A Tale of Two Oxen, The Kindness of Strangers and a Road Less Traveled


Sometimes the road less traveled leads you to sticky situations, but it is usually always a story worth telling

My heart is pounding rapidly and feels as though it has been pushed up into my throat.  I look down and realize I am gripping the sides of my seat, my entire body tense.  I look to my left and see a wide grin across Ale’s face.  Suddenly I acknowledge what I am doing, the fear and worry of the future having pulled me from this present moment and instead distracted me with awful “what-ifs”.  I decide to let go of those what-ifs and simply enjoy the ride, I let out a laugh with Ale and encouraged our trusty little Subaru we endearingly refer to as Super Burro forward through the thick mud and rocky uneven road.  What’s the worst that can happen?  Well I don’t want to spend to much more time imagining that, so instead I begin thinking, what’s the best that can happen, even if something bad happens?  “You can do this Super Burro!” I yell and laugh.  Just as suddenly as my attitude changes so does our progress- suddenly it becomes quiet as the car drops down and we are no longer powering forward and instead sit hopelessly stuck somewhere along the back roads of Chile.  Ale and I look at each other as he again presses on the gas and we only feel the wheels spin- “Oh no…” we both say with wide eyes.

This could be a moment to again entertain those “what’s the worst that can happen” scenarios, we are, after all, in a pretty dire situation.  We are miles from the nearest paved road and similarly miles from any other route that has anything remotely related to “traffic”.  I step out of the car and my foot sinks up to my ankle in mud.  Immediately I fear the entire car may be swallowed up within the hour.  We don’t have any cell phone service, but even if we did who would we call?  We are in the middle of nowhere surrounded by fields, mud and tropical sounding birds.  The road we are on, like many we have traversed since arriving in Chile, bears no name, and any description would not likely bring help.  What would we say, “Yes, so you turn left off the main road onto a dirt road, the dirt road takes you back through the fields and rapidly deteriorates, eventually bringing you down steep rocky hills and when the dirt turns quickly into mud before you even realize it, yes that is where you will find us.”? Not likely to garner a rescue.

Ale tries tirelessly to place boards beneath the tires and better position us so that we have some sort of traction.  After hours of effort and little progress, we decide it is best for him to go look for help.  Perhaps we’ll find a tractor in the field, or a friend along the road who can call another friend with a truck.  I stay with the car and smile, thinking well, we certainly will have a story coming from this one…hopefully it’s a good one.

Those “worst that can happen” scenarios fall quiet.  I sit, I write, I listen to the sounds of the forest surrounding me.  The sun is incredibly warm and I am so very thankful it is not pouring down rain on us.  I find a log that makes a great seat, away from the wet mud, and listen to the birds, their exotic calls taking me to tropical escapes.  I imagine the luck Ale will have in finding help, in somehow managing to get us out of this mess.  I wander further down the road a bit, trying to see if I can hear or see any sign of life without straying too far from our stranded steed. I try not to look at the road ahead, the deep pool of water and mud menacingly embracing the front end of our car.  Deep breath, we are going to get out of this, and it’s going to be a good story, not a bad one.

A few hours later I hear the sound of a harness and clinking of a chain.  I can hear Ale’s voice, and the constant prodding of heavy feet in the mud.  I run up to the edge of the hill to find three dogs, Ale, an old man who must be close to 90 years old and two oxen.  Oh boy I think….here comes that story I was hoping for. Don Fernando has arrived, a local farmer who lives far down the road we had traveled.  Ale had found him out with his oxen and asked if they might be able to pull us free from the mud.  I can’t imagine how this is actually going to work, and I notice the oxen are staring at Super Burro with wide eyes, it seems as though they are thinking the same thing.

We hitch the oxen to the back end of the car with the heavy chain attached to the yoke.  Ale gets in the car, turns it on and puts it in reverse, hoping to help these massive beasts as they pull.  I stand in awe and watch as the oxen pull, encouraged by Don Fernando’s feeble yelps and the barking of the dogs.  My heart is again in my throat as I watch the wheels spin hopelessly and the mud is churned deeper. We try again, and still the weight and strength of the oxen is simply not enough to release Super Burro from the muddy depths of the road.  Nervous butterflies tickle my stomach as I wonder again how we’re ever getting out of this.  Eventually Don Fernando takes his trusty oxen home, he is old and very tired and the car simply seems too stuck.  Perhaps a tractor will be better, he suggests, although he says that none of his neighbors have cars, so we must find a way to get to the nearest town.  With a kiss Ale is again off, taking on the miles needed to meet the paved road in the hopes that he can hitch a ride into town and convince someone to get back here with a tractor.  I am again alone in the woods with the sun and the birds.  Again alone with my thoughts and imagination.  The sun is dropping as the afternoon wears on.

