We’re deep into the NHL Season now with the Stanley Cup just around the corner. I think it’s time to return to what’s most important in hockey–great flow. And by flow, of course, I mean salad. And by that I mean hair. Here’s a video of some of the best hair in hockey. Enjoy.
Let’s face it. Surfing is hard.
I just returned from a week surfing with Hillary Harrison at Peaks and Swells Surf Camp in Costa Rica. In the four years since John and I first went to Hillary’s camp my surfing hasn’t exactly improved. Granted, I’m a fair weather surfer. From the get go, I knew that surfing would never replace skiing as the sport I obsess about. I never planned on checking the swell forecast as carefully as I follow low pressure snow-producing storms in the Pacific.
But now, that might be changing.
First, let me tell you about the surf camp. It’s not just about surfing. There’s also yoga, massage, and all-organic meals. And of course, the daily walk to Montezuma for gelato. This place is more like a retreat than a “camp.” Every detail is handled for you, and once you arrive there are no real decisions to make. We attended the family camp with John’s daughter. One of the most appealing components of surfing is the fact that we can do it as a family. I’m not the kind of parent that truly loves watching the kids while they do their own sport (is anyone?). I’d rather be in there too, cheering alongside them.
The coaches at Peaks and Swells are fabulous. Each one of them exudes positivity. Lead instructor Victoria Ross actually smiles the entire time she’s talking. I tried it on for size, but it sounds ridiculous on me (and I’m okay with that). Victoria is an Aussie, so the accent helps. But her happy vibe infected every of her students. Even in the midst of their own cool surfer style, somehow all the instructors bring you along with them on the ride. This is a very special place.
What I learned at Peaks and Swells is the importance (and the power) of sucking. It’s okay not to excel. It’s fine to look clumsy and awkward. It’s normal to be embarrassed. The first day of surfing at Peaks and Swells ends in a photo and video viewing of the day’s adventures in the water, and those feelings of awkward embarrassment are impossible to avoid. So I figured that I might as well embrace them.
If you never let yourself look like an ass, than you probably aren’t learning anything new. Which means you probably aren’t growing. The pressure to look good, and stylish, and coiffed, and camera-ready at all times is higher than ever. It’s only when you stop worrying about what you might look like that you really drop into flow. Only when you cease thinking of yourself from the third person and truly step into who you are in the moment, can you find happiness.
Trying something hard, like surfing, is a risk. There’s a risk (albeit small) of getting injured. But the bigger risk is simply embarrassing yourself. One of the surf coaches last week quoted a recent student you asked her, “when does the sexy part of surfing start?”
Let me be clear. Surfing is not sexy when you’re a beginner. There’s nothing sexy or stylish about that roll of wet snot dripping from your nose when you first pop up on your board. Nor is it very sexy when your bathing suit comes unseated from around your backside. The red eyes from that surprise wave that crashed on your head and the bruises on your hips and elbows from your failed pop-ups don’t scream sexy either.
Beginners are just surviving out there. We don’t care about what we look like. That is, until the photos go up on the screen during happy hour and we wonder yet again, so when does the sexy part start?
But I applaud every single person carrying their ungainly boards out into the surf to give it a go anyways. You’re putting yourself out there. You’re trying something hard.
I’ve written about this before, but adversity is good for you. Trying (and even sucking at) something new changes your brain. We crave novelty. Our brains release dopamine when we have a new experience. It’s the brain’s way of telling us to keep at it. When old habits and skills no longer require much of us, it’s time to pick up a new skill. In addition to surfing this week, I learned another important skill. Humility.
But there are moments that make it all worthwhile. When you catch the wave just right–for me it was catching a green wave and popping up in time to feel myself drop into the trough–the feeling buoys you up. You are in flow. You completely forget about what you look like from the outside; instead you are focused entirely on the task before you. And when surfing is the task before you, there’s nothing quite like it.
Except, of course, skiing powder.
