The Road Pt. 1: Meltdowns

The glamorous part of my life is obviously the road. As it should be: I go all over the country to the most beautiful natural wonders and all the exciting cities. It’s what I do, it’s how I make a (meager) living. It’s incredibly exciting and inspiring, but it can also be a grind, full of the unknown, and stressful. This can be a real problem for someone with serious anxiety issues, like me. While I have a great time on the road, it is also the setting for some of my most intense meltdowns.

Life on the road presents a unique set of circumstances that can lead to some monumental weather happening in the brain. Sitting in a car all day, lacking any real routine, camping in sometimes severe weather, poor eating choices, and wondering about money are just a few of the stressors that I deal with on a daily basis. If there is any sort of routine, it is one of worry. I’ve learned a lot on how to eliminate this weight: having a detailed itinerary before leaving is a must, and slowing down my morning is extremely important (although I don’t always succeed in doing this, I typically rush to get moving in the morning). My eating habits constitute an entirely different blog, but my tours go better when I eat healthier. I don’t always eat healthier because I have this thing where I want to eat all the things that are bad for me when I’m out of town, and I have almost zero say on the issue. Doing what I can to prevent anxiety is vital. There are so many X-factors when I’m on the road and I must have a low baseline of stress when they happen or they will overwhelm me (aka meltdowns).

I’ve spoken about meltdowns in a somewhat abstract sense for a year now, and I feel it’s important to paint a clearer picture of what they are in the interest of educating folks on PTSD and anxiety, and so that people can see what touring is really like for me, beyond social media.

There are definitive signs before a meltdown occurs. Physically, I notice that I flutter my fingers rapidly against my thumbs, usually it’s the left hand. I begin hitching my breath, often holding it for 3-4 seconds at a time. If I can recognize these two signs I can take some additional preventative steps to stave off a complete attack, but I often miss the moment. As the meltdown progresses my mental state becomes hazy. I become confused: I begin misunderstanding what is going on around me, interpreting it in a distorted, negative way. Often, one thought will begin circling my head such as “I need to go, I need to go, Ineedtogo, ineedtogoineedtogoineedtogo…” The thought doesn’t have to be connected to the situation I am in, it can be wildly random at times, but it always cycles obsessively. My face begins to contort: my eyes crumple in and darken, my jaw clenches tightly. My speech decompensates from enunciating through gritted teeth to mumbles, and further on to almost complete incoherency.


If the meltdown continues beyond this point it enters a place of psychosis. Often misunderstood, psychosis basically means that a person is experiencing such severely distorted and impaired thoughts and emotions that they lose attachment to reality. There have been times where I have experienced auditory hallucinations, but these events have been very few and far between. More often lose control of my thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It’s difficult for me to delve into because there is trauma that clings to these episodes once they reach the zenith. My heart hurts to think of the places that I’ve been within this darkness. Once I reach this depth, there isn’t much that brings me out. Usually, I’ll end up having to sleep, and I’ll be out of it for a few days. There have been hopeful times where I’ve bounced back from a meltdown, even within the same day.

Preventing and bouncing back are what I need when I’m on tour, but sometimes it doesn’t work that way. As I documented in this previous post, my winter 2016 tour was a mental health disaster due to combining factors of tour stress, poor medication management, and lack of coping mechanisms. I ended up canceling the second half of the tour, my wife had to drive me back across the country while I drifted in and out of meltdown states for 2,500 miles. It was scary as hell and it changed a lot of how I deal with my mental health.

This is the other side of my life on the road, the side where I have to fight. Those pictures on Instagram are hard-fought and come at a very high price. The smiles in the videos are likewise obtained as a result of hard work. I won’t take any smile for granted.

There is a monumental difference between my Winter 2016 and Spring 2017 tours. Both my wife and I agree that this past month was successful, both for my music and writing, but more importantly for my mental health. It was a much needed “win” for our camp. While the final few days were a bit tough, the lessons they taught are being applied to the next tour. In spite of the dark mood I’m experiencing now (something that is likely natural to me when I come in from a long stint on the road), I know I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. That’s the key to growth, you see: Each time you overcome something, you gain the strength you need to tackle the next something.


The road provides a degree of meaning for me that goes beyond playing music in front of a few people in other towns. Its meaning is deeper than even the most amazing hikes I have gone on. In my next post, I’ll talk about how living on the road is meaning. How it gives me life and purpose.

The Cape

I’m sitting in a dingy hotel room in Clallam Bay, across the strait from Canada. I can see the southern coast of Vancouver Island beyond the docks where men anchor boats after a long day in search of Halibut and other big commercial fish. My day started unassuming enough, with a drive up 101 (an amazing road worthy of its own post) towards the northwestern coast of the Olympic Peninsula. I was planning on taking the day off, as it was pouring and I was in serious need of a shower and a warm, dry bed. After securing my room in Sekiu, I decided that seeing the tribal lands of the Makah would be important, and perhaps I could see the coast from the west as well.

I started at the Makah Tribal museum, and I read about the plight of the Makah, which read like the narrative of every North American tribe: White people came, natives died, white people took land, natives died, often horribly. White people forced treaty, tried their best to wipe out culture by forced assimilation of native peoples, who kind of went along, but eventually gave them a well-deserved middle finger. I saw the bones of whale and saw how the people of this land were similar to the people of my land: different fish, different water, same people. Warriors, fighters, survivors.

The woman at the counter and I began talking and she told me that the small tribal community that resides on Neah Bay had lost one of it’s youngest and brightest stars. A kid, only 19, who died while diving for shellfish for food, just a week ago. The community was already reeling from the suicide of a tourist a few weeks back, and then this happens. This community, which consists of a gas station, a minuscule marina, the museum, and a handful of sea-battered houses. So much pain on the shoulders of such a small population.

The boy was a leader at the age of 19. “He had such a voice,” she said, and she played me his singing at a recent tribal dance. She was right, he emitted a power in his voice that seemed to come from the might of the sea itself. He was deeply rooted in his culture and spoke at other tribal councils about the need to preserve hunting and fishing traditions. He was attending university and studying biology, and was known to walk into his classes still smelling of whatever dead, beached sea creature he had just been dissecting. “The professors told him he had to stop doing that,” she smiled.

She said he died out at Cape Flattery, at Hole in the Wall, a dangerous cove at the westernmost point of the contiguous United States. A wave came in and swept him out to sea. There was a trail that led there, she told me, and it was important that I go there. “It’s a spiritual place, you will feel it, I know you will feel it.”

IMG_1757She directed me out of the village, which now looked tired with grief, soaked to the bone, and looking for simple rest. It was raining steadily as I took the sharp curve that put me on the Cape road. I first climbed, then descended the winding two-lane that follows the Sekiu River. Great, white trees tunneled the road, and jade-green clubmoss clung to bare, skeletal branches that still awaited a Spring awakening. Further back I saw the ever-present Douglas Fir trees towering in the temperate, rain-drenched hills. The road began to climb again towards the trailhead, the rain continued to fall.

At the trailhead, I saw few cars, which wasn’t a surprise on a Monday like this at the end of the country. This really was the end of the road, I thought to myself, as I struggled to pull my rain pants on while sitting in the driver’s seat. Snug in my rain gear I began the descent, which was steep, wet, and shimmering a glorious green. I could feel something stirring in this place. The trail was muddy, and soon my shoes were covered and I was thankful for choosing the waterproof sneakers for this trip. The rain beat staccato against my raincoat and I walked with the syncopation. Every ten hits or so I would get bombed by a fat drop falling from one of the trees rather than the sky. It was fun to anticipate them when I walked under the canopy.

FullSizeRender-14After about half a mile, the trail leveled off and a boardwalk came into view. As I approached I saw that it sat about three to four feet above the ground cover, which was a litter of giant ferns, tangled roots, and various flotsam that has collected over years of heavy storms. As I walked on these boardwalks, I saw huge, yellow lilies bursting from the forest floor. Everything was covered in clubmoss and the earth smelled rich with life. Mixed in was the oily aroma of the railroad ties that constructed the board walk. Eventually, I heard the roar of waves crashing against the rocky Washington coast mingling with the tap-tap-tap of rain on my hood. I approached a clearing in the rocks, the haze parted and I saw it. Cape Flattery.

“I didn’t know,” I whispered to the sky, the rain, the trees, anything around me. I didn’t know something could look this beautiful. This powerful, yet fragile. I walked to the clearing and the carved coast came closer into view.FullSizeRender-13The turbulent northern Pacific waters raged on to the west, smashing against two green islands about 1/8 mile off the coast. The water flowed into a deep gouge in the coastline, the Hole in the Wall. The blue-green waves moved in and out of the cove, like deep breaths, in-out, in-out. The water towards the center of the inlet was a deep navy, sighing up and down like the belly of the Earth softly sleeping. It could wake up in a rage with no notice, filling the hole and carving further into the rocks. This is where it happened, where the sea took him, I thought. I listened.



Hole in the Wall: A dangerous place even for those who have grown up diving rthese waters their entire lives. 

I walked further toward land’s end. My steps felt light on the spongy earth, it gave the vague sensation that I was hovering rather than walking. I saw the trail lead first down, then up towards the final lookout. The trees towered above me, the rain continued to pour down, and the wind pounding the Strait of Juan de Fuca began picking up. My heart felt like it was floating on those last steps. I felt the spirit of the cape flowing from the ocean, the rocks, the ground, the trees. The echo of its voice reverberated in the sea caves that littered the northern side of the cape. I went to the very end, Tatoosh Island floated about a mile off into the sea, a green stalwart against the pounding surf, with a small, white lighthouse adorning the highest point. I looked again towards the Hole. I thought of the young man whose spirit departed him when the wave took him while he was diving there. It was a violent looking place, only a very brave person would be able to navigate those waters, and he and his people have been doing it for millennia. They fought back the Spanish who raped tribal women and tried to steal their lands. They fought for the right to hunt and fish as they have done for centuries when the US forced them to sign treaties. They retained their culture even when Americanization did it’s best to take it from them. Their spirit lingers here in this place.  I sat in the rain and let it pass through me. I let the water clean my heart and mind. I could smell the salt in the air, mixed with the deep, rich loam.


The end of the country. Tatoosh Island off in the distance.

