Nike and the Stars

Somewhere in the foggy in-between of adolescence, when I was old enough to recognize the possibilities that the steady march of technology might afford me in the following fifty years or so, but not yet old enough to really grasp the finality of death, I made a bargain with myself: should I ever get the opportunity to go to space, even if the trip were one way, I’d be first in line to volunteer for the mission being offered, presumably, by a NASA whose mission by that time would have been fundamentally and grotesquely reimagined.

I don’t think I’d take that trip today (hey, who knows though, right?), but my fascination with the cosmos held strong through and beyond those even-cloudier periods of high school and college. Today, when I find myself in the wilderness on a clear night, I’ll often end up in the vertiginous position of standing and looking straight overhead, trying to wrap my understanding around the vast and utterly incomprehensible-to-humans distance that those fated photons had to travel to meet my retina.

While I’ve been mostly content to stay on Earth’s surface while I consider the stars, I still want to get the best look. To achieve that prime celestial vantage, I’ve learned (after hours of painstaking research), one needs to go somewhere where it’s really dark at night. In truth, that’s not as easy as my flippancy makes it sound. Those places are steadily disappearing: the same march that carries technology toward the stars has been carrying electric light into the wilderness.

The earth’s oceans, far away from our species’ troublesome grids of electricity, do offer that pure darkness. Indeed, I gather that those arctic cruises can be spectacular. But after a certain point, aficionados will tell you, light pollution is no longer the limiting factor. It isn’t the glow from faraway cities that limits the view, but rather the ambient humidity: air droplets that scatter the light of dim stellar objects. Even once you wring the moisture out, the air itself becomes a liability. To further enhance the view, one must reduce the amount of atmosphere between the observer and the stars, that is, you gotta go higher up. Therefore, as an adult marginally more rational than I was at twelve, I sought not a potentially lethal trip to space, but to the darkest, driest, and highest place on Earth.

So, naturally, when I found myself in the Southern hemisphere, I scheduled a special trip to northern Chile. I insisted that my wife Ruby and I plan our jaunt so we’d arrive when the nights were moonless. Beautiful as Luna would be over the Atacama desert, her glow would interfere with the deep communion with the cosmos that I’d dreamed of.

Our luxury private accomodations

We flew into Calama, a small city that seemed to my apparently untrained eye already to be in the middle of the desert. But further into the dryness we immediately pressed, catching one of the thrice-daily tourist vans to San Pedro de Atacama, an oasis town another sixty miles through the sand.

Everything that you might already be imagining about the particulars of Chilean desert town is accurate, dear reader. Single-level whitewashed buildings surrounded red rock cobblestone squares that usually featured a mission-style church. Friendly street dogs waited at a respectful distance while tourists ate on sidewalks outside of restaurants, where travellers might spend an afternoon drinking a twelve dollar bottle of world-class Chilean wine. Down the street from any given plaza, a family that had probably owned their house for a hundred years set up souvenir tables outside their front door, where in place of mass-market trinkets they sold traditional handicrafts of the Atacama people, a tribe of which the family was still a part. Gringo tourists with hiking shoes and sporty sunglasses perused the stalls before signing up for a trek through El Valle de la Luna to see the eerie landscape and the old salt mines. College-age backpackers walked back to their hostels with cheap beer for an afternoon siesta that might turn into them missing their evening hike.

But probably missing from your imagination are the packets of coca tea and the soroche pills that are widely available to help visitors adjust to the fact that there is fully 25% less available oxygen at Atacama, which sits at 7,900 feet above sea level, this being a large part of the draw for the amateur and professional astronomers who flock there. I assumed that you did not include the altitude in your mental image of San Pedro not because of an assumption I have about your worldliness nor regarding your ability to recognize the requirements that I myself laid out just paragraphs ago, foresightful reader, but rather because I hadn’t realized it, and it helps me to feel better if you didn’t, either.

Did we, then, fall to lethargy, to labored breaths and headachy naps? No, and purely by accident, which tracked with the quasi-mystic fortuity that has tagged along after we decided to open ourselves to the world. I’d planned our trip to Atacama immediately after we visited Cusco, Peru, which is perched at a gasping 11,000 feet. Instead of needing coca tea (which has about as much zing as a cup of coffee, by the way) to function, by the time we got to the desert, it was simply part of a pleasant Andean morning ritual I’d adopted.
Getting to a new town had by this time also developed a sort of ritual: check in to our AirBnB or hostel (and pay an extra $15 a night for a private room while acknowledging that we’ve aged out of dorms), walk around the area bit, and ask a local where to grab a bite. This time, though, I had a mission. I asked the twentysomething Chilean at the front desk about the star tours that I‘d read every hostel organizes.

“Oh. There aren’t any right now. The moon’s full.” She delivered my execution with excellent English and with little accent, something pretty common in South America.
“I….what?” I croaked.
“Yeah, we only run them when there’s no moon, when it’s full you can’t see anything,” she said, as if it weren’t a big deal, as if I hadn’t already known that about the moon, and as if the verdant meadow in which grew my dreams, just moments before in full bloom, had somehow survived the cataclysmic arrival of the blazing twin fireballs of irony and fate.

Walking dazed through unpaved roads, I sought one of the stargazing companies that dotted the town, holding on to a glimmer of hope that perhaps the most dedicated of astronomers would generate enough demand for these shops to offer…something, I’m not sure what. A corner store in the square abutting our hostel had an impressive telescope in the window as well as a helpful dry-erase board. It read, in English and Spanish: CLOSED – FULL MOON.

I’ve since reconstructed the origins of my error. Making plans in August of 2019, I consulted a moon chart online and changed the month to February, confirmed a night of no moon, and planned accordingly. But I must not have changed the year to 2020. And so, I found myself in the Atacama Desert, the Mecca of astronomy, at six o’clock in the evening and the full moon just beginning to rise. I had selected perhaps the absolute worst time to visit, with the brightest moon rising just as night fell.

Well, there are other things to do in San Pedro. One you won’t find in the guidebooks (hot tip!) is to fall ill and try to find Tums in a local pharmacy. They’ve never heard of them, and goodness if it turns out you can’t find them anywhere on the continent. So, instead of lying under the heavens, we took it easy, sat with the polite street dogs, and enjoyed the square.

Not that my side quest stopped me from noodling-slash-obsessing over the stars. The second day, after consulting the admittedly blameless moon chart, I realized something.

“I have an idea,” I said to Ruby.

After less cajoling than I thought would be needed, we went to a bike rental shop. It, like everything else in San Pedro, was owned by an Atacaman family who’d found a niche. The thirty or so bikes showed the wear of being ridden through the desert every day for years. We explained to the owner that we needed to rent two bikes for just the next eighteen hours, that is, overnight. Yes, we said, we knew that it’d be outside normal rental times. Yes, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to see either the landscape, with no real ambient light, and yes, nor the stars, with way too much light. But really, the owner didn’t put up much of a fight, since we’d be taking the bikes for a period when there’d be no other demand for them. No hay problema, he said.

Next, Ruby went to a market to get supplies for our journey: unpackaged nuts, fresh fruit, bottled water. I stayed behind and willed the last of my nausea away while I planned out a route. Really, any direction from San Pedro takes you into the desert, but I planned to go out toward the Valley of the Moon (which we never actually visited) so that we’d have fewer passing cars. We were all set.

At three thirty in the morning our alarms went off. We’d managed just a few hours’ sleep, a deficit that would normally be a disaster for the guy who brings his sleep mask and ear plugs everywhere he goes, but I was too excited. We slipped on our pre-assembled packs and mounted our bikes under the bright full moon, whose light obviated the need for the flashlights we’d packed. We rode through the quiet village’s dirt roads toward the paved “highway” that led out of town. Occasionally a car would pass, but the only ones who really noticed our presence were the stray dogs that would bark playfully or run alongside us on the road for a dozen yards.

