to go with the old grey widow maker?

As someone who recently forsaken because the call of the river was just too tempting for someone- this really hits the spot.

She has no house to lay her guest in, but one chill bed for all to rest in, that the pale suns and the stray birds nest in. She has no strong white arms to fold you, but the fen times fingering weed to hold you, down in the dark, where the tide has rolled you.

The sea breeze was blowing over me and the sun was sinking. I felt my mood begin to plummet. I felt forsaken and insignificant. Finally! I was really starting to go through something when I felt a toe nudging me in the rib cage. I opened one eye. One of the girls was standing above me. She was holding a granola bar and hollering at me so I could hear over the music. "WE JUST WROTE A SONG ABOUT SEALS. WOULD YOU LIKE TO COME MAKE UP A RAP FOR IT?"

Gah. That sounded like fun. Cheerful little creeps.

This is what happens when I move South

Boone Abandoned

On my first trip to Boone, I dressed up as Winter for a Halloween party. You know...white glitter, vanilla eye shadow, white lingerie that my mother later found in the good will bag, held up by one finger and hollered MELINA WHAT IN HELL IS THIS!
Good people, bad decisions

Anyhow, the town seems to remember me, because I drove North with a fierce winter storm chasing me, as if attached to the antenna of my car like a tremendous kite. The moment I pulled into the driveway, the storm settled in after me.

It's been hailing, icing and snowing for days. The weather is throwing a serious temper tantrum. The grocery stores are closed, the schools are closed, even the bars are closed....and in Appalachia, that means something.

Moving in to my new place has been going less than snappy. My new home is on top of a long, steep, winding driveway, which is one of the things that drew me to the place to begin with. However, the town has not budgeted for plowing, and certainly not plowing nonhazardous private driveways. We will have to wait for it all to melt, then hack apart the fallen trees with a chain saw, before my subaru, Tobias, loaded up with my material life, will make it up. This will probably take a few weeks.
Will and Hometeam descending the driveway from my house

Which means in that for now....is that I'm literally camping in my own house. Sometimes I have power, sometimes I don't. I've taken whatever I can carry from the car- sleeping bag, radio, dog food, and my socks. (I have this thing about socks.) I made a pot of tortilla soup my first day here, and Will and I have been eating off of it for nearly a week now. Yesterday, unable to face the site of it in the bowl, I found all the vegetables in the house, diced them, threw them in the oven and ate those for dinner. Next up is the tortilla chip crumbs, followed by chewing on our leather belts. Good thing we'll be able to soak them in chicken broth first.

Today's look on the bright side equation:
Totally stuck (-) food (-) a way out (-) open grocery stores open =fabulous figure!
(Oh, and it's perfect weather for writing.)

I still can't figure out how I left VERMONT, home of the 'furious and forever' winter, drove 15 hours SOUTH and landed here....not just winter, but pure winter TURMOIL. At least in Vermonters plow the road and are handy with the salt bags!

Good morning America, how are you?

At 4:30 in the morning I am scraping down the deep ruts of frozen Vermont dirt roads, car headed South, Arlo Gurthrie singing City of New Orleans on the radio. My Subaru is packed to the gills with my old books, ratty clothes, kayaking gear, collection of board games, a notebook full of pictures of the people I left in Chile, and a box full of shells and stones that boys have given me.

Besides those things, my dog in the back seat, and a Pyranah playboat on the roof, I don't own much else. I'm also bringing with me the mysterious headaches, the pressure behind my eyes, the cruel stomach pain and the tingling in my feet, basically a body about as strong and resilient these days as a butterfly in a hurricane. They say if things aren't working out than you'd better change up the scene. Here's hoping I start to feel better in a college town in North Carolina that I'm moving to purely because I want to.

The first time I made this drive was a year last September; I arrived bleary-eyed and staggering after 17 hours on the road. I went directly to the Boone Saloon, had a neon-green midori sour and was blasted drunk for the rest of the night. I passed out, then spent the entire next day recovering from the drive.

Since then I've put more than a few notches in my fan belt, driving to and from West Virginia and North Carolina when I taught at New River. I once drove from Fayetteville, West Virginia to the Ottawa river in Canada in one fell swoop, with 4 teenage girls in the car. During the course of that 16 hours, three of them cried, one girl burned up with a fever that rose one degree through every county we passed through, and they played "Hoe Down Throw Down" by Miley Cyrus...on repeat. After that....well, safe to say it's only gotten easier. (Although a lot less interesting, and I miss those girls very much, and I do think that song is sort of kicky.)

