032. TREASURE HUNTING by Cara Hines

Today is about treasure. I’m spending the afternoon in my beloved little apartment, going through what is left of the possessions I kept or accumulated after getting rid of my house and 95% of everything I owned just over two years ago. Piles are growing: what to leave stocked in my apartment for the renters who will be staying in my absence; what to take with me in my trailer; what things of sentiment I’ll move to my family’s Homeplace for safe keeping; what to discard, give away, or sell. I cannot properly convey how healing it’s been to live more simply with less these two years. The things I have, I know I have and why. I’m reevaluating some of them, but the process is proving an enjoyable and illuminating one that will span a day or two of pleasant and leisurely foraging rather than weeks of emotionally exhausting excavation.

Sifting through remnants of past creative endeavors, journals, books, art supplies, astrological readings, notes from friends, and photographs, my mind detours to past moments that take on new meaning with the understandings that temporal distance between them an d now imparts.

I found an angry expunging letter I wrote seven years ago to my ex-husband who I’d divorced nine years prior to that. As I reread it, I realized I have not a trace of anger or animosity left toward him.

 I found a Quotable Magnet I bought with my father in mind that says, “Don’t let yesterday use up too much of today.  –Chinese Proverb” It’s on top of the pile of things going into the trailer.

I uncovered a little watercolor painting one of my renters left me as a gift with a quote that says, “To awaken  quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.  –Freya Stark”

I came across a journal entry written during the week more than two years ago after I’d moved out of my home in which I wrote:

“I just have to keep reminding myself of these beautiful words: 

‘Do not let your spark go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won. It exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours.’  –Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

‘I travel light; as light, that is, as a man can travel who will still carry his body around because of its sentimental value.’  –Thomas Mendip as the Vagabond Soldier in Christopher Fry’s play The Lady’s Not For Burning  

“The more I know and experience, the more I realize I don’t know. I sense a vastness and connectedness beyond my comprehension. The notion of staying in one place, in the same way of thinking and being seems an impossible choice and an abomination. I must go further, to take the next step despite being unable to see where it leads. I cannot possibly allow myself to sit, stagnant and unmoving. I quit. I refuse to accept complacency and mediocrity. I will not trade my life for a credit score or false security. I refuse to trade this raging passion and energy  within me for comfort, mine and others’. Death can come at anytime, and I will not meet it idly, in the ‘hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all.’ I will live my life as a burning spark.”

 My sentiment in this regard has changed little since then. I have fanned that flame, and more vigorously so in the wake of my brother’s premature passing. I did, however, sit idle according to the world’s idea of it. I took a year or more to move less often outside myself and to move inside, deeper and deeper, until I came to a wall that was built leagues beneath my worldly surface and constructed of fear, pain, anger, resentment, past ugliness, all the ways I had hardened to protect what is rightfully mine: my soft, giv ing, light-filled self. I destroyed that wall, and I’m laughing and creating and giving a lot more now. What the world calls “doing nothing” and chides us for, is unquestiona bly the most important thing we can do when our beings demand it.

In my boundless desire to rediscover the meaning of my life, I turned for a period to Vedic Astrology among other things. My astrologer, Alexander Tolken, believes strongly in the work of Joseph Campbell and overlays Campbell’s stages of the Hero’s Journey onto his clients’ astrological charts. I came across one of these, and on approximately November 2 of this year, I will apparently enter into what Campbell calls “The Treasure,” which is described like this:

“Finally you take  responsibility for yourself as a creative person! Whatever you found or reclaimed previously must now be guarded and developed or it will get buried again. You need discipline to craft your inspiration into a recognizable and substantial form. It is a risk. But if what you’ve found is not nourished it will remain forever unconscious—resulting in a dull feeling of incompleteness. This is about the heart and its metaphors—love, investing feelings, creativity, children—and all the risks that go with it.”  

 So, it seems, I’m going on a treasure hunt in my Shasta trailer! The “things” I often considered to be treasure in my life, these various items I’ve accumulated and spend today sifting through, are merely part of the map leading me to the real treasure. I mean, as kids who didn’t love to play pirate, or conquesting knight, or world explorer, creating maps and clues and ships and obstacle courses and dragons from imagination, sticks, dirt and treehouses? Why do we feel compelled to grow up and out of these treasure hunts? Doing so makes life so dull and hardly worth living! Perhaps I need a pirate hat, and maybe I’ll fashion a plank for the Shasta and make anyone walk it who dashes hopes and dreams and push them off into a vat of chocolate pudding where they must remain until they remember how to laugh and imagine their way out of their predicament.

One thing at a time. I have more sifting. But I do rather like the plank idea.

View more photos in the Treasure Hunting gallery



"Crosswalk", image by Carl FuermannThe distance to ‘someday’ is infinite. Elusive. The word itself seems benign. This is our great fallacy. In our shallow minds ‘someday’ is a fixed destination ‘around the corner’—just a bigger paycheck or 10lbs lost or a prettier girl away. It embodies our attachments, our fears, our shadow selves, our successes. We cast them off with our accountability, across the ever-widening chasm between them and now. And we do this because they exist in the unknown, where each step is taken blindly, with little if any information about the lurking things beyond. And beyond is where we meet ourselves. 

We cast them off to ‘someday’ land, the destination we never reach because it doesn't exist, and we rarely move in the direction of it anyway. ‘Someday’ is a future phantom we cannot access ‘Now’, because the future cannot exist in the present moment. We cast them off, as voyeurs of life afraid to walk through the image projected on the screen in front of us, content to sit and watch and criticize and languish unfulfilled. We cast them off to ‘someday’…until we reach the edge of that chasm, no way to turn back without dying in our skin. At that edge, we’re met with the truth, unable  this time to close our eyes to it, our present moment truth, our mortality, our nature as ephemeral phenomena. We let go of the notion of ‘someday’, realizing ‘someday’ never existed. In other words, life is short. Live it…’Now’.

Well?! What are we waiting for?! Ah, yes. We're waiting to get to 'someday'.

There is nothing like a good jerking of the existential rug from beneath a person to make them realize ‘someday’ is too risky to bet on. That’s when ‘Now’ becomes the only place and time. Mostly. I mean, we are human after all. Fallable. Delusional. Perfect in our limitations.


Posing with Mark, previous owner of the Shasta. His wife Tracey is not pictured. Stellar people.This is a fairly grandiose way for me to introduce a 1966 Shasta travel trailer. It seems like such a little thing, and rough around the edges at that. But this little box on wheels embodies for me much of what I’ve just written. It does not exist in ‘someday’ land. It’s ‘Now’. You see—and I understand if there are those who think I harp on this too much, but I do not apologize for it—when I was faced with the death of my brother a year ago, I faced my own. I always said most of the crying done at funerals had more to do with people’s sorrow for their own fleeting and seemingly futile existence. I think I was right. We’re crying for the loss of that person, indeed, but also for the reminder of our unknowable impending death. We cry for the loss of qualities that person reflected back to us that we think are gone forever into eternity with them. But, if we’re paying attention, we own those qualities in ourselves for the short time we have here, and we’re left with nothing but rejoicing, gratitude, and more life than we had before. And we live in ‘Now’ more often. This is hard to do, but essential if we are to thrive in the midst of unimaginable grief and human suffering.

So, the Shasta. She ain’t much, but she’s my new home. For the past 2 or 3 years ‘my Airstream’, my life filled with written and spoken words and art and earth and nature and the people who commune and create with them, my happiness, existed in ‘someday’. The Airstream is now a Shasta, my life in ‘Now’ is filled with written and spoken words and art and earth and nature and the people who commune and create with them, and despite or because of my unimaginable grief, I am happy as a daisy after a July thundershower.

Speaking of daisies, the Shasta daisy is just one kind. They’ve been known in various cultures to symbolize simplicity, innocence of youth, purity, loyal love, hope, patience, beauty, and sacred secrecy between two people. Some believe it prevents lightning. Mount Shasta in Northern California means “White Mountain”. Poet Joaquin Miller said of it, “Lonely as God, and white as a winter moon, Mount Shasta starts up sudden and solitary from the heart of the great black forests.” Believers in the spiritual significance of the Harmonic Convergence describe Mount Shasta as one of the global ‘power centers’. In Sanskrit, Shasta is a generic term for a teacher.

I like words and their meanings. They are my playthings. Shasta is the vessel I’m journeying with my innumerable playthings out of ‘someday’ and into ‘Now’. I can scarcely tell you what day it is half the time. Heck, last week it took me a full minute or more to remember the month! I’m more at home in ‘Now’ than I recall since before kindergarten began imposing mechanically divided units of time and robotic functions. In ‘Now’ I never want for anything, and everything is exactly as it is. The Shasta is a symbol of this simplicity, return to innocence, patience, beauty, hope, loyal love, and sacred secrecy between The All and me. A teacher and power center? Perhaps. My humble home? For ‘Now’. 

P.S. I got a traaailer!! I got a traailer!! Doo-do-doo-doo-do…! And it’s a Shaaasta!!!   [booty-shakin’, 2” hitch ball-spikin’ touchdown dance here, with vigor]

View more photos in the Ruminations on 'Now' and Shastaji gallery


One of the most difficult things about my brother's physical death has been watching the pain of loss manifest in my parents. It's excruciating to think of Olivia growing up without her daddy to hold her hand, pick her up, give her advice, teach her and have lots of fun with. However, seeing the pain of losing their son in my parents' faces is worse. Olivia isn't aware yet of the loss she's suffered. For Frank and Laura Lee, it's all too real and palpable.

I recently watched "Ram Dass: Fierce Grace", a documentary about one man who committed his life to God; suffered a stroke, or "was stroked" as he calls it; and learns for the first time to truly be in the present moment and walk the razor's edge between this world bound by polarities, time, and space--and the infinite grace beyond which most of us can comprehend. 

In the movie, there is a scene with a couple, Steve and Anita, whose young daughter Rachel was murdered. With two other younger children left to raise and full lives left to live, they said they couldn't see a future. The pain they felt after losing their beloved firstborn was almost unbearable. But then they received a letter from Ram Dass, and what he said in it offered an insight into an expanded view of what physical human death can mean for those of us left behind.

I did an online search for the letter, and I found it on www.KotaPress.com, an "organization that provides grief support to bereaved parents and those who care for them after the death of a child." I thought I would share it here for everyone who has lost someone dear to them, and I dedicate it to my parents in the hope that it offers even a tiny spark that gives way to a brilliant light as radiant and life-giving as our Sun...and their son.

Dear Steve and Anita,

Rachel finished her work on earth, and left the stage in a manner that leaves those of us left behind with a cry of agony in our hearts, as the fragile thread of our faith is dealt with so violently. Is anyone strong enough to stay conscious through such teaching as you are receiving? Probably very few. And even they would only have a whisper of equanimity and peace amidst the screaming trumpets of their rage, grief, horror and desolation.

I can't assuage your pain with any words, nor should I. For your pain is Rachel's legacy to you. Not that she or I would inflict such pain by choice, but there it is. And it must burn its purifying way to completion. For something in you dies when you bear the unbearable, and it is only in that dark night of the soul that you are prepared to see as God sees, and to love as God loves.

w is the time to let your grief find expression. No false strength. Now is the time to sit quietly and speak to Rachel, and thank her for being with you these few years, and encourage her to go on with whatever her work is, knowing that you will grow in compassion and wisdom from this experience.

In my heart, I know that you and she will meet again and again, and recognize the many ways in which you have known each other. And when you meet you will know, in a flash, what now it is not given to you to know: Why this had to be the way it was.

Our rational minds can never understand what has happened, but our hearts – if we can keep them open to God – will find their own intuitive way. Rachel came through you to do her work on earth, which includes her manner of death. Now her soul is free, and the love that you can share with her is invulnerable to the winds of changing time and space. In that deep love, include me.

In love,
Ram Dass

Our childhood home on the farmIn the words of a kind stranger, "Your brother did what he came to do, and people noticed." And with John in mind, with what he came here to do and most certainly accomplished with such zeal and authenticity, now is our time to let our grief find expression. Now is our time to speak to him and thank him for being with us these 33 years, and encourage him to go on with whatever his work is, integrating what he imparted into our lives, and knowing that we will grow in compassion and wisdom from this experience. His body may not be here with us, but the love and respect we have for each other will never perish.

Mama and Daddy, I love you and I hope your grief can find its tranformation into love and a future filled with all your greatest blessings, including your son in his new and infinite form. And to all the rest of us, friends and family alike who miss Johnny like crazy, I hope the same for us.


During our week in Seattle in 1997, John and I enjoyed some perfectly simple days. We talked and stared for hours at the view across Lake Washington out our windows at Liz's Mount Baker home. My friend Patrick hosted us for dinner on the waterfront deck at Palisade Restaurant. We rode the elevator to the observation deck of the Space Needle on a clear evening for sunset views in all directions. We stopped under the Aurora Bridge to climb on the Fremont Troll and pick his nose. We visited Gas Works Parka public park created from land and structures of a former coal gasification plantwhere John showed his usual fearlessness, climbing to heights I was then terrified of. Lizzy took us to Pike Place Market to watch the famed fish-throwers and witness some of the most creative street performers in existence. We visited Waterfront Park, Pioneer Square, Green Lake Park, Capitol Hill, and floors 23 through 26 of the US Bank Centre building downtown that are to this day Callison Architecture where I interned. In Fremont we wiled away an afternoon together, scoured funky old thrift stores, and at the Fremont Hemp Company (which no longer exists) John bought a cap made of hemp that I still have. And as I wrote in my previous journal entry, we took the ferry across Puget Sound and spent an unforgettable day on Bainbridge Island. These are just the things I remember. I know there were more.

In the course of my days in Seattle 2011, I returned to most of those places. I stopped to look around and took time recalling all I could about what it was like exploring the world with my brother John. I revisited with the same spirit as if he were there with me in person. I recreated photos we took. I do know there’s no going back—not really. There’s no way to recreate what’s done or to relive the past. And why would I want to? These places are just places. There are new experiences to be had there and everywhere, in every moment. I’m a different person visiting places that are different than when my brother and I were there, and he’s in a different form. But this “ritual of return” was important for me. As the great Ferris Bueller said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” It was a way of stopping to look around at my brother’s life, at my life, and at whatever was happening wherever I was at the moment. It was a way of taking time to purposefully contemplate, honor, and integrate all the qualities of my brother; the qualities of our story together; the qualities we grew into as we explored and learned about the world together in our different ways; and the ways we sent ourselves rippling back out into the lives and the world around us.

The moment I decided I would return to Seattle for my own private ceremony with a handful of John’s ashes came on an October afternoon in a Brighton, Colorado funeral home as my family and I, grief-stricken, discussed how to handle his remains. In the midst of that horrendous experience, John whispered in my ear, “Golden Gardens Park”. It took me by surprise because we’d spent only a couple of hours of our lives there. It was so simple…and so perfect. I didn’t know when it would happen, but in that instant I knew the place where I’d honor the story that was ours and ours alone.

