The Work You Can’t Not Do

My legs were on fire, the muscles burning with exhaustion from the effort to overcome gravity and continue up the steep slope through the knee-deep snow. The sun shone warmly, reflecting bright rays back up from the white, untouched snow. The bright blue sky was a welcome surprise, having begun the day under heavy cloud cover and the prospect of rain. The air was brisk with the slightest hint of warmth, a whisper of the coming spring. My heart felt fit to burst, but not from the exercise, it was pumping wildly from the ear-to-ear smile across my face, overflowing with gratitude and joy for this moment, in this place, and every single moment before it that brought me here. Gratitude for the feeling of full participation in my own life.

Taking a moment to catch my breath and embrace all the beauty around me

Taking a moment to catch my breath and embrace all the beauty around me

A year ago I let go of a lot of things I loved in order to make space for the things that truly brought me joy in life. I left a company filled with wonderful people, and work that was fulfilling and meaningful. I also left a daily commute through the bustling city streets of San Francisco and the required daily onslaught of emails and hours in front of a computer in the confines of an office building. I left a comfortable little rent-controlled one-bedroom in Noe Valley with a hot tub and a lemon tree. I also left the “need” for a bigger home and more things to fill it with. I left beloved wild places all around the USA that I could have spent a lifetime exploring. I also left the limitation of the brief two-day weekend window in which I was allowed to explore them.

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My last year in San Francisco I tried to find balance between city life and my love of the outdoors, but ultimately the desire to be outdoors outweighed all else

As I take a break in the middle of this mountain in Southern Chile, on a Tuesday, my snowboard strapped to my back, my chest heaving, the sunshine drawing sweat from my brow- that joy and gratitude threatening to burst forth from my heart is inspired by that decision to choose a different path for my life. It is a brief moment taken to celebrate the delicacy of life, to acknowledge the preciousness of it, and to be thankful for the courage to step onto the unmarked path and break trail on my own.

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Literally breaking trail in the Chilean mountains behind my home in Southern Chile

Recently I received news that a beautiful soul had lost his life while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. To say the least, Scott Dinsmore was a beacon of light in this world. In his very brief time on this planet, he directly impacted hundreds of thousands of people, inspiring them to let go of the things in their life that aren’t working to pursue what they are passionate about. With all of his interactions- in person, over email, or in his writing/recordings online, he emitted an energy that was both inspiring and challenging, that embraced you while also pushing you. And he could achieve this without even really knowing you. He built a global community, Live Your Legend, that existed with the sole purpose of positively encouraging one another to pursue our dreams and build a meaningful life. With the news of his death, this community came together and thousands of people have expressed how Scott changed their lives, many of whom he never even met.

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The last Instagram photo that Scott posted before going offline to climb Mount Kilimanjaro

This, is a life well lived. Regardless of its length, the depth of his life is simply incredible.

In his last blog post he wrote about the decision to book this trip to Mount Kilimanjaro. He talks about how it almost didn’t happen because of fear, and how it would have been a tragedy if he had not decided to go for it:

“I almost decided not to book this Tanzania trip because I didn’t think I could (or should) step away. How ridiculous is that? To pass up an adventure I’ve talked about for years – because I’d convinced myself I couldn’t disconnect. Or more truthfully, because I couldn’t find the courage to do it.

That would have been a tragedy.”

The gut reaction when reading these words is that it was a tragedy for him to have gone for it, because by doing so he lost his life. But that is the kicker of it all- it is not a tragedy for him, it is a tragedy for those of us who feel the pain of his loss. For him, it is a grand success. It is the essence of the life that he decided to live. Mount Kilimanjaro was the whole point of the journey up to that moment, and had he not pursued it, then it would have been him who experienced the tragedy of a dream unfollowed. Scott didn’t die just doing something that he loved, he died having lived a life that he truly loved, one he celebrated often, and as a result one that will continue to inspire love, risk and a tireless addiction to life in countless other people around this world.

We should all be so bold. We should all be so courageous to consider pursuing a life that threatens to explode our hearts with gratitude because it is simply So. Damn. Beautiful. How different would this world look if we did? That is what Scott was trying to accomplish, and he certainly initiated the ripples necessary to bring about waves of positive change.

For me, this year has been all about embracing this boldness. I’ve taken time to redefine the work that I do, and take it beyond the confines of the corporate definition. And I’ve committed to spending more time in wild places, which brings me the purest form of joy and inspiration. Although I have a much less “public” life than Scott, and I am still exploring the delicate vulnerability of using my voice in a public manner, his boldness with his own vulnerability is a constant source of inspiration for me as I embark on new adventures in a public space. I know that I met Scott for a reason and that I too have an opportunity to inspire others by encouraging a tireless addiction to life by choosing to live deeply myself.

