anthropology, mountains, personal journeys, travel & adventure

what kayaks, alpacas, and flowers have taught me: learning from ‘odd’ jobs

During university summers, I worked a lot of jobs, some odder than others. I worked at a kayak, canoe, and stand-up paddleboard rental facility; I babysat and tutored; I gardened and worked at an alpaca farm. Whilst at university, I lead hikes and served for two years as a class representative. In the year or so since graduating, I’ve worked at GoApe (a high ropes course and zipline facility), tutored extensively, taught piano, cared for horses, and worked at a greenhouse and flower farm.

Sometimes it’s intimidating to think of where I am, where others are around me, and where I’d like to be. I think of my dreams of being a writer, researcher, and explorer (basically, an anthropologist with a mountain problem) and wonder how I’ll get there. I see others my age doing crazy, scary shit like getting desk jobs (not knocking desk jobs). Life can be quite strange, can’t it?

As I’ve said before here, my life has proven to be a little nonlinear lately, but it’s given me so much joy and brought me some of the most treasured people in my life. I think it’s also easy, as humans, to look around and label circumstances as somehow disadvantageous to our goals. But honestly?

Alpacas taught me a lot, namely that animals built for cold mountain weather are pretty needy in hot, humid Pennsylvania summers. In all seriousness, they also taught me about herd dynamics, about how animals build their own social networks and power structures, about managing a lot of animals. Some kind redneck gave me a two-minute lesson on how to drive a quad without breaks with a trailer behind it through the woods, and I learned it didn’t kill me.

Working at a kayak rental facility gave me the opportunity to learn to kayak, canoe, and paddleboard. It showed me many sides of working with the public: the frightened children, the rude customers, the customers who beamed kindness. It showed me how differently people can perceive a certain activity and how many different assumptions people can make about each other. I learned to watch people there, to try to understand where they were coming from and how best to help them.

Working 11 or 12 hour days in summer heat between jobs paired with living in Scotland the rest of the year, I learned a thing or two about tolerating physical discomfort. I learned that discomfort or inconvenience often produces memories, joy.

‘An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered’ — G. K. Chesterton

Horses showed me unconditional irritation or unconditional affection. They taught me how to be assertive with an animal ten times my size and gave me lessons in medicine. I learned that working in subzero temperatures in a barn isn’t the worst thing in the world and can actually be quite enjoyable. Again, discomfort can lead to some crystal-clear memories.

Guiding hikes and mountaineering on my own in Scotland showed me a great deal in terms of camping, wilderness first aid, navigation, and so much more. It kept me on this planet during the hardest time of my life and gave me some of the best friendships and conversations I could have hoped for. It took me from not knowing how to read a map to tackling some of the most challenging ridges in the UK on my own or with a friend.

Tutoring lead me into hours upon hours of researching child psychology, the philosophy of education, and teaching models. I read countless books and articles about the Montessori method, Charlotte Mason, Classical Education, and Social Thinking. I worked hard to make my hours of lessons for homeschool kids fun, challenging, and always creatively joyous. This challenged me a lot: I had to understand how each child learn, pay attention to their needs and moods, and be open to wildly different personalities and learning styles.

GoApe helped me learn how to coach others through their fears and, very practically, set rescue systems at height.

Working at a flower farm and greenhouse has brought its own unique joys, from learning the name of so many new plants and flowers to watching the everyday workings of a family-run business. I’ve been able to ask so many questions and, as someone who aspires to live at least mostly off-grid at some point in my life, the knowledge it’s given me is invaluable.

And now I step back and think: I want to be a writer, researcher, and explorer. I want to work largely with indigenous circumpolar peoples, to conduct personal and interpersonal research in taxing, unfamiliar environments. My jobs have taught me, in a way academia never could, adaptability to different personalities, worldviews, and tasks; the ability to withstand physically uncomfortable or taxing environments; and assertiveness, endurance, and self-sufficiency.

The University of St Andrews gave me an education, but these jobs gave me tools that I feel will help me put that education to good use.

Maybe you haven’t worked what you think are the ‘perfect’ or ‘optimal’ jobs or internships. Maybe it’s easy to compare yourself to others or look at what others have accomplished. But everyone, no matter this circumstance, will do the human thing and catalogue their disadvantages. Let me ask you, though: what are the advantages? What are you learning right this second? How is this helping you love yourself and others more fully? How is this helping you become the person who will enjoy achieving your goals, rather than just hurtling towards them?

Your adventure isn’t around the corner; you might already be well on your way.

Advertisements
Standard
anthropology, culture & society, mountains, travel & adventure

I love the outdoors, but…

climin

Nick and I climbing at Lion’s Den, PA, with Dalton and Brooks

My boyfriend, Nick, and I have been climbing outside about thirty times this year so far and love every minute of it. Yet, each time we packed up and left, we had a decent bag of plastic wrappers, containers, etc. I’d thought a little about the whole zero-waste thing and had brushed it off as worthy but nigh-on unachievable goal. This, though, hit me differently, and we started doing clean-ups.