Golden Gardens Park is somewhat secluded, situated on Puget Sound at the north end of Seaview Avenue, on the edge of the Ballard and Crown Hill neighborhoods. It looks west and north across the Sound. It’s where, on our last night in Seattle—one of those rare and magical Pacific Northwest evenings when it’s clear and warm—John and I watched the sun set over Puget Sound, drank beer, and talked. I vividly remember lounging on the beach pondering life, what we’d seen that week, not knowing what’s next and how that’s the best part about it. I remember him saying something like, “If this one city has all these things we’ve never seen before, think how much there is in the rest of the world we may never know. But how cool is it to know that? To know that no matter where we go there’s something to discover.” We watched the sailboats glide along without a sound and talked about how awesome it would be to go sailing. I might have been the design intern that summer, but he was the one who pointed out the way iridescent light reflected off the sand as the water receded, and how the oranges and pinks showed up in the edges of the waves as they rolled back in. He tried capturing it but wasn’t successful with that cheap old film camera we had. Nevermind. The image of those dancing colored lights made of atmosphere, sun, water, sand and the observations of my brother is burned in my mind forever. It’s a memory I’ve recalled hundreds of times in the years since, and it’s a moment that represents the best parts of my personal story of John.

I didn’t have deep-rooted expectations of what I’d experience when I returned to Golden Gardens Park. I had planned a somewhat elaborate ceremony, but the closer I got the less necessary that felt. When I arrived, it was as I had remembered it…but different. We’d been there close to high tide just before the sky exploded with color. This time there would be no chance of a colorful sunset not to mention that time of evening in April would be too cold and windy. I arrived in the afternoon just after low tide. The wind died down and sun came out as I walked along the beach. I watched a sailboat glide along without a sound and thought back to how awesome it was to sail San Francisco Bay just a few weeks prior as John looked on. I searched the sand as the water receded, but there was no iridescence, and no oranges or pinks warmed the edges of the waves. I didn’t bring beer. I had John’s ashes, a handmade card, a few artifacts I’d collected, and I planted myself near where John and I had been. I created a little altar from a piece of driftwood I’d found on the beach, and with my note to John and a few of his ashes I held my ceremony. I shed tears for the closing of a long and wonderful chapter. I let fall some of the ashes from my hand into the water with a barely audible “plink-plink” sound. It was simple and quiet. What had once seemed as though it would be the momentous culmination of a long journey, proved to be perfectly, beautifully anticlimactic. A woman with her two children and a gleeful black lab played nearby. The dog ran out of the water and chose a spot next to me to shake off. Ducks bobbled atop the waves at the edge of the water searching for food just as I had searched for pink and orange. Sailboats glided. Life carried on all around me. So shall I.

About the time I felt the urge to move on, I noticed the horizon growing darker…the wind picked up…light rain began to fall. I backed slowly up the beach, absorbing that wondrous place with the altar in its midst, until finally reaching the path I turned to leave it behind. I made my way to my car…past ducks, seagulls, flowering trees, and benches with memorial plaques. And just as I was safely inside, the skies unleashed with booming thunder and torrential frozen rain, covering every surface with an inch or more of the white stuff—somewhat atypical of Seattle as I understand it. I laughed through tears as I pictured John revving his pipes on that eternal open road as if to say, “Give ‘em hell, leetle seester. No matter where we go there’s something to discover…and I’m still at it.”

Over the last couple of months I snaked along one of the most beautiful coasts in the world. I drove and hiked through redwood forests with trees older than countries and bigger than your imagination can grow. I played with gooseneck barnacles. I went sailing. I met amazing people; everyday, ordinary people, each with a unique story made up of their histories, fears, dreams, losses, successes, lessons learned and lessons taught. I came on a journey to heal and let go of my brother as I’d known him, and I began discovering life with him in his new form. John had a passion for life. He lived his personal story with more integrity and less fear than the majority of people I’ve known. He stopped to look around. He knew when I needed help even if I didn’t, and he knew how to give it. He called me out when I was floundering and he was concerned. He took care of business and had fun at the same time. These are just some of the qualities John exuded. He imparted them to each of us in different ways, and I’m not sure if all of us realized it as it was happening. We each have a different version of John, and we can each take the qualities we saw in him and send them rippling back out into the lives and the world around us.

Like ol’ Nick at the Drift Inn in Yachats, Oregon, said, “He did what he came to do, and people noticed.” Indeed.

View more photos in the Roadtrip: Return to Seattle gallery


Though bittersweet, the day finally arrived for me to leave Linda, Greg, and Pebble Beach Place. To get from there to Seattle I needed to take Hwy 106 east, which follows the south shore of Hood Canal to its termination; then north through Bremerton to Poulsbo; snake around to head southeast across a bridge over Port Orchard Bay to the north side of Bainbridge Island; drive three quarters of the length of the island to the ferry terminal; drive my car onto the ferry and enjoy a 35 minute ride across Puget Sound to downtown Seattle. All said it’s 2 to 2-1/2 hours to travel roughly 45 miles as the crow flies. Daunting, I suppose, if you’re the sort who’s in a hurry. But I wasn’t. I would take my time. I had stops to make. The day John and I visited Bainbridge Island in August of 1997 was one of our favorite days during one of our favorite weeks spent together in our lives. I intended to linger and savor the memory of it.

People have asked me what my inspiration was for a road trip and for this particular route. Several things were, but the primary ones are what I’ll focus on in this entry. In the summer of 1997, I spent two months as an intern at a large Seattle architecture firm called Callison. I was 23, and until the previous summer when I roamed about Europe under the guise (tongue-in-cheek, mom and dad!) of studying architecture, I’d not been beyond a small world consisting of portions of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Colorado. Living in a city and surrounded by large bodies of water were alien to me—both were things that came with life in Seattle. My new Seattle friends were mostly single professionals in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s who enjoyed cycling, sailing, world travel, outdoor sports, art, architecture, independent films, hobbies and passions, and I was often shocked to discover they were five, ten, even fifteen years older than they looked. They were young at heart and full of life! Where I came from, people in that age bracket were waist deep in mostly torpid jobs, marriages, divorces, and seemingly predictable lives with kids and even grandkids. Some were perfectly happy with their bucolic lives. Many were not and most of those didn’t realize they had a choice. That’s where I thought life was leading me, and to be honest, I’d never given it much thought otherwise. This new world opened my eyes to more of the options life has to offer.

John was 20 and had seen less than I. Until I left for the summer, we’d been living together in Lubbock, Texas. During my time away we spoke often. In those phone conversations, I shared with him the amazing places and people I was experiencing; that I wished he could fly up to spend a few days with me in Seattle and drive back to Texas together. So…he did. It was our first trip together as adults, without family, exploring a new place, discovering we could do it and that we loved it.

I remember the drive from Sea-Tac Airport after picking John up and my excitement to have him there. We would explore Seattle for a week together before our drive home. For that drive our original intention had been to follow the coast down into southern Oregon or Northern California before turning east. But the beginning of Fall semester came faster than we anticipated, and we ended up driving a more direct interior route. In the years since then, we often talked of wanting to go back and make that coastal drive someday. In the days after John’s death as I asked myself what would be the best way for me to celebrate the relationship that was Cara and John, the answer came quickly and clearly: RETURN TO SEATTLE. So…I did. And rather than fly, I drove that route we never drove but wanted to; to a destination we explored together; both of which opened our eyes and made our worlds bigger.

I lived part of that summer with Liz Follis, a fellow intern at Callison who quickly became a dear friend and soul sister. She also met John the week he stayed with me at her family’s home in the Mount Baker neighborhood overlooking Lake Washington. Boy and wow!...we awoke each morning to the most amazing view out our east facing windows; a view we shared fondly as one of our most memorable. For my return trip, Liz and her mother, Lorna, were generous hosts once again and invited me to stay with them in their new condo. That was my destination this evening after wending my way across canals and sounds and islands and bridges and ferries and downtown Seattle—to reconnect with Lizzy.

Crossing Port Orchard Bay to Bainbridge Island came with a flood of emotion. It was the first place to which I’d return where John and I shared one of our favorite days together. I drove along Hwy 305 that’s carved into dense forest and bifurcates the upper part of the island diagonally north to south. I saw the “Welcome to Bainbridge Island” sign through tears. I made my way to the ferry terminal that was our original port of entry and retraced our steps along the boardwalk. I drove our route back up the east side of the island to Fay Bainbridge State Park. I parked in the lot where John and I parked and scampered over a minefield of logs to the same beach we explored. I watched sailboats bobble in Puget Sound just as we had 14 years prior. I noted what felt familiar and what of my memories time had had its way with. I cried. I smiled. I felt John and his playful amusement…loving every moment of being back in this spot where, if I remember correctly, was the first place he ever set foot in ocean salt water. I simply remembered and was steeped in gratitude for those moments we had together.

Afterward, I went to the home of Ann and Dave who I’d met in Union, and joined their small band of neighbors and family for dinner. Dave was the environmental attorney who’d successfully represented the citizens of Mason County in their battle against the industrial incinerator threatening their community. They live in a beautiful home on the west shore of the island, and when they heard I’d be on Bainbridge, they extended an invitation. When you’re an inspired vagabond and make yourself available, good company and generosity are never far away. By the time I boarded the ferry to Seattle, it was too dark and cold to enjoy the full views from the deck or take proper pictures. Instead, I sat inside next to a spontaneous string quartet for the duration of the 35-minute ride. John approved.

I drove from the ferry straight to Liz’s house. I could hardly contain my excitement for seeing her again. We talked for hours. We had only stayed in sporadic contact since 1997, so there were years to catch up on. Conversations reconfirmed that even with the distance of time and miles we are indeed kindred spirits. The next day I joined her family’s Easter egg decorating ritual and felt as comfortable as a long lost cousin reunited. During the rest of my stay, Liz and Lorna gave me the gift of a quiet nest to return to after days of revisiting fond memories of my brother. In the years since our initial visit, anytime John and I would reminisce about Seattle, he always asked if I knew how Lizzy was doing. He totally dug her. It was great to be back.

WATCH THE VIDEO tribute of my day returning to Seattle via Bainbridge Island.

View more photos in the Roadtrip: Union to Seattle gallery


After leaving Giles and Zeiss behind, I paid a quick visit to downtown and knocked back my last Oregon latte at Astoria Coffeehouse and Bisto. People in the upper left corner just seem to inherently understand that a proper coffee shop needs cracks and crevices, old plaster walls, decaying tile or concrete floors, some old soft seating with a personality of its own, and appropriately faded paint. Most of the ones I’ve visited contain more character in their front doors than the majority of coffee shops have throughout. And after my espresso fix in this more than proper coffee shop, I was on my way. 

To leave Astoria and head into Washington, I crossed the mouth of the Columbia River on the Astoria-Megler Bridge, which at just over 4 miles long is the longest truss bridge in North America. It was the heaviest rain and fog of my entire trip, so sightseeing was out of the question. I went directly to my next couchsurfing hosts in Raymond—Chuck, Chanda, and their 13-year-old son Elijah. When I walked across the hardwood floors of their old home; passed Eero Saarinen chairs, a Lucite table, an extensive library of books on spirituality and travel, and Oriental artifacts from their world explorations, I knew they would have a hard time getting rid of me. When they started talking about selling everything to go on the road in an RV, I was ready to help them price things and go with them. Chuck made a wonderful dinner, and along with their friend Molly, we talked…and talked.

As they told me of their plans to embark on an RV life, I told them about the friends I'd reconnected with via Facebook just the day before who are doing exactly that. Lisa, Mat, and their toddler Simon are living one of my dreams: traveling, living, working and playing full-time in their Airstream. They take good pictures, write good stories, and are livin’ a good life. Read about them on their website shinycamper.com, and prepare to be jealous.

Chuck and Chanda regaled me with stories of their family of three’s recent seven-month journey through Asia, Europe, and Northern Africa. Their primary impetus was a desire to give Elijah an education out in the world. They wanted him to experience it for himself rather than only in books and classrooms, to see how other people and cultures really are, to taste local foods and understand firsthand both the surface differences and common humanity that are inherent across all continents. I asked Elijah how he liked the experience. He got a lot out of it he said, but much of what he learned didn’t make itself apparent until he returned to “normal life” back in Raymond. His favorite place was Cambodia, where they lived with a family and were able to get a sense of daily life there. One of the tools they used to make their trip more affordable was www.couchsurfing.org, which is how I came to stay with them. Another site they introduced me to was www.helpx.net, a “worldwide online listing of host organic farms, non-organic farms, farmstays, homestays, ranches, lodges, B&Bs, backpackers hostels and even sailing boats who invite volunteer helpers to stay with them short-term in exchange for food and accommodation.” It’s similar to “wwooffing” on www.wwooff.org, which is a listing of workstays only on organic farms. In today’s world with resources like these, there are fewer barriers than ever to experiencing the world safely and like a local. I could write an entire article about this alone, if not a book!

The cliff’s notes of other interesting things about my new friends: Chuck works as a wild-land firefighter, plays guitar, remodeled their home, enjoys video editing, and loves working with kids. He has taught guitar lessons and video editing/storytelling to kids in their town and once applied for a grant to create a community program to continue doing so. But apparently a new popcorn machine at the local theater was more important to the grant apportioning committee. I look forward to hearing he’s found a benefactor who wants to support his traveling guitar/video/storytelling RV school. Chanda works as a realtor and teaches yoga. She has an eBay business, knows good stuff when she sees it, and it shows. But most interesting to me is their philosophy. Rather than fighting paradigms they don’t align with, they graciously bow out of them and live their own. Their personal brand of activism is “Live the life you want to have rather than fight against the one you don’t.” It kind of reminds me of that quote by Ghandi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” A simple “Just do it” works, too. Like me, they’ve experienced enough of the world to know that staying lifelessly plugged into the matrix that is rapidly imploding on itself is not possible for them. Our systems are failing. Our governments are failing. Our illusions of security are failing. Our human perception that “all I can see/hear/taste/smell/touch is all there is” is proving to be false.

There is a Hopi elder by the name of Chief Dan Evehema who ten years ago said this, “Be good to each other, and do not look outside yourself for the leader. This could be a good time! There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water. And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate! At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves. For the moment we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt. Gather yourselves! Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

As I was leaving the next morning, Chuck and Chanda were beginning the tedious and emotional task of going through their belongings, deciding what to sell and for how much. They’re going to sell their things again to set out into the world, to let go of the shore and push off into the middle of the river, or road as the case may be. They do not pretend to have any answers. They aren’t sure of what they’re doing, but they feel the current tugging at them and something tells them to go with it. I applaud them. They’re doing what thousands are feeling the call to do, but are holding too tightly to the shore that will eventually rip them apart. That grasping is fear. And it’s not real. Neither is the shore.

Chuck, Chanda and Elijah did finally get rid of me. I continued in the direction of Union located on the south bend of Hood Canal, where Linda and Greg live. They’re friends of my friend Bob. And what about Bob? Bob is a special person, a breed unto himself. He was one of the people who inspired me to start letting go of my own eroding shore and go with the current. He lives in Seattle…sort of. That’s his home base, and he’s a modern day vagabond who is much more advanced than I in the lifestyle. The irony is that he had a trip planned back to the East Coast where he’s originally from during the time I plan to be in Seattle. But he did not leave without making sure I would have plenty of exceptional company and information for my stay in and around the Emerald City. We vagabonds have to look out for one another.

