A Hostel Environment

Hostel 2I spent the night in a hostel in Lone Pine, California, last Thursday. Lone Pine sits on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevadas and is interesting in its own right, but let’s focus on the first thought: I spent the night in a hostel.

It was my first. I texted my youngest daughter/world traveler in advance for any advice for an old man, and she replied, “Don’t be one of those weird old men who just stays in the hostel all day.” Quality feedback. So I chose to be one of those weird old men who does not stay in the hostel all day. She asked why I was staying in a hostel, and I answered truthfully: Because I am cheap. It is surprising that this personal trait had not led to previous visits. That could be because I am also an introvert, and the prospect of zero privacy may have overcome my cheapskatedness prior to last Thursday.

Well, I arrived at 7pm and was assigned to Bed #4; thankfully, a bottom bunk in the small room outfitted for ten occupants. There were several men there when I arrived, engaged in a natural hiking/climbing conversation given the mountain location of this particular hostel. I, the Introvert, used our one bathroom and then immediately left for dinner.

When I returned a couple hours later, it was a different story: still several men, but zero conversation. I dropped my backpack, laid down, and got my bearings. Six of my new roomies were around—one tall, Danish-looking young man out on the balcony, and five others in their respective beds with the lights on either reading, snoozing, or on cell phones. Two were older than me (although I’m not sure if either spent the day hanging around the hostel!). The room stank, which is unsurprising when several men, most of whom had spent the day backpacking, take off their boots. There was a mini-fridge and a microwave and a television—none of which were in use. The two older men soon fell fast asleep. One immediately started snoring. Great. Otherwise, there was a lot of awkward silence.

There was one very brief conversation that included yours truly. A young man of Asian descent in Bed #1 dropped his metal water bottle with a loud clatter, and I crawled under Bed #2 to retrieve it. He said several things in a language I did not understand until he said clearly and carefully, “Thank you a lot.” Not a problem, my new friend.

Eventually Mr. Great Dane came in and turned off the lights for the seven of us, and the night that followed was eventfully uneventful. One of the older men had a coughing fit that seemed to last for an hour. There was a bit of a snore fest to which I may or may not have contributed. At one point I noticed a stealth Roomie #8 arrive for the night and when morning dawned I was surprised to notice that at some point apparently a Roomie #9 had claimed one of the two remaining top bunks. And with morning this band of hostel brothers arose one at a time and left in silence. Upon reflection I decided that maybe hostels are actually designed for introverts. I was number seven of nine to hit the road, thirty-one bucks poorer and one experience richer.

I have not formed a strong opinion on the hostel experience. My daughter/hostel fan calls it “an underdeveloped industry in the U.S.” and I suspect that is true. At least I now know what to expect. And if I learned anything, maybe it is that I am not yet too old to try something new.

These United States

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The United States of America is 242 years old today. It seems to be in a bit of a cranky stage but those of us who love her hope she will grow out of it someday (soon). It is a spectacular country in about every way you define spectacular. I have now traveled to five continents and have a better frame of reference—enough to recognize that the land of my birth is unique in its global influence.

And I have now spent time in thirty-six of these United States and hope to complete the set someday. I already have remarkable memories.

I stood outside the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Alabama and threw snowballs on the Fourth of July in Alaska. I stood at the Grand Canyon in Arizona and called the Hogs in Arkansas. I watched the sunset in California and ran in the snow in Colorado. I saw a rocket launch in Florida and ate peach cobbler in Georgia. I ran along the Snake River in Idaho and sang Take Me Out to the Ballgame at Wrigley Field in Illinois. I shot hoops at Larry Bird’s restaurant in Indiana and drove by corn fields in Iowa.

I saw the wide open horizon in Kansas and watched horses run behind white fences in Kentucky. I ate beignets in Louisiana and crab cakes in Maryland. I toured the Ford Museum in Michigan and the Mall of America in Minnesota. I saw a hurricane in Mississippi and the Gateway Arch in Missouri. I sang in the capitol rotunda in Nebraska and walked the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada. I drove Route 66 across New Mexico and ran Central Park in New York.