At a traffic circle, two dozing dogs roused themselves and trotted over to us. Never slowing down, we greeted them.
“Hey guys! Buenos dias! Up for an early morning jog? We’re going pretty far,” Ruby cautioned them. They didn’t seem to mind at first, pacing along with us. We weren’t straining ourselves, but the dogs definitely had to run to keep up. After maybe a hundred yards, one of the two decided that whatever it was wasn’t worth it. The second, though, kept at it.

“You’re really determined, aren’t you, buddy?” I asked him. No response.
We pedaled out of the town proper and onto a paved two-lane road, what counts as a highway in mostly-empty deserts around the world. Even though the moon was bright enough to light our path, as we got out of town and away from the oasis-watered trees the sky opened up and uncountable pinpricks became visible, as if the darkness were a loosely-woven blanket that shielded us against some ancient and unfathomable power that shone from somewhere behind the universe.

The road crested a small hill and turned to run parallel to the mountain ridge a half mile the northwest, slightly above which nestled the moon, shining to the southeast, where another, more distant mountain ridge was plainly visible. The dog kept pace the whole time.

¨I guess we made a friend. What’s his name?” asked Ruby. It’s easy to make friends with an animal, all you have to do is name it. Admittedly, at times they do not realize that the two of you are friends, but naming something reserves for it forever a small place in your world.

“Well, he’s definitely a runner. Nike?” I suggested.
“Like the god, you mean,” Ruby said.
“Like the god.”

Nike followed us for three miles, when we decided we were “far enough” from San Pedro to lay out our blanket. It was about a quarter to five when we sat down and opened our packs for breakfast. We put some water on a plate for Nike and fed him dried fruit as we waited. The very tops of the mountains behind us met the bottom of the moon.

Ruby and Nike watch the sunrise (45 minutes later).

“You ready?” I asked Ruby. She hugged Nike in her lap.

The moon set at 5:02 am on March 7, 2020, in the Atacama Desert, and the hidden depth and texture of the cosmos swelled into view. The firmament disappeared, no longer was there a shell with holes. Instead there was the breathing, multicolored everything, the ripples of whose muscles you could surely feel, could you only reach. The Milky Way was no longer a pale smear across the sky but a glowing white ribbon, the stars so close together that you couldn’t distinguish one from another.

“Wow,” we said.

Take what you need, Give what you can

By Amethyst
The continuing saga of the Gemstone quest to beautify and brighten Cairnes Lane, the alley behind La Bodega Unión.  

“Sir, excuse me sir,” he said in his distinctively Hampden accent, a lingual tilt that can also be heard in the historically working-class neighborhoods of Baltimore’s industrial sister city, Pittsburgh. “Can I leave this here for just a minute? I’ll be right back for it.”
It was the early afternoon and I was standing on my porch in my pajama pants, a habit I’ve picked up as a sort of fist (or perhaps a finger) in the air toward my former nine-to-five life. 
I make a real effort not to prejudge my less fortunate neighbors, but I have also learned not to trust strangers on the street. My split-second, mostly unconscious decision was that he probably wouldn’t leave anything dangerous or incriminating on my front walkway.
“Sure man, that’s fine, doesn’t bother me,” I said, wondering what it was in the cardboard Huggies box that he couldn’t take with him but that he also trusted to be exposed to passersby for half an hour.
“Oh, thank you sir, I’ll be back for it, just don’t want to be a bother or nothin’.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I responded, and curiously peered into the box that he set down at the base of my front steps. A can of carrots, a few packages of noodles, a bag of beans, more non-perishable foods that I don’t remember. I arched an eyebrow but hey, that’s Hampden.


It will not surprise the reader to learn that the box was still there that evening after we finished our dinner. By the following morning, when I went outside around 8 o’clock with my freshly-Chemexed coffee, items had begun to disappear. Thirty-six hours later, only the carrots remained.
“You know,” Ruby said to me in her here’s-something-neat tone that night, “I liked how people slowly took what they wanted out of that box.”
“Yeah, I sort of expected someone to just take the whole thing,” I admitted, something that, in hindsight, does not reveal a very kind attitude toward my neighbors.
“Maybe we could fill the box back up with stuff. Or even, we could make it nicer, like, I could make a sign,” she said, getting excited by her burgeoning project.
“A sign? Sure, that would be really nice, actually. And we could just put cans of food in the box once in a while?”
“Or, when I go to the store later I could pick up something a little more permanent. And then just whenever we go shopping grab a little extra. Maybe other people would leave things in it too!” she said, and we were off.
Ruby did find a perfect little basket at Target that we zip-tied to our stairs, and she did paint a great little sign on a piece of wood that I had left over from building the wardrobe in our bedroom. We started filling it up slowly, and the food continued to disappear slowly. To date, no one has taken more than a couple of pieces at a time from our humble offerings.

After a week or so, we started to notice cans of food sometimes being added rather than simply disappearing. One day, we woke to find the basket overflowing (above). Someone had been inspired by our basket to empty their cupboards, just as we had hoped. We’ve seen a cookbook, yogurt, and coffee. Now, a month or so in, it’s part of our routine. Whenever we shop for food, we just pick up a couple of extra things.
I did overhear some kids talking, “Yo, I had to promise my mom I wouldn’t steal that basket. It’s a nice basket.” I mean, it’s not. It was $4.50 at Target. But there is a tradition, I guess, of fourteen-year-old boys blustering about stealing baskets. For now, while we are not solving any systemic problems, our little basket moves us a step closer toward our corner of Hampden being the neighborhood I believe it can be.

The Time We Almost Went To Argentina Jail

Quarantine Day 5 or
The Time We Almost Went To Argentina Jail or
You Guys Aren’t Taking This Seriously

by Amethyst

Ok, I’m sorry, the title gives it away, but it was catchy, right? You want to know: how did we, the oh-so-good kids that we are, get in trouble with la policia?

A bodega in Mendoza

Before it all went away.

We got to Mendoza two weeks ago. We were supposed to help out with the grape harvest on a vineyard here, but we found out in the airport there had been a “miscommunication” and, whoops, the harvest is over and no, you can’t stay here when you get in. Lo siento, adios. So we booked one night in a cheap hostel in Mendoza city and then spent a quiet week in a local artist’s loft. Lovely woman. Those first two days in our little AirBnb, things were just beginning to shut down, and though no laws or decrees had made the closings official, we did show up to a bodega to do a wine tasting and found it (and every other business in the area) shuttered. So much for our picture-perfect vineyard hopping.

Two days later, the US State Department sent out their advisory that anyone abroad should come home immediately, “we can’t guarantee your safety if you delay.” Well, it didn’t seem much to us that you could guarantee our safety either way, State Department, so we decided to stick it out and reserved a lovely semi-rural house for a month starting March 20th. Will reassess in April, we said.

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The Andes, me, and La Artista

The next day the three of us (me, Ruby, and the artist) went on a walk. The busses were mostly empty as they passed us on the poplar-lined camino, but people were still out and about. We passed half a dozen vineyards, climbed up the only hill in the area, and took the nice photo (right) that accompanies this fun little story of our rough life as outlaws. Our host, la artista, didn’t speak English, so I got in some serious language practice. Things were pretty ok. We shared a bottle of wine (or so) when we got back and our host told us about her art exhibition in France that led to a friendship with a wealthy older Greek woman. The two of them bussed to Athens for a brief jaunt, where the woman introduced our host to her friends at a five-star hotel beside the lake where she swam every day.

Roundabout eight, we got the word that the president was shutting it down. As of midnight (yep, four hours’ notice) no one would be allowed to drive anywhere except to get food or medicine. No more than one person per car. Great, cool. So we called up our next hosts, caps in hand. Extenuating circumstances and Argentinian hospitality meant that they came and picked us up at 11:00pm, a day early. We got to our new place by 12:30. No problem. No policia.

