Today is the last day of 2015 and here I am

I wrote this on Tuesday and meant to publish it on Wednesday but instead here it is on Thursday. Tomorrow is 2016. Here I am.

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I’m staying on top of a mountain with my parents and my girlfriend and it’s winter up here and my stomach hurts all the time but what else is new. I’ll be giving up sugar and dairy and caffeine and alcohol in 2016 to try to make the pain go away. We’ll see.

On Monday I spent the morning skiing with my dad and I was pretty okay at it, which was a surprise, because in my head I am “not that good at skiing.” But I remembered how to do parallel turns and I made it down some long slopes and I even did a few blue trails which is more difficult than what I attempted in February and it felt nice. I’m not sure what makes some activities amazing and fun and what makes other activities just okay. My dad thinks skiing is amazing and fun and for him it is. I think it is okay. But I am hoping to convince everyone to go snow shoe-ing with me tomorrow, which I think is sort of just a glorified winter version of hiking, and I’m so fucking excited for that possibility I could pass out. People are different, have different likes and dislikes, etc etc. The answer to my question is obvious. It’s still a curious thing to ponder.

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Anyway after I was done skiing I went into the lodge to eat a delicious kale caesar salad, which I probably wouldn’t be able to eat if I had already cut out dairy and sugar because I’m pretty sure the dressing was creamy and sweet, but I haven’t given that stuff up yet so I ate it. I sat at the bar because I was by myself and the tables were all full anyway, and a few minutes after I ordered another woman came and sat next to me.

I don’t know how we started talking but soon we were deep in conversation. She had just arrived from Alaska, she told me, and was doing a “walk about” in Oregon because she thought she might move here. She said she likes the sound of Portland, or maybe Grants Pass. I laughed when she said that because what are the odds that a woman who just landed in Oregon from Alaska would be interested in living in the exact two places I’ve lived in Oregon since I arrived here one and a half years ago?

I asked if she’d grown up in Alaska, because I tend to be a little bit in love with everyone I’ve ever met who grew up in Alaska, but she said no, she moved around every three years when she was a kid because her dad was in the military. “Mama was a rolling stone,” she said, and I loved her then, even though she didn’t grow up in Alaska.

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One of the things she said early in our conversation was that she was searching for her “forever home,” and we marveled at that concept together. I told her I could never imagine anywhere being my home for forever, and she asked if I just hadn’t found the right place yet or if it was something else. “I think it’s me,” I said. She said she’s been in Alaska for the past 15 years and she loves it, but every three years she gets that itch, that wanderlust tickle, like a time bomb ticking inside her. “Maybe I was programmed that way at birth,” I told her.

She asked what I thought of Portland, of Oregon, of the mountain we’re currently on and of the kale salad I was consuming. She offered me a slice of pizza and I said no at first, to be polite, but then she offered again and I really wanted a piece so I said yes and she thanked me for accepting her offer and not saying no just to be polite (caught!). I told her I was originally from the east coast and she seemed super surprised — you don’t have that vibe at all, she said.

I was scrolling through my instagram account just now, because I didn’t go skiing today so my body isn’t tired and my brain is wired, running on anxiety and holiday season vibes and social media binging, and I was going further back and back and back and admiring all my nature photos and my selfies and my cute Portland babe images, and I thought about how if I go far enough back I will eventually hit Brooklyn.

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I may not give off east coast vibes anymore, but I used to live there and that’s never gonna change because that’s not how the past works. It just sort of sticks there, existing, and it maybe takes a different shape over time, or your brain smooths over rough edges and sharp turns and all that jazz, but basically it’s just there. If I scroll through the images I’ve posted on the internet over the past ten years (I made a Facebook account in 2005! I’ve had a social media presence for literally a decade! I’m only 27! Ew!) I can swim through Oregon’s waterfalls and hot springs and lakes and rivers for a while but eventually there I am in the southwest, on the world’s worst road trip with the prettiest backdrops, and then there’s Brooklyn, a year in Israel, school in Manhattan, a childhood in Newton…the east coast looms large. The old me was real too. I don’t hate her, I don’t wish she didn’t exist. I think she’s lovely.

But the present is the same as the past, in that way: it sticks here.