I ate banana pudding in North Carolina and had a VIP tour of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Ohio. I dodged tornadoes in Oklahoma and crossed breathtaking rivers in Pennsylvania. I saw Fort Sumter in South Carolina and the Lorraine Motel in Tennessee. I witnessed Monday Night Football in Texas and the Golden Spike National Monument in Utah. I crossed the Potomac in Virginia and ascended the Space Needle in Washington. I drove up a winding mountain in West Virginia and ate cheese curds in a bar in Wisconsin.

I am ready for more.

This is an incredible country, and I choose to celebrate these United States today. And I choose to do my part in making it better tomorrow.

Chama Chama

 

Our eight-person team from the University Church of Christ in Malibu recently spent two weeks in Kenya on a mission trip and experienced the full spectrum of emotions, which most definitely included gut-busting laughter. One of the chief causes of hilarity was a popular Swahili song titled, Chama Chama (translated, Party, Party). It is unbelievably long (fourteen minutes) and the cheesiest kind of romantic, which is even funnier when the sultry voice transitions from Swahili to broken English, e.g., “I can’t get off my eyes from your photos.”

One day we were touring Mathare Valley, a famed slum in Nairobi, and were crammed into a tiny shanty when surprisingly Chama Chama blasted across a neighbor’s radio. Our host was confused by our initial reaction and then burst into laughter when we burst into song.

I took pictures and video clips from our trip and assembled a video to chronicle our trip—the sessions with the graduates, the home and work visits, the safari, and the friendships, both old and new. Of course the video is fourteen minutes long, and of course Chama Chama is the soundtrack. I doubt anyone beyond the eight of us who were there really want to watch, but it might be worth it just to join the Chama Chama phenomenon that is now sweeping Southern California.

Sunset on the Mara

Mara PicMy great privilege occurred to me as we raced along the bumpy roads of the Maasai Mara. The tans, browns, and yellows of the passing landscape waved our direction and the unspoiled breeze blasted our faces as we stood and braced for the ride of a lifetime. There are many in the world whose primary dream is an African safari, and in a moment it occurred to me that I have now been twice. What a humbling thought.

The hunt for rare sightings was exhilarating, and the sensation of racing through the Kenyan wonderland defies description, but the animals themselves are the superstars. Of course I snapped pictures. The lioness and her cubs. The curious giraffe. The lumbering elephant. The lazy leopard. The stalking cheetah. The ridiculous ostrich. The enormous hippopotamus. But every so often I remembered to put the camera away and simply be present in the wild with the magnificent creatures. It was in those moments that I discovered an unforced smile and a childlike sense of joy and wonder.

The sun set on the Mara at the end of our first game drive, and our driver stopped so we could behold the glory. From our vantage point the flaming ball of fire descended through an iconic acacia tree as we furiously snapped pictures as if we could ever forget. Yes, the animals are the stars of the safari, but the sunset stole the show.

Nature. That’s the word we use to describe the indescribable reality of that which is beyond human production. We create platforms to simply to stand as humble spectators and observe the magnificent world that we did nothing to create. Such primal beauty is difficult to see and even more difficult to comprehend immersed in what we call civilization. But I was privileged to catch a glimpse as the sun set on the Mara.

(Wishing I Could) Run Like a Kenyan

Kenyan RunKenyans are clearly the best distance runners on the planet. And I am clearly not. But I do love running, and I do love Kenyans, and if flights cooperate as planned I will be in Nairobi trying to figure out a way to go for a run when this update posts on Monday.

When I first visited Kenya two years ago, my friends, Dusty and Cecily, got up early with me one morning to go for a run with Paul, a wonderful young man and ultra-talented runner (pictured above). He took it easy on me, which provided the unforgettable experience of matching a Kenyan runner stride for stride, but when we approached the home stretch on a short run in the tiny village of Kamulu he challenged me to turn up the speed. Unfortunately, my speed was already turned up, so I told him to go for it. He did and left me smiling in the dust.

My wife and I decided on that trip that we would return and targeted two summers down the road. We are fortunate that our plan came to fruition in a church-related trip with six other good friends. So the blog will be on hiatus for a couple of weeks as we spend time in Nairobi and on safari—and if God keeps smiling on me, as I go for another run in this special place.  Stay tuned.

Surprised by Nostalgia

Front BeachI was born and raised in Arkansas. I love Arkansas. Now I live in California. And I love California. But recently I was reminded that a significant part of my heart remains in Mississippi.

