Friday, April 24, 2015


The "trail" on our last day  in Halong Bay, 
just outside the
Viet Hai village on Cat Ba island. 
My boot slipped on the mossy rock and the cicadas screamed in the tangle of vines that surrounded me.  I felt a single drop of sweat balancing on my forehead, a sweet moment of clinging before it determinedly dripped into my eye.  In a moment of unsettledness, I sucked in my stomach and cursed my current state of physical being.  

On the last day of this trip, ten days in northern Vietnam with my good friend Gwen, was the end of a combination of a beautiful foray into mountains and sea and an exercise in humility and balance.  I taught the VIetnamese guide the definition of the word "clumsy".  I forgot a couple of items, I stumbled and fumbled for equilibrium. I  barfed in the back seat on winding mountain roads, lumbered up the side of mountains, tripped over uneven decking at a fish farm and crawl-twisted sideways out of a kayak.  Both  physically and spiritually, I harkened back to earlier times.

Fish farms and our kayak in Halong Bay.  This area desperately
needs a management strategy. Tourists

In the years between 1992-1995, I journeyed  in the deserts of Big Bend (spring), Alaska (summer) and the mountains of Colorado (winter) and then for a few years following I worked office jobs all winter and guided all summer.   I was nimble and deft, organized and personable.   Merrily busy, I spent days rowing by and watching the turkey vultures perched on barb wire fences, their wings outstretched to dry with the cactus blooming below after the rain storm.  I cooked pancakes while watching whales offshore. I rowed and paddled against headwinds, slept outside or in tents, hiked and ventured.   I grew trim legs and massive shoulders, blonde hair, and brown skin.  I told a lot of stories and jokes, explained ecosystems and history. It was life filled with happenstance and a strong web of connections to place and people. Not all wine and roses however as managing my diabetes was always an afterthought. In my mid-thirties, another level of aging reality caved in around me. I got a great job and moved to Anchorage. I bought a house. I weekend warriored. photo 
Finally in 2008, a window opened and I found myself guiding a  late season trip on the Marsh Fork of the Canning River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It was a rough transition. Gloves fell out of my pockets and into the river current because my field jacket was strained from extra weight gained since the last big adventure, I left behind a special gift from a long lost friend from a moment of not taking the time to put it back where it belonged and checking the site before I left. I was feeling rushed and later regretted it.  

However, in a crystal moments in that crisp August air, as I held  the guide paddle strong and true and navigated through the river's rock gardens with ease, I caught  a sideways fleeting glimpse of a grayling emerging from the shade of a small eddy. The sun caught his scales and reflected a prism of color back to me. A tiny gift of insight, a moment of serendipity, a validation of all that I believed in about nature and spirit, of purpose and being and of luck and fortitude.

Market day in Bac Ha. The town was sleepy until action started on
Saturday night. Shops and restaurants opened,
people flooded into the town, wares were unfurled.

I recalled that moment as I hiked up from the bottom of the river valley to our lodge at the ridge line in the mountains north of Sapa in northern Vietnam.  Gwen and I were accompanied by a team of middle-aged Red Dao ladies.  We met them at the gate outside the lodge as they approached us hoping for a sale.  We set off down the road with a very clear and cheery, "No buy today", but four women decided to tag along when I told them where we wanted to go.   

Lunch time first aid. A splinter is removed with a needle hidden
somewhere in the bag. 
Dancing along on the trail down, they showed us short cuts and offered a basic interpretation of the culture of farming and their lives.  Dau and Fan held my arms on the muddy spots, their feet confident in the cheap white plastic slip on sandals through a steep decline through dense brush and young trees. With gifts of rambutan from Hanoi (their first taste), we lunched in the cool shade at the restaurant at the river with our stolen sandwiches from the breakfast bar and the ladies's purchases of sweet bread from the bakery. After a short visit to cool water gushing from very large rocks, our team began the long traverse to the top.  It got hot.

The ladies just snapped off a couple of young bush branches with lots of leaves and distributed to the team, who proudly carried them aloft for shade from the midday heat. I had my trusty, decrepit umbrella. It was a long climb. The ladies began to show a mild sweat on the brow while I was awash in a sheen from every pore, the body reaching outside to a hope for a small breeze of evaporative cooling. There was a brief discussion on the crossroads and then we headed into the depth of a bamboo forest.

In a land where nearly every square meter is cultivated into agricultural production--as the ladies said, their families grow and want more land for their own-- the forest was a precious place. Cooler by several degrees, filled with bird songs, providing habitat for unknown creatures. The trails were well-worn switchbacks populated by local people carrying harvesting tools, who seemed to comment on my now drenched physical appearance. I was on my last legs. "Are you hungry?" they asked,"No." I gasped. "Just hot."

Sights like this were common in our treks through northern Vietnam.
Our guide in Bac Ha (Mr Tung-- was
not the only interpreter to mention the increased pressures of
population and development. 
Moments later, the ladies proclaimed that happiness lay ahead. They mimed a vision of easy striding with a big smile, and soon we reached the level road that led back to our lodge and their "stores"- the bamboo shacks next to the road just outside the lodge gate. We met for a few moments afterward, "Away from the others", they said. We paid them first as guides and again in small purchases.  It was money gladly shared.  I found myself humbled by their fortitude and grateful for their kind support.  I was envious of their physical grace and ease, from their life- long familiarity of place, a slight body build and a spirit that would willingly head down and back up again to make a sale and have a small bit of refreshment in the river. 
On the market day in Can Cau, the piglets screamed as they were
placed head first into grain bags.  There are some days
 I feel like this at the office. Any office. 

I am envious of their grace. In this next stage- firmly set in middle-years and now in my reduced workload and hours, I am compelled to move again, breaking free from the shackles of self-induced pressures, immobile hours at the desk and the tugging, nagging feeling of being restrained from creative work, it is time to flex the muscle.

Yesterday, I finished a series of laps in the pool and as I walked back to the chaise lounge and towel my foot slipped with a tiny moment of uncertainty. This small reminder that I find a life well-lived involves pushing boundaries and testing limits, bumbling and stumbling our way through physical, emotional and social adventures. We must be unsettled and exerted for a while before we can uncover the power of grace.

View from the top of the hill on the last day hike.  Humid was
an understatement as the clouds were drifting in around us but there was a nice breeze
at the top.  Not many people see this view of Halong Bay.  The trip ended with a wild water 
water taxi ride to the  Bai Ben harbor, in a small craft buffeted big swells.  A moment of
concern as the engine sputtered in the midst of waves on the starboard side crashed 
against the karst cliffs and the boatman laughed a bit manically at the time.