Houdah Abotteen: Defying Stereotypes

While Alternate Pathways has thus far have focused on my personal path, I have never intended it to stop there. The entire concept of “Alternate Pathways” depends on multiplicity, and thus, with this post, the blog is officially moving into the realm of profiles. The profiles will focus on individuals who have taken exceptional routes through life, defying social pressures and moving through fear and challenge into the unknown. They are people who view reality ‘outside the norm’, and because of that, they have something unique to teach us.

This profile centers on Houdah Abotteen, an exceptional woman I had the pleasure of meeting at a gym in Kansas City. This piece was first published on Entropy and is here reprinted with permission of the editors and Ms. Abotteen. 

1
Meeting

I have frequented a myriad of gyms for over a decade, and never have I been so immediately struck by another patron as I was by Houdah Abotteen at Genesis Health Club in Kansas City. That’s not just because Houdah, a 26-year old female, was putting up dumbbells heavier than any of the males beside her. It’s because as she did it, she wore long clothing that concealed her body and a hijab that concealed all but her face.

Wait! cried my cognitive associations. This is a Muslim woman lifting weights, a Muslim woman who is seriously badass. What’s going on here? Even with her body covered, anyone could tell she was what the meatheads call “stacked”. She looked like she could drop any dude at will, should the intention fit the desire. My mind raced through it’s familiar categories. Aren’t Muslim women oppressed by men? Doesn’t Islam promote weak women? This doesn’t fit what I am used to! By her mere presence at the dumbbell rack, Houdah shattered these associations I unconsciously carried. I had to learn more. As she stretched between set, gaze focused like a tigress, I approached her. She took out her earbuds, and she greeted me with a smile.

I told her she was quite awesome. She felt flattered and thanked me for the compliment.

Once she communicated she was open to addressing my questions, no matter how tinged in unconsciously-assimilated stereotype they sounded, my questions came pouring out: What does your family think of this? Do you get weird responses from people on the streets? Are you trying to make a statement?

Houdah answered each of my questions with tact, calm, and grace. Each response expanded my intrigue at her unique perspective. Ten minutes in, fearing I was distracting from her workout, I asked if she would meet me for coffee, where I could interview her for this piece. She enthusiastically agreed. On top of agreeing, she challenged me to join her for a workout in the interview’s wake. I told her I’d be delighted.

I said farewell, completed a difficult set of incline press with 60 lb. dumbbells, and left the gym to the sound of Houdah grunting as she easily repped out 65s.

2
Interview

Early the next morning, we met at a Starbucks near the gym, and for over an hour we engaged in a sprawling and delightful conversation through which Houdah willingly shared her unique perspective, which I am delighted to share with you.

Houdah was born in Emporia, Kansas to parents who had moved to the States from Palestine. When she was a young girl, they moved to Kansas City due to its superior Muslim presence. She grew up with five brothers, and she attributes the genesis of her interest in health and fitness to their childhood influence. She learned to “hang with the guys,” which would aid her down the wellness road. Long desiring to help people—at one point she felt a strong pull to midwifery—Houdah eventually attended UMKC to pursue nursing, and she now works full-time at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City.

It became clear that Houdah is the type of person who dreams big and works to actualize those dreams. Though some of her early dreams had to be released, such as her desires to go to Harvard and become the first hijabi woman to play in the WNBA, one need only glance at her physicality to see she has actualized her desire to live a bodybuilding lifestyle, a desire that she traces back to a high school weightlifting class.

“At first, I could barely lift the bar,” Houdah admitted. “By the end, I was one of the strongest girls.”

“In the whole school?” I asked.

She nodded with a smile.

Houdah loved how people responded to her growing strength. The compliments she received motivated her to continue. Though her dedication to weightlifting dwindled in her early college years as she focused wholeheartedly on her nursing pursuits, she reclaimed her fitness drive her junior year and has not slacked off since. She cleaned up her diet. She acquainted herself with bodybuilders at the gym, enamored with their chiseled abs and bulging deltoids. She wanted to look like them, and she gathered tips to learn how. She discovered Instagram accounts of muscular women and felt transfixed by the physiques.

“When I look at muscular woman, that’s very attractive to me. A lot of my friends say, ‘Oh I don’t want to look like that. That’s manly. That’s too bulky. She’s too muscular.’ But for me, that’s very attractive. I feel like it’s a sense of power, a sense of confidence. And that’s the look that I always wanted to go for.”

Houdah became stronger, more muscular, and despite her friends’ reservations, the compliments came pouring in. While the compliments and the aesthetics yielded great initial fuel, they quickly became secondary to her deeper motivations.

“After a while, it stopped being about looks, and more about how it made me feel.” She described the blissful, confidence-imbuing sensations that come from what Arnold once described as “the pump”. Her self-esteem increased dramatically. She sought article after article about nutrition, anatomy, and physiology and even started selling meal plans and workout plans so as to use her growing knowledge to help others. Once her motivation came from this internal source of wellness, there could be no stopping Houdah in her pursuits. The gym had become a gigantic playground through which she could dance around and connect more deeply to her inner self.

