The Grace of Sharks

I woke one recent morning to bright sun streaming through the hatch a few feet above my pillow. Through the open deck I could see morning shining on the face of our life raft’s grand title: Fortune Favors the Bold. (The jury is still out on this idea. If we ever end up needing this raft, we’ll know for sure.)

Bill snoozed beside me and, feeling quite content, I could have stayed, forever. But I climbed over Bill as gently as possible, lowered myself out of the berth and made my way onto the port side deck where I looked over the water, interested to find out how the morning sun hit the land of Warderick Wells Cay, what shadows it cast, what illumination it brought.

Mostly I saw glare that stung my eyes, but in that glare two flippered hands and a bald little head crested the bright shimmer of water beside the boat. Baby turtle.

We saw this young turtle another time, on a dinghy ride in Hawksbill Cay.

Heart soaring I turned to the starboard side of the boat where Maggie May and the water were still well shaded from the rising sun. In the cool blue below I saw a mass of legs floating by about a foot beneath the surface.

“Bill! Come up here!” I could hear he was up and rustling about in the galley, getting a bowl of granola. As he rushed on deck I began to doubt myself. The squid I thought I’d seen was starting to resemble something less interesting.

Bill, looking into the water, said “Palm frond! Nice!”

“It might have been a squid,” I said, over-loud, as he was already descending the companionway stairs toward his granola. I then saw another dark thing floating toward us on the ebb current. Uncertain, I didn’t call out to Bill, but he was headed up to have his breakfast on deck.

“That may be something,” I said from the side deck.

“Plant,” said Bill, mouth full, standing momentarily, then sitting back down in the cockpit.

“Oh shit! Get out here!.” I countered, because this is what I saw: He was right about the plant, another palm frond, but nosing up to investigate the frond (possibly also mistaking it for a squid) was an 8-foot long shark, and then another larger shark following close behind. Ten minutes earlier the three-year-old boy on the sailboat next to us had yelled in his baby voice “Lemon Shawwwk! Lemon shawwwk!” I don’t know my sharks yet, so I took his word for it. His father had said he’d seen a bull shark the day before. So this family knows their sharks or they are damn good liars who know their shark names.

The smaller of the sharks nosed up to the palm frond, lifted it lightly out of the water, so that a beam of morning sun kissed the sharks smooth head, and then sunk back into the water. It swam a few feet away then circled back, nosed the frond up again, then moved on to follow the larger shark.

Nurse sharks at Staniel Cay, Exumas

Such wild beauty, curiosity and grace I have rarely witnessed so closely, some 40 feet away. And this was just one of the unforgettable sights of the Exuma Land and Sea Park in the Bahamas.

Bill at the beginning of a four hour hike that turned into an 8 hour hike. A gorgeous trek over Warderick Wells where we saw endangered hutia, narrowly managed to avoid getting a poisonwood rash and learned that the word “trail” has a different meaning in the Bahamas.

It’s hard to convey what this means to me personally. Some who are reading this know me well, so they know that the past decade has been one of profound grief for me as I’ve watched the US-Mexico borderlands being decimated by border wall construction through three presidential administrations. Having dedicated my life to fighting that destruction of rare wildlife habitat and migration corridors as well as human lives and communities, I left for this sailing voyage broken. Often I feel beyond repair. In the end, when I stepped on the SV Maggie May, I had lost hope.

I won’t say I’ve regained it. I continue to follow the news in the borderlands. The Biden administration has already begun seizing land through eminent domain and talk is ongoing of finishing wall construction started under the Trump administration.

And it isn’t as if there are no wounds here. There is trash in the wildest places, plastic carried from the ocean to the windward side of every island. There are obscene mega yachts, each one a climate disaster. There are people who care not at all when they anchor in coral beds.

I wish I could train myself not to see these things, but I know that once open to ecological degradation the eye cannot close to it. What I want more than anything is to be able to open my eyes wider to awe and beauty and resilience and wonder. At least as wide as they have been opened to wound and scar and loss. To let the grace of sharks and the guileless vulnerability of baby sea turtles and the mind-boggling diversity of coral fill every available space in my psyche.

The Bahamas are vast, and the people are relatively few and the tourists are concentrated in places they can buy diesel and get internet and see pigs on beaches and swim in the cave where James Bond Thunderball was filmed. Fewer people means fewer wounds and more space for wildlife and healthier water and air. Where beauty can breathe and maybe thrive without the crush of human hands there is life, there is grace.

I have been working on strategies for letting go of what I wish we humans were. Trying to accept us for what we are. Trying to believe in what we might be someday. Trying to just do my best to be a good human.

