To Universe, with Love

Late Summer Reading List

Posted on July 25, 2015

Phoenix is an oasis in the Arizonian desert. We do not have trees, real forests or mountains. But we have hills, canyons and giant handsome cactus. Sunsets are absolutely glorious out here and the warm breezy nights are beautiful. All the animals bury themselves into underground tunnels during the day and come to life in the night. Its 110 degrees and my sunburns dont heal easy. I changed my schedule to survive the weather. Get to the lab before sunrise or else, the bike rides are a misery. Get out by 7pm, eat dinner and sit outside to read a book of my choosing. Go home to cook, pack for next day and go to bed. Here is what I have been reading.

 

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ARTICLES ONLINE :

 

1. Simple living lessons and minimalism from Albert Einstein

2. Has travel become a consumer item to acquire ? Do we try to go to as many countries / climb as many mountains as possible to collect a list ?

3. Some amazing travers from our history books.

4. I am always observing the way people eat, how they look/feel and their health. A tiny island in the middle of nowhere, has a lot of healthy people who forgot how to die. And have some very good lessons for all of us.

5.  In search of silence, inside and outside.

6. The French Culinary does not have the monopoly on Sauces. Check out this compilation from Thailand

7. Fashion vs Clothing. Designers with no interest in textiles. Love of shopping disguised as love of fashion. A craft that became all about the catwalk show. Fast fashion created by bloodied hands.

8. Style. Very few have it. An interview with Richard Torregrossa.

 

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I have a lot of mind space and lot more time these days to do the things I want. Thanks to life sans online shopping, hours cleaning and less distractions at work. I used to hang out in the lab all day long and read non-technical books sporadically. I now have 30 minutes of time allotted for reading that has nothing to do with work. Since my days in Arizona are coming to an end soon, I decided to use all this reading to learn as much as I can about the land – the ancient people, the animals, the geology, the sand, …..

 

1. Hopi : following the path of peace.

I read a book called Radical Simplicty, written by an engineer who empirically shows the math to calculate your carbon footprint and amount of deforestation that went into sustaining your lifestyle. The bigger your house, weight of stuff owned, amount of furniture, size of closet, electronics and toys in your home, books, etc – everything has a cost function. And there you have it – a heart breaking number of acres of forest you helped destroy. An excerpt from the book is an interview with a native AmericanIndian women of the Hopi tribe :

“Now they blast Mother Earth apart. Look at the crack in my home. They drop a bomb on Japanese people with uranium from our mountain. We are a peaceful people. They pump the aquifer to slurry coal. Now the plants are dying.”

“ What can I do to help?” the author asked. She said,“ Go back to your people and tell them to live simply. Then they wouldn’t be out here digging up Mother Earth for coal and uranium.

The Hopi tribe are natives of Arizona. I am reading a 101 book on their wisdom.

 

2. A Sand Country Almanac.

Essays on nature. I can use more of those. Symptoms of Yellowstone withdrawal.

 

3. John Muir, Magnificent Tramp.

His biography. Muir is my fav naturalist. He had a deep spiritual love for trees, mountains and animals.

 

4. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson.

More reading on environmental issues. I need to detox my skincare routine. I am addicted to some products. I could let go so much so far, inspired by what I have learnt till date. Trying to cram in more information for some extra motivation.

 

Thank you for reading. I have been overwhelmed by how supportive the comments on this blog have been. Thank you ! For taking the time to write to me. Thanks for all the positivity. For all the acquaintances made. As Douglas Adams would say, “So long, and thanks for all the fish”. 

Surviving Small Spaces

Posted on July 18, 2015

Firstly, I do not think our space is that small. But it did feel like it, a few months ago when we picked out the place and started downsizing. One blogger who really helped me out with preparing me for the move is Erin, who blogs at Reading My Tea Leaves. I LOVE her blog and am awaiting her book. I heard a podcast about her lifestyle and why she finds it hard to shop – sustainability, origin of products, lives of the workers and living with less. It was my ahan moment and rather life changing. Here is what helped me so far.