I spent the previous weekend camping with my friend at Kalaloch Beaches to the south. We had a perfect spot: trees shading us from the bleating sun, the roar of the waves to the west, and a grand view of the ocean just beyond the bluff that dropped off to the beach. We spent Sunday morning hiking Ruby Beach and intellectualizing about this and that. We went to college together, studied religion, and both came out on the other end more than jaded with the faith of our upbringing. My friend was now trying to reconcile his core ethics, which remained the same as they were when he espoused his former faith. He wanted to know what made him tick, and why. It was an illuminating conversation for me, to hear someone going through a crisis of faith in such an intellectual way.

As I hiked around the Cape, going down this dangerously slick path to the next one, mere feet from falling to my death (and happy to be doing so), I applied my friend’s question to my own life. What made me tick? Why do I do what I do? What matters most to me? The answer came easily: I don’t want people to suffer. Almost everything I do runs through this filter and has since I was young. I’m not perfect, and I cause suffering, too, but trust me when I say the resulting shame has been crippling. Why don’t I want people to suffer? Because I know how much life can hurt, how that hurt can change a person, can damage a person. I know and I don’t want other people to feel that. It’s why I studied religion and philosophy, it’s why I became a therapist, and it’s a driving force behind why I play music. It also directs a central passion, or locus of control of mine: environmental awareness.

Trying to think like my friend, I questioned why in the world I care about the environment. I mean, I don’t think the most drastic and cataclysmic damage will be seen on Earth until after I’m dead when It won’t really bother me ( because I’ll be dead). I don’t have children, I don’t plan on having children, and even if I did, again, I’d be dead and wouldn’t really care either way. So what’s the point? I’m going to get to enjoy this planet, then I’m going to die and anything else is pretty much immaterial to me.

It comes back to what makes me tick: I don’t want people to suffer. I have suffered a great deal in my life and I don’t want anyone else to feel that way. I have also found there are things that help me get through this painful life. Connecting with this Earth is one of the main ones. I want to show people that they can heal themselves with this connection. We can become better because of this connection: better physically, emotionally, and yes, spiritually. There is so much respite and life to be found in the natural world; I want to save it because I know that it can help people get through the suffering. Its song is so sweet, and I firmly believe that everyone who truly hears it will be changed. This is why I want conservation. This is why I do everything I do. I feel it deep within my soul. My heart explodes with its truth.

After a long time perching myself on various dangerous ledges, I began making my way back up through the forest on the steep trail. My body felt hot under my rubbery rain gear, and the trail climbed ever steep. My feet slipped on the muddy slopes, slick as ice. While each step took effort, I still retained that euphoric feeling, like I was gliding up the hill. My heart felt peace, even as it beat ever harder within my chest. When I finally reached my car I stripped down to my tank in the pouring rain and let it wash the sweat off. I breathed in the spirit of that place, something so old yet so fresh. I got in my car and drove towards the village. The Strait of Juan de Fuca, a memorial to the Spanish that tried and failed to take this land from the Makah, loomed gray on the horizon.

IMG_1788As I navigated the streets I saw that the faces of those I passed wore the badge of grief that the woman at the museum did. May you feel peace, I chanted as I made my way past the totem poles that marked the entrance to Neah Bay. This place gave me something more valuable that I could have imagined. It gave me more than just an amazing picture, even more than an amazing feeling. It gave me reason, meaning, and purpose. I am grateful for the story of the young man that compelled me to see his sacred place. And I am forever grateful for this, the most important hike of my life.

FullSizeRender-2Sekiu, 4.17.17

ABQ. Phoenix. Joshua Tree I

IMG_0518 2I departed Albuquerque around 9 a.m., heading south towards Socorro on interstate 25. The sun was shining and creating a haze at the foot of first the Sandia Mountains, followed by the Manzanos further south. By the time I reached Socorro the haze had dissipated and opened up a relatively cloudless sky. The drive was pleasant, little traffic met me on the interstate, and I was excited to turn off onto Rt. 60, cutting across West-Central New Mexico, an area I had not explored before.

IMG_0525 2

The Box. 

As I drove I saw gray velvet clouds off in the distance, swallowing the Magdalena range. I stopped at a magnificent canyon called the Box I’d heard of from rock climbing friends. The silent site filled me with excitement around the wild and silent areas I would encounter throughout the tour. I passed by the Very Large Array, a system of radio telescopes I have always wanted to see. Not long after this I, too, was swallowed by the cloud cover. I watched the thermometer on my rearview mirror quickly tick down from 60 to 50, and finally resting between 34 and 40 degrees. The wind picked up to a gale and my little Eleanor was tossed around the road and I had to favor the right on my steering wheel as a result. Not long after snow began to blow from the sky, and continued to fall for the next couple of hours as I began to wind my way through the purple and gray mountains. Crossing the state line into Arizona, I was greeted by fields of white-gold buffalo grass as far as I could see. It offered a magnificent and stark contrast to the dark skies above.


White-gold fields against a snowy, cold backdrop.

One of my favorite things about driving to Phoenix is how dramatically the temperature changes if you are approaching from the north. It can be 40 degrees in Flagstaff as you take the ramp onto I-17. You drop down from the 8-10k elevation of the north to the desert of the south. The iconic Saguaro cactus begins littering the hillsides and you know that it’s time to roll the windows down. After all, it’s 75 out there.

My approach from the central part of the state was a little different, although no less a dramatic landscape on my way into the Phoenix basin. It was the snowy, wet weather that hindered my coveted temperature rise. By the time I reached the outskirts of Mesa, just north of Phoenix, the sky had broken open once again, and the sun began to dry up any remaining clouds in typical Arizona fashion. I have never seen Phoenix so vibrantly green. The mesquite, creosote, and palo verde had feasted greedily on the above average rainfall of this past winter, and they were bursting with chloroform to show for it. The green was punctuated by the bright, goldenrod Chamisa that sprouted from the rocky hillsides, defying the need for adequate soil as desert plants often do.

I turned off towards the Tonto National Forest and within minutes I was rambling away from the bustle of one of our country’s most populated metropolises and transplanted into a wild corner of the state that I had never seen before, and I was reminded of why Arizona remains one of my favorite wild places. There are so many places one can get lost in Arizona, and there is a great variety of the landscapes you can access. I was headed towards Horseshoe Lake, following a deeply rutted and nerve-wracking road towards the Horseshoe dam, and the river below it. My car dipped and banked, slamming too hard, too fast, too many times into the canyons that were created in the unmaintained access lane. After what seemed like an eternity on that washboard, I came upon the campground I was to meet a friend at, and I found a site. When I emerged from my car, I saw that my rear, the drivers-side tire had popped, and my car sat sadly on the rim, digging into the soft earth. Poor planning on my part resulted in my tire jack residing in a compartment underneath Eleanor’s sleeping platform. Even poorer planning resulted in forgetting my knife, or any cutting utensil whatsoever, and that meant I couldn’t cut the industrial strength zip-ties securing my bed in place. Here I was, in the middle of the Arizona wilderness, with a flat tire and no foreseeable way to get what I need to fix it. There were no other campers nearby, and I could only hope my friend would come through and meet me as planned.

I sighed. I laughed. I said, “God dammit.” But that was it. No meltdown, no screaming, no frustration whatsoever. Just bland acceptance of the situation. I pulled my chair out and sat there, taking in the sights of the marshy banks of the creek that ran behind our sites, and I spied on several different types of raptor birds hunting their evening meal. The day turned twilight, and night followed. I began thinking that my friend wasn’t coming. Oh, well. I was just preparing myself for an intense walk the following day when headlights approached in the distance. Sure enough, it was my friend. We laughed at the situation and resolved to fix it in the morning. Too late for that kind of hassle.

We awoke the next day and fixed the tire quickly. I spent some time meditating on the banks of the creek. Birds sand all around me, the water roared, and my life felt right. To spite my flat, I went and purchase four brand new tires and headed to the gig.


This morning I awoke and made the three-hour trek to my special place. And the shine has not worn off. As I pulled off of I-10 and approached Cottonwood, an immense sense of relief and gratitude rose within my chest, escaping my mouth in a long and breathy sigh. I was back in my heaven, my rose. It turned out that the flora of Phoenix was not the only place to take full advantage of a precipitous Winter. The hillsides were erupting the same yellow gold. It was a blanket to the desert. I pulled over and looked closer: there were spots of orange, purple, green, and blue in addition. Red Claret-Cups emerged from their namesake cactus. It was astonishing to behold as I made my way through the park towards Indian Cove.

I parked at my site for the next few days and took a breath in, smelling the dusty creosote that surrounds my site. It will be in full petrichor at morning’s first light, as the dew settles and the day begins.

Recovered. Uncovered.

My two months of respite and recovery have come to an end. For two months I’ve sat in fairly constant reflection, even while busying myself and putzing around the house. I’ve worked my program, as they say in 12-Steps. I’ve followed my doctor’s orders, and I’ve followed the natural orders of my body and mind that I was able to tap into. Where am I at right now? I have the steady, low hum of depression that has been a constant in my life for 30 years, but I feel pretty great.

“But Russ, that makes absolutely no sense,” you’re thinking. Oh, dear readers, it most certainly does.

In all the reflection that has occurred, one most-important thought has stood out: I’m not going to get better, and that’s ok. I can’t control whether or not the depression and anxiety are going to attack me. In fact, I can’t control a damn thing. It may sound elementary, but when you’re able to actualize the realization that control is illusory you are relieved from a great deal of pressure. We exchange one burden for another, however, because we can control our behavior, or how we act. Throughout the deep, depressive episodes and the anxiety meltdowns, I fall into a pattern of behavior. I have come to the understanding that this behavior is the key to coping with the depression.

It is common for a person with severe depression and anxiety to act out when they become completely depleted. The depressed brain doesn’t work like a normal brain, and this needs to be lesson number one. To avoid any technical language, it may help you to understand the depressed brain as processing all information through varying layers of fog. Sometimes that fog is thicker than others, but it never fails to distort the information being received. As depression continues to ravage the brain and body, a person can “act out” instead of rationally coping with a situation. It can take a lot of different forms, but for me it’s anger and impulsive self-harm behavior. What I have learned is that I need to spot the warning signs of acting out, and then make a decision to pre-emptively begin behaving in a different way. By behaving in a different way I can effectively cut off a chain of triggers that usually ends in a meltdown that is very difficult to escape.