Women who pursue a path to physical strength and musculature with such fervor are impressive enough, but female bodybuilders wholeheartedly devoted to Islam? That’s what makes Houdah’s story exceptional. That’s what crumbled my stereotypes.

Despite what these associations of mind dictated, Houdah informed me her religion has never limited her. The reality is quite the contrary.

“My hijab never prevented me from getting into fitness. I feel like it empowers me, because I’m changing people’s perspectives. I’m breaking two stereotypes. I’m breaking the fact that, ‘Yes, women, you can lift heavy and not look like a man,’ and also, ‘Muslim women, don’t be afraid. You can workout. You can go to the gym. It doesn’t matter.’” Through her presence, she shows open-minded-yet-somewhat-ignorant Americans like me that Muslim women, like all women, are at liberty to love and respect themselves as powerful individuals. And Houdah admitted several times her total love for her body, a love rooted in wellness without a tinge of ego.

I asked, “Why, then, do you cover it?”

She informed me the covering has nothing to do with shame. Rather, Muslim women cover their bodies in modesty and self-respect.

“We don’t want to be gawked at and looked at by men,” she said. “We’re not gonna be wearing short skirts that will reveal our bodies.”

I asked, “Doesn’t this yield a tension with your love for your body?”

She told me, “I do it for myself, not for other people. Even though you can’t see how I look, I see how I look. And that’s the most important thing. If you’re doing something for other people, it’s not going to stick. When you do something for yourself, it’s gonna stick.”

No arguing with that.

We got a little more into her faith. During the thirty days of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to sundown, bookending their days with large meals. By fasting, I do not mean they give up a particular food or drink. They give up all food and drink, including water. Houdah remains dedicated to the month of Ramadan when it comes, and amidst it, she still hits the gym. She stays up until sunrise, prays, sleeps until about three, wakes up, does cardio (incline walking), goes to work for a few hours, eats after sundown, digests for an hour, then lifts weights. That’s a level of dedication few reach.

As our conversation reached its apotheosis, it became clear that pretty much all of my perceptions of Muslim women had come from the mainstream media. Houdah observed, “The way the media portrays Muslim women is that we’re oppressed, confined to our houses, and can’t do anything. And that’s not at all what Islam does for the women. That’s more based off culture and the way you’re raised. It has nothing to do with the religion.”

“So people are confusing the culture with the religion?” I asked.

Houdah nodded. “The religion never prevents women from doing what they want to do. It does say ‘Obey your husband.’ But it also says, ‘Obey your wife.’”

Who would have thought the American media would sway the truth?

Through her presence and words, Houdah had dismantled more of my perceptions than I could count, all through open-mindedness, confidence, understanding, and compassion. In the end, amidst all the lessons she taught me, her predominant message focused on the importance of self-love, and how connected self-love is with our relationships to our bodies and our minds.

“In order to be healthy, to have a healthy mind, is to love yourself. When you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, it’s to love what you see. It’s not about how many miles you can run or how much weight you can lift. Just being able to go about your life happy with your life, happy with who you are. Being muscular is not for everyone. It’s about feeling comfortable in your body, loving your body.”

When so many media-infused perspectives focus on critiquing and belittling women’s bodies, when eating disorders and body issues are at least as significant as ever before, Houdah’s perspective affirms the ability to transcend cultural paradigms by embracing internal strength and purposeful living, unaffected by the fears and judgments others carry. Hateful people surround us, and if we listen to them, we choose to descend to their level. Despite all the compliments she receives, Houdah still experiences some negativity. Some people tell her, “I don’t want to look like you.”

With a confident smile, Houdah replies, “Don’t worry. You never will.”

3
Workout and Aftermath

I won’t take you through every set and rep of the back workout Houdah led me through. I’ll just say she totally kicked my butt. I’m not a weak guy (though I’m no Arnold, admittedly), and each set, Houdah pulled at least as much weight as me, quite often more. I left exhausted, knowing my back would be sore for days, and as I departed, Houdah informed me she was about to blast her deltoids. That butt-whooping was but half of her workout.

I left the gym that day with a strong sense of gratitude, a sense that still remains. I am grateful this strong woman trusted me enough to shine light on her unique perspective, a perspective that can help Americans like me expand our media-downloaded perceptions of the religion of Islam. So much strife comes from premature judgment and misunderstanding. I am grateful Houdah walks confidently through the world and breaks barriers with her presence, challenging people to see outside of what they think they believe, for so often, what we think we believe proves oceans separate from the truth.

My Joe Rogan Dream: Bowhunting and Beyond

“Do shit that’s difficult. It’s very important to struggle.”
-Joe Rogan

1

The Dream

The other night, after drinking Valerian tea, I had my first ever Joe Rogan dream. I’d never thought often of Joe Rogan in my waking life—I’d never even heard a full episode of his podcast. Nonetheless, I respected Joe Rogan and marveled at his diverse achievements. It was surprising to see him in my dream, driving a vehicle in which I was the passenger. It was also surprising that seated in the back were two other podcasters I listen to regularly, Ben Greenfield and Aubrey Marcus, the latter of whom I know is good friends with Joe Rogan.

