Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Joe Omundson

strengths and weaknesses part 1

When I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, I met people from all kinds of backgrounds, who held widely varying opinions on many issues. In the absence of the typical social cues that are used to judge people at a glance, it was necessary to put my expectations of them on hold. I couldn't know what someone's story was, or what might have motivated them to get on the trail, unless I talked to them about it.

As might be expected, I met people who were very similar to myself, people who were completely different, and people who were vaguely confusing to me. What I noticed was that no two people were the same, and nobody was unlovable. But what interested me most was a very simple fact that I was forced to recognize as a reality for the first time: everyone has strengths, and everyone has weaknesses.

What is a “strength”? What is a “weakness”? Obviously these are very open-ended words that make some kind of assumption about how a person should ideally act, and different people have different ideals. What I consider a strength in myself, someone else might see as a weakness. The relative severity of different strengths and weaknesses is subjective too. Since there’s no single standard for defining these things, for the purpose of this post, I’m thinking of a strength as a trait that leads the individual and any surrounding people to a place of greater health, truth, and love; a weakness is an irrational reaction to life that destroys health and spreads fear and misunderstanding. It’s never quite that simple, but I think that’s good enough for now.

No two people are born alike, and no two people go through the same circumstances in childhood. As we grow up, we react to our environments through trial and error, and we find ways to act that work for us. We use whatever coping mechanisms we need to get through hard times, whatever those hard times might be.

Though a child’s identity often becomes associated with their strengths and weaknesses, they don’t have much control over how those things develop. It’s really up to the parents. A child might learn to throw a tantrum when they don’t get what they want, and for the kid that’s a perfectly reasonable choice if their parents reward tantrums every time and neglect them otherwise. Maybe a child is punished for crying and learns to be stoic at a young age, or is neglected and learns to take care of themself and their siblings. Maybe the parents reward discovery and healthy expression, and the child learns to be curious and confident. Growing up with healthy coping mechanisms is more about having involved parents than being a "good" person. The complex combination of traits we develop are dependent mostly on our genetics, which are out of our control, and the environment we are raised in, which is also out of our control.

Whatever the case may be, as children we can only see our own situation as “normal”; we don’t know how to imagine that life is different in other families. These years are very formative for us, and set us into patterns that may persist for the rest of our lives. Because families are so isolated, and parents are so different, we essentially grow up in parallel universes to each other. The conditioned responses that have kept me alive thus far make complete sense to me; but in your universe, acting that way might lead to disaster.

When we become adults, theoretically we all enter the same playing field -- one where we all have freedom to make our own choices instead of doing what our parents taught us, where we have the ability to seek whatever activities or careers are interesting to us, freedom to make friends with anyone we choose and travel to any new location. Of course, the reality is that not much about us changes the day we turn 18. All of the habits that we formed in our families' universes are now the tools we have available for interacting with the world. We have the ability to change our habits and become healthier, but doing so is a lifelong process and it happens differently for everyone.

Based on this idea that we all become equal as adults, some people believe it’s reasonable to expect everyone to act a certain way that is proper. Usually these expectations are based on the delusion that everyone else’s family universe was the same as their own. The child who became stoic at a young age might turn into an adult who thinks public emotional displays are unacceptable. The child who threw tantrums might grow up to assume that a stoic person is emotionally unavailable or manipulative. Regardless of how many weaknesses we know we have, when we look at someone else who has a *different* weakness, it’s unnerving and uncomfortable. It feels wrong, incongruous, because it stands out as not matching the pattern of life that we expect. It can trigger a fear response, judgment, correction, hostility, avoidance, or mocking.

It actually makes complete sense that people develop widely varied and highly specialized traits. Part of what makes us special as humans is our individual ability to recognize patterns and learn from our environments. Some animals need no parental input, and are able to rely completely on instinct to get through their lives successfully. Humans are on the opposite end of that spectrum; we have such a wide range of adaptability that our formative experiences lead to highly varying personalities. We specialize and become unique. Since everyone is trained to react to the same stimuli in different ways, it should come as no surprise when other people perform actions that are foreign to us.

If we can learn to appreciate this nature of humanity, the fact that we are all so complex and different, it will be easier to be graceful about differences in our strengths and weaknesses. Our individuality is actually what we have in common. We all struggled to adapt, we all faced challenges, we all have some dysfunctional elements. It’s still very complicated -- some weaknesses lead to more destruction than others, and might require intervention. Some weaknesses are inherent to entire societies, and can be hard to work past (eg. the valuation of money over human experience). But maintaining a high level of anger and judgment against someone simply because their formative years were different than ours is the wrong direction. It only leads to further exclusion and harm.

There needs to be a basic acceptance that diversity of experience is real, and people who are different are not always wrong. We need to let go of the idea that “misbehaving” people are bad and need to be ashamed. They are just acting on what their life experience has been so far.
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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Joe Omundson


In my life I have sometimes felt a “fear of missing out”. If I am on a road trip, and I stay on the freeway instead of making a stop to see the sights, or if I leave a party early instead of staying to socialize, it can feel like I'm wasting a chance to do something significant. It triggers an unsettling feeling, as though I've made a mistake. Sometimes this has pushed me to do interesting things that I would have skipped otherwise and I was glad. Other times, I ended up expending more energy than was appropriate, or feeling guilty for choosing to do the more conservative and “boring” activity even though it was the best choice for me at that time.

In reality, it is impossible to avoid “missing out”. There are innumerable places that I could be at any given time, and infinite activities I could be performing; but I am limited to one body. I experience only a very small fraction of what is happening in the world, and it seems necessary to accept that. Missing out is the most natural thing in the world. The only time it becomes a problem is if I have a fear of missing out. Life is not going to be as exciting as possible at all moments. I have to spend some time meeting needs that are fairly mundane.

