In the Presence of Abundance

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The air is brisk; I can see my breath as I climb the steep slope in the dawn light. The moon sits quietly above the glacier, lingering with the last few stars in an otherwise empty sky. Curi Cuyen trots in front of me, pausing every few steps to look back at me before carrying on her endless search for that unsuspecting bird. I’m tickled with excitement as I climb higher and higher, the vastness of the valley unfolding before me, the mountains and peaks, the glaciers and rivers that had silently hidden behind the thick, cold fog yesterday now sit vibrantly exposed.

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I climb to the top of the rocky slope that sits high above our camp. Curi and I trot along the ridge, all the way to the tip where two large, flat rocks form a nearly perfect chair- setting quite the stage to watch the world wake up. I drop down, sitting cross legged with my camera and journal by my side. Slowly I pull my hat further down to cover my ears, the chill of the morning shadows creeps down my neck. Curi curls up in my lap and I’m immediately warmer thanks to her furry little body.

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I take a moment to sit with my eyes closed, feeling the stillness of the morning. I feel the absence of the wind, the absence of the wet, cold rain, the absence of the pelting sleet.

Generally speaking, Patagonia is not a quiet place- between the ferocious wind and the roaring rivers, there’s almost a constant symphony of powerful sounds weaving their way through these wild places.

But this morning, high up in these mountains, up above the mouths of the rivers, beyond the glaciers from where they are born, tucked in between the tops of the peaks where the wind cannot travel- here I find stillness. And this stillness fills each and every molecule- it is vast and grand, as large as this wild place I look out upon.

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I sit in the shadows of the mountains and watch the slow, sultry entrance of the majestic sun. Even this has a stillness to it. The sunbeams creep forth, constantly in motion and yet seemingly motionless. I turn my head and it has inched its way further while I was looking the other way. I’m reminded that there is always an abundance of light, despite the length of the night, the light always returns. As the first sunbeams reach beyond the highest mountain ridge and the warmth of the morning sun rushes over me, a smile rises with my temperature. Sunshine. Oh how wonderful to feel warm sunshine.

IMG_212525 days.

It has been 25 days since I’ve had a hot shower.

25 days since I’ve had any contact with friends or family via telephone or internet. 25 days sans email or Facebook, sans Instagram likes or BBC news updates.

24 1/2 days since I was certain I knew where we were going and how to get there.

20 days since I relinquished control and discarded expectations of this journey and instead decided to focus only on the demands of my present existence.

19 days since I’ve felt full after a meal, since we’ve been rationing our food, uncertain of how many more days it would take us to emerge from these mountains, how many more days we would spend deep in the belly of this Patagonia wilderness.

And yet here I sit, so full of a simple abundance. So full of this stillness, so full of the abundance of sunshine, the abundance of clean water, the abundance of light, the abundance of fresh air and the abundance of love for my little family of husband, horses and dogs. I’m full of the abundance of strength and resilience that I have found within me. I sit, overwhelmed, as I have been so many times before, by the abundant beauty of this earth that we are blessed to walk upon.

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I climb down from the mountain, down into the valley where the sunshine is now flooding across our campsite, drying the dew on our tent, bathing our horses in its warmth. Ale is walking up to each horse, hugging them, brushing them and checking their hooves. I catch my breath and feel another tickle in my chest. This is our home! This is our life! This is our story!

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I stroll up to our grazing horses, our faithful companions and adventure partners who have carried us across rivers, glaciers, through sheer mountain passes and rocky canyons. I hug each one, thankful for their willingness to carry us through this adventure, their willingness to endure the ferocious winds, the cold hail and rain, to endure our uncertainty and our endless desire to explore and continue onward.

Ale and I pull our damp sleeping bag and soaking wet sheepskins out of the tent and lay them across the rocks. We unpack every single piece of gear- most of it damp from the days of relentless mountain storms- and lay them in the sunshine.

All of these things have our stories wrapped up in them. I love every single thing that I handle, placing them gently in the sunshine so that they too can indulge in the abundance of warmth.

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I peel off my clothing, most of which hasn’t been changed in nearly a week, my skin feeling the cool air and warm sunshine for the first time in a long time. Each piece of clothing is handled with gratitude, as it has kept me warm and dry through the most rugged terrain I’ve ever ventured into. I adore the bright colors of our belongings as they lay strewn across the rocks, the patterns and layers- each item serving a simple but essential purpose. These clothes are our companions, just as our horses and dogs are, and they play a vital part in this story.

