Life as a Traveling Writer

It’s pretty adventurous.

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Working Remotely or Remotely Working: Lessons Learned From a Work Week at a Climber’s Hostel

The moon shines brightest at 4am. 

It had been slinking across the night sky—naturally—but something about the fourth hour causes it to sink into a puncture in the celestial curtain. And just sit there. 

The porcelain plate grows brighter, perhaps by fear, as if it’s hanging on by fingernails and knows it’s about to tumble through. The light is immense and the landscape is aglow—like a Murakami pixie dream, everything just twinkling—which means the hat pulled over my eyes simply doesn’t cut it. 

Cut to: Tossing. Sleeping bag tightening. Bivvy flap scratching. Under-breath cursing.

Such as it was each night of the past week.


Chichidho, a climber’s hostel behind La Peña de Bernal, was my home for the last seven days. It was a test to see if mixing work and play was doable, and if so, to what extent. 

Office space. Photo by the author.


Then the moon came. All bright enough to walk along at night without an extra light. That glow illuminated something else too: Ah, it reminded me that it was like this a month ago! 

When I first arrived. 

Funny enough, the dates change, time passes, but the cycle of the moon remains. It’s almost like you can live parallel lives by attaching new memories to a prominent environmental fixture that only occurs every 30 days: There are visits to Chichidho during full moons and without, no in betweens…

But I guess we’ll have to see if the rhythm continues next month too. 

(Umm, what about the subject of the article, though?)

Oh yea, this is a blog post about working for a week at a climber’s hostel. So how did it go?

Lessons learned from working remotely at a climber’s hostel

1) There was a break in period

Life in Querétaro has been routine, mostly by design. So far, I’ve been trying to keep a regular schedule, circulate among the same cafes, and generally maintain consistency (for the sake of efficiency!). The emphasis is on work, with weekends reserved for climbing.

I didn’t realize how much a change in environment would alter things. In a city, coffee shops open at specific times, stores are around every corner, and things like weather are mitigated to some extent.

No ergonomic swivel chairs here. Photo by the author.


At Chichidho I had to learn a whole new pattern, largely based around the sun, such as:

The big light doesn’t peek over the mountain until 9am (which means it’s cold(er) up to that point); paying attention to the position of the sun during the day as it dictates when and where to go for climbing breaks (and even where you can sit while working); and making sure to charge your laptop and phone before nightfall as the hostel’s solar-powered batteries tend to run low by the end of the day, which precipitates an annoying screech from some sort of electric-thingamajig which I would have liked to minimize as much as possible (to no avail).

You were basing your day around the solar scoundrel up above? How primitive!

Also, the daily ritual of showering for public presentation? Meh.

Takeaway: How does your environment shape your schedule?


2) I was much more vigilant of my mental state and energy levels

In the city, the only real focus is on the tasks that need to get done that day. I find I’m more prone to power through the work even if feeling less than inclined. There’s something about having the intention of “this is a work day” that keeps me “on track” according to more traditional 9-5 hours. This also tends to leave me feeling more drained come nightfall, like you’re “fighting through” to get the job done in a certain time frame.

At Chichidho, projects were still set each day, but the schedule was more variable. Maybe I would start work at 9am then take a break at 2pm to climb with Nathan (a fellow working guest). Maybe I wasn’t feeling it, and instead climb until Noon before starting work. Plus all sorts of other permutations.

We break for “Queso” not coffee. Photo by the author.


Interestingly (probably only to me), I got the same (if not more) work done each day. However, it was spread out and aligned with what felt to be natural “productive periods” (where it didn’t feel like having to overcome inertia: around 10am-2pm, 4-6pm, 8-10pm). I rarely felt depleted come sleepy time. 

With that said, I felt very unmotivated to do work today, so there’s something to just sitting down and doing it.

Takeaway: When do you feel most productive? Depleted?


3) The stoke for climbing was more even keel

Maybe the adage, “absence makes the heart grow fonder” applies here. 

When I can only climb outside for two days a week, I really look forward to those days. When the weekend comes, climbing is the only focus and the sessions are long.

But, when climbing is all around there is no longer a feeling of scarcity. We’d climb almost everyday but for shorter sessions, and that seemed to give me my fill.