 

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1. Downsize for the right reason

If downsizing from a larger space, having the right motivation helps. We moved so that we may live on this mountain. I have a friend who moved to NYC for the experience and lives in a teeny tiny studio. We may have to go smaller so that we may experience San Francisco, next year. My parents are looking to downsize so that they may retire and be able to manage their space without external help.

 

2. Find the right small space

Thanks to the tiny house movement, modern spaces are being fitted with multi purpose appliances, retractable furniture and smart storage solutions. Given some time and energy, I think its not too hard to find the right space. Dont care for a bedroom ? Smart lofts are out there. Need a big closet ? 4 closet studios exist in SFO. Indian food intense kitchen ? Tiny bedrooms to make sure everything don’t smell like curry can be hunted down. I personally dont believe I can one day move into a tiny apartment and live happily for ever. But the right space helps.

 

3. Detox and Declutter

This goes without says. I think there is only one way to make tiny homes look breathable : go minimal. When we first moved  in, having everything put out made it look like a dumpster. More I let go, better I feel and nicer my home looks. Our home is in the process of gaining more breathable space with more culling happening every month.

 

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4. Go on shopping fasts

Once the home is setup, it’s easy to fall back into old patterns and accumulate stuff. One strategy that has been working out for me is to go on monthly shopping fasts. Its easy to buy with one click and have it show up at your doorstep by the next day. Going on a fast helps sleep over it for a few days and re-assess the need. I do shopping fasts on alternate months of the year. Gives me 15 days on an average and I usually forget that’s on my wishlist by the end of it.

 

5. Embrace a Seasonal Capsule Wardrobe

Seasonal dressing is rather cliche because of all the air conditioning and the actual time spent outside by most people. I think layering is all that is needed to get through the year. That being said, I do think natural fabrics are healthier for the body and planet. Linens in the summer and silk/wool in the winter is what I wear making my wardrobe seasonal. Instead of hanging everything I own in the closet at all times, having items for immediate use helps. Jackets and boots get stored away during the spring cleaning. Linens and shorts get tucked away during the fall cleaning.

 

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6. Create negative space

A space devoid of art, color or personal objects may look ‘minimal’ but is necessary in small dosage to make a living space warm and inviting. We installed this wall shelf to display our memorabilia. It immediately made the entire space look crowded. We ended up leaving it mostly empty to create negative space. Small spaces can use some of that. Its an vision-mind trick to make the spaces look bigger.

 

7. Forego bookshelves

Our previous space had every wall lined with books. I recently discovered that book stacks touching the ceiling look good. I dont need cram in shelves. And since I read one/two books at a time, I am not tumbling my book towers too often. Going digital helps too.

 

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8. Find beautiful storage

So all those beans and lentils need to be stored some place. Instead of the plastic cereal boxes that are widely available, why not switch to glass or metal jars, cloth or jute sacs, mason jars, or anything that is beautiful and earth friendly ? The appeal of a space is inversely proportional to amount of plastic that lays in it.

 

9. Create a ritual – put it back where it belongs

Pick out a perfect spot for everything. Take the time in putting things back. The few things that survived the cull, are special and deserve the attention. Or else things run away and end up where ever.

 

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10. Let go of perfection

Pinterest and all the free advice on internet ( this post including ) may or may not work. If its not for you, its not for you. Going small comes with its own set of headaches and we all try to do the best we can. Falling into an endless pattern of perfecting-small-space beats the essence of downsizing.

 

Clean, small and decluttered home are extremely beneficial for mental health but are not to drive you crazy. There will be days when your house will look like a disaster. Shrug it off and get to work. And it’s all going to be fine. So far, the pros out weight the cons. Taking all these steps helped. 

 

 

 

 

Tiny House, Big Home

Posted on July 8, 2015

This is our first home as a married couple. And we are loving it. Side effects of simplifying my life – priorities that stay priorities. We wanted to live on a mountain. We have a forest and a stream closeby. We run into horses from time to time. The trade off of picking a place like this comes at the cost of being cut off from the city, commute, price and above all space. To afford living in this place, we had to forego square footage. Downsizing from 1000sft to 470 sft is not an easy task. We did it. I am holding on to my many many shoes hidden in a box in the corner for now. We plan to move to SFO next year where we may have to fit into an 400sft space. I know that the shoes have to go, one day soon. We are preparing for the challenge. 

