This story about our visit to the remote atoll of Palmerston in the Cook Islands — and the unexpected volleyball match we joined — appeared in Islands Magazine. As one of the most beautiful and unique anchorages during our sailing voyage across the South Pacific, Palmerston is definitely high on our “let’s go back someday” list.
When my dad was 17, he floated 60 miles of the Colorado River on a ping-pong table. Along with two friends, he set off like Huck Finn into the wilderness to see what might happen. Luckily, they tested their “raft” in the neighbors pool before setting off. The suburban backyard didn’t have the desert winds or rapids that quickly poo-pooed their primitive rudder system, but the contraption did indeed float. Somehow.
Fast-forward 45 years to a smaller river in Oregon, where Rob and I loaded his grandson onto a real raft for a 5-day, 70-mile float. Even though I’ve been on dozens of river trips, rafting with a 9-month-old felt a lot like getting on a rickety ping-pong table strapped to some inner tubes: precarious. I wasn’t scared of the Class III/IV rapid we’d cross on the John Day River. I wasn’t scared of wildlife or weather events. I wasn’t even scared that Talon might fall in the river. I was terrified, however, that Mr. Wiggly-Crawly-Has-To-Stand-And-Move would scream bloody murder about being trapped in a small space.
Talon, like his grandfather, is an adventurer at heart. But, unlike his grandfather, he required a LOT more gear to get down his first river. My dad and his friends took a couple of lawn chairs to sit in, sleeping bags to huddle in, and a wooden chest bolted to the middle of the “raft” to hold food (and quite possibly beer). Our party of roughly the same size filled a 14-foot boat to the gills. To be fair, Talon’s gear accounted for one medium-sized dry bag. Kipp, Rob and I, however, like having tables and guitars and comfy tents and binoculars and all sorts of other fun toys. Plus, we brought along a 110-pound wolf/shepherd, too, which really impacted the Jenga-like raft packing system.
Once we figured out how to rig the boat to contain the giant dog, tiny baby, three adults, and oddly-shaped gear, we were off. Sort of. Turns out that he John Day is awfully slow. Low flows and up-canyon winds combined to push us backward instead of forward. Uncle Kipper saved the day by rowing non-stop … for five days. Meanwhile, Rob and I took turns corralling Talon in the bow, scouring the red riverside cliffs for new birds, and generally enjoying the pace of life on water. (Thanks, Kipp.)
Talon’s highlights from his first river trip include:
watching a pair of peregrine falcons
playing with zippers in the tent
banging on a bucket
staring at riffles
His parents’ highlights from the John Day include:
mom sleeping in a separate tent to enjoy uninterrupted sleep
dad teaching Talon to give high-fives
not riding on a ping-pong table
The rafting trip was such a success that we decided to try our luck at a second week. We traded in the raft for the car and headed to the Oregon coast for an impromptu extended vacation — and my worst fear was realized. The car seat always causes Talon to scream bloody murder. Fortunately, he forgot the torture of the road as soon as we arrived at new shores, full of new rocks to taste and new waves worthy of his gaze.
This article by Rob about our motorcycle/fishing trip in Thailand last spring appeared in The Drake magazine. Click here to see the story.
When I was a kid, I made my own fireworks out of cardboard, gunpowder, and a hefty amount of duct tape. So when Bobby Kauktol told me that we’d be tossing cherry bombs at large mahseer on the River Yuam, I was feeling right at home.
Fishing hadn’t been a top priority on this trip to northern Thailand, as I carted my pregnant wife around 800 miles of serpentine roads on a rented Honda Phantom. But one evening I spotted a small ad in the corner of our route map with the words “fly fishing” and a photo of a thirty-inch fish with large scales and a gummy mouth. I asked my wife to saddle up.
I bet you never thought birding was hard-core. I didn’t really, either. But then we added a baby to the mix, and Montana decided to sprinkle in some of its famous fickle weather to make our bird-watching missions more interesting.
I’ve always liked birds. During college in San Diego, I chose to study the nesting behavior of terns down at the estuary near Ocean Beach as my senior project. It wasn’t much of a hardship to bike to the beach and sit around watching birds dive and swoop against a bluebird sky. Then I moved to Montana, and lost track of my birding motivation when the shorebirds and waves were replaced with hard-to-spot, tree-dwelling passerines and cold air.
Enter Rob. He loves counting the songbirds off our back porch, or carting out his scope to find raptors along rivers. I started to excited about feathered flocks again, especially during the spring migration when birds seem to appear out of thin air after their tropical adventures to the south.