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Take a moment to jump for joy when you feel as though your heart may explode with gratitude. Laugh, run, turn your face toward the sun and jump.

In January 2016, I am planning to ride my horse, self-supported, along the length of the Chilean Patagonia. The estimated distance will be 1200KM (around 745 miles) of the Carretera Austral, although we’ll likely be venturing off trail quite a bit as I connect with local ranches en route. I am estimating that the ride will take two months, and it will take us through some of the most pristine and wild places I have ever experienced. The purpose of my ride is to celebrate simplicity while inspiring curiosity. I will be focusing on the necessity to travel light (and as a result reduce our general consumption and the negative impact on the planet) and celebrate the simplicity of life on the trail.

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Getting ready to take to the mountains of Patagonia on horseback!

I will also be weaving my passion for sustainable supply chains and corporate social responsibility into my ride. Rather than asking companies to sponsor me with new gear, I’ll be connecting with a handful of the companies who made the things already I own, and asking them to sponsor transparency in their supply chain by helping me tell the story of where my things come from. It’s a little like “Worn Wear” meets “Planet Money Makes A T-Shirt”– I plan to weave the stories of the raw materials, the factory production, the transcontinental shipping, all of these “life-stories” of my things, into the stories of our adventures in the harsh and wild conditions of Patagonia. My intent in doing this is to tell beautiful stories that invoke curiosity about product life cycles, inspire reflection on the life we give the things we own, and motivate action that encourages greater transparency in supply chains globally.

Something that Scott said during his TedEx talk several years ago was “What is the work you can’t not do?”- and these words are on repeat now as I wrap my head around the logistics, the costs, and the raw reality of embracing this adventure. This ride will challenge me physically, mentally and emotionally, but it will also challenge me to use my voice in a way that is meaningful- to lead a revolution beyond just conscious consumerism toward curious consumerism, and to bring environmental impact to the forefront of all business and personal consumption decisions. This is the work I can’t not do.

So with that, I am putting this out there in an effort to open every door possible and see the “hows” unfold. All the pieces of this expedition puzzle are not yet in place, but Scott also said you should take “imperfect action”- even if you aren’t 100% ready- so here I go. I ask that if you are interested in contributing to this adventure and revolution in any way, feel free to reach out to me here – I am always looking for thought partners! You can also follow along with updates on the expedition as it evolves here.

Finally, if you want to join me in my efforts to build a community of Curious Consumers, watch this space, I will soon be creating a place where you can join me in taking the Pledge.

The last thing I’ll leave you with is one simple question, the question that Scott asked himself when he left the work he didn’t love and began his pursuit to build Live Your Legend; the question that has become an affirmation for me as I attempt to take on one of the most challenging experiences and works of my life; and the question that could change your life if you give it some real thought:

What is the work you can’t not do?

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She Thought She Could, So She Did

I dropped down to my knees, slowly rocking backward so that I could finally sit and take the weight off my aching legs. The hot water of the shower washed away the week’s worth of dirt that had gathered with every mile covered. My mind was blank, the throbbing feeling in my legs encompassing all thought. I looked at my legs, these strong, powerful legs that had carried me more than a thousand miles to reach the point where I now sat. I appreciated the hell out of these legs, the freedom they gave me, the journey they allowed me to partake in. A quiet smile spread across my face in the poorly lit shower, as I sat on the floor and thought about this day that was coming to a close, the epic task that I had decided to tackle, and how far I had come since the day I first stepped foot on the Appalachian Trail.

90 days. Exactly 90 days prior, three months in total, Ale and I had climbed Mount Katahdin in Maine on our first day as Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. That climb kicked our asses. We were both so exhausted after the ten mile ascent and descent that we fell asleep in our tent after a light feast of fruit snacks, too tired to even fathom the energy to cook dinner.

The next morning we awoke to aching bodies and heavy packs. We struggled to walk a total of eight miles that second day. The first week it felt as though we were moving at the pace of inch worms, and an entire day of exhaustive effort that took everything we had, hardly seemed to make a dent in the 2,180 miles in front of us. Our emotions were taxed, our bodies exhausted, our minds gasping for a productive way to pass the time when all we had to fill it was walking. The thought of reaching Springer Mountain in Georgia, the terminus of the trail, just seemed so impossibly far away.

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The early days on the trail when 10 miles in one day was no easy feat.

Flash forward to this moment, this night that I am smiling to myself sitting on a shower floor of some random hostel in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. This day I was reflecting on began early, before the sun broke the horizon.

My alarm went off abruptly at 4:00am. I sat up in the hammock immediately, my heart jumping into my throat with anticipation for the day. I heard rustling from the other hammocks as the rest of our crew began to pull themselves from sleep. I clicked on my headlamp, nudged Mango (the trail name Ale went by as a thru-hiker), telling him it was time, and dropped my legs over the side of our hammock. Everyone got ready quietly, packing up camp quickly. My pack felt so light in comparison to most days. In preparation we had all rationed our food so that we would only had enough to get through the next 16 hours- a meager effort to save ourselves from having to carry more weight than we absolutely needed.

