The Joy of Looking Up

But for my money, the best view on Earth – anywhere on Earth – is straight up. It’s easy to forget because the whole scene is often reduced to glittering lights sprinkled across a midnight blue dome. But to glance up at the stars is not so much to look at the night sky as it is to peer out into it. There is a vast depth to the scene which is often missed but which is far grander than even the grandest earthly vista.

On a clear day, you can see 130 miles from the top of Mt Washington in New Hampshire. The view from Everest can exceed two-hundred. The current record for line of sight stands at 334 miles, taken from a place in the Tien Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan.

But look up on any night from anywhere and the very closest twinkling light is somewhat further still. So far, in fact, that the distance is not measured in feet or miles but in time – the time it takes the fastest known thing to traverse the space. A lightyear works out to about six trillion miles and Alpha Centauri, the closest star visible in the night sky, is a little over four light years away.

It’s little use talking about the distance, for it is so far as to be virtually ungraspable in any practical way. You could try though. Imagine, if you will, being able to climb to the roof of your apartment building in New York, and looking out over the edge, you were able to see, far off and impossibly small, the faintest shimmer of Paris’ lights in the distance. That would be a view of about four-thousand miles. Alpha Centauri is roughly six-billion times further on.

It is, in short, a long long way.

And that is just the closest one. Polaris, the North Star, is nearly a hundred times further still. Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, the three stars that make up Orion’s Belt, are each well over twelve-hundred lightyears away. If you’re working out the mileage on your calculator, you may well find that it’s more zeros than the device can comfortably display, but the distance is around seven quadrillion miles.

To look up into the night sky, even with the naked eye, is to look out across the most magnificent sweeping vista that mankind has ever known.

And we have always known it. Even today, as the blinding speed of development seems to have approached that of light itself, the stars above us have remained largely unchanged for the last four-thousand years.

These are the stars that Caesar saw. Socrates and Homer too. When they pushed the very last piece into place at Stonehenge, they would have toasted the occasion beneath a sky very much like the one you’ll see tonight.

In a world of division — left, right, black, white, Abraham, Jesus, or Mohammed — it is at least some comfort to know that when all three pondered the meaning of a life well-lived, they did so beneath the very same stars.

It was Emerson who said that if the stars came out just one night in a thousand years, all mankind would believe and adore and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown.

Instead, they are ours for the taking every night.

Except in the cities, of course, where the glare of a million headlights and streetlights and billboards has chased all but the brightest celestial bodies from the sky, and the only constellations to be found are the ones made of lit-up office windows. There a person can go a whole lifetime and never know what the night sky is supposed to look like.

I remember the first time I saw it. I had flown to Colorado and caught a ride to a dusty camp on the outskirts of a town called Cañon City. Back then, there were only two reasons to go to Cañon City – either you were going whitewater rafting, or you were going to jail. In a town of less than twenty-thousand, there were thirteen penitentiaries. It was even home to the Museum of Colorado Prisons, lest the people’s dedication to the science of confinement be called into question.

I had cast my lot with the water, having signed up to learn to guide on the nearby Arkansaas River. It was my first time camping in the wide open spaces of the American west.

There are many places in this country that claim to be home to fickle forecasts, and I’ve had locals from Seattle to San Antonio tell me “If you don’t like the weather here, just wait a few minutes.” But only there, on the high-plains desert of one of the world’s great mountain chains, have I found the expression to be true.

Sun and heat, then rain, then snow, then heat again, all in the same afternoon. We would watch the weather coming over the distant back range, swept along by the relentless wind which pressed my tent flat to the ground and sent many others cartwheeling along the desert floor.

In the evenings, the darkness seemed to suck the heat from every corner of the world and that first night, even wrapped in my sleeping bag, I was frozen through.

I climbed from my bag to try and stomp some heat back into my limbs and stepping from my tent I was met with a view so spectacular as to make me forget everything else. An onyx black sky reaching from horizon to horizon, filled from edge to edge with the most magnificent display of glittering lights. They seemed to reach down from the heavens, at once close enough to touch and yet grand beyond belief, and snaking a course through the middle of it all, the great white river of the Milky Way.

I had not known the stars could ever shine that bright.