When I finished my lunch with the woman from Alaska I wished her well and thanked her for the slice of pizza. I told her I hoped she enjoyed her time on this mountain, and that her stays in Portland and Southern Oregon were helpful in figuring out where she wanted to go next. “I hope your journey is exactly what you want it to be,” I said.

“It will be,” she nodded. “Because I’ve already decided that whatever happens, it’s exactly what I want it to be.”

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Home, part 1 out of infinity

My parents are visiting me in Portland for my birthday! They arrive on Friday. I AM SO EXCITED AND ALSO HAVE APPROXIMATELY NINE MILLION THINGS TO DO BEFORE THEY GET HERE. This is a tiny free write about them and about home and about life. I’m working on a much longer piece about femme identity (spurred by my visits to a fabric store and a hardware store today, and also by the amazing DIY femme marquee sign I made and hung above my bed this week) but it’s not ready for public consumption yet and also I like that this is about my parents because did I mention that I am SO EXCITED THAT THEY WILL BE HERE IN 72 HOURS?! So enjoy this now and get ready to enjoy my femme essay next week. By then it will be almost Christmas! TIME JUST MARCHES ON. Okay okay okay here is my ~serious writing~ for this week. XO.

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2010

It’s 1992 and we’re leaving South Africa and I’m sad. Jack and Lily [my grandparents who insisted on being called by their first names, much to my mom’s chagrin] live here, and the monkey I’ve “adopted” at the zoo. I’m four and it’s home, there’s not much else to it.

But soon home will shift its meaning, as it does over and over through the path of a lifetime, and for now we’ve moved out of our gated townhouse and into a hotel, I think. My memory isn’t clear at all, actually, about the place we stayed between moving out of our Home and immigrating to Canada, but I remember the floral print bedspread, remember that my mom and my brother and I waited together in one bedroom while my dad got settled in a new country, a new life.

It’s so strange to think of one’s parents as people. Was my dad scared? Was my mom anxious? When I think back on that time now they seem impossibly young – not the age I am now exactly, but the age I could be in a few short breaths. They were young parents and they decided we should leave our lives behind and start again. I feel very tender toward both of them, my mother and my father, when I think of them like this, making that decision, feeling that burden of not knowing.

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Maybe 1994?

It is the same feeling I get when my mother tells me about the time she thought she was losing her vision as a little girl – her eyesight was bad, was getting progressively worse, and she quietly decided she must be going blind. Rather than confiding in anyone and upsetting them, she kept the burden of the secret to herself, worrying and waiting, waiting and worrying.

I want to sprint through the layers of time and rescue that tiny version of my mother, hold her tight and insist she go see the eye doctor, reassure her that everything is absolutely fine. I often find myself wanting to rescue the people I love; I have been told this is not the right way to do it. (Love.) I can’t sprint through time anyway, because that’s not how this particular reality works. I’m just right here. I am exactly where I am.

I get a similar tender feeling in heart when my mom describes the way my dad reacted when he first saw snow: awe. That is the word she uses when talking about it. We were in Toronto, a small family starting a new-ish life, living in a generous friend’s basement, braving our first winter.

The first time I saw snow I was four, so my brain just filed it away as A Thing That Happens, like eating breakfast or bathing or puppies. My father was in his thirties and he apparently could not look away. He just stood at the window and stared out in awe that whole first winter, my mom says, sweetly recounting a memory I don’t have that oddly makes me want to cry. I love my dad so much for feeling that awe. What an emotion to hold on to. I want to keep awe in my heart forever. Awe and the people and places I have loved, I love, I have.

I was going to tell you a story about that room the floral bedspread that we stayed in for a month before meeting my dad in Canada, but I ended up telling you a different story. Several different stories. I’ll save the original for another day.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, my favorite writing professor, Rachel DeWoskin, said to us often when I took her memoir writing class at NYU. We tell the versions that we can live with. These are my stories. I like digging them out of my brain and dressing them up for an audience. Telling stories, living. This is my life. Family, awe, home, awe, love, awe, tender feelings, awe, awe, awe. Forever awe.