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I set up my little kitchen on a semi-flat rock, pulling out our fuel, stove and cookware. I collect water from the glacial stream and set about to cooking breakfast- measuring a cup of dehydrated mashed potatoes. I add what’s left of our salt, a heavy dash of oregano and merken. Even though we’ve been eating this mixture for weeks, it’s somehow incredibly delicious as we dig into breakfast in the abundant sunshine this morning. I put another cup of potatoes aside for lunch and pack up the rest of our food, it isn’t much, but it’s enough.

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I splash in the shallow river that’s gushing from a nearby glacier, gasping at the coldness, laughing at the freshness, smiling from the glee of feeling clean for the first time in weeks. I dry myself in the sunshine, standing naked on top of a cold boulder with my arms outstretched like a bird drying her feathers. The sunshine wraps itself around me and I’m blanketed in its soft warmth. These are seemingly small things- this abundance of water, of sunshine, of time in a beautiful place- but they are so precious, so essential, and inspire overwhelming gratitude in this moment.

As our things and ourselves dry, we slowly begin the process of breaking down camp, repacking all of our belongings, saddling our horses and loading everything onto our packhorse. We take our time, deliberately enjoying the pace of this day. As we put everything away, I feel grounded in a reassurance that we have all we need on this journey- on this adventure through Patagonia but also this adventure through life. It’s a simple moment acknowledging the abundance that we carry with us no matter where we are.

We begin to follow the unmarked path along the stream, uncertainty hovering above us as to whether or not we are on the right trail. Yet we are also accompanied by a confidence that no matter what lies ahead, we have all we need- and we are always in the presence of abundance as long as we take time to acknowledge it.

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Beyond the Boundaries of Imagination

My heart beat rapidly as I looked upward and stared at the belly of the massive condor flying directly above us, diving and swooping and soaring up and over the edges of the surrounding peaks of Patagonia. It was a magnificent creature, looking prehistoric. Although I’d seen condors in other parts of Chile, I had never been so close and the sheer size of it was overwhelming, and we were overcome with a distinct sense that this was his territory, we were in his kingdom now.

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As we continued climbing Alejandro snapped photos in quick succession and I kept a wary eye on Curi Cuyen, who I imagined must look like a delicious morsel to the large dinosaur-like birds circling above us. The wind picked up, tugging at the flaps of my hat and drying the sweat forming on my brow. I pulled out my vest as the air cooled the higher we climbed. 360 degree views of jagged snow-covered peaks and numerous hanging glaciers surrounded us. Jewel-toned lakes dotted the valleys below. The blue sky was crisply dotted with fast moving puffy white clouds. A wide smile spread across my face, this place, like this trip, was so beyond my imagination.

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Majestic Patagonia

Our dreams are born from our imagination. They are carefully nurtured within the boundaries of our minds- the have edges and lines, distinct colors and shapes. These boundaries and lines are necessary for the dream to be constructed, they are necessary for us to fully grasp the idea of the dream, and the possibilities it could lead to. However, there comes a time when we must deconstruct the dream, we must erase some of those edges and lines to let the universe in.

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When this dream of riding horses across Patagonia was born, it began very simply- a basic image- us sitting on the backs of our horses, staring at the jagged snowy mountain ranges of Patagonia. The grass of the meadow where we sat reached our knees and was tinted golden in the warm sunlight. A soft breeze blew across the valley, invoking the sound of a million tiny whispers as the grasses bowed in it’s presence. Exactly where we were, or how we would get there was not yet exposed- there was only this image, and this feeling of weightlessness.

When we decided we were actually going to make this happen, we began the process of constructing the boundaries of the dream. How would we pay for it? Where would we buy the horses? What would we do with them after the ride? What would we share about our journey, was there a larger purpose? How would we set our route? Where would we buy the equipment for our horses? How would we travel to southern Patagonia in a very remote region with our dogs?

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We didn’t originally plan to hitchhike the Carretera Austral, but by doing so we opened ourselves entirely to the kindness of strangers- and they showed up without delay

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The unfolding of this adventure has felt a bit like this hike up Volcán Chaitén (our first adventure in Patagonia just before we began hitchhiking south)- stunning moments of beauty awaited each immediate step. And even though we couldn’t see exactly where the path was leading, we knew we were heading in the right direction. 

Our imagination began to construct possible ideas and solutions to answer all of those questions. At the same time we prioritized what questions actually needed immediate answers and what could wait until we were in a more appropriate place to find (or simply receive) the answers. Here and there we erased lines and boundaries, we left questions unanswered and options wide open. In a delicate manner we focused our energy on preparing for anything, rather than preparing for everything.

