Boiling, Guadeloupe

About midway down the western edge of Guadeloupe there is a small bay where the town of Bouillante nestles within the foothills of towering green peaks. Here most of the population speaks French, the air smells strongly of sulfur, and every day, for most of the daylight hours and long into the night, the community gathers in water that pours first out of the mountain in boiling fits, then through a geothermal plant, and finally out of a channel into this bay on the ocean.

It is a lovely scene, the islanders at their ease with neighbors and friends and a few tourists as the sun comes up and passes in and out of the clouds that gather always over these volcanic peaks, and finally settles down over the Caribbean Sea at day’s end. I have felt something here I haven’t felt since the Dominican Republic, a feeling of community, a feeling of home. I am just a bystander, but I feel it in my bones and my mind goes wandering back to Mount Rainier, MD.

Bill and I arrived here just a few days ago after a several months of restless movement, never quite at ease because something important needed doing. When we were back in the Dominican Republic, in October, a leak we had been chasing for years had finally revealed its source. If you have ever had a leaky boat, or even a leaky roof, you know this feeling. Water is coming in. You address one suspect, water is still coming in. Then another and another until you are pretty much ready to just accept the unacceptable fact that you have a leaky boat.

When we finally found the culprit, it was not the worst of all possibilities but it wasn’t good. We had overlooked that the previous owners of Maggie May (then named Vilkas) had done some less-than-stellar work on a thru-hull for one of the cockpit drains. ( A thru-hull is a hole in your boat where water is meant to go out, in the case of drains, or in through a closed circuit and then out again.) The fitting had no backing plate, just a goopy mess of sealant. How had we not noticed this before? By the time we did, the thru-hull moved easily in its bed when we shook the hose, and more water would seep in. If the fiberglass had been compromised, we didn’t know how long the fixture would endure the flexing of a boat pounding to windward for months on end.

From then on Bill would lay awake nights imagining the thru-hull failing altogether and Maggie May sinking to the bottom of wherever we happened to be. Fixing the leak moved from somewhere in the middle of our list of tasks to number 1. But that wouldn’t be so easy because we needed to get the boat out of the water to fix it properly, and we could not do that until at least Puerto Rico. We talked this problem over with several recent sailor acquaintances in Samana, DR, a few of whom who told us, with the bravado of one referring to another person’s boat, “Just go ahead and fix it in the water! All you have to do is back the thru-hull out and jam a bung in there…”
This may have worked. It could also have sunk the boat.

Crazy cloud on the passage to Puerto Rico through the Mona Passage.


We resolved to get the boat out of the water as soon as that was an option, and came up with an emergency plan in case the thru-hull failed in the interim. There were no travel lifts for sailboats anywhere near where we were, or where were going in the Dominican Republic. So we kept a close eye on the leak and made plans to move on as soon as hurricane season was over. We made passage in late November to Puerto Rico, where we found a travel lift on the southern coast, but boat yard owners there and elsewhere told us they were essentially closed for the holidays from November through February. (This is my kind of country, but that was not very helpful in our situation).

Enjoying the interim on St. John.

By the time we got to the US Virgin Islands, the leak had not worsened and we didn’t find a good place to haul out, so we waited. Finally in Sint Maarten, we got Maggie May pulled from the water where we could refashion the thru-hull, repaint the bottom and fix some other items that very much wanted fixing. When she was splashed a couple of weeks ago, I felt better about SV Maggie May than I had for some 18-months, since we realized our costly hull repair had utterly failed, then we fouled our prop on a fishing net and a squirrel ate our mainsail.

The past weeks since then have been a journey south past St. Barts, St. Kitts, Nevis and Montserrat to Guadeloupe, where we are now anchored in one of the loveliest parts of the sailing world. Many of these islands in the eastern Caribbean are dormant or active to semi-active volcanoes. Montserrat is the most clearly active so far, with sulfuric steam pouring from a cone that erupted just a few years ago.

The path of the lava flow can still be seen on Montserrat.