It’s as if during a week in the city, the reservoirs run low and I need a full weekend of climbing to top it up. But at Chichidho, I only used a little gas each day, so the smaller sessions were enough. 

Takeaway: How do you recharge?


What about you? Have you worked while on climbing trips, or for extended stays at a climber’s hostel? How did it go for you? Any tips or lessons learned?

Share in the comments below!


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Lessons Learned from a Year of Blogging

I woke up this morning and realized that I’ve been blogging on a weekly basis for over a year.

When the notion struck, and after my first Nescafe, I started to think about lessons learned (as one does). Very quickly, I distracted myself with other things because a reflection piece was not of interest to me today.

But I have a streak to keep in tact. It’s Thursday after all.

Read on for lessons learned. (Scroll down for a while if you’re eager for the takeaways).


First: A long-winded intro that circles back to the theme eventually. Per usual.

The idea of pursuing writing or of becoming “a writer” has been brewing for several years.

Last February, I began to put pen to paper while in Budapest. This was the second leg of my Eastern European Trip, Pt. 1 (Act 2): The Prelude, and I had determined that a month in Hungary’s capital city would be the perfect place for a “writing” sojourn. The vision in my head was myopically poetic.

I imagined frantic notebook scrawling in cafes during the morning and long soaks in thermal baths in the evening. There would be walks in between and plenty of goulash sampled on my traipsing through the city (or whatever it is they ate in Hungary). I also kind of hoped I’d become an alcoholic, because that seems to be a thing good writers have in common.

The script didn’t go as theoretically conceived (for one, the beer wasn’t very good there). But, I did write (poems and essays mostly), and more importantly, I began to believe it was possible.


Life progressed and the idea of giving a go at “writing” niggled it’s way irreparably into the depths of my brain. Like a parasite that couldn’t be satiated.

(Which is probably necessary because writers don’t make a whole lot–outside of the power-law-few anyways–and you likely need to be slightly delusional / intrinsically motivated to pursue such a fool’s errand. But hey, at least I’m not a poet.)

Come November (2018), I committed to posting at least one article per week on this blog.

There were several reasons for this:

  1. The main aim was simple: To write more.
  2. I needed to start somewhere, and you only get better at writing through the act of writing.
  3. It was a schedule that I could stick to, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could be dedicated to a craft.

So I began, and the weekly streak is alive. Onto the lessons learned.

Lessons Learned:

You never really know what’s going to catch fire.

This goes for what you like to write about, and for what gets page views. If I’m being honest, I was banging my head against a wall for a longtime trying to figure out what I wanted to write.

I actually enjoy creating poetry, but that wasn’t going to further the cause of becoming a writer. My early essays and observational travel pieces felt a bit flat to me then, and read that way to me now. Upon reflection, I know that it’s because they lacked a certain essence or deep-rooted interest for me (poet alert!: He said, “essence”).

For whatever the hell reason, climbing has been the muse that’s really launched things in a new direction: It’s personally intriguing to me, I see plenty of potential to tell different kinds of stories, and I actually get paid to write about it.

The takeaway here is: You need to start writing, try a bunch of shit, and hope to God you come across something that tickles your pickle.

As for page views…

Give the people what they want. (Sort of).

No one really cares about my broken heart.

So I’ve been told on a few occasions. But they love climbing related shit. Like The Coolest Climbing Festivals in Europe that has been far and away the most popular post, and continues to brings in consistent organic traffic each month.

Thanks to writing, I got paid to climb here.


Additionally, distribution matters a lot more than the content.

Every post that’s brought in high volumes of traffic (note: It’s all small-small numbers) has been shared by others through social media.

This is because the readership on the blog is somewhat contained (mostly friends and family–thanks for reading!–and people who subscribe). The only way for articles to spread to the wider world is when I beta spray and post them around, or other people do.

For people to share, it has to be of value to them. Things like informational pieces, destination guides, how to’s, etc. lend themselves more to spraying.

Growing the readership and “creating a brand” haven’t been the priority so far as I just wanted to focus on “writing” and “finding my voice.” I’m not sure if I’ll try to do more with this blog, I kind of like the liberty to talk about whatever.

