On Wandering + Wayfinding

The Enchanting Guide: Luke Buxton on Gibralter and the Magic of Climbing

Luke Buxton believes in magic. Or he at least looks for the enchanting in the everyday.

“I’m a bit of a romantic,” he says, describing the heart-twitch-awe which climbing evokes for him. “It’s the joy of intimacy you get to have with a beautiful natural element.”

Whether it’s the boulder strewn and timeworn coastline of Nova Scotia or the thundering Roc nest towers of Canmore, the natural world casts a spellbinding connection for Luke. 

The Skeena River. Photo credit: Sam Beebe

Perhaps it started in his childhood. He grew up in the Skeena Valley, surrounded by the coastal mountains of Terrace, British Columbia. Maybe it was learned; he was a deep observer who drew and created obsessively all throughout his childhood. For sure, the mythical aesthetic has been further cultivated through climbing.

“Yosemite feels like it could easily be the home of ancient Forest Giants and Squamish’s Grand Wall is so lush and beautiful you sense a Faerie Sprite under every fern patch and mushroom,” he encourages.

Luke eventually made his way to Halifax, Nova Scotia to pursue an education and career in animation. (He’s an accomplished art director, animator, and production designer, who has worked on short films for the likes of Willow and Jayden Smith, and nationally syndicated television shows). During his 12 years in the maritime province, he became involved in developing local crags, and eventually was put onto Gibralter, one of the many untapped expanses. 

“Jungle Falls.” Photo courtesy of Luke Buxton

“It’s a pretty forested area with easy public access,” he shares. “My roommate [Mark Maas] and I were inspired to put in long days developing new climbs.”

They had fun, crafted worthy lines, and wanted a way to share their uncovered treasure with the climbing community. So Luke decided to make a guidebook, with his own mystical twist, of course. 

I chatted with Luke to learn a bit more about the inspiration for the guide, and how he came to see the world through Tolkien-colored specs.

Aaron: What brought you to Nova Scotia?

Luke Buxton: I was raised in Terrace BC, and currently live in Vancouver, but Halifax formed a fairly large chunk of my life through my twenties. I was 22 at the time (I’m 37 now) and was living in a VW camper van with my cat traveling and climbing throughout Canada. 

Luke’s workspace. Photo courtesy of Luke Buxton

I worked odd jobs as I went and sold paintings. I had heard of the glacial erratic bouldering in the East Coast and Halifax seemed like a fun spot to stop for a while and find work as I knew there would be lots of people my age due to it having so many Colleges/Universities. I obviously had no clue it would suck me in for 12 years, or that I would find my career path and meet my wife there.    

How did you get involved with the local climbing scene? 

As I’m a bit older, I learned like most from my generation: outside and through a friend.  I followed him up a multi-pitch trad climb on my first introduction and fell in love with the intricacy and challenge of bouldering a short time later. 

I did a climbing trip in Europe with him which included helping a small crew develop some boulders in the Italian Alps, and then more climbing trips throughout the States cemented it as a personal passion I would keep for life. 

By the time I reached Halifax I was hungry to meet local developers and experience the unique granite. Halifax had at the time a fairly small but strong and passionate community of climbers so it didn’t take long to make friends and be a part of the scene.  

What does climbing mean to you?

Like many who are obsessed with climbing, it encompasses many things to me such as community, physical/mental fitness, and personal growth. If I was to narrow down one thing that makes climbing special to me it’s the joy of intimacy you get to have with a beautiful natural element. Taking a hike is one thing, but analyzing, scrubbing and being so aware of every crystal on a large stone in a forest is truly unique to climbing. 

When my cheek is brushing up against a warm stone on a delicate slab climb I feel the happiest I can possibly feel.   

What is the Gibralter guide?  

Some of the local developers had directed me towards Gibralter as one of the better untapped areas with plenty of potential for new climbs if you were willing to put in some heavy lifting scrubbing the rocks.  It’s a pretty forested area with easy public access and my roommate and I were inspired to put in long days developing new climbs and sharing them with our friends and the bouldering community. 

The Maasy Boulder. Photo source: Cnsmobeta.ca

Making a guide was the easiest way to share our year+ of development with everyone and I was excited to put something creative and fun together. My roommate and close friend Mark Maas put many hours excitedly scrubbing and exploring Gibralter with me and I even named the first boulder we scrubbed together after him (the Maasy boulder). 

Years later (2 years ago now) he lost his life to depression and accumulating chronic injuries that were robbing him of his ability to do the things he loved. Gibralter holds an even more special place in my heart now as a sort of memorial place, a space he loved and cherished. He is dearly missed by many. 

Map of Gibralter. Photo courtesy of Luke Buxton

Why imbue the guide with magical storytelling?

Being in the animation industry (I design the worlds in cartoons) definitely had a big impact on how I approached the guide. I don’t think I ever really thought it through so much as it just naturally became whimsical and was influenced by my creative influences. 

I wanted the map to feel like the map at the beginning of a Tolkien fantasy novel or something similar because when we explored those woods we felt that way; adventurers seeking out treasures buried under moss. Now looking at it I think it’s pretty amateur in delivery, but I’d like to think it has retained some charm.   

Was there any overlap between magic and climbing for you, before the guidebook?   

Sure, I think I interpret many aspects of my life with a rather fantastical or whimsical slant; I’m a bit of a romantic. 