It’s lovely here, really. We have our separate house with our stone walls and our big windows. And there are really excellent dogs. We stayed put like good foreigners. After a few days, we found ourselves out of wine and bubbly water. Fatefully, the host had already made a run to the store that day. Out of options, we decided to go to the corner mercado to do a quick restock. Ruby had already been to this store, some fifty yards away from our house, so our assessment was that the resupply was a pretty low-risk objective.

Well, the store was closed. Things are closed a lot on this continent. It’s something you get used to, like, for example, have you ever been in a city where a major bank’s ATM was out of cash? That happens all the time here, apparently. “Ha, you just print whatever you need,” our host said when I told him about our bottomless ATMs in the States. I guess he’s right.


Stocking up in the artist’s loft

Anyway, we decided to walk the half mile to the next, slightly larger store. Two minutes into our walk, a car with three men pulled over next to us.

Please stop there,” one of them said to us in Spanish.
“What?” asked Ruby.
“They want us to stop and talk to them,” I told her. Three plainclothes guys got out of the car. I don’t believe any one of them was as old as I am. One of them was wearing a Policia hat. Maybe I should’ve been more skeptical of that, but I wasn’t.
Where are you going?” asked the one that looked most able and likely to put me in a headlock.
We’re just going to the store,” I told him. My Spanish is pretty ok when I’m not being interrogated. When I am, well, let’s say things are about to get a little rough. I’d add that my accent gave us away, but we were very clearly gringos right from the start. I have long blond hair and blue eyes. I do not fit in.
Where are you from?
“Uh, the United States?”
“United States?! Why are you not in quarantine…?” Uh oh.
“No, look, we are in South America since, um, November, and, we come from Peru, since, um…”
“Peru? If you came from the US to Peru, then you have to…”
“Wait, wait, he needs to talk,” Ruby interrupted in a flash of questionable bravery.
“No, look, we have been out US since November. Coronavirus wasn’t something yet,” I explained.
“Do you have your passport?” Uh oh.
“No, they are in our house. AirBnb.”
“Where is that? Do you know that no more than one person can be out at a time?” Uh oh.
“No! Uh, We think…thought…that we were allowed, um, just cars, ah, just one person in a car? The house is very close. Two hundred meters.” We thought just going on a walk was ok. Apparently it was not.
“You can’t be out walking together. Have you been watching the news?” This guy was definitely not amused.
“No, I understand now. Yes, um, we have news, but, and we know this very serious…” My Spanish is usually better than this, really. We told them that Ruby would continue on to the store and I would walk back. This seemed to satisfy them, surprisingly, and they got in their car. I dutifully turned around.

At the first intersection, the car was waiting for me. Uh oh.
“Ah, no, next one,” I said. They were not, in fact, satisfied by my gringo promises. They followed me to our AirBnb’s gate and waited while I went in to get our passports, which I didn’t know the exact location of. I quickly explained to one of our hosts, David, what was going on. I asked him to tell them I was just looking for the passport and not trying to escape and to please not put me in Argentina jail. David, who is French and also very gringo, did not want to talk to the policia. Thankfully, his partner, Ariel, came back just then. Ariel is definitely Argentine. He went out to talk to them and I, gracias a dios, found the passports (in Ruby’s purse) just a few moments later.


No Americans hiding here, te prometo

After verifying the stamps in our passports, both the host and I got a long talk about coronavirus, paying attention, and taking things seriously. I thought it seemed like they believed our story, but then they asked to enter the yard to see where we were living. To make sure, naturally, that our hosts weren’t hiding a bunch of quarantine-violating Americans.

It was around then that Ruby got back. “They followed you home?” Yes, they did. Yes, they really were making sure there weren’t more of us. Yes, they were wearing masks now.

Our cortisol and heart rates were high for a couple of hours after they left. We opened up our laptops to check the news. At that point, Argentina had 266 coronavirus cases. The US had 32,000.

This was five days ago. Things are stricter here now. Now there are 580 cases in Argentina. You all have 85,000. Stay home, friends.

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Walking the Path of Happiness

A divorced former Intel engineer. A barefoot-in-the-woods Berkeley grad. A Harvard Divinity School dropout. And a man whose broken engagement left him questioning his basic values.

I thought I had an idea about what a person’s life looked like before they became a Buddhist monk. Something about being born under golden skies as a tiger stood beside the river under a Banyan tree. But instead of “Oh, I joined when I was six,” these monks’ stories were more like “I was drowning in modern culture, and realized I wanted to live this knowledge, not just study it in academia.” Because of their ability to say, “Yes, me too,” I had an easier time connecting with them while we hiked the Appalachian Trail than I expected. When I walked the Path of Happiness, I was just starting to explore Buddhism in earnest. Beginning that spiritual journey with a physical one taught me some things whose full value I wouldn’t recognize until well after I had left the trail.

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Morning on the Appalachian Trail

“This is a first. We get all kinds comin’ through on the trail, but I’ve never seen monks!” The nine of us stood in the living room of our gracious trail-adjacent host, who allowed us the use of a real bathroom, running water, and a few cookies. We had decided to take a minor detour from the “official” trail (which ran through this little mountain town anyway) to grab some ice cream.  We came across this lovely, warm-faced, middle-aged woman who invited us to take a break inside her house. “What church are y’all from?” she asked.

“It’s called The Order of Interbeing,” said Brother Man. I wondered at the time why he didn’t use the name Thich Nhat Hanh, the founder of the Order and, they say, the second-most famous Buddhist in the world after the Dalai Lama. “It’s a part of the Zen Buddhist tradition.”

“Ohhh, ok. Buddhists. Well that’s somethin’ different,” said our host, her smile never wavering, “are you walkin’ the trail for some kind of religious thing?”

“Well, sort of. We use walking meditation all the time in our practice, this is taking it a step further and including the community of laypeople on the journey, with a specific emphasis on the importance of fostering peace in this world. The monks are walking from our monastery in Upstate New York to Washington, D.C., and others are joining us for a week at a time. We’re calling it ‘The Path of Happiness,’” Brother Man replied, using at least two terms I was pretty sure she would not be familiar with.

“Well that’s just great that you all are walking together like that. Buddhism. Huh.”

To her, we were a novelty, a story to tell her friends, but we were also bonafide Appalachian Trail hikers, worthy of all the respect that goes with the title. And I’ll admit that novelty was part of the draw for me, too. When my friends asked where I went on vacation, I imagined, I’d respond with very un-enlightened feigned modesty, “Oh, just hiking the Appalachian Trail with Buddhist monks, no big deal.” But it was a big deal, just not in the way I expected.

On day three, we were still getting used to each other.  I’d taken a quick liking to all of the monks, but I related particularly well with Dohan, an initiate who hadn’t yet earned the title “Brother.”  I still was a bit intimidated by that honorific, especially early on in the hike, so I found Dohan more approachable. Dohan was about thirty (my age), and looked every bit a Monk early that morning, with his shaved head and brown robes, doing Tai Chi alone in a field as the sun rose over the trees. One of my explicit goals was to use my time with the monks to chart my (figurative) path in exploring Buddhist philosophy, so, when he returned to our campsite, I asked Dohan if he would recommend a ten-day silent retreat, something that Plum Village does not offer.

“Some people find them very useful,” he said to me with appropriate monkish diplomacy, “but retreats sometimes leave the impression that meditation and mindfulness are things that you have to go somewhere else to do, that you need a special environment. I participated in a few of them before I found Plum Village. It was hard for me to find a use for that kind of meditation in my day-to-day life. I felt like meditation was something you do alone on a mat for an intense hour, before going on with your day. But the truth is, you can meditate anywhere, any time, while doing anything.”

Indeed, eighteen months and two retreats later, I now catch myself thinking that I really ought to go back to do another silent retreat, to sit through ten days of stillness to try to reinvigorate my practice. But maybe, instead of dreaming of something I might do months in the future, I should instead be looking to invest in right now.
Speaking of right now, what can ruin a camper’s present moment more than an unexpected and sudden thunderstorm? As I finished my chat with Dohan, dark clouds were just starting to roll in. I recalled canoeing through the rain with my family as a child, glum faces and wet boots all around. An unexpected rain always meant ruined plans and an unwelcome change of course.