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Joe Rogan, my dream mentor

In the dream, Joe Rogan was a mentor for me. We were not quite friends, but it felt that we were growing closer with each exchange. It felt like kindred spirits communicating. Joe Rogan drove me and Aubrey Marcus and Ben Greenfield through a desert landscape with lots of hills and mesas. I felt I was in the company of powerful men initiating me into something beyond myself. Gratitude suddenly filled my heart, and I wished to express it to all of them. I turned to Ben Greenfield, and I said,

“Hey Ben. Thanks for introducing me to bowhunting on your podcast. I’ve started shooting and am super excited it’s now a part of my life.”

Ben Greenfield, whose black hair was shimmering with gel, looked at me, scoffed, and shook his head. I thought, ‘Man. Ben Greenfield is a real jerk. He doesn’t even support my burgeoning desire to bowhunt!’ 

ben greenfield
Ben Greenfield’s Face

I turned then to Aubrey Marcus. Aubrey Marcus appeared to have skin of many colors. He was basically rolling around on the cushion and smiling with ecstasy like all the pleasure of the universe was erupting throughout him. I said,

“Hey Aubrey. Thanks for being so open about your polyamorous relationship with your fiancé, and thanks for teaching people about plant medicines. You are an inspiring guy, and I sense little ego in you.”

Aubrey directed his smile at me, feeling all the pleasure only Aubrey Marcus seems to feel. I thought, Aubrey Marcus is cooler than Ben Greenfield.

At some point, all four of us made fun of Dave Asprey.

All the while, Joe Rogan drove us with intent and focus. We had no fear we were going astray. At some undefined point, the vehicle Joe Rogan drove transformed into a school bus. Ben Greenfield and Aubrey Marcus were no longer there.

aubrey
Good ole Aubrey Marcus

Joe Rogan started teaching me how to focus. He instructed me to block out the haters and naysayers, the worries about what other people are saying. These are things I cannot control, and they have nothing to do with my path. “It’s about finding what you want to do,” Joe Rogan said, “and it’s about making that happen, one small step at a time.” He dropped me off in a field full of people.

Everything after becomes fuzzy—encounters with my close childhood friend Will, many celebratory games, and Joe Rogan abruptly returning to hang with me once again. In the final vision of the dream, I ran alone up a sand dune at dusk. Over the edge, I glimpsed a small reptilian creature standing still, indicating the strange unknown awaiting. 

2

Interpretation

When I awoke, I recalled my dream vividly. I thought it funny, and I thought it odd, as Joe Rogan had meant little more to my life than he probably means to most people: that old host of Fear Factor who happens to be a badass MMA fighter and stand-up comic and megaphone-promoter of psychotropic exploration. I’d heard his name recently when Aubrey Marcus interviewed Jordan Harbinger, host of The Art of Charm, and Harbinger referred to Rogan as a sort of peak of the podcasting world. So I thought, ‘This dream felt like some kind of vision. I’m going to take it as a sign to download the most recent episode of The Joe Rogan Experience and see what I learn.’

Turned out the most recent episode, posted just the day before, was all about bowhunting.

‘Wild!’ I thought. ‘I’d only heard about bowhunting from that meanie Ben Greenfield! But I’ve been telling people it’s the activity I most want to get into out here in Colorado. That’s why I’ve been to the archery range three times! Synchronicity, man!’

Turns out Joe Rogan is super into bowhunting, too. His guest was Cameron Hanes, a “bowhunting athlete” with whom Joe Rogan had just (like, right before recording) traveled to Utah to hunt for elk in a region to which they continually referred as “indescribable.” For the entire first hour and a half, they talked about bowhunting with unbelievable enthusiasm and respect. It was one of the best podcast listening experiences I have had.

hanes.png
Cameron Hanes bowhunting

Joe Rogan and Cameron addressed how physically challenging bowhunting is—coming from Joe Rogan that means a lot, cause Joe Rogan is a very strong man. They talked about the ethics of bowhunting, how it puts us in touch with our ancestors and brings one as close as possible to the meat one eats. Cameron said if he wanted just to kill an animal, he would use a gun, cause that’s much easier. It’s not about making an animal suffer or getting the trophy for the wall. It’s about that deep connection with nature, both internal and external, and the patience it requires to navigate the wilderness and hit the perfect shot while a massive antlered elk is barking its horrid cry. It’s about the challenge, it’s about the discipline, and it’s about the humility.

And it’s this message of challenge and discipline that my Joe Rogan dream came to deliver me. Joe Rogan kept saying, “It’s incredibly difficult,” and he’s been bowhunting for over four years. Cameron said the difficulty is so great he does not recommend people start bowhunting in the first place. Both these guys know how to shoot bows accurately, and they know how to treat the meat. Nearly all the meat Cameron’s family eats is from his hunts. He has been bowhunting for almost his entire life. It has taken him and Joe Rogan a long time to reach their level of success.

I have been to the archery range three times.

To make matters worse, these guys are having this hard of a time using compound bows. My bow is a recurve bow, the type of bow I want to hunt with, cause that’s what Link uses in The Legend of Zelda and what Legolas uses in Lord of the Rings, and those characters are my primary archery inspirations. Hunting with a recurve bow is significantly more difficult than hunting with a compound bow. 