I found a new way to handle this anxiety on my recent road trip. Instead of feeling like I was missing out when I chose not to see something, I thought of it as saving the adventure for a future time. if I saw everything there was to see now, there would be nothing new to explore next time I came through. For example, I chose not to drive to the highest viewpoint of Death Valley. I struggled with the choice for a while because I did want to go there, but I felt more strongly that I wanted to continue on. I decided not to feel bad about missing that destination, and instead imagined coming back at some point in the future, and how exciting it would feel to turn down that road then.

It seems like identifying true motivations is an important part of the equation, too. Part of the fear of missing out is a misunderstanding of why I want what I want. Sometimes, I go to parties and I feel like I've had my fill of interaction fairly quickly, but I pressure myself to stay longer because I think that my motivations for leaving are inappropriate. I worry that if I left, they'd think I didn't value their company, and that they'd be right. But if I have taken the time to notice that I naturally tend to thrive more in 1-on-1 conversations, that large chaotic groups tend to overwhelm me, and that my social energy reserves are running low on that particular night, I can realize that these are the real reasons I want to leave. I can see it as a benign, natural thing rather than something shameful, and meet my needs confidently. If I do that, I feel less trapped, and more able to relax into the enjoyment of whatever is happening, because I know I can retreat when the time comes. Even if my time there is shorter, the quality of it is more full and present.

When we reject the fear of missing out on something great, we learn to love the more realistic experiences that happen. Fear and love are opposites. If we are afraid of our needs and motivations, then we are not loving ourselves or others. If we fear our time coming to an end, we don’t love the time that is happening presently.
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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Joe Omundson

the desert purifies

I recently spent 12 nights on a road trip, touring through parts of Oegon, Nevada, California, Arizona, Utah, and Idaho (in that order). I went by myself, leaving Portland on February 28 and returning March 10.

Day 0: I went to my regular Saturday morning yoga classes. This is my only weekly commitment, and I enjoy going, so I wanted to miss only 1 week of classes while maximizing my time spent traveling. I was going to leave immediately after class, but there was an afternoon meeting at the yoga studio to take photos for the new website, and after that my friend was hosting a potluck at her house. I don’t usually turn down free food so I went to the potluck and then spent the night in my car in her driveway. So, I left on a Sunday, missed 1 Saturday of yoga, and returned the next Friday night.

Day 1: I had trouble getting to bed the night before (as is often the case when I am parked w/ access to Wi-Fi). I couldn't stop watching hilarious Brother Jake videos on youtube. So, I didn’t wake up and hit the road as soon I had hoped. It was maybe 10 or 11. No problem. I drove to Hwy 26, went over Mt. Hood, through Madras and Prineville, and made a short detour into Burns. From there I headed down toward Nevada past Steens Mountain, but I was running out of diesel so I stopped at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge intersection to buy 3 expensive gallons. It was the kind of store that combines a funky diner with a gas station and a travel stop of sorts. The place seemed nearly abandoned and the fuel pumps were old. I was curious what their perspective would be on the whole militia occupation thing that happened there recently but I figured they must get asked that question all the time, so I let it go. Then, I drove past Steens which was beautiful. At sunset I parked on the shoulder of a deserted highway and drew the curtains over the windows that faced the road. I only heard 1 car pass by that whole night.

Day 2: In the morning I crossed into Nevada. I had a negative impression of the state from previous visits, but this time I saw the beauty of the snow covered mountain ridges that decorated every edge of the horizon and the vastness of the valleys that lay between. The empty freedom of the back roads felt expansive compared to the enclosed life of the city.

I drove in to Winnemucca and went inside a casino hoping to find a buffet, but I was to have no luck with that. I spent a dollar in a penny slot machine for fun. I ended up eating at Taco Bell and using the Wi-Fi there to get directions. Continuing south, I drove through Austin, and into the Big Smokey Valley.

In Tonopah, I stopped at a brewery and drank a habanero IPA which was surprisingly good. I leeched some more internet at a gas station and smiled as a group of people walking past reminisced about a VW Rabbit their family had owned. I looked up a map of hot springs, found one about 20 miles south, googled it, found out that it was a legit place to camp and have a soak for free… and off I went. I had the pool to myself that evening. There were some other people parked in the lot but nobody else soaking. One woman came out of her trailer at night and filled a bowl of water from the tub I was sitting in, not really sure what that was about, maybe she just wanted to soak her feet back at the trailer. I dried off as best as I could and went to bed.

Day 3: From the hot spring, it wasn’t too long of a drive to Death Valley. I drove through a couple of intentionally historic-looking towns, stopping in the 2nd one to fill up on diesel (I decided not to run out in Death Valley).

I paid the $20 for a day pass but wasn’t happy about that part, and decided to avoid National Parks for the rest of my trip. I don’t need to pay a bunch of money and wade through crowds to see beautiful sights; there are plenty of public lands where I can see awesome stuff in isolation for free. Death Valley was really beautiful and fun to explore, though. It was in a “superbloom”, the 3rd one to happen in about 20 years, so there were a lot of yellow flowers and some purple ones too.

I drove to Badwater, which is the lowest point in North America at about 280 feet below sea level, and walked out onto the salt flat.

I drove through the “artist’s loop”, a fun 1-way road which takes you on a tour of some colorful rock formations. That drive was probably the highlight for me.

I wanted to take the route south from Badwater, but it was closed so I stopped by Zabriskie Point ...

... and then headed to Shoshone, which was an awesome little town that reminded me of some of the small towns on the PCT. One gas station, one restaurant, a post office, all clumped together on 1 road… that kind of place. They had a great shaded outdoor hangout spot and it even had Wi-Fi. I looked up a place to camp on It was a powerline service road which people claimed was OK to camp on, even though when I got to the turnoff it said “private road”. I went down it anyway and found a spot where I could drive up to a semi-private fold in the hills and go to bed.

Not that privacy was necessary; the only traffic I saw was a few semi-trucks driving down a connected gravel road. I had a nice view of the sunset.

The night was completely still, and perfectly silent.

