I have started my next project. Several weeks ago, a friend of mine who teaches sixth grade came to me and told me she wanted to do a project called, "Where in the World is Thom?" I thought it was a great idea. I've been wanting to do a project like this for a long time and now I will finally have the chance.
I call it, "The Sixth Grade Ambassador" and my goal is to update it once every couple of weeks or so and tell the class where I am, what I am up to, and why I am there. I will ask questions, offer insight, share photographs and an essay - business as usual for the ol' Dusty Vagabond. I hope you drop by to see what I am up to, and share this with anybody who teaches or wants to learn more about our natural world.
I'm commiting blogicide (Is that a word?). Though "The Dusty Vagabond" has been a pleasure to produce, I would rather lay it to rest with style then watch it wither away through lack of effort.
It feels right, you know? I woke up this morning and my first thought was end this blog. I feel good about it. It's time to start the next chapter. Buddha said, "Use me as a craft for crossing the stream, but when you are across, let me go (roughly paraphrased)." Well, I made it across the stream. I have a voice. I know what I am about. I'm living an amazing life. This just feels right.
I'm excited. I am now free to recreate myself in any fashion I wish. I am not done writing. I am not done catching photographs. I am not done sharing. I am not done living my life. I'm curious to see what doors will open next and where that path will lead. There will be another project. Consider the Dusty Vagabond, "Thom's early years."
If you are into numbers, blogging is all about how many people you can get to follow you. The more people that follow you, the better. I have great numbers. My blog site tells me how many people have visited (278,806), how many people have read my journey (297,240), how many people read what chapter (my most popular has been "Wardner Beginnings" 7,078 - I've never understood why this has been so popular). They are great numbers. They are YOU, after all. The fact you gave this blog any time at all is amazing to me. I sincerely thank you for your time.
I'm letting you go. You are as free as I am.
How did you stumble upon this blog? Was it from a friend? Did you see a picture you like and investigated further? Did you see a featured blog? Was it a random find? There's no reason that can't happen again. Perhaps, in losing me, you might find someone else to inspire you. You might find my next project in the same way. Then again, you might just drop me a line telling me you are interested. When it gets up and rolling, I can send you a link.
Life flows on. So do I.
In a way, this is kind of like writing my own epitaph. "Here lies The Dusty Vagabond. May he forever wax eloquently about the morning mists of southeast Alaska."
Actually, I never could do them justice. You really need to see them for yourself.
"And He lived happily ever after..."
Look for me in the north, the west, the east and the south. Look for me at dawn. Look for me at sunset. Look for me in the night. You might find me on the ocean. You might find me by the sea. You might find me in the park climbing a maple tree (this is starting to sound like Dr. Seuss). Above all, go look outside. There's good things to see out there. We might even cross paths. I'm the toe-headed bearded guy. I'm probably wearing my trusty blue wool beanie. I'm often found slogging down a mountain trail with a battered tripod sticking out of my faded red backpack. I'll have a serene smirk (can you smirk serenely?) on my face. My boots are will be worn, my adventure pants and shirt faded and ripped- but those are the trademarks of (mis)adventure.
Writer's Block, The Nature of Blog Writing, Photography and What's Next
Fact: I don’t know what to write about today. I could’ve written this sentence every day this week, but this fact didn’t come to me until this morning. Is this what writer’s block is all about? To be sure, I have a lot of material. Life has flowed along since my last meaningful entry (Yodeling Under a Glacier). But, I don’t know, I just haven’t found the lead. Inspiration has been lacking.
So, I’m just going to tell it like it is. I don’t have any eloquent words this week. I feel like if I write this one, no matter how mundane, I’ll be over the hump and perhaps inspiration will strike next week.
Part of the reason I’ve been quiet lately is that I’m trying to figure out the next direction for this blog. Is there one? Does there need to be one? What do you do with a blog? Do I want to try to write for money? What else can I do with it, other than what I have been doing? These questions have been rolling around in my mind for a while. I haven’t been able to answer them.
Here’s the tricky bit about writing a blog: In my life, every day of the week could hold great material, be it great photos, experiences or both. It takes a lot of effort to keep the blog current when each day could possibly deserve an entire episode on its own. I don’t want to get into the game of focusing too much on the photos or thinking about what I’m going to write that I miss the experience. Sometimes it is a close thing. My priorities are life moments first, documentation second.
I do know the experimental phase is over, though I‘m not sure if that changes anything. I’ve been pumping out a lot of material over the last three years. Some of it is good, some of it is not. I’ve found my voice. I catch beautiful scenes with my camera as I’d catch fat snowflakes with my tongue. It’s a beautiful thing.