Hours pass before I hear voices in the distance and the sound of a motor.  Gleefully I jump up and run to see who our rescuer is now.  Ale is coming down the mountain, his gators caked in mud. Behind him I see a large red 4×4 pickup truck parked at the top of the hill.  A man is standing on top of a rock peering down nervously.  He is wearing a large brimmed leather hat, a button down plaid shirt, a pair of khaki pants and white socks with leather sandals.  I can hear the uncertainty in his voice as he yells rapid fire Spanish to Ale.  This is Don Luis.

Eventually Don Luis decides it is in fact possible for him to bring his truck down into the gully where we had managed to get stuck, although by doing so he seems to create a zig zagging slip and slide of muddy ditches that I can hardly imagine our little Subaru being able to clear.  My heart is again in my throat…

As he hooks his truck up to the back end of our car, Don Luis alternates between an attitude of unwillingness to that of overzealous belief in his ability to get us out.  He yells loudly for Ale to step on the gas as he slams on his, the truck jerking forward before being jolted to the sides, sliding back and forth in the mud.  We try, try again, and for a moment we see the small light of progress as the front end slightly emerges from the deep mud.  Suddenly Don Luis and Ale are speaking fast in Spanish, the words jumble in my ears as I work strenuously to decipher what is happening.  He doesn’t pull forward any longer, instead he gets out of his truck and nervously looks at his phone, trying to find a signal.  He steps delicately around the blocks of mud, careful not to get his white socks browned, hiking up the hill and leaving us with both cars.  I look at Ale questioningly, “He’s stuck,” Ale informs me matter-of-factly.

At this point I can’t help but laugh.  Oh boy! What are we going to do!?  I seriously cannot imagine a possible solution, as I look up the road, back the way we came, where Don Luis has now churned the thick mud into deep, cavernous ruts. I look at the two cars, back to back, both stuck in the deep mud, well beyond our capacity to remove them in our current state.  The sun has dropped and I can feel the temperature cooling.  I grab a sweater from the car and realize it is 6:30.  An hour and a half of daylight left, it looks as though we might be sleeping here.

Eventually Don Luis returns.  He has called his friend who has a pair of oxen, they will come to pull us out.  I look doubtfully at Ale, remembering the lack of progress we had with Don Fernando’s team, wondering how they will actually be able to pull out this massive truck now as well.  But I am advised that this is a younger team and a younger farmer, so they will be stronger. This is how it works here, I am told, you need the oxen, a truck or tractor will never work.

We spend the next hour or so speaking with Don Luis, learning his story, hearing about his family, his farm, his parcels of land and simple little store where Ale had collected him.  He speaks no English, and gets a kick out of the fact that I am American, and that I have been here sitting with the car all day.  He asks if I was afraid to be out here alone, of strangers that could come around with ill intentions.  I make a joke which Ale translates, something to the extent of being more afraid of strangers in cities than those I encounter out in the woods.  He looks at the sky and says we should leave the woods though before it gets dark, since the pumas will arrive then.  He seems only half joking now.

Soon enough we again hear the clinking of chains hanging against the yoke of another pair of oxen.  I look up the path hopefully and see a younger looking farmer with work boots and thick clothes, carrying a long pole and clicking to his team of oxen.  This is Don Pepe.  I don’t want to believe it but the pair of oxen he has brought are significantly smaller than those of Don Fernando… oh how on earth are we going to get out of this!?

He first hooks the oxen up to the front end of the truck.  The oxen bow their heads, ready to pull, Don Pepe lets out a shrill “Owwyeeeee!” and the oxen power forward.  In the same moment Don Luis hits the gas and his truck miraculously lurches forward.  He is free!!! The oxen had done it! They continue to pull him further up the muddy hill, as he zig zags and weaves he again forms new ruts in the soft earth, but I don’t care now, I believe that this can be done, and these two oxen can do it!

Once Don Luis is back up the hill he parks the truck and runs down to us.  We have hooked up the oxen to our car and Ale sits ready on the gas.  With rapid clicking, numerous yelps of “Owwyeeeee!” the oxen pull, but again the wheels only spin, mud kicking up and splattering the edges but no lurches of freedom can be realized.  We all look at one another, the evening darkness rapidly approaching.  It is quickly decided we must leave the car for the night and come back in the morning with a winch that will make the power of the oxen stronger.  With that, Don Pepe believes we will be able to move the car.  Don Luis invites us to his home for the evening, also inviting Don Pepe to come by for a drink once he has returned his oxen to their field.  I smile as I quickly stuff overnight clothes in a backpack, wondering where this little twist of fate is taking us, and who these characters are whose lives have intertwined with ours.

