My REI dividend arrived. It wasn’t much. It never is, due to the fact that I am a perpetual bottom feeder, buying the things I need* as much as possible off the clearance rack. And of course, those discounted purchases do not contribute to the dividend. And so, the amount of “REI Dollars” I receive is somewhat insignificant. But then, as a bottom feeder, every little bit helps.
I found myself wandering through the store, looking at the myriad of useful and potentially useful things that I could add to my ski or backpacking set ups – various straps, an ice axe, crampons, a wool base layer – when I meandered into the book and map section. And while that section (at the smaller Sandy, UT location) is rather small, just a couple of shelves, I ended up spending the bulk of my time at the store thumbing through various guide books, maps, and novels. Tucked between the numerous Everest expedition stories, and the survival tomes, I found a small book called Tales From Nowhere: Unexpected Stories from Unexpected Places.
I was intrigued. I read the back cover, and a few random pages. I usually don’t buy a book without knowing much or anything about it, but took a chance on this one – after all, my dividend more than covered the sticker price. And so far, it’s proving to be a good investment. The short stories I’ve read have been entertaining, insightful, and as the title implies, full of unexpected adventures in far away, forgotten corners of the earth.
*My wife and I have differing definitions of ‘need’.
But perhaps the biggest surprise, and something that might have made the purchase worthwhile on its own merits was something I read in the foreword. It was an articulate attempt to define in tangible terms much of what I am trying to accomplish, not only here in this space, but also in the ongoing writing project I have tucked away on my desktop. Which is, the exploration and explanation of, as Ed Abbey put it, and as I often repeat: the tangible and the mythical. But this was different. More explainable. More “everyday”. And it dawned on me in a sort of epiphanic realization exactly why I tend to thrive – or struggle – under certain circumstances and situations. And especially the importance of athletic and creative endeavors, and the way they tend to define and dominate my life. I may have written similar things in the past, but when I am athletically engaged, my creative energies are more animated and lively. And when my creative energies are thriving, so is everything else.
The author of the books foreword, Tim Cahill, calls it Flowbee. The flow, the zone. That moment when your mind is completley focused on the moment, and time disappears into a meaningless oblivion. I think you’ve been there before. But you don’t always know until afterward, when you’ve left that space and realized, with the benefit of hindsight that you were utterly and completely focused and engulfed by whatever it was you were doing. Minutes after finishing a 100 mile mountain bike race, something you spent months training and preparing for is now a blur, and has left you smiling and exhausted. The race itself is now little more than a mere flicker of time. The crux move on a ski tour or a rock climb that filled you with dread and fear and trepidation comes and goes in the blink of an eye. You were so focused, so in that zone that there was no space for fear or hesitation or doubt. And the result? Euphoria. That is a word that I use here often. But I don’t know of any better way to describe those moments. That ability to look back and grin stupidly, knowing that months or years, or a lifetime of work and preparation and self-wonderment were eclipsed in the fantastic act of doing.
In my experience one of the most important things you need to get to Flowbee is a sense of risk. The journey starts when you find yourself confronted by a feasible challenge that nevertheless scares you witless – and you take the plunge.
And I think that sense of risk perfectly explains the attraction and addictive nature of backcountry skiing. Because there is significant risk. But not so much that the endeavor is fruitless, or overtly dangerous, so long as one is prepared. The reward – untracked, massive, terrain – creates that euphoria, that sense of flow, and that undeniable joy that seems to fill a person for hours after a quality day in light, deep powder. It also explains the exhausted nature of those muddy, toothy grins that people have spread across their faces after something like the Point to Point, despite the acute and very real physical pain. The risk one takes in a mountain bike race is very different from that of skiing the backcounty. It’s more social, more revealing, less life threatening. But the thought of being publicly exposed as a fraud, and a mountain bike race promises just that, is nothing to dismiss or to take lightly. It keeps all of us, from the world’s best pro riders to the you’s and the me’s of the sport, working hard day in and day out.
And while the results may differ, the process, and that sense of euphoria is exactly the same.
And not surprisingly, that same process occurs in the creative realm. I’ve lost myself in my film work, my writing, photography, and other imaginative energies without ever realizing that I had done so, until later. The idea that the process of finding “Flowbee” is identical, wether applied athletically, intellectually or otherwise, illuminated why it is I have always felt that these activities are so symbiotic. I wrote recently, before stumbling across any of this, my own attempt at trying to explain it:
Perhaps it seems unrelated, or even a massive jumping to conclusions, but physical effort and spiritual, creative, and even religious understanding seem intricately connected. Which is to say, that both are healthier, more meaningful, and infinitely more enjoyable when pursued in tandem. Like the vision quests of the Navajo and Hopi and Anasazi, or the mountain ascensions of Judeo-Christian prophets, there is a direct connection to wilderness, and divinity. And it is that divinity that I am intent on discovering, both within and without my own sense of self.
And the best and surest way I know how to discover that divinity is through the tandem pursuit of the mythical and the tangible. To seek that sense of flow and mental and physical focus that one arrives at when standing on the edge of what is possible, and what is very nearly not.