I realized that I need to control the way I act or I am going to die. I’m not being dramatic here, it is a serious concern. I’m not just talking about dying by suicide, either, although that is the primary fear. I’m talking about cardiac arrest, a stroke, shit like that. This kind of lifelong pain takes a hard toll on a body, and I feel it already at the age of thirty-seven. I have some serious health problems and it’s all related. But I can take control of my actions and I can reverse the course of these detrimental effects.


I spoke earlier about coping with depression. Notice I said “coping”, not “eliminating”. Eliminating depression has become a ridiculous concept to me. It’s like trying to stand against the waves: sure, you’ll do it for a few hours, but then you’ll get tired and drown. Coping is the key. Coping ensures that I can continue living my life in spite of the depression. Right now I’m feeling it, but it’s not controlling me. I’ve had times over the past few months when it has gotten on top of me, but it’s encouraging to think about how much less this has been occurring. I’ve had days in a row where I’ve been happy, laughing with my wife, playing with the dogs, and experiencing a quality life for the first time in years. While there are struggles (I’ve gone through a low point for the past couple days), I know that they aren’t there to last. I know my triggers and I know that if I catch things in time I can ward off any dangerous behavior. I know that I can go on tour next month and enjoy it. Sometimes knowing your limitations is the first step to handling anything that comes your way. That hum of depression? It just doesn’t seem so important, anymore.

2017: Mental Health Awareness Year

In May of 2016, I took my first real steps in disclosing my life-long struggle with PTSD and it’s kissing cousins: depression and anxiety. I wrote a lot of posts on social media that opened my life up to those who may not have known it about me. In fact, as my notoriety has increased due to my near constant touring for my music career, these statements and posts about my life began to hold greater weight inside my head. Who am I sharing this part of my life with? How will they react? Can I trust my fan base beyond those whom I call my friends? My answer to this question is I don’t really care. Trust has never been a friend of mine, and even those friends who think I have the deepest level of trust in them are usually wrong. I can count the people I truly trust on two hands with fingers to spare. I’ve been burned by trust far too many times for me to rely on it a great deal. But again, I don’t care. I have been living a life where trust has not been adequately present for 30 years; I’m used to it. If people want to use the words I type to vilify me, that’s fine. I never trusted people, to begin with.

Sharing your struggles is not a task taken lightly. The right people have to be involved and you have to know they are going to respond in a way that is empathic, compassionate, and understanding. When you don’t trust most people, this concern goes right out the window. So as my readership and fan base has grown, the question of whether or not I should continue revealing some of the most vulnerable parts of me is moot.

May is the designated Mental Health Awareness Month, and like most other months dedicated to honoring someone, a group of people, or a cause (et al), it’s a pretty cheap 28-31 days. I’m not satisfied with one month where we all talk about our depression, anxiety, bipolar, chronic illnesses, etc. I live with my depression, anxiety, and flashbacks on a daily basis. They don’t magically disappear on June 1st when I stop my daily posts about mental health. In fact, symptoms are likely to worsen.

2016 has been a magnificent year for me: I’ve successfully launched a music career, gained notoriety, and seen more of the country than I ever thought I would. I got to live at a national park for an entire month. I am a lucky person because my career and my lifestyle are finally in resonance. I understand how lucky I am that I don’t have to wake up and amble through the mundane existence of a 9-5 job, which has proven impossible for me in the past. Unfortunately, the decision to live in resonance does not mean that my mental health has improved; its been quite the opposite.

Without getting into details, I’ve made a lot of changes this year in hopes of treating or coping with my mental health, which only seems to get worse with every passing year. I’m sure there’s research that shows that the more depressive episodes you go through the more likely you are to go through them, but I don’t have the energy to do a Google Scholar search to cite them (I assume a more ambitious reader may do so). While some of the things worked (nature-based healing, EMDR, and cannabis being the top); a lot didn’t seem to make a difference.

“On the inside, there is a constant war going on and it’s anything but peaceful.” 

Living with chronic depression is hard to explain. On the outside I often look predominately fine: you may notice slight dark circles under my eyes and a bit of a slower speech pattern, but if you didn’t know me you wouldn’t recognize these things. On the inside, there is a constant war going on and it’s anything but peaceful. The images supplied to me are as horrific as any horror movie (picturing yourself in the midst of dying by suicide over and over and over again, all day, every day). This has been my life for at least 25 years. Voices in my head continue to tell me how worthless I am, how everyone is a liar and they are just telling me that I’m a good person so they can feel better; so they can feel like they did something if I ever were to pull the trigger. These thoughts are quite effectively reinforced by the fact that when I isolate myself (see: most of 2016) people don’t really notice that much. Some do, and I appreciate that, but my depressed brain even questions their motives. No one wants to feel like they could have done more when the dirt hits the coffin.

It was different during Mental Health Awareness Month; people paid attention. Then, they forget. They stop sending messages. I get it, I really do. It’s not in front of people so they don’t think about it. We live in a society with a very short attention span and if I’m not snapping my fingers in front of the faces of my readers every day they forget about what was once important to them. I’m not saying that mental health awareness loses its heart once June hits, but it fades from consciousness. This tells me that those who value mental health must needs make it more important. It needs to permeate the lives of those who do not suffer under its banner. It needs to be thought of on a constant basis and cannot be discarded like some rind once the fruit has been used.

This is a call to action. 2017 needs to be a mental health awareness year. Here is my commitment to you: I will step up my disclosures and share my walk with you. I will share ideas and tips for becoming more aware of how mental health affects our daily lives (even those of you are lucky enough to experience stability). I will write about how people without mental health conflict can assist those they love in a way that is not intrusive, and in a way that is authentic, genuine, and full of compassion. Those are the things most of us need, anyway. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Depressed and isolated friend? Don’t make plans with them. There’s a good chance they’ll get broken and your friend will just feel worse because he or she has “ruined your night”. Go to their house. Bring a cup of tea (chamomile, no caffeine). Don’t plan on staying long, just say hi and give a hug. WHY? Because it shows them that even if they’re isolating they’re still thought of and loved.
  • Offer to watch a movie with them. I’m partial to Harry Potter when I’m depressed, but super-heroes work as well. This is not “hang out” time. You shouldn’t say much. Just sit there, make them some popcorn (they may not eat it) and watch the movie. When its over, give them a hug and some love and go on your way.
  • Texts: Do this on a daily basis. Make them funny, full of love, or just normal stuff. A good way to send something special is using an app like Canva or Adobe Sparkpost. Throw some color into a drab day.
  • Bring over a healthy dinner. Make sure it’s something they’ll eat (don’t bring broccoli casserole if they hate broccoli). Then leave. Drop it off and leave.

A little known, but a well-researched fact is that you don’t need to say anything! In fact, 80% of whatever you say is going to get completely distorted in your depressed friend’s head and the outcome of something that seems so innocuous and loving ends up in a panic attack or furthering suicidal thoughts. Depression and mental health are exceptionally complex disorders in the brain and if you’re ever caught in a “What the fuck just happened?” moment you need to learn to roll with the punches, keep your gob shut, and nod your head with equal amounts empathy and sympathy.



In the interest of authenticity and full-disclosure, I’ve been actively suicidal for the past few weeks. I am having to cancel the second leg of my winter tour as well as a 3-week long recording session. As of right now, I will be taking a full 2-month sabbatical from playing live music in order to straighten some things out. I plan on taking a lot of long walks, just me and my dog John Henry. I plan on reading and writing. I plan on once again reclaiming my spirit, whatever the hell that means. I do not plan on pulling the trigger.

Will you lean on me if I lean on you?



Everything in the Desert is Trying to Kill You

From my journal, 11/4:

Everything in the desert is trying to kill you. That’s what I’m surmising. Spiny, thorny everythings that jump out at you, almost with their own sense of malice, some sort of surprise vendetta play, reasons known only to them. Venomous insects and snakes: stingers and teeth. They’re all out there, trying to take you down every time you put boot to trail.

 Or so we would think. But the desert, like all the natural world, is majestically impersonal. We are shown that these things are not trying to hurt or kill, but to survive. The living things in the desert have produced though hides, sharp edges, and the ability to melt into the background, all so they can keep on living. Some, like the Saguaros of Southern Arizona, age gracefully, flowering only past 50 years. Those thorns are one of the most essential pieces to their long life. The thorns keep animals from drinking the lifeblood that flows through their fibrous cells.

 We’re the same way. We are just as fragile and we live in a harsh world full of attack. We develop defense mechanisms to ward off the violence and trauma. We prepare ourselves for it every day, and some of us develop spines, venomous bites, and offer them to anyone who gets close to us. We are trying to protect ourselves, trying to prevent any catastrophic damage.

 It’s a misnomer that we need to do this. We don’t need to take advice from the desert here; in fact, we should do the exact opposite. Where we have instinct to push people away with our needles and teeth gnashing we should instead act to pull them closer, allowing them to help us move through life and survive.

 Somewhere along the way we have collectively been damaged. It’s not just those of us who have been damaged directly; it’s everyone. For the past 150 years much of the world has had access to the most horrid tales of history, and the tales continue to be written day after day, and endless onslaught of secondary trauma. We are so afraid, and it is so disheartening. We seem to be seeing an uptick of these horrid tales, and why should we be surprised? It’s long been known that damaged people can easily damage others with those spines and thorns and teeth.



The desert is full of surprises. One of the scariest looking creatures, the tarantula, is also the one of the meekest. It trundles across the road like a furry, eight-legged turtle. The formidable cactus can surprise us, too: get past the thorns and teeth and there is life and sweet fruit inside. More lessons from the desert.


