Post-fire Report


I just got back from 2 weeks in the desert (for Burning Man) and realized I never posted the “all clear” post, so here it is. My property was spared from the fire, though just barely. The picture above was taken just a few hundred yards from my property fence (and there was a spot fire just 50 yards from my fence), and when you consider that the fire started 5 miles away and burned 50,000 acres, that’s nothing short of a miracle (well, and firefighters doing a great job).

In the aftermath of this close call, I decided to invest in an Oregon 40V battery-powered chainsaw so I can clear more/bigger brush faster than I currently can with my 18V reciprocating saw. I’ve also been thinking about thinning out my pine trees to help them grow bigger and stronger, especially given current drought conditions. Normally, periodic natural fires would do the thinning, but I think that responsibility falls on me at this point.


I’ve so far only used the chainsaw for one afternoon, but I’m pretty happy with it. The biggest piece I cut was a 9″ diameter fallen pine log, which it cut just fine. I also got a spare 4Ah/144Wh battery, and had no trouble keeping the chainsaw powered, though I also wasn’t using it constantly since I used my reciprocating saw for small branches. One advantage of an electric chainsaw is that it’s easy to start up, and it’s super quiet, which also makes it less scary to operate. Also, for sporadic use, it’s also nice that you don’t have to choose between idling a gas engine or stopping it and having to start it back up constantly. The biggest downside is cost: the chainsaw with two 4Ah batteries set me back $650. I decided it was worth it because I care a lot about not having tools that depend on gas, but for others, that might not be enough of a reason. It’s also somewhat underpowered if you actually plan on cutting down trees bigger than ~10″ in diameter. I’m also hoping to eventually mill my own lumber, and for that, I might get a corded electric chainsaw that I can run directly off my solar-battery array through an inverter.

Fire Threatens Serenity Valley

I was heading up to my property on Saturday, just like I would any other time, when I saw a giant column of smoke in the general direction of my property once I got to the nearest city, about 1.5 hours away. I looked online, and found that there was a massive fire within miles of my property.

I headed up to towards my property, fearing the worst, but knowing that there wasn’t much I could do one way or the other. I got stopped at a road block about 45 minutes away from my property, due to a different fire. Fortunately, the cop told me of a way to get around the roadblock, and I was able to get on the county road towards my property right around dusk. I expected to get stopped, but there were no road blocks, and I checked in with firefighters huddled by the road to make sure it was safe, and nobody told me not to continue.

It was a huge relief once I got to my property, and to see it still unscathed, for the moment — there were plenty of signs that this one might be close. The ground was littered with ashes and bits of charcoal, and orange fire retardant had been dropped on my cabin and surrounding areas. The air was thick with smoke, and even though I tied a wet towel around my face, there were moments when I felt light-headed and almost asphyxiated.

I spent most of the night doing what I could. I first loaded up the car with things worth saving (mostly things of high replacement value or high sentimental value), then I spent a few hours fireproofing my cabin. I’d read that structures tend to catch when burning embers get in, rather than from radiative heat that comes from a nearby fire. So I cleared flammable debris from the base of the cabin and put up a skirt to keep burning embers from getting underneath. Then I took down the gutters so that embers wouldn’t gather there, and I used heat-resistant foil tape to cover some exposed wood and foam insulation. I also cleared dry and dead vegetation from around the cabin.

Throughout the night, I also took frequent breaks in my cabin. I put on some music, ate some food, and sat there as I would on any normal night, trying to enjoy and appreciate the chance to spend some time there, perhaps for the last time. It felt like seeing off an old friend. Even though I’ve only had it for a few years, it was shelter. It protected me from the sun, the wind, the rain, the snow, and -10F nights. It was the one place I could come to, no matter how rough life got, and stay for as long as I needed. In some ways, the cabin was the most dependable friend I’ve ever had. Until now.

It was also a good reminder that nothing lasts forever. Life sometimes feels like nothing but a lesson in letting go. Letting go of the old to let in the new. And in some ways, that’s what this forest fire was about. Fire is part of the ecosystem. There are seeds that only sprout when there’s a fire. Fire maintains balance and nourishes the soil. Sure, the fire ecology here is out of balance… but that’s our doing. By not letting ourselves allow for healthy burns, we’ve set ourselves up for unhealthy burns. This seems like an important lesson, in all aspects of our lives.

I worked until 4am, then decided to take a nap. Partially because I was tired, but partially because I wanted to sleep in my cabin, one last time. But I also knew that, even though the fire was staying put, that anything was possible once the sun came up and the winds started blowing. So I allowed myself a 2 hour nap, got up, finished packing, shot the video, and headed into town. They shut off the road for good just as I was leaving.

Last I heard, the fire, which has burned tens of thousands of acres, had reached a road 200 yards from my property line the day before I was up there. That line seems to have held so far.


Outdoor Gear for Infinite Power, Light, Water, and Fuel

I really liked the combination of gear I took with me on my recent backpacking trip, so I thought I’d do a post about it. It’s not a large amount of gear, but I had no trouble keeping my phone charged (for navigation) or running a reading light at night, and didn’t have to worry about running out of cooking fuel or clean water. Basically, just 5-6 pieces of gear took care of many of my basic needs, and could do so practically indefinitely, which I think is pretty cool. The post below covers many of the same points as the video above, along with links to the products I talked about.

(Disclaimer: I’m the founder/owner of BootstrapSolar. I am otherwise unaffiliated with the other products/companies discussed, and these are my personal opinion.)

  • BootstrapSolar Chi-qoo – I designed this myself, so of course I like it. But, specifically, what I like is the compact but powerful 5W solar panel, which can be mounted on top of my pack to gather sun when it’s high in the sky. Many competing designs will have solar panels mounted vertically on the back of the pack, which doesn’t get as much exposure. Also, I think 5W is the right size. Anything smaller and you won’t generate enough power. Anything larger and you won’t be able to mount it on the top of the pack and so you won’t actually get as much power. The charger also has a nice big 6000mAh/22Wh battery pack, so a full charge will give you 3+ recharges of a smartphone right off the bat. I also like that the battery pack has 2 USB ports, so you can recharge/power up to two devices simultaneously.
  • Steripen Ultra – I carried 3 forms of water sanitization (not counting boiling) and the Steripen is, in some ways, the one I trusted most because it can kill things filters can’t get. Filters generally don’t effectively remove viruses because they’re too small, though they can be destroyed by the Steripen’s UV light. The only downside is that it takes 1.5 minutes to sterilize a liter, and when you’re filtering 6 liters every morning, it can be a drag to sit there stirring that pen. On the other hand, unlike filters that eventually need to be replaced, the Steripen will keep going as long as you have power.
  • Bosavi Headlamp – In the past, I used a cheap headlamp that ran off of AAA batteries, but keeping those batteries recharged was a pain (in addition to requiring a separate battery charger). So I went looking for a headlamp that could be charged from the Chi-qoo’s USB port, and found the Bosavi. It’s got a bunch of different settings, including 2 different types of white light and one red LED, but… yeah, it’s a headlamp. It works. I can keep it recharged indefinitely. That’s good enough for me.
  • GoalZero Luna USB lamp – At night, I used the Luna in my tent to read a book (yeah, how decadent!) or study the map to plan the next day’s hike. It runs beautifully from one of the Chi-qoo’s USB ports, and it’s bright enough to read with without any discomfort. The bendy cable/neck is a pretty useful feature too, so I could plug it into my battery pack and put it on the floor or in a side pocket in the tent, then reorient the light as I wanted.