What were we about to attempt? On the trail, it’s a little thing called the Four State Challenge where you hike across the borders of four sates- crossing from Pennsylvania, through the entire state of Maryland and West Virginia, and end in Virginia- all in one day, covering a total of 42.9 miles.

We began in the dark with a swift pace, headlights bobbing along the forest path, the dead leaves, dry from the summer draught, crunched beneath our feet as we cruised along silently. After five miles, we took a break to drink water and eat a power bar. The day before, we had all decided it would be best to manage our energy this way, hiking hard in five mile increments, then breaking for 20 minutes to replenish energy. We maintained this technique for the entire day, and I think it was essential for us to actually pull it off. The trail took us through towns, through developed parks, though nature preserves and wild woods.

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Taking a moment to rest and enjoy the sunshine during our Four State Challenge

The sun shone strong, the sky was blue and the breeze was light. It was a beautiful day. All along the way we passed shelters that looked enticing with valley views and campfire pits, but pushed on anyway. As the evening rolled in, the air turned cooler, and I felt as though we were literally walking into fall when we reached West Virginia. A grey fog rolled in and the wind picked up. We pushed onward, the miles melting beneath our strong legs and wild hearts.

After about 14 hours of hiking at the strong pace, I could feel the exhaustion of my muscles settling in. Keeping the Cliff Bars down at that point was a struggle as I began to battle nausea. The weight of my pack pulled heavily on my shoulders and hips. My feet ached as though they were weighed down by bags of sand tied to my ankles. Every incline felt like a steep mountain, regardless of the pitch.

We hiked the last few miles under cover of darkness, just has we had begun. My mind raced wildly as I stumbled along, ticking off the remaining miles- it took more mental effort than I had imagined it would. Cubby and Spoon had hiked ahead, keeping a faster pace than us; but Mango, Santana and I took our last twenty minute break together. We swapped coping advice, shared in the collective exhaustion we felt- but we also shared in quiet celebration of how far we had come, and how little we had left in front of us.

42.9 miles, in 16 hours and 37 minutes. After 90 days of walking, we were able to walk 42.9 miles in 16 1/2 hours. Only 90 days prior, it had taken us 12 hours to walk 10 miles. The accomplishment I felt was stunning. I was overwhelmed by my own strength, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. I hadn’t even realized how far I had come, figuratively speaking, until that moment in Harper’s Ferry.

Just as I had 90 days earlier, I fell asleep that night without being able to muster the strength to cook dinner. I awoke with a smile, and a greater understanding of what I was actually able to accomplish, what I could do, if I just decided to do it. And even as I hobbled on sore legs, the rain pouring down on us as we made our way to breakfast, I had never felt so strong, or smiled so wide.

Last week I published my website- and in doing so I finally managed to bring together several of my life passions and establish, publicly, the intention of the work that I do. The journey that I’ve taken to get here was filled with plenty of ups and downs, there were calculated breaks and regenerative moments, plenty of moments of uncertainty where I questioned if I could actually do this, but as I hit publish, as I began to share it, I suddenly was overwhelmed again with the realization of how strong I am- of what I can do if I just decide to do it.

With that, I wish you a most beautiful day. Take some time and acknowledge a moment in your life when you surprised yourself with your own ability, with your power and your strength. Love that moment, hold it close, celebrate it, share it to inspire others. Who knows what unbelievable beauty will unfold as a result of you.

Oh- and if you are curious, you can check out what I do when I’m not posting here at my new website- www.gretamatos.com

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Constantly seeking new challenges that will take me places beyond my own imagination

So, what do you do?

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Me posing with Volcan Villarica after an invigorating climb on a crisp, beautiful July day.

“Oh you live in Chile? Wow, so, what do you do there?”

“Well, mostly I climb mountains and surf.” I say with a smile and a little laugh. I laugh because this response inevitably always draws a quizzical look and a flurry of follow up questions. I smile because this simple little statement is a true reflection of how I’ve been spending most of my time lately, which was my intention when I closed the last chapter and began writing this one.

By now when someone hears that I live in Chile, they typically first assume that I am here for my job. That is why I stopped telling people what I do for a living when they ask me what I do in Chile. I didn’t come here for my work, I came here for my life. Their next assumption is usually that we moved here for family- also not accurate since neither my husband or I have any family here. I get it, I’m in my thirties, most people don’t just up and move to a remote part of the world for reasons other than work and family, but I also kind of love the fact that we did.