Regardless, 15 hours on state highways, no fast food stops, I sail through the clear turquoise of morning, to the mottled cloud skies of a muted winter afternoon, straight on through to the deep electric blue of evening. When darkness closes in and the world narrows, I'm passing the welcome sign into North Carolina, saying out loud, "hey Carolina, I've been here before, do you know me yet?" Just as I pull into Boone, funny-looking clouds are starting to weep ice and slush, drenching the already ice-hobbled landscape.

It's a town deep in the depression of a surprisingly bitter and proficient winter. But to my it looks just rosy, glowing with possibilities. It's just a canvas, a blank slate, a clean start, twenty thousand mistakes I haven't made yet.

The last hoorah

I'm outside the city of Pucon, Chile, on my hands and knees on the dirt on the side of the road, fingernails digging into the dirt, throwing up. The tension in my skull is momentarily relieved. I can open my eyes without the evening sun gouging them. When I climb back into the car, Matt, Dave and Andy are silent. Someone rolls down their window.

I don't mind vomiting from a migraine. Besides providing a slight- albeit temporary- relief, I find it proves a certain point that is difficult to otherwise get across: just how cruel the pain inside your head really is. You can be curled up in fetal position on the couch, a sweatshirt tied around your eyes, hands clenching and unclenching in some sort of primal pain response. You can be crying, silently, and breathing in quick labored breath, or sitting in a cold shower with the lights off and your clothes on and still you get the same response: Headache? Do you want an Advil?

There you are, brain swelling until it bursts over and over, and someone offers you a pharmaceutical normally taken for muscle aches. It's is ludicrous. If you could, you would remove the sweatshirt and tell the person politely just how misguided they are. If you could, you'd ask them to go get you a hack saw so you could cut open the roof of your skull, give yourself a skylight into the brain, to relieve the pressure. You really would. But you can't talk, and you can't move.

But when you throw up, it's a new ball game. Your migraine thrusts itself rudely into the lives of others, comes out in the open. It's especially poignant when you are sharing a confined space with other people, such as a car, especially when you are driving back to another small cabin with a shared bathroom. Especially when your having to pull over and double over on the side of the road is making them late for something. Suddenly, they have to deal with your headache in a very real way. It's sort of satisfying.

Back at the our cabin, the 9 kids running around with sticks and a BB gun shooting at dogs, I walk with a scarf tied around my eyes to my bed, hands out in front of me, feeling along the walls. The kids want me to come play with them. I tell them no, as usual, that I'm not feeling well. As usual.

The modicum of relief allowed to me at the sacrifice of my dinner is gone. My head is filled with metal butterflies beating their barbed wings, banging around my skull looking for the way out. I can't help but buzz with bad metaphors. This thing in my head wants to be named, wants to be recognized. Just as I think the butterflies cannot beat their wings any faster, they open terrible mouths and sink their rows of shark teeth into my brain.

The butterflies are sharp and vicious- the stabbing, the fine bladed knife etching a story into my gray matter one letter at a time. But there is also another kind of pain, the dull, pulsing pressure. Picture a ball, the size of a baseball or a fist, rolling around the base of my skull. I tilt my head to the right, just the slightest bit to reposition on the pillow, and ball of pain rolls to the right, bangs to a stop. I turn my head to the left, it rolls heavy to the other side.

A parade of images is marching through my head. The dog I saw on the sidewalk today, blood seeping from a hole in its head. The dog wasn't exactly dead yet. It made the flies happy. There is sand in the sheets and the hot water is broken. Yesterday Andy washed his clothes with a stick in a bucket, later on I stood shivering in the same bucket throwing teacups of cold water over my hair. I think of stupid, irrelevant things. The bones in the chicken we were served at the Achibueno, the way I picked around them, the ligaments that we pulled out of our teeth. The time we ran out of gas on the highway and Dave, Andy and Matt ate from a bag of leftover turkey and bread, grease everywhere, using the hood of the car as a picnic blanket. I had lay in the grassy ditch near the highway, hungry, a headache swirling behind my eyes. I began to think, I'm losing my edge for this lifestyle.

The bloody crusade in my brain continues and I'm helpless. Tino opens the door a crack to check on me but I whimper for him to shut it, the slice of light seeping in unbearable. He goes away. I kept thinking about the girls, how they stayed home from the river one day to bake with me and I was late, I had forgotten all about it even though I had promised them. I think about the way my heart scurried like an animal in my chest the time I was stuck in an eddy about a huge, unrunable rapid in a canyon, how I spit with fear and cried.