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One of those “pinch me” moments hiking along the Carretera Austral with our pups

What began as an image of a guy and a girl sitting on the backs of their horses staring at the snowy mountain ranges of Patagonia has evolved into these life experiences that keep defying the boundaries of my imagination. Never in my life have I imagined I would hitchhike 1200 kilometers across Patagonia with our dogs. I couldn’t have written into this script unfolding in my mind the countless characters we’ve encountered already who are continuously connecting us to our next destinations. Heading over to the local radio station in a tiny remote town in southern Patagonia to announce that we wanted to buy three horses and two saddles…nope can’t say I planned that. Nor could I have fathomed I would eat one of the best sandwiches I’ve tasted here in Chile on the porch of this bus as the sun lit up the breathtaking Cerro Castillo for our viewing pleasure.

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Just stopping for a quick bite mid-hitch on the Carretera…no big deal

So here I am- writing this post from the southern tip of the Carretera Austral, in the tiny town of Villa O’Higgins where we’ve set up base camp in search for our horses. We’ve been traveling across Patagonia for nearly a month, and the answers to all those hows and all those questions are still unfolding. We’re not rushing though, we’re not trying to manage this with a forceful hand. If we’ve learned anything down here in Patagonia it’s that everything will unfold in the time that it’s meant to; in the meantime patience and enjoyment of the present moment trumps all. That is, after all, how we managed to get here in the first place.

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Check, Curi and I overlooking Villa O’Higgins, our temporary base camp while we find our horses for the ride north

We’re spending the next two and a half months riding our horses 1800 kilometers across Patagonia. We’re not following a set route or a strict path; rather we’re weaving our way through the backcountry and trails that aren’t marked on maps but are instead held in the minds and hearts of the people and communities who’ve lived throughout this region before any roads existed. Once again, just as we did in order to get to our first destination (Villa O’Higgins), we’re opening ourselves up to the kindness of strangers and intentionally seeking their participation in this journey. We’re leaving edges and lines undrawn so that they can contribute and weave their stories into our own.

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When we finally arrived in Villa O’Higgins and found this statue in the town square, I knew we’d chosen the right place to find our horses and begin this adventure!

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Don’t let your dreams be dreams. 

The last little bit of this dream, kind of a dream within a dream, is tying my work into this adventure. When we left San Francisco, I always had the intention of finding a way to tie together my passion for wild places and outdoor adventure with my passion for sustainability and ethical supply chains. In many ways this dream is still in motion, still in transition from idea to reality, but it’s already begun to evolve and I’ve decided to bring it into this ride in order to give it a path forward. Again it’s a bit like that climb up Volcán Chaitén, I can’t quite see where the trail is leading, but the beauty of the path forward is continuously unfolding with each step I take, and I know I’m heading in the right direction.

When I first began working as a manufacturing manager overseeing production in factories across China, I had no idea where that work would lead me. At that moment in time it was so beyond my imagination that those experiences would ever connect with my other life passions, or even inspire them, and yet here I am, redefining the work I can’t not do.

In addition to sharing stories about our adventures on the trail, I’ll be writing stories about the things we carry with us, and the life that we give these things. Through creative storytelling, I hope to inspire curiosity about product life cycles, invoke reflection on the life we give the things we own, and motivate creative thinking about how the life of these things can continue beyond a landfill. I’ve got some ideas about how I’ll continue this work after the ride, but I’ve erased some lines and boundaries here as well, so that something can evolve that truly exceeds the boundaries of my imagination.

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I would love for you to follow along on our adventures across Patagonia, and my husband and I created a website to document our travels. I’ll continue to post stories of our adventures on this blog, but you can find more stories on our other site that will carry three main themes- adventure (sharing adventure stories as they unfold), simplicity (celebrating the simple things that inspire gratitude) and curiosity (stories of the things we carry with us, the lives they lead and the role they play in our life on the trail). Here’s a link to our website: www.abriendocamino.net – here you can find our blog, photos, profiles, and a bunch of resources to help inspire curious consumerism (check them out here!).

We’ve got a Facebook page where we are sharing great articles on solutions to move toward zero-waste economies and conservation and will also post trail updates, blog posts and photos.

