Sunday, October 25, 2015

Living Beyond Walls

A storm has just moved in. The wind is gusting, leaves are cartwheeling across the grass. Trees arch, bend, dance. There goes my watering can. A cushion. A puppy...

Okay, not a puppy.

Maybe it was a squirrel.

Maybe, just a brown bag.

The thing is, I’m watching all this from inside my house, sitting at the kitchen table, safe, warm and comfortable. A well-protected front seat to Oregon's first good autumn storm.

Which is one of the reasons I decided leave for the Grand Canyon in 22 days. I and thirteen others will be rafting the Colorado River for a month. Mid November to mid December. It promises to be cold. Possibly stormy. The water will be unforgiving. There will be no shelter but my tent, and an evening fire. No escape but onward. And though this scares me, it feels necessary.

I lose something when I am too comfortable. It depresses or represses me—something like that. I think I become sloth-like. A creature moving from warm bed to warm coffee to warm car to warm fire burning by my warm leather chair with a nice warm cat purring on my lap. The both of us, sloth-like. Sleep curling its finger toward itself, a sexy lady licking her lips, encouraging me to slip on in—and out.

Branches are shaking themselves loose now. They shoot through the air — arrow like. And the sound of the rain on the skylight is like a million tiny tap dancers, amped on speed. The last of the Dahlias are being ripped of their petals. Purple, yellow and scarlet exclamation points punctuate the ground. And there goes another cushion. A potted plant. A bird feeder.

I love it when the weather turns rough. I love to walk in it, hike in it. Bike, even. I remember once my son, Elijah and I were riding our bikes through a bad spring storm. Wind, rain, cold, and then somewhere around mile 30—hail. We pulled over and high-tailed it to a tree, clinging as close to its trunk as possible to avoid the pebble-sized pellets of ice. When the hail stopped, we got back on our bikes and made our way down the road through a good three inches of slush. And you know what Elijah said?

"I'm glad we are doing this today."
That's right, he was glad.
"Of course, it would be nicer if it were seventy degrees and sunny, but isn't it good to know we can do this?"

He was fourteen then. A year earlier he had said the same thing when he and I were caught in a wild and windy, winter-like storm high up on Ross Lake in the Northern Cascades. This time we were in a row boat, him guiding the outboard motor. We were ten miles from our cabin on a long finger of a lake jutting into Canada, snow covered mountains towered beside the lake, the land entirely wilderness. The storm had come up fast, black clouds suddenly gathering up their breath then blowing hard, chopping the water into knife edged waves which crested over our boat, slamming us with icy water. I was worried. More than worried, really. Isn't this just the type of thing you read about? A woman and her kid lost on a lake? I looked back at Elijah, ready to make my to him to take over. But one look told me, I did not have to. He gripped the throttle and gunned the boat forward taking the waves head on, his eyes focused on the channel. He was entirely wet—wet face, wet hair, wet clothes, and it was entirely cold—the wind so loud we had to shout to be heard. I waited for his complaints, his fear, something. But nothing came. He had a job to do and he was determined to do it. He was thirteen, and he was saving our lives. Afterward, safe in our cabin, he did have something to say. He was glad to have had that experience. Glad to know it can be done, and that we did it. Glad. 

I found all kinds of new respect for my son on those days. He understands there is something gobsmacking special about stepping out into the weather—having the wind blow us sideways, and the rain pound against not roof and window, but flesh. Feeling it, smelling it, understanding in some essential way that it makes our days richer, bigger, better. He knows there is something altogether good and strong when we opt to feel the fullness of where and what we are.

No longer a sloth, but a high flying bird, catching the wind and soaring on.  

-Naseem Rakha 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Grand Canyon River Trip - A Winter Adventure

"Adventure is putting yourself out on the edge...finding that border line between your comfort zone and where you are a little bit uncomfortable. and then, hopefully, finding your way through."   Curt Joyce, Kayaker -- 1983-2014

On November 18, I will join a group of fourteen people for a one month 279 mile journey down the Colorado river from Lee's Ferry, Arizona/Utah to Pierce Ferry, Arizona through the heart of the Grand Canyon.

I was invited on the trip by Hazel Clark and her husband Tom Martin. Both Tom and Hazel have been a part of the canyon for decades: hiking, boating, learning about, writing about, talking about the canyon and its surrounds, organizing to help save it and its watershed. Good people, who have offered me an amazing opportunity to see and live in the canyon during its most cold and quiet season. Yet, the decision to go did not come easy.

Though I have rafted the canyon before, it was always either in the summer or fall with my family, and the trips never lasted a month. When I agreed back in spring to go on this coming trip, November seemed far away. I figured I had plenty of time to get my head around the idea of being gone for so long and during such a challenging season.  But it has taken me until this week to finally make my reservations to fly to Flagstaff where I will join the group I will live, eat, paddle, cook, camp and hike with for 30 days.