I remember the pangs of fear that crept in when I initially decided to quit my job and move to Chile, fear about answering that question, “what do you do,” as so much of my identity had felt tied to my work. I remember thinking about how I should update my Linkedin profile, how I could validate my credibility as a capable and successful professional without the title that went with my role. Even with those questions and doubts causing concern, the greater concern for me was that I would spend the majority of my life in an office, in front of a computer screen, finding time to do the things that brought me the most joy only around the edges of my life, not within the focus. I didn’t only want to experience joy in the edges, I wanted it to be flowing constantly.

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Pre-surf yoga always helps me clear my mind and connect with my intention before heading into the waves.

It’s funny how we subscribe to society’s definition of success, and learn to build our goals and dreams about achieving it through that lens, rather than the lens of our own souls. It is a practice to refrain from pursuing success in this manner, it is a practice to go within, to listen, to understand what ignites joy within you, what makes that feeling of love and gratitude just overflow to the point of uncontrollable giggling and mile-wide smiles. I don’t think this is a struggle, but I do think it is a practice. But when we engage in this practice, oh wow. Wow what unbelievable beauty can unfold!

In the past month, I have hiked through the backcountry of the incredible and ancient snow-dusted araucaria forests of southern Chile, climbed to summits where I had 360 degree views of wild landscapes filled with volcanos, waterfalls, lakes and a huge variety of forests. I have explored the southern coast in search of clean surf breaks, perfect for a cold but sunny winter surf session. I have spent days meandering down dirt roads, deep into unknown territory with my favorite person on the planet, laughing and finding magic places that only we know about, where we can someday bring our loved ones to share. I have put skis on and skinned up a smoking volcano, overlooking massive jewel-toned lakes with craggy mountains on the horizon, then turned around and skied down, back home in time to make a fire, do laundry and cook up a feast. I have also put in a good bit of time working on some exciting consulting projects, logged the necessary hours on my computer, all the while feeling creatively energized. As much as I love the work that I do, I still relish in the fact that I can step out my back door and huff and puff my way up a mountain that will totally have me giggling with childlike glee when I reach the top. This is my bliss, and now that I have it within arm’s reach, I try to embrace it daily, on some level.

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With this as your backyard, it is hard to justify spending a day inside in front of a computer screen 😉

So, when someone asks me what I do, my gut reaction is no longer to tell them about my work. Although I love my work deeply, it no longer feels as though it is the most important part of my identity. Instead, I want to share what I actually do, what makes my heart sing, what invigorates me and reminds me that THIS is living, and I should be doing what makes me feel most alive as much as possible while I am able to.

How would you answer the question “what do you do,” if you were referring to how you spend the majority of your time? Does your answer excite you? Does it make you smile and laugh? If not, what would it take for you to pull joy from the edges of your life to the focus?

I Am a Little Bit of Many Thing

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The air is crisp this morning as I am shuffled forth into the sunlight. I yawn my way open, stretching widely and feeling myself settle in the morning light. The ocean sits quietly on the horizon, dropping beneath the edge of the cliff where I am perched. Just to my left, the sun breaks forth, a bright orange ball bursting from the coastline, as though it is suddenly released from the embrace of the mountains.

To my right, high in the sky, the moon sits peacefully, still residing over the ocean and the land, remaining bright in the moody dawn light, still untouched by the sun’s rays. Her evening watch is nearly done and she will soon retire; but for now, she remains with her waves and her breeze, with her meadows and her trees.

I did not know where this particular journey would take me. Yesterday I was picked up, carried off through the traffic of the city, cruising north beneath the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. Quiet anticipation traveled with me as I wondered about the destination, about the sights I might see, about the tales I might tell. Now I sit and recount those tales, beneath the light of a setting moon and a rising sun. Lovely little moments lived are captured for future moments of reflection. My tale is also captured in these pages, but just one chapter of it- there is really so much more to tell.

I was born in several different countries spread across this world. Before I was what I am today, I was a little bit of many things. My pages are compiled from trees gathered from a forest in northern Oregon. My cover is a strong leather made from the hide of a calf born in the countryside of China. My binding is linen thread made from flax fibers grown in India. And these days my pages are tattooed with ink that is made up of carbon black, drawn from the deepest depths of this planet, either coal or oil, depending upon which of various pens were used. I now exist as many different parts of this Earth, all combined as one.

As a tree I stood tall, breathing deeply every day and night. When it rained, I drank the raindrops through my leaves and my roots. Animals and bugs ran along my thick bark, birds sang from my long arms, I danced with the wind and I stretched for the sun. Eventually, I was cut down, lifted with chains into a very long truck and hauled to a factory for processing. The air in this factory was different, and I no longer used my leaves to breathe. My bark was removed and I was cut into chips. These chips of me were then mixed with chips of others, and then with water and cooked into a paste. Afterwards bleach was poured on me along with chemicals- caustic soda, sodium sulfide and melamine- to give me the desired texture and a different kind of strength than the one I had that allowed me to stand so tall as a tree. After this process I was flattened, and all of the liquid was squeezed out of me. I spent hours drying until finally I was considered finished and was cut into individual pages.

