A DOG’S DAY AFTER THE STORM

“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating: there is no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.” John Ruskin

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How do you tell your dog that the snowstorm is over? It’s rather simple, take him outside!

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With my cup of coffee and camera in hand, I settled into the snow as a spectator. For the next few hours, I had the pleasure of capturing Shadow explore his world.

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Shadow and I shared a very adventurous 2014. Together, we experienced the many faces and flavors of Vermilion Cliffs.

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2015 was already looking bright. As a team, we experienced our first snow storm together. I could only hope he had as much fun as me!

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JANUARY 1, 2015 – THE SOUND OF WHITE

“The New Year begins in a snowstorm of white vows” William E Lewis

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How did you spend the first day of 2015?  Do you remember where you were and who you were with? Did you find yourself committing to a New Year’s resolution? Was your resolution realistically sustainable? Are resolutions merely good intentions that never come to fruition? Would you be willing to trade a New Year’s resolution for a personal revolution? Name your revolution, what would it be? What would you change about yourself or your life?

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My New Year’s revolution was inspired by Janus; the two-faced Roman god for which January is named. Janus is usually depicted having two heads that face in opposite directions. One looks back to the year departed, and the other looks forward to the new and uncertain year ahead.

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Channeling my inner Janus it was clear that I had fallen in love with the perfect stranger during the final weeks of 2014. Over Christmas I kept it to myself; however, it was time I made it known to her. A friendship was not enough, I wanted a relationship!

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Out of respect to Janus, I started my personal revolution on January 1st. My revolution was overcoming vulnerability. I have always struggled with vulnerability. I liked feeling strong. I’ve always had to be strong, growing up in an addictive family vulnerability felt like kryptonite to the soul. Over the years I have befriended kryptonite; still, it’s easier to wear a cape than carry around kryptonite.

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Dr. Brene Brown was right when she said, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of everything we’re hungry for.” I didn’t want to start my New Year malnourished. I felt a sense of urgency to tell the perfect stranger she was everything I hungered for! The million dollar question now was: how do I tell the perfect stranger who is on the other side of the country that I wanted her to be my girlfriend? I decide to braveheart my feelings and intentions via a video message. I felt protected by the spirit of Janus; he was the patron and protector of arches, doorways, and gates. There were no doors to close or gates to hide behind. The perfect stranger was one email and one click away from my New Year’s revolution: living without regrets by being vulnerable.

With my personal revolution set into motion, I decided to walk around the property and take some pictures. This storm was a once in a lifetime experience; I didn’t want to miss a single moment. I had been shooting in magical grey-white conditions for two days. According to weather reports, blue skies could be heading our way in the next twenty-four hours. Mother Nature was manipulating the mood, textures, and lighting of the desert landscape. It was undeniable, I was living a photographers dream.

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After shooting pictures for a few hours, I returned home to find Shadow passed out on the couch. Was he snow stormed out or was dreaming about his next hike? Perhaps he was contemplating his New Year’s resolution.

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I wondered what Shadow’s New Year’s resolution would be. Less anxiety? To be less fearful of men? Give up resource guarding? Finally catch the pack rat that has been hiding behind the fridge and under the bathroom sink?  Pursue his love interest, Coco? Perhaps he would have no resolution, being himself was enough!

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After a late afternoon snack and snuggle, Shadow and I headed outside for our first hike of 2015. Neither one of us could have foreseen our desert backyard turning into a winter wonderland.

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Barely a week before, this was the view from my kitchen window.

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Now, it was nothing but shades of white!

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With Shadow’s girlfriend Coco leading the way, we hiked out towards the property water tanks.

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After less than a mile on trail, Shadow traded his hiking boots for his track shoes. It seemed Shadow was committed to running himself ragged!

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I am not sure who was having more fun; me, capturing Shadow in full flight or Shadow footloose and fancy-free.

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With light conditions fading, Shadow and I took a final moment to honor the masterpiece Mother Nature created.

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This desert storm was a once in a lifetime experience: it may never happen again during my stay in Vermilion Cliffs. Fortunately, I had been able to document the storm. The million dollar question: twenty years from now, would my photos be able to transport me back to the day of this storm? Would I remember the bone-chilling winds blowing snow flurries across my face? Would Shadow remember the sensation of fresh powdery snow under his paws?

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As Shadow and I headed for home, I wondered how my friends were spending their New Year’s Day. Were they spending a quiet day at home or partaking in the shopping mall madness? How many of my friends spent their day outside? I thought about my nomadic Facebook friends who lived on the road; hopefully, they were stationed in a safe warm place.