Day 4: It was just a 10 mile drive to get to Baker, CA. I hopped between several different fast food restaurant parking lots until I found free Wi-Fi near Denny’s, and I did some more planning. I went to a Mexican restaurant and got an awesome burrito from some very friendly staff. Then I went to the general store to grab a bag of chips and ask where I could fill up on water. The guy asked how much I needed to fill; I said 5 gallons, and he said there’s a spigot around the back of the building. A filtered water machine would have tasted better, but this was free and it was kind of them to let me use it.

It was still morning, and I drove maybe 1 hour more to get to the Mojave National Preserve, which is actually one of the biggest parks in the entire National Park system, but it is free and very primitive. Just a few roads cut through the vast expanse. The only services offered are a couple of visitor information centers and simple campgrounds. No stores, food, gas, or anything like that. There are many places where it is permitted to camp for free. I found a spot in what I later learned was the biggest Joshua Tree forest in the world. I didn’t go far for the rest of the day, or do much worth noting. I set up my hammock but decided it was probably not good for the Joshua Tree bark, so took it down. I cooked some rice and beans to make burritos. I listened to music, played with my solar panel, and thought about things.

Day 5: I almost decided to take a “zero day” here, and camp in the same place again. So I was slow in the morning and hung out until noon or so. But, I started feeling antsy and like I wanted to check out something different. I knew where to find another free campsite nearby from the research I had done in Baker. It couldn’t have been much more than a 20 mile drive, but it took a while because most of the distance was on a washboard-y gravel road and my car isn’t made to go fast on that stuff. I stopped at the visitor center and was amused to be alone in the room with the most annoyed, dispassionate park ranger I’d ever met. The overall sense of neglect was what made the park endearing to me. A few minutes later I drove to my next campsite. There was a bit of a trail leading from there into a neat looking valley enclosed by rock formations, and I wandered into there for a minute; I saw that I was approaching some horses and wasn’t sure if they were wild or not, and didn’t want to disturb them so I returned to my car and eventually went to bed.

Day 6:

I drove to the nearest gas station and misread the price of diesel on the faded display; I started fueling, thinking the price was something like $2.30/gallon, and by the time I realized it was actually $5.230 I’d already put in more than a couple gallons. That was irritating. Then I drove down what was apparently historic Route 66, past some abandoned little outposts and stuff, down to 29 Palms. I’m not entirely sure why I went there actually. But I brought my laptop into a McDonalds for a while and used the internet. I was very close to Joshua Tree NP, but I avoided it because of my earlier national park experience.

I took back roads all the way to Blythe, CA, which is right on the border with Arizona. On the way there I passed a gas station that was selling diesel for $9.63/gallon. I couldn’t believe it. I went to a grocery store to get some food and beer. Grocery stores are always a disorienting experience after spending time in the wilderness. Then I crossed the border into Ehrenberg, AZ, and took a gravel road that went south along the Colorado River, where there is a lot of free camping; I found a spot there for the night.

Day 7: This was kind of a weird day that felt like a turning point of the trip somehow. I camped only a few miles from where I’d woken up. I spent several hours at the Flying J travel stop in Ehrenberg using the internet. It is hard to pinpoint what was going on but I felt weird emotionally that day. I had made it down to the Sonoran Desert; now what? I had been hoping to spend a few days in one spot with some trees for a hammock. I wasn’t crazy about this stretch of road I was camped on; everything felt too exposed and there were a lot of ATV riders buzzing by. I knew of a spot that I liked near Yuma, but I didn’t really want to drive all the way there and repeat my past experience simply because I knew there was a tree there. There had to be something else to see. But I was uninspired to get in my car and explore, so after my time at the travel stop I went back to the same road and pulled over next to the river.

Day 8: I decided to give up on my obsession with the hammock trees and continue driving through Arizona and up to Utah. My relative Melody (second cousin once removed, as she informed me) had invited me to stay at her house in Mesa, near Phoenix. I texted her to see if the offer still stood, and it did. So I drove there and spent the night at her house. It was lovely; she was an excellent host, the kind who knows how to fully meet the needs of a traveler while not making them feel smothered or exhausted. Her generosity and thoughtfulness were evident as I joined her on the nightly walk that she takes with her neighbor, who otherwise is not self motivated enough to leave her apartment after going through some health problems in recent years. I hadn’t been quite sure what to expect when I went to visit her, because I didn’t really know her at all, but I was very glad I went.

Day 9: Before I left Melody’s house (stocked up with snacks and freshly showered), I looked up some info on another hot spring in central Arizona called Verde hot springs. It sounded pretty cool but I saw that the approach road was 21 miles of rough gravel. Well, I was up for an adventure but I knew that my spare tire was rotted out, and it seemed like I might need it. I filled up on some water, and then started looking for a place to get a spare tire.

I would have bought a new tire if it was under $50, but preferred to find a used one for cheaper. I must have called 10 or 15 places, and the few stores that carried my tiny tire size were only selling them new, for more than I wanted to pay, but I chose one anyway and started driving there. I was amazed at the number of tire stores I’d found within a 2 mile radius. As I was driving I saw another tire store that I hadn’t called, and pulled in there to see if they had my size; they didn’t, but they knew someone who had it, used, and gave me directions. So I drove there and got a used spare for $35. Then I was on my way north. The drive up to Payson was beautiful, I saw more cactuses than any time in my life, and as I climbed in elevation the dramatic desertscapes were replaced with forest. From there it wasn’t too much farther to the gravel road turnoff, and I took about an hour and 15 minutes to drive those 21 miles.

The very last section down to the lot was kind of crazy, it was pretty steep and had large rocks that I had to avoid. My car got high-centered at one point but fortunately nothing was damaged. I made it down this gnarly road in my tiny 35-year-old hatchback that some people in 4x4 trucks were too afraid to try. From there, it was a 0.8-mile walk to the spring, including a moderate river ford. The 2 springs were perfect temperatures and there was a lot of interesting art work around them.