I have thousands of photographs that I have collected from all over the world. I uploaded over six hundred of my favorites to my new Flickr page. It took a lot of time. I archive my photos by Year/Month/Major Location. My digital photos went back to 2003, though I have hundreds more in slide/print form. I browsed through my archives for a solid week uploading the ones I found interesting.
You can see them here:http://www.flickr.com/photos/dustyvagabond/ For those of you who really dig my photos more than my words, this is the site for you. I’m happy with my collection, I tried very hard to keep it diverse and keep it interesting. These photos are a fair representation of my life and what I live for, namely, creativity in action.
“Where ya been, Thom? Where ya goin’?” In late May, I left Alaska for Seattle without any clear direction on where I was going or projects I wished to pursue. With unlimited options and many paths to follow, I felt a few of them out before “deciding” to go to Switzerland in late July. Having purchased the tickets, I promptly took a train across the northern tier of the U.S. from Seattle to Central Minnesota. From there, I visited some old haunts and friends in northern Minnesota. Then I took a bus home to the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan.
However, life has its own comedic timing. Instead of going to Switzerland, I am going to Alaska. I took a new position as an assistant engineer on the cruise ship I work on. The job starts at the same time as my trip to Europe. Ha! So, I’m going to Switzerland by way of Alaska.
Unless, of course, some other unforeseen event changes everything again. I don’t know why I ever make plans. The plans I make always change - often morphing into something I never expected. I try to go with the flow. I’ll make occasional decisions about my life, but I’m always skeptical about my choices. There have been too many times that unexpected forces trump my decisions. But, that’s the way I like it.
I get around, you know? I'm a professional visitor, a homeless (is that a typo?) romantic, a voyageur of sorts, a guy who wonders what‘s around the next bend. I spend most of my time outside. I've yodeled under a glacier. I've walked around in a blizzard in Antarctica. This makes me sound cold, but I am not. I once took a spelling test which received two gold stars on it. But, so what? We’ve all done great things. I like creativity in action. I love pointless challenges. What makes you happy? Why aren’t you doing that? It’s all in the details. I'll probably skip the small talk. Keep in mind that i am not a serious person, though I can be sincere. I'll probably make you dinner at some point. My sense of humor is irrepressible. I've been known to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. I am a work in progress. I'm not sure I belong here...
Given the opportunity, I’d rather whisper secrets to the trees than go through the motions. I like giving honey to injured bees. I like picking up trash and I never use bug spray. I’ve become a social creature. Who knew? The path of life takes interesting twists, doesn’t it? I’m not the same man I was three years ago. Can I tell you the truth? I’m enjoying writing this.
If you were to ask me how old I am, I won’t give you a straight answer. I tend to get a deeper look into humanity than most people. I think it’s the questions I ask. But people tell me things I would never ask about. I give strange advice.
If I stay awake for over 20 hours I develop amazing powers of concentration. If I drink during this time, I become chatty. I like to jump into really cold water, yet I am obsessed with hot springs.
One of the best conversations I’ve ever had was with a mountain man from Oregon. We talked about ghosts, living in the woods, heaven, beer, hamburgers, jobs and wandering.
My brother taught me at an early age to keep my mouth shut. Since then, I’ve been a safe harbor for gossip. I can’t remember everyday that I have lived, but sometimes I try. I think it might be possible. People tell me I look like a Viking. I tell them they look like themselves.
Balance is important to me. I’m not sure if its an obsession, or simply a way of life. My head empties with the sound of a gong. I like to tie knots. I have many talents. I’ve read many books. Ask me anything, I don’t mind. I eat out a lot, though I prefer to cook. I love the ritual of coffee, especially in the morning.
I have an accent but its hard to place. Do I interest you? Think about that. Where does that feeling come from? “It’s better to live a short life doing something you love than a long one doing things you hate.” Alan Watts said that. I say it too.
Did I tell you I feed birds from my hand? My niece is dying to know my secrets. Speaking of secrets, I’m only ticklish on the bottoms of my feet. Oops. Say that backwards. That might be my next tattoo.
My hearing isn’t so good. My eyesight is worse. I’ve never met anyone who is famous. I love graham crackers in milk. I write long emails. I like hard work. Give me your shittiest job, I’ll do it. What do I care? I’m here to help.
