Advice for a Confused 23-Year-Old

Life in my early twenties has been confusing, intimidating, often overwhelming and altogether fantastic. Leaving the structure of school has given me freedom to travel and broaden my perspective, and yet I’ve had to abandon the guiding compass that has informed my actions for so long. In this new chapter of my life, I’ve found myself oscillating between feelings of empowerment and aimlessness.

I’ve spent many of my vacation days at home thinking about advice that I’ve received on how to cope with the latter. Talking with my parents and role models about my goals and insecurities has helped me to formularize a set of guiding life principles going forward. I won’t go as far as to say that I’ve had any sort of revelation – none of the advice that I’ll include here was new to me – rather, that keeping this advice in mind helps me rationalize my worrying and go forward with confidence.dI came to my Dad one night after dinner with a litany of burning, cliche’d questions about life: what should I do; how do I ensure that I’ll be successful; how do I stop worrying about it all so much? He laughed and reminded me that I’m a worrier by nature. I’d heard this before and it had always seemed slightly patronizing, as if these questions that I’d wrestled with throughout my adult life were inconsequential. He assured me that they weren’t, but that my tendency to fret about them is nothing new or alarming. He reminded me of the times I used to worry about essays, exams, erg scores, relationships etc. – how often I had come to him with similar consternation. The feeling of worry has been a constant throughout my life, this is just the latest iteration. Accepting that this part of my nature is important, we agreed, because it familiarizes it; I’ve dealt with worry before, and will certainly deal with it again. With this in mind, I can keep myself from worrying about how much I worry.

His next piece of advice: Take some of the pressure off of myself to have everything figured out. These worries, he reminded me, are common among all people and not unique to me. Writers, artists, philosophers have been wrestling with issues of identity and purpose for generations – I fell in love with the Romantic Poets in college, in large part, because I could relate to them. Keats confronted many of the questions that I have today when he was in his early-twenties writing poetry; it’s likely the reason that he’s still relevant today. I’m comforted by the fact that no one has it figured out. As my Dad joked: there’s no detached voice of Truth that exclaims “That’s right!” or “That’s wrong!” whenever we do something. I have to lower my expectations, then, and resign myself to being just another person confronting age-old questions that will likely never be resolved. All I can do is trust my instincts and try to glean wisdom from those who came before me.

In response to my question of how to be successful, my parents asked me how I would define “success,” and what I thought were the important things in life. Throughout my blog posts, I’ve too often described success through a narrow, materialistic lens: I’ve fretfully compared myself to friends with “real jobs,” as though their titles and paychecks meant that they had  their lives more figured out than I did. That may be one way to view success, if I consider jobs and money to be the important things to strive for. If I instead prioritize adventure and new experiences, however, then I would consider myself more successful than a lot of my friends . I have to remember that there are many ways to define success, and many paths to achieve it; and, to be honest, I wouldn’t trade House of Trestles for any amount of money.

My dad and I agree, however, on a single goal that could allow us to be successful in life; it’s based on a quote by E.B. White, who famously said, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.” If I could somehow find a way to do both, then in my mind I will have achieved success. Going forward I resolve to weigh significant life decisions on a scale of enjoyment and improvement, and chart the “right” path by seeking a balance between the two.

The next piece of advice comes from a meeting that I had with the president of Hamilton College, David Wippman, last Spring before graduation. I was worrying aloud to him about not having a job lined up, and he offered me some wisdom from his own career trajectory:

Trust in Serendipity.

He told me that throughout his life he’d occupied a myriad of different jobs including taxi driver, lawyer, professor, director within the U.S. National Security Council,  dean and now college president; his circuitous path, he explained, was less the result of careful planning and more to do with chance and having an open mind. For example, he told me that his illustrious career in international law started when a lawyer in his D.C. firm unexpectedly asked him to help represent a developing nation in litigation – something that he had no prior experience doing. Even more unexpected, I’m sure, was his first transition from taxi driver to lawyer – I’ll have to remember to ask him about that story.

Granted, David Wippman is an exceptionally intelligent man with ivy league credentials who likely could have succeeded in many fields; however, he still attributes his life achievements to serendipity. He worked diligently in school and in his jobs to keep options open and he embraced new opportunities when they came – it wasn’t according to plan.

I think that President Wippman’s advice is some of the best I’ve ever gotten. It relieves the pressure of feeling like I have to have to have a specific plan, encourages me to expect the unexpected, and stresses the importance of hard work and open-mindedness. Furthermore, it gives me a goal that feels manageable: do my best, actively seek new people and opportunities, pursue new experiences and trust that things are going to work out. When I keep this in mind, the future doesn’t seem so overwhelming.

I remember discussing all of these things with my dad that one night after dinner, and afterwards feeling like I had unloaded an emotional weight from my shoulders. I’d confronted my worries, devised ways to cope with them, and established some concrete goals for the future. Lying in bed feeling happier and more confident than I had for months, I was reminded of one of my current favorite authors, Haruki Murakami: if I was a character in one of his books, I think he would describe my feelings as a blockage inside of me loosening, or perhaps a dry well filling with water: his descriptions have always struck me as bizarre yet relatable.

I have no doubt that my mind will continue to revert back to feelings of aimlessness and worry – it’s part of the cycle. As I get older, if I’m lucky, I’ll worry about new things, like marriage, kids, mortgages, retirement etc. I’m ready for it, though, because I know that these pieces of advice are not specific to this time in my life. I’d like to think that these conversations will provide me with comfort and confidence at 50 in the same way that they have at 23. I’ll be sure to check back in 27 years.

In accordance with the rules that I laid out in my first ever blog post, here’s a picture of my family and me back in Buffalo for the holidays.

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Boulderite

I’m writing from OZO Coffee on Pearl St.; it’s my latest discovery as I try to find the best coffee shops to write from in Boulder. I have a three-part criteria for judging: coffee quality, work environment and people-watching.  This place scores high on coffee quality and people-watching, but it’s too crowded and noisy to really focus on work. Still, being here makes me feel like I’m part of the local community, and the thing I want most right now is to feel like a Boulderite.