Recurve-Bow-vs-Compound-Bow

Get the desires in check, this Joe Rogan experience taught me. You’re not at bowhunting level. You’ve got a long way to go before you get to bowhunting level. Right now, it’s learning how to shoot an exact point over and over so you can take down an animal with a single shot, rather than cause it needless suffering. Then, in that moment, you open yourself to a spiritual connection with the animal.

3

Action

In response, I went to Rocky Mountain Archery for the fourth time, armed with my Sage Samick Recurve Bow w/ 45lb draw weight and my four carbon arrows. Joe Rogan and Cameron spoke about shooting elk at forty-five yards away, making it seem like a manageable distance. It turns out that the targets I’d been shooting at the range—targets I was finally starting to hit last time, as I excitedly documented on Instagram—were a measly ten yards away. The range’s far targets are twenty yards, and every time I’ve been bold enough to attempt a shot at them, my arrows have struck not inches but feet from the intended target, sometimes embarrassingly hitting the metal far above them that clanged and echoed through the range for all the compound-bow dead shots to hear.

Today, all of the ten-yard targets were taken. The only option was a twenty yarder.

After talking myself out of leaving, I set up my target, lined up against the far wall, and started firing. None of my shots were coming close. It took several rounds before I even hit the paper. My focus was off. My shots were flying wayward directions. I thought of that scene in Fellowship of the Ring when, in the Mines of Moria, Legolas shoots an arrow straight as a bullet several hundred yards so strike the direct center of an orc’s ugly eyes. I realized this is complete fantasy. This is not possible with a recurve bow. ‘I’m a fool for thinking I can do this,’ I thought. ‘There’s no way I’ll learn to aim from this distance.’

IMG_4122

Then I recalled a lesson I had learned at this very range the week before. The lesson came from a Chinese man with a ponytail, a sage of sorts, who spoke to me when I shot an arrow straight into the back of another arrow. He congratulated me, as if I had accomplished something rare. He went on to instruct me that instead of shooting at the big paper targets, which have distracting colors and layers, I should shoot at a small, deflated balloon. Doing so hones the accuracy to a fine point, which I could then transfer to other points at will. It took many failures, but at the end of my session, I hit the balloon from ten yards away.

But twenty yards away? It was too far. The arrow’s trajectory was far less precise. I would look like a fool on this crowded Sunday!

I recalled the Joe Rogan dream. Focus not on how others are seeing you. I thought of the another thing he said. Do shit that’s difficult. It’s very important to struggle.

So I hung the deflated balloon the sage had given me and started targeting it. It looked like a tiny blip of orange in the distance. For several rounds I was way off. All over the place. Finding no flow. I was thinking too much. I kept telling myself to adjust my arm, stand up straighter, twist my elbow, breathe with more focus. On one shot my string collided with my forearm. This hurt really bad. I cursed beneath my breath and crouched over the arm in pain, watching a welt rapidly form. The next few rounds, I was even further off, for I felt fear of the string hitting me again. I considered calling it quits. But I kept shooting.

At some point, I started to calm down. I started focusing on what I knew helped: breathe in on the drawback, exhale on the release. The arrows struck closer to the balloon. One in four was landing within six inches. But then ole ego would reenter the scene, saying, ‘Yeah. You got this. It’s easy. You rock.’ Then my aim would go awry again.

I thought to Joe Rogan and Cameron’s discussing the powerfully primal nature of bowhunting. I wanted to lose my sense of self. Softly, a mantra formed in my mind:

Human and bow… no ego… Human and bow and target…

Target and bow…  no ego… Human and bow and target…

I repeated the mantra in rhythm with my breath, and I saw myself not as this guy ‘Sean’ with whom I have built so many associations, but rather as a stranger. In a flow state outside the ego I witnessed my body holding this beautiful bow. I felt powerful and natural as I drew back the string. I felt as if I had done it countless times before. The arrows were inching closer to my target. Then, one struck the orange balloon. It struck so hard the balloon receded back into the foam.

My mind delighted. I hit it! That was a perfect shot!

The mantra reminded, Target and bow… no ego…

Somewhere deep within my mind, Joe Rogan started teaching me again. It’s not about gloating,” my mind’s version of Joe Rogan told me. “It’s not about pictures you can post on Instagram. It’s not even about celebrating this one perfect shot. It’s about learning how to replicate it. It’s about honing in on that point with more accuracy and consistency each round. It’s about finding the humility and discipline to do so. Then, you move on to the next level.”

This flow state continued for a few more rounds. Each shot was striking within six inches. I could see where the arrow was going to travel. But the more I became aware of the flow state, the more the ego reentered my mind, bringing in chatter and distraction and pressure. Gradually, my aim began to drift away.

And for this moment, that felt perfectly fine.

