The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.
– Yvon Chouinard
You know you’re in a cool place, when you can get your eye poked out, and it’s still cool. Two Mondays ago at Red Rock beach in Melbourne, Australia, Susie accidentally jabbed her middle finger into my left eye while we were staging our fantasy Christmas card. She scratched my cornea so badly that I couldn’t open the eye for three days. Even my good eye involuntarily hunkered down, my vision going off-line, as my body’s emergency repair mechanisms commandeered our expedition plans. But God laughs at plans and, as they say, the adventure begins when the plans go awry.
Here we are, on the expedition of a lifetime, a mission to immerse ourselves in the world’s most exquisite natural beauty and run ourselves through it, and I’ve temporarily lost my friggin’ eyes!!! How am I supposed to harvest the beauty, now?!
The new adventure became a confrontation with a most challenging family of questions – What is a place when the sight of it goes away? What’s the Grand Canyon without the view? What lingers internally, after the journey ends and the sights have faded away?
As often happens, when one sensory organ is middle-fingered into uselessness, the other senses pick up the slack. Smells are more pungent; sounds are more rhythmic; subtle energies more ticklish. While non-visual senses get high on heightened-ness, they see sights beyond sight. The eyeball fiasco brought to my awareness a bunch of hidden wonders not found in any tour book, and not dependent on 20/20 vision.
The problem with tour books, you will see, (when you can’t see), is that they are usually comprised of lists. Lists of shit to do that other people have done. If those books were wise they would say, “Step 1 – throw this book away and poke your eye out,” because that’s when things get interesting.
Our hosts in Melbourne, Kelly and Paul, quickly came to my rescue, fashioning a homemade eye patch, flagging down a retired doctor on the beach to examine it for infection, racing me to a pharmacist for antibiotics before they closed, serving me enchiladas in bed. (Kelly’s enchiladas are worth blindness, by the way). The tour book would be wrong if it said, “For a good time in Australia: A) wear a pirate patch, B) eat enchiladas, C) see all the sights, and D) sit on a beach”, per the prescription of Dr. Sanjay Gupta or whomever. Because then you might have false hope that you could recipe your way to an expedition. But it doesn’t work like that. These sorts of simple gestures of kindness added up to a travel experience much larger than the sum of the parts. When I say large, I mean Rocky Mountain HUGE, but more than meets the eye. These gems of hospitality coalesce themselves into love-planets of tectonic splendor, with rivers and ecosystems and gravitational orbits you just ache to be around. They carve their way into your crusty callused heart and stay there after the lights go dim. You are lucky if EVER in your life you get to see monuments of kindness like this, let alone be the recipient of them.
While running our global shenanigans “Explore the Edges” expedition, there have been a couple of profoundly exo-visual experiences to report on. That is, super-sensations that are outside of or beyond seeing with the eyes.
During the expedition, I’ve worn a bracelet on my wrist with an inscribed metal washer that reads, “HOSPITALITY.” From time to time, it jiggles against my greasy skin, in a lopsided fashion that’s kind of distracting. It was a gift from dear friends at lululemon Hyde Park that reminds me of them. But it’s also a mental paper-weight to tacitly ground my thoughts in the curriculum at hand. You see, the last eight months have been a self-guided intensive course in the study of the world’s most beautiful virtue—hospitality, which implies a study of the world’s most beautiful people – the ones who host and give the most. The sensation of the washer dangling on my wrist reminds me, Ahh … I almost forgot … HOSPITALITY, Chris. Can you be a hospitable space for these visitors? Other times it reminds me more bluntly, Quit acting like a dick, Chris. They are a guest in your space and you are a guest in theirs.
Similarly, we’ve worn T-shirts that we had printed with an outline of our home state, Ohio, filled with the names of all of our patrons, who made this impossible trip possible. Every time I look down, every time I’m busting ass on the trails and my t-shirt’s sweatiness clings to my skin, I well up in tears of joy. Having the tangible reminder chafe my nipples helps me stay aware of all our patrons’ heroic acts, as I study them hard, like a kung fu disciple.
When Attention Runs Out
There are two popular strategies for traveling. Both are based on an assumption about human attention – that it is a finite and precious resource. One method of allocating one’s attention is to go slow, narrow, meticulous, and deep. The other method is to go broad, wide, fast, and shallow. For example, an artist might make a pilgrimage to Paris, to the Louvre museum, visit the Mona Lisa and only the Mona Lisa, and just sit with her, studying, transfixed on the color yellow…for an entire day. That could be an incredible expedition for the artist.
In a similar way we experienced Queenstown, New Zealand. Ironic too, because it is the self-proclaimed “adventure capital of the world”. Yet Susie was pretty much bed-ridden with the flu. We basically just chilled out with each other and watched the clouds dance with the mountains over the vineyards and listen to music.
The opposite approach to the slow, deep, and narrow would be the broad and shallow. The artist could also race her way through the Louvre and see every priceless masterpiece, but only for a brief second. This approach might sound like what Susie and I are doing – “7 countries, 6 ultra-marathons, 39,000 miles, 10 hosts, 52 days.” It works as a sound-bite, and it’s tempting to think of it that way. Such a hurried trip is only skimming the surface of the culture and heritage, some might conclude. That’s the tour book way.
BUT…I assure you, something else is happening entirely, something expeditiony – a third way to experience a place. It does not accept the premise – that attention is a finite, exhaustible resource. The third way is neither narrow nor shallow, but otherworldly, extra-sensory, and psychedelic. In other words – mind-manifesting. The third way launches some kind of endogenous satellites into outer and inner-space via the extreme duress and fatigue brought on by ultra-running. Time dilates. The distinction between space and mind blurs. Whose mind? Maybe THE Mind.
As most runners encounter, a phase change happens when you hit the ten mile benchmark. There’s just something about reaching double digit mileage. A fundamental line is crossed, like ice beginning to melt into liquid water at 32 degrees. As many experience, your feet start to swell and ache, your hip flexors have a difficult time lifting your feet high enough to clear the roots. Even sidewalk cracks seem like giant chasms to cross sometimes. Your brain starts to daydream about deep fried brunch, drenched in maple syrup. There’s no mistaking your existence as brute animal in wild nature – a primal beast. Physiologically and materialistically, you are trapped by the confines of transportation via 2 knuckley feet, 206 bones, and 5 liters of blood. It hurts like this for a long time, every time I run. Like a live frog bathing on the stovetop, you can hang out here for a very long time, not realizing what’s about to happen.
Let me tell you about the next phase change that happens – the boiling point – when liquid vaporizes into thin air. As many ultra-runners and trail runners can tell you, something interesting starts to happen when you push through hurt for another ten or twenty or seventy more miles. The accumulation of miles feels like a sadistic masseuse (like we hired in Hong Kong). She scrapes your entire body with a medieval cheese grater. It frays your skin and muscles away until all your nerve endings are exposed like tassels on a ragged pillow, raw electrodes being re-wired by a drunken extraterrestrial. Your inner ET attempts to tune in to Tokyo with an improvised radio antenna made out of your pulverized meat. Who’s on the other end of this phone call? THE ESSENCE OF EVERYTHING and probably all the stuff around the corner from THAT!
It’s a magical color beyond our normal 9am-5pm reception. We are, most hours of the year, color-blind and tone-deaf to these frequencies. But in the same way as a botanist might begin to understand the color green after a year in the Amazon Rainforest, we catch views of exotic galaxies that the telescopes haven’t been calibrated for yet. This is NOT scraping the surface of a place superficially. This not merely going deep. This is turning everything inside-out and outside-in. You can see it only if you lose sight of your mind and come to your senses.