I guess I always approached climbing with some element of child-like wonder. It’s pretty easy to do when the places that climbing takes you are often so magical and surreal to begin with; Yosemite feels like it could easily be the home of ancient Forest Giants and Squamish grand wall is so lush and beautiful you sense a Faerie Sprite under every fern patch and mushroom.  

How did the land itself play into the design of the guide?  

The forest in Gibralter feels more like the BC rainforests I was used to climbing in at home, in contrast to the rugged Atlantic coast where most of the bouldering had already been covered. It felt natural to give it that whimsical forest-fantasy look.   

Was there any outcome for the guidebook you were hoping for? 

Not really, I knew it would just be something shared among locals and friends.  It was a fun project on the side with no big expectations.  

Anything else you’d like to add? 

If anyone reading this can make an effort to visit Nova Scotia, they should! 

Go sample the amazing granite and super friendly and perpetually psyched community there. It really is a little known gem in North America.  

A year after Gibralter guide was released I wrote one for local developer Rich Lapaix’s “Jessie’s Diner” area (neighboring to Gibralter). Around that time the useful local digital guide, MoBeta, was in full swing and I felt it was less relevant to finish off my PDF guide and never got around to wrapping it up before we moved back out West. 

I’ve been approached by enough people in the community who want to see it that I decided to retroactively finish/fix it and release it to the community. It was done in the same style as Gibralter and acts in a sense as a Part 2 of Musquodobit bouldering

At the least, it can serve as an accurate historic documentation of the names and lines developed by Rich and a handful of others who paved the way for the growing climbing community of Nova Scotia.

You can see more of Luke’s work at his online portfolio, lukeandrewbuxton.com.

You can download the Gibralter guide from the Cnsmobeta library.

Feature image courtesy of Luke Buxton.

Jobs for the Traveling Climber: Architect

In this interview series we talk with people who spend their time traveling and climbing, while still holding down a steady income. From nurses to coders, writers to outdoor guides, we want to show that you don’t have to go full dirtbag to live the itinerant life. Because contributing to your 401k while seeing the world doesn’t sound so bad.

Name: Gili Keselman

Job: Architect

Gili in his Fortress of Solitude in Balfour, Canada. Photo courtesy of Eva Capozzola.

1) What do you do?

I’m an architect who designs buildings and spaces in Tel Aviv and its surroundings while living in a van named “Air Force Bum” deep in the beautiful Canadian Rockies.

I specialize in 3D modeling and visualization. My work requires powerful hardware that I [carry with me] and move around inside robust pelican cases. When I go to work it looks like I’m carrying a sniper rifle. You’ll find me sitting in random cafes and bars at all hours of the day, which may or may not lead to some weird Halloween experiences. 

“Architecture doesn’t necessarily mean a life of adventure. I had to work hard and make scary choices to build the situation I’m in today.”

2) How did you first learn about a career in architecture? 

As a teenager I was curious by every topic possible. From economics to math and physics to computer science and art. It was impossible to choose only one thing, so I chose to study architecture which combines a bit of everything.

I studied at the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology) in Haifa for five years, and then worked in Tel Aviv for Bar-Orian Architects, a typical 9:00-19:00 office job.

Architecture doesn’t necessarily mean a life of adventure. I had to work hard and make scary choices to build the situation I’m in today; combining my passion for the mountain lifestyle with architecture, and most importantly, feeling free and in control of my own schedule and life.

Right now I’m in the process of building a company that will allow its workers the same freedom.

3) What are some of the perks of working remotely? 

I get to ski and climb mountains. Before being a “professional ski bum,” work took the majority of my focus. It would take over any discussion with my friends and it seemed to be the center of my life. We lived to work.

Today, work is just something I do between adventures.

I work to live, so the daily focus is shifted to discussions about epic adventures instead of salary and concerns about retirement. Working for 9 hours straight from a bar in the middle of the night seems like part of my adventure, and I love every minute of it. 

“This is how my little van house looks like on an average day for just over a year now. Best year of my life!” Photo courtesy of Eva Capozzola.

4) What are some of the challenges?

I still have a full time job. Getting to choose my hours and location is awesome, but I still have to make sure all deadlines are met. Israel is 9 hours ahead, so often it means I need to work in the middle of the night. Living in a van means I have to work from the only place which is open at night – a bar! 

There might be a Halloween party going on around me as I struggle to finish a tight deadline, and my clients are counting on me. It’s serious enough that if you screw up once you might never get work again. These are multi-million dollar projects we’re talking about.

One time, a beer spilled on my laptop causing it to shut off for days. My little laptop shutdown caused delays, and can never happen again. Today, I have two super powerful laptops and several backup drives, just to make sure work never stops. And that’s part of the challenge: work never stops.

I need to be available and ready to work, without distinction of weekends or nights or overtime or the security net of being an employee. I’m a freelancer, so work [may be] good today, but might not be here tomorrow. All that said, it’s a small price to pay to be able to play in the mountains.  

“I didn’t want to wake up one day at age 80 to look back at my life and be disappointed by not going after my dreams.”

5) What motivated you to pursue this role? How did you decide to take things on the road?

I felt like life must have something more to it than security. I felt numb in the office and eventually got to a point where I chose adventure over security, and I paid for it with harsh results in the beginning.

I quit my job without having any plan other than going to live in the mountains and try to find a way to get by. I didn’t want to wake up one day at age 80 to look back at my life and be disappointed by not going after my dreams. This perspective helped me see life as a daring adventure and not as an experience to be cruised through safely.