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Hours later, after we had finished our hike for the day, the skies began their ominous rumbling above us on the Path of Happiness. I thought of those soggy experiences I’d had before, fearing the worst. The monks, though, simply pulled out a tarp and strung it over a picnic table at our campsite. Under that shelter we huddled, watching nature’s show. Lazy Monk pulled out his phone to record video of t

he unexpected hail that pinged against the tarp, making a special kind of music. The rain was welcome, a giver of life that had a unique beauty. A simple shift in perspective completely reversed the effect of the change in weather.

The Path of Happiness presented some real challenges. Difficulties that were different in kind from the cliché blisters and wet sleeping bags. We were, after all, nine strangers actively seeking both physical and spiritual growth. Since no growth can ever come from a place of comfort, we were forced to go beyond what was easy and natural to find solutions for our group as a beloved community, a concept that would lose its cloying effect and become a real tool for connection and living.

By the fifth day of our hike, we had all gotten to know each other pretty well. We were getting used to the demands of the trail and had fallen into a rhythm. That day, around lunchtime, we were pausing between some towering oaks when a stunningly contrasted red and black bird alighted on a branch above us.

“Look!” Dohan said to Brother Man, the nature lover from California, “I’ve never seen that bird. Any idea what it is?” Brother Man considered a moment.

“My best guess,” he said with a sheepish grin, “is a red-winged blackbird.”

“Ah, or rather, a black-winged redbird,” suggested Dohan, since the bird’s primary color was a deep crimson. Only a few seconds had elapsed, but by this time the whole group was admiring our summer-plumaged companion. I piped up.

“That’s a scarlet tanager.” I only knew this because I had seen one by chance a month earlier. In fact, I could probably only identify some twenty bird species. But right then, it seemed like I could identify all birds, since I had by then named 100% of the species anyone had wondered about (that is, just this single tanager). Sam, a woman who had recently graduated college, gave me an incredulous look. In a small lie of omission, I allowed her to believe I was some kind of master naturalist.

Sam had come on the trip with her friend Cali, a recent high school grad. They’d met years earlier at Thich Nhat Hanh’s Deer Park monastery in California, and had continued growing together through Plum Village events like the Path of Happiness. Their presence on the walk brought young voices and a different perspective (as well as a predictable daily absence at breakfast). Besides myself and my then-fiancee (now wife), Ruby, the other lay-people on the hike were Stephanie, a Spanish and Portugese Studies professor, and Carol, a very active retiree and yogi.

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Brother Man and Amethyst

After the brief visit by the scarlet tanager, we resumed our walk, with me and Brother Man taking the lead. We continued to chat about wildlife for some time, then allowed the sounds of the forest to fill the space. Behind us, in a route of conversation that escapes my memory now, Sam and Cali were talking about the migration of people from Asia to the Americas over the Bering land bridge.

“That’s why Inuit’s eyes are so slanted: to protect them from snow blindness. Asians’ eyes got naturally more slanted as they moved north. Only later, when indigenous people came further south, did they start to open again,” said Sam, herself of East Asian descent.

“Oh, that’s interesting, but be careful with putting causes to evolution. People have a tendency to make up stories for evolutionary changes that really aren’t testable,” said Brother Man.

“Um, excuse me?” Sam said, stopping on the trail. “Why would you say that?” No one could help but notice her voice breaking with emotion.

So began a half-hour break there on the trail as everyone tried to understand not just what had happened, but also how we could all come to see each other better. Emotions were running high, so Lazy Monk suggested that we resume walking, giving us all time to reflect. The energy of that afternoon’s walk was subdued, as we all realized what had happened: a white man had corrected an Asian woman’s understanding of her own people’s story. There were plenty of speculative side conversations, but Sam remained quiet as we stopped for the evening and had our dinner.

Sensing that there was still healing to be done, Lazy Monk suggested the group have a Dharma sharing session. After we gathered around a picnic table, he explained how such a session would work for those of us for whom it was a new experience. That evening, the Dharma sharing was mostly meant to give space for talking about what happened earlier in the afternoon, but we were free to talk about anything that was on our minds. We were explicitly not to respond to others´ sharings, as it was not a time for discussion or arguing, but only to better understand each other.

After an uncertain minute of silence as everyone kept their gaze lowered, I volunteered to share first by bowing to the circle. I spoke, among other things, about my acute consciousness of my own privilege that day, being a relatively well-off straight white man, and how I felt that I was not in a place to comment on any issues of race. The group thanked me, and then each person in turn spoke about their own perceptions of race relations in small groups. Even in a group where everyone was together as equals, it became obvious listening to each person’s contribution to Dharma sharing that in our society we are all always aware of race. A lot of nurturing and enlightening points were brought up as we went from person to person.

After everyone but Sam had shared, a long silence passed. We were all respectful, of course, not putting any pressure on her to share her own thoughts. Finally, she bowed in. She explained that she heard what all of us were saying about race and was thankful. However, what had bothered her that day on the trail was not that it was a white person, but rather that it was a man telling her that she was wrong.

This revelation sent the group reeling. We had made an enormous assumption without realizing it. All of us, from the professor of Latinx studies to the Dutch monk-in-training, were so used to seeing things in terms of race and so used to the authority of the monks that we couldn’t even see how this person had been hurt. We listened to Sam intently as she told her story of abuse and negligence at the hands of men, and the scars those experiences had left on her. Afterward, we all retired to our tents to consider the day’s events.

Even though we had all been pondering the wrong issue for hours, we were able to come together again as a group the following day. In fact, our bonds were then closer. Dharma sharing was not about “solving” the problem, it was about being heard and seen. For our group, it was better than a logical resolution of the issue, it was a coming together. This tense experience on the Path of Happiness reminded me how humans heal: not through intellectual debates and logic, but through the presence of our community and by holding space for each other.

The monks taught me two songs on the trail that have stayed with me. They’re simple songs in both their melodies and their lyrics, as many powerful songs are. When we sat around the campfire on day five, we sang, “Happiness is Here and Now:”

Happiness is here and now

I have dropped my worries

Nowhere to go, nothing to do

No longer in a hurry.

Happiness is here and now

I have dropped my worries

Somewhere to go, something to do

But I don’t need to hurry.

Please, call me a hippie, but I’ve been able to transfer this song to other people. When Ruby and I go camping with friends, we teach this lovely melody around the fire. They, in turn, bring it into their own lives as a gentle, simple reminder to be in the present moment. The beloved community continues to grow.

The other song, “No Coming, No Going,” is about parting ways with someone you care about. Dohan taught it to us on the final day when the group started to get emotional about our quickly-approaching departure. In the parking lot, we sang it again, and Dohan taught me the “Three-Breath-Hug,” which is a way to mindfully and fully embrace someone that is exactly as it sounds. The song is a reminder that we can also be mindful of our connection and enduring bonds even when we part ways.


No coming, no going, no after, no before.

I hold you close to me. I release you to be so free.

Because I am in you and you are in me,

because I am in you and you are in me.


At Plum Village Thailand, where I’d visit a year later, though the monks were wonderfully open to talking, eating, and working with us, I never was able to shake the feeling that I was just a visitor in their world, unable to gain access to the “pure” Buddhist life that I imagined the monks live off in their quarters. The Path of Happiness, however, gave me an opportunity not just to be with monks, but to do with monks.

At the monastery, the authority of the monks gave me the sense that monks are a bit superhuman, having transcended our mean existence. They haven’t, of course. They are just like you and me, but with a tad more practice. On the Path of Happiness, the Brothers faced the same trail I did, with the same challenges, the same frustrations, and the same equipment. They lived naturally, joyfully, and mindfully all the while, no special equipment needed.

2018-05-07 10.32.36-min - Edited

Yes, we “cheated” by having backup supplies. The hike was explicitly not about making ourselves suffer.