As of now, I’m ashamed to say this really, the Starbucks on Pearl St. is at the top of my list. So basic; I really wish I preferred some local Boulder spot. But the truth is that this Starbucks has the best work environment (thanks to some great lighting choices), it’s busy but never packed, and it has good coffee – maybe I’m just hooked on Starbucks coffee now after drinking it for two months straight on the road.

It’s been ten days since I arrived in Boulder, and I’m happy to report that things have been going well – I moved into a nice house with three great roommates (my aunt, uncle and Thomas the dog), bought a ski pass to all the local mountains, got a job at a fancy Pearl St. restaurant called La’telier and sampled some Boulder nightlife with my coworkers this past weekend. On top of that, I’ve connected with some fellow Continentals who are part of a large and influential Hamilton alumni base in both Boulder and Denver; it turns out people out here do know about my small upstate-New York school. Roll Conts!

I’m hopeful that continuing to mine the alumni database will help me find another job to keep me busy during the day. When I consider what an ideal job would look like, I imagine working in an environment that would challenge me to use my education, introduce me to other young, ambitious professionals and give me a sense of pride in the organization’s goals and my own role in helping reach them.

That description is incredibly vague, I know, and that could be a good or bad thing depending on how I look at it. The upside to it is that I could theoretically find fulfillment in many different industries; as Nannie Clough puts it: I’m keeping doors open. This is also a downside, I think, because it doesn’t narrow down my options. I still feel overwhelmed by the number of different careers that I could potentially pursue – as I’ve said before, the realization that there isn’t a “right path” in life often makes me feel confused and lost. I’m trying to change my mindset about this: it really should be a liberating feeling to have so many different opportunities laid out before me.

I think that my best tactic to addressing this dilemma is to keep reaching out to different people for information about their lives and careers. That way, I can analyze their paths and discover aspects that I like and others that I don’t. I’m comforted by the fact that I’m doing everything that I can think of in this regard – Since last winter I’ve been mining every contact that I have in the Boulder/Denver area and I’m continuing to blast my resume all over the internet; I’ll even post it here on this blog – maybe one of my future employers likes reading amateur blogs. ELIAS CLOUGH RESUME copy 2

Lately, I’ve been thinking that it might be fun to explore jobs that involve writing. Since starting this blog, I’ve found that I actually like writing outside of school. I enjoy discovering different ways to manipulate words, and writing down my thoughts helps me process and reflect on them. After spending hours on a post I feel proud of my work, even if no one is grading or even reading it – I can write just for me, without the validation. It’s been exciting to learn this about myself.

Inspired by this new self-awareness,  I’ve reached out to several people about different ways that I could potentially monetize my love for writing. I’m aware of the stereotype of the struggling writer, but I’ve learned about some opportunities that could give me both a stable job and writing responsibilities. One such position that I’ve heard about is with a magazine in Sun Valley, ID: the editor heard about this blog and reached out to me about a potential winter position. I’m not sure how I would feel about leaving Boulder, but I like the idea of learning more about the process of creating and publishing a magazine – who knows, it could be something that I want to pursue as a career someday.

Another potential option that I’ve heard about would be working as a promoter for one of the many startups across Denver and Boulder. This would also be a really cool option because it would be in the area, it would hopefully let me work alongside a lot of other young, creative people and I can imagine that I’d be able to have a more significant impact in such a place than I would be able to in a bigger, established company.  I talked to a Hamilton alum in Denver about this, and she promised to put me in touch with some contacts in various startups after the holidays. Fingers crossed.

I’m starting to consider different ways that I can continue writing for myself, too, now that I’ve decided to settle down in one place. I’m still seeking inspiration, but now that I’m an aspiring Boulderite I’m going to have to switch tacks from travel-writer to Boulder-blogger. There are a lot of different things that I could write about, but here are a couple of different options that I’ve been considering.

-Poetry: The idea of writing poetry intimidates me more than any other kind of writing, but I loved the one poetry class that I took at Hamilton and I like the idea of expressing myself in a more abstract way. I already love the 18th century Romanticism movement, it could be time to channel my inner Keats.

-Short Stories: I would love to write fiction, and I think I could be good at it. Looking back at my childhood, I had a lot of exposure to storytelling. I used to listen to storytellers with my grandparents at summer camp – I remember really loving this one guy in particular named Donald, and I used to memorize his stories and recite them to my friends. In 4th grade, too, I used to stay in from recess and tell made-up stories to some of my classmates for fun – total nerd move, but I remember really enjoying it. I think it would be fun to rediscover that passion.

-Research/Journalism: This is just speculative, I don’t really have any exposure to journalism. I imagine, though, that it would be fun to research a topic and then write about it. It could give me a real sense of purpose with my writing, especially if I could write about something that I’m passionate about in the area.

These are just some thoughts; I’m excited about whatever direction that I decide to go with my writing, either professionally or just for fun. For now though, I think that I’m going to keep going with this blog. From now on, however, I’m no longer a western traveler, but an aspiring Boulderite – even writing that last part makes me happy. I think that I’ve ended up in the right place.

Backpacks and Bear-Mace

This post is more than a month overdue; chronologically it should follow the post about the Super 8. My excuse is this: I didn’t want screen time to take me away from where I was. Similar sentiments have hindered my attempts at writing over the past two months: each place that I go, I’m torn between fully appreciating where I am and reflecting on where I’ve been.

We spent the next day driving through both the Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, passing views that drove the drab memory of the Super 8 out of my mind.  We would pull over every ten minutes or so to take pictures of the Tetons looming over the lakes. The snowcapped peaks jutted starkly into a bluebird sky and were reflected onto the the placid water below, making the horizon appear to stretch in both directions. At the same time, the water was so clear that the lake took on the color of the multicolored rocks below the surface. Looking out from the water’s edge gave me the strange impression that I was looking both at a window and a mirror.