Each time I go to the archery range, I learn something about myself and my limits. It is always a humbling experience. I am grateful that my Joe Rogan dream and the podcast to which it led me challenged me to struggle and grow. I realize now that Ben Greenfield scoffing in the back had nothing to do with his being an jerk (I bet he’s a really nice guy). Rather, he was showing me in his Ben Greenfield way that bowhunting is still in the distance for me, that I have many steps yet to walk, and for now, it’s about opening to that Aubrey Marcus flow-state pleasure through immersing myself in the act of archery itself. It’s about tuning out the chatter of the doubts and the fears, the ego and the expectations. It’s about honing in on that specific point in space, developing the discipline and concentration to hit it over and over again. Only then will I be able to respect an animal enough to take it down with one perfect shot.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
-Bruce Lee

 

On Fear

There is not much I can say about fear you won’t find better-worded elsewhere, for fear has fascinated thinking minds for millennia. Like love, however, no matter how much we read or hear about it, fear always remains enigmatic and elusive in its power. Many have boiled down the human struggle to one between fear and love. I have come to recognize this struggle inside myself and the necessity to treat each emotion with great respect.

We need not look far to see the presence of fear in our culture. Since 9/11, the U.S. has been destabilized in its comfort and security. Countless measures have been implemented—from TSA regulations to NSA surveillance—that claim to act to alleviate these fears. Then again, it’s those very organizations (and many others) that continuously remind us that we have so much to fear, that without their aid, we are vulnerable to attack. Rarely, if ever, do these sources appeal to our capacity to love.

There are those who believe fear is something to be eradicated. They maintain it is a detrimental emotion carried by the weak-minded, and the true warrior, the hero, obliterates her fear entirely. I do not think this is true. As a cliche-yet-accurate idea maintains, courage is not the absence of fear, but the rising above it. Fear is a companion on our journey—it just happens to be a very loud one that often convinces us it’s the driver. But it is always a passenger. We are always the driver, and we are love embodied.

So often when we turn from opportunities, from risky situations, it’s not because we fear the situation itself; it’s because we fear what part of ourselves that situation will lead us to encounter. Courage is encountering the self. Courage is staring boldly into the darkness of the shadow, the mind, and learning through what we see, affirming aspects of ourselves we never before knew existed, dispelling of the muck we have unconsciously accumulated.

The goal, then, is not to obliterate fear. The goal is to be unaffected by it, to learn from it. Fear can instruct us on where we should not go—the fear that tells you to back away from the crumbling cliff edge is most wise indeed. What we must exercise is discernment between the fears worth listening to and the fears worth moving through. Otherwise, we allow a repressive emotion to contain us to a box, preventing the endless expanse of our love from spreading.

Red Sun

Fear controlled me for a very long time. Since as far back as I can remember, not a day has passed that I have not felt some degree of self-conscious anxiety, especially when within someone else’s gaze. It comes in the form of an internal voice telling me I look strange, I’m giving off bad vibes, my face looks creepy, I’m a weirdo—the list goes on. Then there’s all the fear regarding this Colorado move. The fear tells me, You are making a mistake. You won’t find a job. You are being selfish and immature and you will end up unhappy and ashamed. Essentially, my fear has worked hard for a long time to convince me of my lack of worth, and thus the love and joy I might express has been compressed, unable to breathe. Through such activities as meditation, I have learned to recognize these distorted thoughts as fears. In response, I breathe in calm, for I am the driver, and as I tap into a loving energy beyond myself, the fear grows quieter.

These fears I’ve shared center around one of the biggest fears of today’s culture, and perhaps of humanity in general: the fear of being ourselves. One hundred percent of the people I talk to about this stuff struggles with one or more aspects of their psyches and personalities. Even the wisest people I know see—or have seen—some part of themselves as worth loathing. Due to trauma, social pressures, familial and religious units, these self-deprecating fears embed themselves so deeply we can hardly see outside of their jurisdiction. But we must. We must recognize them as distortions. We must transform them. And we do that through gentleness, through generosity, through opening our hearts to powers of love within and beyond ourselves. When huge quantities of people come together with these intentions, we open our power to heal one another and transform the world.

Intention connects me to this love beyond myself, intention and gratitude for the chance to live this wildly complicated and beautiful life of multitudinous connections and unpredictable developments. So many of the greatest developments of my life—possibly all of them, in fact—have come in the wake of acknowledging, facing, and moving through fear. Whether it’s fear of traveling to a country where I don’t speak the language, fear of moving to a city where I know no one, fear of approaching an attractive person, or fear of putting out writing that others may judge, the fear must never have the final word. Even when it’s telling me to back away from that cliff edge, I am the one who decides that fear is valid. I choose to listen to it, just as I choose to move through it.

From this detached perspective, fear can become a very welcome passenger in this vehicle traveling onward into the unknown. Like a good friend, it can act as a mirror to ourselves, revealing the perceptions and patterns of thought that still restrict the abundant love within us from spreading.

 

AFTERWORD

(Optional)

If you are reading this, I would like to offer you a challenge. Ask yourself, What is the most pressing fear in my life right now? As you reflect on the question, consider the way you are relating to that fear. Am I running away from it? Or am I staring it in the eye and learning how to respond? Asking these questions every day can benefit us a great deal.

Hiking Greyrock Trail and Getting Very Lost

“There is pleasure in the pathless woods.” -Lord Byron

I wrote this post on September 2nd, and I found the above quote on my Valerian Root teabag about a week later. I thought it applied to what follows. 