After my brief life in this factory, I was transported to another where my pages were stacked upon one another and I was sewn into my cover, the leather embracing my outer pages. I came to learn my cover had traveled an even greater distance than my pages, first being born as a calf in the fields of mainland China. I had a brown coat and a rattly voice. I spent most of my time grazing and eating corn, I had strong hooves and enjoyed sunbathing on hot sunny days. I think other cows may have thought this odd about me, as they lounged about in the shade, chewing their cud with suspicion.

Eventually I was loaded up with many other calves, and taken to a facility where my life as a calf was ended, and my life as a cover began. The air in this factory was also different, and I no longer used my lungs to breathe. Once the skin was removed, I was coated with salt and sent to a leather tannery, where I was covered with chemicals to remove the grease and hair. After my chemical treatment, I was handled by many workers as they moved me back and forth between various processes. They breathed in the chemicals, and as it soaked into my skin it also soaked into theirs. Finally I was inspected for quality and deemed appropriate to live the life as a journal cover. I was stacked with many other hides, placed in a box and began my very long journey by truck and shipping container destined for the USA, where I would meet my pages and begin this next form of existence as a little bit of many things.

From the factory line where I was bound, I was stacked with others, wrapped in a thin plastic film and placed in a box. This box was lifted onto yet another truck which drove me to this next new home. The next chapter of my life would be lived in a side alley shop in San Francisco. Upon arrival, my plastic was removed and I took my place quietly sitting on a wooden shelf, stacked tightly between others who resembled me. I had a lot of time to reflect on the places I had been, on the pieces of this Earth that had been combined to bring me into this new existence. Little did I know my travels had just begun.

Eventually, my companion lifted me from the wooden shelf, holding me lightly, flipping through my empty, crisp pages. After so many seconds and minutes and hours and days I finally felt the warmth of the sunshine again as we stepped outside of the shop together. I smiled with delight, the sunbathing joys of my youth momentarily relived. As we sat together at the cafe, my pages breathed deep the warm breeze, flapping softly as my branches once had.

As destiny would have it, I would travel all around the world with my companion- we climbed mountains in the Trinity Alps, we paddled rivers and traversed glaciers in Alaska, we visited strawberry harvesters in the fields of Morocco and Mexico, we even spent time walking the floors of factories in China, factories similar to those where parts of me had been created. I’ve flown across the oceans more times than I can count. I’ve opened my pages to capture and share memories on ferries, subways, monorails, cars and airplanes. I hold all of these details within the warm embrace of my soft outer cover, they have become another part of me. 

This cover has been worn soft from such constant travel, and a few of my pages have begun to pull loose. Heavy ink is now scrawled across all of my pages, and I spend most of my time on that windowsill, sitting in the sun. My life as a traveling companion has evolved into the role of an old friend to reminisce with, to share laughter and learning. 

I am no longer the tree, or the cow, or the coal or flax that I once was. I am, however, still here. I am, after all, a little bit of many things. I cannot determine how my life continues. I cannot determine how my shape and form may change if I am discarded, retired to a landfill somewhere no one will again open my binding and spread my pages. Perhaps I will be recycled, my pages pulled from my cover, and again melted to mix with others in chemicals and water, these stories washed from my folds, bleach replacing the ink, a brief chapter of my life washed away. Who knows, I cannot tell the future. I can only embrace this moment to bask in the sunshine, and each time my cover is parted, my pages breathe deep the wild air, and I will continue to hold tight the stories of this life.

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Ever since I first stepped foot on a factory floor and witnessed the thousands of workers hand painting the simple packaging of a plastic toy we were manufacturing, I realized what an incredibly complex system we had created to make the things that we consume. I was taken aback by the realization that every single thing has encountered a remarkable journey to come into existence- from the fields, mines or forests where the raw materials were drawn, to the factory floors in countries all around the world. All for the sole purpose of their arrival to us, the become our possessions. Some of them are tools, some are used to bring pleasure, some we hold onto for years, others only for moments. Regardless of the purpose they ultimately serve, our things share this world with us, and their existence, our demand for their existence, has a direct impact on the state of our planet.

Personally, I’ve gone through all the phases of emotions when it comes to my “stuff”- the guilt of knowing the negative impact the production of that thing likely had on this Earth; the helplessness in my own ability to change the bigger picture, and have any measurable impact beyond my own buying decisions; the ultimate justification for buying things I want but might not need. I don’t believe that feelings of guilt and helplessness inspire change in behavior or a better understanding of practical solutions. I believe curiosity does. I believe that seeking knowledge about the lives of the things we own can inspire a whole knew vision of the world, our place in it and how we choose to interact with it.