Life doesn’t follow my Illusions. I need to be right here, right now. “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I see myself sitting on a park bench in Strassburg sharing an ice cream cone with you on a beautiful spring day. You can’t tell employers that though, can you? I think I might start…
It is raining as I step off the number three bus and onto the side of the Mendenhall Loop Road. It has been raining since I woke up hung over at the Alaskan (a Juneau tradition), and it has been raining all morning. I don’t mind. Rain is a fact of life in Southeast Alaska, and you can’t let it get to you lest it crush your spirit.
The bus pulls away and I am free to choose my own adventure. I have only a rough idea where I am going. I vaguely remember the roads on a Google map I looked at earlier in the morning. I also have a soggy paper map that shows the bus route and a glacier towards the top of the map. This map is not to scale, and I don’t know how far away the glacier is from the road.
I’m aiming for that glacier. If all goes well, the road I’m walking will lead to Mendenhall Lake. If I can find the lake, I can find the glacier. If I can’t find the lake, then I have no idea where I’m going.
I met a guy in Antarctica who put the idea of this adventure in my head. That was back in November. It’s been simmering in my mind since then. I purposely chose to fly out of Juneau so I could make this day happen. As I walk, I try to remember what he said about the trail. “I walked up the trail and there was a sign that said, ‘West Glacier Trail’ with an arrow to the left and another arrow to the right that said, ‘Primitive Trail.’ I went to the right.” Once I find the lake, I have to find the trail.
I feel good. My stride is strong. My pace is quick. It isn’t long before I find the lake - right where I hoped it would be. I pass a small covered shelter near the edge of the lake. Applause erupts from within. I know it isn’t for me, but I pretend it is. “Why, thank you,” I say. “I’m very happy to be here.” Smiling at my own silliness, another bout of applause opens up and my smile grows.
There it is - the west glacier trailhead. I stop briefly to text a few people my exit time. I often travel by myself. If I know I’m heading in the wild or about to do something dangerous, I will text a few buddies who I can count on to send help if I need it. My text said: “Hi. I’m in Juneau and taking a hike on the west glacier trail. I should be out by 9 a.m. tomorrow. I’ll text you by then. If not, wait 3 hours, and then call the cops. Thanks.” Now, I didn’t mention the fact I was going to the glacier. I also didn’t mention that I was looking for ice caves. But, at least it would give them a place to start looking for me. By the way, nobody in their right mind should go looking for ice caves on a glacier by themselves. I am the only exception! Remember that!
Anyhow, I have my safety net in place. I turn off my phone and start up the trail. It’s a great forest trail. Moss covers everything. The forest is green. The path crosses several creeks gushing with clear water. The air is cold, and the rain continues to fall. I’m very tempted to take pictures of the forest scenes, but my camera would be soaked in minutes.
I stop briefly at a viewpoint with a covered roof. There is a family taking a break. They ask me to take a picture of them. I’m happy to do it. In return for my good deed, they tell me how to get to a good ice cave. The information matches what I already know about this enterprise. I thank them and head back onto the trail. My confidence grows.
The trail starts climbing the ridge and it gets steep and rocky in areas. The rocks are wet from the rain, and the tree roots are slick. I slip a couple of times, and I remind myself to take it easy. Getting hurt is not an option.
Finally, I reach the sign I am looking for. The main trail cuts to the left, the primitive trail goes to the right. I step off the easy path onto the rough track. It passes through a thick stand of twisted alder trees. I slip several times on the roots. Picture James Brown in his prime dropping down into the splits. Now picture me doing that on a steep rocky trail. I bet if you compared screams, they would sound oddly similar.
As I walk, I start putting together a songline of my landmarks. If I remember this little song, I will be able to find my way out if I get lost. It’s an idea I’ve taken on from the aboriginal people of Australia and I find it works rather well. The landscape is a song, you just need to remember the lyrics.
The trail leads to an open rocky area. I jump across two creeks and follow small rock cairns which now mark the path over the rock. It isn’t long before I’m looking at the massive expanse of the Mendenhall Glacier. It is truly awesome.
I have seen many glaciers in my life, from Alaska to Antarctica. I’ve watched them calve off huge chunks of ice. I‘ve flown over them, and I’ve stared at them from a ship. This marks the first time that I have seen one on foot. I smile. I love it when a plan comes together - especially a half ass plan such as this one.
I pick my way down the side of a rock bluff and skip down a steep talus pile to the very edge of the Mendenhall Glacier. I take a few tentative steps on the ice. I feel tiny. I am treading on just the tip of the toenail of this giant moving ice sheet. I know enough about glacier trekking to know I am not prepared. I’m not wearing crampons. I don’t have an ice axe. I don’t have any line. I don’t have a partner. I am smart enough to know that I have no business walking around on top of the glacier. However, I’m hoping to walk underneath the glacier on solid ground, and that is a different matter.