Today is my first day off, and I decided I would like to go for a hike. Ben, head honcho at Raisin’ Roots Farm, suggested I check out Greyrock Mountain, what he described as a challenging hike northwest of Fort Collins down the Poudre Canyon. I read on Alltrails.com it is “heavily trafficked” and “rated as difficult” and “features a lake”. I also read the trail features a 2549 ft. elevation gain. I decided it sounded like fun. 

The drive to the trailhead took me into lack-of-service land. Apparently it was only seven miles, so I wasn’t too worried about difficulty level. Yet when I parked and realized my sole water bottle was just under half full, I thought, Man. Maybe I should have packed more water. I ended up thinking that quite a few times throughout the hike.

River.JPG

It was a beautiful start to the hike, crossing a bridge over the Poudre river flowing crystalline in the late summer sun. With my Vibram Five Fingers strapped on the feet and my little Osprey clearance-at-REI bag on the back, I started tromping down Greyrock Trail. Simple enough for a while. Nice burn in the quads, good cardio going, some beautiful stretches through purple and yellow wildflowers. Didn’t see many people out there—possibly because this happened to be the same day as “Tour de Fat”, an annual event put on by New Belgium where people dress up in costumes, bike through town, and get wasted. Folks typically start drankin’ before 10AM. On my drive out to the foothills, I passed bikes operated by a samurai, a cowboy, a troop of princesses, and a crash-test dummy. Anyways, that was then. Now, at Greyrock, the trail started angling toward the vertical.

I forgot to mention that at the beginning of my hike, I squatted beside a boulder near the river and offered up intentions and gratitude. I asked for guidance, I asked for insight, and I asked for deeper connection to my surroundings. As I asked for these things, I tuned my senses to the cool wind whisking through the foliage. Then, I tromped onward.

Further up the mountain, I paused in a clearing and inhaled the incredible stillness of the scene. I couldn’t see much beyond the thickly lain pines, but a few foothill peaks offered a pleasant view of the distance. I was struck by how silent it was out there, especially now that my feet weren’t disrupting the stillness. I contemplated the difference between this place and the city. A city is a contained sector of noise. It’s images, distractions, sounds, vibrations, all contained within a finite bubble. Out here is space. Out here is a silence that stretches through the vastness and expands through the cosmos. Out here is healing. 

Valley

Now the trail was really becoming vertical. I was basically climbing a slope of rocks on all fours. It was great fun in my Vibram Five Fingers, which, despite not being cool anymore, stick well to rocky surfaces. A few fawns made their presence known, leaping through the foliage. I thought of my burgeoning interest in bowhunting, how life-affirming it will be to go out into the wild in search of game. I recall being drawn to giftshop bow and arrows when my fourth grade class visited Cahokia Mounds outside St. Louis. I realized I underestimated how challenging it will be to carry the deer back down the trail (or non-trail), how important it will be to honor the animal’s life by using all its parts I can. I realized I have a lot to learn. But I couldn’t think too much about this, because I was in the middle of the woods and no longer seemed to be standing on a trail.

Where was it? It had just been here. I had been following it the entire time.

It definitely was not here.

I started following ascending boulders in no particular pattern or arrangement. I traveled on in what seemed to be the right direction. Impassable boulders revealed it to be the wrong direction. I backtracked and looked for something I missed. Nothing. I looked all around me. I saw only dense trees, vibrating grasses, and big freaking boulders.

I thought, Wow, what a pickle! This will be great to share this story. Inner storyteller Sean said, Oh man, what a silly guy I was, thinking I was ready for serious hikes! Good thing I got out of that! I was so lost! Then inner realist Sean was like, Dude. Shut up. You are lost. This is happening right now.

I started getting scared. I started thinking, What if I don’t figure it out? What if I wander deep into the woods and never find my way back? What if it gets dark and the scary animals come out and I have no weapon or water? What if I die out here! Oh no! 

Death. Aren’t I supposed to not be afraid of that? Crap, it got me again! Here was its possibility around me, playing out in paranoid scenarios. Here came all the worries, all the doubts, all the self-defeating narratives. You’re too sheltered! You don’t know what it takes to navigate the wild! You always underestimate how powerful and unforgiving nature can be! 

Confusion joined the internal screaming match. Weren’t you supposed to have mastered your fear now? Didn’t I overcome it by making the move out here? Hadn’t you checked it off the list?

Ha ha! mocked my fear. You cannot rid of me so easily! I am still with you! Turn back, you fool!

Amidst the noise of this story unfolding in my mind, I remembered a lesson I have been learning lately, a lesson a close friend reminded me of the night before, a message so derned important I’m going to do that blog thing where I put extra emphasis on it. 

Be gentle with yourself.

So subtle! So powerful! I breathed in. I drank a gulp of my dwindling water. I focused on the situation, cause what good were these fears doing me? I figured, if I needed, I would start going down, and eventually I’d find the river again. But I did not want to be so easily defeated. 

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I tuned in my focus more acutely to my surroundings. Some of the grass appeared to be more trodden than other sections, showing patches of dirt too consistent to be free of the step of humans. I followed these patches, turning to my instincts on whether they were correct–after all, hadn’t my entire motive for moving to CO been because of intuition? My intuition led me along a ridge of this lightly-trodden land, and I trusted it was heading the correct way. There seemed to be a thin trail forming at my feet. I had done it! I had found the trail again! I am so awesome!

