The Lost Art of Comforting

Those moments when you are standing knee deep in icy river water from a flooded winter rain in Europe having walked alone for several days on a simultaneous "personal project" and a commercial filming assignment are the same moments when you suggest to yourself that your life maybe was destined for something that involved a desk and a room with controlled humidity. I mean, that's what you interviewed for in Los Angeles with your college buddy, the place with pink Italian marble floors and the place with the secretary with a gaze that left you uncertain of many things. Where was your college buddy now? Probably sleeping on a pile of money with a similar dead-stare secretary. But you were here, on a "trail" that was a roasting oven just six months earlier when you happened to be standing in the same place. Except you and your Norwegian and Spanish friends were half naked swimming in the rather shallow but refreshing body of water then. That swimming hole was now an engorged ice bath. You look quickly both ways, but know that forging this river is the only way to get across. 

There is this idea that picks at your brain: the idea that a woman who ran that perfectly wonderful home-style cottage for weary travelers would be open in January. You push this idea back into your head very far, because the alternative--the reality--is that you have another seven hours of hiking in this torrent of discomfort, with four hours already behind you. You note that the sun has been scurrying away in the clouds around 4:30 pm anyway, allowing you to dart through the night rain and dodge cars and large dogs for several hours of your hiking 'day'. This idea that maybe she was still hosting pilgrims in the dead of winter...No way. No way she continued to open her home and feed hungry and tired and odorous humans in her own home. Just stash that thought far away and try to remember where the cafés were along the way. Where hot beverages hung out in all that darkness and rain. 

I stood in front of her house like a miserable dishrag. The house looked empty. Those lush gardens and the porch with the bed on it where I had slept outdoors while eight or nine other pilgrims had slept in the adjacent bunkhouse were rather drab now. Finally, a woman appeared. She looked startled and quickly called for the hostess: The Saint of all Miserable Dishrags and Wandering Photographers.

The fabulous hostess and host of Portugal. Truly delightful and wonderful humans. (Seen here singing for a few guests/friends)

The fabulous hostess and host of Portugal. Truly delightful and wonderful humans. (Seen here singing for a few guests/friends)

She was brilliant.

She put up the proper fuss any mother would about "peregrinos who walked in the winter," shooing me towards the bunkhouse and a hot shower while simultaneously telling me to throw my wet clothes out the door and that she would find some dry ones. "I never close!" she exclaims, and yells back at me that I should come in for a late lunch as soon as possible. I took my time in that hot shower, and praised the dry maroon long-sleeved shirt and stretchy grey trekking pants that sat outside the door when I finished, obviously the forgotten garments of previous trekkers. I walked into the main house to be welcomed by three friends who were spending the holidays with her and her husband, a couple from Holland and a woman from Spain. Our hostess insisted that I eat the last fish (grilled to perfection) and roasted potatoes. I ate it like a celebration, and enjoyed it as much as the sensation of being dry. My clothes hung dripping by the open fire and the conversation was textured, rich, no one letting anyone leave as we discussed news and the Camino and Europe and photography and cinema. Eventually dinner was served and her husband returned home and somewhat recognized me among the thousands of pilgrims he had seen before. Seven of us had a delightful dinner.

What a comfort meal starts to look like (there may be five other dishes + beverages).

What a comfort meal starts to look like (there may be five other dishes + beverages).

The arrangements were all made that I would have my clothes ready and dry before departing. I slept alone in the bunkhouse, made for ten or more pilgrims, but I had only seen one person in three days, a Korean guy who stumbled into a dark and cold albergue about three hours into the night a few days back. Otherwise, it was the march of solitude. It was a bit hard to leave as my hosts insisted at breakfast that I stay another night. They worried about the continual downpour that had signaled the real start of the Portuguese winter. I couldn't linger though; I never really linger. Something I both love and hate about my journeys.

They never asked for money. That was the odd and glorious part of these people. They don't mention it, they don't think about it, they don't expect it. There is a little jar in the corner of the kitchen: "Donativo." I stuffed plenty of cash in it, of course, while no one was looking, because to make it noticeable would make it less sacred. Donativo. It was all this lost art among a world of price lists and expectations and this-for-that transactions. It makes the exactness of our dealings seem so vulgar. These people just gave you what you needed and that included the fuss. It included the meals and the fire and bed and the warm clothes. It included more than that, though. They had it all right, this lost of art of comforting.

The Therapeutic Process of Journeying

Moving up the mountain to Gokyo Ri in 2006, I remember Nepalis heading down to the lower elevations for the summer, the monsoon season. There were trekkers and therefore no business. Everyone was taking a break, and a well deserved one, I suppose, having to deal with the international crowd for months and months on end. People told my guide that there would likely be no one up in Gokyo, and we would be very high at 16K feet or so without a place to sleep and eat. There was still a promise of one tea house being open, however.