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That night we relocated to a campsite in Yellowstone that was more in line with my idea of adventure. The tent overlooked a small mountain and was within walking distance of the giant thermal pools of Mammoth Hot Spring. A herd of elk grazed unfazed in a field directly in front of us, and their cries filled each nights with an strange, yet to me peaceful, soundscape. Adam disagrees with me on this point – he thought the cries were eerie, almost like screams. Either way, the spot was certainly more interesting than any motel.

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We spent two full days here, hiking and driving to various attractions with backpacks and bear-mace. The first day, we fell into the tourist crowd that was exploring the various thermal pools. Though we had to share the views with busloads of noisy selfie-snappers, it was worth the annoyance to see the pools’ vivid iridescence in person. The colors were neon bright in a way that doesn’t  resemble anything else in nature that I’ve seen; they looked so inviting that I often had to check my impulse to reach over the boardwalk and touch them. I wasn’t the only one with these thoughts, for there were signs everywhere warning the viewers that water temperatures were above 200 degrees.  I was reminded of the story of the Sirens, and I wonder if any early settlers were boiled alive acting under similar impulses.

The next day, we ditched the crowds and hiked along a the ridge of a steep river ravine. We estimated the drop to be close to a thousand feet, and we spent an excellent 30 minutes playing baseball off of the cliff’s edge with sticks and rocks. We hiked a few miles without seeing anybody else, and it was easy to imagine that we were in a place that was truly wild. Thank God for national parks – I can imagine this place becoming totally ruined by luxury housing developments.

Though we didn’t see any grizzly bears (which was both relieving and a tiny bit disappointing), we did come across a lot of elk and bison. Our first real animal encounter happened on the second day of camping, when two bucks began clashing horns within feet of the tent. It started with one elk sniffing the fabric and prodding it with his horns while the other grazed nearby, luckily we were down at the picnic table when this happened. We yelled and waved our arms at it, trying to keep it from ripping our shelter. Ignoring us, the first elk charged suddenly at the other and they locked horns. I had the backpack out and the bear-mace cocked, trying to come to terms with the fact that I might have to mace such beautiful animals if they came at us; It felt so wrong to mace an elk. It never came to this though, because they continued to pay us no attention and we eventually started to make dinner while they fought.

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It was hilariously absurd to be doing something as mundane as cooking food when these two animals were duking it out ten feet away from us – it was like dinner and a show. Eventually, they gave up and wandered back towards the other elk in the field, leaving us to finish our add-water potatoes and beans in bewilderment.

After that bizarre spectacle, we drove down to the river to soak in the natural hot springs. There is an area where the freezing river water intersects with the boiling thermal water and creates a hot tub of sorts; it’s a perfect temperature save for  intermittent currents of boiling and freezing undertows, which are painful and unexpected. It took us a while to find the perfect spot: moving two feet towards the spring would have burnt our skin off and two feet towards the river would turn our fingers numb. That left us about three feet of warm water to soak for a few hours before returning to camp.

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The Tetons and Yellowstone experience was truly awe-inspiring for me, and I’m happy that I have finally gotten around to writing about it. I was worried that I would keep pushing it off, and that I would eventually forget some of the best details; I hope I haven’t already. Letting this post slip through the cracks for over a month has made me realize that I’m going to have to make changes to my writing process if I am going to continue.

When I self-diagnose my writing habits, I find several things that I would like to improve upon. I’m a slow writer; I have to set aside hours of the day each time that I decide to post anything – and since we were spending only a few days in each place, I often prioritized other things. My insistence on perfectionism too often blocks my flow of thoughts from reaching paper.  I would like to be able to focus more on the substance of what I write than how it sounds. It seems counterintuitive, but I think I need to get more comfortable with word-vomitting – otherwise I’ll keep being hung-up on how best to articulate my thoughts instead of getting them out. Lastly, for now, I’d like to become less attached to my writing and focus on being a better editor. If I had been able to do that over the past few months, I might have freed up time to explore rather than fretting over the sound of each sentence.

Also, I think I need to take more breaks from writing rather than trying to finish it in one go – the writer’s block that I got from this post alone took up the entire morning.

Beach Bungalow

Adam and I had a long talk last night at our Grand Canyon campsite, and we both agree that the premier highlight of this trip has been living and surfing in Southern California. I don’t mean to diminish any of our other experiences by saying this; each place that we’ve ventured has been uniquely inspiring and perspective-changing, and I wouldn’t sacrifice any of these memories for more time in the waves (maybe the motels). Yet when I look back on the last month and a half and think about when I’ve been the happiest, I envision paddling back through the breakwater after a long ride down the face of a wave: the feeling of sun and salt on my skin, my muscles aching, and my blood pumping with adrenaline and endorphins. Few things in my life can match the sense of euphoria that surfing has given me.

The arid desert landscape of Joshua Tree had filled us with nostalgia for the ocean, so we decided to return to the coast after three days – this time to a new hostel in San Diego that Tijs had recommended to us a week earlier. I was not expecting this new place to meet the high bar set by House of Trestles, and so it was with surprise and delight that I learned that our new residence bordered a beach and came with many of the same amenities that had made Trestles special. It’s called Beach Bungalow, and besides offering surf-able waves right in the backyard, it also comes with free breakfast/dinner, daily beach and nightlife activities and was filled with an incredible group of young travelers when we arrived – again for $30 a night.

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Getting ready for a day of surfing on the Beach Bungalow Pong Table

Here’s the sunset view from the back porch. To the left, out of view,  is a beer pong table and a painted wall mural. In front of the glass wall is a busy beach boardwalk, and then next to that is the beach itself. During the day, the beach and boardwalk are packed with people tanning, surfing, playing volleyball etc. Within throwing distance on both sides of the hostel are beach-side restaurants, souvenir vendors, bars and, behind us, the lively streets of downtown San Diego.

