Ten Life Lessons Backcountry Backpacking Taught Me

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I’ve gone on a couple of solo backcountry backpacking trips, and both occasions proved to be excellent opportunities for introspection and reflection. There’s something about paring my life down to the very bare minimum and spending my time in nature that allows me to go deeply into myself, and to confront parts of myself that I otherwise might run/hide from in an ordinarily busy life. I’ve also found that backpacking in particular, of all activities, seems to have many parallels to life it self. Here are some “life lessons” that I’ve extracted while backpacking (though, I must add that these are lessons that I find myself often having to relearn).

  1. It’s a process, not a destination – Backpacking is one of the relatively few activities where it’s really about the process rather than the results. That is, every minute of backpacking is backpacking. It’s backpacking when you’re walking, it’s backpacking when you stop to admire the scenery, it’s backpacking when you’re in your tent, it’s backpacking when you’re pooping in a hole, it’s backpacking when you’re cooking, it’s backpacking when you’re eating. Every minute of it is backpacking. And life is like that too, though it’s easy to forget. I think it’s easy to get into a trap of thinking like life will happen once you’ve achieved/obtained/finished this or that. But the reality is, every minute of life is life. It’s life when you’re working, it’s life when you’re playing, it’s life when you’re sad, it’s life when you’re happy. It’s life when everything seems to go wrong, and it’s also life when things go well. Every minute of our existence is life, so we should do what we can to make the most of it.

  2. It’s hard, most of the time, and that’s normal – Backpacking isn’t exactly a picnic at the park. You have a heavy pack, you’re probably hot or cold, you’re dehydrated, the food isn’t great, your feet hurt, your shoulders ache, your hips are chafed, there are bugs and filth, maybe there are bears or snakes, and you’re never there yet. But if you love backpacking, you learn to accept all of this. Sure, you try to make yourself comfortable as much as possible, but I don’t think any backpacker has illusions of it generally being easy or comfortable. And once you accept that it is what it is, you barely notice the discomfort and you become more receptive to the good parts. I find that life is like that too. Life is hard. If you delude yourself into thinking that it should be peachy all the time, you will be dissatisfied, frustrated and maybe depressed most of the time, and if you’re dissatisfied or frustrated most of the time, you won’t be in a mindset to appreciate the finer moments. But if you accept that life is often hard, and things don’t always go the way you want, then it paradoxically becomes easier to accept setbacks unfazed and appreciate those good moments.

  3. You need less than you think – Whenever I go backpacking, I’m struck by how little I truly need to feel happy. Water, food (and not much of it), shelter. That’s pretty much it. Sure, eventually I’ll want to bathe. Sometimes I miss human contact. But I believe it’s important to know what your needs are, vs what your wants are. Needs are things that keep you alive and physically or mentally healthy. Everything else is a want. Most things in modern society are wants. A big house? A want. A shiny new phone? A want. A nice vacation? Probably a want. The prestigious job? A want. You can tie your happiness and sense of self worth to your wants, but you don’t have to, and don’t worry, letting go of your wants won’t kill you either (that’s the definition of a want). That’s not to say that you shouldn’t get things you want. But I find that I appreciate getting what I want more, because rather than feeling like I’m getting something I’m entitled to, I can feel like I received an unexpected gift.

  4. The things you carry should nourish you – You might think of backpackers as “people who walk around with big heavy packs”. And to some degree, this is true. But the point of backpacking isn’t to walk around with a heavy pack. The heavy pack is there as a necessity, so that we have what we need to keep going. That also means, though, that there’s no reason to carry things that we don’t need. In fact, many backpackers religiously reduce waste, shaving grams and ounces where ever possible. When you’re backpacking, anything you carry that doesn’t serve you in some way is basically unnecessary baggage (more on this below). In our society, I think it’s easy to think that the goal is to collect as much stuff and responsibility as we can. After all, if you have a bigger house, more money, more kids, and a fancy job title with big responsibilities, we’d probably call you “successful.” But, does that really make us happier? For some, maybe, but for others, maybe not. I think the analogy of the heavy pack is one worth keeping in mind. When you’re thinking about adding a new burden to your life, whether it’s a mortgage, or a car loan, or a child, or a fancier job, I think it’s worth asking “Is it really worth adding this burden to my life?” And if the answer is no, don’t put it in your “pack”. If whatever you’re signing up for doesn’t nourish you, it’ll just weigh you down.