Later, when I’d seen the river take its first victim of that summer, I remember looking up at those stars and feeling small and safe. Safe in the feeling of being small. The stars have long been a reminder of our place in the grand scheme of things. Seems a shame to trade that for the billboards.

No matter. A sense of place is among the first things to return when you decide to crane your neck and look upward. Not just a sense for your place in the cosmos, but more literally a sense of where you are.

It’s a novel thing the first time you get the lay of the land by looking at the sky. The world no longer feels quite so big. To glance at the stars and say for certain that that way is west or that it is about 2AM is enough to make you feel master of the universe. It’s as though the entire hemisphere, at a stroke, has become your neighborhood, and while you may not know exactly what lies over the next hill, you feel certain that you could find your way out of the desert given enough time and a backpack full of snacks.

Of course, one need not go to the desert to see the night sky through new eyes. For it is not really the sky that changes, but the eyes themselves, the way of looking. All that is required is curiosity. To look once more with the eyes of your younger self, and to wonder about what it is you’re really seeing – that is all that’s needed.

I like the winters for this. I’ve heard it said before that you can either curse the blustery snows of winter or you can decide to learn to ski. I’d say the same goes for winter’s long nights. I used to dread them. But these days, I enjoy the chance to grab my copy of Regas’ 100 Things, slip out into the crisp night air, and spend a little extra time looking up.

A Taste of Patagonia

Patagonica is a visual love note, created by Joe “Dapp” Foster during an intense month-long trip to Patagonia in 2015.

A four-week blur of hiking, filming, and driving, the team spent more than twenty days on foot exploring the jungles, fjords, and glaciers of Patagonia, capturing hundreds of hours of footage, and navigating more than six-thousand kilometers of twisting mountain roads in a rented van they called Condorito.

With such a heavy workload, fancy meals were mostly off the menu.

“Wonderful culinary experiences? I wouldn’t say my trips lend themselves to them…” he said as we talked just a few days after the film debuted. “We had our goals, we had to get shots. So if a granola bar is what allows you to get the shot and keep moving, then, well… Cooking’s considered a luxury.”

When timing and fortune allowed, they hungrily availed themselves of piping hot empanadas, made in the local way. But for much of the trip cooking was limited to simple stir-fries done up over a camp stove, or freeze-dried meals quickly re-hydrated with boiling water.

That was fine for the team of five, all of whom were experienced adventurers used to the rigors of life off the beaten track. But it made it that much more special when they connected with Ervin, their local guide in Futaleufú, for a homemade meal and a round of Pisco Sours.

You know Ervin, he’s the guy at the 1:22 mark who’s drinking wine from a traditional bota in slow motion. The meal— chicken and vegetables roasted over a wood fire, and hand-made gnocchi — features prominently with at least three shots starting at the 0:24 mark. Three or four shots may not seem like a lot. But when you consider that the movie is just three minutes long, and how carefully each shot had to be chosen from the hundreds of hours of footage, you get a sense for how special the night really was.

“I’ve never put eating food in a film before,” Foster said, “But that was big for us. It was really a moment.”

Why Cook When You Travel?

There are few things that put you as intimately in touch with a place and its people as cooking. Every step, from deciding what to make to hunting through shops, markets, and nearby farm-stands for ingredients can be an exercise in discovery.

Take this simple lentil curry as an example.

A bag of lentils will hardly cost you a dollar or two. Combine with a few dollars worth of carrots, potatoes, and ginger, then simmer in chicken broth with a dash of garlic and curry powder and you have hearty, healthy lunches for a week. In that way, cooking is an excellent way to stretch a travel budget.

 

Make a curry in England (where I was when I first tried this one) and you’ll make new friends quickly.

Mention the word curry, or a word that sounds like it might be curry — currentcarafe, corral — and watch as the eyes of the nearest Brit light up with joy and anticipation. For more than two-hundred years the British have had a proper fascination with the stuff, ever since first encountering India, and by extension food with real flavor.

They took to it like, well, like the British took to anything back in those days (colonizing little buggers), and have been obsessed ever since. Or at least, that’s what I gathered during wine-fueled late-night conversations of my autumn stay in Wiltshire. Food (or maybe it was the wine) has a way of bringing people together.

Of course if you want to cook, you first need a kitchen, and that means you need to get creative about where you choose to stay.