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The open front porch faces the beach for a spectacular sunset

There were probably close to 20 other guests at the hostel from all around the world, all similar in age to me. It was an even bigger crowd than Trestles, and Adam and I both got the sense that this crowd consisted of more beach-going partiers than the surf-is-life folk at Trestles. This was fine by me; I loved the laid-back vibe of the people that I met and it was fun to be one of the better surfers comparatively for the first time since reaching California.

The Beach Bungalow crowd were some of my favorite people that I met on this whole trip: There was Marcus and Alex: two Aussie blokes who were always loud and fun and referred to beer as “piss;” A french guy named Peter and a Portugese guy named Luis, both of whom were our age and worked at the hostel – they organized daily beach activities and nightly bar excursions; Three kids from LA: Pausha, Joel and Spencer who arrived late on the last night and proceeded to trounce everyone in beer pong; then several other people from places like Israel, Germany and Pakistan whose names I forgot but who always traveled around with us whenever we would do anything. And lastly there was Tijs,  who reappeared in San Diego with guitar in hand after we had said our goodbyes at Trestles. All throughout our stay, we stayed in one big group – eating together, hitting the beach, playing volleyball and going out at night. It was like being with my friends in college all over again, except in a warmer setting and without the work. (I always regret not taking more pictures, but I feel like taking my phone out too often takes me away from the moment itself – and I also don’t like being the guy who always asks for pictures either)

 

I had heaven on earth for three days. I would wake up to the sound of Tijs playing guitar on the street, eat a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee at a large communal table with my hostel mates and then throw on a wetsuit and go surfing with Adam for a couple of hours. Most of the other people were just learning to surf, so they would stay in the shallows while we went out deeper to try and surf with the locals. For lunch, we would pull our wetsuits down to our waists and walk along the boardwalk to food – there were some excellent food options and then one unfortunate place where I waited 45 minutes for the worst Mexican food I’d ever eaten. We spent the afternoons either surfing or participating in hostel activities. One of my favorite memories of Beach Bungalow was playing beach volleyball with Adam, Marcus, Alex, Peter, Luis and some others for hours until sunset: we played three long games and heckled one another until it was dark and we were too tired to continue. Then we would return to the hostel, eat a free dinner prepared by one of the hostel workers and rally ourselves in preparation for a night out.

I thought I’d take a minute here and respond to some of my family members who worry that I talk too much about drinking in these posts: almost all of my favorite memories on this trip have been alcohol-free, but there are times when sharing drinks and going out has allowed me to bond with the people who have made this trip so incredible. The nights that I spent playing pong or going out to bars with the Beach Bungalow crew are prime examples; drinking itself is never the end game for me.

Now that that’s out of the way, I can talk about the best night out I’ve had on this entire trip. It was the night after Thanksgiving and Adam’s and my last night in San Diego before heading back in the direction of Colorado. We were exhausted from having spent the holiday in Tijuana (I’ll talk about that in the next post), and I almost stayed in until the Aussies convinced me otherwise. The Beach Bungalow crew had rented a party bus to ferry people downtown, and the majority of my crew was all on board. (Besides Adam, who proclaimed himself too tired and opted to remain at the hostel. Turns out, he had an awesome night hanging out with the three LA guys who also stayed – they all rallied and went out to bars near the beach). Along the way, the party bus picked up guests from three other hostels in San Diego that were owned by the same company. In total, there were close to thirty of us on a bus that was decked out with lights and music; there was dancing and covert drinking all around, and my crew quadrupled in size as we arrived at the bar scene.

Our giant crowd of Hostelers seemed to take over every bar that we went into. Since everyone knew each other, or had met on the bus, there was little awkwardness or formalities – people took to the dance floor and let loose. We all took turns buying rounds for each other, which allowed me to spend very little and resulted in a lot of fun toasts. As the night went on, I found myself losing the inhibitions that would normally have kept me from dancing – not due to alcohol, but because the dance floor was filled with other people moving as ridiculously as I was. Nobody judged; dancing just made everyone feel closer. I remember one scene in particular: dancing in a large circle with the Aussies, Peter, Luis and some beautiful UCSB babes from another hostel. I was dancing to songs that I normally would have been too embarrassed to listen to in front of other people and twirling one of the girls around as we both yelled and laughed. This probably makes me sound like more of a suave and sure-footed dancer than I really am – don’t be fooled.

I danced, flirted and laughed until 2 am when the party bus came to take everyone home. The drive back provided everyone with another 30 minutes of dancing and partying, and things got even more raucous and fun now that everyone was used to making a food out of themselves in front of everybody.

The goodbyes were bittersweet, and leaving California the next day was one of the saddest parts of this trip for me. I could have stayed for so much longer, and would have if there hadn’t been more to see on this trip before returning to Colorado. I tried to convince myself that three weeks surfing the west coast was enough, and it was time to move on. The truth is, however, that my time on the coast has been my favorite out of all of the places I’ve been to thus far; I’ve resolved to return for a much longer period of time when the opportunity arises.

Silent Desert

I’m writing from the breakfast room at the Baymont Inn & Suites in Tempe/Scottsdale, AZ.  I’ve been so busy again these last couple of days that I haven’t given myself anytime to write – there was always more surfing to do, places to go or people to meet. Since House of Trestles it’s been go-go-go, and my lack of contact has kept family and friends in the dark about where I am and what I’m doing. Last night I called my family from the hotel and my Dad asked if I was in Mexico.

Since Trestles I actually have been south of the border, as well as San Diego and Joshua Tree National Park; I’ll focus this post on Joshua Tree because it follows my last post chronologically.

When I asked Adam to describe our time in Joshua Tree, he started his recap by saying: “we spent two days in the desert and only went to Denny’s three times.” This made me laugh; it’s true, but when I look back on the experience I remember it feeling so strange and remote.   The park is bordered by an oasis town called 29 Palms, and although we drove here for supplies and three large meals I felt as if we were far away from everything the minute we crossed back across the park border.