I had a very interesting experience at this spring. I’ve written about it in detail in a previous post, so I won’t repeat it here; in brief, 3 of the 5 people I met were wonderful, but the last 2 were a couple who were difficult for me to interact with. They were quite drunk and had some terrible relationship dynamics. So my experience at Verde hot spring felt at times fun and lighthearted, personally significant, depressing, and frightening.

Day 10: I woke up at dawn; I had slept outside near the spring with my pad and sleeping quilt. After going for a morning soak to warm up, I packed up my things and hiked back to my car. I decided to scout out the steep, treacherous section of road before attempting to drive up it, and as I was doing this I met a funny older guy who talked to me for a while and was very entertained by my efforts to get up and down the hill in my tiny car. I showed him pictures of the hot springs art, and he yelled "haaaw look at all that hippie shit! I've got to go there and take pictures just so I can bug my wife!" After choosing my route I executed it well enough to get up the hill. As I made my way up the slope, I passed 2 guys who seemed my age and similarly weird, camped in their vans by the road. We waved at each other as I drove by and I wished I had stopped to say hi. This became my only regret of the entire trip.

21 miles later I was back on the pavement with no flat tires. My rear shocks seemed to be making a croaking kind of sound at times and I’m not really sure what that’s about (it still happens). I drove through Sedona, admiring the dramatic red cliffs but not the hordes of sightseers. Up past Flagstaff I drove, and filled my tank at a gas station. For the first time, I tried topping off my tank as much as I could, and I found that I could fit an extra 2 gallons that way if I was patient! This was a revolution. 2 gallons is almost 100 miles of extra range on the highway. I ended up driving 530 miles on that tank, I was amazed. Anyway, I entered Navajo country and stopped at a food cart, and got a burger that was wrapped in fry bread. Driving through this area was really interesting. I also stopped at a McDonalds in one of the reservation towns and this little girl confidently approached me with her cooler full of baked goods and homemade candy, which was adorable, and I got a loaf of banana bread for $3. From there I drove north and passed through Mexican Hat, where the 7/11 contains the town’s PO boxes. I pulled off onto some BLM land for the night and passed out.

Day 11: The sun had already set when I arrived at camp the previous night, so I didn't see the Mexican Hat balancing rock until I woke up in the morning.

Another early start; I headed north. I was in contact with a couple of friends who were in Alta, Utah, and I planned to meet up with them that night. I decided to pass through Moab first because I had heard good things about it. The drive up there was gorgeous, very interesting rock formations, spires, canyons, balancing rocks. I noticed that Utah has a very bare-bones approach to its road signs, which keeps roadside visual clutter to a minimum. After passing through a few smaller towns, I drove through Moab, and kind of decided to move there. I heard a lot of people live in vehicles and rock climb and do other cool stuff. I think I would have fun there, so I'm going to move there in May. I continued to Provo, driving through Price, and saw the only other Rabbit I would encounter on this road trip.

I did some writing in a McDonalds for a few hours as I wasn’t sure what time my friends could meet me. Honestly, I don't like McDonalds as a company but they have reliable internet so I often leech from them. In return I succumb to buying their food every once in a while. I messed up the time by 1 hour but I got to Alta by 7 and got to see my friends, Rock Ocean and Kimchi, both of whom I met on the PCT in 2014, both of whom are incredibly fantastic people and role models to me. They are adventurers too, planning to start living in Rock Ocean’s Westy pretty soon and drive it from Florida to Alaska, and stay nomadic even after that. They have some other very exciting projects in the works, too. So it was great to see them. I slept in my car at the highest elevation yet, 8400’.

I more or less considered this the end of my vacation. The rest of my driving would be long hours on the interstate to get back to Portland. So I didn't do any sightseeing, I just focused on driving:

Day 12: I drove through Salt Lake City and most of Idaho. I cruised westward on I-84 and I ate gross food, chicken nuggets for breakfast and Golden Corral for dinner. The big box district of Nampa, Idaho, where I camped, was not my favorite place ever.

Day 13: I continued driving on the interstate and got back to Portland. I had an interesting conversation with a gas station attendant in Grant's Pass. Those hills in Eastern Oregon are always prettier than I remember them being. As I was driving in to Portland and the anticipation of my return built, I was listening to my music on shuffle (as I commonly do when I drive), and the last song that came on was this song:

Something about it was so energizing. I felt fully animated. The song ended right as I pulled up in front of the building and turned off my car. I grabbed my camera and went inside, and spent most of the next 12 hours creating a video using footage from my trip. It was an idea I'd been forming the last couple days as I was driving on the freeway. I decided to bust it out and get it done while my mind was in a kind of crazy mode where I could focus for a long time. Here is that video:

So, that is a quick surface level summary of my trip. Of course, the real meaning of it would be difficult to describe. I can share pretty sights and funny stories, but the really interesting part to me is what I learned about different aspects of myself, relationships, traveling, music, and family; and the opportunities I had to be present with my thoughts and feelings for hours and days at a time, without being forced to act in a prescribed way that someone else expects.

Please be advised that reading this trip report is not a replacement for going on a trip. In fact, the main reason I want to make a trip report at all, is because the memories of the scenery and the daily activities fade; if I don't make a record, I won't remember what I saw and did. Scenery on its own is the least memorable and impactful aspect of my journeys. The reason I go to these places is not to collect photos or look at beautiful things, but to unlock an inner state that promotes growth, processing, and reflection. It reveals my own desires to me and helps me sort out my goals for the future. These revelations are what become embedded in my life and change me ever after. For me, traveling is more about the quality of the time spent than it is about the places I go and the sights I see. It just so happens that the best way to cultivate that quality experience is to get out into these beautiful places, so that's why I keep going back.
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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Joe Omundson

order as intelligence

Some people believe that humans are the only intelligent beings on Earth. After spending some time in the deserts, mountains, and forests, I started to believe that this wasn’t true. I noticed that there was a lot of life and wisdom out there. Everything from bugs, to birds, mammals, plants, trees, and fungus, all have their own clever methods of interacting with the ecosystem. They all use very different strategies. Even common insects like mosquitoes, ants, flies, butterflies, and bees are extremely unique in the role they play and the methods they use.