I recently read a book that was very helpful in this regard. It is called Deep, and in a way it is about freediving, but the author also presents a story of the ocean at various depths, from the surface to the deepest trenches we call the Hadal Zone-named after hell. These deeps, where humans haven’t even really begun to explore, were once thought to be wastelands, empty spaces devoid of life, but we’ve been learning over the past decades that in fact they are filled with strange and wondrous life and may even be where life on this planet began.

This gives me such great solace, knowing that there is this reserve of life on Earth, that whether or not we humans can cure ourselves of our hubris and solipsism— the Earth has creatures beyond count and description waiting in the wings to begin again.

I so hope we figure it out. I’m rooting for us. I’ll be working toward that all my life. If everyone could see the curious shark and the squid-palm-frond, the silly baby sea turtle, the stingray, the poisonwood the saguaro cactus, desert turtle and jaguar, and how all of them are counting on us to figure our shit out, I believe we could do it. I do believe.

SV MMMotivations

Sunset on the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA.

The virus has offered lots of unbidden time for reflection. Time is a coin I was yearning for, if not in this manner and upon dry land. But it is valuable and I spend a lot of it thinking about what has moved me toward SV Maggie May over a 15-year period.

Bill and I hatched the circumnavigation idea after our last big journey, a year-long road trip around the United States in 2001. We both felt that the time spent away from human-structure was important, fundamental even to our long-term health. And so we had a conversation about what our next adventure would be and when. Within minutes we had settled upon sailing the world within 5 years time. Sailing has stayed constant, the time element elongated considerably.

I wasn’t a sailor when we started thinking about this but I had always had sailing around the world somewhere in my mind. (I’ll have to try and unearth a first-cause back in my brain folds.) I was drawn to some intangible something of sailing life. I now have a more specific sense of what that something is, a sense that has become stronger over the years as the 5-year-plan stretched into 10 and 15.

Sailing, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, has a way of making you feel small and insignificant, but also powerful and eternal at the same time.

I’ve spent most of the past decade working on a project in the US-Mexico borderlands, witnessing destruction of land, decimation of wildlife and plants, desecration of culture, all of which made me feel small and powerless for years on end. This project prevented me from making faster progress toward SV Maggie May, and it also made her transform from an idea, then a desire and finally into a necessity. The borderlands kept me from the ocean, even as they pushed me toward it.

Desert cottontail near border wall, San Pedro National Riparian Corridor, Arizona.

I’ve worked on other projects, including extensive work on one of America’s most degraded rivers, trying to give voice to urban wildlife, documenting the British Petroleum oil spill. But none has been a driving motivation in my life for as long as the borderlands, and none has caused so much self doubt and undoing as fighting the border wall.

My motivations at the border grew out of a desire to make my life mean something. Not…just a desire, a compulsion, born of the greatest disappointment of my life in March 2000. I’ve written a whole book about those events, so I won’t go into it in this blog. But in essence I lost a good part of myself and afterward set out on a path to find what I had lost and find some grip on life again. I found a focal point in conservation photography, and a specific anchor on the US-Mexico border. I’ve also written about the borderlands extensively, so I won’t cover it here, except to say that by spending time with the wildlife of that landscape I felt I had made a compact with them, that I would do everything I could to be a voice for their future.

I stayed true to that commitment for more than 10 years, and over that time I went from feeling I was certain to be able to help turn things around, to feeling I had no power to even help, to feeling I could make a difference over a longer period, to feeling I had made no difference at all despite trying everything I could think of. And now, just feeling tired and destroyed, laying on a battlefield, eviscerated but somehow still living.

I’ve tried so many times to come to terms with the fact that I am small, just a person. And the forces that compel people to build walls are far beyond my scope to heal. And that the best I can hope for in any such endeavor is to open a window in people’s minds to see what they otherwise could not, something beautiful that might instill some responsibility for lives they will never encounter, but nevertheless impact gravely through direct action or passive complacency.

Kit fox in the Janos Grasslands, Chihuahua.

This is wisdom, but it requires a balance that I have always struggled to maintain. Instead I have often found myself on a roller coaster of belief in myself and my ability to make a difference, and despair over my insignificance. Teeter-totter-teeter-totter. And inevitably when outcomes are not what I have worked for, I am overwhelmed with guilt, and more acutely, grief, over what we are doing on the border, and so many other places.

My only true relief from this rollercoaster is on the Maggie May, where these two opposing forces merge peacefully. I am nothing, I am everything. Minuscule, microscopic, but connected to the very forces that make this world and everything in it. Wind, sun, water.