    Mmmm… water!

  • Platypus Gravityworks water filter – All my water first got filtered through this filter before being sterilized with the Steripen. Unlike some other water filters out there, the Gravityworks works using gravity (surprise!) rather than some hand pumping action. This is obviously much easier, but I had to learn some tricks to get it to flow well (e.g. once hooked up, you first have to reverse the system to get air bubbles out of the filter, and occasionally it seems to help to reverse clean water through the filter to remove gunk). The other minor gotcha is the pouch. It’s really difficult to fill the pouch from shallow water sources, so I carried an empty plastic bottle to collect water and pour into the pouch. Also, just a note of caution: if you’re filtering pond water like what you see above, the filter will not make it clear. I didn’t realize this until I got back to my cabin and poured some of my filtered pond water into a white mug…
  • BioLite stove – I really like the BioLite stove. It’s basically a portable rocket stove that has its own thermal electric generator to power a fan. I like the BioLite + Chiqoo combo because some things (like the Steripen) won’t always charge directly from the BioLite, probably because the BioLite won’t always output enough amperage. But the Chiqoo is designed to charge off of unstable power sources (like solar panels) so it’ll happily take whatever the BioLite can output. As far as backpacking stoves go, the BioLite is heavier than many modern gas-powered backpacking stoves, but then, if you’re in the woods, you don’t have to worry about running out of fuel, so that’s a pretty big plus. It could be tricky to get going (I found that tipping it sideways to get the kindling going, then turning on the fan and setting it upright works best), but once it’s going, it burns very hot and very cleanly, thanks to the rocket stove principle. I also use it as a mini-campfire at night, so I’ll just sit there and zone out while throwing sticks into the fire and staring at the flames. Caution: If you use one of these, I would strongly recommend having s’mores ingredients handy, or you’ll wish you did.

    BioLite charging a Chiqoo

Ten Life Lessons Backcountry Backpacking Taught Me


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.

News from Serenity Valley, June 2014


I can’t believe it’s already June. Time seems to be flying by faster and faster these days. I wonder what they’re putting in the water… Anyway, it’s time for a long over-due update, and I’ve got some big news!

The first piece of news is, as you can see in the photo above, I finally got my property deeds! I’d sent in my last payment last summer, but it took a while for the deeds to get to me, probably because I hadn’t kept the seller up to date on my mailing address. But, I have them now, and the property is officially mine for ever and ever. It feels great to have that taken care of. For as long as I can afford to pay $500/year in property taxes, I’ll have a patch of ground I can call home.

The other piece of big news is that I quit my job (again)! I’d been working in San Francisco as the Chief Technology Officer of a startup for the last couple of years, and recently decided it was time to move on to my next adventure. So what’s my next adventure, you ask? Well, that’ll have to be another post, but for now, I’ll just say that I anticipate being able to spend slightly more time on my property, and having more time for blog posts, and definitely more adventures (for starters, I went on a 7-day 85-mile backcountry backpacking trip!).


As far as other updates go, the rain barrel I set up late last year (and finally hooked up earlier this year) managed to capture over 800 gallons of water off my cabin roof, despite it being a severe draught year. So, I decided to plant another tree (the cherry tree I planted a couple of years ago died last year). This time I opted for an apricot tree, and I’m fairly confident I’ll be able to keep it alive, assuming the irrigation system works properly while I’m away.

One thing I’ve been trying to figure out, is how to make decent dirt. I’d like to grow more plants and vegetables in the future, and I’d like to avoid buying soil if possible. But the native soil is this dusty red dirt that compacts into a hard lump when moistened and dried, and hardly has the texture of soil. After some experimentation, I’ve found that mixing a naturally occurring mulch-like substance from a decomposing tree along with sand into the native dirt produces something that has the texture and water absorption properties of proper gardening soil. I’m currently experimentally growing a couple of squash plants and a tomato plant in this home-made soil (with a small amount of commercial planting soil around the roots), so we’ll see how they do.

Other than that, I’ve got a bunch of projects or project ideas, so I’ll keep y’all posted on those as/if I make progress!

1000 Gallon Tank, Evapotranspiration, and Other News


I can’t believe it’s already December! This year definitely flew by… and now I only have a month left to try and beat last year’s abysmal blogging record of 4 posts for the year. Good news is, with this post, I’m up to 2 for the year, so I’ll only need to squeeze in a few more this month to beat that.

It’s been a quiet year in Serenity Valley. I’m spending most of my time working in the city, so I only get to go up there every now and then. On the other hand, all this working allowed me to keep paying the bills, and I’m happy to say that I finished paying off the property this summer. So, from here on out, as long as I can afford to pay the $500 or so a year in property taxes, I’ll have a patch of ground I can call home. Having grown up moving from place to place and never feeling like I had a home, it’s tremendously gratifying and comforting to know that there’s a place on this earth that is mine; a place I can go to at any time; a place nobody can take away; and hopefully at some point in the future, a place that can sustain my basic needs (it already provides free shelter, free electricity and nearly infinite heating fuel — which is more than you can say about most homes).

Speaking of home, both structures have faired well so far. Hut 1.0 is going into its 5th winter, and it’s still looking about as good (or shabby) as new, at least on the outside. On the inside, though, a few gaps that opened up in the walls have given the local mice community a free run of the place. I still use the hut for storage, and set up traps every now and then as token resistance against the invaders, but I fear it’s a losing battle. Nonetheless, given that the original intended lifespan of the structure was 5 years, I’m happy it’s still standing and in as good of a physical shape as it’s in.