We spend the night in the very simple and gracious home of Don Luis and his wife, telling stories and laughing well passed midnight.  A dinner of bread and cheese is presented, and Don Luis excitedly remarks to his wife to “mira la niña en la cocina” after I take up his offer to cook some eggs gathered from the chickens out back. We share rum and beer and my broken Spanish mixes with their low-toned Chilean Spanish, Ale often lending an ear to try to translate, although even for him there are words used in Chile that are foreign.  By the end of the night they are referring to me as “hija”, or daughter, and making us promise, with tears in their eyes, that every time we drive this way we stop by and stay, because we are family now.  Oh what a moment, oh what a time, and oh how significant it felt that our paths had crossed in the moment and manner in which they did.

The next morning Don Pepe arrives bright and early, as promised.  We rush through breakfast, grab our bag and run outside to jump in his truck, finding the truck bed full of men from the small village.  Don Pepe’s father sits in the front of the truck, his grey hair neatly tucked under a clean blond hat, his presence stately compared to the rag-tag team in the back.  We proceeded to drive down a few dirt side streets, collecting two more men along the way. It literally felt as though we were bringing half the village to get us out.

Driving through pastures, we eventually come to the field where the oxen sit grazing.  What peculiar site we must have been, walking down that dirt road, 7 men from the town, the old father of Don Pepe walking with his cane, Ale chatting with Don Pepe alongside the trusty oxen and me, the only woman among us.

As we arrive to the hill, we look down and see Super Burro still sitting where we left it the night before.  A little part of me seriously believed it would be swallowed up in the sinking mud, so I let out a quiet breath of relief.  We again connect the oxen to the back of the car with the same chain, but this time also connect it to a winch that the men tie to the tree. Ale revs the gas and the oxen begin to pull as Don Pepe lets out another shrill “Owwyeeeee”! My heart is racing now, the anticipation and hope that this works feels simply palpable.

Nothing.  The car does not budge.  My heart feels as though it drops down to my stomach…now what?

The men have gathered around the car, all of them bracing the front and the sides. They are all yelling to one another as Don Pepe readies the oxen once more.  Ale steps on the gas, a loud “Owwyeeeee!” mixes with the calls of the pushing men and with a sudden jolt Super Burro is free from the muddy pit and is being pulled backwards with great force.

Everyone stops and cheers.  The winch is removed and the oxen pull Super Burro up the hill, easily towing the car across the deep ruts made by Don Luis the day before.  It is truly an incredible site…the sheer strength of the animals is simply shocking and their power is obvious.  Finally our little steed is free.  At the top of the hill Ale is able to back up and turn the car around.  He slowly drives forward as the rest of us walk behind, ensuring there are no future problems with some of the ruts further on.  There is a relieved energy that resonates among all of us.

Once we are beyond the deep mud and back on solid stones, we say farewell to the men and the oxen.  There is no request for money, there is no demand of anything, only well wishes on our journey and some laughter with advice to stick to actual “roads” in the future. I give everyone a hug, my heart fit to burst with gratitude for their time and energy and selfless willingness to help us in our moment of need.  We stop by Don Fernando’s house on the way out to show him our liberated Super Burro, he smiles a wide toothless smile and nods and laughs, hugging me as we bid farewell.

What a funny way to embrace a disaster.  At the end of the day, it was a grand adventure. Although getting the car stuck was one of my original “worst that can happen” scenarios, the people, the stories, the heartfelt gratitude and laughter were all elements of my “best that can happen” scenarios.  And that acknowledgement made all the difference. Oh what fun these little twists of fate can be when we simply decide to smile and laugh no matter what!

Have you ever been on the brink of disaster and chosen instead to imagine the positive that could come from being in a bad spot?  I bet the chance will arise at any moment….so don’t forget, worrying about the negative possibilities only takes you away from experiencing the present moment, and if you lean into that moment, even when bad things happen there is always opportunity for beauty and laughter to grow out of it.  And maybe, if you’re lucky, you will find the kindness of strangers ready to embrace you, no matter how hopeless your state may seem.


Don Fernando and his oxen, our first attempt at getting Super Burro free was not so successful



Don Pepe’s oxen successfully pulling out the truck of Don Luis


Super Burro is finally free thanks to our new friends, a winch and some incredibly powerful oxen!



The Open Road, An Untouched Roadmap, And A Smile


Taking a moment to smile, appreciate and document some of our adventures in the backcountry of Chile.

What a day!!  After several days in County Cork bouncing between hotels, pubs and business meetings, I found myself in Ireland with one day entirely to myself before I would catch my next flight on to Hong Kong. I woke up early, grabbing my carry-on bag, the keys to my rental car and a road map of Ireland. Once checked out of my hotel, I sat at a crossroads and considered consulting my map; instead, I decided randomly to turn left.  What was left? I had no idea, but I knew I had one day and I wanted to spend it getting lost in one of my favorite places in the world.