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It was an innocent Saturday. He took me to see a “cottage we wont live in”. And it was love at first sight. He waited it out to let my emotions act themselves out and soon, I agreed to move. There was wilderness, trails, creeks down that little hill. Vines all over the cottage and a tiny space that is perfect for two people who need to live in close quarters at all times.

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But move in meant quite a bit of downsizing. 1000 sft worth furniture and household items need to be reevaluated. Over the years, we hunted down what we call “treasures” to make our living spaces warm and comforting. Books filled with letters. Wisdom of Julia Child and Tamar Adler. Maps from every place we visited. An antique treasure chest from India. A couch he bargained for. Cast iron and copper cookware. My shoes… you know, the things that typically reside in a home.

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Then, the reality dawned in. I had to let go of a lot. Embrace the tiny space. Beyond the initial days of coziness, the lack of multiple appliances and modern kitchen set up bogged me down. The closet space made me donate stuff I didnt want to let go. Having friends over made me nervous. Cooking for 10, was approached like a scheduling job in a pipeline of a factory. Where do all the electronics go ? Tiny house movement ? Why are they romanticizing it ?

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Today marks 5 months in this home. And its been good. I do not miss anything I let go. What to see what our tiny home looks like ? Here’s a sneak at it. This is our kitchen-dining-living room.

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We started spending more time outdoors. The position of the tv doesn’t matter. We eat dinner outdoors on the steps out looking the valley. I look at pinterest less. Props disappeared and I dont craving the Scandinavian white space full of nothings. Dresses and shoes – donated. We try to get very creative in our little kitchen and eat well. Our friends grab whatever seating they can find when they visit us, and they haven’t stopped dropping by. Thanks guys ! Means a lot to us. It wasn’t easy. It is getting easier. But it’s a challenge that I find more and more enjoyable. We are urban camping our way through life. I am going through a process of unlearning lot of needs.

“ You know the Greeks didn’t write obituaries, they only asked one question after a man died, ‘Did he have passion?’ “

When frustrated, this is my personal mantra. I do feel the deficit at times but all the reading I do has been helping me. Victor Frankl writes about how the ones who have a bigger purpose, don’t live for pleasure.  Thoreau wrote ‘The Walden‘ while in a meaningful relationship with the nature around him. Although I don’t see myself running off into the woods, living in a shed and growing my own beans, I see how easy I have it.

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Kitchen was the hardest to downsize. So I didn’t. Chaitanya asked me, “You have everything. But where is it ? Where is your panty ?”. I don’t know. It’s all in there somewhere. Now to the complaints. We don’t have an oven. Two burner stove slows us down when cooking. Our bedroom is like a black hole with no windows == no natural light coming through. We get a really good nights sleep but often wake up late if we hit the snooze button on the alarm. Animals run into our home when we leave the doors open for more space and ventilation. When we fight, it’s very annoying to be in such close quarters. But we are learning to live with it during our stay. The pros outweigh the cons. It takes 20 minutes to clean the place. Or 2 hours to deep clean. We can resist buying stuff because we don’t want to clutter this beautiful space. Its becoming easier to let go more. One day, I want to be able to pack up everything we own in less than 4 hours and be able to leave. I would like to have such mobility and a life with lots of travel.

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Extras. Our landlords have a cat ( cinco ) and a dog ( ombre ). We get to pet and play with them without the responsibility of owning a pet. I think the pets really like us. This cat is the most curious living being I ever met. I see him walking on rooftops and climbing the tallest trees. I have newfound respect for cats. And this guy is a celebrity with our folk.

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I, by no means am complaining about my home or circumstances. I know how good I have it. I blog about my downsizing – closet, books, activities, … etc. Downsizing a home was bound to happen. Its the best thing that ever happened to me. I have lots of mental clarity and time these days.  We are looking at this as a learning period before we move into a smaller place in SFO ( next year ). I know my big box of shoes needs to be put to the test of downsizing in the future. I am preparing for it. Another big step we are working on is becoming a zero waste household. We are slowly phasing out the plastic and the disposables. We are learning about compost and starting a small home garden. I am going to blog about it all.