Today, when I am frustrated with a task, I can remember the peace Brother Man had when we were trying to light a fire with wet firewood. When I catch myself mindlessly slurping my gourmet coffee, I can remember the almost childlike joy Lazy Monk found in the instant stuff we prepared in the mornings.

While walking the Path of Happiness, I listened to the monks’ tales, often as we sat cross-legged on the ground, leaning our packs against trees as we took a much-needed break after a few miles of trekking. I came to understand that their stories are my story, too. These men who seemed so “other” on the first day, representing in their brown robes the capital-lettered Community of Mindful Living, slowly became part of an us. I, too, have questioned everything after a major breakup. I, too, have quit a “good” job after becoming disillusioned with the power of money to bring happiness. I, too, have spent time in the woods and realized there is a stillness, a kind of power there that I can connect to. What if I had been closer to Blue Cliff Monastery? Could I have become a monk? “Maybe in another life,” I’ll say, while firmly rejecting the idea of reincarnation.

How beautiful is the irony that “getting away” for a week on the Path of Happiness showed me that we don’t have to go anywhere. Brotherhood and “monkness” are things always available to us.


Rethinking Camp Gemstone

By Amethyst

When we started Camp Gemstone, we were awash in Buddhist thought and lofty ideals. Just take a look at our five principals: “Immediacy. Community. Contemplation. Discovery. Beauty.” The aim was to (and here’s where it gets a bit murky) share what we learned about life as we embarked on our Great Adventure. If we did that, we could help others find their dreams.

But the truth is that we often don’t know what the hell we’re doing. Sharing only what we’re confident about makes it seem like we’re confident about a lot, which we are definitely not. Life has been really hard. And those five principals? They are important in our lives, but they aren’t the only rallying cries of Camp Gemstone. We do other stuff, too. And the most important one, community, sits there unassumingly, unobtrusively, unnoticed.

The most important thing is connection, and we aren’t doing it. I’ll admit it: I am afraid to post my struggles. I’m afraid of what people will think. I’m afraid of what my parents will think. But the result of those fears is that you, my friend, get these occasional colorful philosophical snapshots, but no one grows, is vulnerable, or connects.

We are definitely neither Puritans nor saints, but that’s all you see on here. Well, we are going to try to change that. Rather than the structured, sequential, thoroughly drafted pieces about Lessons, we are going to try to write about Real Shit.

A new tagline is in order. Community is the most important, so let’s put that up front. And how about we drop these periods? A little pretentious, no? We also need to keep Immediacy. The shoutout to Burning Man needs to stay, and the push for Right Now really does pervade our lives. What else does? We’re not trying to be monks here, not really. Pleasure in all its wonderful forms, there’s a goal Buddha probably would take issue with. How about this?

Embracing a life of community, immediacy, and authenticity by sharing our pleasure and our pain, our adventures and our failures.

Creative friends, will you help? What else do you think we can do? What do you like or dislike? Do you have ideas for Camp Gemstone events?

The Alchemist: A Defense

The Alchemist: A Review Defense

By Amethyst

Yeah I read it as a young adult with no experience in life and thought it was profound and life-changing. Then I read it a couple of years later and realized just how terrible of a book it was. It is like the romantic comedy of philosophy.
It just oozes of misplaced expectations in life that are dangerous to a growing mind. In the same way that romantic comedies poisons [sic] the mind in what real relationships are like, The Alchemist poisons the mind in what a real well lived life is like.

alchemist landscape

I like to read*. I’ve read a lot of great books as well as the Great Books. I’ll (mostly) humbly submit that I am an advanced reader. And also, seemingly contrary to all that, I read The Alchemist in 2015 and it changed my life. 

Since then, I’ve run into a few people who loved it as much as I did. I’ve come across far more who had reactions like the ones I’ve grabbed from a particular Reddit thread (about something unrelated, as is the way of Reddit), but these comments could have been from any thread, any review, any armchair philosopher’s rant. I want to tell you why this book is one of my favorites, and why it has earned a spot on my shelf with Shakespeare and Buddha. If I think it’s so great, why is it so derided in the first place?
The book’s big flaw, I think, is that young (and some fully grown) adults read it thinking it is supposed to be some kind of philosophical tome. A twelve-year-old may be fully drawn in by the flowery tale and commit themselves to the incomplete life philosophy presented by The Alchemist. Later, when that twelve year old returns to it as an adult, they approach it as they remember it: as having deep philosophical truths, as a guide to living life to the fullest. But it doesn’t, it isn’t, and it’s not supposed to. The problem is people don’t see it for what it is. There’s another book that gives the reader no such trouble. Oh, The Places You’ll Go!’has more or less the same philosophy as The Alchemist:

You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…for people just waiting.
Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.
No! That’s not for you!
Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying. You’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing. With banner flip-flapping, once more you’ll ride high! Ready for anything under the sky. Ready because you’re that kind of a guy.


The Waiting Place

When we got that book for our eighth-grade graduation, we loved it. It’s inspiring to our adolescent selves, which is why Grandma bought it for us. A few of us might even have said it was our favorite book because of how roundly it struck us in our about-to-launch-into-high-school, significance-seeking preteen souls.
But it rhymes and it’s a little goofy. When we read it again at thirty four, we have no illusions that it was ever supposed to be taken as a serious academic text. By the time we’re fifteen, even, we know that we can’t take the good Doctor literally:

“And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all. Fame! You’ll be famous as famous can be, with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.”

The reader will forgive the unevidenced assertion that this bit of encouragement is not meant to be taken literally. I’ve no doubt that someone has taken it at face value, but that person was probably one of those eighth graders. Is Suess’ idea “dangerous to a growing mind”? Does the above quote “poison[…] the mind in what a real well lived life is like”? Of course not.

I will also assert (again without evidence) that there are self-respecting adults who unironically say that ‘Oh, The Places You’ll Go!’ changed their life. But we don’t criticize them because everyone knows that Dr. Seuss was being purely metaphorical, that it was meant to be an inspiration to be daring, not an instruction book. Those like me who say the same thing about The Alchemist don’t get such a pass.

It’s utterly shocking just how many self-respecting adults unironically say reading that book changed their life. It’s like hearing someone say watching Thomas the Tank Engine led them to Nirvana and true inner peace. The Alchemist is just a cookie cutter, basic book of platitudes. Nothing good or bad, it is is [sic] what it is. That so many people seem to have had profound life changing earth shattering experiences reading it…it’s kind of bizarre.

Have you ever read any Thich Nhat Hanh? He says the same things over and over in different ways. Happiness is here and now. Be in the present. Joy about your surroundings is a feeling always available to you. I believe I just said the same thing three times.
Or what about this: did you like Toy Story? What if, instead of letting you watch Buzz and Woody overcome their differences, learn about their true selves, and come together to reach a common goal, a parent had handed your ten-year-old self a card that said “Believe in yourself and stay true to your friends”?

Apples and oranges, right? Books like, say, Crime and Punishment have a richness and complexity to them, a strong message, deep characters. My two examples (Thich Nhat Hanh and Toy Story) are a book of simple life principles and a fairy tale. They work on a totally different level than a truly great book does. I want to argue that it is exactly the confusing of apples for oranges that is stranding these critics in The Waiting Place, unable to be inspired by a simple but powerful truth because it is simple, because it comes with an uninspired plot and dressed in flowery prose.

Well, if you want a book that reveals big ideas on what it means to live a good life I’d start with Aristotle’s Ethics and Plato’s Republic and follow the philosophical conversation from there.