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1998

 

Nature vs. Nurture: Tales Of A Former Indoor Kid

I used to be an indoor kid. Like, for most of my life. If someone stumbled across my Instagram account today – because one’s Instagram account is a true window into one’s soul, of course (insert sarcasm font here, duh) – they might assume I’ve always been outdoorsy, but they would be wrong. This whole love affair I’m having with Mother Earth is a relatively new thing. She’s been here all along, but I’m only just tuning in.

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McKenzie River Trail, December 2015; photo by Taylor Hatmaker

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When I was in elementary school my teachers worried about me because I’d bring a book out to the playground at recess and sit quietly for the 30 minutes my classmates ran around outside, deeply engrossed in the adventures of The Babysitter’s Club members, the sisters in Telling, or the angsty main characters in Judy Blume’s novels. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to play tag or climb a structure or do just about anything else when there were books to be read. Also, winter in Toronto is fucking cold. I wished I was allowed to stay inside and read, but my teachers insisted I bundle up with the rest of my classmates and take my books outside. So I did.

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I met my first serious girlfriend when we were both volunteering in Israel, and she nicknamed me “Indoor Kid” almost immediately. Our volunteer crew did a ton of hikes over the course of our year abroad, all of which I would love the chance to do again with my new frame of mind, and I complained bitterly on most of them.

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Israel, 2010

Sure, the landscapes were beautiful, but who wants to wade through hip-deep water, avoiding bees and praying you won’t slip on a particularly slick rock and catapult head first down the river? (I want to do that hike again so badly, now.) I remember feeling resentful at the end of that particular hike because I wanted my girlfriend to complain about it with me, but she’d had a nice time. I settled for complaining with my roommate instead, who was more than happy to join me in my grumblings.

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A year and a half later, that same girlfriend took me to New Paltz, NY to celebrate our anniversary. We’d been together for two years by then, and she knew I loved photography, so she thought I’d enjoy a particularly beautiful hike called the Lemon Squeeze. We could take cutesy photos at the top, where there was a gorgeous view, she promised me. I had bought a tripod for the occasion and was excited to try it out. The day of the hike was clear and chilly. I wore leggings, a sports bra, sensible shoes, a t-shirt and a sweatshirt, and carried my camera slung over one shoulder, the tripod slung over the other.

Right from the start I realized I was not going to be able to do the Lemon Squeeze. It required more use of my hands than I was able to achieve with my photography gear, and leaving the camera and tripod behind were not an option. My girlfriend, bless her, was kind. She didn’t want me to do the hike if I didn’t want to, but she maintained that she knew I could. A family passed us, a dad with two little girls, and they easily skipped and jumped their way down the trail. If those little girls can do it, so can you, I told myself. Then I looked helplessly down the trail again, and burst into tears.

We didn’t end up doing the hike. We took a different route, up on a gravel road. It was very easy. We took gorgeous photos at the top. In fact, the photos from that weekend getaway were so beautiful that many of our friends texted us after I posted them on Facebook: Are those engagement photos? Are you two getting married? We were not.

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October 2012, New Paltz

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My parents never took the family camping when I was a kid, and for a brief period I wondered why, maybe blamed them a little bit for my slow start at loving nature, maybe implied in my head that with their help I could’ve avoided being an indoor kid. Perhaps if they had introduced me to The Great Outdoors I would have loved it sooner. But you know, they did. (Ed. note: Hi mom. It’s not your fault. I’m an asshole for ever thinking that way. Love you.)

Both my mom and my dad grew up in South Africa and adore the beach. We spent so much time by the ocean when I was a kid, and I hated it. Sand would get into everything: the creases where my thighs met my torso, the holes in the puffy white sliced bread we used to make sandwiches, my eyes, my nose, my throat. Once I got stung by a jellyfish; I cried. My dad tried his best to teach me how to ride a bike, tried his best to teach me how to ski, tried his best to get me to hang out in our yard instead of with my book and my journal and my arts and crafts in my bedroom. But I liked being inside.

When I was eight a well-meaning allergist diagnosed me with a mild allergy to grass, and after that I had the perfect excuse to give anyone who suggested that I should spend a lot of time outdoors.