I lost all my savings pretty quick without a job (not having the ability to work in Canada without a permit). I left the comfort of a house, a job, a routine, security, and I ended up tearing my ACL in a bad ski accident. I was left broke, injured, having to come back to Israel for surgery and a year of recovery. Despite it all, I kept positive.

Ice climbing in the Cline River Gallery. Photo courtesy of Eva Capozzola.

I remember thinking, “If this is the worst it can get… I’ve got this!”

There was nothing to really fear. I kept appreciating the fact that some people have cancer and I don’t. That’s a real problem in life, not losing a job or some savings. So after recovery, I did it all again!

This time, I had experience in regards to what to expect. I approached my old boss and asked to work remotely. I also got a van and transformed it into a home. Having the ability to sustain myself financially within my adventures changed my life. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was living life to the fullest.

6) How has your life changed since you started this?

I could die tomorrow, and I’d be okay with it. Because I feel like I’ve lived.

Every day of the past 3 years has been the best day of my life. I found love in the mountains, I got permanent residency in Canada, and now I’m building a life of adventure here. Looking back, there was no risk. There was nothing to lose and a life to gain. Taking risks pays off. 

7) What does a “typical” week or month look like?

It’s hard to find a typical month these days. Life keeps evolving, changing and moving places. I’ve spent the last 6 months living in a dry cabin in Alaska with no running water or a toilet, but with fast Wi-Fi that allowed me to work.

Now I’m in Canmore, Canada, living out of my van as I combine work alongside rock and ice climbing. In two months, I’ll be in Golden, BC, for ski season. Living out of a van in winter is pretty extreme up here, where temps get down to -40C. Me and my girlfriend live together in my tiny van and have this tiny wood burning stove we named “rusty.” We [make sure to] find time to chop wood, to keep us alive during the freezing nights. And we have to cuddle to survive. I think it’s very good for any relationship: forced cuddling.  

To answer your question, in a typical day we might start by skiing or climbing and then get back to working from a bar. It’s pretty simple actually. 

8) What do you wish you knew when first starting out?

I wish I knew about Van Life! It’s the single greatest adventure and way to live cheaply anywhere. 

9) What is one lesson learned from your journey so far?

Big risks pay off. Whatever you think you have to lose, is nothing really. You have your legs, and your immune system, and your eyes. Those are the real valuable things in life. Anything else is just a story. And why live in a boring story?

Every day I work to make my story an epic adventure, and it got me to places and people who will be in my heart forever.

“Home is where your heart is ❤️” Photo courtesy of Eva Capozzola.

Thanks, Gili!

You can follow Gili and his van-based adventures on instagram @freegili.

Feature photo courtesy of Eva Capozzola.

Jobs for the Traveling Climber: Communications Manager in Development Aid

In this interview series we talk with people who spend their time traveling and climbing, while still holding down a steady income. From nurses to coders, writers to outdoor guides, we want to show that you don’t have to go full dirtbag to live the itinerant life. Because contributing to your 401k while seeing the world doesn’t sound so bad.

Name: Nico Parco

Job: Communications Manager in Development Aid

Wonder what’s off to the right? Photo courtesy of Nico Parco

1) What do you do?

You could call it a number of things. Simply, “aid worker.” Or if you want to get more specific, I am a communications manager in the development aid sector. I often say I am an NGO writer. 

2) How did you get into the development aid sector?

I moved to Ethiopia on a whim, thinking I would continue the same work I was doing in the tourism sector in Santiago, Chile.

In Ethiopia, I discovered the aid sector, and began volunteering on an HIV/Urban Gardens project as a technical writer. Everything took off from there.

I have been in the sector now for nearly 10 years, and I absolutely love it.

3) Why did you decide to start living in a van? 

The @riding.a.rainbow project is only for 10 months (May 2019 – April 2020).

A campervan road trip is something that both my wife and I have been wanting for a while, and since we realized we shared this dream, it would be foolish not to act. When I landed a full time contract in Bogota, Colombia, we knew it was our chance to cover South America.

With two kids, I do not plan to live in a campervan full time. In fact, our plan is to move back to Moab, Utah in 2020 (I was born and raised in Ogden). 

Rainbow in Huanuco, Peru. Photo courtesy of Nico Parco

4) What are some of the perks of this job?

Working in the development aid sector allows you to travel on two levels: Short-term and long-term contracts.

I do both, and have been sent to various countries (Somalia, Uganda, Zambia, Lebanon, Botswana) and lived in three countries long-term (Ethiopia, Liberia, Colombia).

Living in a country is different from just traveling. It allows you full immersion in the culture, language, and customs, and also affords you more time to properly explore the country. Being in these unusual places also lets you check out rock climbing in a different light. 

For example, while living in Ethiopia, I led a crag development project with a bunch of climbers from around the world (US, German, Israeli, etc.). We bolted a beautiful face right outside of Addis Ababa, the first and still the only real crag in the country.

Or my favorite, the time I was sent to Lebanon to create content for an economic strengthening project funded by USAID (US taxpayer money). The program was promoting rock climbing in the village of Tannourine, a paradise of Mediterranean-style limestone. This is probably the first and hopefully not the last time that the US govt put money into rock climbing for “nation-building.”

“Happiness has less to do the amount of possessions one acquires and more to do with the ability to be with friends, family, and practice your culture (religion, language, customs) freely.”

5) What are some of the challenges?