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Since living remotely, I have found myself wondering about how other people live. Did this sense of wonder stem from no longer living by mainstream standards? Had my new way of life redefined my sense of normal? Living by mainstream standard now felt like a foreign concept. The majority of my friends seemed content with the stability and consistency of mainstream living, while I never did! Working in mental health I never felt a sense of job security. My work in high-end rehabs was contingent on client census. Furloughs were common practice when business was slow. A few treatment centers failed to make payroll on several occasions. Without union representation and a backlogged labor board, staff went unpaid.

In many ways, I feel the rehab industry has capitalized on codependency. By employing codependent staff members, companies could be assured of a one-sided loyalty.  Leaving employees feeling happy to have a job, even if they were underpaid or on some occasions never paid. Being of service does not mean working for peanuts at high-end treatment facilities. Ironically enough, the simplicity of living and working in an outpost town offered a job security that my former professional life couldn’t!

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With the sun starting to set, I snapped a few final pictures before heading indoors. On my evening to do list: sending my video message to the perfect stranger. Surprisingly, I felt no fear and was not worried about her response or the final outcome. My intentions were made clear. Here’s to 2015; the year of living vulnerable.

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WAKING UP TO A DESERT STORM

“For many years I was a self-appointed inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms and did my duty faithfully, though I never received payment for it.” Henry David Thoreau

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Have you ever spent an entire night chatting on the phone with a love interest? What starts as a well-intentioned goodnight phone call slowly evolves into an endless conversation about life and love. Is it commonality that bonds two humans over the phone or is it the soothing sound of a familiar voice? Is love founded in chemistry and bonded in chemicals? What fuels a marathon long phone call? Could oxytocin be to blame? Can the social bonding love hormone be activated during phone conversations? I am saying YES because I felt chemically altered after hanging up the phone with the perfect stranger. So altered, that I could not believe my eyes when I let Shadow outside to use the bathroom. I saw snow; it was snowing in the desert!

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Shadow and I left the front yard and headed over to Highway 89A. Being off season, there were no tourists traveling along the road. Vermilion Cliffs lay quiet from a population standpoint. The majority of seasonal workers had gone home for the winter. All that remained was a handful of staff members and a few local residents. This is what the dead of winter looks like in a remote outpost town.

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After our slippery walk along 89A, Shadow and I returned home to have some coffee and banana bread with Min. As tired as I felt, I decided to stay up for the day. Sleep could wait, there was so little time and too many photo opportunities. Snow outside my back door was a dream come true!

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Just before noon, Min, Shadow, and I headed through the backyard towards the cliffs. Based on the weather report, the storm would continue for another thirty-six hours. It made me wonder; how much snow could we expect in Vermilion Cliffs? Six inches, eight inches, a few feet? I didn’t care, bring it on! I felt so fortunate to be hiking in a desert snowstorm.

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After less than a mile on trail, we found ourselves in the eye of the storm. The snow was falling at over an inch an hour and the wind was starting to howl. Shadow didn’t seem to mind, perhaps he felt like a seasoned snow dog after his white Christmas encounter.

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Halfway up the cliffs,` we decided to take a break and shoot some pictures. The storm was now in full force, white out conditions were looming.

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Late in afternoon, Min broke the bad news to Shadow. How do you tell a dog it’s time to go home? You don’t, you just start walking!

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Taking one final view into the canyon, Shadow, Min and I made a beeline for the house.

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Leading the way and setting the pace, Shadow ensured our return in record time. Maybe Shadow was keen to get home and warm his paws by the heater.

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Less than a hundred yards from the house, I turned around to look at the cliffs. I was awestruck! There were no words to describe the view. Not even in my wildest dreams, could I have ever imagined a desert winter wonderland on New Year’s Eve.

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Neither could Shadow for that matter!

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PUTTING THE FACE INTO FACEBOOK FRIENDSHIPS

“Using friend as a verb is a recent phenomenon, thanks to Facebook. In a verb world, friending is a simple click taking only seconds to bridge a connection. In a noun world, being a friend requires a real investment of time.”

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Facebook friends, are they really our friends?

Has social media redefined our sense of values about friendship?

Could a friendship simply be “knowing someone” or “having them on your Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn?”

What is the difference between an online friendship as opposed to a face to face friendship?

Has Facebook become a melting pot of strangers and online acquaintances who have yet to meet in the flesh?

Separate of established friends, family, and co-workers, how many friendships have you formed online through community interest groups?