I managed to meander my way to the coast simply by choosing random lefts and rights along the way, my roadmap sitting untouched on the floor of the passenger side of the car.  Oh the coast of Ireland, how this place makes my heart ache!  It had first stolen my heart two years prior when I had been studying abroad there.  Ireland was the first country I had ever visited outside of the USA, and my what a place to introduce me to the beauty that awaited on the other end of an overseas flight.  Now as I sat again on the cliff’s edge, breathing deeply the crisp sea air, I marveled that I had managed to get back to this place that I loved so dearly without even trying.  How funny that one of my biggest clients would be based in County Cork, and that it would be a business trip that would return me to this place I held so closely in my heart.  The thought of all the random twists and turns of the past two years that brought me back here, similar to those random twists and turns that brought me to the very place I sat that day, triggered an uncontrollable grin.

Eager to see what else could be discovered, I jumped back in my car, invigorated by the jewels I was finding simply by wandering aimlessly across the country. I completely disregarded my roadmap once again and instead drove north along the coast, now in search of some Irish fish and chips. I found my way back to the lovely Galway, one of my favorite cities in Ireland, and dug into by far the most delicious fish in chips I’d ever eaten as I sat at the edge of town beside the water’s edge. From Galway I hit the road again, heading a bit further north up the coast before deciding to wander inland a bit and cruise the country roads of middle Ireland, heading in the general southern direction so as to end up somewhere semi-close to Shannon airport from where my early morning flight would depart.

The smile on my face just could not be undone, as I passed countless stone farm homes, pastures of sheep and horses, the only traffic to bother were the occasional herds crossing the road.  As the sun began to set and evening descended, I decided it was time to finally consult that map and see where the nearest city or village was.  Luckily I wasn’t too far from Ennis so I decided that would be my final destination where I would find a room for the night at a local pub. Considering I hadn’t intended to arrive here, I was delighted to find such a lovely little town overflowing with charm and an age that took one back to medieval times.

As I sat at the bar in the pub enjoying a hot beef stew with mashed potatoes washed down with an incredibly delicious Guinness, I jotted down some favorite moments in my journal, smiling to myself with each little memory.  I was approached by three very jovial flight attendants- Sara, Chris and Tony, from the USA who happened to be staying in Ennis as well before flying back to their Detroit base in the morning.  We swapped stories of world travels, laughed a lot, and probably managed to sample all of the pubs in Ennis until the wee hours of the morning.  As we parted ways and I gave everyone farewell hugs, Tony looked me straight in the eye and said, “Never stop smiling, your smile brings more light to others than you could ever imagine.”  I smiled again, saying thanks and that I would always try to keep that in mind.

The next morning I awoke with a start, frantically grabbing for my phone to check the time.  Oh no!! It was 8:30!! My flight departed at 9:15…how on Earth was I going to make my flight?  I shook my head as I quickly pulled all of my clothes into my bag and dashed down to reception to check out.  Into the little rental I raced, stepping on the gas and willing my trusty car to get me to the airport in a mere 20 minutes rather than the 35 the innkeeper had estimated.  Oh I couldn’t miss this flight!  I had meetings lined up already in China, and was on a three week travel stint and oh how irresponsible of me if I screwed this up!!

My heart was racing as I quickly tossed the keys of the rental car to the attendant and ran for security.  I smiled at the security personnel, looking wildly disheveled, explaining that my flight left in 10 minutes and I had to run.  The guard let me pass through the separate line for flight attendants- I smiled to myself remembering the fun I had with the crew last night and threw my bag on the conveyor. “Beep beep beep”…the security guard asked me to open my bag. Oh no I don’t have time! I thought nervously, quickly unzipping my carry on and finding that I had forgotten to separate my liquids and they were messily strewn about with my clothes.  I hear my name being called over the loud speaker as a final departure call for my flight. I looked desperately at the guard and smiled, she simply said in a thick Irish accent, “Don’t worry love, RUN!” and smiled broadly.  I grabbed my bag, zipping it as I ran, raced down the terminal to my gate where I found the door just being closed.  “WAIT!!!” I desperately called ahead.  The gate attendant looked at me, oh what a ridiculous sight I must have been, she smiled and picked up the phone, hanging up and opening the door to the jetway.  Oh my God I had made it.  I breathlessly thanked her a thousand times and ran onto the plane, apologizing for my lateness and quickly finding my seat.