We stayed in a campsite called Jumbo Rocks – named for the massive stacks of boulders that are strewn haphazardly for miles around it. The site was within one of these large rock clusters, and our tent was bordered on three sides by looming geologic formations that made me feel small and secluded. These rocks acted as a natural divider between us and other sites – blocking the view and, bizarrely, blocking all sound from neighboring RVs and tents. I could walk out from our place of privacy and see people camped out only ten feet from us, but when I retreated back to the tent I could hear nothing.

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The silence was the strangest part of my experience in the desert – even more than the giant rocks, strange spiny vegetation and seemingly-endless horizon. The latter features made the desert all the more surreal, but the silence made me feel as though I had left the Earth entirely.

It’s a cliche to describe the desert as alien -I read about people having similar reactions when I was researching hikes and destinations to do within the park but never fully believed them to be sincere; the accounts seemed exaggerated and intended for dramatic effect. The silence that I experienced, however, was so jarring and unnatural that it felt truly otherworldly. Now I’m another person perpetuating the cliche – you have to visit the desert in person to understand it, I think.

I remember the first time that I noticed the silence: it was on the first hike that we took into the desert and it took me by total surprise. We had been scrambling up rock piles and taking pictures from high vantage points, talking loudly and playing music from a portable speaker attached to the camelback. The area that we had found had been almost entirely empty, but we turned off the music when we ran into another group of hikers. They passed us down into a crevice and their voices were immediately swallowed by the rocks, leaving us without noise or distraction for the first time since arriving to the desert.

The silence made me stop in my tracks. I listened as hard as I could, yearning to hear anything at all but there was nothing: no animals, no wind and no sound of other visitors. Everything was utterly still and silent. After a moment of listening I began to hear my heart beat – a steady thumping that became deafening the more that I focused on it.

I had a sudden, unexpected moment of panic, which was perpetuated by my increasing heart rate – the thumping was getting louder and faster with each second. It was all that I could hear, and all that I could focus on. all After a couple of seconds I had to break the silence in order to avoid the sheer terror of staying in that all-encompassing silence any longer. It had probably been less than a minute since we had met the other hikers and turned off the music, but in that time I had shifted from normalcy to having a total panic attack.

After that, I began to get more used to being in that silence. It even got to the point where it became kind of peaceful – especially at the moment of first waking up in the tent with no disturbances. We began to take hikes without the speakers, taking long moments without talking just to appreciate the lack sound – I would recommend this practice to anyone planning on visiting Joshua tree or somewhere similar, the silence really is part of the desert experience.

We only hiked one actual trail in Joshua tree – a 2 mile path through nothing to an old, underwhelming mining shack. Our favorite spots we found by just walking towards sites on the horizon. Everything around us was so flat and spread out that we could go in most directions without any obstacles. One of the first highlights of the trip was finding a shallow crater at the top of one of the tallest rock piles – it faced west off of a high cliff and caught all of the afternoon sunlight. We called it the sun pool, and we spent over an hour sitting in it and basking in the sunlight like lizards.

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We found several other exciting rock climbs over the course of our two day visit. Another one of my personal favorites was a site called Hidden Valley that had some of the U.S.’s most renowned climbing and bouldering. We could climb almost a thousand feet up by scrambling between boulders. The climbs were precarious enough that I could get a real rush of adrenaline, but not steep enough that our routes would have required ropes (not most of them at least). There was one climb, however, where the way back down wasn’t immediately obvious and we both considered the terrifying possibility of being stranded up on a rock pile with no cell phone service and no one within shouting distance to help us.

I did my best to capture the magnitude of the landscape with the pictures that I took, but most of them don’t do it justice.

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At night, we were treated to some truly magnificent sunsets from our campsite. All we had to do was climb the rocks adjacent to our tent in order to see the full 360 degree horizon lit up with color. In a funny way, these sunsets reminded me of art projects that I used to do in elementary school; they look almost like a collage – the dark horizon like a dark paper cutout that someone had pasted over a watercolor background. If I was artistic, I would create a painting of this sunset using this technique.

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Another crazy desert phenomenon is how fast the temperature drops after sunset. In the space of several hours between afternoon and sunset it went from being hot:

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to extremely cold:

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This picture was taken early in the morning immediately after waking up. I had slept wearing these clothes with a sleeping bag, and had still felt chilly.

Each night, before retiring to the tent we would cook dinner over the fire and play a game of chess. I hope I’ll always remember camping nights like this, they’ve been some of my favorite parts of the entire trip.

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Overall, being in the desert was one of the most fascinating and strange experiences of my life. I would go back to visit, but I don’t know if I could ever live in a place like this without going insane.

House of Trestles

The first part of this post is just a shameless advertisement for House of Trestles Surf Hostel. No one asked me to write it, and I don’t know if writing this will attract them any business, but this place is the best and I want to talk about it.

House of Trestles is a surfer’s heaven on earth; it’s filled with rad people, tons of surf gear, incredible street art, comfortable beds, hot showers and free food – all for around $30 a night. If that isn’t enough to convince anyone to come here, then it’s worth mentioning that they also offer bike rentals with built in surf racks and yoga classes twice a day. I couldn’t think of a better deal if I tried – this place and the people in it inspire me to commit to a surfing lifestyle.

All of the walls are covered in spray paint art from local street artists. Staying here is like being in a museum. Here are some of my favorites:

The hostel is located in San Clemente, CA, about a mile away from the famous Trestles Beach surf break. If you’ve had any real exposure to surfing then you’ve heard of Trestles – it’s several miles of gorgeous beach breaks and is generally considered to be the epicenter of California surfing. Full disclosure, I hadn’t heard of it until a few days ago when Adam and I were researching surf spots. I caught the surf bug late.