Greg works weeks, six hours away in Pullman, WA where he is director of the Center for NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) Spectroscopy in the Department of Chemistry at Washington State University. “What, pray tell, is NMR Spectroscopy?” you ask. Basically, it’s a research technique employing large machines that determine detailed information about physical and chemical properties of whatever is being analyzed. I’d love to tell you more about what he does since it’s fascinating to hear him speak about it, but I’m afraid I’d sound as ignorant as I am! In any case, this meant Linda was solo in Union and welcomed my company. Bob had told me we could be sisters, but it wasn’t until I met her that I believed him. In her presence I felt I’d been a part of her home and family for years. As they affectionately refer to it, Pebble Beach Place is their beautiful two-story home and guesthouse nestled into a hill covered in one of the only swaths of mature pine forest left in the area. Views are to the north shore of Hood Canal, which you, too, can enjoy if you’d like to stay in their guesthouse. I walked down to their shared dock across the road where they harvest muscles, clams and oysters. I went for a run on Hwy 106 that hugs the canal. I enjoyed the upper Zen garden that Bob built for them. Linda and I talked for hours about life, death, losing what we thought mattered most, meditation, expanding consciousness, shifting perceptions of reality, self-empowered health and healing, and we discovered we share the common outlook that everything in life, no matter how challenging, is an opportunity for direct expanded understanding of universal truth. I was in heaven.

I’d planned to stay only one night and move on, but with Linda’s urging (it didn’t take much), one night stretched into three. This meant I joined her in hosting her friend Dana for dinner, I was able to meet Greg, and I joined them in celebrations held in town and at their home for the victory that citizens of Mason County won against an incinerator slated for construction in their community. More opportunities…to make new friends, to be inspired, to learn something about myself, about the world I live in, about life. There are no accidents. Everything is perfect. Meeting Linda felt like a divine gift, an omen on my journey to let me know I’m still heading in the right direction and to give me nourishment to keep going. Priceless.

View more photos in the Roadtrip: Astoria to Union gallery


When the romance of waking up to my overnight beachfront property wore off, I realized how tired and hungry I was. Torrential sheets of rain and strong winds taunted my car most of the night, and I must have awakened a dozen or more times from the howling and rocking they caused. I stopped at the Drift Inn in Yachats for some breakfast and sat next to a frail older man at the counter. Nick told me he’s a retired mail carrier who has diabetes and suffers from depression. He used to be an avid skier and outdoorsman, but his failing health has rendered him unable to enjoy the activities he once did and wondering what he’ll fill the rest of his days doing. He said he’s asking again, even this late in life, what he’s going to be when he grows up. And I’m beginning to wonder if that question ever really leaves any of us. Nick appeared to be a kind, quiet, observant man, and showed deep interest in my journey in memory of my brother. He oozed with compassion for my loss of John, and understood the significance of celebrating him with my roadtrip. He beamed when I shared stories of John and his effect on people who benefited from the way he did ordinary things in extraordinary ways. At one point in the conversation, there was a dramatic pause as he looked squarely at me with great resolve and said, “There are many people whose lives are better because of him. He did what he came to do. And people noticed.” It was as if he were giving me a message directly from some unseen source. I smiled. “Thank you,” was the only response I felt was called for.

Just after crossing the Yaquina Bay Bridge, one of the many beautiful bridges along Oregon’s coast (learn more about these amazing structures), I pulled over at Yaquina Bay Lighthouse park on the south end of the town of Newport. I parked in front of a small open-air chapel that, upon exploration, I discovered was dedicated to the memory of local fishermen lost at sea since 1900. It was a touching find, and I spent time studying the living, evolving shrine inside the chapel (WATCH VIDEO). Men. All of them men. Each one once a father, brother, husband, lover, son, friend now represented by pieces of paper, images, letters, poems and keepsakes from loved ones. Do men live life more fully alive, with less fear while they’re here among us? Do they take bigger risks? Are they more willing to take on life at all costs, at the greatest cost? Are they more alive because of it? I wondered.

There were two guys roughly my age there in the chapel who are fishermen. They had worked with just about every one of the men whose pictures adorned the altar. When they asked if I was there for one of them, I told them about my brother. I answered that he’d not been a fisherman but was a biker with a similar adventurous spirit who died doing something he loved. One of them introduced himself as Jared, and he and I ended up talking for a while. He said he doesn’t love fishing, but he loves having done it. “It’s usually bitter cold and you’re stuck out on a boat with grubby men who often aren’t kind and an ocean that never is.” He referred to it as “an impersonal existence”. He said when you do that sort of work, you realize how fleeting and easily exterminable a human life is, including your own, and you can become humbled to the point of seeing no purpose to the whole thing. The ocean is a great equalizer, a churning and howling spiritual teacher. No one is special. No one is immortal. He seemed to have such a direct understanding of the universal law of impermanence I could not possibly doubt what he said. But he also had a twinkle in his blue eyes that told me he has moved through the eddy of meaninglessness. He confirmed my suspicion when he began talking about music. He loves music; listening to it, of course, but especially playing it. He plays the guitar, trumpet, and other instruments I don’t recall. He loves jazz and lit up when I told him my favorite album is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Music is his passion. It’s the story he wants to live and share. The fishing is just something he does to make money, and it’s taught him some things about the true nature of life. But the music makes him come alive. If I hadn’t been so tired and a little sad this day, I would have stuck around to hear him when he went to play with friends in a local café that evening. Unfortunately, I was spent. I finished paying my respects and said farewell.

I took enough time to go through the old lighthouse and then checked out the Nye Beach neighborhood of Newport. There were several blocks of funky, brightly painted cafes, restaurants and shops. I spent a few minutes in Café Mondo to organize photos and post to my blog while it rained sheets outside. Once the weather broke, I continued on my way. Newport is a town I could definitely have hung out in longer. And I still wonder about Jared. He had plenty more stories to share. Something tells me I’ll run in to him again someday, though. Hopefully that time I’ll be ready to hear some music and listen to a little more seafaring wisdom.

Sadness and hints of despair were creeping in, and I was tired. I hadn’t slept well in my car (hello, McFly!) despite having thoroughly enjoyed awakening to the ocean outside my window. I knew I needed a good night of sleep—and a comfortable, private place to cry a few tears for missing John’s physical presence. I’ve done a lot of smiling and laughing on this trip with funny messages and happenstances making it apparent John is never far away, but certainly tears come now and then…some of them mixed with the laughter and gratitude of many fond memories…some of them pierced with the slowly diminishing anger at the sick joke life seems to be playing on all of us who knew and loved him. The tears this day were of the second sort. Jared’s message of universal and indiscriminate temporality wasn’t putting me at ease.

I stopped in Lincoln City at the Ester Lee Motel for a cheap room with a killer view that rendered their 1980’s décor absolutely inconsequential. Their tagline, "AHH... What you can see from the Ester Lee!!!" ain’t kiddin’. I relaxed by the little gas fireplace with the meal I cooked, listening to the wind and waves coalescing on the beach below my window. I meditated. I cried. I let the reality of “life as it is” sink in a little deeper. And finally, I slept.

The next morning I awoke rested and refreshed. I got on the road. I drove. I stopped. I walked around. I took in the scenery and the salt air. I marveled. I drove some more. I listened to John’s music playlist. I head-banged, and I laughed at myself. I looked forward to revisiting the tiny village of Netarts, in the middle of which is a veritable diamond in the rough. The little shop, Lex’s Cool Stuff, is a small shack bursting with treasures, the most valuable and inimitable of which is Lex herself. I’d been there before, more than two years ago when I visited Portland and made a quick dash out to see my first short stretch of the Oregon coast before I headed back to Colorado. Lex struck me then with her charm, depth, wisdom, uncommon zest for life, and unforgettable smile. Oh, and her amazing homemade brownies! In this small town, she has manifested a burgeoning business, taking people’s discarded whatnots and converting them to treasure for others of us. In the process, she shares her beautiful energy. I dare you to leave there without a bigger smile than you went in with! She’s the epitome of doing common things in uncommon ways and spreading big waves of positivity as she does them. Her “cool stuff” is a great reason to stop by, but she’s the reason I returned for a second visit. We had a penetrating conversation on the meaning and relevance of life and death. I came away with a repurposed necklace, a couple of brownies for the road, and an ample helping of happy juju. Besides, I knew she and John would hit if off in a big way. And I think they did.

After a couple more stops in such tourist towns as Cannon Beach (tucked in, quaint and inviting) and Seaside (think discount family-style buffets and large hotel chains), I arrived in Astoria.  Astoria sits on the south side of the mouth of the Columbia River as it meets the Pacific Ocean and Youngs Bay. This is a town I’d heard described by various people as enchanting, bohemian, and the latest up-and-coming place to move. However, when I arrived I was met with a slight sense of gloom and foreboding. It could simply have been the especially dreary weather, or perhaps the vacant buildings and empty storefronts downtown had something to do with it. Still, I did find it to be somewhat mysterious with great coffee shops, an impressive art gallery, and I wouldn’t turn down a chance to explore it further someday.

I was set to stay with my couchsurfing host Giles and his adorable Irish Terrier puppy, Zeiss, in the guest room of their huge old home. Soon after I arrived, Giles and I went to the Fort George Brewery and Public House for a bite to eat, beer, and conversation. I immediately found him to be a kind and intelligent person. He told me he recently transplanted from Ohio and has an online camera business (www.illumiquestcamera.com) that allows him to work from anywhere. He’s feeling things out in Astoria, but like me and others I’ve met on this trip, he’s not really sure where he wants to settle down or even exactly what he wants to do “when he grows up”. He loves the freedom and the travel to new places his business affords him, but he’s hoping to find a way not to be tied to the phone and Internet quite so much.

Giles’ background is fascinating. He grew up in a large family and a religious commune, a Christian cult, which he left when he was a teenager. I was enthralled! He described the structured, sheltered life he experienced there and said it was a great place to be a kid. However, as he evolved into his teenage years (and we all know what comes with that), it became very difficult, and he was compelled to leave his family and the only life he’d known behind. I’m inspired by his bravery and self-reliance. He seems to have made the transition nicely, though he described a learning curve that’s perhaps steeper than some. He’s highly intelligent and great to talk to. I enjoy conversation with people who ask as many questions as they do offer information, and he asked great questions. He’s driven, seems hard working but balanced with a good sense of adventure and inquiry. I found him to be a generous host and someone I’d like to keep as a friend to cross paths with someday. As for Zeiss, he almost fit into my duffle bag while Giles wasn’t looking, but I figured I wouldn’t get far. 

View more photos in the Roadtrip: Heceta Beach to Astoria gallery


I didn’t get very far down the road after I left Scott and Clare in Port Orford. There’s so much to see; so many little towns and such diverse natural beauty and I find I want to stop every few miles to explore! I know I’m driving past unknown caves, waterfalls, beaches, trails, scenic routes, mountains, forest groves, coffee shops, artists, craftsmen and galleries, wildlife, and especially many fascinating people….To really do this trip right, I’d need two months.

As I passed through the tiny community of Langlois, a mere 13 miles up Hwy 101 from Port Orford, something about it grabbed me. There’s a small but well kept public library, The Langlois Market grocery store selling as much local fare as possible including grass fed beef raised by the owner’s son. I passed by The Greasy Spoon Café (I know John would have insisted we check that out, but I had just eaten!) and Wild Rivers Wool Factory with felt and knitted crafts. A female duo own and operate an organic farm that supplies the town and surrounding areas with fresh organic produce. There are blueberry farms and cranberry bogs. And an abandoned bleu cheese factory that burned in the 1950’s and now serves in its renovated state as a community event center. Then there’s LaLa Belle’s Espresso Café and Consignment. I hadn’t had my espresso that day, so I parked to check things out.

LaLa Belle’s occupies the bottom level of a two-story house facing Hwy 101. I entered through the front door and was greeted by a delightful personality I soon learned was the owner. Dawn Sorensen and her husband are transplants from Nevada. They bought their property five years before they moved to Langlois a few years ago, and she's thrilled with their lifestyle change. They have a 4-year-old son and live upstairs from the café. She makes all the food from scratch using local, organic ingredients whenever possible…muffins, cakes, rolls, soups, etc. She uses only freshly ground organic coffee beans and brews her own chai.

Her friends see her life on Facebook and comment, “Wow! How amazing! You’re so lucky!” and it is wonderful she says, but it hasn’t come without giving some things up. Her weeks are dedicated to taking care of her son and preparing food for the weekends when her focus shifts to operating the coffee shop. Besides providing great homemade food, fresh coffee and chai served with charm and smiles, Dawn operates a consignment boutique. The treasures in a place like this say so much about the history of a place, its people and their lifestyles. As I sifted through the clothes rack like an archeologist in search of clues to an unknown culture, I found an adorable leather jacket that was miraculously my size…tiny. It fit perfectly! “But do I spend the money on yet another jacket,” I’m thinking to myself when from behind the counter as she’s serving coffee to the woman who owns the blueberry farm up the road, Dawn says, “That jacket is free!” I was astonished. “Why?!” I asked. Apparently, the woman who’d brought it in months ago stopped by just days before and said, “Since it hasn’t sold, just give it to someone who really wants it if you find someone it fits.” And that someone happened to be me!

As all this was going on, LaLaBelle’s was being filled with the laid back crooning and strumming of a spontaneous trio. They were John on guitar and vocals; Kevin on guitar, harmonica and vocals; and Kim on vocals. Besides spreading musical magic and goodwill, they shared a little about their lives with me, in particular the unexpected apprehension they’re being met with as they transition to life as empty nesters. Kevin described feeling their purpose was disappearing and life was somehow over. But they’re rediscovering what it’s like to focus again on what brings them joy and makes them come alive, and their mutual love for creating music is reviving their excitement about life. At first, Kevin said he was terrified of performing in front of people and absolutely hated it. I couldn’t tell by their performance that day! He seemed natural in front of our small audience, as if he’d been doing it his whole life. I shared with them the story of my brother John and how I was on a road trip in his memory. I showed them the memorial biker patch, and it inspired them to play a few songs in his honor: Come to the Cross (WATCH VIDEO), John Denver’s “Country Road” and “Follow Me”, and others. It was such a happy gathering I was content just to stay and enjoy their music for a couple of hours.

By the time I left, I’d amassed a small music video collection of their songs, exchanged contact information with Kevin, Kim and Dawn, and briefly contemplated staying overnight to join everyone in festivities at the Old Cheese Factory that night with more live local music and reverie. But I decided finally to keep moving. I bade everyone farewell—including Oscarina, the manikin standing sentry at the front entrance—and continued driving north, enjoying perhaps the best homemade banana muffin my mouth had ever had the pleasure of devouring.

The rest of the day I spent mostly driving and simply enjoying the scenery. I detoured off Hwy 101 several times. Most notable was Beach Loop Drive through the small resort town of Bandon, stopping briefly at Face Rock Viewpoint to take in breathtaking scenery and write messages in the sand. At this spot and all along the west coast, rock formations jut dramatically out of the churning waters. These rocks are often referred to as haystacks, a term that falsely elicits notions of something soft and yielding. These are not. White capped waves crash constantly against and over them with force violent enough to strip the life from a person in a single dashing, yet these haystacks remain apparently unaffected. The effects of this constant churning and colliding, however, are there. They’re simply undetectable by our five senses and human perception of time. I will never see the same haystack twice, regardless if it’s in the same location. They change with each wave lapping against it. It’s a law of nature—constant, inexorable change.