I try to take control over my thoughts. I count the days until I go home- 7 days? 8? If I have to lie here in my bed until then, I will. I think about my home, clean sheets, evening light on snow. Everything clean, cold.

When it's dark enough, I take a sleeping pill. I wilt into a strange sleep. The headache lasts for three more days. On the final day, we throw a birthday party for Clay. We're at a hotel in Villarica, playing croquet and making ice cream. It's a lawn party. There is wine barrell hot tub, still cool, the water heated by a wood stove. I curl up in it, lay motionless under the water for three straight hours. By this time the water has warmed sufficiently. The kids join me and we're all having a good time.

By this time, of course, I've come to a realization. For a year I have been travelling with the school throughout Chile, Canada, the Southwestern USA. I'm so good at my job. I've been so happy. But I'm not up for it anymore. I don't feel good, ever. Something must be wrong with me, and I have to go home.

My Vegetables

I've discovered my superpower, and it's got nothing to do with kayaking. I seem to have the ability to break down the distance people cloak themselves in to mask their self consciousness, and allow them to just relax and enjoy themselves. And this case, pretend to be a vegetable soup.

After 12 months of traveling with New River Academy, I hereby present my greatest accomplishment. One of the boys in here even refuses to smile for photographs, but here he is, under my influence, pretending to be a root vegetable.

This is no joke. This truly is what I am most proud of in all the world.

Sleeping with the enemy

One of my former students, Keegan, is here in Pucon for creeking season. He showed up at the staff cabin last night with a bag of Starbucks coffee. I took it from him in the same manner as one would remove an infant from a stranger, gently but urgently. I then whisked it into my room, crawled into my sleeping bag, and held it close to me.

A strange thing to do, yes. But in the zipped up den of my sleeping bag, the smell of coffee was so strong my olfactory system went wild and prodded awake my memories of college. I closed my eyes and thought about Zoka, on the corner of 56th and Meridian in Greenlake. This was the warm, aromatic, see-and-be-seen coffee shop where I spent the majority of my seven years in the city of emeralds. In the winter I would step in from the rain and disapear into the steam of an Americano, absorbed in essays, text books and meticulous notes. The clean, bright lines of a highlighter against a black and white page used to send shivers of delight down my spine. In the summer it was iced lattes and liquid ink from fountain pens, sitting outside in the cherry blossom breeze. I would wear a white shirt and the short, layered skirts that everyone wore for two short seasons when I was a junior. There is nothing special about this particular set of memories, nothing that sets it apart from the experience of anyone else who went to college in a nice city and had endless hours available to sit in a favorite spot and read text books.

But last night, curled like animal around a bag of coffee grounds, those memories seemed so alive and strange, the paradox of something being so bright in my mind yet so far away in reality.
I am the lucky one with a charmed life, but for the past few days my world has been colored by exhaustion, the turning of my own health and the ubiquitous fear of drowning. I stare into space more often than I have before. I fear the upcoming confluence of my life on Chilean rivers with my other life at home; at the same time I can't stop dreaming of it.

So last night I curled up in my filthy sleeping bag in my filthy skin, covered in bruises, one long scar running up my right leg and a tarantula bite on my ankle. I sleep wearing my fleece paddling gear, the only decently clean clothes I own. I breathed in coffee and hovered between the clean bright world in my past and the one I'm living now.

In the morning Tino and I made the coffee. It tasted like dirt. In taste, coffee never lives up to the promise made by its aroma. But this was particularly terrible. Maybe the lack of filter, the well-water, or the fact that I can't make coffee and never have been able to. But Tino and I sat there and drank it all and listened to the rain as it kept coming down. I thought to myself, I can't leave this. I thought to myself, I wonder where my raincoat is. I wonder what I'm teaching today in AP. I wonder if my gear will dry over the stove in time for this afternoon. I can't leave this.

Alive at the Achibueno

I have approximately three minutes for internet here, just time enough to post a few photos of the Rio Achibueno and life therein. Still to come: story of the longest, rockiest river in history, where it rained goats, where I swam more than once, where the tarantulas lumbered where my ultimate dream of reading for three days straight by a fireplace and reading was finally fulfilled.