I started to see it like this: maybe any force or system of forces which holds together a pattern in nature rather than dispersing it into uniform randomness, is intelligent. It is acting against entropy to preserve itself. This intelligence can range from anything that self-perpetuates using DNA, to social systems of belief like politics and economy, to galaxies and subatomic forces. Sometimes their intelligence and perception is apparent to us, like in other humans and animals. The more we learn about all different life forms, the more we realize that they are all reacting intelligently, even plants and microbes. The human’s singular mind with complex abstract and logical thinking is not the only way to be intelligent. Swarm intelligence, the hive mind, is one other kind. This whole adaptive learning system we call life has been complexifying in some way for billions of years now. Though it is beyond our comprehension, perhaps intelligence and awareness could exist innately in every system of electrons and atomic nucleus, or in the patterns of every galaxy.

Ideas can become alive, living collectively in the minds of all who participate in them. Maybe that is one reason why it is so hard for humans to do away with some of the unhealthy systems they live in, even when those systems are hurting every person involved; they are like intelligences with a will of their own and they use us to increase their power and influence. Doing battle with a sick ideology is like facing an abstract entity. It's easy for us to view the adherents of certain viewpoints as being the source of the problem, but really they can be victims of something that is beyond individual human control.
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Sunday, March 13, 2016

Joe Omundson

hot springs craziness in Arizona

Recently I went on a 12 day road trip through the southwest states. One night, I stayed at a hot spring in central Arizona, which required a 21-mile drive on a rough gravel road and a 0.8-mile hike including a river ford. Due to the difficulty of access, and the fact that it was a Monday night, I met only 5 people at this luxurious and beautiful spring.

The first guy I met was maybe a few years older than me, a commerial plumber who lives near Phoenix. He told me that he had stopped believing in Mormonism just 2.5 years ago, and was out to his wife; he said she’s giving him hell w/ all this stuff about being influenced by Satan and it’s really tough. All the stuff you would expect to happen socially when a Mormon is doubting. He hasn’t told his parents, and he lives near them and still goes to church weekly. Man I felt so bad for that dude. He has been coming to the hot spring every Monday for the last 4 weeks to help process that stuff and recuperate, which I thought was a pretty cool idea. You have to ford a river to get there, and when I crossed, the flow was something like 200 cubic feet per second (he looks it up before he comes every time). It wasn’t too bad to cross, but you had to be careful, you wouldn’t want to get swept downstream. But a couple weeks previously he tried to cross when it was at 900. He got totally tumbled around and went down the rapids. Dude is lucky he lived! I appreciated him because despite the difficulty of his family situation, he didn’t have a shitty attitude or blame his wife for her reaction. He just chose to cope by going to a rad hot spring and relaxing. I think he’d never gone nude before trying the hot spring, but he seemed to be embracing it fully.

Then 2 more guys arrived. They had been in the military together, and one of them finished with that 4 years ago while the other one had just gotten out, and they were also around my age. They were from Chicago and Pennsylvania but both moved to Phoenix. They were pretty cool. I especially liked the one who had been done for a while, he reminded me of a thru-hiker in certain ways, just really happy and thoughtful. A couple times he said things that were like he’d taken them out of my mouth and i was like yeaahh!. His friend was agreeable too, he just seemed a little more uncomfortable there, more rigid from being in the military recently. Those 2 kept their shorts on and nobody cared either way. So the 4 of us were talking for a while and hanging out, and usually hanging out in groups of guys makes me nervous because the conversation can easily start to objectify women, become competitive, etc., and then I don’t feel comfortable being myself. Like if someone said “did you run into that couple on the hike out here? damn that girl had amazing tits” it could spiral out of control really fast. And with no women present men can be even less restrained. But it was so refreshing that nothing like that happened… we interacted as humans and didn’t have to inject gender into the conversation. I felt I could be myself. Eventually they all went back across the river because the sun went down, and I had it to myself again. I found myself unwinding pretty deeply in one of the tubs, relaxing into and sensing certain parts of my body. I

Just as I was starting to relax deeply, this couple walked up to the springs. There are 2 pools at the springs; one that is outside, and one that is enclosed by 4 walls but no roof. I was in the open pool and they went into the enclosed pool, and I could hear them talking, and my vibe from them from the start was that it wasn’t going to be a peaceful experience. They were the type to constantly belittle each other and get defensive about everything. I couldn’t tell her age, he said he was 23 and I assume she was similar or maybe a bit older. They had been drinking quite a bit and had brought more with them.

Trigger warning, I’m about to describe in detail the interaction between this couple, and it’s kind of ugly.

They moved to the same pool as me, and things were mostly OK. I was enough of a buffer or a distraction that they weren’t too out of control. I could only begin to guess at what emotional stuff they’ve both been through as kids, perhaps they both came from families where the father was manipulative and abusive and that’s the paradigm they know. It wouldn’t be surprising. I wasn’t there to judge them, and as individuals, I would have enjoyed hanging out with either one of them. But their dynamic was poisonous, and it reminded me of some of some relationship dynamics that have affected me personally so it was hard not to feel triggered by that. I just tried to be respectful and kind to each of them, and by valuing everything that they both said, maybe give an example of how to respect each other. One time the guy got confused between astrology and astronomy, and quickly got frustrated and called himself stupid for mixing up those two… seemingly expecting ridicule for the confusion. I just shrugged and said “ehh, it’s easy to mix up terms like that.” and the girl was like “see how nice he is!!”, and I feel like maybe when she said that, he felt threatened because he was pretty insecure. I’m not sure exactly what he said to her right then but it wasn’t long after that she went to the other corner of the pool by herself and became very quiet. He went over to check on her and she falsely informed him that everything was fine. Soon after, she went into the enclosed hot tub by herself as I continued to talk to him, and then she called him in to join her

This might seem unrelated, but i’m tying it back in. I think I am creative with my sense of hearing, but not so much my sense of vision. My sense of vision is very literal, I’m not a very visually creative person or artist. I can be very accurate/logical with my sense of sight, like with observational drawings or shooting pool, but my “mind’s eye” is pretty blank. Even when I take mushrooms or acid I don’t really see colors or hallucinate very much. Hearing, on the other hand, when I trip, I hear all kinds of crazy shit. Music sounds amazing. I create complex music instantaneously in my brain. If there is a white noise source like a rushing creek, I can hear crowds of people talking, animal sounds, laughter, anything really. Musical creativity is a daily companion in my life, mostly by listening to it.