Life as a contractor can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes you have to wait weeks or months for a contract. On the other hand it’s really nice to have down time between jobs, [which allows you] to travel, to be with your family, and of course, to climb.

There are the usual challenges as well, of getting used to a new place, finding friends, learning the language, getting over the homesickness of the last place you left… typical immigrant lifestyle stuff.

“This was the first place I came across that made me dream about this trip in the Rainbow. And now it is where we spent our anniversary, so we have more inspiration in the coming years. Thanks Laguna Paron for your beauty, your power, and for being our inspiration.” Photo courtesy of Nico Parco

6) What motivated you to pursue this career path?

I started my “career” as a journalist in Spanish language, and worked for 6 years (Spain, Texas, Chile). Once I discovered the aid sector, everything changed.

The hours, the pay, the joy of the job. I have nothing against journalism, but the conditions are horrible.

Still, journalists perform one of the most important functions in today’s society, and we should be thankful there are people willing to sacrifice so much for so little. I have only the utmost respect for them.

People like Trump, the powerful men who say reporters are the enemy of the people, are really saying, “I hate reporters because they expose all my wrongdoings to the people.” 

7) What does a “typical” week or month look like?

If I am long-term, I am typically working in an office. I am the one responsible for reporting back to the US govt what the program has been doing with its money. It’s a key position that combines research, writing, and marketing.

I would travel once a month, visiting the program’s activity sites, interviewing beneficiaries, and taking photography or video. I curate the program’s blog such as at usaidlrdp.exposure.co.

When I am doing short-term consultancies, I am at a home base (either in Utah or Chile) and traveling for 2 – 3 weeks at a time. Sometimes I work remotely but the real value I bring is being in the field gathering stories, content and creating attention grabbing pieces that shine light on the programs.

8) What do you wish you knew when first starting out?

I was lucky that I got in through the back door. Typically, an aid worker will go through the hoops of Washington, D.C. and work for several NGOs and implementers before getting the chance to live abroad. I did it differently, which may or may not work for others.

9) What is one lesson learned from your journey so far?

A few things:

1) Development aid is an industry of soft diplomacy, especially from a USAID perspective. It is also important in its role to improve health and education around the world.

My first job was in the HIV world, and if it weren’t for large international donors, millions of Africans would be either dead or in way worse conditions. In some regards, development money is really all they have to rely on. I believe Western countries have a historic “debt” with Africa and other parts of the world.

Aid is one small step to repair the damage caused by colonialism, neo-liberalism, hyper-capitalism or whatever you want to call it. The US annual budget allocates less than one half of one percent to humanitarian and development aid. Trump tried to axe the budget, but USAID is a diplomacy tool that is bipartisan.

2) I have learned that happiness has less to do the amount of possessions one acquires and more to do with the ability to be with friends, family, and practice your culture (religion, language, customs) freely without interruption.

“When I designed the Rainbow campervan, I named it such because we are making the trip of a lifetime, riding on a rainbow. The rainbow represents dreams, magic, and beauty and that is what we are looking for. Recently we found the rainbow mountain, some geological magic to add to our many stories on the road.” Photo courtesy of Nico Parco

Thanks, Nico!

You can follow Nico and his van traveling family on instagram, @riding.a.rainbow. You can read more about Nico’s thoughts on life, the development aid sector, and climbing in general on his website, nicoparco.com.

Feature photo courtesy of Nico Parco

Jobs for the Traveling Climber: Translation Services

In this interview series we talk with people who spend their time traveling and climbing, while still holding down a steady income. From nurses to coders, writers to outdoor guides, we want to show that you don’t have to go full dirtbag to live the itinerant life. Because contributing to your 401k while seeing the world doesn’t sound so bad.

Name: Martina Russo

Job: Specialized Translation Services

1) What do you do?

I run two translation businesses:

1) Moving Words Translations specializes in multilingual translations for mid-sized firms in the tech, media, digital space.

2) The other one, The Action Sports Translator, as you may have guessed, offers a specialized translation service for action sports & outdoors brands.

I also run www.freelanceratwork.co, a small e-commerce shop that makes laptop decals for entrepreneurs, and www.thenomadcats.com, a blog about van life and traveling with cats.

The Nomad Cats. Photo courtesy of Martina Russo.

2) How did you learn about translation services? Specifically, action sports?

I started translating back in 2010/11, alongside my university translation studies, and… just never stopped. At the time, I specialized in marketing translations for a few niches.

Last February, about 8 years into my career, I was looking up climbing and snowboarding gear online and realized that a lot of companies in the action sports and outdoors space were in urgent need of [better] translations.

Most companies distribute their products or content abroad and need to get their technical sheets or marketing materials localized. They usually assign translations to in-house employees who know all the jargon but don’t possess the necessary linguistic skills, or outsource them to a professional language service provider (an agency or a freelancer), who possesses the linguistic skills but has no clue about the technical terminology.

They end up with marketing text about ski touring that uses the wrong terms to describe something as basic as ski touring boots, or a safety sheet that has all the wrong terminology in place. #truestory

I decided to put together a multilingual team of skilled, professional translators who also practice the sport they translate about. Thus, The Action Sports Translator.

“I’m definitely better off with my own business than I could have ever dreamt if I’d been an employee back home.”

3) What are some of the perks of the job?

I’ve been working for myself and 100% remote pretty much since the beginning of my career (in my early twenties).

I truly enjoy being able to make executive decisions on anything spanning from [where to setup] my office for the day, to which clients I want to work with, or what services best fit a client.