I was sweaty, my hair was a mess, uncombed and flying every which way thanks to the lovely wet Ireland air.  My face had no makeup, and I think it’s very possible I was still wearing my pajamas.  But I had made it.  Oh wow had I made it.  I sat there wondering at the day I had just experienced, all those little moments that had drawn a smile to my face, and the lovely little reminder that a perfect stranger had given me about the power of that smile. I leaned back deep into my chair and once again was overcome with an uncontrollable grin.  The passenger beside me looked over and said, “Well it appears you’ve had quite an adventure, what have you been getting into over here in Ireland?”

In all my travels, my smile has been a constant companion.  And as I’ve gotten older, even more so.  Not only does it physically make you happier when you smile, it is actually contagious, and inspires those around you to smile as well.  My smile has brought some pretty wonderful people into my life, people who may not have approached me had I not been wearing it.  It has also been a wonderful way for me to become more present and conscious of the experiences I am having.

The past few weeks I have been exploring Chile with my husband.  We began our travels heading to the coast, in a similar manner to the way in which I chose to meander through Ireland so many years ago.  We have our wetsuits, surfboards, yoga mat, rock climbing gear and backpacking gear ready for whatever Chile had in store. As we arrived in Matanzas, a tiny little town along the coast that reminded me warmly of the California Coast and had been recommended by a local for the surf, I ask “How long will we stay?”, to which Ale responded, “what do you think, as long as we want?”

“Sounds good to me. And then where to?”

He smiled and said, “Further South I suppose, and when our arms need a rest from all this paddling, let’s begin driving East to the Andes for some trekking and climbing, give the legs a workout.”

I smiled and nodded, “sounds good to me.”

I think over the course of these past few weeks I have probably smiled hundreds of thousands of times….hopefully I’m getting closer to millions.  I am constantly in awe by the beauty we discover at every turn, constantly in a state of gratitude for this journey I am blessed to be traveling, for all of the twists and turns in my life that have brought me to the very place I sit, and for the prospect of so much unknown opportunity awaiting on the horizon.  I smile now as I relive that brief but hilarious moment in Ireland, and cherish the words that Tony left with me. I am sharing this smile all across Chile, and just as this country is inspiring light within me, I hope that my smile inspires light within others.  We should all smile more, it’s good for ourselves and great for one another. If you don’t believe me, just listen to this fantastic gem about The Hidden Power of Smiling by Ron Gutman.

Here are a few of the places that our random little journey has brought us here in Chile and that keep invoking this ever-present smile:

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Lean Forward and Just Let Go

“How are you feeling Greta, are you scared?”  I grin widely and shake my head no.  “What’s your social security number? Just kidding, I better see that smile when we get to the bottom.”  My skydiving instructor laughed lightly at his own joke, I felt a tickle in my chest and laughed as well as the small biplane banked slightly.  It was almost time to jump; I was ready.  I glanced across the plane where my brother sat, he too had a wide grin on his face.  I gave him a thumbs up as I was strapped onto my instructor for my first tandem skydive, here we go.

As I leaned out over the edge, I had no instinct to hold on any longer, no desire to pull myself back into the safety of the plane, I quite simply just leaned forward and let go.  As we were free falling my eyes raced to see as far as I could see, to witness as much of this Earth that I could fit into view as I fell back down to it.  I wanted to absorb every detail, to etch it into memory.  The wind pulled at my cheeks, broadening my smile even further.  With an abrupt tug, we were safely floating by parachute, enjoying the gorgeous day, reveling in the quietness that was so contrast with the roaring wind from a moment before.  I let out a giggle, overflowing with glee, that was simply too much fun.

I was 22 the first time I jumped out of a perfectly good plane.  It was probably the riskiest thing I had ever done at that point in my life.  Taking that leap of faith would come to be somewhat of a trend in other areas of my life, moments when I would realize the opportunity at hand, ultimately trusting that I was meant to land on my feet.  In every instance it has been worth the flutter of the heart as I leapt into the unknown.

Risk is a funny thing, it both inspires innovation and spurs imagination, while also confronting vulnerability and discomfort.  Risk pushes us to perform beyond the best of our ability, it takes us out of our comfort zones where real growth is tangible.  That risk I took jumping out of the plane had very real consequences, positive and negative consequences that ran parallel and a mix of luck, fate and preparation helped determine my experience of these consequences.

Over the years I’ve tried to make a habit of embracing risk with the same zest that I do when I jump out of planes; to maintain that thirst for experience, that desire to soak in every ounce of living from the moment I have left the ledge, stepped away from the safety zone, let go of the security and comforts of that which I am used to and acquainted with.