Lastly, this is an adventure through one of the most stunning places in the world. All the photos in this post were shot on our way south- you can see more of this beautiful corner of the world by following our Instagram @abriendo.caminos

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For me, watching this all unfold as it has, it’s a beautiful reminder that we can’t let our dreams live only within the boundaries of our minds, we can’t delay bringing them into our reality until they are “perfect” and all the hows have been answered; instead we must let them grow wings on their own, we must let them evolve in ways that defy the constructs of our reality and instead let the universe influence their growth and development as well. If you have any doubts, let them go; if you need any reassurance that the world is waiting for you to step off the ledge, the world is waiting to celebrate your boldness, believe me it is.

Letting Go of the Weight of The World

I dropped heavily into the back seat of the car, exhausted from a full day bouncing between production lines and meetings with factory engineers. The air conditioning was a welcome escape from the hot, thick air of summer in China. I stared out the window, trying to clear my mind. The streets were packed. People were everywhere, walking with umbrellas to fend off the sun, others driving cars, riding bicycles or tractors or some bizarrely constructed vehicle that seemed to be a combination of both. This place felt so heavy. For me, at this moment in time, China felt heavy and full; full of meetings, full of people, full of factories to visit, full of pollution, full of fires I had to put out, full of billions of things being manufactured in every single breath I took, full of potential and full of irreparable damage. It was Just. So. Full.

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A moment in the streets of China

My driver made his way aggressively down the crowded streets, at times pulling up onto the sidewalk (full of pedestrians mind you) in order to avoid the red lights and traffic jams. Oh how badly I wanted to teleport myself back to my tiny apartment in Hong Kong and retire for the day. Finally we made it to the highway onramp and began accelerating. I watched as the half-constructed sky-scrapers faded behind us, replaced by flat stretches of watery rice fields.

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The ever-present cranes line the skylines of nearly every Chinese city I have ever stepped foot in

Suddenly, without warning, my driver slammed on the breaks, threw the car in reverse and spun us around, quickly accelerating and flying past the ramp we had just used to get on. Startled, I leaned forward just in time to see a line of cars that were blocking the entire highway, sitting at a standstill. Apparently my driver was trying to save us from hours in this traffic jam, but as a result we were cruising the wrong way down the highway at 70 MPH. I sat deeper in my seat and thought, what the hell are we doing?

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Just another chaotic traffic jam in China

At that moment, this question wasn’t inspired solely by my driver and the fact that we were flying in the wrong direction way too fast. It was a much bigger question that had woven itself into my view of the world. It was a question embedded in the products my company was sourcing for our clients. It was a question embedded in my mind every time I walked across a bridge with water flowing beneath it so polluted I had to cover my nose and quicken my step. It was a question that taunted me after I began having to wear masks whenever I left my apartment in order to keep my lung condition from worsening. It was a question embedded in the realization that everything, every single thing, carries with it a cost when we choose to bring it into existence.

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I continue to struggle with chronic inflammation in my lung tissue due to the black carbon exposure while living in China

The weight of it all settled on me silently, almost unconsciously and even as I continued with my work, that “what the hell are we doing” question just wouldn’t let me be. And yet, what could I do? I was just one person, this massive system had been around far longer than I had, and “business as usual” just felt so… usual. The experience burned me out. It shut me down, stole away my fuel for inspiration and reinforced the belief that it was all too big for me to have an impact that mattered. It made me feel small and insignificant.

I felt this way the other day, as I walked the shores of the Rio Trancura, along the outskirts of Pucon. Since October 1st, I’ve made time everyday to get outside. Some days I have hours to spend out exploring. Other days I might only be able to steal away for a half hour or so. Regardless, I try to find new spots every day, and I am finding that it’s a beautiful way to constantly discover new angles through which to see this lovely place I call home.

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A sunny afternoon hike up the Rio Turbio outside of Pucon

In addition to getting outside everyday, I have committed to post a photo of any trash that I happen to collect during my adventure. My intention from the start was to raise our collective consciousness of the stuff we consume. The entire project has turned into a kind of experiment, and I can feel how radically it’s already shifting my perspective as my mental filters change and I continuously acknowledge the incredible volume of stuff around us, even in this wild and remote corner of the world.

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All of the trash I packed out during this same sunny hike up the Rio Turbio

As I pulled into the somewhat overgrown lot with a dirt boat ramp, my eyes immediately swept back and forth between the huge piles of trash. It looked as though the area was recently designated as the public dump. I was shocked. Throughout my efforts this month, I’ve picked up a lot of trash, much more than I have in the past, mainly, I think, because I just see more of it now. But this place was by far the most polluted and it just kept getting worse as I edged closer to the river.