The sun set an orange blaze to see the day’s end arrive. I drove, as I have so many times before, with that fire to my right and a cold blue washing over the fields to my left. Eastern New Mexico is often ignored for the more prominent northern and southern parts, yet the flat plains and farms are certainly pastoral and such land has long held my fascination. I grew up in a city, then just on the outskirts (although we had a wonderful creek that rippled behind our house), but not far from Lancaster city proper lies the rolling hills and farms of the Amish and Mennonite communities: green and gold, thriving or fallow. I chose to move away from the populated areas when I was 19 when I went to college in the smallest of towns in central Kansas. The flatlands lacked the green waves of Lancaster County, but they were nonetheless beautiful. I can remember quite clearly the first summer storms I experienced in the middle of a picked over milo field. There were at least half a dozen gray, silver, and charcoal systems pounding the land in the distance, stabbing it with hot lightening. I don’t know if it was the storms or my fancy, but the air felt electric. I then moved on to the mountains of Virginia, which held more farms plowed into the side of the Appalachia. The glens did sing true in the spring and fall, painting with the sound of growing and dying, both colors handsome and new.

And here, more than a decade from the time I left the emerald east, I drive through land that has been recently harvested and so reflects the burning of the day. Silos and grain elevators silhouette against the oncoming rush of blue while irrigation pivots still themselves for the night. I’ve secured a small and simple cabin about ten miles north of Carlsbad. I’m on my way to Big Bend National Park in Texas, and this is the first of thirty-one nights I will spend alone. Tonight is Halloween; I won’t be home until the calendar reads December.

I’ve been chosen to explore, and craft music inspired by a harsh and beautiful piece of far west Texas called the Big Bend. It’s named so because the seemingly never ending Rio Grande cuts a sharp U-turn north after having travelled south since the Colorado/New Mexico border. It carves its way through a canyon land seldom seen by America. A dusty corner, forgotten and sunburnt, where the sun shines hot and hard and only the most adaptable of creatures, human or otherwise, survive. It is a place of trial, but as is so often the case with such places, it is the perfect environment for healing and creating.

The dark fog of the past three months has moved on from me and for this I am grateful. To begin this journey free of depression is nothing short of a miracle. The level of anxiety I have experienced over this trip has been observably more than your average person would experience, but a lot less considering what passes for normal in my brain. As I packed the Gray Haven full of every essential piece of camping and survival gear, music and recording equipment of all types, an inflatable kayak, and what seemed to my wife and I to be an adequate amount of frozen chili and lentils to last me an entire month, I found that I was stalling. There was a charged excitement that had slowly settled over me in the months since I found out about my appointment as one of centennial resident artists for Big Bend National Park, it over the weekend it had approached its zenith. But I kept slowing myself down, even when I was in the car and on the road there were last minute errands that “just had to be done” (they didn’t). I said goodbye to Deborah in the morning when she left for work. It was hard but we had a great weekend together and I’ll see her the week of Thanksgiving. I’m not sure that was what was holding me in town. Although I will miss having her next to me every night, I think what was chaining me to the middle Rio Grande valley was not a fear of what negative encounters I may have, but of the positive changes and healing that could occur during such a sojourn. Change has always been an exciting prospect throughout my life, one that has kept me moving forward, but in recent years I have grown weary and apprehensive of change. Subsequently, I feel my progression in healing has been stunted, and perhaps it is a change of this nature that can be a shot in the arm.

Even so, I have worked hard to keep myself from holding any expectations for the following weeks. Tempered expectations are one of the keys to a good life. My aunt always told me, “If you don’t expect anything, you won’t get disappointed.” A Zen master couldn’t have spoken truth more clearly. It’s hard to have expectations for something you have never attempted before, and its for the best. Still, creating goals is always a smart thing and I definitely have some broadly defined ideas as to what I would like to see happen, without forming an attachment to them:

  1. Write music.
  2. Hike a lot.
  3. Get better.

I feel these are reasonable and accomplishable goals when given a month in one of the most amazing and dramatic national parks in America. I’ll stay in my little cabin tonight, no doubt listening to a Stephen King audio book until my eyelids feel heavy. Tomorrow I’ll explore Carlsbad Caverns in the morning before making the final push towards Big Bend. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of positive mystery.


Night time needle grass infestation in Carlsbad, NM.

The earth has fascinated me since I was a small boy playing in our tiny backyard in downtown Lancaster. I’ve watched that fascination grow with each move forward in my life. The correlation is not coincidental: the earth has a power that can only be understood when connected to it. I began that journey a long time ago, and it’s taken me more time than some others to get where I am. Now that I’m here I won’t be wasting any time. I’m at another point where that forward momentum is going to take me somewhere. As hard as I try to temper it, my imagination is running wild tonight.

Walk On

What if I got rid of everything that is unnecessary in my life and just started walking? Not going anywhere in particular, just walking. I’d come home, but it would be unencumbered by things I don’t need. What if I sold all my comic books, blu-rays, and TV? What If I got rid of the superfluous clothes and only kept what I needed? So many unused books could go to ones who would benefit from them. Then I would walk.

I would start by going north on 47th Street, towards Atrisco and the desert edge of the Bosque. There’s a path there, about a quarter of a mile from our house, going east and cutting down a slope of thick desert sage before it reaches the golden banks of the muddy river. I’ve seen it when I’ve been driving somewhere to buy things I don’t need. I’d walk that path slowly and forget about The Noise. I would breathe deep, and it would be a dry pull of air that hits my throat. It would be savory, like a wedding dinner for an old friend.

The path would hit the trail  running the strand of the Rio Grande and cutting through the heart of Albuquerque. I could go south, ducking under the golden cottonwoods and oakbrush, listening to the fallen leaves crack beneath me like broken old bones. I’d breathe deep, and it would be the sickly sweet aroma of fall foliage littering the soil, decomposing, giving itself back to which it came. It would remind me of my childhood in Pennsylvania, piles of leaves in the yard by the creek, and the fear and sadness.

In a mile I would hit Central Avenue and The City and The Noise. I would breathe deep the death that lay there. My hands, until that point hanging freely by my side and swinging with the sway of my walk, would inevitably wriggle into my pockets. Instead of looking up through a golden green canopy to the light of the sun, I would look down at the dead sidewalk and quickly circle back to my house.

There I would breathe deep the musky balm of home, of dogs and food, and living. Where I would sit, in patient silence, without things, and wait for my next walk.

October Rain

October is arguably the best month of the year in New Mexico. The heat of the summer has tapered off into the pleasant and dry 70s during the day, and a comfortably chilly mid-40s at night. It’s not quite time to put away the short sleeves, but cool enough in the mornings to wear a cozy sweater. Like the rest of the country, our leaves begin changing rapidly around the 3rd week. I live near the Bosque, which describes the east and west banks of the Rio Grande. Sudden bursts of yellow explode within the green cottonwood trees that fill the strand, creating an amalgam of emerald and gold. The air smells crisp in the morning and dry with heat in the afternoons before settling into a refreshing bite as the stars emerge above the city of Albuquerque.

It’s the perfect time of year for hiking, camping, fishing, walking the dogs, eating breakfast on the patio, and potlucks with friends in the park. The intoxicating smell of roasting green chile is on the air, the balloon fiesta happens (hundreds of hot air balloons filling the sky every morning is an amazing site), and the outdoor patios at all our fine breweries gather fine folks like moths to a flame. To my wife and I, October also means Annibirthary week. This is when we celebrate my birthday, our anniversary, and her birthday on consecutive days by going on some type of outdoors adventure together.

October brings together some of what I consider the best things in life. But the advent of autumn also carries a hard and heavy weight for me. For the past 25 years I’ve spent my favorite time of year covered in a months-long blanket of depression. I can hear it breathing behind me as August turns, and by the end of September I’m in the fog. At my birthday I’m glued in, enveloped in gray that stands in stark contrast with the season of gold.

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The result is that I live a sort of half-life: I’m experiencing the brilliance of the season through a shroud. This October I took a trip across the country, stopping at such awe-inspiring locales as the Ozarks and Great Smoky Mountains. I met my wife on the coast and we attended the wedding of a dear and old friend. For this year’s Annibirthary we were to stay in a trailer on the land my wife bought in West Virginia, and experience I was looking forward to. We were then to travel to Cuyahoga National Park, stay with friends, before driving back to Albuquerque. The first half of the week went fine. Once the wedding was over the meltdown started. My depression snapped at my face like a rabid dog, and the breathing I’d heard early in August had turned to fire on the back of my neck. Daily panic attacks meant plans had to change. The pain I felt in my heart was only equaled by the pain I forced upon myself thinking that I was ruining my wife’s vacation, and it was all my fault (one of depression’s most effective lies). We salvaged what we could, and we have some happy memories of the week, but mostly its polluted by hour long stops on the side of the highway to calm me down, and unstoppable tears.

Every autumn my hope for the best trumps my expectation of the worst, yet the worst always seems to happen no matter what I do. This year has been particularly hard: constant suicidal thoughts, self-injurious panic attacks, and I just don’t know how a body can hold that many tears. It’s also been particularly productive in spite of its hardships. My creative life is unbottling, sometimes at an obsessive rate. I don’t sleep, but more often its because my creative mind won’t shut down, rather than ruminating over what I would write in my suicide note. I count this as a valuable treasure, a ray of light cutting through the rain.


I’m heading off to Big Bend National Park in a couple weeks as I begin my month-long artist residency. I’ll be in one of the most remote areas of the contiguous United States, hours from the nearest professional psychiatric help, and an entire day’s drive from home. But I’ll be minutes from the Chisos Mountains, towering seven thousand feet in the Texas desert. I’ll be a short walk from the red canyons of the Rio Grande. The only expectation that I have been given is to be inspired and create. My hope is that the depression will clear by the time I get there and I can make the most out of this experience. Something tells me that it won’t make a difference if my dark tourist is accompanying me for the ride.

Let’s Talk Cannabis

Sandbridge Beach in Virginia is a favorite place for my wife and me. Each year we are privileged enough to spend a week with her family amongst the dunes and waves, laughing and bouncing up and down in the water, getting minor sun burns, and avoiding the tiny, translucent fiddler crabs poking out of their dens in the sand and running across the playa. It’s a joyous reunion: dozens of family members converge upon several different beach houses and spend the week recharging their batteries in unison. I love this week and look forward to it every year. Walking the beach at sunrise and sunset, letting the sun slowly brown my typically pasty skin, watching the kids play in the sand and water. These things are surely energizing and life-giving. There’s only one problem with this week: I’m not allowed to take the only medicine that is effective for my mental health.