At this very moment, the sound of seagulls fills my ears.  The sun is warm, gently kissing my face as it slowly wakes up the rest of Valparaiso.  I sit from a balcony, overlooking the colorful city, homes of every shade of pastel you can imagine, ships sitting out in the harbor, the Pacific resting calmly to my left as I look out over the rolling hills.  It is quiet, the sounds of morning dominated by birds, with faint ship engines motoring off in the distance.  I have been exploring, and this place has filled me with imagination and wonder.  The cobblestone streets, the homes painted so many various hues of color delight at every turn.  Risk brought me to this little city by the sea built up into the the hills, whose charm is intoxicating alongside its grit.  A leap of faith brought me to this very moment that is filling me with so much joy and wonder. 

I believe that each and every one of us feels a tug to do something every once in a while that others may consider crazy.  Every single one of us has ideas that seem perhaps too risky, that we may be too easily talked out of.  Yet, there is greatness in taking bold action, there is so much growth awaiting us in the discomfort of the unknown.  To defy the fears of others, and perhaps the fears of yourself, by listening to the desires within and taking that leap of faith- this is truly living.  I recently walked away from a lot of very obvious opportunity for perhaps the less obvious ones.  Making that bold move, to write a chapter where I would be drawing on every ounce of strength I could muster, where I would again be searching every landscape to etch in memory the beauty it beheld, that has pushed me beyond what I believed capable, this is my latest leap of faith, and the journey has just begun.

A week ago I was rock climbing gorgeous granite deep in the Andes, discovering waterfalls and meeting the sunrise as it spilled through deep valleys.  Two days ago I was galloping horses up a mountain outside of the gorgeous organic vineyard where we’ve been learning about biodynamic viticulture. Today I am walking the streets of Valparaiso, ready to further discover this place, ready to soak in as much as I can with eyes of wonder.  Tomorrow, well, who knows where tomorrow will lead, but I will be sure to take a moment to acknowledge with gratitude the decision to take this leap, to embrace this risk, to lean forward and just let go.  Today, I let out a giggle of glee, this is simply too much fun. 

So, what is that thing that makes your heart skip a beat?  What is that leap of faith you have only imagined taking, but haven’t given it serious thought, yet?  Think about it, imagine it taking shape, and believe that you really are strong enough to lean forward and just let go.

The view from where I sit, writing this post. Valparaiso is a gem of beauty and grit, a lovely place to meander, to explore and to imagine.

Wishing Away the Present


Freshly cut hay, always invokes many memories of my youth.

“Soon, this will all be over.” I was 11 years old, standing on the back of a bumpy hay wagon, reaching with a hay hook for the bales as they were being pushed off the bailer. It was 97 degrees, but it felt like 110 with the humidity. The air was heavy with heat, and my bare arms were aching, itching from the sweat pouring into the scrapes made by each bale. I was exhausted, this was the third and final wagon of the day and the sun bore down on us as the hot summer day wore on.  “Soon this will all be over.” I repeated the mantra in my mind as I reached for another bale and carried it to the back of the wagon to stack.  We pulled around the corner, the final row of freshly cut meadow grass racked into the bailer and deposited once more into neat, rectangular bales.  I took a long drink from my water bottle, the water was hot by now but I didn’t care, I swallowed quickly, dropping down on the nearest hay bale. I breathed deeply, enjoying the soft breeze that now kissed my face as the tractor changed gears, speeding toward the barn. Once at the barn I hoped off the wagon, unhitched the bailer and connected the tractor directly to the wagon.  Back up on the wagon, we slowly pulled the teetering tower of freshly cut hay into the bank barn, the floorboards creaking heavily as the weight of all that hay we had just lifted by hand settled in. Silence rested upon my ears as the tractor engine was cut.  I let out one last sigh, lifted the last hay bale I had just stacked neatly in the wagon and heaved it up into the balcony to be stored.  Time to unload…I begin my mantra again as I bend, lift, toss, bend, lift, toss, bend, lift toss.  “Soon this will all be over.”

Growing up on the farm was an incredible period of my life, we experienced moments of hardship, but also so many countless moments of joy and beauty.  I did so much discovering in that place, discovery of the world, discovery of myself.  One of the greatest things I learned was to cope with temporary discomfort when I knew that it was contributing toward a reality that was worth it.  When I was working for something that I loved, it was all worth it, no matter what momentary hardships might present themselves.

Although bailing hay was incredibly hard work, especially when I was so young, I accepted it as my responsibility, my “cost” for being privileged enough to grow up with horses. The privilege, to wake up before the sun, walk quietly out to the barn in a heavy sweater, and thick boots, pull back the barn door and be greeted by the warm smell of horses and the soft sound of their welcoming nickers.  To grab a bridle, pull open the stall door and lead my horse out into the pre-dawn night.  To pull myself onto her back, her thick fur immediately warming my legs, her ears forward looking into the night.  To lie close to her neck, trusting that her eyesight at night is better than mine, and to lean into a smooth gallop with her, darkness enveloping my vision, the crisp air catching my breath, the stars shining softly as they fade into dawn.  To lie flat on her back as she grazes, staring up at the sky, dreaming up ideas and futures, listening to the world wake up as the sun pulls itself slowly above the horizon.  To sit, and embrace the warm golden rays as the sunshine spills into the field.  This was all a gift, and every ounce of sweat was worth it.  Without question.