Hut 2.1 is doing very well going into its 4th winter. Unlike Hut 1.0, 2.1 has been remarkably free of mice, and is doing quite well structurally. The dry climate certainly helps keep all the wood in good condition, and I’ve recently started adding some braces in the corners as seismic reinforcements. About the only thing that’ll destroy the structure is a forest fire (or carpenter ants), but other than that, it’s probably not unreasonable to expect the structure to stand for a couple of decades or more. It’s pretty remarkable what you can build for so little money…

Other than paying down debt, I’ve also started putting money into various improvements as well. The 300 gallon rain barrel I wrote about in the previous post this Spring was one such improvement. And more recently, after watching water slowly (very, slowly) accumulate in that 300 gallon tank over the course of the (very dry) year, I decided to expand my water collection system by adding a 1000 gallon tank.

I’m still not completely done hooking everything up, but I’m already starting to dream about what I could do with all this water (assuming there’s enough precipitation to fill the tanks this winter). I know, 1300 gallons isn’t that much water in the grand scheme of things, but it’s far more water than I’ve ever had on this property. My meagre attempt of a garden back in 2010 was irrigated from a 50 gallon tank, which I was only able to re-fill every other week, and that wasn’t enough water for most of the plants. At 3 gallons per plant per week, 1300 gallons would be enough for over 400 plant-weeks (or 20 plants for a 20 week period). That’s certainly a far cry from achieving self-sufficiency, but it’s enough to at least start experimenting in earnest.

Incidentally, you may wonder where that aforementioned “3 gallon per plant” figure came from. Well, I said I’ve been “dreaming” about what to do with all that water, but actually, said dreaming has included some actual research into plants and water usage (a topic I knew nothing about — for some reason, they didn’t teach us this stuff in any of my computer science classes). As it turns out, the amount of irrigation a plant requires is largely a function of “evapotranspiration” (ET), which is a combination of soil moisture evaporation and plant transpiration. As you may imagine, ET is affected by things like temperature, humidity, soil, the size of the plant and many other factors, so it gets pretty complicated pretty quickly. There’s a formula called the Penman equation which can be used to estimate ET (here’s a handy dandy online Penman calculator), but that’s more for estimating ET over an area of land. If using drip-irrigation as I have, (and would in the future) you really want to know how many gallons of water each plant should receive. For that, I found this nifty water-usage table by plant size and climate (the same site has a great page on irrigation in general), and according to that table, it looks like a small plant or shrub would use somewhere around 0.2 ~ 0.75 gallons of water per day during the hottest days of the year. That translates to 1.4 ~ 5 gallons per week, so I decided to call it an average of around 3 gallons.

One last project for the year is to build a covered deck in front of the cabin, which will further expand my rain/snow collection surface. But I’ll talk about that in another post… For now, I’ll leave you with some pictures of the 1000 gallon tank.

U-Haul trucks are for moving things, right?

The frame of the octagonal base.

A little trig goes a long ways…

The octagon was filled with gravel to create an even and level surface…

The tank on the base. You can’t see it in the picture, but there’s a layer of OSB between the gravel and tank.

Rain Barrel!

I finally got around to setting up the rain barrel I bought last year. The wet season only lasts a couple more months, but hopefully I’ll be able to harvest some water to help keep my cherry tree watered during the dry months. In any case, I’ll tell this story with pictures, so… here we go!

Bits and pieces. Let’s hope I have everything!
Putting up the gutters. I intentionally hung them low so that snow would slide off without snagging them. I may eventually put rails on the roof to keep the snow there so that I can collect more water as it melts. I’ll need to assess whether the additional load on the roof will cause problems. I also set these up on the south side so that exposure to the sun willl hopefully keep things from freezing too badly.
Gutters and downspout all finished. Part way down the downspout is the RainReserve rain diverter. Instead of diverting everything, it captures water that falls along the interior sides of the downspout, while allowing bigger pieces of debris (like leaves) to fall through. Or so the theory goes…
Building a platform for the rain barrel, using the only flat surface within a half-mile radius.
Setting up the base. One side sits on cement blocks, while the other side sits on ice and rocks. It’s what we call MGEP (Mostly Good Enough, Probably) — the impeccable standard to which things are built on Serenity Valley. Actually, I’m not entirely confident it’ll support the weight of a full 300gal tank (2400lb). I guess we’ll find out!
Close-up of the rain diverter and tank hookup. The green hose is the overflow, which could also be hooked up to a second tank.

Halloween in Serenity Valley

I managed to escape the city and head up to Serenity Valley for Halloween weekend, which was a real treat. Autumn is one of my favorite seasons up in the mountains, with the beautiful colors, the damp smell of the woods, and perfect 75-degree weather. And this most recent trip also turned out to be a quite productive one to boot…

On Saturday, I was walking down the dirt road to go visit my neighbor, when I stopped dead in my tracks. What did I see? Acorns! And tons of them. Now, with hundreds, maybe thousands, of Oregon White Oak on my property, you’d think it’d take more than the sight of acorns to get me excited. But, the truth is, I haven’t noticed very many acorns in the past. Sure, I’d see maybe a few worm-holed and mildewy acorns here and there, but I’d never seen shiny plump acorns littering the ground the way I saw this time.

So, I did what any sensible member of a hunter-gatherer species would do: I started gathering. I’d heard that Native Americans ate acorns, and with not much else on my property that’s edible, I was excited to finally come across a native edible crop.

As I filled my bag with these shiny orbs, giddy as a kid on Halloween, I started wondering: why haven’t I seem so many acorns in the past? And why so many acorns under this one particular tree? None of the trees neighboring this one tree by the dirt road had any significant number of acorns under them. Odd…

I stood up, stretched my back, and pulled out my iPhone to do some research. As it turns out, oak trees don’t start producing acorns until they are 20 – 50 years old. Many of the trees on my property are small and skinny, and might not be that old yet. Additionally, it could take trees 2 years or more to save up enough energy to produce acorns, and that’s assuming a late frost doesn’t destroy all the buds. Indeed, further exploration of my property confirmed that while not all of my oak trees had acorns, many of the larger ones did.

Within an hour or two of casual gathering, I had collected several pounds of acorns. But what exactly are they good for? Well, on their own, not much. I cracked open one of the acorns, and the nut inside looked juicy and inviting. Of course, a small nibble confirmed what I already knew: they’re mouth-puckering-ly bitter. I also tried roasting some on my wood stove, which made them edible, but just barely and only if I were desperate. To get rid of the bitterness, they need to be leached with water. It appears the easiest way to leach them is by first crushing them into acorn meal, then repeatedly soaking and straining them until all the bitterness is gone. You can then dry the meal over a fire or in an oven. The resulting acorn meal can be consumed as-is, or can be milled into flour and used for baking.