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I don’t know when I stopped being an indoor kid. I left suburbia for a large city when I was 17 and I stayed there for a long time. I left to visit other big cities and then I came back and I thought I might stay forever but then one day I didn’t want to anymore. Yes, I read Wild, but no, Cheryl Strayed isn’t the person who inspired me to love the outdoors, to move to Oregon, to aspire to hike the PCT. (She inspired me to do a ton of other stuff, don’t worry. In a lot of ways Cheryl Strayed is the reason I moved to Oregon, is the reason I want to hike the PCT. But it’s more complicated than that, and that’s another story. I just mean I wasn’t one of those people who picked up Wild and finished it and the next day decided to go on a long hike. Everything was a little more jumbled up than that.)

I just woke up one day and felt so bored in the city. So confused about why I was attached to a screen 24/7 and why I wasn’t outside more often. Maybe I picked the outdoors because I’ve always loved a good adventure story and the most adventurous thing I could do was turn my back on the whole way I had lived my life up to that point. I don’t know. Isn’t it so weird how life works like that? Some of the most important decisions we will ever make, the most life altering ones, the pivotal shit, it’s just like: I have no fucking idea why I made that choice. There were many choices to be made: stay, go, where, when, etc. I chose to be outside more. I chose to be online less. I decided I didn’t want to be afraid anymore.

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That is maybe really where my indoor kid nature comes from. Fear. It’s not that being inside is safe, but to me, before, being outside felt scary. The jellyfish sting. Falling on the slippery rocks in that river hike. I fell when I rode my bike. I was cold and miserable when I tried to ski. The grass did give me rashes. When I stayed inside I got to do the things that felt comfortable, safe, easy. I read about other people’s adventures. I didn’t need to have those adventures for myself – until I did, actually, need that very much.

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Utah, June 2015

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So okay, fast forward, blah blah blah, now I love being outside. I love hiking and I love camping and I just wanna flood your Instagram feed with nine million photos of Oregon being gorgeous because good goddess, have you seen this state?! She’s a fucking babe.

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Near Umpqua Hot Springs, January 2015

But what happened? How did the shift occur? I’ve become so fascinated with our different reactions to nature – the privilege of even considering if you’re an “indoor kid” or an “outdoor kid,” the roles our cultures play in shaping these differences, how different bodies and different brains can absorb relationships to the earth in such vastly varied ways. Maybe I’m being too convoluted – put simply, I wonder how we are programmed to be.

“Put simply.” Ha. Last summer Danielle and I were driving home from the Gorge together, and I was rambling on and on and on (shocking), and I finally got to my actual question, and Dani listened patiently and then laughed at me and said, “I think what you’re asking is how does the universe work? Like how does the whole world function?” And that probably is exactly what I was asking. And perhaps, “put simply,” that is exactly what I am asking now.

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The Gorge, November 2015

But in the most minuscule way: why do some people love being outside and why do other people hate it? How come some folks are lukewarm about going on a hike and others want to hike thousands of miles for forever? And the change! The change is the most scintillating part, which is maybe narcissistic because of course my own personal change is the thing that spurs that interest, but nonetheless: Are we born loving nature (or not)? How and why does the shift occur? When did I go from being an indoor kid to a nature diva?

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My first real hike was with a girl who I dated briefly. We were a bad match and I try not to think about her very much but unfortunately she taught me how to be outside (though not how to love being outside), so whenever I am on a trail or setting up my tent or simply enjoying the feeling of being a human who is alive who gets to stand on a mountain and breath in, I think about her a little bit. Brains suck, sometimes.

But anyway, that first hike with her was not memorable. I can’t remember anything other than we must have been in New Mexico and she was faster than me so I hiked for a long time by myself, and my thighs rubbed together and chafed and hurt and my shoes were too small so I got blisters and I thought the trail was pretty but not that great.

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New Mexico, April 2014

And I remember that she was joyous. Pure bliss. She was exactly where she wanted to be. No matter how upset I am about anything, she told me on the road trip that strung all of our hikes together, when I get out here I’m not upset anymore. It’s hard to look at the earth and see all these big things and still care about the small stupid stuff. At the time, I nodded, but I knew we were feeling different things. I was having an adequately nice time on a steep walk, still caring very much about the “small stupid stuff,” and she was in her happiest place. How do I get there, I wondered. Is it genetic? Can it be learned? (I still have those questions.)