I’ve written other pieces about conscious consumerism, about how my own perspective on buying things changed as I learned more and more about the actual cost to our planet and the communities making them. Now I am exploring another perspective, one I hope you might find interesting, a perspective that might ignite a curiosity within you as well. This story is a glimpse into the life of one of my things. It is bottled up in about 1500 words, hardly enough to do the life of this beloved journal justice, but it is meant to only be a glimpse. Just going through the act of writing this has me curious about many of my other things, and the secret lives they’ve lived before coming into my possession.

What kind of stories do the things you hold dearest to your heart carry with them? What kind of a life have you given them? What do you know about where they originally came from, what parts of this Earth were combined to create that one special thing? Who had a hand in bringing your thing into existence? Where will it go once you are finished with it?

Are you curious?

The Warm Embrace of the Universe

The sudden searing pain shooting up my left leg knocked the air out of me. I stood quickly and took off sprinting into the darkness. Without a headlamp, I had only the light of the moon to guide me as I raced down the trail to our hammock. I dropped to the ground sobbing, shrieking as I pulled down my thermals and sat in the darkness bellowing. The pain was so thick it kept me gasping for air between involuntary whimpers and sobs. I was afraid to look down. Stupid stupid stupid, why had I done that? Why hadn’t I been more careful?

It was one of those things that was totally avoidable, something that, as it is happening, you realize how easily you could have avoided it, and if you could go back in time, you would do that one little thing differently.

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Taking in the beautiful rolling mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina on this brisk fall day

We had just pushed out a 27 mile day, zigzagging our way between Tennessee and North Carolina as we continued south during our Thru-Hike of the Appalachian Trail. We had hiked into the night, getting to camp late and hurriedly throwing up our hammock and swapping our sweaty hiking clothes for our thick warm thermals as the temperature dropped. As always, I was ravenous.

When you are thru-hiking, eating is not a ritual, it is a task that is tackled with high efficiency and rapid pace. You usually spend 8-12 hours hiking every day and during those 8-12 hours all you do is think about food. It torments you. You daydream about cheeseburgers and ice cream, pizza, french fries and steak. Food becomes an obsession, and meals are often taken in silence as everyone shovels their respective rice or pasta into their mouths; conversation can wait.

When Ale and I first started the trail, we had civilized things like bowls and pots; and we even used them a few times. But if there is one thing you obsess about more than food, well maybe it is second to food, it is the weight you are carrying on your back. Weight in your pack has a huge impact on your comfort and soreness levels. So after a few weeks on the trail, we realized we didn’t really need those pots and bowls if we could find food that came in packaging that we could eat directly from. This cut down on our need to carry more stuff in our packs and also saved us from having to wash dishes after a meal- win win.

After setting up the hammock and chucking our packs underneath it, I grabbed the Jet Boil and a bag of Lipton noodles, my water bottle and a spork. I couldn’t find my headlamp but didn’t want to put any more time between me and those noodles, so I trotted off in the darkness after Ale, Santana, Spoon and Cubby. When we got to the picnic table a few other hikers were there already. I slid onto the bench, attached the Jet Boil to the fuel canister, poured water in and let the flame burst forth, rubbing my hands together to ward off the cold air. Several minutes later the sweet sound of boiling water filled the air, I grabbed my Lipton, pulled the tab, opened the bag and disconnected the Jet Boil, ready to pour. Then it all went so terribly wrong.

As the boiling water began pouring, the lip of the bag tilted inward, causing the water to instead pour directly down onto my leg. Because I didn’t have a headlamp I didn’t even realize it was happening until quite a bit of boiling water had scalded me. The Patagonia thermal pants I was wearing had an intense insulating affect and essentially held the heat of the boiling water on my leg as it was pouring. Cue the screaming and running.

My first aid kit at this point on the trail essentially consisted of a few Band aids and Duct tape. Even if I had a more robust kit, I didn’t know how to deal with the wound. I was a 14 mile hike from the nearest road, it was late and I was exhausted. Any hope of treating my leg properly would have to wait until tomorrow. That night I lay in my sleeping bag beneath the hammock, the searing pain making it impossible to lie in a confined place.

As sunlight spilled into the woods the next morning, warming my face, I rolled my sleeping bag back to finally survey the damage on my leg. The skin around the burn was a greyish black color, and a large blister has raised itself off of my thigh, a smaller one forming just to the right of it. It ached; oh how it ached. Luckily a few miles into our hike we met some day hikers out for the weekend, they had a full first aid kit and came to the rescue with a roll of gauze that helped protect the blister a bit.