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A discouraging site as I pulled up to the trailhead

I got out of the car, let the dogs out, put my backpack on and began walking toward the river. As I walked to the water’s edge, I looked to my left and right, trying to decide which way to go explore; but all I could see was trash. Everywhere. Instead, I walked back up to the car, took my gloves and trash bags out of my backpack and left my pack in the car. Today would not be about the adventure. Today was about the trash.

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I was so pissed off at the end of this day. I spent about an hour collecting trash along that incredibly beautiful river, and I was never more than 100 feet from my car the entire time. I focused on the trash closest to the river, along the trail and in the sand. I packed out diapers, paint cans, cardboard boxes, bottles, plastic, cans, clothing and by far the most styrofoam to date. 3 kayakers floated by, waving at me as they moved along; 4 large rafting groups also passed by. The sight of them discouraged me, as I felt indignant that they were not making more effort to care for this precious place we were all so lucky to enjoy.

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I lugged the two trash bags that I had filled back to the car, cursing that I hadn’t thought to bring more. I sat in the car with the engine off feeling heavy. Feeling that same silent weight I felt when I was in China, when I was just becoming so aware of the amount of stuff we were producing. Here the weight was tied to my heightened awareness of all the stuff we were consuming. My efforts felt futile, small and insignificant. The two bags of trash in my car didn’t even appear to make a dent in the garbage that remained. Yet again I felt like we were speeding the wrong way down a highway and I was sitting there wondering what the hell are we doing?

Over time, I have found that confronting big, heavy, challenging realities can be overwhelming and discouraging. I have also found that confronting them can lead to some of the most inspiring and motivating work I have ever done in my life. The trick, for me anyway, is to first get out from under the weight of it all, to begin by letting go of the weight of the world. We simply do not have enough strength or space to bear this weight while also imagining positive solution-oriented ideas that lead to incredible change. While the process of getting really pissed off and angry about a certain reality can be a pivotal catalyst for action, in order to be effective with whatever action you take, you have to let go of that anger and frustration to make space for all the creative juices to flow.

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I draw so much inspiration from wild places

For me, the most powerful way I have learned to let go and make space is to go outside into nature. After reaching an overwhelming state of cynicism during my first few years working in global manufacturing, it wasn’t until I retreated to the Appalachian Trail and removed myself from the discouraging environment that I really began to see how I could influence change in this space.

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Learning to let go of the weight of the world while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail

Sometimes you have to go out to go in. After my angry evening on the river, I decided I should go climb a mountain the next day. I went to a remote area where I would have to work physically to muscle my way up. As I hiked up the steep trail, I spent time with all of my thoughts and frustrations from the day before. I acknowledged them, dug a bit to the core of what was motivating them, and then I let them go. The higher I climbed the lighter I felt. As I entered the incredible mixed coihue and araucaria forest I stopped repeatedly, leaning back and staring in awe at the huge trees. A child-like grin spread across my face as I was filled with delight and wonder by my surroundings.

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An amazing, massive araucaria reaching for the sunshine. This tree is around 1000 years old, inspiring awe and deserving respect

As I reached the ridge I stopped to catch my breath and take in the view of the three incredible volcanos on the horizon.

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I felt invigorated and strong. I continued along the trail and began thinking about different approaches I could take to inspire curiosity about the things we buy. I explored how I could motivate changes in behavior locally in a way that could also inspire others globally. I imagined tangible solutions I could contribute to immediately, and played with big, fantastic solutions that had huge-reaching impacts. I just let all of the creative ideas come in and excite me and it literally felt as though my excitement about these solutions was filling the space I had made when letting go of the anger about the problems. I didn’t feel heavy with this invisible weight, I felt lifted by this invisible force.

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I can do this. You can do this. We can do this. Whatever it is- whatever impossibly huge thing you want to tackle, whatever negative thing that you see in the world that you believe can be turned into a positive- it can be done. Don’t be discouraged by the weight of the world. It is not your responsibility to carry it. It is important to acknowledge it, to face it and see it for what it is, but then let it go. Let it go and get on with the good stuff, the stuff that excites and inspires.

A Small Ripple Steadily Grows

I fumble in the darkness to find my shoes, slip them on in the midst of furiously excited puppy licks and trip my way to the front door to let the dogs out. It is a quiet morning, finally the rain has stopped. I look up at the night sky and see the stars shining brightly, the moon sits low and in the distance the top of the snow-covered volcano glows orange below a cloud of smoke. It is a gorgeous morning and my grogginess is immediately replaced with motivation to get in a dawn hike. I close the door and run back to the bedroom to quickly change, swapping my house shoes for my hiking boots and my pajamas for layers that will keep me warm as the day transitions from cold moonlight to warm sunshine.