Later on in life I would reach back into the memories of those hot summer days spent bailing, and I would retrieve that Mantra “Soon this will all be over.”  The long drives on I-95 from Pennsylvania to North Carolina when I would be traveling between the home of my childhood and my new home of young adulthood.  The late nights working as a bartender, having that one incredibly inappropriate come on that made me cringe and just want to dissolve into the wall.  The commute across the Chinese/Hong Kong border with the roughly 300,000 other people every day after hours spent inside toxic factories.  The hours spent walking in the pouring rain, rain that had been pouring for six days straight, and had taken up residence in every article of clothing that I had.  The moments between homes, spent living out of suitcases on couches, with little privacy or feeling of independence. The end of the month that the numbers just don’t add up, and bills must be paid by credit card.  The breaths taken behind a mask as I walk the streets of countless polluted cities, my lungs forever tarnished from exposure in China those many years before.  “Soon this will all be over.”

Beyond all of those little moments of hardship, those brief memories of pain or discomfort, every single one of those moments was building toward something greater.  Each was contributing to my growth as a person, to my development of self and my fearlessness and courage.  Each of these moments that I once wished away, I continue to learn from with each reflection.  I have realized over time the weight that these six simple words carry, and that they are not to be used lightly, as they go beyond the immediate moment, they go to the core of our own existence.  Soon this really will all be over, and there will no longer be future moments in our life to cope with.  In the end, we actually live our lives very quickly, the good and the bad.

I catch myself now, when I am wishing away my present, and rather than uttering that Mantra, I try to look for small opportunities to acknowledge and appreciate beauty within the present.  Today I spent the day pruning vines on an organic vineyard.  The task itself is not overtly laborious, it is not overly taxing but it can be somewhat monotonous and the mind tends to wander.  After hours in the hot sun snipping and plucking, walking row after row, my mind was tempted to reach again for that Mantra.  But no, not this time.  This time I took a moment to acknowledge and appreciate. Looking at the horizon I am surrounded by mountains, all with dynamic shapes, sizes, colors and reliefs- snow caps straight ahead, to my right cacti blanket the mountainside, to my left steep thick green ridges.  I smile, standing in awe of the rawness of their beauty.  I look down at the vine I am trimming back, feeling love for the beautiful little buds that I am encouraging the vine to channel sap to.  I imagine the small role I play in the life of this plant, the grapes that will be born from it, their journey to grow, be bottled and eventually end up in a glass poured in celebration and cheers- suddenly I am a vessel of fate for these grapes.  My smile gets bigger. A soft breeze plays with my hair, I relish in the feeling of being outside all day, dirt on my hands, the sun on my back, surrounded by trees and birds, breathing in the clean, fresh air. I begin imagining how I will take the knowledge I am gaining from this project and build something from it.  Gratitude overwhelms me.  It is a lovely day, and I hope that this is not over too soon; I continue onto the next row.

Have you ever caught yourself wishing away your present moments, rather than digging in and pulling out every last drop of life you have in the present?  What have you done about it?  It takes practice, for me anyway, and a level of consciousness, but I have found there is so much beauty around us, it can always be found, should we only choose to seek it. Our perspective of challenges can be shifted dramatically when we find moments to appreciate within the midst of them, before it’s all over.


Loving every single moment while I have it in this magical place


Acting as a Vessel for Fate


Caught up in a moment of exhaustion after climbing up and slipping down many mountains along the Appalachian Trail. Later this day we would receive the wonderful “Trail Magic” from the lovely family described below.

The day had been absolutely exhausting and I was spent.  I had spent several hours at the DMV in Greensboro trying to get my Pennsylvania license transferred over to North Carolina where I had recently declared residency and bought a new car.  The day had turned grey, rain was pouring down and I had spent the past 25 minutes trying to find my way back to the highway from some random corner of the city I had never ventured into before.  All I wanted to do was get home.

I finally merged onto a road that looked half familiar and felt reassured I would be back in my comfy apartment within 45 minutes.  As I was cruising toward the edge of the city, I saw a woman walking on the side of the street, a look of desperation strewn across her face. She was very skinny, probably in her early forties although she looked worn in a manner that aged her and rain dripped off her dark skin.  I slowed down, rolled down my window and asked her if she was okay. With a look of shock and surprise at my stopping, she told me how she had just missed the last bus, and she had to get to this address before they closed at 6 o’clock or else she would not be able to begin her new life in Florida.  I told her to get in, that I would drive her and we would make it by 6.  It was 5:47.  I stepped on the gas and away we went.