Then, the other day, cleaning up alongside the road where I live, I found several health foods wrappers. Organic, all-natural, great-for-the-planet wrappers, on the side of the road.

It makes me think more broadly about the outdoor recreation and health foods industry. Gear and health foods are expensive and often come from far away, thereby consuming more resources whilst simultaneously creating a ‘healthy, outdoorsy’ experience that few can really afford to live up to. There’s always the next superfood or the next piece of awesome kit, isn’t there? It’s impossible to keep up. 

31430872_1807700572584187_7971645591287496704_o.jpg

swimming in the North Sea with Ayesha this past April, photo by Josh Grinham

 

This expensive ‘all-natural’ lifestyle is increasingly celebrated on social media. One doesn’t have to look far to see photos of avocados (from Mexico) and quinoa (once a traditional South American food in such demand few local people can afford it) salads being eaten on a filtered hike. I mean, I love quinoa and avocados, and beetroot and kale and cliff bars and all the other obnoxiously hipster food. It makes me feel good and I genuinely like the taste.

But, underneath all of this, we’ve unconsciously created a brand of exclusivity: not only does this ‘lifestyle brand’ exclude certain people all across the production and consumption line-up, but it also excludes a full awareness of everything that went into creating that image.

The speciality foods, the packaging waste that will long outlive us, the ill-effects on the lives of others—these are the things I don’t want to think about. I like the ease and convenience of pre-packaged food. I also like foods that make me feel better about myself.

I don’t have an answer for this. When one looks at the sheer number of landfills, of trash in the oceans, it can be disheartening. I’m tempted to veer between the extremes of giving up or becoming belligerently and self-righteously zero-waste. I don’t want to do either, but I know I have done both at different times.

Instead of an answer, I have a few questions:

What would it look like if climbers, mountaineers, hillwalkers, hikers, and backpackers bought local, in season foods and knew how to prepare them for the hills and the backcountry?

What would it look like if we all knew a thing or two more about responsible foraging?

36707718_1712576698839100_8921716696742363136_n.jpg

Nick and I enjoying camping and kayaking along the Clarion River with Dalton and Andi

 

What would it look like if a few friends got together and swapped foods they’d made themselves?

I just hope my kids and their grandkids can enjoy the crags, the hills, and the rivers I love so much. It’s not an original sentiment. But it is an honest question, and I hope someday I’ll have an honest answer.

Standard
mental health, mountains, Scotland, Uncategorized

when the mountains kept me here

18716740_10213421911081468_7426292_n

ridges are fun. Especially if you’ve just come up the Devil’s Punchbowl on the Isle of Arran in total cloud.

A few weeks ago, I wrote this post on a hillwalking facebook group in the hope it would help someone who’s going through mental health issues or addictions. I got an overwhelming number of responses, messages, and stories, which inspired me to take a stab at blogging again. It’s revised here in the hope that maybe it can reach a few more people.

 

Over the past eleven years or so, I’ve struggled off and on with a variety of disordered eating behaviours, and the past five years or so have been marked by depression and panic attack disorder. It all came to a head a year ago when I narrowly avoided suicide.

One of the few things that stopped more or more lethal attempts was, quite simply, that there were lots more munros* to climb. I would eat well for the munros; I would wake up thinking about munros.

Whilst walking, I got a hit of something I now recognise very easily as pure and simple joy.

But for me, in what I now think of as the Grey Cloud (because it’s not nearly as awesome as as whiteout), I couldn’t quite recognise it as joy that I could feasibly feel in my everyday life. I just knew it was Something. I was very lost, but I could navigate a ridge in cloud.

20045605_1464100950317199_3743374134735523851_o

Me, very much having fun on munro called Lochnagar and Not Dead, Not Starved and actually rather flexible.

Fast forward a year and through lots of help, through medicine (thank God for medicine, and fuck the stigma) and therapy and incredibly supportive family and friends. Fast forward through the good fortune to have that much support. A few weeks ago, after a few months largely consisting of hillwalking and camping and solo hitchhiking and lots of ferries, I was on the Isle of Rum, wild camping very happily on my own. I made friends with the ponies. I wasn’t weighed down by the pressures of dark thoughts that used to descend whenever I stopped moving. The next day, I would tackle the Rum Cuillin Traverse. And I would feel something more powerfully than I’d ever felt before: gratitude (also sunburn). For this body, that I’ve starved and binge-stuffed and abused, but now can tackle 1900+ metre days and 40k if I ask it to. For this mind, which is now happy and healthy and sweary and rather lecherous and bloody stubborn. For the fact that I now feel totally safe by myself and that I enjoy my own childish sense of humor and stupidly energetic company far too much. For Scotland, seeing as it kept me on this planet with its ridges and summits.