Turkish coffee in Sarajevo. From the Eastern European Trip, Pt. 1, Act 1: The Prelude


It’s fun. It’s creative. It makes people more likely to talk to you.

By far the coolest part of this is that people are open to chatting with you.

It’s like getting a license to reach out to whomever and ask all sorts of questions you would normally be too modest to ask of your friends.

As a result, you get to help share stories about people who aren’t typically covered. Oftentimes these folk are inspiring, relatable, kind… and doing really cool shit!

Through this process I’ve flexed my journalism muscles (which I’ve found I quite like), experimented with markety-type content, bared my heart (take that, haters!), and played with a variety of other forms of writing.

It’s changed my life.

Not to be dramatic about it…

If you had asked me last year if I thought I would be able to make a living through writing in 2019, my answer would be emphatically, “No way, dude!” Quickly followed by, “But like, that’d be really cool!”

And now here I am in Queretaro, Mexico getting paid to put words into 1’s and 0’s across the interwebs.

A lot can happen in a year, apparently. Such as it is.

To be clear, it wasn’t the blog all on its own. Rather, it’s been the process of writing, learning that this is something I can do, and then going out and doing it (plus some luck). Still, the blog has played an important role.

There you have it, some begrudging lessons learned from this past year.

Onwards and upwards!,” as one of my former bosses liked to say.

7 Surprising Lessons from My First Climbing Trip “on Assignment”

The lens cap wouldn’t go back on. I was fumbling by the greyscale schist, turning ‘round the plastic piece like a steering wheel.

“Uhh, what the fuck,” I mumbled, confusedly, to myself. The circular pissant had started on the lens, I was sure of that, those two pinchy prongs, when squeezed, clearly released the cover from the concave portal. Then why won’t it go back in? I tried jamming it, clomp, clomp, clack, into the hole. 

Turns out the camera needed to be powered off in order for the lens to recede and the cap to fit in place. 

“Ah, just first day blunders, it’ll all be easy sailing from here!,” I reassured myself.


… 

I was recently commissioned to write about climbing at Rumney in New Hampshire, for—humbly—what is my first paid article, in real dollarspotentially… because the check hasn’t been cut yet. 

In order to complete the research and take photographs for the piece, I spent a few days on location. This article is about lessons learned, and mostly the mishaps, from my first climbing trip “on assignment.”



Rumney is the mecca of sport climbing in New England, a destination crag for rock scalers within a 5-hour drive radius. Québécoise? Sure thing. New Yorkers? No problem. Bostononians? Of course.

On good weather weekends the parking lots are stacked before the first Regular cup of Dunks and “crawlah” has been washed down by BPD.

Luckily, weekdays see lighter attendance, and less people to witness my flailing with the flagellating camera around my neck.


Lesson 1: Know How Your Equipment Works

No amount of editing was going to fix the blurred images.

Sitting at home the photo previewer showed one out of focus shot after another: A close up of rock here, faded climber in the background there; Censored cliff and a verdant tree wearing a liberal application of green blush; Oh this shot of my boot and dirt is crystal! 

Eventually I figured out the settings and how to target the focus. I also learned plenty of settings not to use!


Lesson 2: Get off the Ground

The most interesting shots were ones from non-traditional vantage points, like “soloing” a slab slate to grab some setting sun or tying in to a first bolt on an adjacent route in order to capture a climber up close.

The difficulty in framing climbing shots, aside from knowing how to use the camera, came down to not losing the climber in the frame. A fellow photographer I met there remarked on how easy it is for the climber to get lost, whether from the scale of the wall, the muted colors they are wearing, or from poor lighting. Getting closer and properly structuring the shot made a world of difference.


Lesson 3: Plan out the Shoot and Know What You Want to Capture

The next day my thighs felt leaden. I haven’t done much hiking lately, but in reality I scaled a few thousand feet of vertical over those days, often on steep inclines heading up and down to the different cliffs along Rattlesnake Mountain. Some areas are more than half an hour from the parking lot. 

Simply traveling to each locale took a few hours of the day, and time away from photographing.