Avalanche mitigation seems to be having a moment. In the very small world of snow sports, avalanche mitigation is an even tinier niche. It’s the realm of professional ski patrollers and DOT highway workers and a few avalanche consultants. We call it “avalanche control” or “AC” or “Avi”. Some call it “avalanche reduction” or “control work.” Others call it simply “hazard mitigation.”
I’ve been doing it up at Crystal for years. Up until recently I had a hard time explaining what it was like. Before POV cameras that strap to a helmet or a chest harness, few patrollers could hold a video camera in one hand and also plug their ears at the same time.
Besides, ski patrollers don’t want to slow down the process. Time is of the essence on avalanche control mornings. Crowds of powder hunters often wait in long, snaking lines at the chairlift, listening to the bombs explode in the starting zones and waiting for the all clear. Quality video takes time and it also takes good visibility–two things in low quantity on a powder day.
Good avalanche footage is hard to come by. That’s why I like this video by Chris Morgan at twosherpas.com. It’s called PROfile: Ski Patroller G.R. Fletcher. It takes place at Snow Basin in Utah. The avalanche footage is clean and beautiful. It’s nothing historic or scary, just good sharp surface slabs that allow the patrol to open up some nice-looking terrain.
I can appreciate G.R.’s discussion on group dynamics. Ski patrollers must trust one another. Whether ski cutting a starting zone or working side by side on a medical call, the job requires a certain closeness. G.R. has been patrolling for 25 years, and you can detect a little wariness in his voice. The job is not easy. There are some hard days. Some days are boring, when the crowds are low and the snow is icy–not even worth taking a lap.
Other days are so scary that you can’t sleep that night. We work on serious accidents, some that even end in tragedy. But then there are days like the one pictured in this video. These days are crisp and beautiful and covered in a skein of soft snow. Near-perfect days require enough challenge and uncertainty to keep the flow going. That’s what keeps me coming back to the job every year. It’s days like this.
On another note: Crystal isn’t open at the moment. But things are looking better for a limited opening this weekend. Stay tuned on the website. Oh, and by the way. It’s currently snowing at Crystal. Keep doing those snow dances.
Julie Brown at Powder.com continued recently with her Pay It Forward interview series in which she finds the true locals in the ski/snowboard world, asks them a few soulful questions and then has them choose the next interviewee.
I love this series not only because she started at Crystal, but more importantly because these are the true heroes of our sport.
People like Hugh and Steve aren’t skiing for sponsors. They aren’t posting their best runs to YouTube or even wearing POV cameras. On the chairlift, these guys aren’t worried about the battery life on their GoPro.
They’re scoping their next line.
They go to the mountains to ski, to hang out with their friends, and have fun. They aren’t there to burnish their image or work on their brand or post impossibly filtered photos to Instagram.
It’s no surprise, really, that Julie’s first two interviews were Crystal locals. Many of these guys and gals stay for weeks in trailers in B Lot, Crystal’s big parking lot ringed on one side with RV parking. A handful of the most colorful locals are known, simply, as the B Lot Boys.
Steve Fratella is the real deal. He’s been at Crystal for as many seasons as I have. He skis hard and flies well under the radar, and I’m thrilled to see him showcased in my favorite magazine. Thanks Steve for keeping it real.
Adventurous types are often defined by their sports and extreme activities. Just take a look at their Instagram feeds. They read something like this: “Check me out. I’m a skier/surfer/knife juggler/fire dancer/world traveler/eater of bizarre-looking food/arranger of well-filtered photos/lover of large, inquisitive-looking dogs.”
I’m pretty much in the same boat. Looking back at my drop in the social media bucket, my biggest splashes are ski related. And a few other summer sports thrown in for good measure. While I don’t introduce myself at parties with a handshake and an “I’m a skier” sticker plastered to my forehead, I realize that it sort of defines me. At least in social media, because here’s a newsflash. Writers like me have blogs and FB accounts and Twitter feeds and an online presence so that when Random House Googles our name because they want to offer us a contract and a big advance for our upcoming novel, they can actually find something about us. (Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself, that all this time on the Internet is really work-related).