Here’s how I spent the best day of my surfing career: I woke up at 6:45, walked into the living room adjacent to my bunk room and had a private yoga session with a resident instructor – it was a Thursday morning and I was the only one who signed up. After an intense one-on-one session that was worth far more than the $10 that I paid for it, I hit the shower, grabbed my wetsuit from the communal drying rack, and ate two bagels had been laid out for us. The good people at House of Trestles hooked us up with the surf bikes that I mentioned earlier, and we loaded our boards and cruised the mile-long path to the beach. Even on a weekday, there was a large crowd of surfers heading to the same place – some with bikes like ours, others carrying their boards on skateboards and some walking. Everyone was friendly enough, but I thought I noticed some of the locals sizing us up wearily – assessing if we had any business surfing here.

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I chalk this last part up to being nervous; Trestles is filled with some of the best surfers in the U.S. and I had heard that some of the locals are territorial about waves. Once I got out on the water, however, everyone that I talked to was friendly and non-judgemental. I stayed away from the pros who were surfing Lowers.

At the beach there were miles of wave breaks to choose from and hardened dirt paths between all of them. There are five distinct parts of Trestles, Cottons, Uppers, Middle, Lowers and Church – each with distinct types of waves. Trestles Breakdown.jpg

Throughout the day we surfed Uppers, Middles and Church. When we got tired of one wave, we’d hop back on our bikes and head to another. The crowds were there, but it was so spread out that we were able to find empty peaks at every break. Every hour or so, it seemed, I would have the best ride of my life – and each of these rides would supersede the one that came before it.  Sometimes, I would catch a ride that would cause the other surfers to whoop in excitement – “YEWWWWW!” Throughout the morning I was riding a glorious surfer’s high. After two and a half hours, I was stoked, starving and my arms felt like they were going to fall off.

The afternoon consisted of burritos for lunch, a quick nap and more surfing. We biked up from the beach and walked into a burrito shop still wearing our wetsuits – then we slept off the food coma in the front seats of the jeep which was in the parking lot outside. We were back at the beach at 2, and we surfed until sunset at 5. By the time the light was fading, I was euphoric and could barely paddle my board.

I met a lot of surfers out on the water, and I remember one conversation in particular that had me nearly ready to abandon all my previous life plans and move out here – or Hawaii. I was talking to a guy who was in his mid 50’s and was riding a longboard better than anybody else on the wave. He told me about moving to San Diego in his mid-20’s and how he had surfed every morning for 10 years before going to work. He had bounced around jobs – retail, restaurants etc for a couple years, all while surfing in the morning and going out at night. While he was there, he explained, he fell in with a crowd of other 20-somethings all doing the same thing, and ended up marrying a girl from the area.

He told me that if he was 23 and could do it all over again he’d do the same thing, but in Hawaii.

We got back to the hostel after dark, having grabbed some more Mexican food for dinner – I’m a total sucker for Southern California fish tacos. When we got back, people were hanging out in the living room area. A guy named Tijs was playing guitar, and Hank the dog that belongs to one of the hostel owners was howling along to the music. I spent a good hour hanging out and listening to Tijs play; he’s a really talented guy and has an album on Itunes under the name Tijs Groen called “Shifts and Turns.” I haven’t listened to it yet, but I’d recommend it just having listened to him play.

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At 7:45, just when I was considering turning in for another early night, a group started to form in the living room for an Acroyoga class. Neither Adam nor I had ever heard of Acroyoga, but I was curious and Adam was feeling guilty for missing the morning yoga class so we both decided to join. I knew we were in over our heads when the instructor described the class – Acroyoga: a combination of yoga and acrobatics which focuses on pair stretches.

Damn I was nervous, but we had signed up and we were in it. Our instructor Patty was gorgeous and intimidatingly talented, which didn’t help. As she explained the stretches, all of which involved one partner lifting the other, I was feeling self-conscious about my size compared to everyone else in the class – no way anyone was going to be able to lift me up, I thought. I almost walked out in embarrassment.

Turns out I underestimated Patty. She actually volunteered to lift me first, maybe because I was the most vocal about not wanting to do it. I must have had close to a foot on her in terms of height, but she lifted me like I weighed nothing.

I slept soundly that night with sore muscles and thoughts of waves.

PS: Today, Adam and I head to Joshua Tree, but before we go we’re headed out with the hostel crew to clean up a beach in their retrofitted van – “The Cosmic Dolphin.”

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Follow these instagram pages to learn more:

@Houseoftrestles

@Streetartistsinresidece

Also, here’s the instagram page of one of the owners, Nickol; he’s leading a movement to pick up trash around the beaches of SoCal. Be sure to check it out, it’s a great cause that needs more exposure.  He’s organizing the beach cleanup trip that I’m going on today. @nickolmoran

Surf Tour of California

I’ve been going to sleep at 8 and waking up at 6, surfing sunrise and sunset. Our campsite for the past couple of days is a 5 minute walk from the beach, just outside of Malibu. I can be in the water at a surf break within 30 minutes of waking up.

Today’s morning routine: I crawled out of the tent with the sunlight peaking over the mountains, brushed my teeth and ate a granola bar with peanut butter for breakfast. We made coffee in the French press while putting on wetsuits, which had been drying on a tree outside the tent. I threw some sunscreen on my face, wax my new 7’6” fishtail board and we walked to the beach – same as yesterday.

We spent the first hours of sunlight surfing a rock break at Leo Carillo. There’s a consistent right that breaks right next to a jagged rock. I️t looks sketchy at first, but with practice I gained the confidence to set up within a foot of it’s mollusk-coated edges. The trick with the wave, I found, is to pop up early and turn your shoulders hard as you pop up in order to steer the nose of the board down the face of the wave and stay in front of the white water. After a successful takeoff, I was rewarded with long, fast rides down the beach. I’m working on making sharp turns up and down the face of the wave – like all the best surfers here are able to do. I want to show off, like they do.

Around 10 the break got too crowded so we had to move. A couple of expert surfers kept taking waves before we could, and we didn’t want to drop in on them and look like kooks. We didn’t have to go far, about a half mile down the beach was a large, unpopulated beach break. I️t wasn’t huge, but sometimes a big outside break would roll in and we’d have the whole wave to ourselves. We surfed until my shoulders ached too much to paddle and my stomach was roiling with hunger.