At the wall, climbers can take a surprising amount of time “hanging out” on the cliff waiting for their next burn. While I took a few of these convalescent frames, they weren’t the epitome of an action shot. Add up travel time, stop and wheeze time, photographing (waiting around) and this became an all day excursion. 

I planned the types of shots I needed—action shots, lifestyle, and ambiance—and I knew generally the order with which I would go to each location. This helped keep me on target and set a route for the day.


Lesson 4: Pretend to Be Friendly and Nice so People Talk to You and Let You Take Photos of Them

Photos of big hunks of rock can be quite boring, lack scale, and generally leave one uninspired if you don’t showcase people demonstrating what’s possible (on them).

So, I had to try talking to people *groans* to see if I could photograph them while they did interesting things on these big hunks of rock. In the end this was less awkward than sitting there taking pictures and leaving without a word.


Lesson 5: Don’t Listen to Someone When They Say Not to Pay for Parking

This one is self-explanatory. Support the local park.


Lesson 6: Shooting Is One Half the Battle, Editing Makes a World of Difference

Do you need to amplify the purple longsleeve of the climber to make her pop out against the wall? Coming right up, alongside the bleaching backlighting! 

The editing process, thanks to a free online program, was instructive and useful. Turns out you can do quite a bit to manipulate a pic, from tinting people’s skin color to look like the Hulk to sandpapering away all the details to leave an image akin to squinting your eyes.

On the other hand, editing made too dark pictures turn out vibrantly, and things like cropping or manipulating contrast did wonders for highlighting the subject of the image. 


Lesson 7: Beats Working in a Coffee Shop, or Library, or at Home

The main challenge was wanting to climb more, which is really a difficulty I have most days.

It was only due to my herculean grit and vast reservoirs of restraint that I was able to complete the assignment relatively on time. And with that, my first paid piece and on assignment trip are officially in the books with maybe a check in the mail as my reward.

In the end, it was fun, and it was work, and I’d like to do more of it.


Photos by the author

I’m the Real Nostradamus: Predictions from My 13 Year Old Self

An envelope arrived at my folk’s home today.

The handwriting was unmistakably mine: The characters bunch up in places, rounded letters proceed along wavy edges, and finishing marks run sloppy from a lazily lifted pen. The return address said, “ECMS / Mr. Waite” (in my hand writing). Hmm. Did I write this to myself in… 8th grade?!?

I had completely forgotten if I had. What would it say? I greedily dove in.

Yes, I do remember now! The class: American History. The teacher: Mr. Waite–taller, lithe, slightly balding and for whatever reason I imagine him with a weak chin that melts into his throat. But I think that’s just an unflattering caricature I’m making up. The age: 13.

This was the year of 9/11. And if memory serves correctly, we learned about the planes colliding into the World Trade Center in that class. (The school had actually restricted information flow on the premises, turning off TVs and preventing access to computers. We only found out because fellow students were receiving text messages. Cell phones had only become a thing a few years before). That event, a framer of world views, took place three months prior to this letter writing exercise, and it clearly influenced the content. I was also clearly unimpressed with the latest homework assignment.

Well, what did I find?

It turns out I was snarky then (and I still got it!), laid on the sarcasm (ala, “All thanks to the great teachings of Mr. T-Waite, I am able to find peace and joy in school!”), and full of ambitious predictions about the future.

For the record, let it be known that I was highly accurate in my guesses, and I still have three years more to run the cycle through. Mark it, Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, will be the richest man in the world in 2022!!

Without further adieu, I present to you, 13 year old Aaron:

(Typed letter below the pictures. Spelling mistakes, etc. copied over from the original document.)

Sec. D
12/19/01

“Rip Van Essay”

January 2nd 2002:

Dear Journal,

Today at school I had a horible day. Our teachers seem to have no sympathy for us, and they simply dumped homework onto us. They pilled it on and it’s like it might take me 20 years to complete. I will write to you later.

As he put down his pen he felt a great sense of sleepiness embrace his soul. He put his journal back to the shelf it called home, and he trudged over to his backpack. Slowly, the books were taken out and placed onto the desk.