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After 14 painful miles we arrived at the road and hitchhiked into Hot Springs. Hot Springs is a tiny little mountain town, without many facilities, and upon arrival I was torn about what to do next. I didn’t have any health insurance and really did’t want to go to the emergency room. My biggest concern at this point is infection. I had to be realistic about the fact that I was living outside, hiking everyday and often going a week without a proper shower- keeping the burn clean and dry might be a difficult task. More than that, I didn’t know if I should break the blister or if the blister was protecting the wound and therefore better left alone. I decided to try my luck at the local pharmacy, hoping they could offer some advice.

The pharmacist wore large round glasses that sat low on her long pointy nose, secured by a chain that wrapped around her neck. She was nice enough, but she didn’t really know what to do either. Do I put the burn powder on it? Or the cream? Or is it better not to put anything on it and let it heal on its own? Do I wrap it or do I leave it open? How should I clean it? She stated that she didn’t actually know what the best options were for this kind of burn, and simply suggested I get off the trail, thinking it too risky that it would get infected out in the elements.

I left without buying anything, feeling more shaken about how I was going to make it through the last two weeks on the trail. I had been walking for 138 days straight. My feet had carried me from Maine, through 13 states to get to very spot in the mountains of North Carolina. I had fourteen days before I reached the southern terminus at Springer Mountain in Georgia. Getting off the trail was not an option.

I walked back to the motel where we were staying for the night. As I approached I saw Ale speaking with a guy who was also dressed in hiking clothes. I caught the tail end of their conversation and found out he was out for the weekend section hiking this part of the Appalachian Trail. Over the past four years he had dedicated countless weekends and vacation time to completing a different section of the AT- hoping to one day complete it all. Although he dreamed of doing the whole trail in one shot like us, he loved his job and couldn’t get the time off. We swapped a few trail stories, and then he asked me why my leg was wrapped in gauze. He nodded as I described the accident and asked me, “Would you mind if I take a look at it? I am an ER Burn Medic.”

Of course he was.

My jaw dropped slightly and tears welled up in my eyes as I was overwhelmed with relief. I unwrapped my leg and he examined the burn, advising that it was a second degree burn and I would need to break the blister because of its size, and scrub it hard to be sure that no dirt had gotten in. It was going to be incredibly painful, but he thought I would be able to continue with my thru-hike as long as I treated it three times a day and kept it wrapped. I must have turned slightly white when he mentioned breaking the blister because he next offered to prep it for me. I was taken aback by his kindness.

The next morning there was a knock on the door, as we opened it we found my ER Burn Medic Trail Angel standing there, he passes me a bottle of prescription burn cream he had gotten filled that morning and the instructions to care for my leg. I tried to offer him money for the cream, to which he refused, saying simply- “Finish the trail. All I ask is that you email me some stories and let me know when you guys get to Springer. Meeting people like you inspires me to keep going with my goal.”

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Thanks to my Trail Angel in Hot Springs, I was able to continue with my Thru-Hike

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Two weeks after scalding my leg I reached the end of the Appalachian Trail. Upon completion I sent that email off to my Trail Angel letting him know we had made it, and thanks to him I had done it in good health.

Sometimes life catches you unprepared. Actually, much of the time life catches you unprepared. Sometimes it is in a bigger way than others. Often times it is frightening and overwhelming. In the same manner in which something scary might unfold, sometimes the thing you need the most is also revealed to you in a similarly unexpected way. And it is almost impossible to describe what that moment feels like. It inspires the feeling of being embraced by the universe, of being cradled by something bigger than yourself, greater than your feeble capacity to “problem solve” your way out of any challenging situation. I will never forget this chance meeting with a beautiful stranger, who was there when I needed him most. Even to this day, I draw gratitude from his selfless act, his gentle kindness and encouragement, and that feeling of the warm embrace of the universe.

Laughter, Beer and Business at 23

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I’ve simply got to get the details of this day on paper, this day was just too much! At the moment I am sitting on a bus, I’ve just passed through China customs and I am waiting to pull out, drive around the building, get out and go through Hong Kong customs, then finally make my way home to Aberdeen. Just another day at the office! Oh this crazy place. 

I met Jimmy at Kowloon Tong this morning where we grabbed the KCR into Shenzhen and met Kiefer and Peter. From there we battled the Shenzhen traffic to the candy factory where I would be performing a pre-production inspection. The management team eyed me warily upon arrival, and barely said a word to me as we strolled through the factory. After a morning full of meetings and a factory inspection, we headed off to lunch, arriving at a fancy Chinese restaurant where we were taken into a private room on the fifth floor. In our “dining room” sat a typical large, round table with a glass center piece that spun, a bathroom, a few couches, a TV and a view overlooking 40′ shipping containers stacked so high I couldn’t see past them.