Mostly, I’m just alive.

***

Bill just came to tell me our Maggie May contractors called.  The last of our major boat projects is finished.

I’m coming home Maggie May.

 

COVID Dreams

It’s a COVID miracle. Maggie May’s bottom is finished.

 

In some universe, the Sailing Vessel Maggie May was launched by now. Not here.

On February 8, our friends and neighbors gathered  at Red Dirt Studios in Mount Rainier, Maryland, to bid us farewell. I’ve never been married, but I imagine this is what one’s wedding would feel like, an overwhelming feeling of love at a moment of great transition. Friends from our 20 years in the Washington DC area, many we hadn’t seen in more than a decade, and some family making surprise journeys from far away places, came together for chili, home-brew and music and to wish us well on this journey.

Our dear friends in the arts community of Mount Rainier also organized a fundraiser around the party event, gathering enough money to buy us a life raft–in hopes we come back safe even if the Maggie May does not. Thank you friends, we’ll carry your love and goodwill around the world with us…if by great fortune we set foot on a boat, in the water, ever.

Captain Bill with our new life raft. Our friends and family donated the funds to buy this important piece of survival equipment. One of our good friends named the raft.

A few weeks after the party, we moved out of our house, which we have rented for the next two years to a delightful young couple Cassandra and Mark and their dog Colby. We moved in with our friends Dave and Kendra on March 1. The plan was to be here for a few weeks until the boat was finished.

Photo by: Margaret Boozer-Strother

Enter COVID.

It was about a week after we moved that the coronavirus started gaining attention in the media. About a week after that its official name was changed to COVID-19 and Maryland was on lockdown. Dave and Kendra had to start working from home. Bill and I could no longer go work on the boat. Shipments of important boat components languished in warehouses. And our contractors efforts slowed to a painful crawl…along with everything else. The boat project, which was supposed to take 2 months, is going on 5.

Our window to escape the hurricane belt before the storm season begins is winnowing. Our years of planning and organizing our lives around this idea, locked in limbo.

A part of my mind says well boohoo, you can’t get on your sailboat and travel the world chasing a dream. Krista, your problems are ridiculous in the scope of what’s happening right now. The truth of this is indisputable. Yet here I am, feeling trapped and helpless.

The deck is still in disarray, but this is the last major project before Maggie May can be launched.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to practice patience, fighting with despair, feeling guilty about my discontent. I should be grateful at this time of unimagined uncertainty and grief, grateful that I am healthy, have shelter and food, a healthy family and friends and all of the things that so many of us either lack or take for granted. Plain and simple I should feel grateful. But should doesn’t always work in a stubborn mind. And so I look for reasons why I can’t let go. Why I can’t just be content. And I know, pretty quickly or at least in moments of clarity…it’s because I feel this dream slipping away from me. I’ve fought so hard to keep us on track despite so many pitfalls and derailments, and I’m starting to lose faith. Unbidden by me, my psyche returns to previous battles, where I tried so hard to make something happen or not-happen, something much more grave and important, and despite every effort I failed and in the end swallowed a living mass of acrid loss and self-doubt. The mass has knife-edges and it lives somewhere in my stomach, forever reopening wounds of inadequacy, hopelessness and grief.

This boat trip is in part geared toward dealing with that stomach-mass, blunting its hard edges by accepting my failures; Maggie May is transport toward healing some wounds. And within this overwhelming viral cloud, what I’m feeling is a malevolent echo, encouraging me to believe that this too will end in failure. The aperture through which I have envisioned this journey for more than a decade, narrows to the point that any possible success seems far more distant than it actually may be.

Working on some boat carpentry while Maggie May is self-isolating in the shop. This piece will be part of a hatch frame.

In fact, it may be quite close.  As of last Friday, the biggest part of the project, the complete redo of Maggie May’s hull is finished. The entire boat bottom was blasted off down to the bare fiberglass; new fiberglass and epoxy was applied; and a new kind of long-lasting, less-toxic bottom paint covered all.

The rest of the boat project, which over the past 7 years has included a list of no less than 1000 items, has narrowed to about 20, most of which Bill and I will do. The one holdup is the redo of the previously redone decks, the lingering bane of Vilkas. But we are expecting to see this finished this week, at which point the boat can go outside, get her mast back on, and get in the water as soon as our marina gets an opening in a backlog of boat launches.

We’re so close, closer than we’ve ever been. But given all the stumbling blocks that have arisen and the incredible uncertainty of this moment in time, I don’t think I can muster any excitement until Maggie May is placed back in the water where she belongs.

 

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

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.