I also love being able to set my schedule according to, say, the weather forecast, so I can fit in as much climbing (or snowboarding) as possible. I might work like a maniac through the weekend, but take Monday off.

Of course, I love being able to take my office on the road. I’m on a long-term climbing trip by van across Europe as we speak!

The Van Life: “Wop wooooop! We’re finally around Lisbon and the Arrabida climbing area. Enjoying our first stunning sunset here + reel rock 13 on the tv + a bowl of popcorn 😏 before we go back to climbing hard tomorrow. PSYCHED”. Photo courtesy of Martina Russo.

4) What are some of the challenges?

It can get stressful. Often, companies need their translations done yesterday, or too many projects pile up within the same time frame.

Managing a team remotely is sometimes hard; it isn’t always easy to find a reliable and skilled translator with the right specialization, or s/he may be unavailable.

When you travel and live in climbing destinations, surrounded by nature, finding a reliable internet connection is often an issue.

We use a mobile dongle with an unlimited data plan and keep it connected to our sun-powered van, but each move to a new place / office entails a painstaking scouting phase of all possible locations before we can actually settle. Most of the time, if we want to climb during office hours, we need to make sure that we have internet coverage on our phones, because I need to check my email every 2-3 hours.

“I used to be a bit of a rebel in school.”

5) What motivated you to pursue these paths?

I used to be a bit of a rebel in school and wasn’t very motivated to continue my studies (so I moved abroad with no set plans at 19). Someone in my family realized there was one thing I was really good at: Languages.

And they were right. Learning a language came fairly natural to me. I didn’t have to actually study and enjoyed the process. So I enrolled in a translation and interpreting 3-year university course. The rest is history!

Training on the road. Photo courtesy of Martina Russo.

6) How has your life changed since you started this job?

It’s been so long now, I don’t even remember what it felt like before!

One thing for sure: It’s allowed me to be location-independent and move around as much as I please, which I’m eternally grateful for. It’s also given me the opportunity to, in some respect, decide how much I want to earn, and I’m definitely better off with my own business than I could have ever dreamt if I’d been an employee back home.

I love being immersed in nature with little infrastructure, no people and lots of sports to do, but I also like being able to be financially “independent”: Afford a ski pass, new climbing gear, a spa day, or a new phone without having to worry about running out of money and having to go back to the grid in 2 months time.

7) What does a “typical” week or month look like?

Over the past 2-3 years, I’ve lived between the Alps and the seaside (climbing area), then spent months traveling around in a converted van, which is what I’m doing now.

So no, I don’t have a “typical” day.

Translator at work. Photo courtesy of Martina Russo.

8) What do you wish you knew when first starting out?

I wish someone had informed me better what it means to run a business (financially and organisation-wise). This could have saved me years of underpricing and other things.

9) What is one lesson learned from your journey so far?

As long as you’re resilient, honest, confident and reliable in the work you provide, and if you really want to make it happen, you will succeed. We’re extremely lucky to live in this time, age, and side of the world, and have so many opportunities that it’s almost overwhelming.

Everyone has a skillset they can monetize and, with all likeliness, take digital. You don’t have to be broke or on a super tight budget to enjoy what you love most–climbing! (Unless you want to).

Thanks, Martina!

You can follow Martina and her nomad cats on instagram: @martina_translates and @thenomadcats

Feature photo courtesy of Martina Russo

Jobs for the Traveling Climber: University Admissions & Test Prep. Tutor

In this interview series we talk with people who spend their time traveling and climbing, while still holding down a steady income. From nurses to coders, writers to outdoor guides, we want to show that you don’t have to go full dirtbag to live the itinerant life. Because contributing to your 401k while seeing the world doesn’t sound so bad.

Name: Jojo Yee

Job: College Admissions and Test Preparation Tutor / Advisor

Editors Note:

Jojo and I met on the internet via the Traveling Rock Climber’s group. I was looking for recommendations for climbing hostels, and Jojo reached out with her favorites: Stone Drum House in Shigu, China and Kezban’s Guesthouse in Geyikbayiri, Turkey. We got to chatting and I learned about her work, as well as her other projects, including her own excellent travel blog, her efforts with animal rescue and rehabilitation (@liberatewings), and forays into art.

Jojo getting back to it after a recent injury. Photo courtesy of Jojo Yee.

1) What do you do?

I’m a college admissions and test preparation tutor. I help students ready for things like the SAT, GRE, GMAT.

2) How did you learn about the world of test prep?

I have been teaching standardized test preparation since 2004 after university. I had taken the LSAT, GMAT, and GRE after my first degree in university, hoping to gain entrance into law school or graduate school.

At the time, I did not know that there were standardized test prep companies out there, as I guess they weren’t all that popular in Canada. It wasn’t until I moved to Hong Kong that I realized it was a thing and started teaching at the Princeton Review Hong Kong.

Since then, I taught the SAT, TOEFL, GMAT, and GRE regularly and realized that there was huge potential for me to start my own test prep company when I moved to Bangkok, Thailand.

I owned and worked [that] full time until we merged with another company, and then I took some time off.

I don’t just see myself as a tutor, rather a mentor to students. I try to be there for them even if it’s not questions that have to do with the tests.

3) What are some of the perks of the job?

I enjoy flexibility in my schedule now.

I have 3 dogs, a cat, and an animal rehabilitation project that I spend time and finances on. My income from my job funds my trips and other side projects like animal rehabilitation and donations to other causes.