So there I sat at a table of five Chinese men- Kiefer to my right, Peter to my left, beside him sat our factory guide who spoke no English, then Mr. Fune who spoke what I call “selective English,” and then Jimmy. Jimmy and Mr. Fune sat together with their heads down, giggling quietly when suddenly Jimmy looked at me directly and asked, “Greta, how old are you?”

I immediately recalled my conversation with Enmin about how Chinese businessmen typically discriminate against age even more than race or gender. This was important.

I could tell the men were evaluating the level of respect they were going to give me, and somewhat justifiably considering I am quite young to be out here doing business on my own. I smiled a bit and tilted my head responding, “A woman never tells,” winking. They all laughed loudly and conceded- Jimmy saying, “Yes of course you can’t be expected to divulge, he just thinks you look young.” To which I responded,”Thanks for the compliment, but let’s just say I’m old enough.” Peter joked that they had asked because they wanted to know if I was old enough to drink beer. After inspiring a round of laughter at Peter’s joke, they all got excited and pulled the waitress aside. Although they were speaking Chinese I heard “beer” several times.

As the food was brought out and placed on the glass centerpiece Mr. Fune pointed all of it toward me and gestured that I be served first. We began with lanyou(likely spelling that wrong), a fruit that has a grape-like consistency but a skin that must be peeled first. They grow on trees and taste similar to a combination of grape, plum and melon. Different. I move on to the tofu smothered in some type of gravy.

Then comes the beer. Everyone chuckles as James says, “He wants you to have beer so you give us your age.”

To which I reply, “Well they better have a lot of beer!”

All of them roar with laughter, holding their stomachs and rocking back and forth. We all toast, standing slightly and clinking glasses. A few bites into lunch, Mr. Fune asks with an uptick in his voice, “Twenty?”

He is clearly not letting this go. Everyone laughs as I dramatically gesture “up” with my finger. James and Mr. Fune point down. The next toast is to my age. I thank them graciously saying I must be doing something right if I can manage to appear so young.

We continue to eat, the contents of my plate constantly being replenished as they bring forth a seemingly endless array of food. They insist I try everything, and I do, for the most part. I avoid the things I have tested before (or should I say detested…), chicken feet were never a favorite of mine, nor pig knuckles. Chinese food can be quite messy for the novice and is still nearly impossible for me to eat gracefully as many dishes are very slimy, greasy or too big to eat in one bite (a challenge when using only chopsticks). Even though my chopsticks skills are much improved, I still feel clumsy eating in front of Chinese people.

We continue to toast and as drink levels get low Mr. Fune signals for more beer, pointing at me saying, “Ladies first.”

Despite my small size, I’ve always managed to hold my own when it comes to putting back beer. I keep my composure and graciously accept more beer as they top off my glass. I know they were judging, evaluating me the entire meal and I wanted to remain professional, but also relaxed and witty, comfortable dealing with them and not intimidated. I was, after all, a very young professional woman all alone in the depths of China just learning the ropes of the way things worked doing business out here. I had no mentor at this point, no act to follow, I was learning the dance right there at the ball.

After all the food had been brought out and I took a big gulp of beer, our factory guide suddenly said “Yum sing!” He slammed his half-filled glass down on the table and stood up ready to cheers- everyone followed suite, touching their glass to the center and raising it upward. We clinked a final time and I drank, watching Mr. Fune and our guide finish off their beer. I had never hear “yum sing” before, and although I assumed what it meant, I didn’t want to mistakenly chug my beer. Instead, I took a big gulp and looked at them questioningly.

“Oh, you don’t know.” Jimmy said and gestured to finish it. I smiled and said, “Oh, down the hatch!”, raise my glass and finished my the rest of my beer in one gulp- they all clapped and cheered.

As we sat around the table nibbling on the fruit platter I see Mr. Fune gesture toward me, look at James, smile and give an approving thumbs up. I have no idea what it really meant, but I had passed exceeded some expectation, passed some test, and came out with camaraderie on my side. I am still buzzing from this day as I jot this story down, oh what an experience every day is over here!!

I pulled this tale from one of my journals I kept through 2006-2007, as my early education of business abroad was reaching new heights. I went on to continue working with this factory for several months, and my engagement with factory management was starkly different after this lunch. The selective English of Mr. Fune suddenly became more conversational English, and we ended up working closely together to solve problems and figure out solutions that came up when we hit production barriers. I never did end up divulging my age to him, which at the time was a nice young 23. He never again asked.

Through all of the years I’ve spent in so many different working environments across various countries and cultures, maintaining a genuine sense of humor has always managed to defy the boundaries of cultural stereotypes and judgement. Simple interactions involving joy and laughter go an incredibly long way when we embrace and engage cultures and people different from those we already know, as well as embracing new situations and challenging circumstances. What a beautiful gift we all have within us, the capacity to laugh with one another. It also doesn’t hurt to be able to hold your own when the beer comes out 😉

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Documenting my adventures while living and working in China