Scotland kept me on this planet with its ridges and summits

A week later, however, I turned back from a walk after about a kilometer and only the tiniest bit of ascent. I don’t know if it was a fellow gardener remarking too often on how much I ate (because I climb loads of hills, bitch?) or if it was worry for my mother’s surgery or whatever, but bad eating habits slipped back in without my knowing. Over three days I ate maybe 2000kcal total, and that’s with lots of moving around. I was at the base of Stob Ban in the morning—a munro I saw and lusted after a year ago from the Ring of Steall—and I just couldn’t do it. My legs, which on a gym day can squat 120kilos 30 times in a row if I so choose, were impossibly weak. My head hurt. I had a nasty metallic taste in my mouth. What normally took me 15 minutes had taken me an hour and a half. When my legs buckled, I knew it was stupid to keep going. But more than anything, I was pissed. I wanted Stob Ban like some women want Ryan Gosling (I just don’t see it, soz), but it just wasn’t happening.

16487854_1297689336958362_7269390174546419565_o.jpg

me (red jacket) on enjoying the Five Sisters of Kintail during one of the hardest times

Recovering from mental health problems and/or addiction is not easy. It is not straightforward. But yall, there are hills. There is that wild gratitude (on sunny days, at least), that breathlessness as you reach the summit. Sometimes you’ve just got to fight it as tactically as you would (should) plan an expedition, and that’s okay. But when I turned back from Stob Ban, I knew that these habits just had to go. There are too many hills. I am not going back to that dark place, and I am not letting those habits eat me alive. They tell you they’ll make your problems smaller but really—and I’m telling you this with every ounce of belief I have—they just devour your sense of self and make joy a stranger. You don’t need to make your problems smaller, not with substances or food or lack thereof. You’re enough to fight them now, as they are, no matter how scary they look. You can’t choose your challenges, but you can choose your joys and you can choose life for yourself. You can choose to fight for the mountains.

Please choose with me, pack some goddamn chocolate and never turn back.

 

*mountains in Scotland above 913m or 3,000″

Standard
travel & adventure

The Coastal Path, pt 1: Lower Largo to Ellie

A dear, dear friend of mine and I started a mission last semester, towards the very end of the year. We decided that we wanted to walk all of the Fife Coastal Path together, and we started with the beautiful, somewhat randomly chosen stretch between Lower Largo and Ellie, in East Fife. (We’d both done the obvious bits nearer by St Andrews, but not together.) Our day was sunny, windy, very green and too chilly to stop for long. We found a farm shop, and I fell in love with a truly stunning aubergine. It was just really, really purple and gorgeously shaped. I took it home with me, and I ate it. I sadly do not have a picture of the aubergine.

009_19

The Fife Coastal Path in its entirety stretches nearly 120 miles all along the Fife Coast. It starts up north along the Firth of Tay and then winds down, along the sea, and curves in by the Firth of Forth. It goes by all kinds of places–historic fishing towns, ancient Pictish stones, industrial towns, forests, hills, ruined castles, WWII bunkers, fields, and the strange sort of ancient university town that St Andrews manages to be. We want to complete the entire path by the end of this academic year.

011_17

This, I believe, is what really started to get me interested in Fife. When we started our mission, I was mostly in the Fife Coastal Path because a) it’s pretty b) it’s long and c) it’s a cheap way to get out of St Andrews. Obviously, interest doesn’t often stay simultaneously shallow and alive, so my reasons have grown. But I still mostly love the Fife Coastal Path because I have amazing days with a beautiful friend.

010_18

Standard
travel & adventure

on the openness of sea and sky

022_06

St Andrews.

For many here, it’s a bubble, a small place where kids (though a lot of us would hate to be called that) are trying to transition to be big people, with big-person hats and big-person CVs and big-person laptops. It’s a place of student events and practically student-run, student-funded coffee shops and student residences and lecture halls. It’s beautiful, it’s vibrant, it’s frustrating, it’s full of some real talent.

These things are St Andrews to me, a student, but they’re not St Andrews, Fife. They’re not the physical, hard, geographical location of St Andrews: they’re not the place strung out along three streets between three beaches. They’re not the place that sees tides roll out and the stars slowly come out earlier and earlier as the winter piles layers of jumpers onto us all.

020_08

St Andrews is somewhere along the coast in the East of Fife. You can see the curve of the coast as it heads up towards the Firth of the Tay and Dundee. You can’t see very far towards Crail or Anstruther, but they’re there, down along the Coastal Path.

002_26

The tides are extreme here in Fife, and here in East Fife it’s flat enough to get a huge scope of sky. But you only really feel that scope near the edges, along the beaches or along the roads leaving St Andrews.

004_24

This is the first year of being in St Andrews that I’ve really begun to grow curious about Fife. I’ve always been curious about the Highlands and the rest of Scotland; I’ve made it a point to explore. But for some reason I’ve neglected following the edges of the sea or leaving the town but not the Fife sky.

This is one of the dangers of being in a beautiful place. You get stuck there, and you search for the next big thing–you look for the next munro or the next ‘cultural centre’ but maybe miss the next town over.

This is one of the secrets of being in a beautiful place: you head to the edges and realise it’s beautiful, and then you realise the edges go elsewhere. You realise that the geographical location of a sometimes seemingly disconnected place ties the town to a broader, more complicated landscape.

words and photos by me.

Standard