Throughout my life I have been on over a dozen medications to treat my intractable depression and posttraumatic stress disorder: Lithium, Lamictal, Prozac, Abilify, Celexa, Lexapro, Paxil, Cymbalta, Effexor, Serzone, Tofranil, Remeron, Seroquel, Zyprexa, BuSpar, Wellbutrin, Trazadone, Topamax, Prazosin, Brintellix,  and most recently Zoloft… not to mention the following benzodiazepines to combat anxiety: Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan, and even Halcyon. None of them has done anything to alleviate my depression or symptoms related to my PTSD. Here’s what they have done:

  • Caused me to gain 60 pounds in 3 months (Abilify)
  • Caused my digestive system to be in constant upheaval
  • Time loss (when all of a sudden its an hour later and you don’t know how that happened, different from forgetting, more like blacking out)
  • Suicidal thoughts have been exaggerated (they’re always there, but they come harder on some meds)
  • Severe withdrawal symptoms
  • Thousands of dollars

These are all just off the top of my head. If I thought harder and read my old journals, I could easily list more detrimental effects. These are the most salient, the ones that have impacted my daily life for over twenty years. I’ve continually put myself through further hell and pain by following the advice of several doctors because, well, they’re doctors. All of them, save two, had no understanding of the Endocannabinoid System, or ECS.

So what is the ECS? It is the “essential regulator in bodily function…” (Russo, 2004). Its basic functions are “relax, eat, sleep, forget, and protect” (DiMarzo, 1998). It’s a very nuanced system that mediates a physiological homeostasis when in balance. When it is out of balance we start experience some serious, and often mysterious, health concerns. According to Phytecs, its discovery was only a generation ago and therefore many in the medical community have a knowledge deficiency when it comes to this crucial component in healthy bodies. In fact, there may be medical practitioners who have no knowledge of it whatsoever. This is truly an oversight in our medical community.

Recent research has shown that an ECS that is out of balance can result in many adverse medical conditions, some that are heretofore mysteries to the medical community (e.g. fibromyalgia). A hyperactive ECS is linked to morbid obesity, diabetes, and hepatic liver fibrosis. Similarly, we see a deficiency in endocannabinoids in persons experiencing fibromyalgia, migraines, and idiopathic bowel syndrome (IBS). Further research is beginning to show links between deficient levels of endocannabinoids and retractable depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and various neuropathic pain conditions.

This is pretty revolutionary stuff. But here’s the big kicker: persons with cancer have been observed to possess increased levels of the two main endocannabinoids. What does this actually mean? It means that when the body encounters cancer it fights it using the natural method it has: the ECS. The problem is that our bodies do not have enough endocannabinoids to fully do the job and both stop the growth of cancer cells as well as kill them off. In research coming out of Europe, the addition of extreme ECS therapy in cancer cases is showing incredibly positive results. Qualitative reports have been popping up in the media quite a bit over the past 2 years, most famously President Jimmy Carter’s miraculous recover from cancer by using 1000s of mg of THC and CBD, the main chemical responders in cannabis.


Endocannabinoid sounds an awful lot like “cannabis,” right? There’s no coincidence there. Cannabis, more derisively known as marijuana, weed, and pot, is the key to balancing an out-of-whack ECS. This is the science behind medical marijuana, this is why it works. Simply put: using cannabis in conjunction with other supplements is going to straighten out a lot of medical problems. With someone like myself who experiences posttraumatic stress, the experience of adverse memories is lessened, not because I’m stoned- that’s more of a necessary side-effect, but because of what the endocannabinoids are doing to my brain’s chemistry. They’re assisting me in experiencing the awful memories of my trauma in a different way. This manifests itself in decreased levels of hyper-vigilance and anxiety, decreased experiences of depression, and decreased adverse dream-states (no more nightmares), to name a few. The result of these decreased negative experiences is that I can function in my day-to-day life. I can get up, do my work, take care of my hygiene, clean the house, and cuddle happily with my wife and dogs. It’s an amazing reaction that I’ve never gotten from any of the multitude of pharmaceuticals I’ve been prescribed. Better yet: it doesn’t give me any negative side effects.

Those of my friends who know me are aware of my long-standing love affair with cannabis. I first started using it when I was 13 and have rarely looked back since. Cannabis was an exclusively recreational plant for me until four years ago. As I began to understand how medicinal it can be my entire paradigm around its use shifted. That’s not to say I don’t recommend it for recreation, because I most certainly do. For a lot of people, it can be a lot of fun, and regardless of what the media has always tried to portray, it has far fewer detrimental effects than other recreational substances (I’m looking at you, booze). Yes, it needs to be used mindfully. So does everything else in this world.

I now see my own personal use as a mixture of medical and recreational, with a strong emphasis on the former. There’s a misnomer in our society that says that one cannot enjoy taking their medicine. For a lot of situations this has a lot of truth and utility: someone who enjoys taking their pain medication too much is bound for a lot of trouble down the road. It can’t be a hard and fast understanding. Cannabis makes me feel good on a medical level, and it makes me feel good on a recreational level. Why is that so wrong?

Here are the facts:

  • Cannabis has not been linked to deteriorating lung functioning or lung cancer
  • Cannabis has not been proven to be addictive
  • Cannabis has not been proven to have accompanying withdrawal symptoms
  • You cannot overdose on cannabis (but you can take too much and feel miserable if you’re not careful)
  • Cannabis leads to eating excessive amounts of Hot Cheetoh’s and pizza, so you must take care when using it.

When Nixon put out the Schafer Commission Report (which has since been debunked as an attempt to corral the African-American and left wing communities and omitting the final conclusions that cannabis should be folded into the medical community) policies were set in motion and propaganda machines went full press to demonize cannabis. We are now in a day and age where we can see through these transparent attempts to keep the public in the dark, if we open our eyes (they don’t want you to do that).


I’m typing this lengthy post in the living room of my in-law’s rental. It’s sunny with clear blue skies. If I poke my head out of the window I can hear the lull of waves crashing on the beach and children playing. I’m in Virginia, a state that has not approved medical cannabis. I have nowhere to get it and if I had it in my possession I’m at risk for prosecution by a state with archaic drug laws taken directly from Nixon’s little report. Therefore, I’ve been struggling with my depression and anxiety all week. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed myself, I certainly have. But then I start feeling the ball in my chest grow and I have to leave where I am and sit alone until the tears stop. Sometimes this lasts all afternoon when the sky is clear and the air smells of salt and sunscreen. And I’m inside typing a blog about how I can’t use the only medication that works for me. I sincerely hope that those who read this with an antagonist opinion have done so with an open mind. As always, I would love to help anyone understand this pretty complicated issue via personal communication.


Works Cited

Di Marzo, V. 1998. “‘Endocannabinoids’ and other fatty acid derivatives with       cannabimimetic properties: biochemistry and possible physiopathological relevance.” Biochim Biophys Acta 1392 (2-3):153- 75.

Russo, E.B. 2004. “Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD): Can this concept explain therapeutic benefits of cannabis in migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and other treatment resistant conditions?” Neuroendocrinol Lett 25 (1-2):31-39.


I love Pinterest. I discovered it a few months ago and have not looked back. When I’m bored I pull it up and read about Star Wars, cannabis, and recipes. I use it to dream about my next tour vehicle and discovering new camping hacks. It is truly junk food in the written word. One of my favorite things about Pinterest is the amount of lists for camping gear they have. Headlines almost always include some arbitrary number: 49 Things you MUST have for your next camping trip. The same items appear on almost every list and yet I read them each time and think to myself, “I absolutely need to get that inflatable lantern.”

The truth is nobody needs to get the inflatable lantern, the inflatable tent, or even the inflatable hammock (all real things, by the way). What do we need for summer camping? Or camping and outdoors-ing in general? My list for the things I need this summer looks a lot different than the ones I have seen on Pinterest.


Openness to experience, or the level to which someone accepts new experiences, is incredibly important to reaching full potential when exploring nature. Not only does it cause a statistically significant increase in cognitive ability and decision making (Lapine, Colquit, & Erez, 2000), it affords the mind a respite from the normal worries of every day life back in the city. Accepting and inviting whatever it is that comes our way means we won’t get bent out of shape when things don’t go according to plan. It means losing our attachment to the way we think things ought to be. When exploring nature this trait is invaluable and constantly utilized. Sometimes you forget the can opener and you don’t realize it until you unpack at the campsite that’s an hour and a half from anywhere. Other times it unexpectedly pours down rain the entire weekend for a backpacking trip and you forgot the cover to your backpack. Or maybe your keys fell out of your pocket when you were hiking out of the Grand Canyon that one time and you didn’t realize it until you got to the car. Yeah, these have all happened to me and caused minor to major meltdowns. Not this year, friends. If I drive all the way to the Jemez and forget my fishing rod I’m going to go hiking instead. Who knows? I may see something I’ve never seen before.


Take it all in. What does the air smell like exactly? How cold is the water in the stream? How do different trails feel beneath your feet? What happens to your mind and body during a long hike? How does the campfire smell? What memories comeback when that smell lingers on your clothes? What thoughts are you having as you sit by the lake? Think about how you are part of nature, not separate from it when you lay down in camp at night. By being mindful of every aspect of our outdoors experience we ground ourselves in the natural world and allow it to work its healing in our lives. Five deep breaths are all it takes to connect yourself to the moment. When your mind naturally makes its way towards problems and stressors you’ve encountered during the work week, allow them to pass like leaves on a river. Observe them, then move your attention back to the present moment by connecting with the feeling of your breath and labeling your five sense. A more enriching interaction with the natural world is your reward.


As we walk through the natural world we must do so with the intention that we will keep it as such: natural. This is a result of the compassion we feel towards ourselves, our communities, and the earth we live in. The three realms are not separate from each other. When we feel compassion for one realm it will inform our interactions with another. We feel compassion towards ourselves, this will extend to our community. If we have compassion for our community and ourselves, we will desire to enrich and conserve the natural environment we find ourselves in. Our environment feeds our communities in many ways, from the farms that grow our food to the mountains that feed our souls. Having compassion towards our environment means that we tread lightly and preserve them so the community we love can continue to benefit from the land long into the future.