That night I opted to car camp. That’s a fancy term for crashing in my car. I found a spot in a residential neighborhood on Heceta Beach and bedded down for the night. OK. I know what some of you are saying. Isn’t that dangerous? Honest answer, I don’t know, but I think it’s fun! And I’m careful about the spot I choose. In a residential area, I might be asked to move along, but there are people around. I can honk the horn or hit the panic button on my key fob if anything were to happen (which has never happened). If I park in a secluded park or country road, there’s no one around, so I generally don’t do that. So for a few hours I had beachfront property, amazing views, and the roar of the ocean waves to lull me to sleep and awaken to. Sing it, “I’ve got…ocean front property in my C – R – Veee…from my front seat I can seeeee the sea…”

View more photos in the Roadtrip: Port Orford-Heceta Beach gallery


Local coffee shops are a phenomenon I’m particularly drawn to. They’re the living rooms of towns, communities, neighborhoods. Given an hour or two in a town, I’ll seek out the local coffee shop to get a feel for the people that make up a place. I hear conversations between the customers and the people who work there. I get a sense of the social and political climate, how people spend their time, what they do for work and play. I look at the board posted with business cards, advertisements, and community announcements. I pay attention. I have an Americano, and “good” or “bad”, I learn how things are in a place. Just as they are that day. Usually, if I slow down long enough, a little magic happens…I make a new friend or learn where to go and what to do. At worst, I have a benign experience with what is hopefully a good cup of coffee, and I keep on moving. Thursday morning, though, at Has Beans Coffee Shop in Eureka, CA, I found the most important thing for me to do was just kick back and enjoy the magic.

As I sat organizing pictures and updating my blog, a woman entered and began playing her acoustic guitar near the entrance to the shop. She started out whistling the most beautiful tune and flowed into soft, easy vocals that were perfect coffee shop repertoire.  I’ve never had the treat of live music on a Thursday morning coffee shop excursion. I was gleeful. I wasn’t sitting behind a desk and she wasn’t either. I got to share in the experience of a person doing something she loves more than anything and can’t do without. Most of the songs she sang were originals she’d written over many years; a few covers thrown in for familiarity’s sake. Her name is Les Craig, and she’s one-third of the John David Young Trio (John David Young showed up later and joined her for a few songs). She seemed more natural singing and playing her guitar than most people seem breathing. The words to one song caught my attention (watch video)… “there’s such sweetness in the world as I look out on an ordinary day, and magic comes shinin’ through. Oh that there could be such sweetness in the world might just have somethin’ to do with you...” It seemed like an apt song to add to my roadtrip playlist. Then she sang a song that just makes me smile and think of John up there above the chimney tops…”Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. I had to stop everything, close my eyes, and just let that bit of magic soak into my entire being. When I opened my eyes, the rain had stopped and the sun was out. I couldn’t see a rainbow…but I could feel it.

I finally felt the impulse to move on. I got into my car, found the cheapest gas in town (which was $4.17/gallon!) and continued north. Though it was well worth it, I’d spent all the clear skies up on coffee shop time and met with rain for most of my drive. I had a windy picnic by the ocean, drove through redwood grove after redwood grove, and went for a wet hike among the giants on Lost Man Trail. Yes, I hugged a tree. A very, very big tree. John helped.

I eventually left California behind and soon discovered why everyone who has experienced it is enamored with the Oregon coast. I stopped at Harris Beach State Park just north of Brookings for the beginning of “the blue hour”—a time when all colors but shades of blue fade with the sun into the distant ocean. It was one of the most peaceful times of the day as I watched the slow rolling convergence of a stream and ocean waves at low tide. But I was aware that my car was the one thin thread keeping this place of eerie beauty from becoming an inhospitable near death experience. The cold, wet, fierce winds ripped through to the core of my bones. For half an hour as a visitor, “where the river meets the sea” provided me with a meditation-in-blue upon the impersonal and impermanent nature of nature. For more than that as a foot bound wayfarer, it could quickly prove its ruthless indifference and power to both give and take away life. That wind was damned cold!

I made my way to Port Orford where I arrived at the home of Scott and Clare, my couchsurfing hosts. They met me with big smiles, delicious made-from-scratch pizzas, and good conversation. I contributed wine and fudge from Sonoma, and we stayed up late telling our respective stories. I learned their love for all things of the ocean, sky and land. They’re marine biologists contracted by NOAA as field observers on fishing boats. Basically, that means they’re the “game wardens” of the sea. And I marveled at their stories of adventures and anecdotes along the coast, out at sea, on islands, and in Alaska. Luckily for me, the weather was bad enough during my visit that they had time off. There are indeed silver linings in storm clouds.

My original plan was to get up the next morning and continue on my way. But after a later night than usual, Scott’s and Clare’s wealth of knowledge and experience with the area, and their willingness to share it, I ended up staying to explore with them. I’m fairly certain John would have insisted we stay. We walked everywhere in this little town and first visited the Port of Port Orford where they set out on various fishing boats. Between the two of them, they’ve been out on just about every one. When weather and tide are right for it, a pair of huge yellow dollies lifts the boats from the dock safely into the water. From there we went for a nature walk along the beach past Battlerock and toward Humbug Mountain. We saw a couple of dead grebes, and I learned about a national conservation program comprised of volunteers who report on instances or absence of dead birds along shorelines so seabird disease and distress can be monitored at a larger level. Anyone can do it. I learned there are many different kinds of barnacles, and I held one of them, called a gooseneck barnacle. Apparently these are tasty and expensive culinary delicacies in many places, especially Spain and Portugal. Scott and Clare showed me how they harvest their own muscles. They also catch their own fish, can their own tuna, tomatoes, and fruit. They make their tortillas and pizza crust from scratch. And they have plans for building a chicken coop for fresh eggs. I’m impressed! After the beach walk, we hit up a couple of local galleries where the inspiration for all work is the intense beauty of the Northwest Coast, and art made of found objects such as driftwood, shells, beach glass and other treasure is prevalent. We went for a walk up to “Coastguard Hill” (Port Orford Heads State Park) and along the stunning trails around it. If I’d just been passing through, I’d certainly have missed that hidden gem.

Scott cooked a wonderful meal including fish he’d caught; we told more stories,and played a German-born board game called Carcassonne. I learned all kinds of new things from these two! The next morning, Clare whipped up some homemade muffins made with local cranberries, and after breakfast I bade my new friends farewell. It was inspiring to meet two people who follow their bliss, being and doing what brings them joy and not just  financial wealth or “success”. They love the ocean and understand the connection between earth, sky, sea, animal, plant and man, and they’ve made this their livelihood, their play and their life. I can scarcely tell where one of these things stops and the other starts for them. Thank you, Scott and Clare, for sharing a glimpse of your life with me.

View more photos in the Roadtrip: Eureka-Port Orford gallery.


I’m on a roadtrip. My brother John is with me. Well, a few of his ashes, photos and memorabilia, his favorite music, lots of memories, and—I’m fairly certain—his spirit are traveling with me. He and I were supposed to drive this coast in the opposite direction during the summer of 1997 on our way back from Seattle, but we didn’t. We’d talked since about doing it someday. He mentioned a couple times how much he’d like to do it on his bike. I’m on four wheels, not two. But I’m doing it. No time like now.

I said farewell this morning to that little slice of heaven—the Sonoma guesthouse—where I’ve been staying for a few weeks. It was a perfect place for peace, quiet, nature and healing. I did a lot of leaning into the sharp edges inside myself and grinding them down a bit. I left Sonoma and drove toward the coast to hit up Hwy 1.

I stopped in the tiny little town of Bodega which consists of a single block of businesses including local artisan galleries (wonderful local crafts), a coffee shop/bakery, a surf shop, and a handful of other businesses. I popped into the Bodega Country Store (http://bodegastore.com/) where owner “Big Mike” let me sample his amazing homemade chowders. Turns out he’s a chef who’s more passionate about making great tasting, fresh, healthy food—happily and relaxed—than in his former life in upscale restaurants where stress and drama prevail. Oh, and if you’re a Hitchcock fan, they have the “largest selection of Hitchcock memorabilia”…anywhere? Well, at least in Sonoma County.

I took my smoked salmon chowder and garlic breadstick and found the coast. I stopped somewhere just north of Bodega Bay and sidled down to a crude and beautiful beach structure. Braving strong winds, I plopped down with an eager group of seagulls and shore birds intent on feigning indifference and ate in the midst of this primal art collaboration between humans, time and elements of nature.

Continuing along Hwy 1, I stopped occasionally for photo ops and to soak up the sounds, smells, and energy of this coast. It’s an awe-inspiring convergence between powerful forces and contrasting forms, and—if you get quiet enough to feel it—emptiness.

A highlight in my day was a little unexpected gem on the side of the road—The Sea Ranch Chapel (http://thesearanchchapel.org/). According to the website, “The Chapel was the gift of Sea Ranch residents Robert and Betty Buffum, who envisioned a place for meditation and spiritual renewal at the Sea Ranch”, and it was designed by “renowned San Diego artist and architect James T. Hubbell”. Every one of the many details was crafted by hand with respect for the ongoing collaboration of time and nature. You just have to look at the pictures yourself.

I continued through increasingly heavy rains, stopping briefly in the quaint town of Mendocino which apparently caters to the tourist searching for the idyllic seaside village. Winding my way inland through forests of redwoods and eucalyptus trees, I passed a variety of well-used VW buses, wide rivers, and roadside attractions vying for your dollars in exchange for Americana trinkets, bigfoot carvings and such. I was on my way to Eureka where I’d arranged with my couchsurfing.com hosts, Jack and Anna to stay with them for the night. I reached them and their two black cats in time for a chat by the wood-burning stove. They were gracious and shared liberally about their love of Hawaii, local brewery beers, and skiing. And afterward I slipped easily off to sleep with a serenade of Pacific rains.

This morning, I wished Jack and Anna farewell and looked up a local coffee shop before heading out for another day of experiencing the west coast. Tonight, I land in Port Orford, Oregon.

View more photos in the Roadtrip: Sonoma-Eureka Gallery

022. EVERYTHING I NEEDED TO KNOW, I Should Have Learned From My Little Brother (and Ferris Bueller) by Cara Hines

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”   - Ferris

“-Ism’s, in my opinion, are not good. A person should not believe in an –ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, ‘I don’t believe in the Beatles, I just believe in me.’ Good point there. After all, he was the walrus. I could be the walrus.”   - Ferris

“The question isn’t ‘what are we going to do,’ the question is ‘what aren’t we going to do.’”   - Ferris

“A: You can never go too far. B: If I’m gonna get busted, it is not gonna be by a guy like that.”   - Ferris

“You realize if we’d played by the rules, right now we’d be in gym?”   - Ferris

“Anything is peaceful from one thousand, three hundred and fifty-three feet.”   - Ferris

“I am not going to sit on my ass as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I’m going to take a stand. I’m going to defend it. Right or wrong. I’m going to defend it.”  - Cameron, Ferris Bueller's Day Off

"Keep on livin' the dream!"  - John Hines

"Let's ride!"  - John Hines


Monday, March 7th, was my little brother John’s birthday. If you’re reading this, odds are good you knew my brother, and you know his life as we’ve known it ended on October 1st last year while riding his motorcycle home from a night out with friends. He died instantly doing something he loved. He was 33 years old and as happy as I’d seen him. He'd just bought a house for himself and his daughter, Olivia, across from a park where she could play. He'd built a network of friends, coworkers and professional associates I’ve since come to know as an exemplary group of people. And a large group at that—there were almost 600 in attendance at his two memorial services combined. More than anything, he loved being a daddy, snowboarding, riding his motorcycle, fixing things, helping people, and dealing with anything that had spark plugs and wheels. All these he approached with an intensity and integrity that's rare among human beings. John didn’t do anything halfway. For him, if he thought it was worth doing at all, it was worth jumping on the back of and riding until it bucked him off and then climbing back on again for kicks. And he made you laugh and taught you something while he was at it. If he didn’t think it was worth doing, he didn’t blink at it.

If I've gleaned anything from John in his life, and in his death, it’s to live life piloted by your own matchless and uncompromising blend of heart and head. To live life the way you want for the simple joy of it (authentic desire) even if it kills you (impermanence), paying close attention (awareness) and taking care of your business as you go (skillful means). After all, to live any other way will kill you, too. It’ll probably just take longer and be infinitely less fun and unfulfilling. This outlook may sound extreme. But life is extreme...“It moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” That’s a good lesson to glean while I’m still in my 30’s, and one I’ll do my best to heed from now on as I operate under the assumption I have many years ahead of me. Oh, I suppose I live by my own version of this maxim, but my brother’s was exceptionally simple and inspiring, and that’s what I want to honor with this entry. 

I also learned from watching my brother do what he wanted, and from living the ups and downs of my own life, that it doesn’t matter what I do. Really. No one cares. And if they do, I don’t care.  As long as I’m living with integrity and awareness while doing what makes me happy, that’s what’s important.  But even then, it really doesn’t matter. I’ve wasted a whole lot of time, energy and effort in my life on what I thought was right or expected… the should’s and ought to’s and supposed to’s and what to believe in and who to get behind. To hell with all that! It’s arbitrary. I mean, do I think everyone is really thinking that much about what I do? I do my best to live and let live. I don’t pay much attention to what anyone else does. That is unless they do something that makes them beam with all the aliveness of a springtime sprout after a good rain. If they do something…anything, in a way that moves me, that grabs hold of my heartstrings and jams on them like Jimi Hendrix, I sit up and take notice. Like watching my brother come alive when he strapped on his snowboard and rode the trees, or buzzed with excitement when he hopped on his bike for his first ride on the open road, or burst with pride the first time we walked through the door with Olivia of the home he’d bought for their family of two. That’s really all I care about…the beaming and buzzing and coming alive that we humans do. Those are the stories I want to read and the movies I want to see…and live. I'm not impressed by how well people played by this world’s rules, or fit into society’s idea of what’s acceptable…there’s no movie in that. That’s formula-following. That’s easy. And that’s where I’ve excelled much of my life, but I want to do more buzzing and beaming and bursting. I want to make my own movie and write my own book. I want to believe in me, not the collective Beatles. I want to be my own walrus. I’m committed to it. And right or wrong, I’ll defend it.

Some of you may have wondered what happened to my blog. Where’d I go? What happened next? Why did I stop posting more than a year ago? Chances are, though, you haven’t given it much thought, and that’s perfectly fine. I’d prefer that. Those of you who know me best, already know. I stopped everything…except what mattered, and even most of that. I pressed the pause button on almost all things creative and external, and went inside even before John’s death. I got a little Capitol Hill studio apartment in Denver, and I got quiet. I didn’t do much. I stopped planning and knowing and trying to know. I shelved the goals I’d concocted on my ego’s behalf and most of my books, and I watched and listened. That’s hard to do and a little, or maybe a lot, weird in our world these days. When people ask, “What do you do?” or “What are your plans?” they expect to get a clearly defined, concise answer that sums you up in a quick 2 or 3 sentence personal commercial, and I used to be good at those. Things got very uncomfortable when I got honest with myself. The answer to those questions became something like, “Nothing at the moment,” which is only partially true because I’ve been doing things, they just have no apparent value in terms of career or financial gain. Or “As little as possible,” or even “I don’t know,” which was and is perfectly true. I often felt like a failure, not to mention terrified of not knowing. But the differences I felt in my body between stating these simple truths with confidence and scrambling to come up with a definitive answer that was a bold-faced, manufactured lie so I could appear to know what I was doing, were monumental. The truth shall set you free indeed. And my truth is, I don’t know anything because there’s nothing to know, only experiences for me to have. There are no answers to find, only questions for me to live. And my experiences, questions, aversions and desires, are my innate human right and karmic responsibility. My brother once said to me something like, “Why don’t you stop trying to figure everything out all the time and just get on with your life”. At the time, I thought “Oh, that’s just little brother being simple-minded and inexperienced. He doesn’t know.” I also thought the saying “You’re not dying, you just can’t think of anything good to do,” was just a clever line in a movie that my brother and I loved when we were kids. How readily I dismissed those bastions of universal wisdom…tsk, tsk.