And, when I hear people murmuring at a distance, sometimes I think I hear them say certain things… things that I’m mostly projecting onto their conversations, which are sometimes biased toward being about myself, or being more sinister than they really are. So, when this couple went into the other hot tub, talked for a while, then had sex for a while, and were then talking again and she was crying, I can’t say for sure what happened. I could only get a vague idea what they were talking about usually. It seemed like the kind of thing where he was being emotionally manipulative, acting hurt about something so that she would feel sorry and compensate by fucking him. Maybe it was, “you like that guy out there better than me don’t you?”, it kind of sounded like they were having that talk at one point. His voice was lowered very quietly so I could never make out his words, but I could imply enough from his tone, and from the words she was saying in reply (she spoke louder). A couple times I clearly heard her saying “no” repeatedly; I can only assume to what question.

Then I could hear repetitive splashing, they seemed to be having sex underwater. My understanding is that this can probably strip out any lubrication and make for a very rough experience. In any case I was imagining it hurting for her, he seemed kind of forceful. Then they got out of the tub, onto the cold dirty concrete I guess, and were doing it there; at one point it sounded like she was really enjoying it and maybe orgasming, and I was thinking, OK maybe this is totally fine, maybe she went in there and then called him to her because she wanted him, and their previous dispute was unrelated. Maybe it's all consensual and mutual and I don't have a problem with it. But then, they went into “porn sex” mode where she was shouting ohh yeah fuck me fuck me baby! goddamn yes fuck it! (slap slap slap slap slap) interspersed with a much lower toned, come on baby I know you can do it, just come. Clearly trying to fulfill some perceived notion of what will get him off and only doing it so that he will finally orgasm. I think I hear her say “hit me” and him complying. I think I hear her saying she can only hold out so much longer. Maybe I’m wrong to judge, maybe all of this works for them, but I know that in my own life whenever it's been me trying to force an orgasm it was never good sex for either of us. There’s no curiosity or playfulness at that point, it’s just trying to grind out an orgasm. He gets tired and frustrated, neither of them is truly aroused, the attempted sex act has been a failure and despair ensues. I get the feeling that she’s despairing because she knows he’s going to make this her fault somehow. She has failed to make amends for whatever was wrong earlier, and now she is even deeper in debt.

My heart has been pounding and I’ve been trying to decide what to do. I’m alone with this couple out in the middle of nowhere and I don’t really know what my boundaries are in the situation. But when I heard him say that she just needs to get more drunk -- I couldn’t handle that shit. Seriously? Her blood alcohol content is what’s keeping you from getting your orgasm in this situation? You just want to numb her pain with alcohol so you can take advantage of her body longer? I was like “hey man, that’s not cool, don’t pressure someone to drink so you can have sex with them!” and he was like… “i know what you mean, i apologize” and i said “don’t apologize to me! she’s not your sex toy!”. I heard her laugh and say something and they kind of went back to talking, and I continued to sit uncomfortably in the other pool. (later, he said that he was hard of hearing and hadn’t actually heard what I said to him, and had just apologized by default. possibly bullshit) Had I done all I could do? Should I be going in there and like, intervening somehow? I just felt overwhelmed by the injustice of it. And I thought of how these same patterns have hurt so many of my friends. I know that many of my female friends have endured similar experiences, and that totally sucks. I know the stories of abuse I’ve heard from their lives and this is what it was *really like* for them. This girl wasn’t dumb, she wasn’t weak. She’s coped with life the best she could and this is what all of her experience has taught her to expect as normal. That’s why our system is so sick. It’s true that our system has hurt the boyfriend too. The sex being painful for her didn’t actually make it better for him, he missed out on any connection there might have been. BUT it is a huge difference that she is expected to just get drunk and endure the pain as her part of the deal. What guy would subject himself to having his penis used roughly long after it was raw and bleeding? I am certain that only my female friends do this.

My intervention did seem to change something… their tone changed and she began to cry. This went on for a while and I couldn’t really hear what they were talking about, except I think I did hear something like “I’ve never been fucked in a pool like that, it hurt!” amidst tears. I never saw this guy demonstrate genuine caring for her, he would act the part sometimes, but I felt like he was a giant fucking slimy snake face who would rape his girlfriend and then turn around and suck up to me as though my perception of him mattered. The whole time that’s how it felt energetically. After she was crying a while longer I got out of my pool and went to them and asked if they were OK. From this point on, for the rest of the evening, the guy assumed responsibility for telling me her feelings and preferences, while she stayed silent. He played it off like, “yeah I really appreciate your concern, I understand why it’s awkward to hear us, it’s just that I’m leaving to go back to Canada soon and she’s really sad about that. Women tend to connect with their emotions more than men.” I said that I wanted to hear from Amanda if everything was OK and she was kinda like yeah everything’s fine. They came back into the other pool with me for a while to settle down. They must have been drinking even more (maybe she gulped some at his request) because she got really out of it, started feeling sick, got out of the pool and couldn’t balance well… so they decided to head back to their campsite, to my relief. He was gathering all their things from the enclosed pool, and she started walking away by herself, towards the narrow hill-traversing trail in the dark with no light or clothes or anything, just carrying a towel. He was still gathering their things, and I was concerned for her safety but assumed she probably just wanted some space and would wait for him at the top of the stairs. Then he was ready to leave too, and was about to leave his empty fifth of crown royale or whatever by the side of the hot tub. i said “didn’t you bring this?” he said “yeah, but it’s empty.” I said “...yeah...” and he was like oh oh right because i shouldn’t litter, and picked it up. Haha. I'm not sure who he expected would be coming through to clean up after him.