Seltzer Boating :: Chilean Creeking

Matt Smink on the first drop of the Siete Tazas

I find myself in the city of Talca, in Central Chile, with only one night in a bright and loud hotel to record the past week of creeking excursions on the Rio Claro. I will keep the descriptions minimal, not only because of my dirth of time but because I am really proud of these photos- definitely the best I've ever taken.It's incredible how many faces and expressions that water can adopt. The Maipo was sultry and fast and wide, the color of darkened leather. The Maipo's salted waves turned from glassy green to aqua to navy, mirroring the weather.
But paddling on the the Rio Claro was like pushing your boat through pools and chutes full of seltzer water. The water sparkled, bubbled and glinted as if the creek were gem-lined. The waterfalls were glossy and smooth at the entrance, and then they carreened forward as if some really big person filled their mouth with a ton of water, cheeks distended, and then spit it out with all his of force.Eric Bartl dropping in

The first day was an expedition through the middle canyon, a section known as the Entres Saltos. While hiking and scouting that morning, we had spotted five smaller clean waterfalls we were eater to run. We put in directly under the bridge near our camp site and stated paddling down. It was a canyon, but for the most part you could scramble out on river right and walk. The canyon was laced with class 5 rapids that were mandatory walks for anyone with a brain. The rest of the rapids were fun, tight lines full of boofs that all ended in the most beautiful, safe pools. There were a few swims- none from me- and the rescues were pretty simple (alright, most of them were. One girl swam right above a little drop that I wouldn't have wanted to swim over, but they got her right back in her boat.)Italic
Haakon Samuelson setting up to plug the 6th drop

We ended up taking out before we reached the five drops we had been aiming for. A tricky double drop and waning sunlight stood in our way. It didn't bother me- I'm always the happiest one to reach the take out, even after such a blissful day of clear water creeking. That night I drank hot chocolate and read my book and fell asleep in my tent. And I woke up the next day ready to paddle the seven teacups.Zoe Ross in the seltzer. You can see her boat underwater in this photo

The seven teacups (siete tazas) is a run of seven beautiful waterfalls ranging in height from 3 feet to 2o, running through the black basalt chamber of the Rio Claro canyon. Once you drop in, the only way out is to run it. The walls curve out and then in, as if you were in the bottom of a light bulb. And speaking of common household imagery, it's as cold as a fridge in there.
Zoe Ross commits to the right side
We flew like a flock of angels down the falls, paddles and faces pressed up against sterns. The hole at the bottom of the slide tried to digest me but I survival surfed the out of it. I went over-vertical (aka ass over teakettle) off the the 17 footer. On the 20 footer I was so mesmirized by the fast approaching foam that I didn't tuck in time and Bam! Next thing I know my head sprang back and I bubbled around a while beneath the curtain before catching my roll. Tino said I looked as stiff as a toy soldier.

Halfway through the run....Experimenting with shutter speed

But whatever! I ran the Siete Tazas, and despite those small confessions I ran them pretty well, with no swims and limited misery!
Eric Bartl about to go deep on the 6th drop

The next day, we divided into two groups to run the sieta tazas again. While group number two set up to take photos and document every drop, group number one dropped into the river at a new, higher put in. I was in group one, and I sailed off the first clean drop at the new put in and followed gamely along behind the other technicolored ducklings. But we never made it to the siete tazas, and the photographers were waiting all day for a string of little bright boats that never came. It's a story for another day, but it's one HELL of a story. Melina Coogan dropping in to the disasterous upper "put in." Photo by Matt Smink

Finally, all the photos on this post (and on this blog, generally) are mine. (With the exception of the one above.) The final day at the Rio Claro, I shot from the wooden vantage points on the edge of the canyon to get these shots. Which means, of course, there aren't many of me. But I ran this shit! Alex Anderson on one of the middle drops


In the course of my life, I have not often had the opportunity to give flowers to random boys. But I always thought that if I wanted to, I would be successful.

Turns out that's not true. In an effort to learn Spanish, my school took to the streets of Pichilemu and embarked in a hilarious scavenger hunt. I was teamed up with the other staff. One of the challenges was to hand a flower off to stranger. And although Tino really, really wanted to do it...c'mon. That would have been way too easy for him:Things like this are significantly more difficulto for me: note: this is not my hand.

When I saw these two Mormon missionaries coming my way, I knew my moment had arrived. Thinking that they would not only be polite and english speaking, but delighted to receive a little bouquet from a Rubia, I ran up to the boys and asked in Spanish if one of them would like a beautiful flower.

Turns out....he didn't:

This is not like when me and Tyler Bradt gave a pair of missionaries in Salt Lake City a vivid and detailed description of the type of activities Mormons frown upon as an example of why we did not choose ourselves to follow their religion. (For the record, they asked for it, they were harrassing us.) This time, I really just wanted to give the nice American boys a flower so my team could score 20 points and move on to ordering Churros. Wow, was I rejected! Missionary karma?