During our sailing trip last year, both Rob and I met a whole new host of birds, using them to gauge our distance from land during passages, and as a way to become familiar with each new island. We even had a pet Christmas shearwater aboard for a few days somewhere south of the Equator and west of the Galapagos–it got confused during a squall, and hunkered down in the cockpit of Llyr to recover.
Now, birding seems like the perfect way to get outside for mini-adventures with an 8-month-old … especially when the baby in question is fortuitously named “Talon.” First stop: Freezeout Lake along the Rocky Mountain Front, home of a massive migration of waterfowl each March. We braved 50 mph gusts of wind and ominous (but gorgeous) skies to watch 8,000 snow geese rise off the lake. Talon slept through it.
Next stop in April: Bannack Ghost Town to camp and watch Greater sage-grouse strut in search of mates. It dropped to 20 degrees F and snowed covered our little tent before we could even finish dinner. After bundling up in parkas, hats, gloves, insulated boots, and downing thermos of coffee, we trundled to the lek before dawn and watched the male grouse dance up a storm for the uninterested hens. Talon slept through it all.
In California, I introduced Talon to the terns that I used to study. We pointed out pelicans and plovers, sandpipers and seagulls, all the while dodging the relentless rollerbladers who refuse to yield. While the weather always cooperates in San Diego, the cutthroat pedestrians on the boardwalk are scarier than any gales I’ve encountered. Talon definitely didn’t fall asleep on the boardwalk. But he certainly wasn’t interested in some old birds when dudes were blading by in chaps (and nothing else).
Back on the homefront, we heard that a Great-horned owl had set up a nest nearby, hanging out with her three fledglings in a big cottonwood tree. Making sure it was before Talon’s bedtime, we biked him down to the park and hiked along the creek to the nest. The mama owl landed in a pine directly overhead, and proceeded to eat an entire trout in front of us while her babies watched. Talon, of course, fell asleep before the scope was set up.
Last weekend, we joined an Audubon field trip to the Montana Waterfowl Foundation in the Mission Valley, which rears and then releases several types of native birds to increase their dwindling numbers in the wild. The birds that finally kept Talon awake? A pair of prehistoric-looking sandhill cranes that squawked loud enough to keep him wide-eyed.
Next up: a five-day rafting trip on the John Day River in Oregon, which is sure to add plenty of new bird (and fish!) species to Talon’s already-impressive Life List.
Did you know that The Little Engine That Could can inspire tears? It did for me this morning, reading it to Talon on the couch. I choked up smack in the middle of “I THINK I can, I THINK I can, I THINK I can.”
Maybe I cried because I feel like that too-small blue engine pulling the toy-laden cars over the mountain—terrified that I will slide backwards at any moment. Or maybe it’s because I feel like the anxious toys at the bottom of the mountain—waiting for just the right engine to haul my ass to the other side of this hump.
It makes sense I feel a little desperate as a new mother, as the owner of a new business, as a tropical sailor landlocked in the northern mountains. That’s a lot of change in a short time. One year ago, Rob and I were in Thailand winding through villages on a small motorcycle with two outfits each, a beat-up guitar, and a lot of time to kill. Two years ago, we were wrapping up the last day of our decade-long careers at conservation non-profits in Missoula, about to embark on a year of exploration at sea.
This weekend, our baby turns seven months-old, and free-time and the sea seem like distant memories. I went from zero to 60 on the stress-meter over the past year. But what’s life without a little adrenaline? (‘Peaceful’ is one answer…)
Back to The Little Engine That Could. With Talon gumming away at the book cover, I had this chugging through my head.
I THINK I can wash all the dishes and vacuum the rug in between loads of diaper laundry.
I THINK I can manage all 7 contracts through my writing and communications business.
I THINK I can find time to write creatively and pitch magazines and brainstorm a novel.
I THINK I can get Talon to sleep longer than his always-only-30-minute naps.
I THINK I can teach a few yoga classes and still squeeze in a dance class.
I THINK I can hug my husband and genuinely listen when he talks to me.
I THINK I can drink a beer without falling asleep in my dinner plate.
I THINK I can shower more than once a week.
I THINK I can not kill the houseplants.
I THINK I can see my friends.
I THINK I can do it all.
But I can’t. That’s why I cried, because I realized my engine ain’t getting over this mountain in front of me. I hate backsliding. I get through each day with a lot of grit, and just enough grace to sometimes smile at passersby. I wake up each night in a sweat, my mind racing through all of the tasks I didn’t complete the day before. I’m rarely present in any given moment.
But if that damn little blue engine can make it over the mountain, so can I. It just means I have to take deeper breaths, and remind myself that I am not a superhero, and that I only need to climb one moment at a time. Some of those moments I’ll smile, and some of them I’ll grit my teeth as I chant: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”
I went to an inspiring talk tonight on social media strategies. I know: most of you wouldn’t write “inspiring” in the same sentence as “social media strategies.” Totally understood. For me, though, it was the first professional development opportunity in months, and I grabbed it with both hands and a Beco-full of babbling baby.