We lived in Mississippi for about ten years and then moved to California about ten years ago. When we moved I expected to visit Mississippi from time to time, but somehow that had not happened in nine years until an unexpected invitation to officiate a funeral for a sweet friend arrived a couple of weeks ago. After a crazy couple of days of rearranging plans, I woke up to discover that I had been blasted into the past. I was unprepared.

I often say that nostalgia is just not my jam. For better or worse, my brain is oriented toward what is ahead, so life’s rearview mirror is relatively unused in my world. Well, it got used a bunch on this return to Mississippi.

Upon landing in Gulfport, I rented a car and drove down Highway 49 to the Gulf Coast and then along the beach that had been ravaged by Katrina thirteen years ago and, as the kids say, I started to feel all the feels. I saw familiar landmarks such as Beauvoir, the Biloxi Lighthouse, and Mary Mahoney’s. I saw the Coast Coliseum where my oldest daughter graduated high school and Point Cadet where my youngest had her first dance recital. There was the familiar Sharkhead’s souvenir shop and Jaws-inspired entrance but with a post-Katrina transformation that turned the entire first floor into a shaded parking lot. The Treasure Bay casino pirate ship is simply gone forever, and although I had never stepped foot inside, that made me want to cry. I had misplaced certain memories like the unique combination of bright white sands and murky waters and wondered what else I had forgotten over the years. It appeared that my GPS had sent me unwittingly down Memory Lane.

Our old hometown of Ocean Springs really threw me for a loop. I drove downtown past Lovelace Drugs and the Walter Anderson Museum and had to get out on Front Beach just to breathe. I stopped for a heavenly Tato-Nut donut and drove to our old Katrina-flooded house and discovered that it now looks like it did that fateful day when we evacuated for the storm. I wasn’t sure what to think about that sort of resurrection.

But seeing old friends nearly made my heart explode with love. Jim and Dimple. Gene and Eileen. All the Fains. Bruno and Linda. Angie and Carol. Todd and Robin. Samantha and Shelly. Tandy and Peggy. Bernice and Cathy. Frances and Mark. Tim and Katie. Connor and Amanda. Debbie and Brynlee. There is so much love in my heart for Ocean Springs and the Mississippi Gulf Coast—especially for our friends. I knew that in my brain and held it in my heart, but this trip resurrected the feeling from deep in my soul. Nostalgia hit me like a wave and left me dizzy. Like that old storm surge.

I texted my wife to say that we have to go back and visit together sometime. She said that she had wanted to do that for a long time now.

I know that I should learn to stop and smell the roses. But I am learning that I should also stop, turn around, and head back to Mississippi to smell the magnolias from time to time.

24 > 23

Al & Jody

I married Jody when I was just twenty-three years old. Today is our twenty-fourth wedding anniversary. That’s my kind of math. More than half my life.

We had no clue what we were doing way back then. Well, I can only say for sure that I had no clue what I was doing. It all happened so fast: We met on New Year’s Day and married Memorial Day weekend, and there’s nothing smart about that at all. But when my buddy, Troy, who officiated our wedding asked if we would promise to love each other forever and ever, we must have meant it when we said yes. Because we have. And are. And will.

There is something absurd about choosing to marry someone. You really have no idea what experiences you signed up for—just the identity of your partner for the adventure. And I have had the best partner for the best adventure.

Twenty-four years ago today we were privileged to live in Arkansas where I coached high school basketball and where Jody worked in the office of a dairy. Today we live in California and have cycled through a variety of careers and houses and experiences while developing relationships with amazing people from all over the world. We now have two adult daughters who are our pride and joy. We never in a million years would have guessed how any of this has played out and what our life together would look like at this moment—but then again knowing would have taken away all the fun.

If we are blessed with twenty-four more years on this planet, I have absolutely no idea what they will hold, but the one thing I do know is that we will experience them together.

Together. What an incredible word.

Seize the Day(light)

Bed in Summer

Summer is officially a full month away, but on a university campus that recently put its final graduation ceremony to bed, it now feels like summer. Parking is suddenly fantastic. Campers will arrive soon. Neighbors are flung all over the world. And excepting the nuisance of May Gray and June Gloom, there are more hours of daylight to enjoy.

I love this time of year when the sun shows up early and goes home late. Life just seems full, and opportunities abound. Early morning runs are much easier when the sun beats you out of bed, and coming home from work is simply happier when the world is still bright. It makes me feel a little like a child again.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, “Bed in Summer,” shares the perspective of a poor kid who isn’t very fond of winter but loves summer so much that having to obey parents at bedtime is torture!