In Guadeloupe, there are no brooding cones to see yet the lie of an Earth at stasis is ever laid bare. When Bill and I jumped into the water to check the anchor upon our arrival, it was some 10 degrees warmer than the bay we had swam in the day before. We snorkeled to shore where the community of Bouillante (boiling in French) seems always to be gathered and soaking in the minerals pouring forth from their mountain. But it isn’t just the humans of this community who are drawn to this wonder. Also gathered are hundreds of fish, sergeant majors, blue tangs, trumpet fish and many more. I wouldn’t expect them to be able to survive the heat and the concentrated salinity of the water pouring out of the mountain. But in truth, water of the bay, and indeed of the ocean, is complex. The hottest water forms a surface layer of surprising current and a dreamy obscurity, but when you dive down to the bottom a colder layer is crystal clear and nearly still. Between them a brief middle ground forms a barrier between the two extremes where the temperatures diverge, and I imagine the chemical make-up also differentiates.

The surface layer of geothermal water is a blurry dream of sergeant majors.

I have been reading lately of the global currents that govern much of Earth’s climate. How the Gulf Stream, a warm water current, rides swiftly above a colder water current that runs in places at a different speed and even in the opposite direction of the Gulf Stream! There is so much going on under the surface of things and all around us. Here in Bouillante one can feel the power of that unseen and unimaginable energy circulating through air, water and earth. And also get a really damn good baguette.

Many many thanks to all those of you who have supported this journey and blog.

Destination Unknown

One year ago today Bill and I woke at dawn in Town Point Marina in Deale, Maryland. As usual the swallows and osprey had beaten the sun awake, and they chattered and fretted as we prepared the boat for its biggest day, the day we would cast off lines from our home port.

Within the hour, as we prepped SV Maggie May and ourselves for departure, some of our friends arrived to bid us fair winds and safe return. We were all wearing masks and keeping our distance, but the connection to these beloved people transcended space and time from that day to this. I can still see them waving goodbye from the docks, two of our friends following us out in their canoe until we passed the jetty into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Beering Committee Chairperson Margaret Boozer-Strother (bottom) and Margaret, Valerie Theberge and Anne L’Ecuyer on the docks at our departure. (Top)

That day I felt only exhilaration. A day we had worked toward for ten+ years, with many stumbles and falls along the way, was finally here. The biggest dream of my life was happening: to sail around the world.

I look back on that day now and think: how was there no apprehension or anxiety or fear in my heart that day? I know the answer. Because I was confused about our destination. I thought “around the world” was our destination. No.

We were not headed to “around the world”. We were headed to the unknown. And we have been spectacularly successful at finding it. This is the great beauty of the unknown. It can be terrifying, but it is very easy to find. And every day you are there, you become changed by it. For Bill and I, any romantic notions we had about ourselves as intrepid explorers have been dashed. We are cowering soft creatures quavering in the power of a world so much more awesome than our minds can even conceive. We have learned to head out on an ocean passage as well prepared as we can possibly be, knowing that it will not be enough if the capriciousness of the ocean and sky do not bend in our favor. When it’s time to pull up anchor and raise the sails we breathe deeply, swallow as much of our fear as we can hold and let the rest ride the wind around the boat.

45-foot blue in the Bahamas.

And in this way we have seen a palette of colored waters defined by the brilliance of the sun and the profundity of the sea. Colors that have made us cry out and catalogue our favorites by depth, and sit and just…stare…agape. We have been able to see some of the smallest creatures under the surface of the sea, some who have never been seen by another human eye and never will and yet their lives must delight the sun and moon and water beyond any of the billions of humans that strut around upon the land as if proprietors of all.

I have learned how to steer a vessel by wind and stars. Not as a true mariner. At this point I would probably end up in Antarctica if I relied solely on my celestial navigation. But I can keep a course this way and am learning more every day.

We have seen every single sunset for 365 days running.

We have also met with grief in all its guises, ever waiting in the unknown.

Today we find ourselves in a country we never meant to visit, planning to stay for longer than we meant to be anywhere. And it is perfect. We spent the past week with a friend, Eladio Fernandez, from the Dominican Republic. But not just any friend, one who knows the animals and plants and people of this island, who is tireless in his efforts to understand and protect the natural world, and who is generous enough to share this with us. We followed Eladio for days as he checked on orchid populations along roadsides and in federal protected areas of the northern dry forests and mountain foothills. Wild orchids sprouting from trees and the earth, painting a masterpiece of beauty solely for the eyes of the animals who pollinate them. Pollinator and orchid have lived in dynamic relationship for eons, each one prodding the other to become what it must in this world. Both molded and goaded by the gods of all things, sun energy and time.