As we zipped our way back into the city she repeatedly said, god bless you child, and then proceeded to tell me a little bit of her story, how her church community had collected enough money to buy her a ticket to Florida where she had a friend who had arranged a new job for her.  She was supposed to start this new job on Monday.  She told me of how she had lost everything, her family and her job in Greensboro, how this was her last chance to start her new life.  She described how horrible and hopeless she felt chasing after that bus on a rainy friday evening, knowing if she did not pick up the plane ticket before 6 o’clock she would not be able to fly the next day. It was now 5:54.

In my entire life I had never picked up a hitchhiker, nor had I ever invited a random stranger into my car.  There was just some indescribable feeling that I had, my gut telling me I was meant to play a role in this woman’s life.  We wound our way around the city, getting a bit turned around here or there as this was before iPhones and Google Maps and we were just using my atlas to navigate.  Eventually we pulled up to a very small little building, the address matching the scribble note she was holding- to our relief the light was still on.  I quickly hugged her and wished her good luck on her journey and her new life, and told her I was so happy that I could was able to help her today.  She thanked me again, over and over, before jumping out of the car and dashing to the building.  I sat for a moment, making sure the building was still open and she would be okay.  When she waved to me after entering, I backed out of the drive and again found myself lost in the city, in the grey rain. It was 6:01.

I no longer felt exhausted, I wasn’t dreaming of my warm bed or wishing myself home, I didn’t care how late it was or that I was lost again. I was laughing out loud. I was smiling so big that my cheeks began to ache.  Yes!! We had made it!! I had no idea what would happen to this woman, I had no way of knowing what would become of her or her new life, but I had played some magical part of her journey and wow did it feel incredible.  I acknowledged how fantastic it was to give with no expectation for oneself, to be able to trust and act as a vessel of fate for another human being.

Years later, when I was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail I had this similar experience many times, but the roles were reversed.  As a thru-hiker you experience countless moments of tired exhaustion, days when you have walked for 25 miles, crossed rivers and summited three mountains, you are out of food and out of water and walking along the highway, trying to get a hitch into town so that you can have a warm meal and wash the six days of dirt and grime off of your sweaty body and your rotten smelling clothes.  Cars roll by without slowing, and on you walk, your aching feet begging for a rest.

One day, after a very rough week that had us hiking through mud and rain for six days straight, we were having “one of those days” and could not get a hitch.  After two miles hiking along the road, a minivan pulled over and a clean and cheerful family rolled down the window and beckoned for us to climb in.  The father up front had a strong Irish accent, the two children in the back seat stared at us with enormous eyes of wonder. Names were exchanged, and the questions began around what our story was.  When we told them had walked 845 miles to get to that very place, they stared at us in awe. We provided the name and address of the hostel where we intend to stay, but the father said first we must come for dinner.  They proceeded to take us home, offered us showers and washed our clothes, cooked and served us the most incredible salmon and steak dinner you could imagine, all the while asking countless questions about what our lives on the trail were like, why we were hiking and what kind of characters we had met along the way.

As we described countless adventures, the parents told their children to listen to us closely, to ask us questions and to imagine what a great journey we were on.  After treating us as honored guests in their home, they drove us onward to the hostel where we were able to finally sleep in a bed with full bellies and clean clothes.  As they dropped us at the hostel, the family thanked us for the time we shared with them. They thanked us…the vastness of their kindness was overwhelming for us, and there were no words that could express how much we appreciated their selfless generosity. Yet here they were, thanking us for being a brief part of their lives, just as I thanked that woman in North Carolina, for being in that place at that moment so that I could play some role in her journey.  Gratitude. Oh what gratitude comes when we encounter these vessels of fate, who deliver us where we are meant to be, in moments when they are most needed, the drivers of whom we also inevitably inspire, even if done unintentionally.

Our lives are intertwined with the lives of others; and even as we weave our own lives individually, we are constantly crossing the paths of one another, making connections and perhaps building bridges where they are needed, even if we are not the ones meant to cross them.  There is so much beauty in acknowledging this, and appreciating the moments when that little magic vessel shows up. Whether you are the driver or the passenger, you are ultimately equally blessed.

In what moments of your life have you experienced the vessel of fate arriving in the nick of time?  Have you had the beautiful gift of being able to be at the helm of the vessel, delivering some selfless act of kindness in the absolute perfect moment it was required?  How fantastic did you feel!?