He started down the trail after her and then I heard her yelling, “I fell! I fell! I’m halfway down the hill!” She’d fallen off the trail onto a steep gravely slope and slid down maybe 20 feet! I ran over and sure enough she was down there. I was imagining the worst, and it looked like if she kept sliding another 10-15 feet she might fall off a ledge into the river below. (It turned out not to be that crazy of a drop beneath her when I saw it in the morning, but I knew that bad things could happen if someone that drunk fell in the water.) I just felt like, shit shit shit are you kidding me you guys. He was holding all their stuff and was like “i don’t know what to do!” so i started telling him what to do. Put down your stuff, first of all. I ran back really fast and put my shorts and shoes on, grabbed my light and ran back to them, he had started trying to climb down to get her and they were kind of shouting back and forth. She was saying she was fine and his point was like uhh you’re sliding down a gravel cliff and you’re naked. He was insisting on climbing down to her and she was insisting she could get up by herself. I asked him not to go any farther because we didn’t need 2 people getting stuck and if she could get up with her own power that would be best. But he really needed to feel like he was saving her. Well maybe I can’t judge that too hard, crisis moments are weird. She was able to climb back up completely on her own, she just needed some light to be able to see, so I shined it in front of her from up above and everyone got back to the trail safely. Even as she was still climbing up to safety he was already spraying her with criticism and I told him to stop that. She was bloodied up somewhat but didn’t have any deep cuts or obvious injuries. I offered my first aid kit but she wasn’t interested so she got dressed and they walked back to their campsite. Oh, man… just a couple hours of these people was enough to put me over the edge, I can’t even imagine being in that relationship. Waking up the next morning horribly dehydrated and hung over, with cuts and blood all over your legs, probably a sore vagina, and the same jerk of a boyfriend. I so hope that something changes for them soon. but maybe they will persist in relationships like this for another 10 years, 30 years, or forever. How can it be that this gets overlooked in our society?

Also, how can it be that alcohol is perfectly legal to drink, yet contributes to so much bullshit like what I saw that night… yet the awesome guy I met earlier, who was so happy and friendly, literally got a felony on the way to the spring for marijuana possession. He was pulled over for speeding 10mph above the limit, the cop was suspicious about a bag in the back, he complied and removed its cover and then the cop smelled weed. He'd just bought an eighth. Enough to get you a class 6 felony in AZ, whatever that is. This guy is white and can probably afford some kind of legal help so he probably won’t have to go to jail for it like if he wasn’t privileged, but that’s a topic for another email.

So, that couple left. And I went back to the pool and thought about it all. It hurts so bad to see it. And yet I know the reality is that this kind of stuff is going on every day, all around me. In general, the world has a lot of pain and suffering. It’s weird because a big part of life is learning to enjoy it and be happy, yet how can we do this when our brothers and sisters need so much help? I know there needs to be a balance of helping the world and enjoying it for yourself, either extreme can kind of lead to a bad place. But how do you work it out tangibly in the real world, the idea that you can simultaneously see the suffering and feel joy? This has always been difficult for me. Like could I really just go on with my night and feel OK after what happened? I definitely felt like I’d done the best I could. It was far from perfect, and I saw some of my own flaws in my response to the situation, but I know I did my personal best to love and care for them that night, and the bigger picture was out of my control. And that helped me relax again. I'd played my part. It would have felt a lot worse in the long run if I’d sat there scared and not said anything, or if I’d run away. It’s all a part of the hot spring experience… it’s unregulated. Life's that way. There’s pleasant and unpleasant, easy and hard. I think that has to be embraced. An interaction that some people would consider a massive turn-off can instead be seen as a chance to find even more insight. And maybe our interaction which seemed so saddening to me will actually help one of them someday.
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Saturday, March 5, 2016

Joe Omundson

money, part 1

Hiking the PCT shifted my perspectives on money. I had a lot of thoughts, feelings, and ideas about the way we exist in this system of currency, wealth, debt, and poverty. I expect it will be something I explore more deeply with this blog.

 Before I start talking about those ideas, though, I feel a need to be transparent about my own financial situation. When I tell people I haven’t worked in almost two years, and it is apparent that I’m still enjoying my life and not worried about money, I think many people assume that I am able to exist in this lifestyle because I am privileged and have a lot of extra money. It’s an understandable assumption, and it has some amount of truth to it.

 Technically, most of what I am doing is not out of reach for anybody who is willing to make the same sacrifices I have. I’m able to get by without using as much money as I used to, because I’ve learned to lower my requirements and needs. I could get by comfortably on $10,000/year, which I could make with a part-time minimum-wage job, but only because I’m willing to give up sleeping indoors, showering regularly, having a kitchen, being able to entertain guests, and all the other conveniences that people are looking for when they pay to live in a building. Many of these luxuries seem like needs to most Americans, and if they are trying to live a “normal” life and fit in with society, then they are necessary indeed. But they are not necessary for survival, and as I’ve found to be true in my case, they are not always connected to quality of life. Of course, preferences and needs vary, and some people have obligations that are not easy to work around. This lifestyle is not a good option for people who love to own and collect things, or whose happiness is directly tied to being surrounded in luxury. I feel sorry for those people that they have to work so hard to earn enough money to make their desires possible.