This only begins to explain why trying a new sport is so humbling. Especially a sport like kiteboarding. Especially when all of a sudden everyone and their grandmother is taking up kiteboarding and exclaiming it to be an elevator ride to nirvana. “You haven’t tried kiteboarding? Ohmygod. It’s the best. It’s amazing. It’s like flying. It’s like flying on heroin. It’s like flying on heroin while simultaneously saving a baby whale.”
So, of course I had to try it. My husband and I both had to try it. Because just like some of the best things in life (ahem, this is a family post here people, get your mind out of the gutter), kiteboarding is best done with someone you love. Someone who isn’t better at it than you. At least not yet anyways.
In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there exists a small island surrounded by a beautiful lagoon and ringed by a corral reef. This island sits in the path of the trade winds. This island’s country, in an effort to promote tourism, subsidizes cheap flights from Aukland and L.A. And for some reason, when you search the all-knowing Internet about the world’s best places to kiteboard, this island is never on the list. This island is Aitutaki in the Cook Islands.
Aitutaki is a beginning kiteboarder’s dream. The water is warm. The winds are cranking. You can stand on the soft sand as you repeatedly attempt to fly the kite and get up on the board and there’s no one else around to watch you fail. At least not in May.
Learning to kiteboard isn’t easy. First of all, you have to fly the kite. You don’t want to crash it, although I did that. Numerous times. And you want to keep the kite flying but not so hard that you Jesus-walk out of your board and across the water and face plant hard enough to turn your mouth and nose into a sluice box for the lagoon water to flume down. At the end of five days of perfect winds our little group of kiteboarders voted me Most Spectacular Crasher. So I have that going for me. Which is nice.
By the second day I was actually up. I was kiting. I was even cutting upwind a little. For a brief second, I actually achieved a mini-nirvana. No singing angels or anything. No laughing Buddhas. But just an itty bitty moment of flow when I was flying and boarding all at once.
On my right side that is. In board sports I’m goofy-footed, and attempting a reach to the left is like trying to rub my stomach and pat my head while alternately raising each eyebrow one at a time. No matter how many mouthfuls of water I swallowed, no matter how many times I supermaned into the coral and cut the dickens out of my fingers, even after loosing my sunglasses and with snot pouring out of my nose, I kept after those lefts. You can’t just kiteboard one direction. That’s the thing about this sport. Like with sailing or windsurfing or even skiing. At some point, you have to turn and go the other way.
So I sort of beat myself up out there. I kited each day until my beer light was on amber. And sometimes even after that amber turned to a dangerous red light that usually means I must stop all activity and open the nearest beer and sit down and nurse my wounds. And yet I never really got it.
I mean I got it a little bit. I made a few downwind-ish reaches to the left. Once I actually stopped on my own accord that didn’t end in a spectacular crash. But I never really got it. I never turned. I never felt that look-at-me-mom-I’m-really-doing-it rush I was hoping for.
Instead I practiced humility. The diaper-like harness was cutting a nasty wedgy into my board shorts. The salt water stung my eyes. I was cut and bruised and waterlogged. But knowing just how fickle the wind can be, that sports like kiteboarding require the perfect ingredients of wind, water and waves, I kept trying. And I’m pretty sure I made the fish and the sea slugs chuckle. Silly human.
So please don’t invite me to go kiting with you in Hood River (although thanks for thinking of me). Not just yet anyways. I’m not ready to prime time, and I guess I’m okay with that. I wouldn’t even mind returning to Aitutaki again. Roundtrip tickets from LA to Rarotonga are only $800 on Air New Zealand. And maybe that’s what’s required: another trip to this beautiful island where the sand is soft and forgiving and the people are lovely and there’s no one else for miles to watch me fall flat on my face.