  5. Carry your own baggage – When you’re backpacking, you should try to be as self-sufficient as possible. Sure, if you’re with a group or with another person and you want to distribute the load, there’s nothing wrong with that. But, as a general rule, you should carry your load, and this is particular true if you have ‘baggage’ (as defined above, something you’re carrying that you don’t need). I believe this holds true in real life too. As someone who admittedly has perhaps a bigger load of historical baggage than others, this is perhaps the one lesson I struggle with most. But, it’s one I like to remind myself often, and if someday I am fortunate enough to find someone to share the load with, I would like to think that I’d be able to carry my own baggage.

  6. If the spring is dry, go to the next one – When I’m backpacking in the backcountry, I rely on springs (or ponds, streams, lakes) for water. Water, of course, is absolutely necessary to survive out there, so there’s inevitably a strong emotional attachment to finding water at the springs I visit. Naturally, and especially on a draught year like this one, many springs are dry, or barely give a trickle. It’s easy to be frustrated, or maybe even be slightly panicky, but that’s just a waste of energy. If this spring is dry, the sooner I can accept that and move on, the sooner I’ll actually get to water. We find “springs” in life too, to provide things we need. Maybe it’s a dream job, maybe it’s that cute girl/guy, or a high profile gig. Whatever it is, we want it, and we want it bad because we think it’ll give us something we need. Often times, it doesn’t work out. We don’t get the job, the girl/guy rejects us, or we don’t get the gig (or if we’re having a bad day, all of the above). As upsetting as it could be, the sooner we accept that we didn’t get what we wanted and move on, the sooner we will find the job, girl/guy, or gig that does work out.

  7. Know your North. Know your bearings – If you were to stop me in the woods and ask me which way was north, I’d be able to tell you. If you don’t know which way is north, you can’t navigate, and if you can’t navigate, you can’t know where you are or where you’re going. You’re lost. I’ve never gotten lost in the woods, but I’ve felt lost in my everyday life. I don’t mean ‘lost’ in the physical sense, but more in the sense that my life feels directionless and I find myself muttering to myself “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life.” Upon introspection, it usually turns out that it’s not that I don’t know what I’m doing; it’s usually that I’ve lost sight of what’s important to me — I’ve lost my True North. Once I remember what’s truly important to me, I can usually find my way back, or at least give myself a bearing to head in.

  8. Enjoy the scenery – When I’m backpacking, sometimes I’ll find myself in almost a zombie-like state, where I’ll be physically walking, but my mind will be entirely self-absorbed in some thought or another. When I’m in that state, I’m not present, and I’m not seeing what’s around me. So it helps to sometimes stop, take a deep breath, set aside whatever thought is occupying my mind, and take in the scenery. Sometimes all I see is trees. But sometimes I see breathtaking beauty, and all the hard work becomes worthwhile. Life can be that way too. We can get busy living our lives, doing work, running errands, dealing with whatever mini-crisis that has struck that day. But, I think it’s good to stop occasionally, and look around, both literally and figuratively. You may notice something you otherwise might’ve missed. You might gain a different perspective. You might see the big picture, and see that you’re sweating the little stuff. Whatever it is that there is to see, you’ll only see it if you stop and look.

  9. For a real adventure, go off the well-trodden paths – Paths are easy to follow without thinking. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing, if the path is taking you somewhere you know you want to go. But, when you step off the path, you need to focus on what you’re doing, and where you’re going. You need to check your progress, check your compass, scan ahead for potential hazards or openings through some thicket or perhaps a way down a rocky slope. It requires thought, focus, perception, creativity and decisiveness. It’s a richer experience than simply following a path, and it can also be hugely rewarding because you might reach a place nobody else has. We are often presented with well trodden paths in life too. Go to school, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids… It’s all planned for you, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you want, you also can step off the path, and find your own way too. If nothing else, you’ll be in for an adventure.
  10. Learn to fall gracefully – If you walk enough, you will fall. It’s bound to happen. Learning to fall gracefully can save you from injury or worse. Likewise, if you live fully, you will suffer failures and setbacks from time to time. Learning to handle these challenges with grace will help you ultimately be successful, because if you let a setback stop you or deter you, you’ll never get there. If you don’t learn to accept failure with grace, you also may become more fearful of taking risks, and as they say, no risk, no reward. So, take risks, fail gracefully, then try again and repeat as often as necessary.