So, as far as edible crops go, acorns aren’t exactly the easiest to consume. But, I could see how they could be useful as a food source nonetheless, simply because of their abundance and ease in gathering, as well as their (presumably) high caloric content. They apparently don’t keep very well due to their high fat content, but I could see an autumn harvest of acorns lasting through the cold winter, and providing valuable calories during those lean months. It’s also exciting to know that if I grew some corn, I could use corn meal and acorn flour to make bread, without “importing” flour.


The other big news is that, my neighbor came up to help, and we (finally) got the rest of the cement board siding up! As far as I’m concerned, the exterior siding is mostly aesthetic, though it’s definitely more fire resistant than the previously exposed insulation boards, quite weatherproof, possibly somewhat insulating, and it might add a bit of rigidity to the structure, so it’s good to have them up. There’s still some parts that are exposed, so I need to cover those bits up, then put trims on the corners and around the windows, paint the whole thing, and I’ll finally be able to call it done. It’s a project that’s been 2 years (and counting) in the making, but it still feels good to make progress…

Anyway, I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story:

My neighbor came up to helpMeasurements for all the custom-cut panelsNow with more siding!Hut 2.1 - Now with more siding!

I planted a cherry tree!

On a recent trip to Serenity Valley, I planted a cherry tree. Now, planting a fruit tree in the high desert, where there is no rain nor running water for half the year, may seem foolish. And maybe it is. But I planted it anyway. I think of it as an act of commitment; I’ve planted a tree, now I have to keep it alive.


A couple of recent developments make this decision slightly less foolish than it may sound at first. One is that I got a 300 gallon water tank, which I plan on hooking up to my gutters to collect run-off this Winter / Spring. There’s usually 20-30 inches of precipitation in the wet months, and even if I manage to collect 10″ of that, I should be able to harvest around 1000 gallons off my cabin roof alone. (If you want the math, it’s 0.6 gal / 1″ of precipitation / 1 sqft of surface area. So, 0.6 gal * 10″ of precipitation * 170 sqft roof = ~1020 gallons.) If my math is right, my 300 gallon tank won’t capture all the available water, so I’ll probably add more. The other recent development is that I (or, rather, a neighbor) found a couple of sources of water closer than the gas station in town, some 17 miles away. It turns out there’s a volunteer fire station 3 miles down the road that has its own well, where locals can take as much water as they want for a very small monthly fee. There’s also apparently a local who owns a water tanker, and will deliver water (if he likes you). So, between my rain barrels and an abundant water source just 3 miles away, I’m fairly confident I can keep the cherry tree watered for the foreseeable future.


So, why a cherry tree? Because I like cherries. Well, first of all, not all fruit trees can survive the cold winters we sometimes experience up here in the mountains. While not common, temperatures can drop down into the negative (Fahrenheit), with record lows down into the -20Fs. So anything that can’t withstand -20F won’t make the cut. At the local hardware store, that narrowed the selection down to: apricots, apples, and cherries. Of those, I like cherries the best. I suppose apples might be more versatile, since you can make cider and apple sauce, use them for baking, and the fruit lasts a long time if kept cool. (Hmm… maybe my next tree will be an apple tree.)

The next step was to choose a variant. They had a few options, including famous sweet variants like the Rainier cherry, but all the sweet variants need pollinators (i.e. another cherry tree). So I ended up picking a Montmorency cherry tree, which is a self-pollinator and semi-dwarf; two characteristics that should work well for me. On the other hand, the sour fruit that the Montmorency bears will only be good for canning or baking. It’s a bummer I won’t get to eat sweet fruit right off the tree, but seeing how cherries have a short shelf-life, having a variant suitable for preservation probably isn’t such a bad idea.


Planting a tree isn’t terribly exciting in and of itself. Digging the hole ended up being a lot of work because I encountered a rock-hard layer of clay that I decided to try and bust up  — by repeatedly driving a pitch-fork into it with a sledge hammer. A pick-axe probably would’ve made things easier, but I didn’t have one.

Once I had the tree planted, though, I decided to try something new. I’d read that Native Americans and others living in arid regions were known to mulch their plants using rocks. The theory is that the rocks would slow moisture evaporation, dampen extreme temperatures by acting as a thermal mass, and possibly also improve the soil by slowly leeching minerals. I know that moisture evaporation and extreme temperatures are a concern where I am, so I decided to give it a shot. I also placed 3 drip irrigation heads (of which two you can see in the photo) between the rocks. Incidentally, the drip irrigation is the same gravity-fed system hooked up to my water tower that I set up in previous years, which keeps my garden watered while I’m away with the help of a garden timer. Finally, I covered the whole thing with straw to provide further shade from the harsh sumer sun and cold winter frost.

So, we’ll see how that goes. If all goes well, we’ll start seeing cherries in a couple of years…

Lost in the Woods

This is an essay my girlfriend Ali wrote after an eventful visit to Serenity Valley this past winter. I thought it was a very powerful piece of writing, so I asked her to share it here on this blog. –Ryo


Ali in the woods

You draw us into the wilderness of our own hearts

In the quest for truth.

Enthrall us with your serenade of love:

That, turning away from shame and self deception,

We become lovers of all the world

And join the choirs of your hymn

That soothes and heals this planet.

Music of the Spheres,

One Who Touches Our Innermost Being

You are the Lyric of Love’s Song Unknown

Song of Sophia

Mary Kathleen Speedle Schmitt


I went up into the mountains to face my demons. Of course I also went to be with him, to spend time with him where he lives, not the apartment he rents in Menlo Park, but where he really lives. In the hut he built with his own hands surrounded by acre upon acre of wide open land;, trees and rocks and snow and bones, wild land, free land.

The last time I’d been there it was summer and the days were beautiful. I’d wake before him and do my morning yoga practice in the open space below the loft where he was sleeping. Then, energized and inspired, I’d grab my drum and head out into the woods and create sound. Using my voice, my hands and my sacred drum, I’d unleash from deep within the awe and the longing and the sadness too, but all of it was beautiful, or at least that’s how I remember those first days spent in Serenity Valley. When I’d return from drumming, he would be close to waking and we’d slowly move through our morning routine. He’d go outside and tend to the solar panels, check on the garden, yawn, stretch and feel the sun on his skin. Inside I’d be humming and boiling water and brainstorming on how to organize this tiny space. We’d have breakfast and then go about the day, which would be filled with chores in and around the huts, interspersed with meaningful leisure time. During my first five days with Ryo in the woods, we put in a sink and a kitchen shelf and planted butternut squash (named Fuzzy Wuzzy) and melon (Meloney) in the garden. When we weren’t working we took walks through the woods, I played the guitar while sitting on stumps beneath the fiery afternoon sun, and Ryo taught me how to use a gun at the shooting range he constructed nearby. Throughout the day, I’d tidy up the hut while he worked on the computer. We’d lay in the hammock if there was even a hint of a breeze, or retreat up to the loft to rest when it was too hot to do anything else. In the evening we’d make dinner together and eat by the glow of the solar powered lights inside the cabin, or take our food outside, feasting on fire roasted sweet potatoes, onions and squash and get lost in the changing colors of the sky as the sun settled herself down behind the mountains for the night.