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Morning moon

The dogs pile into Super Burro and I toss an extra trash bag in my backpack as I top off my water bottle and grab a snack for the road. As I pull out onto the street, I sit at the corner, looking left and right- where shall we go? The thought of the glowing volcano is tempting, but I plan to squeeze in some snowboarding there tomorrow, so instead I decide to head to our favorite spot along the gorgeous Lago Caburgua.

As we cruise along the road the sky slowly transitions from night to day, and the stars begin to fade into the blue, one by one. We park along the quiet dirt road, walk a little ways down the steep, narrow trail leading to the beach and I take a deep breath as we arrive at the water’s edge.

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Misty reflections on the calm surface

It is such a lovely morning. The clear sky that greeted me earlier is now sitting behind a heavy morning mist, which is casting magical shadows across the still lake. The beach is silent except the sound of the calling birds. The shrill songs mix with the soft swooning sounds of the two birds that glide across the water. Everything is still and fresh. Slowly, with dramatic purpose and effect, the sunlight begins to spill onto the mountains surrounding the lake.

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An incredibly peaceful morning on the lake

I hike with the dogs across the sandy beach, hugging the shore until the edge of the water pushes us up into the forest briefly. The trail narrows between trees, then opens up again to another beach. We walk along the water’s edge, Curi and Check tackling one another in the sand and periodically racing into the water in rapid succession. We cross the river feeding into the lake basin and make our way further around the edge, enjoying the quiet of the morning and the beauty of this place.

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Check takes in the sky reflected on the water’s surface

Eventually we run out of trail and have to turn around. I sit for a while, drinking my yerba mate and writing. There is not even the hint of a breeze, it is so still. As I finish, I tuck my journal back into my backpack and pull out the trash bag and a pair of gloves for the hike out.

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Lago Caburgua is pristine, the water is incredible clear and the mountains that line its edges are simply breathtaking. It lies just east of the famous Parque Nacional Huerequehue, a huge draw for tourism, particularly in the summer months. It is surrounded on other sides by undeveloped native forests, a truly beautiful place. According to Wikipedia (this was news to me, so I can’t verify it), in 2007 the Fundación Lago Caburgua was founded to protect, rescue and preserve the heritage of the lake.

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Despite the fact that this lake borders national parks and is considered a protected area, the trash that litters its shores is overwhelming.

Despite it’s incredibly clear waters and obvious beauty, Lago Caburgua has a big pollution problem. Many blame this on the popularity of the lake during the summer months, and are quick to point the finger at the “lazy, dirty tourists”; but the fact of the matter remains that the garbage is here, long after the tourists have left. And it isn’t just a little bit here or there, it is everywhere; and it is heartbreaking.

Every since I discovered this place back in January, I have always brought with me on my hikes trash bags and gloves. With every visit I remove one bag of trash, which is all I can carry up the steep hill out to the road where my car awaits. I have never, once, felt as though I made a difference. There is just so much garbage needing to be hauled out, that it always seems to overwhelm my efforts as my bag fills up so quickly.

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I picked up six dirty diapers that had all be stashed in one corner of the trail. SIX

I know that this is a local issue in many ways- yes there are some easy changes we can make here that will make a difference- such as setting up easily accessible trash and recycling facilities, organizing community beach cleanups to really tackle it, designate people who will be accountable for keeping the area clean and educating folks.

But there is also a much larger conversation that we should be having as well- one that goes way beyond this local issue and delves into the responsibility of our global community. A conversation about why we are consuming this stuff in the first place, and why on earth, in this day and age, are we manufacturing (on a rapid, massive scale) anything that cannot be recycled or upcycled and therefore ends up in a landfill, or worse, once we are done using it.

Why are we paying for water that comes in a plastic bottle when we can save ourselves money using a refillable bottle and also save the incredible volume of energy, water, and oil that goes into making that plastic bottle in the first place?

Why are we manufacturing trillions of plastic bags to shuttle around the things we buy when there are probably enough reusable bags already existing on this planet for each person to own at least one?

Why isn’t all of the packaging that is wrapped around our food made from compostable or biodegradable materials?