Eladio in paradise.

This long stay in the Dominican Republic offers me a chance to fulfill or at least make progress on a dream of my life, to learn Spanish. I have scrabbled by with rudimentary Spanish for a decade of working on the US-Mexico borderlands, always wanting to improve but being so single-minded with my efforts to fight border wall that I didn’t think I could spare the time to really learn the language. Now I have that time.

Our watery route to the unknown.

I have begun to see this voyage not as a single dream of sailing around the world, but as a journey of a thousand dreams. To search for orchids and anoles in the Dominican Republic, to drink from a mountain stream, to swim with sharks and spend time with seahorses, to learn the ukulele and Spanish and sailing and celestial navigation, to spend time just enjoying and experimenting with photography and writing, to become the kind of friend I would like to be to all those I love, and the partner I would wish for Bill.

Captain Updike reading about creating a sustainable economic system, while sitting in the mountains of the Dominican Republic.

And maybe above all, to face a journey into the unknown with courage and inquisitiveness and an open heart for whatever may come.

Memoir about journey through nature inspires

Thanks for this review of Almost Anywhere Monica Lee-really appreciate your thoughts on the book!

Monica Lee

The only I didn’t really like about Krista Schlyer’s memoir was the title, Almost Anywhere: Road Trip Ruminations on Love, Nature, National Parks, and Nonsense, because that makes it sound vague and light-hearted.

And it’s really not.

almost anywhere.jpgAlthough at times it is funny, that’s true (one reviewer called it a cross between Wild and Let’s Pretend This Never Happened). But Schlyer writes about her husband who (spoiler alert) died, so hers is a story about grief, too.

She writes so beautifully and specifically about her husband, her dog Maggie and the wonders of some of America’s amazing national parks that I can’t recommend this memoir highly enough. My sister gave it to me for Christmas. And it was a great gift.

Schlyer is writing about a nearly year-long journey living out of a station wagon and tent-camping at every national park, historic site, forest and wilderness she and her friend Bill…

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National Parks: Celebrating a Sentinel of American Memory

Krista Schlyer writes on the beauty and memory of National Parks. “It isn’t just beauty we see in these places, and in infinite others in the National Park System–it’s memory. Memory of anoth…

Source: National Parks: Celebrating a Sentinel of American Memory

A big year

I’m a fan of ritual, though I have few rituals in my life. One that I cling to is taking a moment every December 31 to assess the year I’ve had, and on January 1 to look at and plan some goals for the year that follows. So here we go, part 1.

2015 has been a big year–I’m going out on a note of gratitude. It’s been a year of fulfilling work projects with inspiring collaborators, unforgettable times spent with friends and family, mind-bending beauty in wild places and meaningful moments that will never leave me. As a freelance photographer and writer I was able to work in 2015 in landscapes I know and love–the Anacostia River watershed, the US-Mexico borderlands, the longleaf pine forests and pitcher plant bogs of the southeastern United States–as well as ecosystems new to my eyes or long-missed–the Mojave River in California and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

I live in a community of giving, creative people, I have enough of everything I need and I’m healthy.

Sunrise in Grand Teton National Park with the Snake River.

Sunrise in Grand Teton National Park with the Snake River.

 

 

Along with meaning and contentment comes challenge, and 2015 has not been without challenge. I’ve watched beloved friends struggle with illness and loss, offering what I could, which is never enough. I’ve seen the world swirl in violence, fear and hate while global challenges beyond our reckoning, as well as opportunity and possibility, sit on the margins unobserved by most. I’ve watched a lifelong dream of sailing around the world almost crumble in a 30-year-old boat named Maggie May that has drained most of my life savings. And I’ve relived over and over some of the worst hard times of my life in publishing  and discussing my new book Almost Anywhere.

 

Longleaf 2014-2181 web

 

2016 is a crap shoot. Anything could happen, though I’ll be working my ass off to effect hoped-for outcomes (to be determined tomorrow). I’m prepared to be unprepared and over or underwhelmed, and as for adversity, bring it on. I have been watching the fire-prone ecosystems of the Southeast for some time now and have learned a basic lesson of Earth’s ecosystems, be they personal ecosystems, cultural, or natural like a longleaf pine forest. That is, without fire, there can be no light hitting the forest floor. And without that light, all of the little beautiful things that sprout from the soil or the soul, simply cannot be. And all of the even tinier things that live inside those little beauties, well they don’t stand a chance. I would trade every McHappy moment for one of those lovely little fireflower forbs.