Home Again

Shortly after Project 31 ended on the 19th, I headed to the city. Having spent a month alone in the woods, I thought I’d have a good time. I thought I’d appreciate the creature comforts, the infinite electricity supply, the alawys-on (and unlimited) internet connection, the magically appearing clean water, heat at the flick of a switch, places where people cook and serve you food, close proximity to friends…

The first night in the city, I couldn’t sleep. I’d forgotten how loud the city is at night. The constant traffic, the early morning garbage trucks, the beeping car alarms, distant sirens, fog horns, people yelling, dogs barking. It also doesn’t get dark in the city. Streetlight streamed in through the window, casting an unnatural orange glow, penetrating my eyelids. And even the heating was overbearing. On the numerous occasions that my shallow slumber was interrupted, I’d wake up drenched in sweat, feeling clammy and icky.

After a few days, I got homesick. So I came home.

To my own house. My own bed. To silence, darkness, and minimal heating. I switched off my MiFi and left it in the car. I turned off my inverter — my battery array hasn’t fully recovered anyway. And I lit some candles, and settled in with a hot mug of tea and a book.

When I started Project 31, I secretly hoped that I’d be miserable. If I were miserable, I’d know that I should head back to the city. I could give up this crazy life, give myself credit for having tried, and return to a normal life. Have a normal job, live in a normal place, and fill my days doing normal things. I’d be convinced that normal is good. I could be happy with normal, if I could only be convinced that it’s good.

But, it’s not. At least, not for me. So, here I am again. Back on Serenity Valley.

March 11, the day of the earthquake in Japan, was the 2nd anniversary of this blog and also of my quitting Google. At the time, I thought my adventures would last a year, maybe 18 months tops. I didn’t yet know that I’d buy land, but even after I bought land, I’d only initially planned on staying here for a month or two.

Here we are now, two years later. What was once a bare patch of dirt, rocks, shrubs and trees is now my home. And I’m starting to realize that I may never go back to my previous life.

Sometimes I wish I could go back. Living a normal life is so much easier. The story’s practically written for you. You do what you’re told, and everything hums along. If you get confused, there are people who can help you. The people around you are living more or less parallel lives, facing more or less the same problems. The problems you face have solutions, and often well documented ones at that. There are concrete goals, and objective metrics to tell you how you’re doing.

But when you step off the reservation, you’re on your own. There’s no script to follow. Nobody to tell you where to go, what to do, or even what to strive for. All there is, is a vastness stretching out to the horizon. Somewhere out there, beyond the hazy horizon, your future awaits. It waits for no one, but you. You don’t know where it is, nor what’s there. But you approach it, one step at a time. One step. At a time.

People asked what’s next. Here’s the list of possibilities I’ve come up with so far:

  • Volunteer in Japan (mostly, I’m hoping that All Hands will start a project)
  • Start a Garden 2.0
  • Start a beehive
  • Raise chickens
  • Volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in Alaska (or Mongolia…)
  • Volunteer at a WWOOF farm
  • Volunteer with the local fire station
  • Volunteer with the Forest Service somewhere nearby
  • Get a job
  • Go back to school

I have a couple of other smaller projects in mind too, but those are the major ones I’ve come up with so far. I’ll probably end up doing some combination of the above, though some of them fit better together than others. I’m also planning on finishing the book in the next couple of months as well.

Anyway, welcome to Year 3. Let’s see and find out what this year has in store for us.

Thoughts on the whole nuclear power thing

I’ve been pretty distracted these past few days, closely following developments on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. At first, it was mostly an academic curiosity, but as conditions at the plant deteriorated day after day, it’s become more personal. My parents and my brother are in Tokyo, some 140 miles away from the plant, and while that’s far enough that they’re not in any immediate danger, it’s not far enough for me to feel completely comfortable. My brother may be leaving soon, but my mom’s not willing to abandon her hometown quite yet, which is understandable. So I’ve been keeping a close eye on the news, doing my best to understand what’s going on so that I could advise her should risks increase further.

I’m learning that nuclear disasters are fundamentally different to natural disasters. If you survive a natural disaster, you can rebuild. If your home collapses in an earthquake, as long as you survive the quake, you can rebuild. If a fire burns down your house, you can rebuild. If a tsunami washes away your house, you can rebuild. If a tornado or hurricane blows away your house, you can rebuild.

But when I suggested to my mom that she evacuate and she asked me if she’d be able to return, I couldn’t honestly promise her that she would. As unlikely as it is, if fuel in one of those exposed spent fuel pools melt or even goes critical and radioactive Cesium (or worse, Plutonium from one of the MOX fuel rods) is released, and radioactive materials get blown up high enough, and the wind blows just so, it could reach Tokyo. Cesium has a half-life of 30 years, so radiation levels may not decrease appreciably in my mom’s life time. She may never be allowed to go back again. I know it’s highly unlikely. But not impossible.