Talon happily “wah-wah-wah’ed” loudly through the first half of the presentation until I shoved a boob in his mouth and he fell asleep. (Note: I highly recommend the Beco Gemini as it allow moms to be superheroes who walk, talk, professionally develop, and discreetly breastfeed all at the same time.) The second half of the presentation inspired me to do two things: blog more often, and drink a stout while reflecting upon the fact that I don’t really know if I like Twitter.
Twitter aside, I’m here with my stout, blogging. But what about? That’s what usually keeps me from blogging: the fact that I don’t have a tidy five paragraph essay with a clear beginning, middle and ending to share with all of you. I’m well-trained to produce thesis-driven pieces—I was a writing tutor for five years through college and grad school, and I taught Technical Writing and English Composition courses. Theses are the essence of writing…aren’t they?
Well, the presenter (this lovely New Zealand-dwelling Welsh man whose name consists of only two letters) encouraged us to get rid of that model. DK wants us to use audio and movies and pictures and graphics and other people’s content and whatever the hell we feel like writing/using/posting in any given moment. I sat down to try out a more organic blogging experience.
You never know when miniature disasters or major catastrophes will change the landscape of your life forever. I’ve been thinking a lot about life landscapes this week, as we got word that a past river adventure buddy passed away unexpectedly and another friend lost his wife.
It’s so cliche to say, isn’t it? Be present. Enjoy every minute. Don’t take this life for granted. We read the axioms on Facebook and greeting cards, say them to each other off-the-cuff and in deadly serious circumstances. But the cliches slip away in the tougher spells. And in the daily grind. And even, sometimes, during the magical, memory-making experiences.
It’s just damned hard to be present. To enjoy every single minute. To not take for granted the body, emotions, friends, food, sunsets, breath that infuse each day. To make the most of this one precious life.
Weeks like this one make me more determined, though. They bring back the urge to stop for a full inhale to appreciate the rare warmth of sun in Montana’s usually frigid February. To exhale completely to celebrate my lungs and my muscles and my blood for supporting me. To close my eyes and savor the sound of my husband reading a bedtime story to his son.
The unexpected catastrophes also make me question the landscape of my life, and to examine it a little more closely. Is this what I want? Am I being true to myself and my loved ones? And the biggest question of all: am I strong enough to change the landscape if the answers are no? Some things are easier to change–turning off the work emails after 6PM, for instance. But others–like setting sail again–feel like moving mountains.
So, how do you move mountains? One rock at a time. Lately, lines from this poem by Mark Twain’s keep popping up in my head. It’s on our blog’s “about” page, but it deserves another place of honor here and now:
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.
So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
In other words, let this post be a reminder to all of you (as the recent events were for me) to hack away at those lines that keep you tethered to places of unease or distress. Go forth and be present. Let yourself be free to be happy, in safe harbors or in rocky seas. Breathe. Smile. Kiss the ones you love. Live the cliche.
We had a taste of paradise again: a two-week sneak preview of our former life, and our (hopefully) someday-life-to-be. Using airline miles and a tent, we spent two cheap weeks camping on the island of Kaua’i, introducing our Pacific-conceived baby to the best ocean on earth.
He liked it. I could tell by the fistfuls of sand he shoved into his mouth, and the excited shiver that ran down his chubby legs when the waves washed over them. He laughed more in the shadow of the Hawaiian pali, epic surf crashing mere meters away.
So did I. It was a bittersweet vacation, though. The island reminded us of what we had last year, and what we miss by living in a landlocked northern mountain state. Our feet look better with sand around the edges. My hair looks better salty. Rob is happier shirtless. Talon likes living with sandy ears.
Life is easier when it’s simple, whether in the mountains or on the sea. It feels like there’s an easily defined purpose when you plan your meals around one pot, and when you plan your day around the movement of sun and moon and tides. We had a tiny rental car, one small stove, two plates, a couple of outfits, an old sarong to sit on. A long-time friend who spent a week with us, and a new friend we met sailing who popped up unexpectedly. It was all we needed. More, even.
I know it’s tempting to confuse vacation with real life, and tried to infuse some perspective during our trip. For instance, it’s hard to work without electrical outlets to charge my computer. It’s hard to sleep when it’s blowing 20 knots and raining loudly on our thin nylon tent. It’s hard to get comfortable without a chair in sight and sand in your crack. It’s hard to figure out another cooked-by-headlamp, dried-goods-only meal when all you really want is a hot burger and a cold beer.