When I knew stuff, or told myself and others I did, I wasn’t so happy. I was always running around doing stuff to figure things out or to at least look like I’d figured them out (if you’re reading this, maybe I still am…). Instead of running around doing and figuring stuff out, I stopped to look around. That really meant doing what I used to call “nothing”. Sometimes stopping, looking around and doing “nothing” can be very productive and rewarding. Trees do “nothing”, and they make rings. Caterpillars do “nothing”, and they make butterflies. I’m not sure yet what my version of rings or caterpillars or motorcycles is, but I am certain that I’ll realize it when I’ve lived my way into it. Maybe I’m already there. Difference is, I’m doing my best not to look for it and just let it happen.

When my life comes to an end, AND when it’s going full-tilt in the big middle of it…sitting on an airplane on my way to a place I’ve wanted to experience like India or Japan or Australia, watching my niece discover she can build entire worlds out of dirt and imagination (or anything and imagination), slipping past the Golden Gate bridge piloting a sailboat, vision-questing with a shaman, sipping coffee with my dad in front of our family’s fourth-generation farmhouse, opening my first batch of published books, watching the sun set over Puget Sound with my brother…I want to look around and say to the person closest to me, “Hey, you realize if we’d played by the rules, right now we’d be in gym?” or whatever cosmic version of gym class might apply to my station in life at the time.

Who knew?! All the wisdom I needed to live a fun and fulfilling life I could have learned from paying closer attention my little brother and a movie about youthful irreverence from 1986. But then again, hindsight is 20/20 and “anything is peaceful from one thousand, three hundred and fifty-three feet.”

John Hines, you’re my hero. Thank you for your life teachings. I’m gonna miss you. (Ferris, I can still get you on Netflix.)




“You’re still here? It’s over. Go home. GO.”

021. GET THEE TO A NUNNERY by Cara Hines

Journal from 25 November—train from Torino to Orvieto:

I felt a big sadness this morning when I said good-bye to Rosalba and Elena to head to Bolsena. I feel like I’ve found two dear friends I’ve known before. They’re as generous and accommodating as any hosts could be. I’m not sure I would be as good an attendant as they were. I enjoyed my time with them like I might with long lost sisters. Who knows? Perhaps we are.

It’s strange that I can feel so immediate and seemingly natural a connection to a person or a place I’ve just met. I am open to seeing them for who and what they are in that moment, and to the fact that they will be different when I meet them again. Perhaps it’s because I long for that in return—to be seen for who I am in the moment with the full understanding that I will change. (My brother doesn’t call me Carameleon for nothing.) We all change…constantly. Impermanence. It’s when we pretend that’s not the case that things get sideways. Anyway, I can feel very strong emotion for these people, experiences and places; sadness upon departure and a longing for return. But always I am able to look forward, open to whatever might be next and to experiencing those people and places I’ve yet to meet. It’s uncomfortable to constantly live in the unknown. But it’s a discomfort that arrives with abounding, unexpected rewards and reminds me I’m alive.

These are my attachments at work. The meanings I place on things are what cause the sadness, the longing, the emotions. If I do my best to remain aware of them as I go along, without trying to make them something they’re not, I think that’s how I learn to be a more authentic and fully expressed me. And maybe someday, without trying so hard, those attachments will melt away on their own when they’re ready. Like a skin needing to be shed. 


Journal from 25 November – 1 December:

My last week in Italy I spent in Bolsena, a village on the northeast side of the lake bearing its name, located in the northern part of the Region of Lazio. It is an hour bus ride from Orvietto and approximately 2-hour drive north from Rome. I wrote a bit about my time in Bolsena spent over Thanksgiving in the entry "013. A PILGRIM AND A PIE". I’m going to give you the cliff’s notes of the remainder of my stay there.

I stayed at the 17th-century Convento Santa Maria del Giglio (http://www.conventobolsena.org/index_en.html) (My theater aficionado of a mother got a kick out of the idea of me at a convent with a reference to Hamlet by exclaiming, “Get thee to a nunnery!” each time it was mentioned, while my devoted Methodist grandmother shuddered and asked, “Have you converted to Catholicism?” My wry response that, “Heavens, no! I’m a Buddhist!” didn’t put her at ease in the least. Nevermind that I don’t claim a religion.) Proprietors Nathan (a Denver native and a friend of friends) and Sabrina live there with their two adorable young daughters. It’s an ex-convent that now functions as a hostel and cultural center of sorts. Sabrina is part of the cultural association responsible for running, maintaining and promoting the convent. The complex is situated up the hill just a short walk from the central town square. It boasts its own church, Chiesa S. Maria del Giglio, and contained within the compound walls is an olive grove and persimmon trees heavy with their bright orange fruit. It provides peaceful, simple, affordable, and comprehensive accommodations of another time for a single lone pilgrim or large groups. If you want to hold a meditation retreat, dance workshop, or cooking classes in unrivaled picturesque simplicity, get thee to the nunnery.

By the time I arrived in Bolsena, I was exhausted, overwhelmed, extremely uncomfortable, and beginning to question my entire purpose for coming on the trip along with my reason for being on this planet. The food in Italy is legendary. The coffee is divinely abundant. The people are beautiful, elegant, and openhanded. Need I even mention the rich history, mythical landscapes, and unrivaled art and architecture? While these make a trip to Italy a pleasure to be sure, that old saying “No matter where you go, there you are” still applies. Whether I get me to a nunnery in Italy, a meditation cushion at Vipassana, or a desk in Denver, there I am. Sometimes I like, sometimes I don’t. Always I question and wonder why I’m where I am, doing what I’m doing and with whom. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the cafes and the espressos and pasta and prosciutto and wine and parlare Italiano—it’s that it all feels like just another flavor of distraction from what I’m really “here” to uncover. And by “here” I mean wherever I am. But since I haven’t uncovered it yet, I’ll keep enjoying sweet, caffeinated, perfectly foamed distractions in between my moments of pondering life and death.

In my days there, I wandered about the town and along the lakeshore. I shot footage on the Via Francigena as it enters, traverses, and exits the town center. I met and interviewed the delightfully entertaining 18-year-old Englishman, Joshua Bell—the only pilgrim I would see. I encountered a rowdy crew of Harley-Davidson enthusiasts on their way to a rally in Rome. Watching across the lake from a second-floor window of the convent, I enjoyed one of the most breathtaking thunderstorms I’ve ever witnessed. I was fortunate enough to spend a Sunday afternoon feasting with Nathan and Sabrina’s family which included watching Nathan and his girls kneed the dough for their weekly bread while Sabrina raked the olive trees for their fruit.

After we dropped his girls off at school on my final morning in Bolsena, Nathan drove me to nearby Viterbo where he keeps a small office. Again I was the grateful recipient of a walking tour of an incredible medieval city, this one once home to the papacy. The signature arched stairway entrances and multitude of towers, Nathan pointed out, are remnants of a medieval version of keeping up with the Jones’. Afterward, while Nathan worked, I was able to film pieces of the Via Francigena that pass through town. The ancient walls of the buildings have been left fairly untouched and exposed since they were constructed centuries ago, and walking through them with a 21st century digital video camera felt a bit out of place. After enjoying another notable meal together, Nathan bade me farewell and returned to Bolsena to continue his parental duties, or pleasures as the case most certainly seems to be. He left me there, both my appetite and curiosity about the city whetted, awaiting the arrival of Nino. Nino is a very kind and friendly guy perhaps a little younger than I, and is a friend of Nathan and Sabrina’s. He works in the office at the Vatican City where pilgrims go for tourist information and to obtain the final stamp in their passports authenticating they’ve completed their pilgrimage to St. Peter’s. Sabrina thought he would be a fitting contact for me considering the subject of my documentary. When Nino finally arrived from Rome, another beneficiary of late Italian trains, we were able to enjoy an hour of conversation along with his girlfriend, Antonella. He was excited by my endeavor, and immediately picked up the phone to dial the office of Stefania, the woman in charge of events at JOSP Fest.

In its second year, JOSP Fest (standing for Journeys Of the Spirit), as I understood it, was to be a festival and exhibition celebrating religious and spiritual journeys, as well as to bridge the different religions and cultures from around the world. It was to be held in January, roughly six weeks away. Based on everything Nino said about it, it seemed like something I could benefit greatly from by attending, and he promoted this idea to Stefania. She agreed to meet with me the following day since it was my only day in Rome before flying home the next morning. As soon as I finished my meeting with Nino, I ran through the rain with my luggage in tow, my suitcase wrapped in a trash bag (it looked like I was dragging a dead body behind me) to catch my train to Rome. I made it and found my way to The Beehive Hotel (http://www.the-beehive.com/) in time to collapse for a great night of sleep. It was beginning to feel like my reason for coming on this trip was being validated. Here I was, little ol’ me. I struck out to start this film project with little more than a vague clue how to do it. And on the last day of my trip I had landed a meeting with a woman in an office of the Vatican who could give me an opportunity to show and promote my project in an international venue whose very subject matter aligned with that of my project. I was emboldened.

Visit the GET THEE TO A NUNNERY photo gallery.

020. THAT'S WHERE I BELONG by Cara Hines

Journal entry from 23 November, 2009:

Today I’m feeling a bit more vagabond than inspired. Let me stress that I am not complaining as I realize I’m living the life I’ve asked for, and for this I am infinitely grateful. It’s simply that I’ve hit a wall. As incredible as it is, travel can be tiresome. I had an amazing weekend full of new friends generous with their time, knowledge, and pocketbooks. I was toured around and fed like a queen. In recent weeks, I have absorbed many new experiences, new places, interacted with so many wonderful people, navigated different languages, trains, planes, luggage, new video equipment, and learned an enormous amount of information. The unfortunate part is that I feel exhausted, and my capacity for human interaction—Italian or otherwise—has hit a low point. Let’s just say in the last couple of days I’ve reached my capacity. It’s not for lack of trying, my poor little brain is simply maxed out. I cannot absorb one more Italian word, no matter how hard I try! The resulting misfortune is that today I have no energy for exploration.

After waiting for the hotel room to be ready last night, I didn’t get to bed until after 12:30. That was after a couple of phone calls home due to a slight and rare pang of homesickness. A chat with my “daddy-roo” (yes, we’re corny, I know) helped sooth it, and I fell asleep almost instantaneously upon hanging up. This morning, I simply could not wake up! I obviously needed good solid rest. Luckily for me, Luciano said I could leave as late as I’d like. So, I didn’t get out of bed until almost noon! I can go and go and go for a long time, but I eventually hit a wall and have to take some time for myself to recover. I enjoyed a long hot shower while I had access to it, organized my things, finished charging my various electronic devices, and went on my way. It was a 30-minute walk from the hotel to the center of Aosta. And here I sit in the only place I have the mental capacity for, a caffé. I’m quite content to sit here watching everyone walk by. The kids, the dogs, the elderly couples wrapped in colorful scarves, hats and gloves walking slowly arm in arm, the well-coiffed set, and the working class on their way to and from errands. The bicycles, strollers, people on cell phones, the shoppers (how do people continually buy things? I wonder to myself), and all of them with silky rings and curls of cigarette smoke dancing around their heads. I’m waiting for the shop around the corner to open where I can recharge the SIM cards for my internet key and cell phone. Then I’m hopping the train back to Torino to enjoy dinner with Elena and Rosalba.

How else am I feeling? I feel like being alone in a quiet space. It would be nice to have a peaceful little room to myself, warm, with some good soft music, jazz or classical, hot tea, and a good book or do some writing. It doesn’t have to be my space, it could be temporary, but if I could use it for a day or two to rejuvenate, I’d be so very grateful. This is a passing craving, and very soon I will return to a balanced state of ACCEPTING WHAT IS; that I am traveling quite alone with my new friends now and then for company, that I am cold and a bit road weary, that I cannot communicate easily with the people around me, that there is beauty everywhere I look, that I am tingling with gratitude to have these experiences, that despite my hot shower this morning…er…afternoon, I still smell a bit, That in a few days all my friends and family will be gathering over turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pies to spend time together with more food than any human should be allowed to eat in a week; that the smells mixing with the cold mountain air here consist of diesel exhaust, cigarette smoke, prosciutto, burning wood, coffee, and pizza ovens. As it is.

Train from Aosta to Torino Porta Susa:

Besides exhaustion, I also feel full of doubt today. Well, maybe not full, but I have more of the stuff than in recent weeks. It’s as if I’ve forgotten why I’m doing this. Why am I doing this anyway? Of course, it’s for the documentary. But that’s tied directly to my desire to experience as much as I can in life, to challenge myself as I brush up against the world and other people, to be moved by them, and to create something out of that inspiration. I want to be fulfilled, first and foremost. But to simply plod along having coffee after coffee in sidewalk café after sidewalk café is not why I’m on this planet. I love café hopping and sightseeing, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not what fulfills me at a soul level. It’s a reward for, and possibly even a distraction from, following my personal version of “the call of the wild”. For some reason in the past few days, I have forgotten this; it shows. And it hurts. I feel disconnected, drained, and somewhat lost. I can begin to feel how innate this is in me. I’m not here as a run-of-the-mill travel journalist. My journey is inward as much as toward any physical destination, if not more, and for me to lose sight of this is obviously unhealthy! The result is an exhaustion and loss of energy that no amount of sleep seems able to replenish.

I was feeling so lost and exhausted before getting on this train at Aosta station that I started crying. The straw on the camel’s back was a train I’d planned to take that only runs on Sundays. Since it is Monday, I would have to wait for the next train in a little more than an hour and miss dinner with Rosalba and Elena. Not the end of the world, I know. Still, I cried and allowed myself to feel frustrated, lost, sad, a little homesick and alone, knowing it would all pass quickly (anitya…all things are impermanent). When I settled in on the train, a memory bubbled up of how much I enjoyed Paul Simon on train rides during my first stay in Italy. Very early in that trip, I had purchased a black market cassette tape from an African street vendor. This, along with Natalie Merchant and another tape I can’t recall now, was all I had to listen to on my cassette headphones the entire summer, and it immediately took me back to those wonderful days and nights, the gentle rocking and clip-clopping of the trains as I watched the Italian countryside and towns slip past.

I pulled out my iPhone and looked up ol’ Paul. I only have one of his songs it turns out, but it is from the album I had that summer. It’s a song called “That’s Where I Belong”. Perhaps for the first time, I listened very closely to the lyrics. They could not have been more perfect; as if in immediate response to my silly little sad and wandering state:

Somewhere in a burst of glory
A sound becomes a song.
I’m bound to tell a story
That’s where I belong.
When I see you smile,
When I hear you sing,
Lavender and roses,
Every ending a beginning.
The way you turn and catch me with your eye,
That’s where I belong.
When I see you smile,
When I hear you sing,
Lavender and roses,
Every ending a beginning.
That’s the way it is, I don’t know why
But that’s where I belong.
A smiling little island man
Plays a jingling banjo
He’s walkin’ down a dirt road
Carryin’ his radio
To a river where the water meets the sky
That’s where I belong.