Wishing you all a year of fireflowers in 2016.

Almost Anywhere in Denver

I’m coming to Denver! I’ll be doing a book reading and signing for Almost Anywhere: Road Trip Ruminations on Love, Nature, National Parks and Nonsense at the Tattered Cover on December 10.  In a nutshell the book tells the story of a trio of misfits wandering the American road in search of wild nature, national parks and cheap Pringles.

What: Tattered Cover reading of Almost Anywhere

When: Thursday December 10, 7pm

Where: Tattered Cover Historic LoDo
1628 16th St. Denver, Colorado 80202

http://www.tatteredcover.com/new-event-calendar

#tatteredlodo

The Sinlessness of Predation

 

This week I’m starting a monthly blog of excerpts from my new book Almost Anywhere: Road Trip Ruminations on Love, Nature, National Parks and Nonsense. This first excerpt is one of my favorite passages from the book, about one of my favorite places, the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area in the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia. And its about one of my favorite plants, the carnivorous pitcher plant. If you like the excerpt, there’s more where this came from. Pick up a signed copy of the book in my bookstore, or get a copy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or, even better, your local bookstore.

The flower of a white-fringed pitcher plant, Alabama. (c) Krista Schlyer

 

Excerpted from Almost Anywhere, by Krista Schlyer

Sufficiently awakened, we decide to make the thirty-minute drive to Cranberry Glades Botanical Area. As entertainment on the way, Bill and I try to sing “The Little Drummer Boy,” but cannot come up with the words. For twenty minutes we sing a loop of: “So, they told me, parumpapumpum, a new born king to see, parumpapumpum, da da da da da da, parumpapumpum, rumpapumpum.”

When we arrive at the Cranberry Glades, we step out into a misting rain for a short hike. Bill sets Maggie in the back while he rummages around looking for her leash and a plastic bag to pick up any droppings Maggie might make along the way. I hear him singing to her as he searches, “You get to walk with us, parumpapumpum.”

Maggie’s ears perk up and she cranes her neck to look up at Bill.

“I’ll get a bag for you, parumpapumpum.

Maggie’s alert eyes say, ‘Yes, yes, go on…I’m listening’

“We’ll put your shit in it, parumpapumpum, rumpapumpum rumpapumpum.”

When Bill has Maggie all squared away, we set out for a walk on the boardwalk that passes over a rare remnant of bog formed 10,000 years ago when glaciers marched over West Virginia. In most places this far south, this ecosystem could not have gained a foothold. But here, nestled in a cool wet crook of the Appalachian Mountains the cranberry bog took root. Cranberries, one of the few fruit species native to North America, were a staple for the land’s earliest human inhabitants. The plant itself can live for 100 years, and generations upon generations of its ancestors have amassed as a spongy platform of peat upon which rests the current blanket of bog plants.

In this place, the death of a thousand years of plant life rests in peace just below the surface of the landscape and forms a springy carpet that cushions the current generation of vegetative, but not vegetarian, life. Because the land is acidic and nutrient poor, some plants must rely on predatory prowess to survive. The sundew attracts insects with sweet secretions along the length of its tentacle like stalks. When the insect takes the bait, it becomes stuck in the sticky liquid, and begins to struggle for freedom. Alert to this movement, the plant contracts to more fully envelop the insect and then secretes enzymes to digest the hapless creature.

Sundew 6-2013-1087

In similarly sneaky fashion, the pitcher plant lures insects into its funnel shaped leaf. When prey falls inside, it becomes trapped in a sort of stomach soup of enzymes.

Carnivorous plants hold a special fascination for us humans. We think of plants as benign, sedentary, guileless. But members of the “other” kingdom have special niches and strategies for survival just like we do in the animal kingdom. We are all looking for ways to hold on, enraptured by life in all its cruel kindness. The infinite ways that we manage to do that, conjured up by countless forms of life, offer an eternity of lessons in living. And the pitcher plant in particular, presents a perfect symbol: It represents a form of life that has by necessity adapted itself through the ages of the earth into a creature stunning in its beauty and brutality.