Entering the canyon takes commitment. There is no easy way out once those walls start rising, no way to call and check-in, no texting to see if Elijah's homework is done. There's no way to wish Chuck and Elijah a happy Thanksgiving, or Chanukah. No way to tell them what it is like to spend my 56th birthday at the bottom of the Great Gully.

As the days get closer to my departure, I find that my reasons for agreeing to go feel flimsy compared to my very substantial fears. How will I deal with being so disconnected from my family? How will I feel about the isolation in the dead of winter? How irresponsible of a mother am I being? How selfish? How will I ever stay warm enough? The temperature could drop below freezing, and the river water? I don't even want to think about it. Plus there is the dark. Winter nights are already long, and the canyon will cut our few hours of daylight short.

Still, I feel compelled to go. I met Tom and Hazel as a result of my writing about Kaitlin Kenney - the young woman who died while rafting the Grand Canyon during the winter of 2013. Search parties were looking for her while I lived on the South Rim as the National Park Service's Artist in Residence. Those essays about Kaitlin led to many personal revelations about what it means to be alive. Really alive. The risk it takes, the perseverance and bravery. They led to my hiking into the canyon on solo retreats, and then other challenges—always out and in the wild. Challenging myself. My mind, my body, my soul.

I will use this blog to describe how I am getting ready for this next trip—a month winter rafting the canyon. I will post about what geer I will use, what films I am watching, books and blogs I am reading, music I am listening to. What I am packing, and what I am saying to myself and my family as I get ready to walk out that door.

This morning, I found this beautiful Vimeo Film about a Grand Canyon river trip taken last year. During it, kayaker, Curt Joyce, lost their life. The film is called Why We Go. It explains some of my reasons for why I am leaving for the river in a few weeks.

Why We Go from Brett Mayer on Vimeo.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Alder Springs Hike to the Deschutes

Yesterday, Waldo and I took what I think is the best autumn hike I have ever had. Maybe it was the weather, warm, yet overcast. Maybe it was my mood—happy to be out hiking after a 13 day hiatus. I returned from my Grand Canyon Rim to Rim hike less than two weeks ago, but in between there was a trip to Chicago for my Dad's memorial, and as usual, it takes me time to get the energy to leave home after I have been gone. Particularly after the Chicago trip. There was so much to process, so many emotions to hold, and goodbyes to say. So, it was probably all that that helped make my hike special—it was a quiet respite, a grounding walk among the bluffs and buttes of Oregon's High Desert.

Alder Springs trail begins on a high plateau overlooking a cleft in the ground where Whychus Creek (the Sahaptin word for "a place to cross the water") flows clear and untamed. Ponderosa Pine sprout from its base, a green stash on a bunch grass face. Soon Waldo and I started our descent into the canyon. Part way down we could hear the rush of water coming from Alder Springs. The springs is like the Metolius, which sprouts from the bottom of a hill a full fledged river. Like the Metolius, the water was clear and cold and Waldo and I drank from it. I was drawn to this hike because Bonnie Olin, author of Owyhee River Journals, posted that just last week she had seen Bull Trout in this creek. Waldo and I were not as lucky, but it was good to know the endangered trout had found shelter.

After another half mile, we forded the creek and then hiked along and above it through Basin Wild Rye, Rabbit Brush, wild rose, fern, Equisetum Hyemale (Horsetail Reed), Juniper, Ponderosa Pine and Sage Brush. And of course all along the lower path were the name sake of the trail—Alders—their now golden tear drop shaped leaves danced in the breeze and carpeted our path.

After just three miles, we reached the confluence of Whychus Creek and the Deschutes. The geology was largely exposed cliffs of volcanic ash and Columbia Plateau lava flows sculpted by wind and water. Interspersed were layers of river conglomerates. After I returned I learned that somewhere along those cliffs are petroglyphs. I did not see them, but will return to search.

At the confluence of the Whychus and the Deschutes there was a wonderful basalt outcrop, a perfect place to share a sandwich with Waldo, explore the cliff sides and dip in the water. The area was clearly a destination for the Eagle we had spotted earlier—it was littered with bird wings and feathers.

After our snack we headed the three miles back to the car, cresting the ridge just as the sun set behind the spine of the Cascades.

The public's access to Alder Springs is relatively recent. Up until a couple decades ago, it had been a private ranch. Then in the 1990's authorities took possession of the land after they discovered the old ranch house had become a meth factory. The structure was destroyed and the land given to the Forest Service. The eight hundred acre parcel is now part of the Crooked River National Grasslands. Alder Springs is closed to the public from December 1 to March 31 to protect its wildlife habitat. Elk, deer and antelope can often be seen roaming the area. The lack of cattle has given the plants some time to recuperate. There are healthy stands of native Blue Bunch Wheat Grass and Basin Wild Rye.