I listened to it 3 or 4 times and started crying again. But those tears were for the beauty within and around me. They remind me that my purpose is that burst of glory in me when my sound becomes a song, when I see people smiling in the midst of living their purpose, my search for my own purpose, and that I am born to tell a story about that. About that glory, that sound and the song it becomes…or a dance, or a painting, or a smile, or a life. That’s where I belong.

019. GOT LIFE? by Cara Hines

I want to extend multiple scoops of gratitude with syrup on top to every person who has read this blog, viewed the images and video, forwarded, commented, contributed and encouraged. To this point, what I’ve presented here has been pleasant and airy. It’s been a sharing of my travel experiences intertwined with a lightweight sugary sprinkling of my inner journey along the way, mostly with the hope that it inspires others to get out in the world and do something they’ve always wanted to do.

Since December I’ve fallen silent in my communications with the outside world. The various reasons for this are exactly what I’ve been contemplating and trying to resolve for myself. This silence has to do with the way I’ve presented myself to the world. It has to do with the way I’ve held myself back because I’m afraid of what people will think. It has to do with my deepest fears and insecurities. I’m afraid of being wrong. I want to be liked; I like the idea of making people feel good, and those often come at the expense of my authenticity. I’ve spent most of my life avoiding what I thought made people uncomfortable, and much of the time that included myself. In recent years I began challenging myself personally with a ferocity that at times has and does feel like self-mutilation. But I have not always found the courage to share that same ferocity with the world. As a result, I’ve often felt inauthentic. I couldn’t figure out why I felt a split within myself until I experienced firsthand just how inauthentically I was communicating with you via this blog. I returned from my fall trip to Europe feeling like I’d been laid wide open. When I read my blog, I was mildly amused by my ability to describe my brush with the external world in a way that would assure everyone likes me and no one would be uncomfortable. But it did not convey a woman who’s being re-circuited and generally feeling like part of a Bodyworlds exhibit—exposed layer by layer in a slow and bumbling self-dissection. Reading my raw, hand-written journal entries as they reflect my experiences and evolution of the past few years and comparing them to what I’ve shared with you on this blog, you might think I’m two different people. It’s a chasm I intend to close. Please bear with me as I teach myself to have courage to do that. I welcome any challenges you have to offer me.

It was when I began meditating on my own death and dismemberment that I began to have an inkling of what it is to live. It was when I could visualize living the 60 seconds before life leaves my body as if it were now—am I content with what I've filled my life with to this point; is there anything I wish I had done or not done; what have I started that I truly want to finish; who have I not loved that I wanted to love; where have I not gone that I said I was going to go—that I began letting go of the stuff taking up space in my life that was keeping me from all of it. When I’m standing on a curb in Viterbo Italy, weighted down with my suitcase and video equipment, craning to see if the bus speeding toward me is the one to Calcata, I can see it hitting me as easily as I can see it slipping innocuously past. This is not a death wish or a suicidal tendency. It’s a life affirmation. It’s a periodic reminder that I am indeed alive, and that this life is mine to seize, and it’s as fragile and impermanent as the bug on the windshield of the car that just passed behind the wrong bus whose trajectory did not meet with mine. Instead of instilling more fear, this practice is helping me begin to live more fully despite my fears. It is the recognition of my most basic and primal duality.

Death, or mortality, is an integral part of life for every single human being whether we accept it or not. Death is simply one form of impermanence, and impermanence is a law of nature intrinsic to all beings, states of matter and energy. It is perhaps the only thing we can be certain of in this world. (Taxes can always be evaded.) It does not recognize borders, skin colors, personal wealth or property, physical health or appearance, and it does not coordinate with your iCalendar or secretary to be sure it visits at a convenient time. In our society, death has become a taboo subject and something to be feared rather than revered. Rarely do we see it unless it’s on television, the big screen or a video game. For most of us, it’s something that’s impersonal and unresolved until it’s too late to take back the life we were living before death came.

While I do my best to practice awareness of my mortality as often as possible, I am human. I think it’s impossible to live committed to this physical experience and be aware of every single moment, living them all as if they were my last. After all, there’s something called skillful means. In Buddhism, this is called Upaya and refers to something which brings you up as in an activity or practice that enables enlightenment. But if we’re all getting really honest here, enlightenment is most likely a rare and difficult state achieved only by those truly ready and willing to let go of all attachments to this physical experience, dissolving the ego and all meaning they’ve chosen to place on themselves, people, places, experiences, loved ones, wounds, gifts, and the stories we’ve constructed from living a physical experience in this world. As far as I can tell, enlightenment is akin to skinning oneself alive. It’s total ego-dissolution and self-murder. It’s painful. And there are very few people prepared to take it on. I’m one of them.

(Disclaimer:  This is the best way I know to describe such an elusive concept since I am most certainly not enlightened and don’t currently include it in my 5-year plan, 10-year plan, or even this-lifetime plan. Frankly, it doesn’t sound like fun to me. And as far as I know, I have yet to meet a fully enlightened human being. So I offer my perception of what enlightenment might be like and not an empirical definition of what it is. If I’ve learned anything recently, it’s that I don’t know anything, and especially not about things I have yet to experience directly.)

For any spiritual being committed to having a physical experience on this planet and paying attention to it, skillful means might refer to any activity or practice that enables a full, authentic experience and expression in this world. It could include the acquisition of tools of trade, education and knowledge, airfare and gathering with other humans who support our journeys in some direct or indirect way. It might include exercising and eating foods appropriate to keep our bodies in optimal working order. It could consist of whatever meditation, prayer or other spiritual or religious activities we choose to support our journeys. Skillful means is earning money, paying bills, buying groceries, fixing your car, designing your website, patching your yurt or Airstream or roof, sharpening your pencil, shoeing the horses, finding the right shoes for walking 100 days across Europe…in short, it’s the daily taking care of stuff that supports you in the pursuit of your authentic desires.

I still must find the perfect shoes for walking across Europe, and I have to raise the funds for the project. I’m doing my very best to balance skillful means with being present to simply what is. Let me not mislead you. I'm still bumbling and fumbling my way, and every time I think I have things figured out I'm reminded that I know nothing. But when I see the bus careening toward me at a generous clip, it becomes easier to discern which parts of my life are skillful means and which are meaningless, contrived, time-sucking distractions to let go of. When I feel the air move against my skin and hair tickle my face in the wake of the bus’ passing, I step back on the sidewalk in a warm glow of gratitude for this life I get to live a bit longer. It turns out that the often amusing and sometimes somber contemplation of my death is helping me live my life now instead of later. Go figure.


Journal from 22 November:

As I’ve mentioned, a major reason for my trip to Europe is to gather information and preliminary footage for a documentary project. In 2010, I’ll walk the Via Francigena pilgrimage trail from Canterbury England to Rome. I’ve not written much detail about the project because it’s still formulating, and well, I don’t want to give everything away!

When I first started researching the trail in the spring of this year, I came across the website of a man who has a great deal of knowledge of the Via Francigena. His name is Enea Fiorentini, and you can visit his website www.eneafiorentini.it yourself to learn the seemingly infinite information and zest for life he has to share. He’s an avid outdoorsman and student of ancient and medieval history, specifically that of Valle d’Aosta, the region in northwestern Italy he calls home. He’s a co-author of a guidebook for the Italian portion of the Via Francigena. And if you ever find yourself in Aosta and are in need of a tour guide, I can’t imagine a better one. On his site, he was kind enough to dedicate an entire page to my visit, and you can read about it here http://www.eneafiorentini.it/ifrancam/cara_hines.html  (It is mostly in Italian, but you can go to http://translate.google.com/ to translate this or any text or webpage.)

I contacted Enea months ago, knowing we’d be walking and creating a documentary, but not knowing exactly when or how it would develop. I simply reached out and asked for whatever guidance he might have to offer. We communicated 2 or 3 times between then and this trip. He introduced me to Immacolata Coraggio the woman who was kind enough to host me for a night earlier in the month and share her experiences on the Via Francigena, her own photography exhibition project that came out of it, as well as stories about her dedication to the way of walking with awareness. Enea and I arranged to meet during my visit to Aosta Valley. I wanted to hear from him his experiences with the trail and gather any advice his expertise had to offer. I had no idea the treat that awaited me!

Enea met me with his friend, Aldo, at Aosta train station on the morning of Sunday 22-Nov. I found him to be somewhat distinguished in appearance and demeanor, reminding me of some mix of Earnest Hemmingway and Sean Connery. Aldo, I’m fairly certain, could make a living as a comedian, and managed to make me laugh multiple times during the day despite our language barrier. Together the three of us set out in Enea’s car for what would prove to be an all-day tour of Valle d’Aosta. I had not expected such a generous and extensive reception.

Valle d’Aosta is a region in the northwest of Italy and located in the Alps. The stunning beauty and soaring, jagged peaks of this place reminded me a great deal of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, but peppered with a history of man and architecture that’s ancient and vast. We’d planned to hike a portion of the trail, but cold temperatures and cloudy skies prevented us from doing so. Instead, we drove to several of the villages the Via Francigena passes through. We started in Saint Rhemy, the first village on the Italian portion of the trail after descending from the famous Grand Saint Bernard Pass. It is famous for its Jambon de Bosses. Because of the slow time of year and the weather, we were unable to walk far along the trail toward the pass or to try the ham, both of which I’m told are wonderful experiences I have to look forward to next year. In nearby Saint-Oyen, we visited Chateau Verdun, a centuries-old monastery turned hostel that has played host to pilgrims passing through the area for many years.  Next we went to the nearby village of Etroubles. Despite its small population, the village has quite an impressive outdoor public art museum with an impressive number of sculptures and paintings scattered about town with a map to guide you to them all. They each depict some aspect of life in the Alpine region and many pay homage to the pilgrim. Even the house numbers are made from hand-blown art glass. Their stories about Roman times and Napolean’s conquests were fascinating, some I knew, most I didn’t. The trail I’ll walk next year winds through these enchanting villages, along the sides of the mountains with breathtaking views of the Gran San Bernardo valley and peaks that form it, through the very arches and over the roads built by the Romans.

We returned next to Aosta to pick up Aldo’s wife, Mina, who joined us for the rest of the day. We stopped in Arnad at Trattoria des Amis for a proper Sunday feast with what seemed like a dozen courses of traditional dishes from Valle d’Aosta. The food was delicious and more than plentiful. Aldo even convinced me to give grappa another try despite my insisting otherwise. Afterward, we visited the nearby historic Church of San Martino passed by the Via Francigena, with beautiful bits of centuries old frescos clinging to its walls and doorways.

As the sun was starting to set, we enjoyed a walk along the Roman road to Gaul carved from the side of a mountain with an arched opening left to show the impressive amount of stone they excavated for use in other roads and structures. Next to the deep ruts made for and by wagon wheels, there stands a tall column of stone with Roman numerals etched into its face. This indicated the distance from the Porta Romana, or Roman Arch that was the main entrance into Aosta, the village once known as the Roman capital of the Alps. At the edge of the ancient village of Bard, we visited an early Christian archaeological site with ancient markings etched into the stone, and a huge crater formed by the mortar and pestle like action of a glacier. We continued into the center of Bard where the Via Francigena is but one of many veins of history to pass on the main road through it. 

Finally, we ended with a night in Aosta, a town rich with layers of historical architecture and Roman ruins out of which medieval and modern structures have grown. We enjoyed an evening passegiata through the city with an impressive history lesson courtesy of Enea and Aldo. I thought my head might explode, it was so full of incredible stories and information. Our group of four meandered past what’s left of the Roman amphitheater and back to the main square, Piazza Emile Chanoux, and enjoyed an aperitif at the beautiful Caffe Nazionale. The waiter was kind enough to take our photo in a room that is the only thing remaining of one chapel of an ancient Franciscan monastery, its walls and dome ceiling elaborately painted as you can see in the photograph.

Enea needed to get home and bade us farewell. But not before he gave me a bag containing his Via Francigena guidebook, another pamphlet he’d authored, and a wonderful assortment of other information about the Valle d’Aosta. He’d obviously invested some time in putting together the package, and I was so delighted to receive it. We also discussed the possibility of my troupe arriving in Aosta around the time he leads a group along the Via Francigena next September. It’s a possibility we’ll be walking the same stretch at the same time. Regardless of when we arrive, I hope to see him again when we make our way down from St. Bernard Pass and begin our final stretch through Italy.

By this time it was late. If I was tired and my mind saturated before I arrived in Aosta, I was officially tapped out after this day. I had no idea it was almost 9:30pm, and I had not made a hotel arrangement. I hadn’t known if I’d stay the night there or catch a train back to Torino. I just assumed if it became apparent I’d stay in Aosta, I’d find something near the train station and collapse. Well, everything nearby was expensive, and none of the hostels in the guidebook were the least bit nearby. On top of my exhaustion, I now piled a sizeable portion of embarrassment at not having made proper preparations. But Aldo and Mina, patiently and generously collected my things and me into their van, and away we went. We stopped into Ristorante Sottosopra near their home, which also has several rooms upstairs for rent. The owner, Luciano, said he had a room but he couldn’t have it ready until 11pm after the restaurant closed. So, I spent that time waiting at the home of Mina, Aldo, and their friendly daughter, Chiara. Enea had given Aldo an historical photographic reenactment of Alpine life before modern conveniences. He and I sat on the sofa together as he explained to me their way of life back then, from how they celebrated festivals, gathered crops, cared for livestock, dressed, made cheese, and many other fascinating things. My limited understanding of the Italian language compounded by my utter fatigue proved this to be challenging yet thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Soon after we finished the book, it was time for my room to be ready. I said good-bye to Mina and Chiara, and Aldo kindly drove me to Sottosopra so I could get my much-needed sleep. Luciano greeted us excitedly and led me to my room. It was a nice room with a big shower and plenty of hot water! While I can certainly live contentedly without these things, I was exceptionally grateful to see them this night. It had been a full day on the heels of a very full few weeks prior, and I was ready to rest!

I would like to extend a considerable thank you to yet more gracious friends who gave of their time and energy to welcome me. I look forward to seeing Enea, Aldo, Mina, and perhaps even Chiara next year.

Visit the ENEA FIORENTINI: A FRIEND IN AOSTA photo gallery.

017. A TIME IN TORINO by Cara Hines

There is little better than watching the landscape slip past beyond the windows of a train car. I had almost 6 hours to enjoy this pursuit on the ride from Paris to Turin. Turin, or Torino as it’s called in Italian, is the capital of the Piedmont region located in the northwest part of the boot. It was also the first capital of the United Kingdom of Italy for a brief period until the title was given to Rome in 1871. As such, this modern, cosmopolitan city also boasts a great deal of historical architecture that's worth visiting. I hope to return when I have time to explore its rich cultural and historical legacy.

I was looking forward to being greeted by Rosalba, a woman close my age who I met at the Vipassana meditation retreat. In the few minutes we were able to speak after our vow of noble silence concluded on that last day, we conversed briefly about my project and the purpose of my travels. I explained that, in addition to wanting to be immersed in other cultures which, for me is the source of a great deal of inspiration and learning, I am here to learn about the Via Francigena. She instantly lit up. She’s an avid pilgrim herself, having completed the Santiago de Campostella in Spain as well as others. We traded contact information, and since she lives in Torino, it was perfect for me. I had plans to meet with Enea Fiorentini, a man in the nearby town of Aosta, which is the first stop in Italy on the Via Francigena after descending from the Great Saint Bernard Pass in the Alps.