I️t was past noon as we walked back along the beach to the campsite, our faces burned and the taste of the ocean in our mouths. We were so hungry that we nearly finished a three pound bag of trail mix before deciding that we wanted real food. Our meal plan lately has been two big meals a day, and oats for breakfast. Today, our first big meal was burgers in Ventura, near the Patagonia headquarters.

We devoted the middle of the day to seeing Patagonia. They didn’t offer tours of the corporate buildings , but we spent half and hour talking to the receptionist about the hiring process for 23 year olds. He suggested that we create the next “regenerative” business model in order to get noticed by Ivan Chounard. Regenerative, he explained, is replacing sustainable as Patagonia’s overarching goal – creating products that mirror nature’s process of degeneration and regeneration. I️t sounded like we had our work cut out for us, Patagonia isn’t hiring the typical college graduate.

Just as we were talking, Ivan Chounard himself walked by us. The receptionist told us he looked to be in a bad mood and urged us not to approach him. We grudgingly held our tongues. He looked just as the New Yorker article had described him – a grumpy older man with a jaded attitude regarding the growth of his own company. As a young man, he had only been interested in climbing and forging gear for his own use – the corporate life had fallen into his unwilling lap. I wonder if he would approve of the life I was living now. Living out of a Jeep in order to surf seems in line with his philosophy.

After Ventura, I️t was time for another surf session. We chose a spot that was best accessed by parking on the side of a parking lot and climbing down a steep cliff with boards to the beach below. We changed right on the side of the highway, cars roaring by.

The break was empty, save for us, and we got an hour in the water before the sun set. We paddled back and forth from the beach to the set, marveling with each ride that we didn’t have to share this spot with anyone. When the sun disappeared, the sky lit up with gorgeous hues of red and orange, which provided us with enough light for a couple more rides. Only when our arms felt like they were going to fall off, again, and the light was fading fast enough that I️t would soon obscure the path back to the car did we leave the water.

We had meant to make dinner at the site, but we were so tired and hungry that we filled up on a grocery buffet instead. I’m writing from the tent now, it’s 7:30 so almost time for bed. I’ll play this tomorrow when I have service. Plan for tomorrow is to check out a surf spot in Topenga, which is 45 minutes down the coast and is supposed to be fun even with smaller swell; Our friend Tiffany, who’s a native So- Californian, recommended I️t to us.

As I write this, I am struck by how incredible of a day it’s been. It’s days like this that make me want to live out here. I have few connections and no job plans, but I️t might be worth I️t just to be able to do this more often.

Update from Santa Barbara

This is going to be a short post. I’m on a beach in Santa Barbara near our campsite. We made a fire and drank a bottle of Jameison among the three of us – me, Adam and Adam’s friend Henry who we met up with – we’re all friends now.

Adam and Henry just went to get a bottle of wine so I’m here alone for a few minutes. They drew the short straws.

We made our fire in a natural sandstone inlet right by the ocean. There are high rock walls that keep us out of view from the campsite, which is good because California State parks don’t tolerate fires. We’re 50 feet from the ocean and the waves are crashing loudly. This is my spot, I’ve claimed it.

The fire is hot, I’m listening to music. I’m happy, and I hope I remember this experience forever. Here’s a picture of us from the fire we made here last night: one of adam and Henry, and one of adam and I. I wish we could have found someone to take a picture of all three of us.

Low Points and High Points

Just an FYI, I’m writing from the car using a hotspot that is too slow to load photos. I’ve been trying to for the past hour and I’m just draining my computer battery, so I’ll upload pictures later when I find some wifi.

The bad weather that we had avoided for weeks finally hit us as we left Portland; Intrepid adventurers, we cut our drive short and booked a motel room. We chose the cheapest option, which had only one queen bed. Sharing that bed in a drafty motel room in who-knows-where Oregon while it stormed outside was the lowest point of this trip. I felt like a little kid, and for the first time since heading out I missed home. I made myself miserable, as I sometimes do, by comparing myself to my friends who had taken traditional routes towards a job and apartment. Self-pity, insecurity and jealousy kept me from sleeping much that night.

As low as that experience was, it led to a fantastic high point. We started the following day by eating a massive brunch and playing several games of chess at a local diner. Laughter and coffee relieved my anxiety. With fuel in our bellies, we finished the drive that we had originally intended to do the day before and made it to the Redwoods that night. We pitched camp ten feet away from the biggest tree I’d ever see in my life.

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We spent the whole next day hiking around Redwood trails and getting lost. In Portland we had bought a little portable speaker, and we listened to the Game of Thrones book on tape as we went. I felt like a kid again, but in a way that was totally opposite from the night before. The audiobook brought back comforting memories of when Rawson and I would listen to Jim Dale narrate Harry Potter before falling asleep, and the immense trees filled me with a childlike sense of wonder.

We decided to take a run down one the longer trails in order to stretch our legs and get some exercise; the endorphins made me feel euphoric. The trails were flat and we the view around us could not be beat; on top of that, the towering trees filled me with an exhilarating feeling that I had shrunk. At points in the trail, we actually ran through trees that had fallen across the path and been hollowed out into passages. We laughed a lot as we ran, racing each other through the otherwise empty trails. It seemed as though the whole forest had been preserved just for us. We ran until we reached a large stream that blocked our path; kicking off our shoes, we waded through the water and ran back to the campsite barefoot.

Upon returning to the campsite entrance, we passed a large group of big-horned elk grazing just feet away from us. They ignored the small group of camera-wielding gawkers around them. Back at camp, we made a fire, prepared two boxes of mac and cheese and played more chess before falling asleep exhausted. It was one of the best days of my life.

It’s funny to think how such a high point could come after such a low. There’s a lesson in there, I think: the night being darkest just before the dawn maybe. It’s a cliche, but it rings true for me in this case. There have been points on this trip where I’ve doubted myself and doubted if the path that I’m taking is the right one, that’s life. But every time I get down on myself something happens that turns my outlook around, and I wonder why I ever worried at all.