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Fundamentally, I believe that in order for us to even begin to imagine a sustainable economy, whereby we have access to products and services that have either zero or positive impact on the planet, we have to begin by seriously examining our consumer practices- which in turn also means looking at our production practices. And, just as we locals can’t point and say “it’s just the lazy, dirty tourists”, we global citizens can’t point and say “it’s just the lazy, dirty companies”. It is up to every single one of us to speak up and be the change.

When I think about changing this broken system on a global scale, it is overwhelming- just like when I look at the shores of Lago Caburgua and I cannot imagine even one of my bags full of trash having an actual impact. But the reality is that I am having an impact. And although my efforts feel small, they are mighty. And even though I can only carry one bag at a time, I can use my voice and I can share my story, and I can share the stories of these things that I carry out and the places they are damaging.

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Have you ever seen a ripple in a lake get smaller? I never have, I have only seem them grow. I can start a ripple, I can throw this pebble and see how the ripple grows. Because you never know who your ripple might touch, who might embrace your small effort and join you, adding energy and force, and eventually creating the power of a wave.

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So this is my small ripple. I have committed to get outside every single day in October. No matter the weather, the agenda and to-do-list, no matter the deadlines; I am carving time outdoors in the wild places that surround my home here in Southern Chile. As usual, I will continue to carry out any garbage that I find during my hiking, surfing or snowboarding adventures. But this time I’m going to show you what’s in my bag. I am going to expose the stuff that has been discarded, and I’m going to do so against the backdrop of the incredibly beautiful places where I find it.

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This is my attempt to start the conversation. To peak your curiosity, and mine as well, and to raise our collective consciousness of the stuff that we consume and discard every single day that we live and breathe. Let’s talk about it- the what, the why, the how. Let’s consider what it is made of, where it has come from and where it will go when we are finished with it. Because everything goes somewhere. There is no “away” to throw it to.

If you would like to follow me on this adventure, and see some of the incredible places that I am lucky to have so close to home, please check in with this visual journal which I will be updating daily:

http://wanderwithgreta.vsco.co/journal/whats-in-the-bag

You can also find my daily hauls featured on Instagram:

https://instagram.com/wanderwithgreta/

While I would love to have you follow along with me, I would love even more for you to join me. This is a personal project, but it is a small simple thing that anyone can do anywhere in the world, every time you step outside. Some of you probably already do it. What I am asking is that you share your story, show us what’s in your bag, join the conversation! If you post via social media, tag it #litterati and/or #thereisnoawaytothrowto so we can all see the great work you are doing.

Remember, no one can do everything, but everyone can do something.

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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Cómo se dice “cancer” en español?

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The words in the email stared back at me silently as I wrapped my mind around their meaning. They were delivered with no emotion, offering no reaction to my receipt. They were just words, serving their purpose, delivering their message.

“Please let us know that you received this. Also please note that this is a skin cancer that will need treatment.”

The house was quiet, still dark as the sun was just making its way over the mountains to finally spill into the valley. Ale had already left for work, and I was alone. I opened the path report that was attached, sent from my dermatologist in the States, read the diagnosis, and sat back pondering what I should do next.

I guess I wasn’t really surprised, when I had originally noticed the pinkish spot that didn’t go away, I knew what it could be; and when I saw the dermatologist during a quick visit to the USA, he seemed pretty concerned. However, in all my years traveling and living abroad, I never had to face a medical issue in a foreign country. I never had to imagine the possibility of working with doctors and hospitals who didn’t speak my native language before I was fluent in theirs. I didn’t really know where to begin, sitting at home alone with no doctor in front of me to answer my questions; so I began with Google. And what was my first question?

“Cómo se dice cancer en español”.

As I typed the question into the Google search, I felt about as helpless as a lost child all alone in a new city. And finding out it was simply “cáncer” somehow made it worse. It was kind of a bizarre moment that sums up the essence of leaving the comforts of your home country. Being self-reliant, confident and independent have been attributes I’ve always celebrated about myself; but in that moment, my independence and self-reliance felt so insignificant.

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Learning to communicate in Spanish and have general conversations is one thing, but being able to find and talk about cancer treatment here in Chile is an entirely different kind of beast. However, as I learned more about my diagnosis and options, I actually found myself continuously reassured by gratitude, rather than fear.

First, my diagnosis was Basal Cell Carcinoma– a very common form of skin cancer (in fact, the most common form of all cancers), and one of the easiest to cure. As I learned more about this type of cancer and the available treatments, it was reassuring to know that the risks associated with it were not life threatening, and that treatment should be pretty straightforward.