“Math, Science, Language Arts, Spanish, and my most favorite subject American History. All thanks to the great teachings of Mr. T-Waite, I am able to find peace and joy in school!” The boy shuffled his books around and then once again arranged them, first by color, then by size, and finally weight, before even looking at the homework he had to initiate.

DOWN went the pen to the clean and fresh piece of paper. Down, further and further still. Down to the unmarked paper, and the excruciatingly long process of homework had begun. He rhythmically began to put the heading of his paper on, as it had been “drilled” into his head earlier that school year. Then, suddenly Aaron had an idea!” Wouldn’t it be great to go into the future? He pondered the question as he automatonically went through his homework.

Slowly Aaron fell asleep. At first only nodding his head every once and a while, but before long he felt it gnawing at him. He wouldn’t be able to fight it for long! At that moment, almost cliche, a commercial with the song “Go to sleep Little Baby” played, and Aaron was done. Off into Dream World for him, little did he know when he would wake up, the world as he knew it would be a thing of the past.

Dear Journal,

When I said I would write to you later, I didn’t think it would be this late! As I’ve come to discover it’s the year 2022, which came with many snickers and sneers from the people I have met. Apparently I had been sleeping the whole time, and my parents hadn’t realised for I simply spend all my time in my room anyways. As it stands I hardly know where to begin. I woke up and had a horrible need to go to the bathroom. After I finished, I looked up to the mirror, but much expecting to see a child, all I saw was hair. That was the first time I knew something was wrong.

That was pretty minor compared to some of the other things I learned. First off, I learned there was a common currency used around the world, my petty change I traded in for the New World dollar. More minor, each sink had three knobs now, one hot, one cold, and one mixed with soap already in it (I found this out the hard way). I also learned that after George W. we had a black president who took charge immediately and finished up the war on terrorism. The string of presidents were all well bread, and intelligent who managed to reverse the economic slump, but where else is there to go after you go up? I even learned a few female’s were running for the next presidency, which had been lengthened for 5 years.

While looking through the newspaper I learned some very startling news. Supposedly America had claimed many countries for itself after the war on terrorism, stating they were obviously inadequote and unable to govern themselves, so America found it their responsibility to take it by force. On a lighter note, I learned the new fashion was baggy clothes once again, after it had been leather and other cow products for a long time. I was also suprised to hear Bill Gates was now the second richest man in the world, second to the one and only man who started Starbucks coffee, where coffee is their life and ambition. You can always count on Starbucks to be there for you. I have learned more, but I have grown weary of writing. I will write to you later. He fell asleep on his journal, and had a peaceful dream.

On the Power of Self-Respect

And owning up to how we want to live

Hey everyone,

This week’s theme focuses on how we choose to operate in the world. Will we lead with self-respect, will we aspire to be a hero, will we let physical or mental or societal impediments limit us?

Plus, three internship opportunities with outdoor magazines.

Opportunities

Rock and Ice Internship

Great way to break into the industry and hang out in a super outdoorsy community.

Field Mag Internship

Field Mag is “a modern outdoor lifestyle publication for lovers of good design and the great outdoors.” They are looking for summer intern(s) to help with editorial efforts, social, and potentially marketing/advertising.

Sidetracked Magazine Internship (pending details)

Sidetracked is UK-based and features first person narrative with gorgeous photography.

What I’m Reading

On Self-Respect: Joan Didion’s 1961 Essay from the Pages of Vogue

Joan Didion is lyrical, a weaver of narrative, and offers critical insight into the human psyche.

To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.


Kilian Jornet. Mountain poetry

Kilian talks about what drives him to the mountains, and what he seeks out there and within himself. Also, why it is important to strive to be heroes in the everyday:

What we should contemplate is that it shouldn’t be considered heroic but the natural thing inside all of us… They’ve shown us that the heroic should be the normal human thing to do, and in our individualistic and self-centered days, this is important and admirable.


How a one-handed champion is reinventing rock climbing

Photo source: National Geographic

I mean, shit. She’s one-handed and climbing 5.12s.

“Hey guys, I’m missing my left arm below the elbow, so I chopped off the end of a Trango ice tool, put a screw in it, and attached it to the socket of my prosthetic. Wondering if this would be okay to climb with?”