There were some struggles; there was a healthy colony of mosquitoes in and around the cabin and their population was most concentrated up in the loft, which made sleeping comfortably somewhat of a challenge. I ran into the expected, minor frustrations of living away from the modern comforts I was accustomed to but for the most part it was like a dream. Ryo and I had recently grown closer and this was the first time we’d spent five consecutive days and nights together, as well as away from any other human beings.

There was a peace and rightness about life in Serenity Valley that made it easy to imagine raising children there together, away from all of the toxic, mind-numbing, soul-sapping influences of urban life. I was learning new things, like how to work in a garden, use a jigsaw and shoot a rifle. I felt closer to Ryo than ever before, and closer to myself because I was living close to the land. There was no pavement between my feet and the soft, red earth. My voice, this voice that I so often censor and stifle because I’m afraid of being misunderstood or judged or rejected or laughed at, this voice got a little taste of freedom out in the woods. Trees don’t have the capacity to misunderstand or reject you. When they laugh it is in delight at the sounds you are making, never because they don’t like you or think you are foolish or because they are afraid of what you are saying. There were no billboards or commercials poisoning my mind, planting seeds that whatever anxiety or sadness or insecurity I felt would disappear the moment I bought something: a beverage, a pill, cosmetics, clothing, electronic gadgets, so much stuff sold to separate us from our stuff. Instead, when my stuff came up, my anxiety or sadness or insecurity, I had Mother Earth, the sacred woods, to give it to in the form of song, drum, dance, walking there, sitting there, crying there, breathing there. Then, when I’d gotten it out of my system, I could go back to enjoying being me and appreciate once more the rays of light filtering in through the trees and the sight of Ryo, clad only in his khaki shorts and camo hat, up on a ladder fixing something on the hut. It was life in its simplest form, uncluttered by problems that have nothing to do with living and everything to do with trying to escape.

That was seven months ago. In the space between that trip to Serenity Valley and this most recent one, I did a lot of trying to escape; from anxiety, uncertainty, responsibility, pain. Modern life offers so many ways to do this, every one of us gets caught up in it at some point, in some form or another. So I decided to cast off some of my demons while I was up there; I’d stop drinking coffee and eating sugar. I knew these two substances had way more control over my mind and mood than I wanted and I was determined to take back that control. I thought that being out in nature, and far away from the alluring traps of coffee houses and convenient stores, I’d be able to purge myself of these two detrimental proclivities and hopefully leave the woods feeling more balanced and in control of my life. I thought that the change of scenery would also lend me a new perspective on things that I had been struggling with: confusion over which path I should be on, frustration that I keep going in circles and making the same mistakes, exhaustion over swinging back and forth between confidence and insecurity. I figured I’d feel a little uncomfortable during my first day without coffee or sugar but I expected to recover quickly, aided by the magic of the woods, the way that being in nature always smoothes out the jaggedness of my fluctuations and cravings.

Of course, things did not go as I had planned.

Perhaps it had to do with the fact that it was winter and I am less tolerant of cold than heat, so I spent less time outdoors than I had when I was there during the summer. Perhaps it had to do with the lack of space. During my first trip, we’d moved the stove out of the cabin so that I had more room to do yoga and move around and with the much needed (and appreciated!) stove inside this time, there was barely room for my mat. Perhaps it was purely neurochemical. Without the caffeine and sugar my body was accustomed to, my serotonin and endorphin levels plummeted. I felt irritable, depressed, groggy, very impatient with the hardships of a simple life and with my own mental murkiness. I frequently went into the woods, found a sympathetic log to sit on and cried. I tried to be proactive about dealing with my emotions. I kept up with my yoga practice, I journaled a lot, I exercised, I sawed wood, and I rested when I felt exhausted. These things definitely helped to take the edge off, temporarily, but the edge would quickly return. Like a thin layer of dust on a shelf, the moment I had completely wiped it away, new specks would start to accumulate, making it harder to breathe, and to see what was beneath the dust. I didn’t sing, I didn’t chant, I didn’t talk a whole lot about what was going on. Ironically, my voice felt even more constrained in Serenity Valley than it had back in San Francisco. Nothing I had been hoping for, based on my previous experience that summer, was happening for me and I was growing more despondent and frustrated by the hour.

We’d arrived Thursday evening and were planning to head out early on Monday. By that last morning my nerves were frayed. I awoke feeling anxious and angry and not really knowing why. Okay, I thought, Yoga will help, I’ll go do my practice and then I’ll feel better.

The previous morning I hadn’t started the fire before doing yoga and by the time I’d cooled down after my practice and got it going I was extremely cold. It took my fingers and toes a good forty five minutes to warm up. I remembered this and I was pissed. I just want to do yoga, goddammit I don’t want to have to start this fucking fire first. I grabbed some logs from outside and some smaller sticks for kindling and balled up some magazine paper. I cleaned out the grill and placed the paper, twigs and wood into the fireplace and grabbed the matches. I rubbed the head of the match the way that Ryo had showed me, to warm it up, and then struck it against the box and attempted to light the fire. It wouldn’t light. I’d only done this a couple of times on my own and I was irritated and groggy so it seemed really hard to get it going. I went through half a dozen matches and moved things around angrily and made some frustrated grunts. That woke Ryo and he peeked his head over the edge of the loft and asked if I had enough paper in the stove.

Never mind!” I muttered, “It’s not that cold.” With that I pulled on my boots, coat, hat and my stretchy pink gloves and left the hut. The frustration had become rage inside my body and it had reached its peak. I knew I was on the edge of a major explosion, and I am not the type of person who has major explosions. My skin was crawling, my jaw was clenched, my heart hurt from the anger. I only had one thought in my mind. Run.