Before this particular nuclear crisis, if you asked me what I thought about nuclear power plants, I would’ve said that I had some reservations but was more supportive than not. After all, unlike coal and gas powered plants, nuclear power plants don’t release greenhouse gasses, and by reprocessing and recycling spent fuel, it’s possible to significantly reduce nuclear waste down to manageable quantities. While long-term storage of nuclear waste could be a problem, climate change is a more immediate threat, and anything we could do slow its progress seemed like a reasonable idea to me.

After this week, I think I’m going to have to consider myself a skeptic. I think mankind may possess the scientific and technological capability to build safe nuclear power plants. But, possessing the technology and scientific knowledge is one thing. Actually deploying that knowledge is another.

The disaster at Fukushima should not have come as a surprise to those who knew better. The Mark 1 nuclear reactors such as the ones used at Fukushima were known to have vulnerable containment designs that had a 90% chance of failing in the event of a meltdown. The containment design may, however, prove to be the lesser of flaws. The bigger issue at the moment is the spent fuel pools that store large quantities of fuel –enough to potentially reach critical mass– in pools outside the containment structures. Such a design would not be allowed to be built today, but it was allowed to operate in an earthquake- and tsunami-prone area for almost 40 years. That suggests to me that, perhaps, humans aren’t yet ready for nuclear power.

I certainly expect that this disaster, no matter how it turns out, will help mankind make nuclear energy safer. Hopefully, lessons will be learned. Numerous nuclear plants will likely either be shut down, retired earlier, or reinforced. Hopefully similar (or even dissimilar, for that matter) accidents can be prevented in the future.

But humans don’t always learn. The Fukushima nuclear power station went online in 1971. When vulnerabilities in the Mark 1 containment system were pointed out in 1972, nothing was done. When Three Mile Island happened in 1979, nothing was done. When Chernobyl happened in 1986, nothing was done. So it’s difficult to assume, that even after this incident, everything would be done to ensure the safety of nuclear plants everywhere.

So, the fact still remains: the surest way to avoid future nuclear accidents seems to be to stop using nuclear energy entirely. And I hope we do, because there are alternatives. The alternatives may be more expensive, but I’m willing to pay more if it means we’ll never again risk contaminating someone’s hometown with radioactive fallout.

I had to tell my mom that there was a possibility her hometown may become uninhabitable. Trust me. It’s not something you ever want to have to tell someone.

Journal: March13, 2011

Project 31 ends on the 19th, so I guess I have less than a week left. I haven’t really been keeping track. Life just has fallen into a kind of steady rhythm, and time definitely has taken on a new feel. Or, perhaps, its presence seems to have somehow become diluted. It feels less linear, less like a progression, less defined, more… natural, from lack of a better word. Time feels less significant, less meaningful, not in the sense that it is less valuable, but more in the sense that it seems to have shed more baggage to become more it, and less artificial. I don’t keep track of the date, or day of week anymore. In my world, there’s today, yesterday, the day before that. There’s “about a week ago.” There’s tomorrow. Words like “Sunday” or artificial constructs like “March 13, 2011” still register somewhere (namely on my electronic devices), yet mean little to me, possibly because those words only hold meaning in the context of a larger society, of which I am not entirely a part of. Being physically isolated from the rest of mankind, I might as well be an alien lurking in the woods, observing the human species through a looking glass that is the internet…

Since finishing my kitchen, I haven’t really had any major construction projects. As some of you may have already seen on my Flickr stream, I’ve been putting the new kitchen to good use with new culinary adventures. One night, I made some tonkatsu, or Japanese fried cutlets, which turned out quite nicely — crispy on the outside, soft and juicy on the inside. I used the wood stove to warm up a pan of oil, but used the gas stove to do the actual frying. I’ve also made a couple of batches of cranberry and chocolate chip scones on my wood stove, and those have turned out quite nicely too. In lieu of an oven, I simply placed my flat 11″ cast iron skillet on the stovetop, then covered it with another cast iron 11″ deep dish pan to trap the heat in. Other than taking a little extra time to “bake”, it’s worked out nicely both times I used this method. I might try baking some cookies, biscuits and bread rolls this way too.