The Desperado

“In April 2018, a blind man with one foot robbed a bank in Austin, Texas. This is a heist story—but unlike any you’ve ever read.”

Wonderful writing. Spell-binding from the opening lines. The Atavaist is a must read for storytelling.




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Out There / In Here, vol. 6

Feature photo source: Kilian Jornet

We Are What We Do

On why we create and how to get there

Hey everyone,

This week’s theme is around the role of the individual in the larger context of society, and how one can come to define themselves.

Also, one writer’s account of overnight success. Just kidding, it’s been over 8 years, and the progress has been quite gradual.

Lastly, I turned 31 this past week. You’d think there might be big epiphanies after all these years of existence. But that’s not the case. At least for me anyway.

The boundary between 30 and 31 came to pass, and nothing perceptible really happened. I was flooded with a sense of sadness upon waking, got caught up in comparisons to a vague sense of where I thought I ought to be, rollicked in joy at all the years I (hopefully) have in front of me, and grappled with day-to-day existence type shit, like where to go for lunch and “I should really respond to that email.”

Opportunities

Salmon River Writing Workshop: The Human Wilderness Experience

Brendan Leonard is one of my favorite outdoor writers as he combines humor, vulnerability, and an adventurous spirit. This workshop offers 6 days on the Salmon River, covering 90 miles and what it takes to craft a compelling story.

What I’m Reading (& Watching)

Murmurations are an aerial ballet

The mysterious flights of the Common Starling are known as a “murmuration” and it is still unknown how the thousands of birds are able to fly in such dense swarms without colliding. This is from the same director as last week’s video.


We’re Here. You Just Don’t See Us.

I am constantly working to figure out how to make you acknowledge me as American, too. I refuse to be seen as poor and powerless, and I attempt to approach each day with a boldness and vulnerability that leaves an imprint on somebody. I continue to penetrate spaces where I’m not expected to be.

What narratives have you been told? How are they shaping your perception of yourself and what is possible?


Climbing Doesn’t Change You

The backlash to one of Kathy’s earlier posts (of which this is a rebuttal piece) is surprising. Since when could you not express the outdoors/ climbing/ your passion in romantic, sentimental language?

Failure gives you depth. It gives you mental tenacity. It shatters the expectations we often feel trapped within, the expectations that our perceptions of ourselves create. Exposing our failures lets us fearlessly show the world that we are human…. Nobody walks up the mountain to the top with a smile on their face the entire time, or without shedding a few tears, a little blood.”

I realized why I had shared it in the first place: to cultivate empathy and understanding not only for myself, but for others who might have had an experience

It was then that choosing vulnerability became an act of courage.


Art Is Commensurate with the Human Spirit

Art has but one principle, one aim, — to produce an impression, a powerful impression, no matter by what means, or if it be by reversing all the canons of taste and criticism.

Why do you create art? What impression are you hoping to make?


Longform Podcast #256: David Gessner

Great interview with an intelligent, open, and self-effacing writer.

The ambition got in my way at first. Because I wanted my stuff to be great, and it froze me up. But later on it was really helpful. I’m startled by the way people don’t, you know, admit [they care] … it seems unlikely people wouldn’t want to be immortal.


19: The True Story of the Yarnell Hill Fire

Simply brilliant writing and reporting.

Claire took the band and rolled it between her fingers and thought, What if someday this is all I have left? 

What if…

The Writing Life

Lessons from Eight Years of Writing an Adventure Blog

Buckle in, this might take awhile:

In my second year of pitching stories, I made $75 from one article. I moved to Denver to work at a small newspaper—but on the side, I kept pitching any outdoor publication I thought might pay. Almost all of them sent me rejections. In late 2006, John Fayhee at the Mountain Gazette liked a story I sent him enough to publish it and pay me $100. In mid-2007, I got a part-time job writing funny 100-word blogs for an outdoors website, at 15 cents a word, two to three blogs per week.

After almost six years of trying, I started getting magazine assignments, starting in early 2011 with a story I’d been pitching and had written for Climbing magazine.




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Out There / In Here, vol. 5

Feature photo source: Outside Magazine