Knowing that you’re living the right life and knowing it are two different things. If you read The Republic, you can get a lot of knowledge. If you want to know something, read a fairy tale. Read a book dripping with colorful imagery, one that shamelessly pulls on your heartstrings. Read it at a time when its message is something you’ve had floating around in your head for a while but you couldn’t quite pull down into your basket. Read it, and then be inspired by it to read a book like ‘No Mud, No Lotus’ by Thich Nhat Hanh. Be inspired to follow that feeling to your dream, whatever crazy shape it takes**, but only after you’ve responsibly and non-magically saved up and gotten all your plans in order. Be inspired to ride that emotion all the way to the East, or the West, or wherever it takes you.

woody profile

Move over, Plato

Books like The Alchemist stir something within that snaps us into the present and makes us realize that this is it, whatever the it is for you. Aristotle might change your life if it makes you realize you want to be a philosopher. That’s great for philosophers and academics. However, if you need a book that backhands you, (you probably won’t know it if you do), you need something like The Alchemist. The reason why so many people like it is because it does such a good job at backhanding. It won’t work for everyone, though. Maybe you’ll get that slap instead from a book like Wild by Cheryl Strayed, a memoir about her redemption on the Pacific Coast Trail. Or maybe it’ll be The Power of Now. Or even Eat, Pray, Love. But please, get it somewhere, I beg you.
I don’t think people should derive inspiration from basic, mediocre things. Their lives and their happiness and the human experience is worth more than that. Humanity is profound; and people need inspiration. Life is too short to be inspired by the fucking Alchemist, of all things. That’s my beef. It has a right to be popular. My issue is it has no right to be profound; it doesn’t deserve such love and adoration.
(this guy again, ugh)

Go out and get inspired by something basic, dammit. The story of finding yourself, the emotions that these authors cheaply tear out of you, these are the most basic tropes that there are. Who cares? Look, I’m going to go read Keats later, ok? Anything that inspires you is worthy of love.
Something else: I know most of the people who read The Alchemist, or something like it, are not going to make some big change in their lives. Some of them will say that it “changed their life,” but from the outside their lives will look pretty much the same. Still others will feel that slap but won’t follow through but for the fear that is described so accurately in these books. Remember the Waiting Place?
If someone feels like a book changed their life, even if you can’t see it, that’s still a really big deal. Your inner life is all you have: what if reading a silly little fairy tale can change your perspective? Maybe a “mediocre” fable will be what knocks the first stone down that hill where an avalanche aches to be set free. People are holding themselves back with their fears and the negative stories they are telling themselves about what is “right” and what is “correct.” Put that all down for just a couple of hours and read a stupid book. It could change your life.


* but I only started using it in earnest this past November 15th. I retroactively added a few of my favorites in there, too.

** That is, your personal legend (forgive me).

Before I leave you, here is some other nonsense from u/save_the_last_dance:

Why waste your time? Read good books, or don’t read at all. Reading isn’t necessary to a happy and fulfilling life. It’s horribly time consuming and nearly impossible to multi task with. It demands alot [ahem, sic] from you; so it should be time well spent. You can listen to bad music and still at least get your laundry and the dishes done. Even if it’s bad music, because of the other ways you spent your time, it’s not a net negative. Not true with bad or mediocre books. If you value your time; life is too short to read mediocre books.

Basic things can and should be popular. I’m bothered by the fact that something basic inspired people. […] It’s just a coffee table book, something you can get at the Dollar Tree for a dollar these days. That’s all it’s worth. I hate the idea that something like that ever actually changed someone’s life. People are worth so much more than that.


Part of Camp Gemstone is the telling and sharing of stories. I want to be better at telling these stories, so I took a creative writing course that ended recently. Here’s a fun little story that is almost entirely true. I will let you guess which part isn’t quite true.

It has less to do with the CG “ethos” than some of the things I post, but I think sharing parts of the process counts. I hope you agree.


Fish Market

An open-air fish market in Punta Del Este, Uruguay. Not a grocery store in Montevideo, but why would you want a picture of that?

When do you get to say you speak a language?
I am often asked, when it seems like I am following the conversation better than my blue eyes and blondish hair suggest I should, “¿Hablas español?”
And I answer in Spanish, “Yes, I speak it, but I don’t have the fluency that I want.” My practiced response. They’re usually impressed.
Oh, you speak very well.” But then, I need the word for garlic.

“Amigo,” I say to a teen restocking lettuce, “I need your help. I am looking for something, but I don’t know the Spanish word.” I go for it. ”Garlic?”
“Em, no, señor.”
Right, of course. It’s something like…anejo?” He smiles at the word. What did I just say, I wonder.
Is it a plant? A vegetable?” he asks. It’s his job not to be annoyed by the foreigner, I suppose.
Yes, a type of plant. It’s small, it has a very strong smell,” I try, struggling.
Mint?” Oh dear, way off track. I’m loosening up a little, regardless. I get the sense I am playing a fun little game here in the mercado. My new friend is smiling, too. Perhaps he is having a bit of fun with the silly foreigner.
No, no, look, it’s…white. And hard. Sometimes it’s in…” I forget the word for sauce (salsa, duh). “…pasta.” I am too flustered to get the genders of the nouns and adjectives to match at this point. He helpfully points to some leeks. “No, uh, look.” I point to some mushrooms. “It looks kind of like that? But…hard” I pause a moment. The comparison to mushrooms hasn’t helped. Then, a flash of inspiration. “In stories, they say vampires hate it?
This, my genius clue, makes the stock boy all the more confused. “¿Que dices…?”
“¡Ajo!” exclaims a woman behind us. I hadn’t realized we had attracted an audience. “You want ajo.” Garlic. I was pretty close with anejo, after all. Which means something like “attached,” by the way.
Here.” She grabs a package of wrapped garlic from the rack just behind me. “Ajo.”
Now everyone is laughing. I just starred in a little show, The Clueless American. Rave reviews. Look for it off Broadway next year.
The stock boy, in his long green apron, isn’t laughing. He casually but firmly takes hold of my elbow. What cultural norm had I just violated? I’ve been in Montevideo for less than twenty four hours at this point. A moment passes while he waits for the crowd to disperse. I consider his intentions. I wouldn’t put up with this from an American employee, but I am still unsteady in this place. “What do you know about the vampires?” he asks me, voice low.
I laugh. He’s joking, and I pull my arm free. “Vampires? All I know is that there aren’t any in Uruguay.
He tilts his head at me, returning my consideration. He grabs another package of garlic off the shelf, presses it into my hands. “Of course. A joke. Watch yourself, friend.” And he returns to casually stocking the shelves.

Wide Open – Walking the Path of Dreams

By Amethyst

Where are your dreams taking you?

A lot of things had to happen before we hosted our first retreat.  We had to research, find, and buy land, quit our jobs over the protestations of the silent but overbearing monoculture, find a yoga teacher willing to work on a “Maybe we can pay you?” basis, and learn about Buddhism from monks so we could give informed dharma talks to the attendees.

But those are different stories, the Medium-friendly pieces, the “this is what you need to do to live your best life” motivational feedbag for us, the stalled middle class youth. We crave this information as we move, despite our best efforts, steadily toward a middle age that we fear will look disturbingly unlike that of our parents’ time. And those ideas can, in fact, change lives for the better. My own life being a particularly starkly outlined example.

But this isn’t one of those pieces. I want to talk about what happens when you arrive. Hosting a yoga and mindfulness event on my own land in the Appalachian mountains was, indeed, a dream fulfilled. But its fulfillment showed me that I hadn’t arrived at all; I had just begun.

What did I find on the retreat? This:

This is a photo of Ruby giving her Dharma talk on how she has applied mindfulness and meditation to her own life to deal with her anxiety, to focus her mind in moments of stress, to go deep and experience her emotions. These are not theories we explored to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, we gave real examples of problems in our own lives that we struggled and continue to struggle with.

There, beside the brook, we all felt connected to and validated by Ruby. We could have all read the books, watched the videos, and maybe we would’ve come to implement those ideas in our lives. But when you sit on a hill and listen to someone’s story, it goes deeper.

Whether or not we converted some meditators, we got something even better. At our kombucha happy hour, we gave out tambourines that we just so happened to have on hand to accompany the didgeridoo and the djembe that two of our hippie friends had brought along. There, Ruby and I realized something about our dream. It was not the yoga retreat itself that we valued, it was the sharing of healing time with others in our community.