Rosalba was at Torino Porta Susa train station to greet me with open arms and her signature warm, child-like smile. We piled my things into her car and drove to the apartment in the north of town that she shares with her girlfriend, Elena. Rosalba speaks a little English, and I speak even less Italian. We spent a long time that evening conversing by way of Google Translation. I know, it’s cheating, but when you want to convey a lot of information and concepts quickly, it’s a great tool. Soon Elena arrived home from work, and she’s quite fluent in English. This resulted in a lot of extra work for her to translate during my stay with them. I’ll have to dedicate a future trip to deepening my understanding of the Italian language, because I was quite spoiled on this journey with friends who speak English. It’s OK. My brain is saturated with new information. I’m not sure it could have taken in much more.

Rosalba and Elena felt right away like very old friends to me. They were more than generous in their willingness to make sure I was fed, transported to and from where I needed to go, and able to make appropriate travel arrangements. We talked and laughed until the wee hours each night I stayed with them about life. I felt instantly at home with them, and I think I have lifelong friends who I HOPE will visit me in Colorado someday. We went out for wine and pizza on Friday night with two of their friends, Roberta and Mattina. On Saturday, we got up to meet Irene and Letizia for a hike. From the village of Chiusa di San Michele west of Torino, we hiked along a fairly steep trail up the side of Mount Pirchiriano. The reward at the top of this mountain is an early Christian basilica called Sacra di San Michele, or Saint Michael’s Abbey. Its beginnings were in the late 10th century, the same era as Sigeric Archbishop of Canterbury’s journey to and from Rome upon which he provided us with the earliest known written account of the Via Francigena. This means he would have passed very near the spot this abbey sits upon as it was being conceived over a millennium ago. This all took place hundreds of years before the USA was a glimmer in the eyes of our founding fathers and mothers. And here I stood. Moments of realization like these hit me with a sobering awareness of the diminutive yet enduring role our existence can play in the entire scheme of things.

On the hike, the five of us laughed and played like young schoolgirls. Half-way up the mountain, we met a small band of Harley Davidson enthusiasts. Some of you who know me may be aware of my proclivity for meeting and befriending these two-wheeled gangs in unexpected places. Like the time I enjoyed an unplanned day of touring through the countryside near Seville Spain with a large Harley-Davidson crew. I didn’t have the pleasure of riding with this group, but a man named Sergio volunteered to let me join him on his Hog for a photo opportunity. I also discovered for the first time the delicacy known as chestnuts fallen from the chestnut trees abundant in this region. Apparently their North American cousins were almost completely eradicated early last century by a fungus, and as such I’ve not previously had the pleasure of foraging for these wonderful treats. I came away that day with a pocketful of them and a slightly upset stomach from consuming far too many raw. Later, I enjoyed oven-roasted chestnuts with our meal, courtesy of Elena. All told, the day was wonderful! We enjoyed a reprieve of rain and fog for views across the Val di Susa, bits of youthful nonsense, and quiet moments of walking meditation along the colorful autumn path. Ahhh, the pleasures of adult-childhood.


I’m now waiting for Rosalba to pick me up from the home of Vanna and Paolo, parents of my friend and former business associate, Davide. They live in a beautiful home in an affluent part of Torino, a neighborhood called Crimea. I already knew that Davide is adorable. Now I know why. I discovered an immediate fondness for his mother. Vanna is about my height, perhaps a bit taller; she has a strong character, and a deep, kind soul. I can see a great intelligence and tenacity in her. My favorite part of the evening was the time she and I spent in her study sharing tea and biscuits. It was far too short for my liking, as I enjoyed hearing her thoughts and wisdom. She asked me about myself, so I told her a little about the documentary project and my plan to walk the Via Francigena next year, as well as my new way of life as an inspired vagabond. She cited Herman Melville when she said I swim in deep waters. Melville makes reference to fish that swim in either deep or shallow waters. In deep waters the challenges and the risks are much greater, but if you brave them, the rewards are boundless. She told me how she’s always resolved to swim in deep waters of her own. I can see this in her. It’s a quality I greatly admire. Hopefully I emulate it as she suggests.

She seemed excited by my story and soon proposed we join her husband and his business associates in the living room. They were just finishing their meeting when we entered. I was nervous at this unexpected audience, but I did my best given my travel-weary appearance and state of mind. The couple Paolo was meeting with are in the advertising business and live in a town near Torino famous for its peaches, wine, and a particular kind of white truffle. Vanna wanted to introduce me to them as potential contacts for marketing ideas or other for the project. You never know, right? They immediately focused on the matter of sponsorship and offered some practicable suggestions. While I truly appreciate and comprehend the financial realities of the endeavor, I’ve felt that I must concentrate, at least up to this point, on the heart and soul of the project, the vision and its development into a viable undertaking. They inquired about a proposal, of course. Otherwise, how will they know that I’m legitimate and not just a flighty dreamer with big ideas, a lot of talk, and no product? I assured them that I’m committed. I’ll return home from this trip with enough information, experience and contacts to finalize a complete and compelling proposal, including a website and short video demonstrating the project’s purpose and aesthetic sensitivity. I promised to send this to them when I have it ready, and they agreed to receive it.

Luckily I wiggled out of talking shop for a few moments, because my heart’s true fondness is for knowing people’s passions. I learned that his is banjo. His personal calling card has a clever Peanuts cartoon on the back in which Linus says, “The way I see it, as soon as a baby is born he should be issued a banjo.” That’s a nice thought, isn’t it—that each of us at birth would be issued the tool of our soul’s fulfillment? Apparently he’s quite adept at playing the instrument in addition to enjoying it immensely. It’s a shame I didn’t have an opportunity to hear him play. I derive great satisfaction from catching people in the act of doing what makes them come alive. Next time?

Visit the A TIME IN TORINO photo gallery.

016. A WALK...AND PARIS IN 90MIN by Cara Hines

Patrick, dropped me off this morning at the canal that Via Francigena follows for a bit as it leaves Reims heading south. It was perfectly on his way to work. It’s now a little after 10am, and I’m in the village called Sillery in a café having a coffee and a cheese sandwich. A stinky cheese sandwich isn’t really what I wanted, but I didn’t know what the other things on the menu were. “Sandwich fromage” I can figure out since cheese is “formaggio” in Italian.

It’s quite a problem to have not even a basic understanding of the language. French is so beautiful, and I can’t even pronounce words on a menu. I mean, the city of Riems sounds like something between “Rez” and “Rays”. Why the hell is the “m” there if it makes no sound? I don’t even know how to ask for water. I now appreciate my knowledge of the Italian and Spanish languages, even as limited as it is. It’s developing. The foundation is there.

The thing I most miss out on is dialogue with the people I meet. This morning as I walked along the trail by the canal, I met a man who was fishing and camping. He seemed very curious about me, and the fact that I was a woman alone walking with a backpack. He mentioned the Santiago de Campostella pilgrimage route through Spain. Since I couldn’t explain I’m only taking a walk for one day, I told him I was walking from Inghilterra to Roma Italia. He recoiled, his face contorted, and he laughed in disbelief. He clearly thought I was nuts! Maybe I am. It would have been nice to talk with him and learn about his fishing and ask about his family, and learn what he knows of the area. Of course, if I were able to speak with him and every other person I meet, I might never walk. I’d be curious to know what he was up to, and as such, I’d have spent the day fishing with this nice French man rather than walking. It’s not such a terrible thought. I like the idea of simply waking up each morning with no concretized itinerary, to simply walk in a general direction with a destination in mind but remaining open to whatever forks might appear in the road.

And now as I sit in this café writing, the very cute barista man and two customers at the bar, one with his dog that is incessantly begging and barking for my fromage sandwich, I cannot talk with them either. What a shame. We tried chatting. It just didn’t get very far. One of the old men apparently ordered a glass of wine for me, which I could have walked without, but I graciously accepted and drank it. At least I could say “merci beaucoup” with a big smile, and he knew what I meant.


Now I’m sitting in the small village of Verzenay after walking her from Sillery. I missed one minor turn-off from the road that passes the champagne house Langlais-Decotte Grand Cru, so I wound my way through the vineyard fields, with strong winds in my face and thick mud. The earth here is a chalky grey, and when it’s wet, it’s like walking through the sort of clay a potter might throw. It sticks to your shoes and everything else, but it’s also slick as oil. I almost slipped several times dodging mud puddles. The beacon for my trek was the Moulin de Verzenay, a large windmill and estate on a hill set against a bright blue sky. The vision of it was something from a fairytale. I made my way and was rewarded at the top of the hill with stunning views of the endless champagne vineyards in almost every direction, and of Verzenay village to the southwest.

Walking with only this backpack and my thoughts in a new place was heavenly. I mean that literally. It truly was heaven on Earth, to simply be alone with my thoughts and the present moment; concerned only with putting one foot in front of the other, watching for my next turn, and finding something to eat. It bolstered my resolve to make the long walk on the Via Francigena next year, and I have no doubt it will be a success no matter how it goes. Or who.


In an attempt to follow the route suggested by the guidebook, I took an off-road path coming out of Verzenay. I did this against my better judgment and added close to an hour to my return trip. It’s a little difficult following the guidebook in reverse order. In addition, the map portion is quite vague and seems incomplete. As I’m a very visual person, the listed directions were a bit difficult to follow. It seems well suited for use if you have a GPS system, which I do not have, and I don’t care to. Of course, there’s always the possibility of user error. I’m not going to refute that as a prospect! So, as in the spirit of a true pilgrimage, perhaps the beauty is in simply feeling your way, and accepting what is.

On my way back through Sillery, I stopped to have a quick glass of Vin blanc at the same café I visited earlier. Honestly, nature was calling in a big bad way, and I couldn’t find a public restroom elsewhere. That’s OK. The cute barista / café owner was still there and still cute. I finished my glass and asked to pay so I could hurry to meet Patrick, but he poured another glass instead, indicating it was his treat. Again, my lack of aptitude in the French language posed a problem. It was impossible for me to explain I had to be somewhere and walk quickly for over an hour to get there. I also didn’t want to refuse his gesture without being able to explain why. A good problem to have, I suppose. So I drank down that second glass of wine (the last thing I needed!) as quickly as possible without being rude. I bid farewell and proceeded to walk as fast as I could with already tired legs, sore feet, and a backpack full of equipment that I could have sworn gained 10 pounds since the morning. Luckily, it was a clear and cool night. I arrived at the meeting point just in time as Patrick had arrived less than five minutes prior.

Back at his home, I showered from my long day, and we enjoyed another family dinner. Patrick introduced me to some websites and information that will help tremendously with my planning efforts for next year. We discussed the project, and at a certain point I mentioned Immacolata Coraggio’s name. (She’s the woman who hosted me earlier in this trip for a night near Milan and who walked the entire Via Francigean last summer.) He immediately recognized it from a request he received last year from a pilgrim needing a place to sleep on her way through Reims. He even found the email to confirm, and it was indeed the same person. How’s that for small world?

Patrick and Pascal were wonderful hosts. I enjoyed them thoroughly, as brief and short of notice as my visit was. The next morning I had a 45-minute walk to the train station and an all-day train ride to Torino. There would be a 90-minute layover in Paris, which I used to wander the streets and get a few photographs. I discovered an open-air market tucked away in a rather Bohemian little neighborhood near the station. Lining the streets were vendor carts overflowing with vegetables and fruits, meats, flowers, nuts, candies. In the middle of a large square were tables full of everything you could want. It was a big open-air flea market or thrift store. I could have gotten in trouble there, so it’s a good thing I had to hurry. And that I’d have to carry anything I’d buy.

I’m fairly certain 90 minutes in Paris is not enough. No, of course it isn’t. But in those 90 minutes, I was told I’m beautiful by a little old man, offered a kiss by another one, yelled at for taking pictures of one of the vegetable stands, asked to take pictures at the butcher shop, befriended by a couple of guys from Africa who play football (soccer) together and jumped into the picture of the butcher shop. I watched two older boys gleefully attempt to teach their younger brother how to skateboard, walked behind a little old couple holding hands and googly-eyed as they walked down the sidewalk, and witnessed a little girl with the cutest black Shirley Temple curls throw a temper tantrum with her mother in the middle of the street. I saw a man riding his red bicycle wearing bright red pants, glasses and scarf. He looked very serious about things. I watched a group of men playing in what appeared to be an impromptu chess match at the edge of a large open plaza, and a couple who stopped in the middle of it to make out for no less than 5 minutes without coming up for air. It was a rich and colorful little walk of Amelie ilk and worth every second I squeezed out of it. 

Visit the A WALK...AND PARIS IN 90MIN photo gallery.

015. FERRY TIMES & FRENCH DIGS by Cara Hines

Journal from 16-17 November continuation from "Canterbury Tales" (this is a long one!):

I left Canterbury later than I’d planned, placing me on the ferry at near dark. My intention was to reach Dover with plenty of light left so I could get footage as I crossed the English Channel. I contemplated spending the night in Dover so I could take the ferry in the morning, but there was a twilight still in the sky, and I thought I should go on to Calais for easier travel to Reims the next day. I got a few shots inside the ferry port, despite the office telling me I couldn’t film when I asked their permission. I simply turned Z1-Kenobi on to sneak some quick shots while I was taking the equipment apart and putting it away. What a rebel.

Once on the ferry, I took him up to the top deck and did what I could from there without having quite enough light or a dead squirrel. I’ll explain that part for those who think I might have a hidden fascination with taxidermy. A dead squirrel is the big, fuzzy thing you sometimes see covering a microphone. It helps block the wind. In the case of the English Channel, however, I believe half a dozen dead squirrels wouldn’t have been sufficient. Apparently it’s always incredibly windy, part of what makes it one of the roughest waterways in the world. It lived up to its reputation during my crossing. There were a couple of times I thought I might be woman overboard or parasailing without a sail.

Back down in the lounge level, I met up with Michael, a guy from Indiana I’d met on the shuttle ride to the ferry. Neither of us had sleeping arrangements in Calais, so we tried accessing my internet to look up hostels. Unsuccessful, we chatted for a bit until he decided to nap. Poor guy hadn’t had much sleep and looked like he might collapse at any moment. We landed in Calais at 7:30pm, which is apparently after the shuttle to the town center stops running. Honestly, 7:30pm? So we had to walk a distance to get there, and once there, had no idea where to go. We passed several hotels, but they were more expensive than either of us cared to pay.

I thought we should find a spot for a cheap bite to eat and to look up on my laptop potential places to stay. I also wanted to check my email in case by some miracle the couchsurfing host I’d emailed had gotten back to me at the last minute. It seems, however, that very little is cheap in Calais, and before we could find a place to plop down, this adorable young Frenchman came straight up to me with the biggest smile on his face fully engaged in blithe conversation as if he’d known me his whole life. I was confused at first but quickly realized he was drunk…or something. He wasn’t trying to grope me or my bags (pickpocket posing as friendly drunk boy), so I decided to amuse myself with him for a bit. I could tell Michael wasn’t too keen on the situation. I’m not sure if that’s because he was so tired and wanted to find a place to sleep, or if he simply isn’t as willing as I am to converse with a signpost…or a strange and intoxicated Frenchman.