Have you ever been hiking in pristine wilderness only to come around a bend in the trail and see leftover food trash? It’s a miserable experience. Leave no trace ethics are paramount to keeping our natural lands healthy and ensuring their survival. Do you know how to poop in the woods? What about what you should do to erase your campsite? Do you know what cryptobiotic soil is? Educate yourself on how you can enjoy the natural world in the most responsible way. Wherever you are, leave the earth looking better than when you found it.


This refers to your ability to think and process your experiences while they are happening and after they happen. When you are in the wild it is important to let your mind explore your soul. What better place to ask the big questions than surrounded by a cluster of 14,000 foot peaks? Or staring at a sunset while listening to the lull of waves at the shore?  The ability to reflect on your experiences is the key to learning from them. Sometimes it doesn’t come naturally, but here are some questions you can ask yourself if you’re finding it hard to get started:

  • How is this experience affecting me?
  • Why did I do that?
  • What do I really need right now?

IMG_3729Enjoy your adventures this summer. Wear sunscreen and drink plenty of water. Bring your maps and a raincoat. Don’t forget the snacks and inflatable hammock. Don’t forget why your doing it, either.

365 Days

Above image: Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX

For the past year I have been undergoing a bit of an experiment on myself. Last May I made a commitment to spend as much time in the outdoors as possible and see how much of a tangible impact it would have on my mental health. Being a staunch believer in ecopsychology and using the natural world to heal mental health, this seemed logical.

Let’s start with where I was mentally at this time in 2015: Depressed, suicidal, burned-out on my job and my life. I was at an end, in a lot of ways. There didn’t seem to be very many options for me and giving up seemed like the easiest thing to do. It was at this point when I decided to reframe what it meant to “give up”. Instead of giving up my entire life, I would give up all of those things that held me down. I’m quite fond of the expression, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” and that was my intention.

The first thing I gave up was my job. In June I left my work as a behavioral health consultant and completely turned my back on the counseling career I had been building for upwards of a decade. My plan was to play music full-time; a plan which I have carried into fruition but had no idea the impact it would have on my outdoors adventuring. I no longer had to worry about paperwork and hours, taxes and billing, and most important of all I could focus on my own mental health concerns without being fettered by those of others. I began by taking walks in the east mountains every morning, fly-fishing in the Jemez on Fridays, and simply preparing dinner outside in our jungle of a backyard. The first month was brilliant and I felt fantastic pretty much the entire time. Sure enough, depression crept back in, but I had a hedge against it in the mountains.

I took 4 trips to Colorado last summer and enjoyed exploring what is one of my favorite states. From Durango and Telluride on the western edges, to the green valley of the south central (packed with mosquitos, by the way), to the red rocks of the front range. Colorado was my go-to state for 2 months. One of the better adventures happened later in the summer when I spontaneously drove from Albuquerque to the Green Mountain Reservoir near Rocky Mountain National Park. That trip instilled in me an idea: I could pretty much point to a place on the map and book shows all the way there. I could go anywhere, all I needed was the proper ride. In early October I got that wish when we bought Eleanor, the Gray Haven.

Eleanor is a gray and black, 2005 Honda Element. I removed the back seats and build a modular sleeping platform that is perfect for one. I hung curtains on bungee cords, built a drawer system that peeks out of the hatchback for kitchen supplies and food, as well as another drawer system that opens into the sleeping compartment for clothes. My musical equipment stores nicely under the sleeping platform, which is topped with a 4-inch, high-density foam mattress. I hung my hammock on the roof rack so that I can enjoy hammock naps no matter where I am (this has come in quite handy on long tours). I even set up a bit of an entertainment system so I could watch movies before turning in at night. It’s been a great little vehicle and has cut down on my costs quite a bit. No hotel rooms for me: I can live quite cheaply out of the Gray Haven. Furthermore, I have become fond of calling it my “kennel”. As dog owners know, kennel crates can be a safe and special place for dogs. That’s the way I feel about Eleanor. After a long day of driving, playing music, and socializing, its nice to get back there and relax in my own little space.


Eleanor, the Gray Haven 

The maiden voyage of Eleanor was a week long trip through Utah before meeting my parents and Deborah in Zion National Park. Eleanor did fantastic and kept me warm and comfortable most of the nights. The final night before I met my family was a little rough for me, so I took a room at a hotel outside the park entrance. Even though I was staying in a room, nature had something special in store for me. As I walked up to my secluded suit I saw a young elk calf that was sitting on the porch directly adjacent to my room. He looked at me as I unloaded my things, and then I sat with him for about 2 hours as I read. He was about an arms length from me and didn’t get spooked once. I went to eat dinner (elk meatloaf, of all things) and when I came back he was gone. I was feeling incredibly depressed when I walked up to my room and that young elk seemed to lift my spirits quite a bit. As he sat there it was almost as though he was placed there for me, to be there with me while I healed. There are plenty of psychotherapists that could take notes from this gentle animal.

As fall was turning to winter I toured went on a seemingly disastrous tour through Arizona and southern New Mexico. I was depressed before I left but reluctant to cancel the tour. I thought that the exposure to the natural world would be healing. I made it through, but not without incident. I was stuck in Silver City, suicidal and miserable, for a few days before cancelling my show and heading back to Albuquerque. It made me nervous and took quite a while to recover from.

But winter arrived and with it the holiday season. Deborah and I had decided that we would take a week-long trip to Joshua Tree National Park, which is my favorite national park. Deborah had never been and I was excited to share with her the magic of that desert wonderland. Looking at the forecast caused some concern: the nighttime temperature was supposed to average in the 20’s. It didn’t matter to us. We hit the road on a blustery, snowy day after Christmas and drove till the snow was gone. Our first night at J-Tree was the coldest I’ve ever spent and one of the best times I’ve ever had with my wife. We snuggled into our sleeping bags and laughed at how cold it was outside of them. We bundled ourselves together and slept wonderfully, waking the next morning with the sun to hot coffee (her) and tea (me). We spent the next 5 days hiking through the rocks and desert. It was the best vacation I’d ever had in my life.

Winter held a lot of depression. Although it was mild in the high desert of Albuquerque, I stayed in quite a bit. Depression has a way of Velcro-ing a body to the couch, or the bed, and as a result my access to nature was confined to what I could see out my window (when the shades weren’t drawn) and snuggling with my dogs. I had another Arizona tour in February. This time I made my way north from Tucson to Flagstaff. I camped in Saguaro National Park, the Mogollon Rim of Sedona, and Petrified Forest National Park. The latter being a surprising little gem that everyone driving along I-40 should stop and experience. The tour was better, I was buoyed, and I returned home to record my debut solo album.

Spring arrived with another opportunity to travel. I booked a last-minute tour from Hood River, Oregon all the way to Yuma, Arizona. As I passed the Colorado border into Utah it started sprinkling rain. By the time I hit Salt Lake City it was pouring. It didn’t stop raining until the final day of the tour, a week and a half later. This tour was fraught with battles inside my head. Even though I was sleeping amongst the redwoods I found myself trapped in a cycle of awful thoughts and by the time I got off the Pacific Coast Highway a couple days later I was in bad shape. The rain followed me to Joshua Tree and finally let up once I hit Yuma. Brow-beaten, I turned eastward toward the warm comfort of home.

After getting back from the west coast I as able assess the functionality of my medication with a new psychiatric provider and we found that I was a far too high a dose. I had known that some people can experience an increase in depression and anxiety due to SSRI medication, but never fully understood it till it happened to me. My doctor lowered my dose of Zoloft and the effects were almost instantaneous. The fog of depression lifted for the first time in at least two years, just in time for my latest escapade: a month-long journey across the country. From Tucson to Philadelphia and back.

I just got home from that tour this past Monday. I was able to see both the Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend National Parks. It rained most of the time, but it didn’t bother me a bit. I was happy and in a good mood for the majority of the tour. I slept in the Gray Haven even though I didn’t have to. I realized that I could be alive.IMG_3301

Hot Spring Trail, Rio Grande River, Big Bend National Park, TX


Here I am, a year later. My mental health is better than it was at this point last year, but it’s not without its struggles. There are times when I feel like giving up, but those times are fewer and further between than they ever have been. My depression doesn’t feel like a life sentence anymore, and that is something special. I know that it will be there for the rest of my life, but it won’t always have the same affect. I can cope with it now.
How much of this do I attribute to the natural world? Quite a bit, to be sure. My desire to be in the natural world helped lead me to decisions that have been incredibly beneficial: Leaving my job, playing music full-time, living in a small SUV… The contact I’ve had with nature has left a tangible mark on me as well. From the sunburns and the weight-loss, to the focus and the energy, nature has been more helpful to me than any medications, therapists, or hospital stays ever have. That’s not to say that everyone will have this reaction, but I firmly believe that connection with the natural world must be an adjunctive treatment for anyone who is struggling with mental health. The healing property is undeniable. Getting out there can be tough, and being there can be tough, but when it’s all said and done it is clearly beneficial for everyone to renew their connection with the natural world.

In This Together

I drove north, planning on camping on the Pecos river and fly-fishing for a few days. As I passed the brown Adobe of Santa Fe I didn’t understand why I would stop at the Pecos Wilderness. I could keep driving north, on through to Colorado, meeting my wife in Denver for a concert later in the week. So I did.

I drove through the setting sun, into the mountains of southern Colorado, and watched as their silhouettes grew more jagged and prominent in the rising moon. I climbed further north and deeper into the night. I had no real destination to speak of, but my directions were taking me towards Rocky Mountain National Park. As I began to tire I pulled over somewhere northwest of Silverthorne, about an hour south of the park. I found a campground and set myself up as light shown through the gathering clouds. I heard the slapping of waves coming from somewhere just beyond the mouth of my tent, but, exhausted, I decided to leave that exploring for the morning.

When I awoke I saw I had chosen a campsite alongside a large body of water with lower-hanging mountains on its eastern edge. My hamlet rested fairly lonesome above the high-water line, less that a hundred yards east of the entrance to a cove, about three-hundred yards across from north to south. The water was sapphire blue with occasional chop lapping against the banks: stoney outcrops backed by steep black pack, crested with sage and purple and yellow asters. A beauty to be sure. The gray clouds had gathered significantly and framed my yellow tent with a swath of pencil-lead. It was here I would lay my head for the next few days, exploring the nearby Arkansas River and hiking the relatively low mountains. Rain came and went and I enjoyed the rhythm of the waves on those dark and cloudy August nights. Lightening provided a show the likes of which cannot be duplicated by a television.