Yellowstone: The Landscapes

Posted on July 1, 2015

 It was easy to get carried away with a camera in hand. I wanted to wake up early to take photographs but I was too tired. I know all about the golden hour but more often than not, I would be slogging it out on a trail missing the beautiful light. I wanted to take my place next to the wild life photographers and waited it out for a great shot. I really wanted to. And fought with Harsha who made our itinerary. End of the day, I had to get it into my head. I am not on a NatGeo assignment. I am with my husband on an adventure. Not all of them photograph well – its more sweat, dirt, noodles and aching muscles. That being said, here are some beautiful landscapes.

 

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This will be the last of my yellowstone series where I dump lots of pictures to the internet. Its been years since I thought about geology beyond the San Andreas fault line. Its been years since I learnt about the intricacies of an echo system – the homes, the migration patterns, the soil, the climate, the kings and the slaves. I touched trees that are remnants of forest fires. Heard lectures on why fires are actually good for the system …. I can not stop and get my head out of it all …. Another (delayed) post coming up on my packing list. I need this well listed because it was a daunting task. There are so many lists out there but none that worked for me. We overpacked. And could have done with lot less. My apparent conclusion after every blog post – do with lot less.

Yellowstone: Flora and Fauna

Posted on June 30, 2015

Alarming Stuff : The sixth mass extinction is on the way ! Thanks to human activities. And the animals are the first to go. Thanks to human activities. Having co-existed with animals for the last one week, reading this is extremely disheartening. I am sure the future generations would look at us and go, ” I can’t believe they did shit like that ! All the science and technology could not put some sense into their heads. ” We lived in perpetual bear scare, because we took away their territorial acreage and hunting zones. It took us lots of years to introduce wolves to Yellowstone. It’s all politics and lobbying. The results give me goosebumps ! I did not get to see wolves this time but heard so many tales for them from the wild life photographers, rangers and naturalists in the park. But let me share some pictures of the incredible animals we did see.

 

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I did see 40+ animals in close range. Keeping these posts succinct is a serious intention, and hence all those animals can be seen on my TUMBLR. I dont claim to be a NatGeo photographer and hence want to keep my million hobby photos to myself and off this blog. I saw fishes spawn, 100s of butterflies in a span of 2 minutes, beavers, dams built by beavers, too many beautiful birds, …. Yellowstone as an ecosystem. Its the biggest one intact in this day and age. Spawning 2.2 million acres.

 

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Forest rangers are incredible humans living good lives, in my book. They live in the wild and protect us / wild life. My policy: if you meet them, talk to them till they no longer want to talk to you. They are the ones with the real stories. And the information. Most of the information I present here is from the books I have been reading or from my conversations with the rangers.

 

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I scared a Bison. I want to scream this from rooftops. But one of those slow motion moments happened when a bison wanked in on me from behind ( 10 feet away). I was sitting by the stream and making noodles. I saw it, it saw me. We both stood still. There was no where for me to run but into the water, but it would have the advantage. I picked the biggest tree to sit under, ruling out climbing it. I froze. And without thinking, I stood up. The animal somehow RAN. Ran like a maniac. I saw people on the other side run into their cars and take pictures of the animal. I looked behind my shoulder for the rest of the day, waiting for animals to show up. I was chatting with a forest ranger, and told him what happened. And told him how offended I was that this big animal was scared of me, a little woman. He rolled his eyes at me and said, “you would be dead and not chatting away if it wasnt scared.” Bisons have this huge range of vision, like a fish eye lens. Their peripheral vision is stronger and they sometimes miss what’s right in front of them when distracted ( grazing ). According to him, the bison did not spot me. And when it did, it couldnt figure out what I was. And hence it ran. Should i be more offended that a bison didn’t think I was human ?

 

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Another powerful lesson. MOTHERS. Most incredible creatures by nature. The way they protect their children is endearing. Example 1: The deer population. The females graze in a different valley from the males. They come together during the mating season. And part ways. The deers endure and flee lots of attacks by animals and human intrusion. But they attack when their babies are in danger. Not just their own. If I were to walk in to their personal space, the females will round me up and try to smash my face by kicking me with their hind legs. Example 2: Bison endure a lot. They are vegetarians by nature. Dont need to attack humans. But try to get close to a calf, and you will be gored. Example 3: Wolves. They are very family oriented animals and stay true to their packs. But when a female has her babies, she finds a cave to hide them. Even from her own pack. Being a mother > family bonds.