From Mt. Timpanogos, Utah. Photo by Joel Addams

From Mt. Timpanogos, Utah. Photo by Joel Addams

Gokyo Lake shimmers like glass and is blue like love. They told me not to think about swimming in it. The gods and all. There was one teahouse open, and the kind young man outlined the process: dinner at six (or whenever we wanted), here's the bed, do you want anything else. I was pretty exhausted. It was the highest I'd ever been and my marrow was trying to manufacture red blood cells about as fast as my diaphragm was contracting and expanding, increasing the likelihood of exposing the passing capillary blood to the oxygen that was present. My guide, skipped off to gather wild mushrooms. I couldn't complain about that.

I sat and read "Once and Future King". I liked it. It was epic and for some reason, I always choose books that were opposite of what I was experiencing in real time. I guess that's why The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde entertained me on a midnight bus from Jerusalem to Elat, heavens knows I wasn't going to sleep while a hundred Israeli teenagers where singing something joyous and I really learned the meaning of "sheket." I realized while reading that book in Gokyo that I had done very little journeying in my life, then defined by the inability to get to "proper" medical care if needed. I decided that I should define the journey based on how available this perceived notion of medical care was. It was odd, in a way, defining my proximity to a misunderstood "system of care," one where people continue to assure you of certain things: "we'll take good care of you", "you'll be OK," "you have insurance, right?" Ah, insurance, that was another process I thought about, up there. Where was my insurance? Even though I had it, what good would it do me? As I found out years later (working in ICUs, emergency rooms, hospital floors), insurance doesn't save people. Those trauma cases never turned out better because someone was insured. Sure, it kicks in for all those issues in between, but daily (or nightly, depending on how lucky I was) people died in the best hospitals of the world. And they were all "excellent." The world's "best care" the marketing in the entrance always declared.

From Gokyo Ri, looking down on Gokyo Lake. Photo by Joel Addams

From Gokyo Ri, looking down on Gokyo Lake. Photo by Joel Addams

I realized that part of the process of journeying meant that you trust in yourself and especially trust in other people. That was key. Trusting that people would be out there ready to help you and take time for you and trade with you and take your money for some good or service. My life had seemed like a series of day hikes before that, always returning to an usually large screened TV (mostly for movies), a place to prepare food, even my landlord's hot tub! But where was the process? The leaving behind of ideas, the dissolution of property or goods that didn't mean anything to me, that were even weighing me down (don't we say: who will take care of my dog? I can't afford for someone to mow my lawn?).

The insurance that we are all forced to have in the US makes sense for all the problems that don't kill us: otherwise we keep saddling the system. But people I worked with were always so shocked that modern medicine couldn't save their loved one. What? But we had ASSURANCE (I mean, INSURANCE). A common misunderstanding of the current American mindset: you will die. And even though we advance our science at an astounding rate, people believe it less. Oh, and they don't exercise enough.

A common question I used to ask people was "Where do you want to die?" The answer was almost always, "not in the hospital." I had to agree with that. My preferred location would be on a journey so forgotten and magnificent that I would be far away from any beginning. I've heard it said that most people die within five miles of their home or where they were born. I would prefer to die far away from where I started, because out there (physically, mentally, emotionally) I was probably learning a lot more than reinforcing myself with the same ideas of my youth. That would be a journey, to in the process when I die.

The Perils of the Over-programmed Life

I learned a valuable lesson as I texted my boss/friend/Italy Workshops owner from a stormy mountain in the Dolomites in Italy about the current situation of my (and his) photography workshop last year. "Not going well," I wrote, "The rifugio did not keep its promise on a separate room." I felt horrible because I knew my guests were counting on some privacy after a previous night of very cramped quarters. The hiking was unreal, as was the photography. We had apple strudel that had been cable-carred 3 kilometres UP from an Italian village and faced one of the great climbing walls of the Italian Alps. Everything was great except for this ONE problem: space. Admittedly, I wouldn't have minded if I were alone, but this was my job.

I grew up a middle child. I was supposed to be a pleaser. In so many ways, I had rebelled against this concept, but showing people the beauties of travel and adventure travel, at that, and capturing better photographs. This required a bit more perfection. Drake texted back: "Don't worry about it. It'll be one of the great stories." I knew it was true, but it was not what I wanted to hear.

When I was in college, everyone wanted to work for companies like Franklin Covey. Time Management, that was the route to happiness. The concept was sold in leather binders with neatly conformed inserts bound in plastic. Buying more plastic inserts likely equated to more organization, and therefore, more happiness. You had nothing if you didn't have your daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, FIVE-year goals written down. (Five years? I could barely decide on the next five minutes.) Where I came from, that five-year plan also meant babies at some point. I tried to swallow the pill; I really did. It just kept getting stuck in my posterior pharynx somewhere, never fully washed down even with a generous supply of encouraging back patting and awkward jokes about when I was going "start getting on with life." I think that meant going into debt for a house. The same houses that people vacated in 2008. Granted, I had my fair share of "living" by applying to, getting accepted to, and successfully completing medical school. Boy, everyone was really on board then. "He's finally 'did got done living!'" [sic]. Hmmmm. That was many years ago.