I packed leisurely the morning of my departure, looking upon my inlet in content and nostalgic silence until the hum of a motor grew louder and I saw a speed boat power through my field of vision, straight into the narrow cove, pulling a water skier in it’s wake. The chop increased. Time to go, I thought, and started the car with a sense of irony.


As I drove away from that space a question entered my mind regarding how we are to enjoy the natural world. Is there a better way? Ed Abbey railed against motorists in the National Parks 50 years ago to no avail, and if you travel to any of our nation’s most protected lands you will see the results of over half-a-century of automobile use and motorized recreation. These mod cons bring more people to the land and that can possibly cause more conservation efforts by those who have been touched by nature. More often motorists bring litter, pollution (both air and noise), and that sense of entitlement that comes with the privilege of being a private transportation traveler. It’s indicative of a greater problem: humans see themselves as separate from the natural world, observing it as though through a window at a zoo. This viewpoint has led to a health crisis not only for the Earth, but for the human race as well.

The answer to my previously posed question is a resounding “YES!” There is a correct way to enjoy nature, but not entirely for the reason some might think. The idea that human beings are separate from the natural world is an example of dualistic thinking. It’s the age-old “us and them” mentality and, as with most dualistic thinking, it’s quite incorrect. Humans are a part of the natural world; just like plants, animals, insects, dirt, and rivers. We come from the natural world, we are not born from something other. The two transitive properties that we now have are thus:

  1. Humans are separate from the natural world, we have consciousness and therefore we are above the nature. This leads to thoughts and actions that can be destructive to the environment.
  2. Humans are an intrinsic part of the natural world, our sense of consciousness encompasses all living things. If we are part of the natural world, we are subject to the all the consequences the natural world experiences. This leads to thoughts and actions that are uplifting and life-giving, both for the Earth and for ourselves.

One of the basic tenets of ecopsychology is that by healing the earth we can heal ourselves. There are a lot of reasons for this: a basic sense of altruism and fulfillment, a feeling of being grounded, and the simple fact that you get a heavy dose of vitamin D and endorphins when you engage outdoors activities being a only a few. I think the more salient affect comes from the innate connection human beings have with the planet: When we give life to the Earth, we give life to ourselves. The increased sense of isolation from our planet is killing both of us.

When we enjoy our public lands we have a responsibility to care for those lands so that they survive. If they don’t survive, we don’t survive. It’s not as simple a problem of hearing a buzzing dirt bike when you’re trying to quietly observe an eagle’s nest or fix a fly to your line. The problem is that the buzzing of a dirt bike cuts deep into the health of the Earth, and thereby cuts deep into the health of our society.


We must enjoy nature with the care and responsibility that we approach anything else in our lives. It sustains us and it is a litmus for the health of humanity. Right now the prognosis is dim, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be turned around. Outdoors writer Ad Crable once told me that we should always aim to leave nature looking better than we found it. Perhaps that’s where we start. ATVs and dirt bikes are next.

Up from the Desert

IMG_2201The smell of creosote greets me as I emerge from The Gray Haven (also known as Eleanor), my 2005 Honda Element just before dawn. I find myself about a mile southeast from the entrance to Saguaro National Park. Late last night I drove the serpentine Gate’s Pass Road following a show I played in Tucson. The pull-off seemed set in place specifically for me and Eleanor, and I marveled at the silhouette of the giant Saguaro cacti and the sharp edges of the Tucson Mountains in the moonlight. Sleep came quickly but was disturbed by uncomfortable dreams and paranoia caused by a circling helicopter with a spotlight. As a result, I was up before the sun and allowed to revel in the scent of the desert as the globe slowly crept over the mountains, turning what were mere lines the night before into a jagged vision punctuated by various cacti, brush, and rock.

After a brief morning hike, I began traveling north on I-10 towards Phoenix, that sprawling slab of concrete in the middle of the desert. The landscape of Arizona seems to be split in half by latitude about an hour or so north of its largest city. As I begin to climb the mountains on I-17  I watch the giant Saguaros seemingly wave goodbye to me in the rearview mirror and the topography moves towards the piñon pine and juniper forests of the northern half of the state. I pull onto AZ 89 and begin the traverse towards Jerome, a true wild west town that was built into the side of the mountains, reminiscent of towns in Spain and Italy, with a decidedly Americana feel. Beyond Jerome, Sedona. The setting of a disastrous attempt at healing-by-nature in the fall of 2014. It was very much a watershed moment in my life, and now I find myself again staring at the Mogollon Rim, just west of Sedona, in the Coconino National Forest.

I’m surrounded by the sound of a breeze traveling through the juniper, giving off a decidedly fresh scent. Different than the smell of the low desert further south, but a calming and pleasing aroma just the same. Mingled among the deciduous trees are reminders that this too is a desert environment. On a hike through the forest surrounding my campsite, I recognize prickly pear and a barrel variety of cacti, and I have to watch my path as sharp fronds of Yucca threaten to impale my shins and knees. Small burrows pockmark the ground. These could belong to any variety of creatures attempting to survive both the harsh heat of the day and the stinging cold of the high desert nights. I see a desert cottontail lope across my path a few feet ahead. It gives pause as we regard each other mutually, then skips quickly away. And now, the sun is setting behind me drawing a line of shadow in the hills surrounding the red rock of the Mogollon, edging ever closer to the rim. The moon is already high in the sky, about to break free of its adolescence for its monthly night of adulthood and fullness.


The desert, like most everything else in the natural world, screams with metaphor. But can a landscape serve as an archetype in the Jungian sense? I am more than enamored with the desert, I am more than inspired by it. I identify with it in a manner that one would normally reserve for another human being. I identify with the struggle to survive and the need to adapt more than anything else in my life, and certainly more than any of Carl’s suggested quintessence. More than that, I identify with the success of the desert. Not only the need to adapt and survive but the ability to do so under the most palpable adversity.

I live with severe depression. There are times when it waxes and wanes, but for the most part, it’s in the forefront of my experiences. Like the dirt and dust of the desert, it is a ubiquitous drone throughout my life. Rain comes in bursts of joy and happiness, contentment and peace, and when these showers arrive I soak them up and do my best to save them for future dry spells. I flower during these downpours, often exploding with creativity and love until there doesn’t seem like there could possibly be any left. When the joy and contentment clear I cleave to their memories with a desperation matched only by the cholla’s reservation of water. Those memories of how good things can get often pull me through.

St. John of the Cross coined the term “a long dark night of the soul” to describe the spiritual and emotional separation one feels when wading through upheaval and doubt, depression and anxiety. This is an apt and telling description of this experience, but I don’t think it holds as much water as the desert metaphor. The desert offers opportunities for change and survival, but one must recognize and take these gifts for what they are worth. The long, dark night only offers one option: Wait for the morning to break. I’d rather take my chances with action than waiting around for something to happen.


The sun has continued to set and something interesting has begun to happen. The shadow-line it drew 15 minutes ago is blurring and the hills are lighting up again. The rim is now enveloped in the precursor to night. Yet another show from the desert, another lesson. Change can happen even when it’s least expected. Maybe there is something else.

Cultivating Compassion

As I’ve entered and matured into my adulthood this world has slipped deeper into an epoch characterized by anxiety, anger, hatred, selfishness, distractibility, and fear. As a global culture we are truly captured by an existential crisis paralleled only by the discovery that we can wipe out our entire species with the push of a button (atomic bomb). Our global society is traumatized and scared for it’s survival. We are assaulted with images of violence and catastrophe on a daily basis and we have been informed that our doom is impending, within the next few generations. Our climate is collapsing quickly and our respect for one another is diminishing at an ever more rapid pace.

Over the past few months it seems that we are approaching another watershed in this crisis. With the violence in Beirut, Nigeria, and Paris occurring over the past month, and with the bombing of an MSF (Doctors Without Borders) hospital also looming in the recent past, we have become saturated with some of the most awful news, and, perhaps more destructive than the images, the opinions of those who are driven by negative states of consciousness and impulsive, knee-jerk words that are not chosen wisely.

Looking around social media I see and feel this tangible angst among many I know, and I feel the tension within my entire being. More than a few times I’ve heard or read people remark, “I feel like I’m going to lose my mind if I hear more negative news…” And yet the news keeps coming. How can we deal with this dangerous level of negativity that has taken hold in our collective mind? How can we can we cope with the vicarious trauma we experience every minute of every day? If we look inward we may find the key. _____________________________________________________

Metta Meditation, or Loving-Kindness Meditation is based on the understanding that all beings capable of feeling can experience both good and bad, and that all such sentient beings, given the choice, would choose the former rather than the latter. In fact, that’s the definition of “metta” in the Buddhist tradition. Basically, it’s saying that everything that can appreciate the distinction between “good” and “bad” experiences would rather have what they feel is a “good” experience. Meditation based on this idea assists us in cultivation (or Bhavana) of feelings of love and warmth towards not only ourselves and those whom we know and love dearly, but also extending that love, compassion, and warmth to those whom we do not know; including those towards whom we feel conflict and lack of compassion, those that we don’t know at all (e.g. refugees), and those toward whom we feel indifferent (strangers, people whom we do not interact with in any way whatsoever). I’m going to offer up an explanation of this simple meditation practice, beginning with a script:

As with all meditations, I encourage you to find a place where you can be alone, a place where you can concentrate. Find this place and sit with natural relaxation. Breathe deep and feel the air going into your body. Do this for 2-3 minutes, and begin the meditation when you feel ready.

May I feel happy and peaceful, May I feel healthy and safe

May my loved ones feel happy and peaceful, May they feel healthy and safe

May those who are suffering feel happy and peaceful, May they feel healthy and safe

May those whom I don’t like feel happy and peaceful, May they feel healthy and safe

May WE ALL be happy and peaceful, may we be healthy and safe

I practice this meditation and have led it in a group setting on numerous occasions, using a plethora of different scripts before writing my own that I felt was easiest to remember and recite. You can find other examples of the script anywhere online, but I think the words hold power regardless. Here is an explanation of the form: 


This is directing the compassion and love towards ourselves. We must start within if we  intend to send love out to others. There must be an immense sense of self-compassion and nonjudgement before we can effectively send compassion out to others, especially towards those towards whom we harbor deep feelings of anger, fear, or resentment. Although this can sometimes be quite difficult, we start here. Cultivate a love for yourself. Understand the true nobility of your Self so that you can see it in others. As you say these words imagine yourself experiencing them deeply.