AirBNB has made it easy for people to rent apartments and even houses in more than 190 countries most of which come with fully-stocked kitchens. For travelers on a more restricted budget there are affordable hostels, and options like CouchSurfing, WorkAway and WWOOF. In addition to giving you a place to cook, these accommodations put you in direct contact with the people in-country. They give you a more authentic, local experience than could ever be had holed away in a one-size-fits-all room at the Marriott.

Once you have your kitchen, the real adventure begins. Butchers must be found and consulted, farmers visited and vetted. If you’re without a car this can mean long walks through exciting city-streets. It can also mean hours spent navigating through dense forests, using old maps and dead reckoning.

 

It’s true that you have to travel a bit slower if you want to explore a place this way. But once you try it the slower speed feels right. It feels better. It tastes better. Just like home-made pasta, hand-rolled and hung to dry as garden-fresh tomatoes simmer down on the stove tastes better than microwaved Chef Boyardee.

Cooking is a transformative art. A process by which a few basic things are taken and turned into more than the sum of their parts, bolstered with pinches of this and dashes of that, irrefutably improved through the careful use of energy (in this case, heat) and time.

When you think about it, the very same can be said about travel.

Travels with a Seiko

I’ll be honest, when I first unwrapped the shining silver spectacle that was my Seiko Chronograph, I didn’t like it. I appreciated it — a gift from my parents given on the day I finally earned Eagle Scout — but I didn’t like it.

It was beautiful; sleek midnight-blue face-plate punctuated every twenty degrees with golden slivers that glittered in the sun. A shimmering clasp-closed stainless steel wrist-band and hands that were visible by day or night. No alarm, no beeps or boops, just twelve hours and the date laid out in a way that was elegant, but functional. It was a man’s watch, and it was given to me as a symbol of my having reached adulthood.

But of course, it was only a symbol, for a boy has not become a man until he’s able to recognize the wisdom of his parents, and sitting there in the early morning light I thought there’d surely been a mistake.

The watch was beautiful, but it wasn’t for me. I didn’t live a life with room for beautiful things. I was an adventurer. A swashbuckling, bear-fighting, road-tramping dirtbag, or at least, that’s what I aspired to. In two weeks’ time I’d be embarking on a four-hundred mile kayaking journey. There would be rain, and mud, and blood, and hillbillies. Certainly no place for such a fine watch. And so while I appreciated it, I didn’t truly love it. Not then.

But my parents told me to hang onto it, for the day would come when I’d need to dress and act like an adult. I had my doubts. But of course, they were right.

It was two years before I had it properly sized; two links removed in preparation for a job I’d taken at Yale. Three months in, the timepiece, and the job, felt more like a shackle than an opportunity, and it wasn’t long before I left to pursue work as an adventure filmmaker.

In 2012 I nearly hawked it to buy a dive-watch. I was headed for a new life in Hawaii, and everything I owned needed either to fit into my backpack, or be sold, donated, or thrown away. The far-flung pacific islands seemed once again like no place for such a fine piece of craftsmanship, and after nearly half a decade of limited use, I was almost convinced it was time to part ways with the old Seiko.

But then, it surprised me. I noticed something I hadn’t seen before, printed right there on the face of it. A tiny inscription; 100M. Could that possibly be meters, I wondered, and sure enough I flipped it over to find  Water Resistant 10 Bar stamped into the back. A quick Google search revealed that 10 Bar water resistance is quite suitable for swimming and even light snorkeling. I cracked a little smile. It wasn’t a dive watch, but my little Seiko was better suited to me than I thought.

We started hanging out more often.

Life continued on, and I started a business. Girls came into the picture. The way I dressed got smarter and smarter. My watch and I became pretty good pals.

It’s been nearly eight years since I first caught sight of how the hour markers glittered in the sun, and today  both the watch and I are very different than we were when we first met. We’re both a good deal smaller in circumference, it by three links, I by more than twenty pounds. We’ve both got our scars too. The second hand on the chronograph doesn’t reset perfectly to twelve, an injury sustained during the one and only battery changing the watch has needed during our time together. The clasp is scratched and marred from reaching into my pocket for the keys to the four cars, five cell-phones, and countless dollar bills, movie tickets, pocket-knives, packs of gum, pens, notebooks, and house keys that have come into and gone out of my life over the last few years.