My food supply is holding up nicely, though my vegetable selection has narrowed significantly. Just in the past week, I’ve finished the last of the mixed greens, mushrooms, tomatoes, zucchini, and avocados. I lost one zucchini to mold (it was in a box in Hut 2.1), and parts of my tomatoes had started to go moldy, but I just cut those bits off and used the rest. Still remaining in my stockpile are potatoes, onions, red and green cabbage, butternut squash, kabocha squash, asparagus, brussels sprouts, and possibly a carrot or two. I’ve used most of my fresh meat, though I still have a pound of pork tenderloin left, as well as most of the cured/salted meats and more than a dozen eggs. In the grains department, I still have a loaf and a half of bread, one bagel, 15-20 tortillas, and tons of rice, so no shortages there either. All in all, I probably have enough food to last me a few more weeks, and if anything, I may need to start pigging out more before things go bad…

Despite the rain, water flow in the seasonal creek that I wrote about last week has slowed considerably. Upstream where the creek enters my property, there’s probably still a fifth of a gallon per second or so of water, but downstream, that seems to slow to a trickle, possibly because the ground’s soaking up the water as it flows. I suspect the stream really only runs when there’s a large amount of snowmelt, but anything short of sustained torrential rains probably simply get soaked up in the ground instead.

I’ve also started writing a book. It’s not the next Great American Novel, nor is it Walden 2.0, but rather a practical book that bundles all the knowledge I’ve acquired in my land-dwelling adventures so far. The hope is to produce a guidebook for those who want to do something similar to what I’m doing. Since my knowledge is wider than it is deep, it’s not meant to be the ultimate source of truth in any one narrow topic area, but covers a wide range of topics, from buying land, to different approaches to securing food, water, electricity, as well as a survey of various building options. So, the general positioning is, “If you want to live in the woods, here are things you need to think about, and here are some possible solutions.” I’m guessing it’ll be a fairly short book, maybe 100 pages or so, and my current plan is to sell it on Kindle (and possibly Apple iBooks) for $3-5, though there also may be a limited print run, and possibly a free web-based version as well. My knowledge is still admittedly limited, but I figure I know enough to share, and that I could learn more in the process of organizing everything into a book. With an eBook format, I could easily make iterative improvements as I learn more or receive feedback, and try to create a virtuous cycle of sharing, gaining, and re-sharing knowledge.

As I head into the last several days of Project 31, I’m also considering my next steps. I was tentatively considering applying for jobs again, but since the earthquake, I’ve also been strongly considering going to Japan to volunteer in the disaster. To be completely honest, I wish I could be there now. After all, being self-sufficient where there’s no infrastructure is kind of a specialty of mine, so I’m pretty sure I could help without getting in the way. With all those international teams on the ground, I’m sure they could use someone who speaks English and Japanese fluently, especially since the elderly populations in the worst hit rural areas won’t be able to speak even a fragment of English, and I doubt many of the foreign rescuers would speak any Japanese either. On the other hand, it seems logistically difficult to get to the disaster zone with sufficient supplies and without official support (or funding). So I’m telling myself that the recovery effort would be long, and that there’d be plenty to do even if I waited until after the initial rescue and relief phases. That doesn’t make it any easier to sit here idly, though…

Be Prepared

I’ve been obsessively following the latest news from the devastating earthquake that struck off the coast of Japan a few days ago, listening to internet streams of NHK radio, the public broadcasting service there, which has been covering the aftermath non-stop. My family in Tokyo were shaken but otherwise perfectly ok, though early reports of wounded literally blocks from my parents’ condo did have me somewhat concerned.

The M9.0 earthquake, possibly the 5th largest earthquake in recorded history, wreaked havoc across a wide swath of Japan’s north-eastern coast when it triggered massive tsunamis, some reportedly over 30ft high and reaching the 4th floor of buildings. This veritable wall of water traveled at speeds exceeding 20ft/second, and reached 10km (6 miles) in-land in places, sweeping away with it houses, cars, trains and people and pretty much anything not made of reinforced concrete. In addition to the sheer size of the waves, they also struck a mere 10 minutes after the initial quake (which itself lasted 5 minutes), leaving people with little time to evacuate in those affected areas. There are beaches where hundreds of bodies have washed up, and cities where over half the residents are unaccounted for. One prefecture alone is expecting a death toll in excess of 10,000.

However, help is on the way. One of the largest relief efforts, possibly in the history of the developed world, is converging on north-eastern Japan. Half a dozen countries, including New Zealand, Britain, Germany, France, Singapore, and China have rescue workers and medical teams en route. In addition to the 50,000 Japanese Self Defense Forces troops activated previously, another 50,000 were called up today for a total of 100,000 soldiers. Off the coast, an aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, and a couple of destroyers of the US Navy have arrived to assist in rescue and relief operations, and I’ve read reports that the Marines may use amphibious landing vessels to deliver aid.