I felt proud of myself for doing the hikes, especially considering some of my hiking failures in the past. I told the new girl the story of the Lemon Squeeze, of my old then-girlfriend sweetly agreeing to take the easy walking path so I could carry my camera and tripod. Why wouldn’t you just leave the camera in the car? She was clearly appalled. Was the point of the hike the pictures? (Yes.)

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Utah, May 2014

(Honestly, even now that I am this different version of myself, this hiker, this outdoorsy girl, this nature diva –– sometimes the point of the hike is still the pictures. If I’m worried having my DSLR or my film camera will slow me down then I allow my iPhone camera to suffice, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone on a hike without stopping to marvel at at least five different things and photograph each one of them. I don’t care anymore if you judge me for that.)

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Breakups are usually good catalysts for change, so maybe it’s not weird that the me I am today was born out of a series of breakups: a girlfriend, a city, a different girlfriend, a best friend, a community, ugh. Or maybe all this change was just born out of life: the days go on, the moon shifts, we change. We make choices and they are not always divine, they are often just choices, and then here we are. All I know is that after a series of breakups I took a train from Los Angeles to Southern Oregon and when we crossed the California state line and I looked out the train window I thought, Oh. I thought, Yes. I thought, Thank you.

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The very first photo I ever took of Oregon, out the train window, June 2014

In Southern Oregon I lived in a tent for four months. I stayed on a 46 acre queer land project and learned to garden, to feed chickens, to breath. I learned how to be myself again, and then there I was: not really an indoor kid anymore. It got colder and I moved out of my tent into the main structure on the land and I learned to chop wood and build a fire in the wood stove and appreciate a cold walk in the rain.

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It was in Southern Oregon that I met Carrot and Chance and Jess. We all ended up at the same gathering and I didn’t know anyone and they were nice to me. They had just finished the L2H hike and when Carrot told me all about it I thought, this person is the coolest person I have ever met. Someone mentioned she kept a blog so I went home that night and googled her and added her on Facebook and asked her to be my friend enough times on the internet that finally eventually we were friends. (Hi Carrot!) Carrot had hiked the PCT twice. Chance had hiked it four times. I read their blogs. I followed them on Instagram. We hung out again. They made me want to hike the PCT. They made me feel like I could. (I can. I will.)

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So now I like being outside. No, scratch that, I love it. It’s hard not to, in Oregon. Almost everything fun to do here involves being outdoors and it’s amazing and I’m grateful every day. I just typed the sentence “the way life moves is not obvious” and then deleted it because I’m not sure what I meant but then decided to type it again because I maybe know what I mean. We’re not always exactly there yet, but then we can get there, you know?

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Southern Oregon, Winter 2014

Anyway what I mean, maybe, is that I’m not sure I could be who I am today if I had stayed in New York. How would I have learned that I love being outside if I was still living in a tiny sixth-floor walk-up apartment in Brooklyn and working at a desk in Manhattan? Maybe if I had been a different sort of child, someone who already knew she loved Mother Earth, I could have lived in New York and been a total nature diva…but I needed help discovering this side of me. I don’t know if I could’ve unearthed her where I was.

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“What if” is a pointless game to play in terms of tangible realities, but sometimes it’s useful as theory. What if my parents had never moved to Toronto and I had spent my childhood by the beach in South Africa? What if I hadn’t gone to NYU and hadn’t met Emily and she hadn’t kissed me that night we got wine drunk in Molly’s dorm room? What if I had never gone on that road trip with that girl? What if I hadn’t moved to Oregon? What if I’d stayed home that night and not met Carrot and learned about other women who thru-hike who are not Cheryl Strayed? Etc etc etc.

What if I had kept being afraid of some unknown something and had never let myself fall in love with Mother Earth?

I don’t know. It didn’t happen that way. It happened gradually, in increments, degrees, baby steps…then all at once. I am here now, I am me now. I want to know how everyone else is, how we all got this way.

“I think what you’re asking is how does the universe work.”

I think the answer, maybe, is to go outside.

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McKenzie River Trail, December 2015; photo by Alley Hector