But each scratch is in some small way a reminder of the adventures we’ve had. The time we navigated a sailboat between reefs out in Kaneohe Bay, dinners with friends aboard the Queen Mary 2, stowing away on the Coast Starlight Express to San Francisco, and many more. And the watch still surprises me to this day. Indeed, the reason I sat down to write this was because I found a new feature just this afternoon, a tachymeter used to measure distance and speed, staring me right in the face all these years but completely unnoticed.

I still fight bears sometimes. But mostly I wrestle words onto the page. Bears, in many ways, were easier. At this point in time, I’m living out of a backpack, traveling through the south of England while reconnecting with what it is I truly love to do. It’s not a big backpack, and I can’t fit a lot into it. But there will always be room for my trusty little Seiko.

 

A Case for Short Term Goals and Un-Planning

Today’s December 2nd, which means today marks exactly three months since I put my business on hold, and set off on the Appalachian Trail.

My, how things have changed.

In August, I lived in my parents’ basement in Connecticut. Today, I live in a finished attic on a rural English estate with a walled garden and an indoor pool (and in a week I’ll live somewhere else entirely). Could I have seen any of this coming? Could I have planned it?

In his interview with Derek Halpern, three-time best-selling author Tim Ferriss says that the key to his shocking success hasn’t been strategic planning, as many might first think. Instead, he lives by a series of three to six month goals and micro experiments. There are at least two major benefits for doing this.

First, he says, it lets him treat the projects in his life as tests, rather than major life decisions. If you launch a podcast, or open an online store by saying to yourself Okay, this is what I’m doing for the rest of my career then you face a tremendous downside if it doesn’t work out. You’ve failed.

The mere threat of failure is what keeps many people from trying things, and so this idea of committing to some long-term goal or plan can sometimes keep you from ever getting started.

By contrast, if you view something as a test, then there can be no failure; There’s only feedback. If it tanks, you take a look at what happened, and incorporate that new knowledge into your next project. You’re not a failure, you’re just learning. That feels a lot less scary.

Second, when you avoid long-term planning it leaves you open to opportunities you didn’t know were waiting. To create long, multi-year plans is to ignore the fact that the future is actually unwritten. It’s to risk being over-committed to a plan that’s not working, or one that only realizes part of your potential.

When Derek Sivers started his company CD Baby, his boldest vision predicted 1,000 clients and three employees crammed into his living room. Reality had more in store.  When he sold the company for $22M, CD Baby had over 200,000 clients, eighty-five employees, more than twenty-thousand square feet of warehouse, and millions of transactions a year.

Staying agile allows you to take hold of opportunities that are even better than you imagined possible.

All of this has been rattling around in my mind today, as I look back on what the last three months have brought. It’s rung especially true as I look forward to the next year, and the resolutions that would typically accompany the changing of the calendar.

This year there will be no resolutions. No goal by which I judge the success or failure of 2016. No grand vision for my life or work.

Just a handful of three to six month experiments that I’m really excited about, and hopefully the courage not to take them too seriously.

The Write to Roam TV: Episode 2

For those of you who may have just stumbled across this, this is an experiment I’m doing where — in order to get away from my desk for a little while each day — I drop on down to the kitchen, cook a tasty meal, and discuss facets of travel, entrepreneurship, and small business that are on my mind from the day. In this episode, I whip up a quick favorite from Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Chef .

Here is a link to episode 1 are links to any of the resources I talked about: Continue reading “The Write to Roam TV: Episode 2”

The Write to Roam TV: Episode 1

No, it’s definitely not a real TV show. Just a good excuse for me to get away from my desk once a day or so, get down to the kitchen, and cook a good meal. One part Random Show, one part Wine About It, with a little Ask Gary Vee mixed in, this is me standing in front of the camera cooking, and talking about some of the more interesting ideas, articles, and resources I’ve come across throughout the day.

Links to everything can be found below. Some are affiliate Amazon links, which definitely help to keep this ship afloat. If you’re thinking of buying any of the books I mention (and I won’t mention them unless I’d truly recommend them) it’d mean a lot if you’d do it by clicking the links here. Continue reading “The Write to Roam TV: Episode 1”