I began to go in the direction I normally go, into a part of the property I nicknamed “Skinny Tree Forest,” in honor of an imaginary land my sister and I had created as kids. Then I immediately turned to the left and headed south, into a part of the woods I didn’t know as well. I didn’t run very far, my lungs and heart hurt and the pain was sharp and it stopped me. The hut was still within my sightline when I stopped running and I was still pulsating with fury that was about so much more than not lighting the fire. I sat down on a rock and had a good cry. Or maybe it was a bad cry, I’d had a few of those over the past couple of days, the kind that go on too long so that rather than purge the toxic emotion, the cry just exacerbates it and gives one a splitting headache and a swollen face. Whichever kind of cry it was, it stopped when I saw something move in the brush a short distance away from me. The something was gray and about the size of a large rabbit or a fox. My attention was immediately refocused on that spot, on the fact that there was another living being near me, a mammal, with red blood coursing through its veins just like mine, a being I had never met and would probably never encounter again. Then I began to look at what was around me. Snow had fallen during the night, coating all of the branches of the trees, the skinny and spindly and the thick and sturdy, with white dust, and some of it was sparkling in the bits of sun that were peaking through the clouds. This is amazing. Its absolutely beautiful and alive and every bit of it is conscious.

I felt pulled to the spot where I’d seen the animal, although I was sure it was gone by now. I stood, kneeled and crouched in that area that was an open circle and felt like sacred ground. Something about that moment was different than any other moment since we‘d arrived. After days feeling foggy minded, frustrated and lethargic, I was suddenly pulsating with energy. The woods had breathed life into me and I was delighted by all there was to see and feel there. I felt soothed by this circle of wood, earth and snow around and beneath me, and by the soft, muted sun above me.

My focus shifted from my own misery and was redirected out to the living, breathing woods and what it was telling me. Stories I knew I’d never be able to relay, wisdom I couldn’t translate into words. It showed me the folly of being caught up in misery by revealing itself to me and making me feel how connected to it, all of it, the land, the snow, the air, the trees, I really am.

I noticed two tall pine trees a short distance away. They were standing very close together, almost touching at the bottom and spaced further apart at the top so that they formed a “V.” I felt my body moving towards them.

As I approached them, they told me, in the space of one breath, their story. The pine trees were like Ryo and I, so close to one another yet unable to touch, never fully merging into one tree but growing strong and tall, side by side. Even though they seemed to move away from one another as they grew taller, there really was nothing either one of them was closer too, other than the dirt that gave birth to their roots. And they complemented each other. The tree to the left was wider and slightly taller and appeared to be stronger while the tree to the right seemed more intricate and delicate, gentler, more feminine. I stood between the two trees, my back against the stronger one and my gaze fixed on the softer one. I got lost in her patterns and the layering of her bark, at least as intricate as my own mind, and I was comforted by the sturdiness of the one I was leaning on. I gave these two together-trees my loneliness, my gaping, bleeding sense of separate-ness, and they took it, breathed it in as I breathed it out, and I felt the serenity this valley is named for. As a child, I’d befriended the trees on the playground when I felt like I didn’t fit in with the other kids. I’d created in them entities who mirrored my struggles and gave me what I needed. As a child, I’d imagined, or created, or perhaps received, solace. Where does projecting end and receiving begin? Are they really two separate poles or is give interspersed with take, create interwoven with consume?

I looked back from the direction I’d come from and my eyes saw the brown siding of the hut peeking between the trees. Another constellation of trees drew me further in, or maybe it was one tree that caught my eye, or perhaps just a single branch, bent like a wise old woman’s finger, beckoning me nearer. I moved away from the together-trees and did some more exploring, some more imagining, some more listening. The next time I looked back towards where I’d come from, I couldn’t see Ryo’s cabin anymore, nor could I pick out the two together-trees or the brush where I’d seen the gray or white rabbit.

I knew, generally, which direction I’d come from, or at least I thought I did. There were trees and branches and clusters of dead bushes and snow all around me and none of it looked familiar or at all distinguishable from the rest. I had lost my way and that I wasn’t sure how to get back.

I set off in the direction I thought the hut was hiding and tried to find my footprints in the snow. That should be easy, just follow my footprints back the way I had come. When I tried to do this, the prints just led me back in a circle to the spot where I discovered I was lost. I don’t know how to account for this.

For a moment I thought I spotted the hut again, but I quickly saw that it was dead leaves peeking through trees. I realized what I had thought was the hut the last time I’d looked probably was not, and I was further away than I initially thought. I felt the panic that had been gathering around my edges all of a sudden go deep into my center. I’m lost!

I had heard more times than I could recall that the best thing to do when you’re lost is to stay put, avoid getting more lost, and wait for someone to find you. The woods are very extensive, they go on for miles, it would not be hard to get very far away from Ryo’s property without realizing it. I knew I’d gotten myself into a pickle, a potentially very dangerous pickle, and I also knew that I couldn’t stay still for too long in the cold. I decided to head back in the direction I thought I had come from, even though I couldn‘t find my footprints. I had lost all sense of direction and I could not figure out which way I had actually come from.

I was not equipped to be out there. Running into the woods in a moment of blind and overwhelming frustration might very well be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. I was so angry at myself. I had been safe. Nothing had actually been wrong that couldn’t have been fixed right there in that hut. In a matter of moments I mindlessly forfeited my security and my power and put myself, and by extension Ryo, into a state of extreme vulnerability. He prides himself on being self sufficient, on doing what he’s doing without needing any help, certainly without needing anyone to come in and rescue him, or his emotionally unbalanced girlfriend. What would it mean for him, and for our relationship, if he had to call for help to find me? So bitter was the remorse I felt for the situation I’d created, and biting like the cold that began to cut into my skin if I stayed still too long. This desperate, pathetic longing to be able to just undo it all hampered my sensibilities. It had been over an hour since I’d run into the woods and I was wandering aimlessly, getting myself more lost, maybe, I couldn’t even tell anymore.

It was as though the woods had swallowed me. I’d come up against the edge of my self and fallen over and no trace of me was left. I walked and I walked and I walked. Before long I found myself in very unfamiliar terrain. I found a stump to sit down and as I did the desire to just give up overtook me. I’d gone past the flesh and bone of hopelessness and I was into the marrow now. I don’t know where I am. Who is going to help me? How will I ever get out?

In the midst of the hysterical chatter of my mind, a voice came into my head that distinctly different than my own. It was the voice of a wise yogi who left this Earth years ago after bringing hope and healing to many. I’d never felt much of a personal connection to this particular guru although I’d trained with yogis who very nearly worshipped him. There’s a lot of controversy around this man, some say he’s a saint, some say he’s a criminal. I don’t claim to know the truth about him but I know what he meant to me in that moment. My brain chose him to offer guidance because he is known for not putting up with anybody’s crap and not sugar coating anything or coddling anyone, and I knew that self pity would get me absolutely nowhere in my current situation. So, from somewhere deep within my mind, or maybe even slightly beyond it, I heard Yogi Bhajan’s voice.