The Weird City of Portland

 

We drove 10 hours from Goldbug to Portland, only stopping twice for gas. Our excitement made the time go fast; We were finally reaching the west coast, and we were both looking forward to being in a city for Halloween, especially one with a reputation as weird as Portland’s.

The hotel room was relatively expensive compared to our usual campsites and motel rooms, but it was ideally located only 10-minutes walk from downtown. We had spent the last couple of days almost exclusively with each other, and I know I that I was craving a party. We got in shortly after 7, and spent a couple hours in the room getting cleaned up and drinking cheap whiskey in preparation for the night.

My costume was a cowboy hat and bandana I had bought for $4 from a gas station five minutes outside of the city. Adam was wearing a white shirt and marking it with a Sharpie for every drink he had – a reference to the Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode in which the characters each try to drink 71 beers on a flight. He had 7 or 8 tallies by the time we left, and I may have been ahead of him I don’t remember.

The most fun I had all night was immediately after we left the hotel: laughing and running down the sidewalks towards the Chinatown bars. I don’t remember much of what happened next. It’s not even really worth going into more detail about that night – we got very drunk and hopped between a couple clubs, but nothing remarkable happened. Nobody got punched.

I woke up with a wicked hangover, in a good mood but frustrated that I had slept so little on this expensive and comfortable bed. Adam was equally tired, and it took us almost until noon in our delirious states to check out of the hotel. Halloween night had been fun, but we both resolved to drink less in the future –something we had already promised ourselves several times during the summer.

Our goal leaving the hotel was to find food. The first sandwich place that we found was advertising a vegan buffalo sub made from soy curls, and I immediately thought of Portlandia. Such a strange sandwich would fit well inside the show’s hilariously uber-progressive narrative. I ordered one, curious and amused, but it set my already upset stomach roiling. Still, my spirits were high as we walked around the city.

True to its reputation, Portland was unashamedly strange. Many of the people we passed on the streets had wild clothes, hair colors and piercings. I thought to myself how ironic it was the commonality of these unique appearances; it was as if people in Portland became hipsters in order to fit in. The buildings added to the city’s strangeness: the downtown area had several immaculate weed dispensaries, many vegan bakeries and a large church of Scientology.

An idea for a reality TV show: take a group of bible-belt conservatives and film them walking around Portland. We imagined how hilarious their reactions would be to the city’s celebrated liberalness – they would throw a fit over “the degradation of moral values” and blame the devil’s handiwork for all the weird hair and weed shops. The show would illuminate the hypocrisy behind the stereotypical label of fragile liberal millenials. I call it: Triggered Conservatives.

The day passed with Adam and I exploring different buildings in Portland. We spent a good 2 hours in an Apple Store, trying to get Adams 3 month old Iphone 6 to work (Apple intentionally obsoleting old products – it’s real) From there, we went to a weed dispensary with a huge neon sign that read “Quality Drugs.” I was amused by it’s audacity, at least compared to the east coast’s history of criminalizing these same drugs. The shop was aesthetically pleasing and filled with helpful stoners who showed customers around like workers at a grocery store. It was all very bizarre, but fit in well with the rest of Portland’s strangeness. Note to employers: I didn’t buy anything.

Next we took a tour of the Church of Scientology, because why not. I had heard the stories, but I wasn’t convinced that it was a cult at first. Now, I’m not sure. Upon entering, it seemed like a normal church with an altar and pews, just more modern. A guy behind the front desk offered to show us around, and we learned about the church’s philosophy and watched a video on Dianetics. I thought it was a little strange, but I believe in the first amendment – if scientologists believe that negative feelings are actually alien souls trapped inside our bodies (they actually do believe this, as far as I know), then good for them. Adam didn’t agree with me, and he made several off-hand comments about the church’s cultish reputation to our guide.

The only part of the church that really unnerved me was when they kept pressuring us to stay longer and longer. We tried to leave several times, and each time they insisted on showing us more of the church or teaching us more about its philosophy. Their friendliness quickly turned creepy, like it was part of an agenda to convert us. That part made me wonder whether there was any truth to their reputation. Later that night I watched the HBO documentary Going Clear, which paints an insidious picture of Scientology as a brainwashing cult; after that, I was glad we had left when we did.
Topping off our visit to Portland was a trip to the Microsoft store to try on virtual reality headsets. We were walking back to the car when we passed the store and saw that they were letting customers demo headsets; we decided to check it out quickly. Our visit was longer than we anticipated – we were sucked into the virtual reality experience and stayed more than an hour.

This was my first experience with headsets, and I was blown away by how real everything seemed. They put goggles over my eyes and big headphones over my ears and in an instant I was somewhere else. The demo they put me through placed me on mars; when I tilted my head I could see red sand, stars, and astronauts standing around me. I could hear them talking to me through the headphones, they were telling me to pick up a tool. When I reached out in front of me in real life, I could see my hands in the headset wearing thick white astronaut gloves. The gloves moved wherever my hands did, and I could pick things up in the game just as I would in real life. When I took the headset off, I was back to being in the store; it was highly disconcerting because just a moment ago, two of my major senses told me that I was in space.

I think virtual reality may be on the cusp of fundamentally changing human life. My experience had just been a headset and goggles, but it almost felt real. I wonder what will happen when virtual reality can account for all five of our senses, and we can become totally immersed in a different reality. A person could, theoretically, travel anywhere and experience anything from her living room – what an incredible opportunity that lies ahead of us! But, on the other hand, if virtual reality starts to become more interesting than reality – many sci-fi movies portray what that scenario would look like. Having now experienced virtual reality for myself, I’m thinking that maybe the movies aren’t too far off: it’s dangerously addicting.

Only when the sun was starting to set did we drive out of Portland. It had been a long and strange day that started with being drunk and dressed like a cowboy in a bar and ended with learning about Scientology and virtual reality. In my short experience, Portland lived up to its reputation.