 I do come from privilege, and that’s part of what enables me to exist this way. Part of the reason I’m able to stay (mostly) sane and happy living in a car is because the traveling I've done has redefined my requirements, but a big part of it is also because I had a pretty stable childhood. I developed some relatively healthy coping mechanisms in situations where I felt stressed or pressured. My parents usually had enough money, and even when things were tight, I was never exposed to the fear of what would happen if we ran out. It’s easy for me to trust that if money runs out, or my car breaks down, or I get into a hairy situation, everything is going to work out OK. I don’t live in constant anxiety of something going wrong, and when something does go wrong I am pretty good at keeping my cool, finding a good solution, and not letting it get to me. I see mishaps as random events rather than taking them personally. This is a huge privilege. Many people don’t have the same tendency to feel stable in unsure circumstances. They never formed deep trusting connections with people, allowing them to have a certain baseline level of faith in humanity. They often perceive neutral environments as hostile. For these people, thinking about living in a car might induce panic. It’s not as simple as “save up and go do it”, there’s a major emotional element of anxiety that would need to be dealt with somehow. It's ironic because a lot of the aspects of "stable" living are some of the most toxic (constantly being indoors and seated, being subject to advertisements, comparing yourself to other people), yet it feels so hard to start down the path that actually leads to better health.

 Financially, things have worked out for me pretty smoothly in my life. After high school I went to Europe for 9 months, which cost several thousands dollars, and my dad paid for that. When I got back I went to Oregon State University for 4 years and got my degree in engineering physics. Because I got married after my freshman year and the government considered us a separate family unit, my “expected family contribution” dropped to 0, and I was only making a small income as a pizza delivery driver, which meant that we received grants which paid for almost all of my tuition for the rest of my education. My parents didn’t pay my rent or tuition or anything like that. I graduated with $10k in student loans. I worked fairly steadily at the pizza job to pay rent and groceries, but it was manageable.

 The engineering school had a strong internship program. If accepted, you were guaranteed two 6-month paid engineering internships in an industry relevant to your field. This was a big boost to graduating engineers. I interned at SolarWorld for both of my internships, and though I interviewed for 4 positions and was declined for all of them, it was through this program that I learned of a position at Synopsys, where I was hired and worked as a testing engineer for about 3 years. At first I was a contract worker, paid hourly at $25/hour; after several months of this I was hired on as a salaried employee at $70k/year. Sadly, I didn’t have a very good grip on how I was spending my money, and I didn’t save up nearly as much during this time as I could have.

 I had a good job at a young age and a strong career potential. All of this came to me easily, by going to school for the thing I felt most capable of. Not everyone has that good fortune. For some people, getting into college at all is a huge struggle. Others, who are in fact harder workers than I am, also went to school for their most capable field, but had no route to a high paying job from there. Many people would still say “yeah but you got through college in 4 years, worked hard, you earned it!” and I would say: not really. I simply wasn’t a passionate or hard-working student. I got lucky. I paid attention in lectures and rarely missed class, yes, but often my grade was based on test scores, and I’ve always had an easy time doing well on tests. I pretty much coasted through it and as a result I landed $70k/year. That is privilege. Because of my background, I was expected to succeed, and I never met with much resistance.

 Then, my life went through “the transition” --  in the span of about a year, my wife and I separated, then divorced, and I quit my job to hike the PCT. When we split, my ex kept the dog and most of our belongings; it was what worked best for both of us. I’d been planning on doing the PCT for a couple years, and in the last year I did make more of an effort to save money. I think when I left that job, I had paid off my student loan debt down to about $4k, I had a Kia which I’d bought new for $18k and was completely paid off, I had over $21k in a 401k retirement plan, and maybe $7-10k in the bank on top of that. So, I had a decent amount of money, depending on who you ask.

 In the time since the transition, I’ve sold the Kia for $11k and bought my current car for $3k. I’ve put close to another $3k into it for repairs and upgrades. I cashed out my retirement plan, which gave me about $16-17k after taxes. I paid off the rest of my student loans. I loaned a friend $2700. I’ve paid 6 months of rent ($240/month) for my music room. I was given a gift of $2k. I have about $3000 left in the bank, and no debt at all.

 So, if I’m doing the math right, that means I was “worth” a little over $30k two years ago, and I’ve spent close to $30k since then. What have I gotten for my $30k (and erasing my retirement savings)? I spent 6.5 months on the PCT, and 4.5 months driving around the country. That’s almost a year of travel. I got this sweet little car which lets me travel or stay in the city for cheap. I guess that’s about it in terms of measurable results. Was it worth it? Oh, definitely. These 2 years have been the most amazing of my life so far. I gained so much more through these experiences than I could ever explain. If the goal of obtaining money is to provide the opportunity to live a happy, free life, full of opportunity for growth and exploration, then the lessons learned from travel are worth a lot more to me than a sum of money. I was changed fundamentally in such a way that I can achieve my goals much more efficiently, because I have a stronger sense of what they are and because my maintenance requirements are lower than before. I am more confident now, and I made connections with many incredible people I never would have met otherwise. I learned how to do away with much of the material bullshit that drags people down and makes their lives miserable. Is my life "better"? Not necessarily. But it's more truly me, now, at least.

I just kind of wanted to put the numbers out there plainly. That is how money has worked out for me. I have been in a privileged position to be able to enter this lifestyle confidently and I do not deny that. But I hope you can also see that it doesn’t take exorbitant amounts of money to do what I’ve done. Most people who are jealous of my travels probably have the financial ability to save $10k and take several months off work. It's usually other things (emotional commitments, fear etc.) that prevent people from trying a crazy lifestyle change.
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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Joe Omundson


I wrote this one night in my car when I was feeling silly. :) And apparently a little more paranoid than I've become these days.

When you live in your car everything is an adventure. Lying in bed and remembering that you haven't brushed your teeth yet, you know what is ahead: quietly sit up and find your toothbrush in the front of the car, peek out a couple of windows, try to brush your teeth without rocking the car an obvious amount (which is surprisingly more difficult than it would seem, because the rhythmic nature of toothbrushing finds a resonance in the car's suspension). Keep an ear out for passersby and remain still as they walk by, covering up your light source to remain inconspicuous. As you continue brushing, look through your trash for some kind of relatively watertight container. Spit, rinse, and spit into an empty bag of chips and put it back in the trash. Check the thermometer. It is 38.4 degrees inside your car. Realize that you are about to fall asleep inside what is essentially a refrigerator parked on the street, and sigh contentedly at having escaped from "real life".

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