You create your own hell. Now walk in it.

The first line was not new information. I’ve long understood there to be no separate hell below or heaven above, it’s all here on earth, its all our individual and collective creation. I knew, during the months before this trip to the mountains, that I was making myself miserable by not doing my practice, by reaching for sweets to alleviate anxiety and coffee to give me the energy I was wasting by swallowing down the things I needed to say. I was allowing my emotions to control me rather than just give them a little attention and love and move past them. Ending up exactly where I was in that moment was the natural manifestation of everything I’d been creating in my head. My tangible, physical situation had become an extension of my mind. I’ve felt lost for awhile now and I’d been avoiding dealing with it. I was doing everything in my power not to confront the massive uncertainty surrounding where my life is going, how I’ll get there, if I’ll be all right. Before I knew it I’d forgotten my power to choose a path that will lead me where I want to go. This mental action needed to find a much larger form or else I’d keep running around in the same small circles, getting smaller and smaller, decaying, rotting, forgetting. Losing my way forced me to look at how I had abandoned the way I know to keep myself healthy and strong.

Things were going unsaid between Ryo and I. I’d been secretly wanting him to be exactly who I needed him to be so that I could feel safe being myself. My uncertainty and insecurity about who I am in his eyes, in his mind and in his heart had led me to build walls of silence and avoidance between us. I’d been feeling powerless in my life and this contributed to the persistent, irrational desire to have him take care of things for me. To take care of me. I felt like I needed him to make me to speak when I couldn‘t (which, of course, he never would), to teach me everything I don’t know (which, of course, he never could) and, when its too hard for me to learn things, to do them for me. What this desire says about me as an individual, as a woman, was too much to confront and so I ran from it. I ran right into woods where I couldn‘t run from it anymore. It was all here now, bigger than me, bigger than us, as big as the woods and I had no idea how big they really were.

Now walk in it.

I have experienced the concept of karma, and I know, logically and intuitively, that we have to deal with the messes we make. Either we clean them up or we drown in them. I know that no one is going to do any of this for me. But for awhile now, I’ve been wanting someone to. This fantasy of the knight-in- shining-armor or the prince on the white horse with the castle in the clouds takes on many forms. Ryo can do a lot of things that I can’t, at a very crucial level, he knows how to survive out here and I don’t. I’m able to have experiences with him that I can’t have on my own and I think that this activated the damsel-in-distress/helpless maiden stereotype that I was fed as a child watching Disney movies and listening to fairy tales. If he is strong, that must mean I’m weak. If I can’t do something and he can then he is more diligent, more creative, smarter, better than me and I’d better do anything I can to keep him. I’d better hide how deficient I am and not tell him when I feel weak or else he will find out he’s too good for me and leave.

But maybe one tree isn’t stronger than the other. Perhaps the tree I’d been leaning against was actually no stronger than the one I was facing. If I had stopped looking at what I thought was me and leaned against my own image for a moment, what might I have seen in the tree I’d had my back to? That he is vulnerable too, that he makes mistakes too, that he has doubts and insecurities too? If I had simply turned around and allowed that which was holding my gaze to hold my body, would I have felt my own strength supporting me? Would I have found my way back to the hut then?

You created your own hell. Now walk in it.

Hell. My hell, was entirely psychological. Nothing was happening to my body. I got a fabulous workout and a couple blisters on my toes. I knew enough to keep moving so that my fingers and toes didn’t get cold and to eat just enough snow to stay hydrated but not take in too many potential pollutants. My hell was in my mind. Everything I hate about myself, everything I hide from myself and from others was there to meet me in the woods, it was all out in the open and couldn’t possibly be hidden anymore. I fucked up so bad this time. There is no good way out of this. The best case scenario is that Ryo will be able to find me, and then he’ll certainly break up with me. This time I went too far. He couldn’t possibly be with me after having to clean up a mess this big.


I called out for Ryo. I yelled his name into the trees and they swallowed my voice, the same way they’d swallowed me.

I walked and I walked and I walked. After about an hour and a half of wandering through the woods, I found a dirt road, covered in snow, not driven on in at least several days, and certainly not the one we had driven in on. I followed it down a steep incline and then stopped because it seemed, from the view of the mountains in the distance, that I was getting further away from where I knew the hut was. I turned around and went up the road instead and when I got to the road there was a fence and beyond the fence were railroad tracks. Technically, I was out of the woods, but I still had no idea where I was.

I remembered that Ryo had mentioned walking all the way down to the fence and the railroad tracks on occasion so I knew I couldn’t be that far from his cabin. I decided to walk along the fence and call out for him, thinking that if he was still near home, and not off someplace else looking for me, then he would be able to hear me and come find me. I would periodically walk a short distance into the woods, keeping the fence in sight, to call out. I climbed a tree, trying to spot the hut from way up high but it was all branches, snow and dead leaves. I’d debated climbing trees at intervals but decided against it since my boots were in bad condition and I knew it was unwise to risk falling and injuring myself.

I walked along the fence for awhile and then came to a point where it turned, and then kept going and going and going. I was pretty sure that the side of the fence I’d started out at was due south of the hut but I couldn’t be certain. I walked back to the road again, down a little ways, a little further then before, and then back up again, back to the fence, walking, calling, hoping I’d be found, fearing I would not. In between moments of franticness or determination or hopelessness, I’d crouch down close to the earth, and I’d pray.

Hail Goddess, Full of Grace

Blessed are you and blessed are all the fruits of your womb

For you are the Mother of Us All

Hear Us Now

And In All Our Need

Oh Blessed Be, Oh Blessed Be


This prayer is a liberated version of the “Hail Mary,” a Catholic prayer I knew as a child. The meter is the same, the words are more inclusive. It was a gateway that led me to speak directly to Her, to say how scared I was and to ask for the strength and wisdom that had one missing inside of me.

No Divine Force From Beyond, no God, or Goddess, was going to intervene. It was the act of calling out to Her that saved me. Since childhood, whenever I’ve needed help or been really scared I’ve always asked God to save me, even after I stopped believing in him. This time, it was not the Father Above, but the Mother Within, whose presence I invoked. Even though I felt like I was entreating a loving, compassionate mothergoddess far beyond me, what I actually did was call upon the my own power, the power of the creative feminine, She Who Knows the Way.