 

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There are two kinds of photographers in these places. The ones that drive from place to place and snap some pictures. We saw some very traumatized deers, scared spawning fishes and annoyed bison from how the visitors acted towards them. And then, there are the ones who learn everything they can about the animals and take pictures with respect. Meeting the second kind was life changing for me. There was one man, who knew so many intimate details, that I didn’t know was possible to learn. He told me about how most of the Hayden valley pack wolves had left North. And that one of the wolves from Hayden Valley mated with a wolf from the Lamar Valley. It stayed behind with its 4 pups. You can see them playing at certain hours in certain locations ….. How can all this not evoke great love for the planet ?

Yellowstone: Camp Life

Posted on June 24, 2015

“Home is where your heart is !”, a quote that is spewed all over internet and beyond. If that is true, why all the mortgages, mansions, stress, home decor, all those dresses in my closet, ….. I wonder. How much do we really need ? This is something I have been struggling with and been reading a lot about. Camping helped me find some answers. We need very little. I keep learning this lesson and forgetting it as soon as I get back to my routine life. Hoping its different this time. A small backpack could get me through 10 days.We packed a backpack with …. A stove. Two bowls. Two mugs. A tent and a sleeping bag. Some beans and noodles. A rain coat each….. And set out to explore the forest. 

 

THE CAMPSITES

 

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The promise of a fire pit, a picnic bench and a flat ground to pitch tent on, became luxuries. There was a night where our camp was on a slope and we couldnt stop sliding in our tent when asleep. Its hillarious to think about now but was frustrating. We pitched so many tents this month that we can do the job in under 2 minutes. I remember having to google how to do it two years ago and we are now pros at it. They had a few sites with showers, laundry and dishwashing sink. Having a hot shower after a day or two, after all the walking was true bliss. And recipe for a perfectly rejuvenating night’s sleep.

 

THE BACKCOUNTRY

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Backcountry is something I have been absolutely enamoured with. My favourite environmentalist couple Charles and  Meg are always going on about their adventures and I had to have one myself. Extremely long trails that go beyond day trips, unmarked campsites away from animal territories, food poles to avoid your food from being stolen by bears and ABSOLUTE WILDERNESS.

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THE COOKING

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Polenta and chilli is my absolutely favorite camping meal ever ! And comfort food. More than cooking, its felt more like I was warming it.  Other options that we enjoyed a lot : oatmeal with spices, mac and cheese with masala, spanish rice with refried beans, dehydrated egg powder and kidney beans & PBJs ( although I don’t like gluten, hunger rules). Our little stove held up great although boiling water became an exercise in how long one can go without complaining when really hungry. I remember my greatgrandma cooking over open flame. I dont think I could go on doing this for a lifetime. Smoke free stoves, yes please !

 

THE WARDROBE 

 

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Yes, I want to look nice when the bison and the elk see me. No reason to look sloppy. My Danner hiking boots were a life saver keeping me warm and dry. I wore my everyday stretchy jeans and linen shirts with a jacket when needed. I packed a set of yoga pants and a hoodie for cold nights so that I don’t wear my dirty clothes in the tent. Special love to the nice woolen socks from an REI garage sale. They really do work when in comparison to all the cheap synthetic socks I owned over the years.

 

THE ESSENTIALS

 

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Carrying assorted products is cumbersome but long trips need something to help out. Vitamin C infused wipes definitely help when you are too tired to wash up at the end of the day. Dr. Bonners is an all in one soap : toothpaste, soap, shampoo, dishwashing liquid and detergent. The rest, are the usual. I wear an antique navajo turquoise bracelet as a charm whenever I go hiking. No idea why. Just a habit.

 

THE DOWNTIME

 

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We would come back exhausted every day. Prepare meals, eat and sleep. If we had some extra time before sunset, I would read a little and Harsha would pour over his maps preparing for the next day. It feels like we spent a lot of time lighting fires, boiling water and cleaning dishes at the end of everyday. I wanted to wake up and do yoga outdoors but never did. Next time maybe.