But, to me, those are still minor inconveniences. A small price to pay for paradise. They make life real, vacation or not.
I don’t know where our family will end up, in one year or ten. Kaua’i inspired me to start planning for the next long-term adventure, though, which will likely include fringing reefs and crashing waves, along with plenty of simple living in tents or boats. Meanwhile, it was good to feel the familiar Pacific breeze on my face, and her foamy waves on my toes.
The title of this post makes it sound like I’m going to tell you how to be a responsible female adult. Instead, I’m trolling for your ideas on the subject.
First off, an explanation. I spent a fabulous three estrogen-soaked days with a couple of stellar lady friends last weekend. We convened with a 5-week-old and a 5-month-old in a wood-fire-heated cabin near Sand Point and proceeded to settle in. We chatted. Cooked. Cooed at babies. Changed a LOT of diapers. And we walked in the snowy woods, drank dark beer, and debriefed what it means to be a mother. One of my friends remarked that she recently got called out for not behaving like a “grown-ass woman.”
Back in my own homestead, this term shot into my sleep-deprived brain during a mid-night awakening. I started ruminating on what, exactly, characterizes such a woman. Was I a grown-ass woman? More importantly, do I want to be one?
I certainly feel a lot more grown-up lately, though in a tired sort of way. And I definitely notice my ass more, now that I run up and down the stairs to wash diapers, and squat up and down to pick up my big baby boy. But I might feel the least womanly that I’ve ever felt. Becoming a new mother seems to have neutered–or at least muted–my gender. My boobs are utilitarian. My hair is limp and dull. My mujer mojo is missing in action.
That’s why I’m putting it out to all of you wise readers. Does being a grown-ass woman mean waving bye-bye to my pre-baby mojo, or does it mean I have to get it back? And how, exactly, do I get it back?
Neutering aside, here are a few more reasons why I’m pretty sure I’ve become a grown-ass woman:
I put my child first.
I can touch poop without making jokes or gagging uncontrollably.
I appreciate my family and friends more than ever, and strive to help them as much as they help me.
I worry about getting injured or dying, which makes things like snowboarding or flying in helicopters less appealing.
I still want to have fun, escape reality, and do reckless things (even though #4 gets in the way).
I wash dishes when they’re dirty (eventually).
I’m willing to make sacrifices and compromises.
I totally hate making sacrifices and compromises.
I can have serious conversations about important topics.
I can make snow angels or play balloon wars.
This list tells me that being a grown-ass woman is an oxymoron, a contradiction, and often confusing. What do you all think are the qualities of a grown-ass woman?
I was just looking for a little more space. And yeah, a quick exit would have been nice, too.
“Ma’am, you can’t sit in the emergency exit row with a child,” the flight attendant informed me. With my arms full of wriggling infant, coats and snacks, I headed back toward a cramped window seat. I wasn’t sure which felt worse: being called “ma’am,” or being denied the luxury of the exit row for the next dozen years.
As I settled myself and Talon in for the short flight from Portland to Missoula, I glared at the back of the business-suited dude who slipped into the emergency row after me, glued to his iPhone and clueless about what was going on around him. I would definitively be more effective at opening the door and pulling the ripcord on that inflatable slide than he would.
It doesn’t really make sense, when you think about it. Aren’t mothers of small children exactly who you would want opening doors in case of disaster? I guarantee that mothers of helpless infants will have the exits ready for immediate departure in record time. Instinct kicks in, and we will kick down doors, take out predators, and protect our offspring at all costs. The other passengers on the plane would greatly benefit from this mama-bear instinct, meaning they should actually pay mothers to sit in the emergency exit row.
You with me?
To be fair, my snit on the airplane was a bit more existential than simply wanting more legroom. As I breathed through the claustrophobia of sitting with a hot baby in a tight corner, I was also breathing through the claustrophobia of feeling like I wouldn’t have any quick exits to anywhere—emergency or otherwise—for the next several years.
No more spur-of-the-moment road trips or impromptu jaunts to Mexico. No last-minute bike rides, ski trips, or parties. Goodbye to simply walking out the front door when life gets overwhelming. The full weight of motherhood settled around my shoulders, leaving me slightly angry, extra sweaty, and mostly petrified.
But then Talon giggled, and the urge to flee subsided like mist under the sun (at least until he started screaming inexplicably during the last ten minutes of the flight).
The point? It’s normal to feel trapped in an airline seat. And to want to flee when confronted by a massive life change. Most of the time, though, my visions of quick escapes include taking my baby with me to beaches, mountains, or even parties.
It’d just be a lot more fun to bring him along on those escapes if they paid us to sit in the emergency exit row.