I’m not much of a long term planner. I’m more of a winger. Or a wingnutter. Or, as I like to say, a spontaneity buff.
And when I (or we, because my husband is nearly as guilty as I am of this) do make plans for the future–broad notions that may or may not require a zip code change–they usually don’t last long. These plans don’t stick. One minute we think we’re ready to pick up stakes and move to Montana, and then we look at each other and say, “Who are we kidding?”
It’s sort of like trying on a million bikinis to see if there’s just one that doesn’t make you look fat. But at the very least, we get to entertain some interesting life plans. And, we get to travel well.
Travel plans are made last minute around our house. It’s dumping snow in Japan? We’re on a plane to Niseko in 24 hours. Need some beach time to dry out our cold, wet winter bones? We book a trip for the following week to Aitutaki, an island in the middle of a turquoise lagoon in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
So even with this spontaneity-fueled planning strategy, I’m making plans anyways. Can you see me? Here I am making a plan. A real-life, honest-to-God plan for the future. Ready?
I’m planning on getting accidentally stranded on a deserted island.
I realize this begs the question: how can you plan to accidentally do anything? I don’t have an answer for that. But what I do know is that the right deserted island could be a great place to spend, oh I don’t know, a month, a year, the rest of our life.
Of course not just any deserted island will work for me. It’s going to need a few essentials. Number one, my husband has to make the journey with me. It worries me a little because every time I mention this new plan, he sort of cocks his head like he didn’t hear me quite right.
Him: Where is this again?
Me: On our deserted island. Remember?
Him: Oh. Yeah.
Me: Anyways, it will definitely need coconuts, I think. Lots so them.
Me: And maybe some limes. I think limes are important.
Me: For the margaritas. and the ika mata*. That way we don’t have to rely on matches and fire. In case it rains. Which, hopefully it does rain some. For drinking water.
That’s when John just looks at me funny. Then he says, “What was this for again?”
I don’t think John realizes how serious I am. Because I’ve really thought this one through. Just look at coconuts for example. You can pretty much survive on coconuts. The green ones are full of coconut water, which is like regular water on steroids. And the brown ones are full of delicious coconut flesh. Is that what it’s called? Coconut flesh? That seems weird. But coconut meat isn’t any better. It’s just coconut. But it’s amazing. The trunks are wrapped in a sort of cloth that could be great for making shelter for when it rains (and rain is kind of important on an island that doesn’t have a lake, or a stream, or creek, or anything other than sandy beach.) And in case I decide I need to wear clothes on our deserted island those discarded coconuts make a great bra. Plus, Cook Islanders have found a way to turn the palm branches into an excellent broom. So, with the coconut alone, we could have most of our needs met. I’m pretty sure that the hierarchy of needs goes something like this: Water, food, shelter, cleanliness. And then maybe wine. And the Internet.
But we probably won’t have the Internet on our island. And that’s okay. I’m willing to make some sacrifices here. Wine though? That would be harder to give up.
Maybe some swashbuckling Johnny Depp-type pirates left a case of rum buried in the sand of our deserted island (because let’s face it, who doesn’t want a little Johnny Depp on their island?) That would be okay. I could work with rum. It goes well with coconut. And lime.
Truth be told, I actually have found my perfect deserted island. It’s a motu just off Aitutaki. It’s called Honeymoon Island, and it’s a favorite with the newlywed set. And with kiteboarders. And tevake birds. They nest here and seem to have no fear of humans, as if they don’t have a care in the world. Which is important on a deserted island. You can’t really worry about all the Internet and peanut M&Ms that you’re missing.
And I’d be perfectly happy with this island. Especially if we also had a few kites, say a 5 meter for those days when the trades are cranking and say a 9 meter for the rest of the days when the trades are still kind of cranking. Do I sound like I know what I’m talking about? Don’t let it fool you. I owe it all to a few Aitutaki locals who are teaching us this elusive sport of kiteboarding while we fantasize about ways to claim this island for our own.