The building of that community is what Camp Gemstone is really about. Yes, we will continue to travel, to share our stories, to post our little Buddhist lessons on Instagram. But all of that is in service to expanding our and your community such that we promote healing, always having a home, and showing up with your real self.

We think about our dreams and goals like destinations to be reached. We will save and scrape, and then in four years we can put a down payment on that nice three bedroom. And then, finally, we can rest. What happens next is obvious, and yet we continue to pursue our goals as if they will somehow, this time, leave us fulfilled.

But our dreams are not a destination, they are a path we walk. For a long time, I walked the “big investments” path. First, I did the most responsible thing a college grad could do: I bought a fixer-upper in an up-and-coming neighborhood. When the glow of buying that first house wore off, I saved up and bought another in a few years. Then I bought a coffee shop.

I envisioned myself on a financial track that would ensure my security and well-being. Those assurances were, of course, illusions, but I had walked the track for so long, it was all that I knew. Save, invest, save, invest, watch my projected wealth (i.e. imaginary Excel life) grow more and more golden. Ah, pretty soon, I’d tell myself, I’ll have enough.

Maybe you’ve heard how that coffee shop turned out (not well, dear reader). It went so poorly that I was forced to question all of my decisions. A confluence of Shakespeare-worthy ironies came at the time the shop collapsed. My greatest fortune has been that, during that emotional typhoon, I met another person whose life was also inexplicably unsatisfying, illogically empty despite having all the things we are supposed to want. Together, we explored new paths. Eventually, I’d call her Ruby.

Leading a mindfulness retreat in the woods was wonderful and fulfilling, but the very nature of such an event is that it has no permanence. Less than a house, even, if you can believe it. So, in the days following the retreat, I started to look ahead. What was next?

This time, though, I was walking on a different path. Instead of the emptiness that comes after buying that expensive thing, there were new emotions. Safety, empathy, and community. Before, my next steps were to divert into a newly-labeled savings account, to scan Zillow for neighborhood property value trends. Now, I am on a path where the next step takes me to books about community building, articles on how to filter mountain stream water to be potable, and listening closely to my chosen family. How can I bring these feelings of peace to others?

In thirty years, I might not have the bevy of investment properties I once envisioned would cushion me in my retirement. But you know, I don’t think I’ll need them.



Burning: the Realest Life

At any of the giant electronic music festivals that have become hugely popular and grotesquely profitable in the past decade, you’re likely to encounter a slogan emblazoned on a neon t-shirt, scrawled in the coating of dust covering the rear windshield of a minivan, or drunkenly screamed in a crowd before a DJ’s set: “Fuck Real Life!”

At a Burn, less so. Why? Yes, we’re older, and some of us are even more mature. But we are certainly no less prone to yelling obscenities or constructing makeshift signs. Maybe it’s that we have a sense that we aren’t just pretending.

This guy.

(Thanks to Katie Laskowska)

I asked a dear friend how her most recent regional burn (which I, sadly, could not attend) played out. It was wonderful, well organized, and only twice did she fear the collapse of her infrastructure. More important than the steadfastness of her tents, never did she look out on the playa and lament that real life could not look like that, never did she mourn the fact that she had to return home in just a few short hours.

Like many burners, you will not find pictures of her home in Good Housekeeping, nor will you see her name on an election ballot in the near future. The camp that she founded and leads has been host to legendary parties of hedonism, nonsense, and glittering irresponsibility. And, as befalls even the best camps, in due time personalities clashed, and dreams both separated and brought friends closer together. Through it all, she prioritized the interweaving of art into her life, and she never gave up on her community.

Now, after plenty of tears, soul searching, and hard work, things are less dramatic. She has more direction, purpose, and space for stillness. But still her life has lost none of its vibrancy. Still she burns as brightly as ever. All of these things she has gained with the help of her community and with the self knowledge that came from being true to herself as she confronted her demons.

When she looks out over the playa now, she thinks, “This IS real life.” When she returns home, she comes back to a stable community, to art, to new experiences. She makes music with friends. She has a job where she is comfortable sharing her concerns and expressing her individuality. That is to say, a burn becomes a place where her life is not replaced, not put on hold. Life is not something to escape, but instead at a burn we concentrate life, distill it to its essence.

At our favorite regional burn

Did burning inspire her to mold her life in its image? Or was the mold, dormant inside her, what inspired her to burn? However it happened, integrating community and creativity into her life (as I have tried to do mine) has meant that we no longer need “decomp” in the days following a burn. It’s nice to stretch out the gathering of friends a bit, but no longer is the return to daily life so jarring that it requires planning and forethought.

Burners, we are a weird and wild bunch. I implore you to let that wildness fill your lives, to be true to yourself, and to bring the burn home with you — not the tutu, not the day drinking (necessarily). Bring home that sense of creativity and community, and let burns be your realest life.

To Cross a Border

By Amethyst

Really, by yowling at sunrise, the dogs were doing us a favor, making sure we did not miss our bus. Our mournful canine friends lived under the raised bungalow where we were staying in Siem Riep, just a few miles from the incomparable Angkor Wat. The surprisingly modern bungalow was technically in the city, but still the jungle rose around us. Dusty dirt roads wound through houses in various states of disrepair, while fences provided support for the vines and wildflowers of the ever-creeping wilderness. The dazzlingly colorful wildflowers themselves provided a snack for wandering cows.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

We had arranged for Kim the tuk-tuk driver to take us to the bus station. A friend of the hosts’, over the previous three days he had provided us with cheerful three-dollar trips into town at our whim. Before climbing aboard that morning, we asked him where there was a mailbox along the way that could receive our half dozen postcards. Kim apparently has little use for the mail system, and so we scouted (unsuccessfully) for a box on our way into town. Only once we arrived did the lanky, burned-out Australian man who ran the bus company’s waypoint tell us where Ruby could send the postcards West. And, he quickly added, she should really go herself and not trust the tuk-tuk driver to drop them off.

Ruby returned with success to the bus station in just a few minutes. The skin-stretched Aussie soon launched into a well-rehearsed and mostly incomprehensible summary of the journey before us. The main points were that we would be taken to the border, we would pay a probably illegal two dollar fee to the Cambodian government and not refuse or we would be left behind, we would walk through no man’s land to Laos, we would collect our visas, and finally we would get on another bus to take us the rest of the way to Don Det. Any questions? No? Good.

We got into our “luxury van,” which, like every other vehicle in Cambodia, was at capacity. We were blessedly and surprisingly not over-full of luggage, though, and so were able to rest our feet on the floor rather than our bags. “Luxury” takes on a different meaning when backpacking, and we relished our foot space. Soon, our driver took off, quickly overtaking the van that had left five minutes prior. The van sped turbulently down roads that might have at some point been called “paved” with questionable regard for other drivers. Southeast Asian driving culture says that any time a vehicle is going too slowly for your liking, you may pass it by crossing into opposing traffic. Checking for oncoming cars is highly recommended, but by no means required. As an added safety measure, drivers honk at the car they are passing to be sure that they do, in fact, realize they were driving too slowly.

Our driver was, the astute reader may have guessed, doing quite a lot of such honking. Halfway to the Laotian border, we stopped to change vans: we were continuing northeast, others were heading south. Since the ride was so delightfully and dangerously efficient, we arrived an hour early at the station. And so, in efficiency’s name, we passengers – and the driver – waited for an hour and forty five minutes instead of forty five minutes for the next leg of the journey.

Since we had so much time to kill, I took my trusty roll-up hammock across the street to the banks of the Mekong to have a nap. Also needing a recharge, Ruby ordered a cup of coffee, which earned the unqualified distinction of the worst of her entire life.