What ever happened to Franklin Covey? Well, the smartphone, for one thing. I think the plush leather binders are still out there, making you feel like your life is smoothly compact and organized. But at 3 a.m. in emergency surgery in Hawaii, with myself as an assisting intern, I didn't see too many family members organized or "put together." No one seemed quite so assured of their five year plans when a loved one was intubated and yours truly could make adjustments to the oxygen, positive end expiratory pressure, tidal volume, respiratory rate, I:E ratio and other various knobs and dials (as long as the respiratory therapist knew, claro). The funerals I attended all praised person's "extreme organization which directly affected his love." Not really. People mostly tell stories at the end. In fact a writer in the New Yorker even today suggested that "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," repeating Joan Didion from "The White Album."

So what are the perils of the over programmed life? I don't know really. I guess I'm not the one to speak on that topic effectively if you have read this far. I don't even know about the programmed life. I'll say this though: I've learned quite a bit about myself the less I have become programmed and I've remembered more during those times. There are blocks of time which people can't remember: days, months when I believe their routine (or hatred of it) has consolidated in their memory, allowing them to the forget the details, details so mundane or programmed or uninteresting that their minds have actually discarded it. Strange. I remember certain days or weeks or months more vividly than they probably occurred. Technicolor. Sharp. 

No wonder why someone like Marta Marie-Forsberg is followed by 260K followers on her little Instagram, a page where so many people long to be living: disconnected from time, with the ability to cook real food without duress and spend time with people they enjoy. Applause to MMF for creating such a space, though surely she has some appointments too. The idea is there.

The Promise of Summer

There's a time. 'Bout now. You're sitting at work or driving to and from work or just working. You notice the air is a little bit different. You sense there are moments of sunshine that seem pleasant to you; you may even stop in them. It's the promise from your north-of-the-equator life that there really may be a spring coming and that there really may be a summer coming and that there may be a time when you don't have to think. You can just put a finger on the map and a finger on the calendar and say "we're going then." 

Nate Nelson in the High Uintas + The North Face.

Nate Nelson in the High Uintas + The North Face.

My life's summer has extended over the years to forcing myself to live in the "hiking time" longer, to be mobile and willing to take on more elements longer in the year. But I still love my summer. Scouting on the map this week on the travels in Nepal in April with Italy Workshops and Everest Base Camp, with the same group in the Italian Dolomites, and then a second round in the adventures of the Himalayas, I am feeling that it is 10 degrees warmer already.

Where are you going?

The Portuguese Camino in Winter

Most hikers, trekkers, and outdoor adventurers are familiar with the Camino de Santiago, whose main route (Camino Frances) traverses northern Spain. The Camino Portugues is a lesser known and beautiful ramble up this charming country. If you need to really be alone on the hike, try the winter when clouds and rainfall make for a surreal experience. And try a solid waterproof backpack. I very much enjoyed directing and providing the cinematography on a piece for those wishing to travel a bit further, and in harsher conditions. (www.rockagator.com)

Directed by Joel Addams (www.taofeaturefilms.com)
Cinematography by Joel Addams
Soundtrack and Mixing Supervision by Gareth Young (release on file)

Icy Hiking in Southern Utah

Winter does not mean a stoppage in the hiking outdoor adventure, even when referring to icy waters. My home state of Utah may be an unparalleled maze of desert and mountains and phenomenal river ways. So, jump in the vehicle, gas up at Maverick (the local flavor of petrol), complete with Dunford chocolate donut (you know what I'm talking about), rent yourself a dry suit with at least four layers of underclothes, and start your weekend hike. (The spot was for Rockagator, a startup waterproof backpack that finally had a real backpack support system.)

Travel Gear - REI's Kimtah Rain Jacket

You know I love good gear. In lieu of my 2015, all-encompassing wrap-up, I will suggest a few pieces that are currently still around and a killer deal. The first is my 2015 rain jacket, REI-style, which I picked up for its comparable quality to a Patagonia model and much sweeter price (and the color was Roasted Carrot). The orange really was the second reason, as it showed up well in photographs in the outdoors, tested by some friends on an Italian Dolomites Photography Workshop I guided last July. The orange really did the trick and the jacket has been great. Done. It appears to be on a killer sale currently here

There's a grey and black version, but it didn't seem as sexy. They've improved the hoods on these bad boys, to have extra room for helmet/hat and I found myself huddling up inside it when I needed some extra warmth on some trails recently in Europe (also in the winter). En plus, I like that it is not as "crinkly" as some of the other jackets that boast its level of waterproofness. Again, I paid full price, and now there are succulent deals. 

Coming up will be some pants, cameras, and even a wallet, grâce à ma soeur. 

Using it for photos...in a pinch...

Using it for photos...in a pinch...

Documentaries on Photographers

A very short list of good documentaries on photographers. Don McCullin has very poignant things to say about his career and views and morals and humanity in a thoughtful documentary. Sally Mann's work has always interested me aesthetically and her ability to find the beauty in the everyday. Richard Avedon is a master personality for his own work, larger than life, a pleasure to actually watch photograph. Gregory Crewdson's Beneath the Roses body of work initially made me feel OK about photographing dark things. Try these on for size.

Gregory Crewdson - Brief Encounters

Richard Avedon - Darkness and Light

Don McCullin - McCullin

 

Vivian Maier - Finding Vivian Maier