Thursday, July 23, 2009

Reflections IV: The Personal Stuff

Close to final comments before the force of daily life entices me fully back into the fray. I still have quantitative and photographic posts yet to come.

The Places

Australia Fourteen was really two trips. The Northern Territory loop was an adventure into wholly new terrain. We moved through the unknown land quickly. Almost every place the three of us stopped begged for more time. I want to climb Mt. Sonder some day. This is not to indict our time as superficial. Hiking, driving, and photographing – all different observational facets – provided me with much information beyond the snapshot level. I enjoyed being with Paul on another long trip, and getting to know Louis. Our dynamics made this leg of the trip more social than I normally choose when I’m on my own. This provided a good transition from North America.

I liked the NT quite a lot. In spite of transience, I came away with deep regard for the place. It helped that the rocks were well exposed and interesting. This always gives me a solid context for a new area. If I have a sense of the geology, I know where I am. Plus these rocks were both pretty and dramatic. The diversity of flora and fauna was refreshing. Similar but not the same as Western Australia; I had to keep my eyes open. Soft spinifex was a bit strange.

On a larger scale, I now have a mental geographic map of the Red Centre. I visualize it as a very broad plain, interrupted in places by low mountain ranges, isolated blobs of bedrock like Uluru, and the rare impact crater. It’s largely coated by linear red sand dunes, desert pavement, dry lakes and alluvium. I could build this map only after traveling the area.

The Centre is vibrant in the way of stark and arid lands. It’s odd, but its harsh environments felt emotionally and spiritually hospitable. I’d return without much hesitation. I’d even visit in summer. What does 50 degrees Celsius feel like?

In contrast, the work in Western Australia was a return to an important place in my life. Western Australia and the Pilbara are one of my homes. I’ve lived there for a good 10 months of my life. Almost every past trip was an important step in my intellectual and personal maturation.

WA is always different. Perth has new buildings and different stores. Fashion change, most noticeably in food and clothing (black was in fashion this year). The Pilbara has new mines, better tracks, and regretfully, more people. Seeing these changes, and how I have changed concurrently, are touchstones in the course of my life.

This visit felt – consistent. Landing in Perth and later Newman, I reinserted into the flow without dissonance. This may have been a function of being trip leader. I focused on necessary actions and tasks. On more recent trips I’ve flown in late, after Bruce had already done much of this work. In addition, it’s only been two years since my last visit. My memories of place were less distant than in previous trips. Finally, my ongoing training in Aikido and qi gong make me both fluid and present. It becomes continually easier to blend.

For the thirteenth time, Perth struck me as a lovely city. How do you beat the western margin of a continent, a Mediterranean climate, and a very large fresh air reservoir? And of course, friendly people? It’s physically about the most isolated large city in the world, though less so as the internet has become ascendant. It seems to have just enough critical mass to achieve a satisfying spectrum of culture, be it the arts, food, and sport. I could well imagine living in an apartment off Kings Park, with a view of the Swan River, for a few years.

Time in the Pilbara was equivalent to a long spa retreat. It was going someplace where I could thrive and recover from the warpings of daily life. It was familiar, but different enough (rain?) to refresh and restore me. I suppose any place could be like this, given sufficient attention. For me, the Pilbara is one of the desert places where this has and continues to happen.

Writing on Web 2.0

I’ve written post-trip pieces and syntravel mass emails for years. This is my first blog. The method was similar to those earlier works. When an idea popped in my mind, I turned it over for a while, while driving, before sleeping. By the time I was able to boot this laptop, my observations and thoughts flowed onto the screen pretty readily. A good edit or two later, each post was good enough to go. The change on Australia Fourteen was my sense of audience. In my earlier work I wrote to my family, my friends, and myself. The blog has a much broader reach. I knew this before I started writing, but the impact of such vulnerability dawned on me about halfway through the trip. The audience now ranges from my loved ones to anyone who sees my posts on Facebook to anyone who finds this through keyword searching. .I’m fine with being public, in fact I am very curious to know who reads this, who enjoys it and why (this is a hint). I have this sense of writing words and casting them out into the world. This effort without return feels deeply right. I’m writing because I have to, to realize and release the tension of my inner life. I wonder what if anything comes back.


A goal of Australia Fourteen was to refine my photography. I’m ambitious to produce meaningful and beautiful imagery of places I like. Attempting to do this caused me more tension than any other aspect of the journey. I felt rushed, which I am sure ruined some pictures. I could not full prioritize this; the work came first. I knew this before the trip. In the moment it was frustrating. Not enough time to wait for ideal light and the like. Well, this is the contrast between being a professional – in geology – and learning professional skills.

The pictures? Too soon to tell. I need a month to sort and optimize. Stay tuned.


I was a geologist for a month. I presented myself and was accepted this way by the world. I rarely get to embrace this persona, much less live it externally. It took me at most two days to get back in the field work groove. The methods and knowledge for the work are imbedded in my long term memory.

This was a pleasure. It felt strange and wonderful to do something that I loved for a month. I regularly lost myself in the work. This is a comment on my normal work; a compromise I’ve known for a long time. It’s a tough issue to resolve; part of the ease of geology is doing it while I’m on a voyage, as described above. In other words, I’m not convinced that a job at Rio Tinto would make me any happier. It would be fun to find out, though.

When I was in the Pilbara, I received uninvoked mental odors of my past self. A strong one took place in Tom Price. As I waited for the rain to subside, I sensed my 1986 self walk by in the pair of baggy army surplus pants that I wore then. This younger me seemed more tense and uncertain, but as thin as I am at present. I felt his open future; so much life ahead. I could also feel the trails of choices and events that led to me. Ghosts like this were initially disturbing. I felt twinges of regret for the careers and lives that I did not have. With time and acceptance, these visits became touchstones; my life was there then, I’m here now.

The Inner Trip

Traveling and doing my work in Australia was like voyaging in a small sailboat. Or on Australia Fourteen, a truck. I carried my possessions, my consciousness, and my focus with me. All were simplified versions of “normal” life. This self-containment and decrease in complexity created distance from the usual and thus made space for observation, epiphany, and reflection. In addition, by moving from place to place, the truck, the work, and my companions became the only constants. This again differs from daily life, where I travel in a familiar milieu. Here, I must seek out unknown and different experiences. On Fourteen, the unknown was almost everything outside the truck. I attribute some of this to a“beginner’s mind” attitude, learned in Aikido. The external world always changes, if I let it.

The continual motion of the trip required focus on the present. I dipped into the past, but in ways related to now: finding tracks, telling stories, analyzing outcrops, and choosing photography sites. The conscious burden of my personal history was lighter than normal. I also planned the immediate future, but my connection to the imagined long term future subsumed to the requirements of motion. It took a week and a few emails to achieve this perspective. In result, I worried less about the aspects of life beyond my control. Each day was too rich with events, ranging from the pleasure of waking before dawn to the tension of photography to the tedious fun of dirt track driving. This balance – being mostly in the present – made me feel genuinely alive and whole. It seemed appropriate to field work, where I am outdoors most of the time, under the sky, far from the rooms and computers that dominate too much of my normal life.

In the unlikely case that it was not clear from earlier posts, time outdoors was deeply healthy for my soul. I need extended time, generally in arid environments, to maintain my inner equilibrium. At some deep level I suspect that this is a nod to my hunter-gatherer ancestors. It’s also aesthetic. Red deserts move me more deeply than any other place.

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