I think this particular disaster is worth following for those of us in the developed world, because there are already lessons we could learn. Japan is a wealthy and technologically advanced nation, and one which has spent considerable time, effort and resources in preparing for earthquakes. For instance, the high-rise condo my parents live in in Tokyo has elevators equipped with P-wave sensors that stop elevators at the nearest floor before the main quakes strike (P-waves travel at the speed of sound, and therefore move ahead of the actual earth-moving waves). Japan’s high speed rail service which travels at speeds exceeding 180mph are also similarly equipped, and suffered no casualties in this quake. Emergency broadcasts on TV can also warn viewers of incoming earthquakes, often before they actually can be felt. These are just a few examples of technologies available in Japan that I haven’t even seen in California — an equally quake-prone region.

Yet, as we watched the devastation spreading, it also became clear that there are limits to what technology can do. There are also limits to what the government can do. No doubt, this earthquake and the resulting tsunami was a hellish scenario that would’ve been difficult to prepare for or defend against. For many, escape simply was not an option. Sometimes, Nature wins.

But, as the country enters its 3rd night, a new kind of tragedy is unfolding. At one point, the radio announcer interviewed someone at an evacuation center, who painted a desperate picture: people huddled on rooftops with few blankets, no drinking water, no food, dwindling supply of medicine for the sick. The man ended with a desperate plea for supplies. From other reports, it seemed that many other isolated evacuation centers faced similar conditions. The suffering I heard about from survivors is a different kind of tragedy to the original disaster; one that might’ve been prevented, or at least eased significantly, with a little preparation.

If there’s one obvious lesson we could learn, it’s that the best preparation happens locally, starting with the individual on out. Every household should have a stockpile of food and water to last at least a week. In the event that evacuation is necessary, there should be a go-bag, equipped with essentials like food and water, emergency blankets, flashlights, a radio, spare batteries and cash. I’m hearing that flashlights are selling out in Tokyo, and if people don’t have flashlights, it seems even less likely that they have go-bags. Failing that (or to augment that), designated evacuation centers should be stocked with enough food, water, emergency blankets and other basic supplies to last at least a few days. While communication networks appear largely operational even in the worst hit areas, without power, people are unable to use their cell phones once their batteries run out (pay phones have become free, though long queues have been reported). This is a problem that could easily be solved by a few hundred dollars worth of solar panels mounted at each evacuation center, which could provide more than enough power to keep dozens of phones charged (or, at the individual level, a cheap $30 kit).

We’ve seen disaster victims suffer unnecessarily in a developed nation before, with Katrina. Even though the Superdome was designated as an evacuation center, it wasn’t stocked with necessary supplies. Prevailing emergency plans seem to be:

Step 1 – Get people to evacuation centers.
Step 2 – Wing it.

While I would not fault the Japanese government’s response by any means (which, if anything has been extraordinary, especially compared to FEMA during Katrina), the reality seems to be that Step 2 is challenging, even with the best of intentions. The reality is, getting supplies to masses after a catastrophic and unpredictable disaster is so much harder than prepositioning those same supplies when roads, airfields, and ports are accessible.

Better preparation can also save money, in addition to easing suffering of those affected. It costs a lot of money to activate troops and deploy helicopters. Supplies may simply cost more after disasters, since, after all, Econ 101 taught us that prices go up when demand goes up. It also may be harder to negotiate reasonable prices when desperate people are waiting.

Basic preparation such as those I outlined could also save lives. All day today, the radio reported of evacuees being air lifted from evacuation centers that lacked supplies to actually act as short-term emergency shelters. If those evacuation centers had been better stocked, those helicopters might’ve been better employed rescuing those who could really use help, like the 67 year old lady who clung to a tree for 15 hours after being swept away by a tsunami.

It is a pity that human nature seems to be deprived of foresight, and that it takes such tragedy to be reminded of our frailty. Even then, little may be done as a society, or even as a community. It is unlikely that we’ll be able to get politicians to increase funding for disaster preparedness, or that you could get stockpiles set up at the local shelter. But as individuals, we can learn and act. Tomorrow, it may be you and I, and what we do today could make all the difference. Be prepared.

Journal: March 6th, 2011

I think today is Day 18 or something. Anyway, I would’ve thought that by now I’d be tired of being alone in the woods and be ready to pack up and go back to the city. No such luck. As time goes by, things only seem to get better.