What was the commonality required in order for you to click on a stranger’s name to invite a friendship?

Would political or religious differences lead you to ending a Facebook friendship?

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To unfriend someone on Facebook is rather common, no explanations or reasons are needed. With a simple click, you can virtually disappear from someone’s life.

Would you end a valued friendship this way in the real world?

Has social media crippled our communication skills?

Do we hide behind the keyboard instead of having face to face conversations?

Have we become emotionally braver via text, yet cowardice in limbic conversations?

EMOTIONAL INTIMACY

Can a form of emotional intimacy be established online?

Could this online vulnerability transform a virtual friendship into a face to face friendship?

Why do some of us feel safer disclosing intimate personal details via a keyboard as opposed to a sit down with a cup of coffee?

Are we more willing to share our world from the safety of our laptop?

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These are some of the questions that have floated around in my head since moving to Vermilion Cliffs nine months ago. Has Facebook been more a friend or foe since living remotely?

Personally, I feel Facebook has helped me maintain long-term friendships, in addition to creating and establishing new relationships. My internet communications have become so intimate that I now feel it’s possible to cultivate authentic relationships online. I often wonder how many of us get the chance to meet some of our online confidants and actually spend quality time with them. In this regard, I consider myself extremely fortunate, as I was able to meet some of my online friends this year. Not only did meeting them in person make our relationship stronger, it reinforced what connected us in the first place, authenticity!

FACEBOOK FRIENDS I MET IN 2014

Ranger Karen drove 300 miles out of her way to come by and say “HI!”. Her spontaneity and eagerness to meet in person made my day, month and year. Karen was a blog follower and a Facebook friend, who I met through the full timer’s RV community.

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Sethi is a Bay Area native, who I met through the John Muir Trail Facebook community. Sometimes our phone service out here is unreliable, and even though she could not reach me via phone she still came out to see me.

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Fortunately, I was home and spent the day together hiking and bonding in the mud.

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Renee is a fellow nomad I met through Facebook travel communities. I think mainstream society would be surprised to learn that there are many women traveling solo, deciding not to wait for the ultimate travel partner, instead they are living in the now.

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Jackie is yet another Facebook friend I met through the full timers RV community. When I was researching alternative ways of living, she offered some very helpful advice regarding potential LGBT job discrimination.

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I was curious to learn more about Jackie’s life on the road and asked if she would be willing to sit down for an interview. Without hesitation, she said “Yes” and then later that evening we spent two hours filming. Look for a blog about her story in 2015. In the meantime here is part of her story.

FACEBOOK FRIENDS

According to recent studies by the Pew Research Center, Facebook users average about 338 friends each. It makes one wonder if it’s possible to sustain friendships with over 300 people at one time?

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar believes our brains aren’t big enough to hold all the information necessary to maintain relationships with hundreds of people. In 1993, Dunbar conducted research to determine the cognitive limits of a person’s effective real-world social network, where individuals know who each person in that network is and how each relates to every other person. Although his research was based primarily on animal and primate interactions, Dunbar’s analysis and theories have since been applied in psychological and sociological circles and have given rise to “Dunbar’s number.” That limit, it seems, is about 150 people including your favorite waitress, your boss, co-workers, people you attend church and social functions with, classmates, and so on. But that’s just the limit of people you can maintain stable relationships with, much less friendship.

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It’s estimated that the average American spends 37 minutes on social media each day. That’s a full day each month spent cultivating relationships in front of a screen. Cumulatively, Americans spend 115 billion minutes each month on Facebook.

Are we sacrificing time that could otherwise be invested in real-time face to face friendships?

What if one lives remotely and face to face time is not an option?

Is it possible that the larger your “network” the shallower your connections become?

How would you measure the depth in your network connections?

By immersing ourselves in social media, are we ultimately choosing quantity over quality in our friendships?

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A college friend of mine confessed that having lots of friends and dozens of “likes” on her Facebook status gave her an ego boost. I asked which posting seemed to generate the most traffic. Her top three topics you may wonder; updates about her dog, complaints about her co-workers, and pictures of her homemade desserts. I have noticed my dog Shadow has quite a following and fan base on my Facebook page.

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Photographs from my adventures and backpacking trips also tend to generate a lot of attention, in addition to my random commentary on human behavior.