I get to have at least few weeks off at a time, which allows me to either go back to Canada to visit my family or head out for a climbing trip somewhere in the world.

Sometimes falling is the beginning of successes. I always have to tell myself to not be afraid of falling. Do what you can and let yourself get into the flow of things.” Photo courtesy of Jojo Yee.

4) What are some of the challenges?

I really need to prioritize and balance my schedule to accommodate the students with time away.

My responsibility is to my students and I make sure that I am here for them when they have questions. I’m no longer a “tutorial center” where students just come for planned classes, [so my work extends a bit beyond a typical classroom setting].

I like to ensure that the students are really ready for their exams, even if it means spending more time keeping in touch with them and following up to see if they’ve been practicing what we’ve covered in class.

You can always plan ahead to get more free time.

5) What motivated you to pursue these paths?

I didn’t have this kind of guidance when I was entering university, so it seemed to me that it was more a mentor program rather than a job. 

Even after I exited my tutorial school, I kept getting referrals from old students, so the clients just kept coming and I found that I enjoyed the new found freedom of managing my own schedule and teaching when I needed to.

If students needed to get in touch with me when I’m on a trip, all I required was the internet to access whatsapp or messenger to answer questions.

Hanging with Honnold. Photo courtesy of Jojo Yee.

6) How has your life changed since you started this?

It has been rewarding to see students get into colleges and universities. I am in touch with many of the students I’ve taught since 2004 and have seen them graduate, get their first job, get married, and even have kids. [Editor’s note: How cool!]

Sometimes, I get nice messages from parents saying they’ve noticed a change in their child’s behavior or personality towards school or life after studying with me. So I don’t just see myself as a tutor, rather a mentor to students. I try to be there for them even if it’s not questions that have to do with the tests.

7) How does this job allow you to travel and climb?

SAT and ACT exams happen during certain months. I’ll schedule courses and classes up ’til the test date and then I’ll have some free time to travel and climb until I have to start the next course.

8) What does a “typical” week or month look like?

Currently, home base is in Bangkok. My typical week varies depending on whether the students are on holidays (i.e., I’m busier: Teach everyday). Or if they are at school (I’m more free: Teach after school for a few hours and on weekends).

“Who love kisses?! Hahaha.. Getting some snuggle time in with Shakespeare at @liberatewings.” Photo courtesy of Jojo Yee.

9) What do you wish you knew when first starting out?

…Never really thought about that…

10) What is one lesson learned from your journey so far?

You can always plan ahead to get more free time. I’m working on that now…

Thanks, Jojo!

You can see more of Jojo’s adventures on her blog, Consmos Wanderer, and her love for animals on her instagram account (@jojoyees).

Feature photo courtesy of Jojo Yee

Michael Hunter on Stewarding Land and Creating Black Barn Farm, a Bouldering Hostel

“This place is special,” Michael declared. I drove to Bolton, Vermont to see what he meant.

Driving West along the backroads of Route 25, and across the Connecticut River from New Hampshire to Vermont, a change is immediate:

Vermont smells different. 

It’s all cow pies, farmland and pine trees, like it was bottled in a can then freshly cracked open. First sip supernova. Piquant.

Evenings over Black Barn Farm. Photo courtesy of Michael Hunter.

Here the land is more maple syrup than metro. More timber-lined ridge than car parked mall. Instead of New Hampshire’s concentrated range, mountains rise and fall away like waves at low tide. Troughs are unfurled rugs of mauve fields barricaded by rounded peaks with a tarmac running through. 

The car pulsed along, wind rushing through the open windows. Scott Hutchison’s tiding brogue drifted from the speakers, my lips and tongue moving in synchrony. 

302: Past Berlin, Middlesex, Waterbury, continue by a flea market perpetually being set up, then take a sharp right to a steep drive. 

There, a black barn. 

“You must be the writer,” a hulking man with snow white hair and a braided beard declared.

“Something like that,” I said. 

He stood up gingerly and extended his hand, “I’m Kirk. Welcome to paradise.”

Michael Hunter looks a lot like his father, and sounds like him too. All rumbling motor engine and belly laughs. 

The Hunters are developing the 37+ acres of the Black Barn Farm into an outdoor hub. In what is likely to be the first bouldering hostel and campground in Vermont, you can sleep right next to the rocks. As it stands, his property has one of the densest concentration of erratics in the state.

When you visit you’re bound to meet friends, family, and people from the community. The place is always open, and it was designed that way. 

Michael’s angle is “coming into resonance” with others, a practice he’s cultivated over 15 years as a mental health counselor. On his property, that means creating space for others to enjoy the land.

While I was there I chatted with Michael about his vision and what the hell “allemansrätten” means.

Aaron: What are you creating here?

Michael: We bought the place five and a half years ago, and we decided as a family that we wanted to share this beautiful spot. We’ve been improving the land, figuring out how to steward it the best.

We focused in on the natural resources: Bouldering, there’s steep terrain for backcountry skiing, disc golf, fly fishing—there’s brook trout all along the stream here. We want to create an outdoor recreation hub. 

I also like craft beer, and we do beer shares; Sipping barrel aged stouts [things like that], we sit in the barn and talk about the different flavors. (Editors note: He laughs).

What about the boulders?

My friends, [Pete Cudney, Sam Simon, and others] the ones developing the boulders here, tell me that [outside of Smuggler’s Notch] the boulders in Vermont are few and far between.