Then the trail disappeared again. Shit! Stupid ego. Now I was deeper in the woods, further from the original trail, and more confused on where to go.

Shit! What fools made this trail? Didn’t these know how to mark it? Hell-o! You put colors on the trees! Scoundrels!

Another voice crept in, one that clearly knew more what it was talking about. You chose this. This is your decision. Accept it, and respond.

I repeated the process of tuning in to the lightly-trodden land. A few small birds fluttered treetop to treetop. A pair of does hopped over fallen tree trunks. My fear told me to go back. I wasn’t safe here. A bear might eat me. I should just accept that today’s not my day, just admit defeat and return to the ole RV. I was about to listen to this fear, figuring it was actually trying to help me out, when I noticed something.

Just up the ridge, a barely-visible stack of five small rocks rested on a boulder’s edge.

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This past summer, I learned that these small stacks are put in place to guide people. They are laid by past hikers to let current hikers know they are on the path when the trail becomes confusing. The same friend who had reminded me to be gentle with myself taught me this when we hiked through the desert outside of Moab.

But what if I am not remembering correctly? What if these indicate no path? What if they were laid by sadistic mongrels meant to trick naive fools like me? What if—

 

I followed. When I got lost again, I sought to increase my focus rather than listen to my fears. I looked for more rocks. Soon enough, I found them, and I laid a small stone on top. I tuned more deeply into my instincts, trotting down the possible-paths by following what felt like the right direction. Through a clearing in the trees, I saw a massive gray rock rising like . Certainly this was the Grey Rock that gave this trail its name. Toward the Grey Rock I ambled, uncomfortably parched, thirsty beyond my supply. I summited a ridge, and through a few trees, I popped out onto the path. Here it was, thick and well-laid as before, stretching both directions—toward the rock, and back through the spaces where I had veered from it.

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I thought back to my intention-setting. I suppose my desire to tune more deeply into my surroundings came in surprising ways. (Be careful what you wish for, eh!) I gained an insight that I must not underestimate hikes in this region. And I learned that if I become humble and look for signs beyond myself, I will find guidance in the subtlest of places.

I carried onward and followed the thick path. I got lost another time or two, but the small rocks and my intuition always brought me back. I passed people along the way who helped steer me aright, including a very tan and mysterious looking woman who said, “It might confusing ahead, but there are signs. If you don’t see the signs, look for the secret signs.”

I found secret signs in more piles of rocks and hidden stakes in the ground. They led me all the way up to a plateau, where I paused. Realizing how thirsty and fatigued I had become, I felt grateful I had reached the summit.

But I hadn’t reached the summit, said the old couple who suddenly emerged from the woods. There was still the lake, featured ahead. Exhausted, fearful of the cramps that threatened if I did not rest, I thought to the role of lakes in mythology, the places of rest amidst the harsh journey. I had to make the final push.

The final push was like scaling the boulders of Joshua Tree—lots of movement on all fours, strong bursts up steep slopes, no clear direction to the path. But once again, I was guided by the rocks, the spirits of hikers past. Soon enough, I arrived at the lake. It was pretty disgusting looking, a greenish body of water where slimy-looking things floated. But still it called on me to rest, just like the family sitting near it eating sandwiches from their wisely-prepared bags. Just ahead of me was the highest point of Grey Rock. I scaled the steep slopes on all fours and stumbled onto the summit. The foothills stretched into the distances, undulating like shadows through the fog. All directions I looked, they expanded to the horizon. A dim glow appeared to be coming from their sharp peaks. I sat and beheld them, feeling amazed.

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I sat for a while up there. My body needed rest. Though it was dehydrated, it told me it had the strength to carry me down. Several bumblebees revolved around my head. At any point past, I would have felt afraid of being stung. But in this moment, I did not move. Rather, I sat calmly and took the bees’ presence as a reminder to enjoy the nectar of life, to find the pleasure of the pathless woods and feel the sweetness of existence move through me. I looked down and saw the family had departed. I was alone on this peak, out in the foothills, far beyond the road, yet only at the beginning of the unfathomable expansion of the Rockies. Thinking of traveling further, I felt great fear.

Crap! The fear is back! 

But of course the fear is back. The fear will always come back. It challenges us to move through it with wisdom, for when we do, we grow.

Up there, I entered a sort of trance-like state where I witnessed what appeared to be thousands of little reflective atoms swirling and dancing through the air. I knew this was happening internally, yet I was witnessing it externally. That internal/external division dissolved. The mountains were reflecting me to myself. They were reminding me of how expansive this path of life is, how many possible routes can be trodden. They were telling me that as many fears as I have overcome, still there is the essential fear in my heart, the fear of my mortality. So long as I remain fearful of the fact that I will one day die, I will feel this fear trickle into all aspects of my life.

What a precious gift this life is. Perhaps we fear death because we love life. We know deep down it is such a tremendous opportunity. How any of this is happening continually blows my mind. I am so stoked to be a part of it.

With a small sip of water, I placed my hands on a boulder, thanked the earth for all it had taught me, and headed back down the trail.