It took two and a half hours to get to Alder Springs from the Willamette Valley, so I drove back over the pass in the dark, feeling full and satisfied and utterly lucky to call Oregon home.

I like how this juniper looks like it has seeds blowing off it like a milkweek pod
Equisetum Hyemale (Horsetail Reed)
Common Teasel (thank you for the id. Scott Bowler)

- Naseem Rakha
October 16, 2015

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Male, Female or Other

If you've filled out a form on Google lately you probably have seen a brand new option when it comes to Gender. Instead of the standard Male and Female, people can now choose Other.

I just found a video about one of my town's "others." In it, then-Mayor, Stu Rasmussen is showing Statesman Journal reporter, Cara Pallone, the inside of his closets (as well as his handcuff collection.) Stu achieved international fame for being one of the country's, if not world's, first openly transgendered Mayors. He grew up in Silverton, runs the town's only movie house, and walks Silverton's streets dressed in a way which emphasizes not just his legs (which are enviable,) but also what he likes to call "the twins"—augmented breasts which stand out—literally as well as figuratively.

In most aspects, Silverton appears to be your average rural American town. It has the Elks, Kiwanis and the Lions clubs, is filled with churches, has a feed store, and a one lane train track that hauls grain and seed. It has cute parades featuring the high school band and local pets. It houses teachers and doctors and librarians and artists and folks who work for the state in one capacity or another. Your typical rural community, red white and blue bunting in July, Christmas tree lighting after Thanksgiving. Yet, in 2008 and again in 2010, Silverton residents voted in the most non-conformist of Mayors. They also came out in force when the Westboro Baptist Church came to Silverton to tell us we were all going to hell for having a transgendered Mayor. Many of the town's businessmen dressed as women to confound the Topica, Kansas "Christians."

I like that about Silverton. I like that once, while sitting with Stu at a garage sale, I watched him haggle with a farmer over a tractor. Stu had driven the tractor over and then put a pair of shiny red stilettos on the hood as bait. At first the farmer, dressed in overalls and seed cap, seemed taken back by Stu's attire: a mini skirt, six inch heals, and a shirt cut so low it exposed a good canyon of cleavage. But within minutes the farmer and Stu were talking away about gaskets and plows and whatever else one talks about when talkin-tractor. A few minutes later, the farmer was in, he wanted the tractor, but only if Stu would throw in the shoes.

"For the wife," he said with a wink.

My favorite line in the interview by Cara Pallone is when Stu tells her that typically two to three percent of the population of males are cross-dressers. "Which means on Halloween when you see a man dressed in a dress, if he knows how to walk in the shoes, he does it more than just once a year."


-Naseem Rakha
October 13, 2015

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Grand Canyon Artist in Residence

Last year while back at the Grand Canyon, I and a few other Artists in Residents were interviewed for this beautiful 5 minute film about the importance of AIR's. The students from Columbia University did a very nice job.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Homeless Dogs

Of note this morning: overweight woman in a scooter buys four large bags of candy. As she reaches into her bag for her wallet, she pulls out a plastic bag that contains a single large milk bone. "I haven't seen any dogs this morning," she says to the Rite Ad cashier. "I don't give money to 'dem bums outside. But if they have a dog, I'll give 'em a biscuit." 

Outside Rite Ad I hear several dogs barking. They are a block away, standing among a small group of people. Beside me, a man hosting a full length leg cast and tattered, street-stained clothes points a yellowed finger in the dogs' direction and yells, "SHUT UP!" 
And I think, "fat chance."

Certainly the sound of the street--the cars, the busses, light rail zipping by, voices haling cabs, shouting about the "all mighty Lord Jesus," speaking to lovers, to business partners, to friends, to enemies, into phones, into the wind to no one in particular--would drown out this one man's voice. 

Yet not minutes later, not even seconds, but immediately, the dogs quit their barking. I turn back and look at the man and he pulls his hand back into his pocket and smiles.

I am upon them now, three dogs two street people, all outside a Starbucks. The people hold signs, "Anything helps." The dogs sit beside their humans, one climbs on a back pack. Lies down. 

I give its owner a few bucks, and walk away, my eye out for the overweight scooter-woman with the bags of candy and the dog bone.


Friday, June 19, 2015

Jon Stewart on the Emanuel AME Shooting

Last night comedian Jon Stewart, the host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, set aside his jokes to speak directly to his audience about the deaths of nine African American worshipers at the historical Emanuel AME Church, in Charleston, South Carolina.

A solum and unscripted Stewart, stares straight into the camera - saying we the people of the United States are more of a threat to ourselves than foreign terrorists, and that our failure to see and remedy our racist presumptions is a blood toxin that is destroying this nation. His words are powerful, and he absolutely right.

Please watch.