As I observe pitcher plants sprouting out of the boggy ground in the Cranberry Glades, I recall a reflection by Janisse Ray in her book Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.

She writes, “The pitcher plant taught me to love rain…Its carnivory taught me the sinlessness of predation, and its columns of dead insects the glory of purpose no matter how small. In that plant I was looking for a manera de ser, a way of being–no, not for a way of being, but of being able to be. I was looking for a patch of ground that supported the survival of a rare, precious and endangered biota within my own heart.”

 

 

 

Note: These photos not taken at the Cranberry Glades.

My new book – Almost Anywhere – released today!

My new book, Almost Anywhere: Road Trip Ruminations on Love, Nature, National Parks and Nonsense, has been released today by Skyhorse Publishing. Win a copy of the book on Goodreads!

 

The book tells the story of a year-long adventure I took around the United States to almost every national park and many other wild places–from the home of gentle manatees on the Crystal River to the wind-swept hillsides of the Columbia River Gorge. The journey began as a desperate escape from urban isolation, heartbreak, and despair, but became an adventure beyond imagining. Chronicling a colorful escapade, Almost Anywhere explores the courage, cowardice, and heroics that live in all of us, as well as the life of nature and the nature of life.

Early reviews for Almost Anywhere:

“Brave, beautiful, and utterly captivating, Almost Anywhere breaks your heart and puts it back together again on a long and often arduous road trip across an America where the uncertain future is always just beyond the horizon and the immutable past rushes at you without remorse. Measuring the sharpness of loss against the hugeness of life, Krista Schlyer has found her way, page by page, to a rare state of grace. An amazing book.”

—William Souder, Author of On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson

 

“Outstanding, wry, heart-wrenching and healing. Those words describe Almost Anywhere, which hits the bull’s-eye as a cross between Wild and Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. Krista’s unique voice will draw you in and take you on a journey to the intersection of unfathomable grief and the healing power of wanderlust.”

––Michele Theall, Author of Teaching the Cat to Sit

 

“This book is an American map. . . . If you want to feel a journey at skin level all the way to the heart, this is your route.”

––Craig Childs, Award-winning author of House of Rain

 

You can buy the book at any bookstore or order it online at AmazonBarnes and Noble, or purchase a signed copy on my website. And in celebration of the book’s release, I’m giving away 5 FREE copies on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24693936-almost-anywhere

Almost Anywhere coming soon!

My newest book, Almost Anywhere is scheduled for release October 6 from Skyhorse Publishing. You can pre-order in my website Book Store and in book stores nationwide.

Advance reviews for Almost Anywhere:

“Outstanding, wry, heart-wrenching and healing. Those words describe Almost Anywhere, which hits the bull’s-eye as a cross between Wild and Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. Krista’s unique voice will draw you in and take you on journey to the intersection of unfathomable grief and the healing power of wanderlust.” —Michelle Theall, author of Teaching the Cat to Sit

“Brave, beautiful, and utterly captivating, Almost Anywhere breaks your heart and puts it back together again on a long and often arduous road trip across an America where the uncertain future is always just beyond the horizon and the immutable past rushes at you without remorse. Measuring the sharpness of loss against the hugeness of life, Krista Schlyer has found her way, page by page, to a rare state of grace. An amazing book.” –William Souder, Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson

Synopsis At twenty-eight years old, Krista Schlyer sold almost everything she owned and packed the rest of it in a station wagon bound for the American wild. Her two best friends joined her—one a grumpy, grieving introvert, the other a feisty dog—and together they sought out every national park, historic site, forest, and wilderness they could get to before their money ran out or their minds gave in. The journey began as a desperate escape from urban isolation, heartbreak, and despair, but became an adventure beyond imagining. Chronicling their colorful escapade, Almost Anywhere explores the courage, cowardice, and heroics that live in all of us, as well as the life of nature and the nature of life. This eloquent and accessible memoir is at once an immersion in the pain of losing someone particularly close and especially young and a healing journey of a broken life given over to the whimsy and humor of living on the road. Almost Anywhere will appeal to outdoor lovers, armchair travelers, and anyone struggling to find a way forward in life.