Come to think of it, kiteboarding is a crazy sport. It’s the latest thing. The new SUP, the cooler version of windsurfing, the less hostile version of surfing, the current sport, the fastest-growing-watersport-etc, etc, etc. But after a few days it seems like a more difficult version of wakeboarding. Because you’re also flying a kite at the same time. But it’s fun in that sort of how-many-sports-can-I-simultaneously-do-at-once-while-making-it-appear-absolutely-effortless sort of way. It’s frustrating enough to make you want to keep doing it, just to prove to yourself that you can.
Maybe I will revise my aforementioned future plan just a tick. Perhaps John and I can make an annual pilgrimage to our deserted island once a year and play with these kites and boards and pretend that we are taking up this challenging new sport, when in reality we just want to come back to our deserted island and pretend that we live on coconuts and rum. Maybe that’s what we’ll do.
See? That’s why I love you people. Because you help me focus on the truly important things.
*The Cook Islands version of ceviche or poisson cru, a raw, lime-cured tuna concoction served in coconut milk that is so good it should probably have a sin tax on it.
I just returned from a long trip abroad. Three weeks in the Himalayas. It was glorious. It was magical. It was horrifying.
Moments of grandeur and high-mountain beauty slice against images of filth and extreme poverty. But what endures as I try to sift through my everyday life, is the memory of smiling locals and a feeling of what can only be described as re-entry syndrome.
I’m no stranger to re-entry syndrome. When I got off a three-week trip on the Grand Canyon several years ago, I stumbled around in a fog for weeks. My usual sense of purpose and industry had vanished. I was left with the big questions that had arisen while floating the Colorado, but none of the simple answers that had reverberated off the canyon walls.
It’s the same now.
Sikkim is a state in India. Wedged between Nepal and Bhutan and butted up against Chinese Tibet, Sikkim was a separate kingdom until 1975. In some ways, it is more Nepali than Indian, and our trek took us along the border between the two countries. Goecha La, our high point, after two weeks on the trail, brought us to within 5 kms of Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world which borders Nepal and Sikkim.
I loved walking amongst these giant mountains. Every morning the sun rose to reveal new ridges and glaciers, taller peaks than the day before and rows and rows of sharp beauty. I especially loved the “not-thinking” required in trekking. We had porters and yaks to carry the heavy gear. My job was only to eat, sleep and walk. I’d pictured spending hours on the trail sorting through the minutiae of my mind–plotting my upcoming book, making a final decision about whether or not to continue my radio show, figuring out how and where and if I could manage to create some significant work.
But that’s not how it worked.
Whole days went by and I just walked. No mental plans were made. No epiphanies found.
I wondered if I were squandering my chance. After months of research for my latest book and years of plotting and scheming, this was my opportunity to catch up. To let my mind wander. To come up with my next big idea.
Instead I just looked around. I gaped at the mountain view. I cried at the scenes of poverty in the cities. Some days, while hiking along the base of towering peaks, the tears flowed for no apparent reason. Maybe this was gratitude, I told myself. But even that thought vanished in the monotony of putting one foot in front of the other. Maybe it’s an altitude thing. Perhaps I was a little hypoxic.
Or maybe the physical act of walking was erasing my need to analyze and understand every little emotion and idea that entered my brain.
Maybe I simply needed to be.
Now I’m home, and I’m experiencing reverse culture-shock. There should be a to-do list on my desk a mile long getting checked off one by one. I should be getting back into the groove, preparing for the ski season, stocking up at Costco, obsessing over the weather forecast.
Instead, I feel like I’m floating. Somewhere between the Himalayas and my old life is a new path twisting in front of me like a toy snake. I’ll find it soon enough.
But I’m not in any hurry.
- Off The Grid (kimkircher.com)