But I wavered a lot too, I tried to invoke her, invoke my own power, but my mind kept telling me it was hopeless to try to find my way out on my own, that I was lost and would always be lost out there. In addition to squatting near the earth and calling on the Goddess, I prayed to Ryo as well. Crouching in the snow I spoke to him, as though he were right in front of me, and told him I needed his help.

Come to the fence. You have to come to the fence, this is the only way because I cannot get home on my own. Ryo, come to the fence, come to the fence by the railroad tracks.

I affirmed again and again, that I needed him to save me, that I couldn’t do it on my own. And I kept going back and forth between the fence and the road, between Hail Goddess and Ryo Please Find Me. My experience walking the fence went in waves. I’d get a burst of confidence, of trust in my self, or trust in the Self-from-which-All-Selves-Spring. I’d decide to head one way and keep going, as far as I could, see what was there. But I’d get only so far and then turn around and head back in the direction I’d come from. I was stuck.

Hear us now and in all our need…

My voice started to loosen in the woods near that fence. Praying and yelling out to Ryo again and again began to open me up, to bring me so fully into my experience of needing him and everything that means. Thinking he can do it better than me (drive the car, cut the onions, start the fire, build our home), or knowing that, in many cases, he actually can do something better than I can, somehow morphed into my needing him to do it all for me. This need is the gaping wound of self mistrust. The only way to begin to heal such a wound is to be thrown into a situation where you have to trust yourself in order to survive.

At one point, after calling for Ryo, I just had to scream. I screamed loud, not to be found or even to be heard, but to let loose the anger, the childish frustration and remorse, the deep, dark fear about my own survival. So much raw emotion came out in that scream, emotion that has no label or category or flavor, that was neither anger nor joy, grief nor bliss, simply the intense experience of being human. It was human emotion unfiltered by mind, uncluttered by chemical modifiers and not held down by reason or fear. Such pure emotion has enormous transformative power. When it was kept inside it stayed stuck in the form of fear and shame but the moment it found voice it became my power again. Life let loose when I screamed and in that moment I was free.

I remembered Ryo talking about a road leading to the neighbor’s property, and now and again, during my fence walking, I had thought I recalled him saying that dirt road started at the fence. But I quickly wrote off this memory as fantasy, as something I was making up because I wanted to believe I could get home. Suddenly, it seemed ridiculous not to at least try it, to take that road down as far as it would go and if it led me nowhere, I could always come back to the fence. Ryo had showed me his neighbor’s property the other day and I had wondered, at the time, why he had done this. The neighbors weren’t there and I thought there were probably more interesting spots in the woods to visit that a chunk of land with some trailers, a guardian angel statue and a bright orange fireplace.

I began walking back down that snow covered road, seeing all the familiar landmarks; the overturned tree stump that looked like a piece of machinery from the distance, the point where the road bent to give a better view of the mountains in the north. This time I went past the point I’d gone before and started to see different trees, different piles of snow and sticks, a different angle of the sky above. I kept walking and I started feeling a cheerful. The little voice inside me warned not to get my hopes up, to brace myself for disappointment and a long, steep climb back up to the fence. The big voice inside me said, Screw the little voice, we’re going the right way, you‘re going to get home.

After a bit, I came upon an enormous water tank, far bigger than the 305 gallon one we’d strapped to the roof of the car and drove from Redding to the hut a few days before. Near the water tank were posted private property signs. I knew I was on somebody’s land now, but I didn’t know whose.

I kept walking and soon I saw some trailers. Are these the ones I saw yesterday? Probably not, but could they be? I couldn’t be sure. I kept walking. Then a beam of light hit my eye, blinding me for a fraction of a moment as a streak of sun emerged from behind a thick wall of clouds and landed right on that bright orange fireplace. That was when I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I wasn’t lost anymore.

Ali and the fireplace

Ali and the orange fire place that showed her way home…

From there I took off towards the dirt road that leads up to Ryo’s land. I flew so fast that I missed the guardian angel figurine but I don’t think she missed me. She was there as I turned onto that familiar red dirt road and saw the tracks of the car and the chain and lock I’d unfastened to let us onto the land a few days ago. Then I saw our footprints in the snow. Shivers scurried up my spine and my chest began to feel warm and wide. Seeing our footprints was almost like seeing Ryo himself, it was a physical sign that we were both alive and had been walking together, and would be soon again. I started running and calling out for Ryo, unaware that he had just been calling out to me, I guess we were still too far apart to hear one another. He was about to set out a second time to look for me as I dragged myself up the final stretch of hill and we saw one another at last. I ran towards the biggest smile I’ve ever seen and the warmest arms I’ve ever known. I’d made my way back, back to Ryo, but not rescued by him. I had brought me home.

Through this experience, I was able to put a chink in Prince Charming’s armor. The learned helplessness and lack of self trust that many women learn at an early age has not been entirely vanquished. The helpless maiden is still a part of me and maybe she lives in all of us for a reason. She is often who we believe we have to be in order to be loved, cared for and protected by our fathers, and later on our lovers. She is part of our heritage, she is who our grandmothers had to be to survive patriarchal oppression and she is still the only acceptable female form for millions of women around the world. We are them and they are us and until we are all free, that image of the feminine will remain within us. But there are other archetypes that live in all of us too. During my three and a half hours wandering in the woods I struggled to find my own strength. And through the action of walking through my creation, my hell, as it were, and through the act of deciding to find my own way back I embodied Diana, the fierce warrior princess, confident, capable, self-sufficient and strong, goddess of the trees, huntress of the elusive love within.

I learned that self reliance is a state of mind before it becomes an action. Running into the woods was a reckless and dangerous thing to do and if I had known how to compute my direction from the angle of the sun, if I’d been able to find my footprints, if I’d brought a GPS or a whistle or a map of the area then I would have found my way back sooner. If I’d continued to wander aimlessly I might have gone much further away from the area and not found my way out (or have been found) before night fell, and then my chances for survival would have been slim. In this particular situation, I had all of the information I needed to get back home stored in my memory and I was never that far away. I remained lost because I believed I was lost and that my mistakes doomed me to suffer. As soon as I decided to use what I information I had, and to risk being wrong, and to forget about feeling helpless for a minute, I found my own way out of those woods.

I was fortunate. The risks out there are very real. But so are the risks in here. Every self defeating thought we give our attention to paves the way for disaster. Its only a matter of time before we create the negativity we perpetuate in our minds. This experience was a wake up call. I was reminded how lucky I am to be alive, and that I have a responsibility to walk my path and not let fear keep me stuck in one place for too long.

The morning after I found my way out of the woods, back at home in San Francisco in the warmth and safety of my own bed, I awoke with the words of mystic poet Rumi running through my head. “People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch. The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep.”