Second, I have with me my incredibly handsome, intelligent and reassuring husband who also happens to speak Spanish as a first language. Although I have always managed my medical issues for myself, being able to lean on my husband now to help me find the right clinic, get the right doctors, ask and translate the questions and answers has saved me so much stress and confusion. It is humbling to really need someone when you are in a vulnerable position, but it is also empowering when you see your individual strengths and weaknesses collectively supporting one another.

Third, I am living in a country with a great medical system and have easy access to excellent doctors- even in our tiny little town in southern Chile (much to my surprise). To top that off, I have friends here who were quick to offer recommendations of trusted clinics and contacts of doctors who had treated other friends. It is a gift to live somewhere with access to great healthcare that is also extremely affordable. This fact is not lost to me when I think of so many loved ones in the USA who are buried under medical expenses associated with any type of cancer diagnosis. Part of me also cringes at the fact that this will now be in my medical history and if I do move back to the USA someday, I’ll have to contend with the discrimination of insurance companies there.

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The helplessness that I originally felt when I received the diagnosis shifted entirely when I began my treatment. My experience working with the doctors and hospitals here in Chile was so incredibly different compared to every experience I’ve had with hospitals and insurance companies in the USA- even with the language barrier. The feeling that was embracing me all along the way was one of sincere kindness. And that simple kindness really did make the whole process of having a piece of me cut out that much easier. The abundance of gratitude, just kept flowing.

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Throughout this process, one thing has really struck me- and it is something I hadn’t really expected. From the time I received the diagnosis, to the process of learning more about this type of cancer and discussing it with my doctor, all along the way I realized that somehow cancer has become kind of a “normal” thing in my generation. I remember this being different when I was a kid, when losing someone to cancer was a rare shock.

However, at the age of 31, I wasn’t entirely shocked that it happened to me. I have friends my own age and younger who have fought battles with many different types and stages of cancer. I know of young families who have had to deal with the devastation of a child being diagnosed with cancer. I have lost friends and family members to cancer. Without necessary rhyme or reason, these days cancer affects nearly everyone I know in some way or another.

Although some cancers have specific and direct causes, many are still hard to pin down. Personally, I believe that the environments we have constructed in our maddening pursuit of a consumer-driven, industrialized society are huge contributors. We are of this Earth; and in our time on this Earth, humans have radically altered the environment in which we exist. Much of this alteration has been done with blatant disregard for the impacts on our Earth, directly threatening our own ability to continue thriving on this planet, of which we come from. We cannot damage this Earth without directly damaging ourselves. We must be stewards, not pillagers. It is our own health and the health of our children that we rob when we damage the ecosystems we live within.

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As I’ve been healing, I’ve spent a lot of time retreating to the wild places that surround my home in southern Chile. I’ve spent quiet time sitting atop mossy fallen trees that lie strewn beside waterfalls. I’ve climbed mountains that toyed with stealing my breath as I struggled up their steep inclines, only to have that breath taken away entirely when reaching to top and standing in awe of the view before me. I’ve sat quietly inside the trunk of a living Coigue tree, feeling as though I was sitting in the warm embrace of a womb. I have felt every single cell in my body rejoice as a warm breeze, the first sign of the coming spring, twisted my hair, and the smell of rain falling in a dense forest filled my nostrils. IMG_3929

So what can be done? How can we as individuals slow the progress of this degrading industrialized system? We can begin by demanding transparent information about the contents of the things we buy, and the manner in which they are produced. From the food we eat to the products we wear and use to adorn our homes, information is power, and the more we know about what chemicals and toxins are involved in producing the goods we consume, the more control we have when it comes to limiting our exposure. And, perhaps more importantly, this allows us to begin the conversation with the companies manufacturing these goods. It is up to us to hold them accountable- it is up to us to demand this information, this level of transparency, and to demand products that do not inflict harm on this Earth and our own bodies. If we do not require it, the things we buy will continue to be made with a focus only on higher profits and lower costs- at the expense of our health, our environment, and the health and vibrance of the people and communities who make the things we buy.

The Environmental Working Group has been publishing reports on chemical and toxin transparency for years- and their reports are hugely helpful to any consumer trying to navigate the barrage of “natural” and “eco” labels out there today. The latest Cancer Prevention Edition landed in my inbox the morning after I had surgery to remove my skin cancer. The irony of it is not lost to me, which is why I felt so motivated to share my little story, and take some time to speak up in the hope that others consider doing so as well. You can also join the conversation by checking out the Just Label It campaign working to demand greater transparency in the USA food supply. Together, we can find a better way.

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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?