In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.

I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me in the street.

And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?

 
I get it, kiddo. You know, today is Monday, and it is going to be Monday all day long. But it feels like a summer kind of Monday to me. And since I am officially a grown-up trying to hold on to a childlike heart, I can soak up the day for as long as I want and go to bed when I want to!

The True People

Nez Perce 1Lewiston (Idaho). Clarkston (Washington). Get it? Lewiston and Clarkston, two towns named for the legendary American explorers and located on opposite sides of the murky Snake River.

I rode in the backseat of the airplane/station wagon to Lewiston last week and landed in the tiniest airport ever. When you deplane and enter the terminal you can give high-fives to the folks going through security. You think I’m kidding. The rental car company picked me up at the airport’s front door and took me to the agency where I met Emily, a young, friendly, professional, and happy manager who told me what she had learned about the area in the five days since she arrived. My economy rental became a Suburban, and I wondered if this was actually Mayberry.

I drove the Suburban (the approximate size of the airplane) to my Airbnb rental where the warm welcome continued. Jack and Regina have a lovely home on the Clarkston side of the Snake with a sweeping view of the river valley and surrounding mountains. Regina left a scrumptious loaf of pumpkin bread in a room that was also stocked with fruit, yogurt, chocolate, and cheese along with juice, water, beer, and wine. On my last evening Jack invited me upstairs for a relaxing conversation on their spacious deck where I was welcomed as if I was family. I sent my wife a text to say that it was a good thing that I loved her so much because otherwise I might never come home.

Twice, I enjoyed a lazy run along the river. It is about a five-mile loop across two bridges and two state borders to run both the Clarkston river trail and the Lewiston levee. The dogwoods in full bloom. The pungent smell of the meandering river with driftwood hitching slow rides. The wildlife — squirrels, birds, ducks, and even a lone gopher. The troubled skies. An occasional walker and even more rare fellow jogger.

I dined in restaurants with names like Rooster’s, Jawbone Flats Cafe, Waffles ‘n More, and Tomato Brothers. But the history of the area — and what drew me there — was the sad story of the Nez Perce tribe.

The Nez Perce lived there first. They call themselves Nimipu — “the true people” — but French explorers saw a couple Nimipu with pierced noses and assigned that name — “the pierced noses” — to the entire people. The Americans signed a treaty of coexistence with them in 1855 but a later controversial treaty in 1863 reduced the tribal lands by 90% and led to a conflict resulting in the famed Flight of 1877, a military pursuit of the tribe including young and old that ended with Chief Joseph’s legendary statement, “I will fight no more forever.” Those who survived were exiled to faraway Kansas.

I drove out of town to the Nez Perce National Historic Park Visitor Center in sovereign lands to get a sense of the sad story. I walked the trail to the Spalding Presbyterian Church (pictured above) and contemplated the complicated relationship between natives of First Nations and Christian missionaries. And I learned that the Americans had long ago forced the Nimipu into boarding schools where the teachers attempted to erase their very language — an effort that nearly succeeded. Today, great efforts are underway to revive and recover the language before the few who still speak it pass away. It is all a sad story without a happy ending. As one Nimipu said in the visitor center film, “We still are in exile.”

I enjoyed my visit to the area named for Lewis and Clark very much and encountered nothing but lovely people and natural beauty. But like me, and like those early explorers, it sure was white. I can’t help but wonder what it might be like today if my American ancestors had let the Nimipu be. I’m sure the Nimipu wonder as well.

That Inward Eye

Picasso SolitudeI will head to the Idaho-Washington border tomorrow to spend a few days alone on a personal retreat—heaven for an introvert and a planner. Serving a church family that follows an academic calendar makes this the perfect time for such a thing. There is time to breathe and work to do, and there are dreams to dream and plans to develop. I am ready for all of this and more.

Solitude is an excellent work space and a good planning partner. There is something magical about standing at attention, all alone, listening for still, small whispers transported on air. I cannot wait.

I recall Wordsworth’s vivid description from over two centuries ago of a solitary cloud floating over thousands of golden daffodils and then an inner state of being that he can access so that his happy heart dances among those spectacular flowers. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I love about solitude.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud – by William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.