You’ll have this big boulder, it’s awesome, but then have to walk two miles through the woods to another one, then a half-mile to another after that.

According to them, this is such a high concentration of good quality rock with amazing lines, all in a 300 square foot area. 

That’s the wizard boulder (he points to the hunk of rock over my right shoulder), and the first climb that went up: “It’s complicated being a wizard [V5].”

There are other lines: Dharma Bum. Society of Solitude. Ghost in the Sky. All these are beer names from different breweries [in Vermont]. 

Why steward the land? To share it?

The previous owners [before the last] actually spread glass along the river on the property. They didn’t want people using the land. We thought that was ridiculous.

There’s a Scandinavian word, and actually it’s a law, called allemansrätten, that translates to “the right to roam.” Everyone has the right to walk through, fish, whatever. You can’t camp right behind someone’s house—you have to respect the land and the people on it—but basically this land is for everyone.

[At Black Barn Farm] we share everything. If you’re here and you’re hungry, you’re going to eat. People just kick money in the moonshine jar. I had a hiker that came for one night, stayed for a week. He helped around here, did a bunch of chores, pitched in a couple bucks.

Clean up crew. Photo courtesy of Michael Hunter.

How are you building this out?

In developing this, I’m in conversations with CRAG Vermont, to see how this fits in with their broader initiative of making climbing available to everybody.

The Catamount Trail, which is the cross country ski trail that goes from Jay Peak down to Harriman (300 miles from the border with Canada to Massachusetts), it goes right up here over the back of my property.

There’s a cabin up there called the Bryant Cabin that sells out in minutes each year. We’ve talked with them about building a spur down here and a yurt or a cabin [to offer another option].

We’ve talked with The Vermont Huts Association as well. 

We’re dong this slow, starting with primitive camping to get going. The next step is to make this into a small campground: Lean-tos, a couple of teepees, etc.

How did you make your way here?

I grew up in Connecticut and moved to Burlington for grad school. I had worked in residential care for younger kids, and got my Masters in Counseling at UVM. I’ve been a licensed mental health councilor and drug councilor for the past 15 years. So I was living here. 

My mom passed away, six years ago. My dad was still living in Connecticut in a three story house. We wanted dad to stay with one of us; Sister lives in California, brother is in Texas. He went out to California for about a month and a half, loved it. He went to Texas for awhile, and Texas sucks (he laughs), so he didn’t want to go there.

Then he came up here. He was coming up here all the time anyways because it’s close. 

We had dinner on a Sunday night, and he told us, “Okay, I’m going to sell the house in Connecticut and move in with you.”

On Monday, my friend sent me the listing for this place. It had just come on the market. 

“It’s everything you’ve ever wanted,” he said.

Overlooking the river. Photo courtesy of Michael Hunter.

Everyone that buys a house has a bucket list of like 30 things, and you maybe get two of them. We had that list and everything was there at this house. 

On Monday, I drove past after work. The previous owners were out front moving stuff and packing. They invited me in. I stayed for two hours, told them about my mom, how I grew up jumping in rivers like this, just told them the whole story. By the end of that, they told me, “We want to sell this house to you and your family.”

Two months later, on the Summer Solstice, June 21st, 2013, we closed on the house. And it was ours.

I spent the first night here with my best friend, the one that showed me the listing. And we slept on a couch in the backyard because we didn’t have furniture or anything. (He laughs).

We walked to the upper meadow under a full moon, and the whole meadow was covered in daisies. Daises were my mom’s favorite flower. Growing up, my dad always used to give her daises on anniversaries and her birthdays. I get goose bumps thinking about it now.

The way it all worked out—the way my dad decided, the way that we found it, the way I talked to those people. This place has an energy about it that shit like that happens all the time.

Three generations. Photo courtesy of Michael Hunter.

You said the way you grew up—you would jump into rivers, and things like that—was that something you wanted for your own children?

Oh ya, absolutely. My dad used to take us up to the Zealand Campground, near Mt. Washington. That’s the Ammonoosuc River. Every summer we’d go up and stay there, and jump in those pools.

I grew up doing that and I wanted my kids to have that.

When the previous family walked me around, everything in my head was, “My kids are gonna grow up here. They are going to love it!”

The Black Barn Farm is hosting a bouldering competition as part of the first ever Vermont Climbing Festival on Saturday, Sept. 21.

Interested in staying over and checking out the boulders? Message Michael on Facebook.

Feature photo courtesy of Sam Simon.

Jobs for the Traveling Climber: Tattoo Artist and Outdoor Educator

In this interview series we talk with people who spend their time traveling and climbing, while still holding down a steady income. From nurses to coders, writers to outdoor guides, we want to show that you don’t have to go full dirtbag to live the itinerant life. Because contributing to your 401k while seeing the world doesn’t sound so bad.

Name: Amy Borch

Job: Tattoo Artist and Outdoor Educator

Editor’s note:

Amy and I met at Rumney, NH, while on a trip that was my first ever paid writing assignment. They (being Amy and Jared) were mindfully enjoying the peace and solitude of early evening climbing on a mid-week day. Then I showed up. I began by badgering them, asking if I could take photos as they climbed. But they were friendly and gracious to my intrusion. We got to talking, told bad jokes, solo’d Clip a Dee Doo Dah, then had beers by the Baker River.

Amy has had a varied and exploratory life, full of arting and climbing. Hope you enjoy her perspective!