Yesterday was my best day yet. It was all rainy outside so I spent the better part of the afternoon indoors… doing some shooting. Several days ago, I set up a target stand about 50 yards from my cabin. There’s a big match coming up in April, and since I haven’t shot much in the past year, I wanted to get as much practice in as I can. Being able to step outside and shoot significantly lowers the barrier. But it’s indescribable how happy it made me to be able to shoot without even stepping foot outside, from my own home. For me, if this isn’t a dream come true, I don’t know what is.

Then, later in the afternoon, in another burst of motivated productivity, I set up my kitchen in Hut 2.1. Up until last night, my gas stove, most cooking implements, and spices were still in Hut 1.0 where I did much of my cooking. Some meals were cooked entirely on the wood stove, but it wasn’t uncommon for me to run back and forth between the two huts carrying pots and pans. Also, since I only fire up the stove at night, breakfast and mid-day snacks were all prepared in Hut 1.0. It was a bit of a hassle, but given that I’ve been using Hut 1.0 for food storage as well, it wasn’t too bad.

Having cooked two dinners in Hut 2.1 now, it’s unbelievable how convenient it is to have my kitchen all in one place. The Hut 2.1 kitchen also just generally has a nicer layout, with the gas stove against the far wall, a prep counter to the right, and the wood stove right behind me. I can seamlessly switch between the gas stove and wood stove, and even use both at the same time. The Hut 2.1 kitchen also has more “storage shelves” (in reality, semi-structural 2x4s), though I’m also thinking of adding another set of shelves to the left of the gas stove. All that’s left to do is to set up the sink, and I’d have myself one sweet kitchen.

So, shooting and setting up an awesome kitchen were great, but I think part of what made the day particularly joyful for me was that it was a day in which I did all the things I love doing. Shooting was one, and the construction work I did was the other. While doing the construction work, though, I also had loud music playing, to which I’d occasionally sing and dance along (if flailing with a circular saw in hand counts as such), and that turned out to be incredibly uplifting.

The things I did that brought me so much joy are also things I have a hard time doing in the city. I used to have to drive 45 minutes to go shoot. I couldn’t listen to loud music any time I wanted. I couldn’t use a circular saw and hammer nails late into the evening. And being incredibly shy about such things, I don’t generally dance or sing if I know there are humans nearby. So, between prohibitions and inhibitions, when around people, I am unable to do the things I love, and be the person I want to be. No wonder I felt like a caged animal when I lived in the city. But, here, I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. I can step outside (or stay inside) and shoot my rifle. I can play music, music I like, as loud as I want without anyone even hearing. I can use my power tools and hammer nails at 11pm if I want to. I can sing badly and loudly if I want to. Nobody cares. And because nobody cares, I don’t care. It’s an incredibly liberating feeling.

It’s what freedom feels like.

For my “mid-term report”, I’ve been trying to summarize thoughts buzzing around my mind, but unfortunately those thoughts are buzzing too quickly to be captured in any coherent manner. From what I can gather, however, many of the thoughts have to do with my relationship to people. I’ve known for a long time that I’m introverted, but the depth of my introversion is only becoming clear to me, having spent almost 3 weeks in physical isolation. Based on how liberated I feel in my isolation, I am only starting to understand how conflicted my relationship with fellow humans really is.

With ample time on my hands and mind, I also find myself contemplating big questions, like, “What the point of life?” I find that being here and doing what I’m doing renders some previous answers obsolete. If the point of life is for me to realize dreams, I’ve done that (and this isn’t the first). If the point of life is for me to be happy, I’ve done that. So, what’s next? One thing I’m starting realize is that attaining happiness for oneself isn’t a goal; it’s a stepping stone.

An image that comes to mind is of safety briefings on air planes, where they say that if you’re traveling with a child, you should put the oxygen mask on yourself first, before helping your kid. The hidden implication I always saw in that message was: save yourself first, then others. Maybe happiness is like that. There are a lot of people sacrificing their own happiness for others, but that seems contrived. If you can’t be happy yourself, how can you help others attain happiness? Now that I have my secret lair, my fortress, perhaps what’s next is for me to engage the world again. After all, what’s the point of a refuge if I don’t occasionally venture out and find something to retreat from?

Pondering the State of Nature… in Nature

The weather was beautiful this afternoon, so I went on a long-ish walk. I headed north up the clearing in front of my camp, where, just beyond visible range of my cabin, I found dozens of deer tracks, coming and going from every which way. It almost seemed like they’d gathered for a little cocktail party, or perhaps a protest of some sort, as those seem to be in vogue these days.