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Life on the Farm Part 2

I’m going to try to make this a compact post. I realize last post I left out so much of what life is like for a WWOOFer (yrs truly and my new friends Lindsey and Nora) on Raisin’ Roots Farm in Fort Collins. In short, it kicks butt. Nora is from Amsterdam and WWOOFed here last Spring and has come all the way back because she had such a great time. Until October 31st, we will share the RV. She’s super cool and has a unique perspective on we silly Americans, and so I very much look forward to getting to know her.

Ben is the head farmer. He’s 28 years old, and he has the gardening wisdom of an eleventy-five year old hobbit. But he doesn’t look like a hobbit. He looks a little like my good pal Will—calm smile, thick brown hair, dirt on limbs and/or face—who runs an urban farm in St. Louis, MO for Bailey’s restaurants and whose example is one of the main reasons I am here. Cool connection. Basically, Ben looks like a cool, down to earth dude, cause that’s what he is. When we met, he gave me a big ole hug, and instantly I felt welcome. Ben buys we WWOOFers groceries when we ask and allows us full access to any and all of the amazing products of the farm, including eggs from the 50 or so hens. He even bought me three bars of Kerry Gold Irish Grass-Fed Butter, such fine butter indeed! Out in the field, he mentors me on all tasks of farming—hoeing, tilling, weeding, planting, watering, harvesting, and a hundred more. Who knows how much I will learn in the days to come. He mentors with patience and answers all of my questions with compassion, no matter how uninformed they may be. I am super stoked and blessed and grateful that he’s running the ship here, and I foresee him becoming a lifelong friend.

Ben’s apprentice is Sam. Sam instantly greeted me with a big, warm smile and made me feel at home. He’s accumulated a ton of knowledge of earth-related stuff I know nothing about. He’s also a fellow writer, hooray! Poet by trade, Sam lived off freelancing in the past but reached a point where it no longer served him; hence, his movement to become more connected with the Earth. Sam’s been extremely generous in sharing wisdom on how to freelance, which is one of my previously stated intentions for being here. He has a huge heart that expresses itself in love and continual joy, and I know that should I ever be going through a difficult time, I can turn to him as a supportive friend, for always he affects openness and compassion. Once again, I am extraordinarily grateful.

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Harvesting some collards and chard

As I mentioned before, we work 6:30-2ish on Tuesday-Thursday. Friday is “Harvest Friday,” a day of much labor where volunteers flock in to aid us in our harvesting of the week’s bounty—mixed greens, carrots, arugula, kale, collard greens, swiss chard, beets, radishes, turnips, potatoes, tomatoes, and more. We gather it all and wash it all and bundle it up in preparation for the Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings, where Raisin’ Roots sells a great deal of produce to the bustling gathering of Coloradans seeking healthy foods. I’ve done two Harvest Fridays so far, and each day we’ve worked until almost 5PM. It’s a lot of work, but the volunteers are all awesome, interesting people who willingly share insight into the many possibilities of hiking and coffee shopping and activities of which I could not have previously conceived. It all feels like initiation into this bountiful land.

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Harv Party! Ben on the left, Sam on the right, my roommate Nora with back to us.

On the property lives a great cast of characters, all of whom rent rooms and trailers and work various jobs in town. Sometimes they will volunteer their labor to help out the farm, in exchange receiving some fine, fresh produce. I’m looking forward to getting to know all of them better, as every person on the farm has greeted me with warmth and generosity of spirit, never looking down on me as the “new WWOOFer” but rather expressing genuine interest in getting to know me and my interests in being here.

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The ole bed/meditation zone

Nights are calm and quiet. Typically, everyone does their own thing. I’ve been retiring early—at 9PM or so—into my little nook, meditating over a candle, sipping warm tea. Last night I drank Valerian Root tea, and as Ben had prophesied, it yielded incredibly vivid dreams. Even without the valerian, I’ve been having extremely vivid dreams since being here, all of them quite strange. I think our dreams reflect our changes in life. I am processing so much as my life is changing, and my dreams are providing images entirely different than any I have experienced before. I take this as a sign I am navigating entirely new emotions and entering territory of the psyche I have not entered before. It’s an exciting time, even when the dreams are frightening. Perhaps as I grow bolder I’ll share some of this strangeness with you. Then again, most people don’t want to hear about other people’s dreams.

Every once in a while several people on the property come together for a spontaneous community meal. The other night, Chase, a fellow who lives on property and works at the local food co-op, offered to cook up breakfast burritos with very fine chorizo he’s procured at his workplace. Though I had not spoken to him much, he invited me to join. He and Lindsey prepared everything and let me and Ben and Nora have away at the extremely delicious–I’m talking restaurant quality–and filling food. He asked nothing in return, and he smiled warmly and patted my back as I sat beside him and dined.

I’m continually inspired by people’s willingness to give. Every time someone gives so generously, I want to give something back to them, to others, and to the Earth. I’ve started cooking for my RV roommate and it feels good every time I do. As a very special person pointed out to me, the Earth is like this. It gives us so much, and it asks nothing in return. But then again, it asks us to respect it. And why wouldn’t we respect it? Why have I not respected it in the past? I intend to respect it and learn new ways to respect it. This is part of what I am learning. I am so stoked that Colorado is filled with so many joyous people who love and respect this remarkable land.

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