Amy also doubles (triples, quadruples?) as performer at the award-winning Ice Castles. Photo courtesy of Patrick Sarson.

1) What do you do?

I currently juggle the arts of tattooing and outdoor educator/guide.

About a year and a half ago I decided to commit to a career as a tattoo artist.

When I’m not making income through art, I work my other passion in the outdoor industry. I serve as a guide, trainer and course director for outdoor organizations. 

2) How did you learn about outdoor education and tattooing?

Outdoor Educator: I began to learn what it meant to be an outdoor educator six years ago when I began as an intern for the Mid-Atlantic Outward Bound. I decided to use creativity to explore group dynamics, facilitate challenge, and connect the public to outdoor spaces through the skill sets of climbing, backpacking, and sea kayaking.

Tattooing: I’ve known since I was fourteen years old that I wanted to be a tattoo artist. I had a friend who made a tattoo machine from scratch out of a toy car motor, pen ink, and a sewing needle and asked me to “draw on him.” I suppose that’s what originally put the idea in my head.

“I pursue careers where I feel like I have the highest yield of positive impact on people.”

3) What are some of the perks of the job?

I love what I do every single day.

Outdoor Ed: My office is enviable. I have had the pleasure and privilege of spending weeks at a time working and living in places such as Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Sequoia Kings Canyon, etc.

The experiences of living with groups in the wilderness are incredibly impactful, but mostly indescribable. 

Tattooing: I get to be creative and meet rad people.

“Fox hobbit. This was so fun!” Photo courtesy of Amy.

4) What are some of the challenges?

The challenges are:


(Editor’s Note: Amy’s emphasis)

Outdoor Ed: Working long format courses for several weeks/months at a time in the wilderness can stress relationships outside of the outdoor industry. It can even be difficult to connect to cultural events if they occurred while you were away for a month and a half, unplugged from wifi, phones and television.

The world doesn’t wait to change while you’re blissed out in the mountains.

Tattooing: Tattooing has humbled me because of how incredibly harsh it can be on the body. Transitioning between careers where I am constantly hiking/climbing/paddling/moving to sitting still for hours is cruxy.

“Success is not an accident, and failure is the most effective facilitator of discovery. So set a goal and go for it.”

5) What motivated you to pursue these paths?

I pursue careers where I feel like I have the highest yield of positive impact on people.

My role in facilitation, or “activating space” for someone else to experience a little bit of magic, is the reason why I love my careers. 

Outdoor Ed: I enjoy observing people open to new ways of thinking. Working outdoors with youth and adult groups provides space for people to empower themselves.

When someone tries something new, whether it be a social role (such as leadership/followership) or takes appropriate risks (navigates off-trail/asks for help), this person creates a “schema” for themselves. And this schema, or conceptual framework for how they navigate an experience, can later be transferred to life at home. This process of thought-work is very compatible with the outdoor classroom.

Tattooing: The art of tattooing allows people access and permission to explore ideas. Many people come in without the words to express memories or thoughts they want, or sometimes need, to process.

I know something really cool has happened in the studio when people come back to me and tell me that the tattoo has allowed them to access the feelings or closure they were having trouble finding when we first spoke about the idea. 

“More than just create an image, I try my best to listen, ask curious questions and facilitate story telling through artistic process… Through intentional conversations we were able to collect the information necessary for this piece. I am so fortunate to be able to work in a field that allows me to build connections and share meaning with others in this way.” Photo courtesy of Amy.

6) How has your life changed since you started these jobs?

Outdoor Ed: My ability to give and receive feedback based on personal growth and technical performance has enabled me to take career risks and connect with people in ways I previously did not have the capacity for.

Tattooing: The ability to reconnect with friends/family, think about the future, and pursue making a livelihood from creating.

7) How do these jobs allow you to travel and climb?

Outdoor Ed: This can provide a great opportunity for climbing/traveling when there are contract agreements. Contracts bind people for a certain number of courses or days of expected work, and the rest of the time is free to make climbing trips! 

Tattooing: Build a mutually respectful relationship with your mentor or shop owner and prioritize communication. Make every moment in the shop count and pour your heart into your art, treat your clients well.

8) What does a “typical” week or month look like?

Outdoor Ed: 

Typical month:

  • 2-3 days prep
  • 14-30 days in [insert name of epic course location]
  • 2 days debrief
  • Repeat

“El Cap sticking its Nose out. View from the last pitch of East Buttress on Middle Cathedral.” Photo courtesy of Amy.


Typical week:

  • Basecamp: New England!
  • Work 4 days a week. Occasionally glance at large El Cap route map in studio to stay motivated
  • Stay fit around Cathedral Ledge, Cannon, Rumney and occasional Maine trip 

9) What do you wish you knew when first starting out?

Outdoor Ed: Open up a Roth IRA and make a retirement plan as soon as possible. We don’t do this gig for the money!

Tattooing: Learn the body mechanics of sitting or overuse of certain muscle groups can creep into climbing and tattoo performance in unpleasant ways! 

10) What is one lesson learned from your journey so far?

Success is not an accident, and failure is the most effective facilitator of discovery. So set a goal and go for it.

Thanks, Amy!

“Endless starry nights to white noise and city lights. It feels like different worlds. But I dream of one world, connected.” Photo courtesy of Amy.

You can see more of Amy’s tattoo artistry on instagram: @amy.wildhand

Feature photo courtesy of Adam Nawrot