The boy was soon joined by two friends who arrived apologizing for him. They did their best in broken English to point us in the direction of an internet point and a hostel. The efforts to gather any real information were futile, so soon we exchanged our European double kisses and went on our way. Turning the corner we passed a bar that spoke to me. We weren’t making any progress otherwise, so I entered with Michael in tow. Unfortunately, they had no food, so we bought beers and sat down to open up the laptop. It was my first brush with the French language on this trip, and it hit me immediately how much difficulty I was going to have. I hadn’t prepared for it in the least. The female bartender, well-endowed and unafraid to display them for everyone, was friendly enough but made it known she couldn’t understand why we refused to “parler Francais”. But there was a nice man at the end of the bar who spoke to us in English and invited himself to join us at our table. I was thrilled. I love people. Have never met a stranger. Michael…not so much. This stranger’s name was Pascal. We started telling our stories, and his turns out to be quite interesting. From what I understood, he works as a tourist information attendant. This is why he can speak English, among other languages. But it’s what he does outside of work that’s most interesting. I hope I’m able to provide an accurate description of it here. If I misinform in any way, I hope he or someone else will correct me.

He is involved with an organization working for the humane treatment of Afghan refugees in Calais and against their deportation. In Afghanistan, you either join the Taliban or you and your family run the risk of being tortured and/or killed. Most Afghans want nothing to do with the Taliban or any extremist group. He described them as a generally kind people who want to lead simple, peaceful lives with their families. They want to be happy. It’s those few, very loud and dangerous eggs that has made life there hell for everyone. This has led to the flight of many Afghans, mostly able-bodied men and boys. They are fleeing their native soil in hopes of starting over in a place where they’re free to pursue the life they want and perhaps to send assistance home to their families. But they have generally become the world’s unwanted. Outside their homeland, they’re seen as terrorists, freeloaders, and useless pests. Most of them are seeking what we all seek: freedom, peace, and happiness. The UK is high on their list of places to escape to, and since Calais is a major port of entry into Great Britain, it’s just one of several places where they are accumulating in large numbers. Pascal became involved in the organization that ran a shelter for the refugees helping to house, feed, and protect them. Then last year, he was asked to organize a large public educational and interactive exposition about the issue. By his account, it was a massive undertaking and one that was successful. He’d never attempted anything like that, and apparently he discovered he’s quite good at it.

Eventually, the powers that be shut down the shelter, and the refugees had nowhere to go. You can find them camping wherever a tent will fit or someone will allow them. Police come and run them off. They’re sent away, arrested, sometimes mistreated, and often deported back to Afghanistan where they face further persecution. Activists and volunteers come from all over the world to help them. They assist them in finding food and shelter; they document their plight, tell their stories, and rally on their behalf. It became apparent this would be an ongoing situation, so the organization decided to lease an apartment to house the activists. Pascal was instrumental in making that happen as well, and continues to help manage it. As is turned out, there was no one staying in the apartment that night, and he offered for Michael and me to sleep there. “Of course!” was my answer. My eyes met Michael’s, who had a look somewhere between mild discomfort and sheer terror on his face. Apparently I make people like him nervous. I don’t have much of a maternal instinct. In other words, you’re responsible for yourself. I’m here to experience everything I can. If someone offers me a place to stay for no charge that promises a good story, I’m going to take it as opposed to wandering aimlessly to find a hostel or a hotel costing more than I care to pay, teaching me nothing new, and giving me nothing to remember or talk about. Soon Michael excused himself to go find a reliable place to sleep. It was probably better given how utterly exhausted he was. He was making his way to Germany to meet up with friends there. I hope he made it safely and well rested. I gave him my email address and website, but something tells me I won’t hear from him.

Pascal introduced me to Thierry, also a local activist for the Afghan refugee cause, and who was involved in the making of a film on the subject. He wrote a poem in my journal in French. We ate peanuts and drank beer. The buxom bartender played pool with the other customers. One man came in with his Jack Russell Terrier, with whom I quickly bonded. And soon we went on our way. Pascal insisted upon cooking dinner for me rather than my spending money on going out. We enjoyed his delightful cooking, a dish of pasta with beef and tomatoes, wine and coffee.

I wanted to do some filming at the ferry port and along the boardwalk where the Via Francigena passes the next day; all of this before leaving on my train to Reims in the afternoon. I stopped into a seaside café for coffee and a dessert. I had a chocolate éclair (mmmmmmm) and a coffee…only two of the four major food groups in France. The other two are wine and “everything else”. Pascal joined me and was the perfect tour guide. As we walked, told me stories and bits of history about the place. Calais is a very old seaport. Until the decline of this way of life in the last century, many people made their living as fishermen. Now there are only the large corporate fishing companies. Those few small fishing boats still in existence typically belong to people for whom it’s a pastime.

We walked out onto a pier where fishermen were lined up baiting their hooks and casting their lines. One almost hooked me at which point I had another opportunity to be woman overboard. The P&O and SeaFrance ferries were coming and going. A few sailboats bobbed nearby enjoying the sunny day. Birds in every size floated like clouds on the sea breeze next to us, alighted on the water, or squawked at each other from the tops of the rails. There was a small lighthouse at the end of the pier surrounded by more fishermen. One of them let me film the fish he was putting into his catch bag. Pascal told him his fish was going back to America with me, and he replied that the Americans wouldn’t be so impressed. I guess he was less than pleased with his capture. I had a rare treat in the form of a clear day, allowing me to see the White Cliffs of Dover across the channel. My tape finally ran out, and I was pleased with what I’d gotten. The unfortunate part I realized later was that in my determination to get the video, I neglected to take any still photographs. I have no images to share with you at this point. After I return home, I can clip some from the video and post to the site. Soon, I said good-bye to my new friend and Good Samaritan, and made my way to the train station.

I had a 3-hour itinerary with a change in Paris, arrived that evening at the Champagne-Ardenne train station on the southernmost part of Reims. My couchsurfing.com host, Patrick, was there to pick me up in his car and drive me to his family’s home nearby. He and his lovely wife, also named Pascal, live in a nice suburban home with two of their three sons. Their oldest is currently traveling around the world, having spent a great deal of time in various parts of Asia and, if my memory serves me correctly, he’s now in New Zealand or Australia. Patrick is a veteran couchsurfer. He’s hosted people from many countries and has surfed all over the world.

Pascal is the librarian at a dental college, and Patrick is an archaeologist. I was fascinated by this fact. Opportunities for the profession of archaeology are limited in North America, and much of what is useful is actually paleontology, the study of life forms from prehistoric or geological times (think dinosaurs and fossils). As such, the only one I’ve ever met stateside was an assistant at the last design firm I worked for in Houston. She was an archaeology major who specialized in ancient Roman antiquities but had no intention of living in Europe. I never quite understood that. As far as I know, the Romans never made it to southeast Texas. The profession is much more common in Europe as the history of man there is so much older. In fact, it’s beyond comprehension if you haven’t experienced it firsthand. I say this from my own experience because it wasn’t until I first came to Italy in 1996, sleeping and eating in buildings erected long before Columbus sailed for America, that I could taste how relative the term “old” can be.

Apparently, any new building or landscape project in France is required to have an archeological survey. Think of it like the standard procedure in the US of land surveys and soil tests. Companies like the one Patrick works for are hired to make a certain number of test digs dependent upon their location, size and importance of the project, and the mood of the public official that day. This part is the same in America. No matter where you go, there will always be bureaucrats who were bullied in 7th grade, burned their toast that morning, or who just don’t like the way you look, and are bent upon making life difficult for you. If something is found in the dig, that’s deemed as important and new information, they can close the project for more extensive digging and study. The shocking thing for me was Patrick’s estimation that some 25-30% of test digs result in findings significant enough to extend the research. That seems like a high number to me, but then, I’ve personally never found even an arrowhead. It’s difficult for us, with all the land we have to sprawl out on that’s rarely if ever been occupied by other humans, to grasp how many layers of societies and history have stratified in these places. It’s staggering to contemplate. Can you imagine telling Mr. McStain he can’t build his development just yet because you found a little piece of pottery?

Soon after arriving from the train station, we gathered with their two sons and a girlfriend to enjoy an actual sit-down family dinner. That’s somewhat of an archaeological phenomenon of its own. I recall these from my childhood. While they came with their own set of annoyances and trade-offs, overall they were nice. Their replacements have arrived in the form of televisions and other artificial diversions. I propose that these distractions are strangling our society in a slow, almost unnoticeable asphyxiation that’s rendering us incapable of relating to each other with presence and authenticity. I can imagine a time far in the future when archaeologists unearth our civilization, discovering our televisions and the shrines we build for them. It’s highly probable they’ll deduce these contraptions were gods, to which we committed a great deal of money, time, energy, and devotion. I think this conclusion would be a fairly accurate representation of our reality. 

I’m grateful Patrick’s family reintroduced me to the rather archaic experience of the family dinner. I enjoyed myself.

014. KEEP ON PEELING by Cara Hines

Sometimes, no matter how far we come…no matter how many layers we peel away or how much we think we’ve evolved…old lessons show up in new packaging. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. Perhaps they’re new lessons in old packaging. Well, in any case, sometimes life throws at us (or we throw at ourselves) something that feels like a redo; like a test we have to retake but with the questions phrased just differently enough to confound us and create a new challenge. This isn’t a bad thing unless we think it is. Like everything else, the only meaning it has is what we give it.

Parts of tonight felt like stepping back in time to very old lessons; lessons I thought I’d learned a long time ago and didn’t need to repeat. I might just be more obstinate than I thought. Actually, I might be more optimistic/idealistic than what’s good for me. I typically see the highest potential in all people and situations I encounter. And that potential is just as much fantasy as the stories we tell ourselves to keep us from living into it. I create scenarios in my mind that don’t exist and that never culminate, in which everyone I meet rises above their current state of doing and being, and that includes me. I trick myself into thinking that’s what everyone wants. It’s not. It’s what I want. It’s my own expectation. I find that I’m so attached to the idea of everyone evolving beyond their present station in life, it’s incredibly painful when I discover they’re content with status quo, with living inside an illusion, even if what they’re choosing makes them miserable and harms others in the process. And I am incredibly frustrated with myself when I realize I’ve chosen to give this optimism over to someone who can’t possibly recognize its merits.

It’s another living example of how our attachments cause misery. How many times do I have to touch that fire to see how hot it is? Always new layers to peel, I suppose. Always.

013. A PILGRIM AND A PIE by Cara Hines

I'm way behind on my entries. I have some catching up to do. But as today is Thanksgiving, I thought I'd post my current writing and backtrack in coming days to catch you up on what's taken place in between. I arrived last night in Bolsena, Italy, and am staying at www.conventobolsena.org ...yes, it's as amazing as it looks in the pictures on the website. More explanation of it will follow later. For now, let's focus on the antics of today.

This was likely the most unique Thanksgiving I’ve ever had. I rested this morning, but as today was potentially the last for fair weather in the area, I soon set out to gather what footage I could of Via Francigena and the charming village of Bolsena. It was my typical day of wandering the streets, finding beauty in the cracks and crevices of every day life—cracks and crevices, I might add, that are more likely than not older than the country in which I live. I often garner more pleasure from the green moss-covered alleys and decaying doors, windows and fences, than I do in the awe-inspiring cathedrals and such.

It wasn’t until later in the afternoon, as the light was just beginning to fade from the soft golden cast of the 3:30 to 4:30 hour, that I made my first pilgrim sighting. I'd say that's a respectable finding for Thanksgiving Day, though I suppose it's not quite the right type of pilgrim, it's an appropriately timed allusion. I was strolling with Z1-Kenobi (aka my Sony video camera) near a Roman arch at the NW entrance to the old part of Bolsena when I looked ahead and saw him. It felt like I’d spotted a rare and endangered species in the wild. This simply is not the time of year, I’ve learned, that one typically sees pilgrims wandering the streets. He was dressed in full Pellegrino regalia:  sizeable backpack/rucksack, hiking boots, brimmed hat with patches, and a carved wooden walking stick. He was walking across the path rather than on it, looking slightly unsure of his whereabouts and carrying an amply tattered copy of the Lightfoot Guide to the Via Francigena. I called out to him in my broken Italian. He answered in broken Italian. We attempted this for a minute or so until we finally realized we both speak English. He’s British and the first official pilgrim I’ve met actively making the trek from Canterbury to Rome. In only six days he will take his final steps along the trail into Vatican City. He is also only 18 years old. And based on all accounts he’s come across, he’s likely the youngest modern-day pilgrim to make the entire walk alone from Canterbury to Rome.

I offered to buy him a snack and coffee or other if he wouldn’t mind allowing me to get some footage of him doing what pilgrims do, and talking to me about his experiences. He more than happily agreed, and we proceeded to have our very own movie set. It was a riot! When we finished that bit, we sat in a bar, I with my café macchiato, he with his tea, and I listened as he entertained me with stories. He had so much to say, and I was grinning from ear to ear. It turned out he was planning to stay at Convento Bolsena as well, so I led him up the hill to check in. We both took time in our respective rooms checking email and settling in, and then walked back into town for a bit of dinner. I insisted he try something besides his usual pizza in a box. I’ve been the recipient of so many kind souls on this trip and otherwise who’ve fed me and housed me without much if anything in return. I felt obliged to pay it forward. We enjoyed a dinner of various fish from Lake Bolsena, and he tried his first insalata mista. He’d not ever had Limoncello, a typical Italian aperitif that’s so lovely and sweet, so I ordered one for him. He winced as he tried a tiny sip. That’s OK because I was the recipient of whatever he didn’t want. We soon paid, had the restaurant owner take our photograph, and set out to find the dessert that has become one of his favorites—an ice cream delight known as “Magnum”. We walked into every open bar and caffe we could find, some of them 2 or 3 times, hoping this elusive sweet would materialize from thin air. We laughed and told stories as we wandered back and forth, and I’m quite sure we gathered plenty of attention from the locals out for their evening passagiate. We finally found one place with something similar to the Magnum and settled on that, enjoying it on our walk back to the convent.

I came back to my room to get Z1-Kenobi to join us, and I discovered a small plate with a piece of pumpkin pie waiting for me along with a note wishing me a “Happy Turkey Day”. I was thrilled! I’m sure my family was home at that very moment enjoying the same, and I shutter to let them know I preferred scarfing down my second favorite dessert of all time in my own room at this fairy tale place in Italy!

But Z1 and I were on a mission, so I saved most of the pie for later. We met up with Josh in the library. I hooked him up to the lavolier mic, adjusted the camera and tripod, and turned the lens on him. He spoke to the camera like a pro, sharing his experiences on the Francigena, how he came to choose it, what he's learned, and whatever wisdom he felt compelled to impart. At 18 I would have wilted in that situation, but he was brilliant! Turns out he’s had plenty of experience in front of the camera as well as with some of the equipment. He was one of the stars five years ago of a British reality TV series called “Rock School”. In this, Gene Simmons of KISS fame had a short span of time to take a group of classically trained music students from Christ’s Hospital School in England and shape them into a fully fledged rock-and-roll band. Josh, also known as “The Emperor”, was selected by Simmons as lead singer and was widely regarded as the highlight of the program. At one point, Josh and his mother hosted the veteran rock star for tea in their home, after which he drove Josh to school in his limousine. This guy has more interesting stories for his 18 years than most people have at 80! You can follow his journey from beginning to end on his blog at http://lethimcomehither.wordpress.com and be sure to wish him well on his final few days walking. He’s one person who is seizing his life with gusto and a grin…carpe vitam.

Now I’m back in my room seizing some pumpkin pie. And giving a cornucopia of gratitude for every moment I get to spend in this life. I’m amazed by it all. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! (please visit the photo gallery for pictures of the day...and of Joshua Bell)

Visit the A PILGRIM AND A PIE photo gallery.