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It has been suggested when someone’s Facebook status highlights a personal trauma or an oppressive circumstance, Facebook friends offer minimal virtual support. In my experience, I have seen a community of caring, compassionate, supportive friends that have rallied around a Facebook friend in need. At the same time, I have also seen Facebook pages go silent when someone struggling with their mental health has cried out for help. Perhaps in some ways Facebook does emulate the real world, at times uncomfortable situations render us silent and visibly invisible.

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CONNECTED, RECONNECTED, AND DISCONNECTED

For me, Facebook offers three types of connection: connection, reconnection, and disconnection. Facebook has afforded me connections with like-minded individuals who might otherwise be strangers. Facebook has reconnected me with old high school friends and most recently my childhood best friend.

With that said, I feel the disconnection lies in the reality we spend more time commenting on social gossip and educating ourselves less about social issues and political news. Have we become less engaged politically and socially since Facebook? Has Facebook empowered our knowledge and increased our awareness, or has it served merely as a distraction from reality?

In 2014, my reality was living remotely. I learned you cannot hide in an outpost town, it’s simply easier to live as an open book. I chose to live the same way on Facebook, naked if you will. Perhaps by stripping down socially it has made me more open to experiences with strangers, and undoubtedly more willing to say YES to the unknown.

WOULD YOU CARRY MY ASHES?

“We’re all strangers connected by what we reveal, what we share, what we take away, and our stories”

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A couple from New Mexico sat down at Lees Ferry Lodge to have lunch. As I handed them menus, I asked them in my mixed Australian/ American accent, “So what brings you to this neck of the woods?” Smiling, the women replied, “The vastness of space”. “Wide open spaces tend to make people less guarded,” I replied. “Perhaps the desert permits a vulnerability that city landscapes tend to imprison”.

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The husband nodded in agreement, as his wife enquired about my experiences with people visiting the lodge in Vermilion Cliffs. I told them it seems people who venture out this way seem to be more willing to share their life, thoughts, and dreams. Spend five minutes with a patron and you will learn more about their life than they would ever share in the city.

As I took the couple’s order, the husband asked where I was from. “Australia,” was my reply. It seems my accent tends to be an icebreaker for both American and foreign tourists. For American’s, they insist I sound like Crocodile Dundee, while Aussies are somewhat horrified as to how American I sound. The Brits are relieved to find out I’m Australian, because they know I will bring them milk for their tea and coffee, as opposed to America’s coffee whitener, half n half. Europeans are somewhat relieved as they know I will understand when they share a meal, as they find American portion sizes to be rather gluttonous.

During their lunch, the wife who I will refer to as Dr. C, told me she studied Tibetan Buddhism, which led her to traveling and working in remote areas of India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. I told her about my experiences in Northern Thailand, in addition to studying Shinto Buddhism, while living in Japan.

As I prepared their bill, Dr. C signaled for me to come to her side of the table. With a very sincere, yet serious face, she reached for my hand and said, “Leigh, you are someone who travels to remote areas, you would be the perfect person to scatter my ashes after my passing”.

Surprised by her request, yet feeling very honored, my answer without a moment’s hesitation was “YES”. Dr. C’s husband looked me square in the face and told me his wife was very serious about her request.

In a gentle tone, I kindly asked his wife to leave her chair and approach the counter. I wanted to show both her and her husband I was serious about keeping my word and carrying part of her ashes with me throughout my travels. It was at this point, I got my co-worker to grab my camera and capture my promise in action.

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“By carrying you in the living, I honor my commitment to carry you in death” were my promissory words to Dr. C ,as we began our piggy back ride up and down the bar.

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Terrified I would drop her, her husband watched on until he realized I could carry his wife comfortably around the bar.

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While many of us may fear death, there are some people like Dr. C, ensuring a death that involves frequent flyers miles and hiking boots. I have always hoped I would pass on a mountain. It seems more serene than a hospital bed or dying of a terminal disease in a nursing home.

For me, perhaps the idea of being henpecked by buzzards on a mountain ridge seems more natural than lying on a cold tray at a mortuary, and being injected with formaldehyde. Yes, cremation is an option; however, being turned into human powder remains just as unappealing.

As Dr. C and her husband left for New Mexico, my co-worker was quick to comment, “Leigh, now that was destiny”. If destiny is a hidden power believed to control what will happen in the future, what do we call experiences and events that happen in real-time, the now?

Was Dr. C meant to play a role in my destiny, or could it be that I am predestined to play a role in hers? I feel we are all destined to play a role in each other’s lives. Life really is one big undirected movie, and you just never know who will play the lead and supporting roles in your life. In the meantime, piggyback rides now have a whole new meaning for me.

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