The trail has ended at the glacier, and I’m left to my own devices. I start walking along side of the ice sheet picking my way along a steep bank of loose talus. The stones are muddy from silt, and I sink up to my ankles in stones. A handful of rocks tumble down the slope with each step. It is not easy to walk here.
I follow the side of the glacier for about a half a mile before I see two waterfalls cascading down the side of the fjord. The two waterfalls meet at the base of the slope to form a larger creek. This creek disappears into the side of the glacier forming a giant ice cave.
“Holy shit,” I whisper. Good words fail me when I confront grandeur.
I slide down ten feet of loose rock to get to the waterfalls. I slowly spin in a circle taking in my surroundings. There are two waterfalls dropping down from the clouded heights of the fjord face. There is the glacier itself - massive and impassive. Finally, there is a jeweled ice cave cut into the ice. I’ve never seen anything like this, that’s for damn sure.
The entrance is large perhaps fifteen feet in diameter. On one side, an overhanging arch forms one-half of the ceiling. I’m a little leery about that arch. It doesn’t look very sturdy. The entrance appears more trust worthy on the other side of the creek. It looks more like a cave. There is a narrow gravel bank between the side of the cave and the creek. I pick my way across the waterfall hopping from rock to rock to get on the side I want to enter.
I pause at the entrance. This is scary as hell! The thought of stepping into the cave sends tingles down my entire body. My heart beats loudly in my chest. I start giggling. I love this high. I know I’m going in. I didn’t come all this way to chicken out now. Do you remember the movie, “Field of Dreams?” Do you remember the scene where the writer Terrance Mann was about to step into the rows of corn for the first time - to see what is on the other side? That’s how I feel. Though they are one in the same, I ask for courage from Buddha, The Universe, My ex-girlfriends, Tao, Zeus, Krishna, The Great Spirit, The Glacier, God, The Great Pumpkin - anyone I can think of, and take ten steps inside the cave.
It’s too much for my senses. The ice walls of the cave amplify the roar of the creek tumbling through the rocks. The sides of the cave are smooth, dimpled and sparkling like facets of a cut jewel. The ice is very clear. I half way expect to see an iceman frozen inside of the ice. Ancient rocks are stuck in the walls. Water drips from the ceiling. The whole cave glows with a dull blue color. I am standing inside of a cold sapphire. It takes a while to get used to this.
My initial high dies away, and I settle down. I walk deep into the cave. The creek tumbles over the bedrock creating a never-ending set of rapids and waterfalls. I can’t see the white glow of the opening of the cave anymore. I wonder if I kept following the creek would it lead me to the face of the glacier. I’m tempted to try, but the bank of the creek has ended. I will need a dry suit to investigate further.
I reflect on my situation. I am standing alone underneath a glacier. There isn’t a single person on this planet that knows where I am. “Cloud Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown,” I say to myself. It’s an interesting thought.
I start mindlessly humming aloud. It sounds really cool. The acoustics of ice caves are great. Soon, I am chanting “Ohmmmmmmm…” really emphasizing the mmm’s. My voice never sounded so good. I take it up another notch and try out a yodel. Now, yodeling can go one of two ways. It can sound amazing, providing the yodeler can hit the notes clearly or it can sound terrible, like a teenage boy reading aloud in English class. I’ve had it go both ways. I will only yodel under the right conditions. I’ll test my voice first, and if it seems like it will hold, I will let ‘er rip. I don’t know if it was the acoustics of the cave, or just being in that moment, but my voice rang loud and true over the roar of the water.
I’ve never yodeled this good before and I let it flow out of me (I know how ludicrous this sounds to those of you who don‘t know me). My last efforts end in a bout of laughter. I am a happy man.
My time in the glacier is nearing an end. I still have to find my way back to civilization. I knew before I entered the cave that I would have to keep track of time. I stick to my rules and leave the cave. I don’t want to overstay my welcome. I have no regrets. I’m riding an amazing high of discovery and I am tingling with the experience.
I back track down the glacier to the trail. I remember the lyrics to my songline: “Climb the creek to the shallow valley. Follow the cairns past the open rock area. Cross two creeks and follow the little snake through the alder. At the duck tape and orange flagging, veer left back to the bigger snake. Follow the bigger snake back to the lake and you are home free.” When I get back to the trailhead, I text my people. I let them know that I have made it out and all is well.
I am satisfied with my efforts. I am drenched to my skin, cold and hungry, yet I am completely euphoric. It has been a great day.
Life Accomplishment No. 37,824: Yodel Under a Glacier. Check!