There’s this steep ravine that cuts across my property, west to east, that splits my property roughly into two-thirds and one-thirds. My camp is on the one-third side, and since I rarely cross that ravine, I’m generally confined to a relatively smaller portion of my property, and there are acres and acres that I probably haven’t even seen yet.

Today, as I was walking down the ravine, I noticed a rock cropping up on the north-side (the less visited side), so I clambered up the steep slope to see what I could see. As I reached the top, a frightened flock of birds beat a hasty retreat. When I said “beat”, I meant that quite literally, as the flapping of their wings reverberated through the crisp air like a dozen drums.

I didn’t get a good look at the birds, but the awkwardly loud and hectic flapping suggested that these birds were pretty big, and also not entirely accustomed to this “flying” thing they were attempting. Though I know little about fowl, I somehow imagined that these birds might make for good eating. If they’re sticking around this time of year, they must have a nice layer of fat to keep them warm, or so I imagined, and I could almost taste sizzling fat and juicy bird flesh on my palate (though, on second thought, I realized I was remembering the Peking Duck I had in Beijing last summer…).

As I had my shotgun with me, it occurred to me that I could try to hunt these birds. Though, I quickly realized that it would probably be illegal to do so, this being California where hunting seems quite heavily regulated. Besides which, I didn’t know what kind of bird I’d be shooting at, so there was no way to know what kind of regulations even applied. So, it seemed safe to assume that it’d be illegal.

Standing there among the snow and trees, I contemplated the incongruity of these two realities I faced. On the one hand, there I was in the middle of nowhere. I had a shotgun, conveniently loaded with birdshot. Beyond those bushes were birds that sounded tasty. I was hungry. Shooting those birds seemed like the most rational thing I could do. Yet, I had to contend with the other reality, which lay beyond my property borders. Those birds, though presently on my land, are legally property of the people of California, and therefore regulated (most likely) by the California Department of Fish and Game.

So, I turned around, and trudged off feeling somewhat defeated; a man living in the woods, who can’t hunt. I might as well have been a wolf without fangs, or a mountain lion without claws. While this seemed absurd, it occurred to me that we muzzle dogs and declaw cats. We’ve domesticated ourselves as much as we’ve domesticated wolves into dogs and lions into cats. To be a modern human, as it turns out, is to be something not quite human. It’s almost as if we’re not good enough to be, well, us.

Modern humans, it seems to me, are an oddly self-defying and self-denying species. We find ways to feel guilty about everything, and this seems particularly true of Americans. We’re guilty about food, and we’re guilty about sex — two things a species can’t do without. We even find ways to feel guilty about drinking water. And while some may point at our country’s Puritan roots, this belief that we somehow can’t be trusted can be traced to early political philosophers who influenced the rise of modern governments, including our own. The 17th century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, argued that the State of Nature for man was one of perpetual conflict, and famously described life in such a state as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” He then argued that a better life could only be possible in a civil society, one in which we must cede our rights for the sake of peace.

If I recall Hobbes correctly from my college readings, he argues that, by nature, we are in a state of constant war because each individual acts to serve their own interests only. In other words, in the State of Nature, I would shoot that bird because I want to eat it. Conflicts arise if others also want that bird, and when two guys with shotguns fight over a bird, well, at least one of their lives could indeed end up nasty, brutish, and short. And even if nobody was there to fight me over that specific bird, humans have hunted animals into extinction, including on this very continent. We all know about the White Man killing off the plains buffalo, but less well known is the strong possibility that Native Americans (or their ancestors) drove other large tasty fuzzy animals (like the wooly mammoth) into extinction many thousands of years before those Puritans showed up in their funny hats and giant belt buckles. I don’t know about others, but I wish we still had mammoths. And if the California Department of Fish and Game (and Large Fuzzy Animals) had been around 15,000 years ago, it may very well be that we’d actually still have mammoths, and saber tooth tigers and North American lions, and other such wonderful beasts. So, perhaps Hobbes does have a point after all.

There are people in our country today who want a smaller government, fewer regulations, and less intrusion. As I stood there today with my shotgun in hand, I wished I could simply shoot whatever I wanted, when I wanted. But, if we are to deserve such a society, that is, a society that is slightly closer to the State of Nature, then we must prove Hobbes wrong. If we are to cede fewer rights and still get along with each other and our environment, we must each act responsibly and intelligently. If we don’t want the Department of No You Can’t to regulate us, we must regulate ourselves, and act not only out of our own self interest, but also in the interest of our fellow man and our future generations.

The question is, can we?