We continued our Shake-Weight-sponsored trip north, stopping just before the crossing at an unremarkable Cambodian market. We had been told by the driver that we’d have the chance to change money at this market before going into Laos. Off the bus and inside the market, the driver explained in broken English that one might be able to get 8,500 Laotian Kip per dollar in the big cities of Laos, but at our destination, the tiny river island of Don Det, everyone, everyone sold Kip at 8,000. So, by stopping here, he was giving us a real opportunity (yes, dear reader, we missed that red flag) to change currencies at an 8300 kip per dollar rate. We have chosen to chalk up that 200 Kip/dollar (about 2 cents) difference in rates as a donation to the local economy, rather than consider ourselves victims of a scam supported by the transit company’s employees.

After paying our tithe, we were taken another half mile to the border.

“Ok, bye bye!”

“So do we just…go over there?” I pointed at what resembled a toll station with an office attached.

“Yes, you go, bye bye!” Our bus driver/international currency con-man had places to be. Traversing the remaining hundred yards to the passport office with our packs gave us the opportunity to survey the border crossing. On the Cambodian side were the aforementioned ticket booths and the government-plain passport control office. On the Laotian side were more toll booths, another passport office, and an impressive covered area for trucks and vans to pay their tolls and be processed. The rooflines rose to the sky in classical Asian architectural style. The whole area was flat, having been cleared of trees and brush, and roads crisscrossed between the countries to imbue the scene with a decidedly dystopian vibe.

We entered into the Cambodian office through the door marked “DEPARTURES.” With little hassle, the official stamped each bewildered backpacker’s passport and took our treaty-violating two dollars. We were called up, processed, stamped, and dismissed.

Standing on the other side of the window, Ruby asked, “Ok…now what?” Getting no answer, we walked down to the ARRIVALS door, where an official was leaning against the wall outside.

Sua stai, um, where do we go?” I held out my stamped passport.

“Yes, you go.” He pointed out the door in Laos’ general direction.

“Right, yes, but…where?”

“Yes, you go.”


With trepidation we exited Cambodia into the seventy five yards of not-actually-in-any-country expanse of dirt and pavement that was clearly not designed for pedestrians. The jungle stood, ready, fifty yards to our left and right.

Looking toward Laos from Cambodia customs

Approaching the structure we correctly guessed to be the processing office, we entered the ARRIVALS door. Waiting for us was a woman sitting behind glass.

“Hello!” I handed her the passports. I try not to be so unabashedly American, but I hadn’t learned Laotian greetings yet. The uniformed woman smile-grimaced, but said nothing. She opened my passport, and inside found the visa application with my photo stapled to the top right corner: PHOTO HERE. We came very prepared.

The smile half of her expression disappeared. “No copy.” She held up the photo. I raised an eyebrow.

“No, that’s not a copy, it’s the original. I, uh, printed it out…”  I realized from her blank expression that the signal wasn’t getting through. “No copy. Original.”

She shook her head. “No copy.”

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, lady, that’s not a copy, I don’t have another one, and I can’t go back to Cambodia.”

Ruby interrupted. “Amethyst. Be nice.”

“It doesn’t matter, she can’t understand me!”

Thankfully, that “requirement” seemed to be just a helpful suggestion. My quip at the passport lady was borne of needless frustration. I had assumed that a fully completed visa application would be mandatory to enter a foreign country. As needed as, say, checking for oncoming traffic before changing lanes. And so, I thought, we were about to be denied entry. But the photos were simply torn off the visa application papers and discarded.

We were motioned to sit and wait. Other travelers filed in and went through the same process, except many of them had been tipped off about the professional photos. We waited and compared itineraries. The first question that backpackers ask is “Where are you from?”,  followed quickly by “Where are you going?” and “How long are you traveling?” Only then, and only in the desperation that comes if another topic of conversation hasn’t been found, do we sometimes hear “What do you do?”

At the visa output window, our passports, now with Laotian visas inside, were held up one by one. An attempt was made to pronounce our names, but few are the Laotians who have mastered our alphabet. So we all looked at each passport as it was presented. “Looks like a German passport, isn’t he from Germany?” “That one’s red, I think? Italy?” “Ah, good ol’ USA.”

Having collected our papers, we again wandered, bleary-eyed, back into the sunlight. “Ok, there,” helpfully suggested a Laotian man, who maybe worked there. Uniform dress codes were unreliably followed.

“What? What’s that? Is that where we’re getting picked up?”

He furrowed his frow at us. “Restaurant. Go there.”

“A restaurant? Sure.”

Aside from its lonely location, the restaurant was like any of the umpteen thousand “restaurants” by the side of the road in Southeast Asia. The same smattering of fried quasi-ethnic foods as we would find in the rest of the country, a couple of decades-old drink coolers, a few unidentifiable objects for sale, a small kitchen, and a door to a bedroom. Two features made this food stand (“restaurant” is a stretch) stand out, though: the contingent of two dozen foreigners that quickly gathered to wait for our rides, and the six-feet-cubed cage that held a large tropical bird which would squawk wildly, loudly, and somehow majestically every few minutes, forcing all of us to stop our conversations and wait thirty seconds for the end of its display.

We struck up a conversation with a guy perhaps twenty years our senior who seemed to live on the road. He told us about running across the border in Nicaragua, about a poorly-timed Ugandan visa, and other exotic mixups. We told him about buying black market cash in Cuba, where he had never been, to our great pride.

Fifteen minutes later two military-style trucks pulled up. No friendly bus driver got out to round us up, no placards announced their destination. We simply climbed aboard.

“Where does this truck go? Don Det?” Ruby took the lead.

“Yes.” Unbeknownst to us, the driver had just used half his English vocabulary.

“Ok, this bus, it goes on to Pakse?” Pakse was the next stop for many of our fellow travelers, north of Don Det.


“Great.” We all passed our bags up to be loaded on the roof. Below the flat sheet of aluminum on which our luggage sat, there were two red benches running longways on each side of the truck bed. Six travelers fit on each. It was cozy.

“Ok, making sure. THIS truck goes to Pakse?” a fellow tourist confirmed.



“No.” There was a flurry of activity.

“Oh goodness, get your stuff off. Everyone get your bags off if you’re going to Pakse!”

Where such an announcement might lead to panic and hysteria on a New York – DC bus, this one was met sighs. Those headed to Pakse started removing their bags. We decided to triple check, since there were no other busses in sight.

“Wait, ok, hold on, where does this bus go?” we asked the nonplussed driver.  

“Don Det, Don Khon, Pakse.”

“So it goes to Pakse AFTER Don Khon?”


“OK FALSE ALARM! Get your stuff back on, let’s go.”

After about two miles, the truck stopped to let off the Pakse-bound, while we turned left and continued to Nakasong, which was plastered on the banks of the Mekong as a jumping-off point to get to 4,000 Islands. A few of this clearly exaggerated number of islands held a collection of tourist outposts, catering to Chinese tourists seeking loud karaoke, retirees seeking luxe days at the river spa, or hippies looking for “happy” pizza, yoga, and cheap beer. Even though yoga was out due to a sprained wrist, we vastly prefer wine to beer, and we don’t eat pizza, happy or otherwise, the promise of a laid back hippie town drew us in.

We climbed into a long, narrow ferry to take us to Don Det. Passing by many of the “4,000” Islands, we realized that perhaps there were actually that many, if you counted the mounds of dirt that were little more than shrubs sticking out of the water.

Due to all the difficulties and unexpected delays, we arrived just as the sun set behind the mountains on the other side of the river. The width of the Mekong seemed to push the mountains back, giving the sky the illusion of being especially large. Reds, blues, and yellows played on the tree-covered hills that quickly rose and sank in and out of the water.

There is no adventure without courage, there is no courage without fear. We all dream of adventure, but sometimes we forget that travel can mean real setbacks and uncertainty. We’ve recognized this unfortunate reality and are learning to accept it. Rather than complain about what we perceive as obvious procedural errors in the actions of our foreign hosts, we have learned instead to say “always an adventure!”

The captain cut the engine and we glided into the dock.

Sunset over the Mekong from the ferry to Don Det