I may have a tendency to make all of this look glamorous. With carefully edited pictures and words. But we struggled. First night of sleeping on the floor was awful. The soot from the cookware == my hands looking like I worked in the coal mine. The smoke from the fires made my contact lens burn. Early sunrises made me an early waker inspite of being tired and sleepy. But I was getting used to it and don’t think I complained much at all. It rained putting out our camp fire, preventing us from cooking food. There were nights when it rained hard. The outdoors were roaring. It got me scared at first. And then in awe with the extent and power of nature. 

Yellowstone: Trail Life

Posted on June 23, 2015

We spent most of the waking time in the last 10 days climbing / hiking. It was ambitious, exhausting and exhilarating. Going to places that roads don’t take you. And some that should not be contaminated with roads and civilization. Why do we go camping ? Harsha says its an escape/break from his city life. For me, its more about the life I want for myself – close to nature. There are different kinds of nature lovers. The ones who drive from place to place, look at the nature and take pictures ( maybe ). The ones who live in sync with the nature and deeply care about sustainability and the ecosystem. I waver in the middle. Hence the trails. 

 


SAFETY 

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Safety is paramount when hiking the bear country. We saw 4 bears in the week we stayed in Yellowstone. Bear attacks are rare but do happen. Startling a bear with a cub and near its food source is one the highest rated danger situations. Make noise, talk loudly, carry a bell, … they say. We sang our bears away. I bet when they heard me sing, they were scared for what’s coming in their direction.

 

FELLOW HIKERS

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We would do one very long hike (>9 miles) or one medium ( ~5 miles ) + one short ( < 3 miles ) hike per day. We met some very interesting people. Lots of couples from Europe and Australia. Lots of German men. A few families with kids. Guess what the conversation starter is ? “Hello, have you seen any bears or bison near the trails ? “. Ofcourse ! Everyone was on alert and we had to share the information. There was a trail where 2 bison were sitting ON the trail. We discussed what we could do inorder to get around them. I regret not taking more pictures of the people we meet during our travel.

 

TRAIL MARKERS

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Looking back, the trails were littered with very interesting ‘things’, flaura and fauna. There is so much beauty all around that made it all worth it. The rolling hills, Douglas fir trees, lakes, snow and the usual culprits made it good. But the special ingredients : that bird that kept walking in front of us on a trail made us giggle for extended periods of time, different mushrooms on the ground, the dead bones in the bear country ( antlers ), the chipmunks and all sorts of little animals made it an experience.

 

HITCHHIKING 

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Backcountry hikes are long. Start at one location and end at another. Finding the way back to the lots where we parked our car involved some hitchhiking. We had a 50:1 luck ratio, one person giving us a ride for every 50 who drive by, which I think is pretty good. But Harsha was rather disappointed in humanity. We met some interesting people who were extremely kind to us by letting us into their cars and getting us to places. Thank you universe, for all the love.

 

THE DOWNTIME 

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Take small breaks. Lie down. Pretend to nap. Sit on an elevated hill and watch the sunset. Skinny dip. Relax while the little stove boils 400ml of water ( 10 minutes ). Mark the maps. Spray mosquito repellant. Make pictures …… downtime during the trails are important. When we got too ambitious, waking up the next day got harder.

 

SUSTENANCE FOOD

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Partly due to our inexperience with camping, we ate a lot of junk food. When weight is paramount and when in locations close to bear territories ( trails ) , we made junk food like instant noodles and mac cheese. No regrets though. We did the best we could do given the constraints and locations. Lots of shin bowls, maggi noodles, brownies and trail mixes were ingested.  They were pretty tasty.  Makes me glad to be home making rice and lentils again. I do not want to eat another pot of noodles for a really long time.

 


We sang. We marched in step when it got hard to finish the day. We ate cookies and brownies. We took breaks and hydrated. We napped. We created a few jingles about bears and bison. He wrote a song for me about me. We had a few “is that a bear round the corner?” moments and made it home safe in the end. To me, it felt like a primitive suppressed instinct to look out for danger. I was thrilled about the experience. Since Harsha worries for both of us, it was tiring and stressing him out. He is happier to be home safe than I am. I would love to go back for more.

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