My loved ones:

When you are reciting this phrase bring to mind someone towards whom you feel an easy and natural affection: your partner or spouse, your children, a respected teacher, a dear friend, even your pet. Imagine them experiencing the words, picturing their face and all the things you love about them. Hold this love deeply inside yourself and let it warm your being. Often the easiest step, sending well-wishes comes quite naturally to us and so we let it fuel our love for every sentient thing that comes after. You may substitute the name of a particular loved one if you wish.

Those who are suffering:

All the bad news, all the pain we are watching and reading about, within our closest circles and throughout the entire world, causes us to feel helpless, hopeless, and dejected. Do something about it. Send this line to all the world’s suffering: both those at home as well as those unknown faces abroad. To the strangers on the train with saddened, share-cropper eyes,  to the neighbor next door who lost their job, to the refugee struggling to escape a violent war in order to live a life of peace. Imagine them all, one by one, experiencing happiness, peace, health, and safety. You may experience warmth from this, hold it close. It is a dear part of you. You may substitute the name of a particular person, or group of people, if you wish.

Those who you don’t like :

Jesus of Nazareth was no stranger to loving his enemies: “But I tell you love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you,” (Matt. 5:44). Great figures throughout our time have held compassion for those who would harm them in some way, recognizing the power this has to not only change the enemy, but more importantly to change the Self from within. When we choose to have compassion for our enemies we take their power away. Picture those with whom you have a troubled or disturbed relationship.  Make sure it is not someone who triggers some type of trauma response, make your choice reasonable. It is antithetical to the point if you are re-traumatizing yourself, and we don’t want that to happen. Recite this line, imagining them feeling the words as deep as your loved ones or yourself. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the meditation and that is OK, it doesn’t have to be easy. Perhaps it will get easier in time, perhaps not. If it gets easier try and move towards imagining you loving your enemies, you comforting them and keeping them safe. If this practice becomes too difficult, move backwards and begin reciting the “I” line again, then move on to reciting the “We” phrasing. You may substitute the particular name of a person or group if you wish.


In this phrasing the point is to hold all of sentient existence with love and warmth. Our intention is to send all these wishes of well-being to all who can feel them. It doesn’t matter if the people are “good” people or “bad” people; they all have the same right to happiness and growth. Hold yourself, your loved ones, completely strangers, and enemies with this compassion.

Throughout the meditation it is important that you picture the phrases coming to life. Picture yourself feeling loved, picture those who are suffering experiencing relief, picture the person at work that you just can’t stand, looking healthy. Hold these images, the words in the phrases, and the sensation of your breath in the forefront of your experience and allow your muscles to relax and your heart to soften. Run through each phrasing at least 10 times before moving on. I use a traditional Mala (a string of beads) to help me keep track. If you find yourself overwhelmed you can always anchor yourself back to your breath, and stay with it as long as you’d like. _____________________________________________________

I was discussing this meditation several years ago with a friend of mine. He said that when he is feeling low, anxious, or angry he goes to the mountains that border Albuquerque and does “hundreds” of loving-kindness recitations. He says that he inevitably feels better when he leaves and heads back into the city. The sense of loving and accepting yourself unconditionally, then transferring that love to all living things that are found both inside and outside your consciousness is transformative. There is far more power in love than in fear. There is more strength in peace than in violence. This applies not only to the physical world around us, but also the spiritual world that is within all of us. Nurturing love instead of fear, and peace instead of violence: this is the path to healing. 

A Green Summer

This post was originally written for Melinda Wilder’s blog: HeyLouWrites. Check out her amazing writing here:

Living in the desert has its obvious challenges, not least of all is the constant search for water. All living things residing in desert climes face this similar fate; for a creature can exist for quite some time without food, but water is the stuff of life. It would seem that nothing can survive long without it. The desert, that ever changing and surprising landscape, holds so many secrets of survival that nothing is ever as it seems.

New Mexico, like much of the great southwest, depends on monsoon rains during July and August to buoy yearly rainfall totals. Rainfall throughout the rest of the year is lackluster at best, and there have been many late spring months where residents of Albuquerque and beyond have felt the emotional toll that a dry fall and winter can have on a body and mind. Not only do the rains hold the key for physical life to continue and flourish, they provide a vital service to the mind and spirit; invigorating, revitalizing.

So it is with great anticipation that the desert awaits its drink. The months of April and May, casually letting loose the clouds on much of the rest of the country, deny the southwest their respite from up to 6 months with less than an inch of precipitation. June comes in with a deeply draining sense of hopelessness, until the last weeks, when a cold breeze begins applying itself to the west. Then, sometime in early July, late in the afternoon, big bellied clouds roll in off the volcanoes in the west, catching against the Jemez, Sandia, and Manzano mountains, and piling up in great towers of darkened cotton. All at once they drop their payload, often for 45 minutes at a time, then breaking away allowing the sun one last glimpse of the earth before clocking out from it’s shift. Not to worry, the great cumulus clouds will return tomorrow, and they are efficiently punctual.

The desert that greets the sun the morning following the first monsoon rains is not the same as the one from the day before. Small green ground cover begins to appear in what was only one day ago a great brown ocean, the cholla and prickly pear cacti start showing the faint traces of flower, and blue gramma and buffalo grasses begin the short journey towards shedding their seeds and perpetuating their survival. As the days pass with their daily downpours late in the afternoon, the burnt landscape begins its seasonal transformation. And the desert knows exactly what it needs: summer rainfall late in the day or overnight is far more beneficial than the late morning or afternoon. During the peak heat times of the day the rain can evaporate so quickly that it won’t make a difference if it makes it to the ground, and often won’t make it to the ground at all. Rain late in the day and at night allows for the rain to hit the desert floor and soak in, nurturing the soil for as long as it can.

Watching the walls of water spread out in the distance is a captivating experience. As the thunderheads migrate eastward, great sheets of rain paint the horizon below the clouds different shades of slate, gray, and charcoal, based upon the intensity of the downpour. These screens stretch for miles and miles, blanketing the distance but inching ever closer towards the volcanoes on the edge of Albuquerque where I bear witness to their unfurling. The volcanoes are the best place in Albuquerque to watch a storm: they provide a complete panorama of the city edged against the great Sandia Mountains to the east as well as the vast expanse of nowhere reaching North, South, and West. The city in the valley below sparkles in the twilight as lights turn on to greet the coming night. Why are you people in your homes? Why are you not outside to catch some of the life that will soon be spilling out of the skies?

Water hitting hot, dry ground has always produced one of the most aromatherapeutic smells in the natural, or unnatural world. As a child I remember the smell of the first rain drops hitting the dark macadam of the city streets where I grew up. A sweet, slightly metallic odor rises as the water mixes with the oils on the blacktop. The heat causing the cold drops to create small geysers of steam that dissipate about a foot off the ground, releasing the familiar, long-awaited smell before soaking the earth and morphing into something a little more sickly-sweet, losing the metallic layers in the process. I never thought there was a better smell until I experienced the rain hitting dry dust instead of the tar of industry, and sage, rosemary, and desert willow instead of grass and the old mulch of far-fallen leaves from the previous autumn. Equally earthy, but much more natural, pure, cleansing. The ground of my youth was polluted by an overabundance of smells that overwhelmed the olfactory system. In contrast, the desert smells mix menthol and camphor, clearing the nasal passages and calming frazzled nerves quickly. The air is think with a dusty scent in accompaniment as the parched sand and dirt fly into the air with each new strike of the raindrops.

While this process repeats itself for two weeks every summer, every ten years or so an anomaly may arise like the cumulonimbus clouds towering the horizon. During this type of year the monsoons stay not for two weeks, but stretch from the end of June till the middle of August, enveloping most of the summer in a perpetual forecast of moisture. The year I arrived in the southwest, 2006, was one such year. This year, 2015, has been another. In fact, the rains began in the beginning of May and have not quit. Rain has not show it’s face every day, but more days than not have been marked by puddled gutters and wonderfully smelling desert plant life. When looking west towards the volcanoes a great green country greets the eye, beckoning. Driving through the region, north through Colorado and west through northern Arizona, the same site is present. Ten-year water numbers are vastly improving due to the amount of water falling from the sky. Rivers rise above their banks throughout the area and the Rio Grande, running mere blocks from my home, is high and muddy on a consistent basis; a tell-tale sign of extreme runoff. The desert has changed before my eyes: once a barren, desolate patch, promising a harsh and unforgiving existence is now a healing factor, stitching the wounds of my year and applying a needed salve.

The desert is analogous to life in many ways. St. John had his long dark night of the soul, but I feel like what he was describing is better termed as a long walk through the desert. Periods of extreme drought followed by an outpouring of growth and beauty. Creatures that have adapted to the harsh life offered by the desert have one constant instinct: get water, stay alive. Again, this is analogous to what humans need throughout their lives. There must be a constant search for that which gives life, that which sustains. When I am parched from these things I dry up and become emotionally dormant, unable to grow and show the world the beauty that is my true identity. On the converse, when I find and drink the water of life I flourish and bloom, my winsome nature becoming apparent not only to the world around me, but also to myself.

Finding the well can be difficult, and from time to time the water dries up, leaving me to search for a new draught. Fortunate for me there are dowsers as a guide: exercise, connecting with nature, exploring spirituality. Unfortunate for me, there are also springs that promise to quench thirst, and seem to do exactly that at first, only to reveal themselves to be a poison. Or they are actually feeding the side of me that takes away life.

Consider the Cherokee legend of the two wolves: A grandfather explains to his grandchild that he has two wolves fighting within him. One wolf is malice, anger, shame, and pain. The other is love, compassion, peace, and contentment. The child asks, “Which will win?” The grandfather replies, “The one I feed.”

I see that there is water that will feed my beauty, and there is water that will feed my pain. There aren’t always clear signs hanging from those wells that hold poison, but I have always felt that there are signs on the wells that give life. So I continue to search through the desert, drinking greedily when I come to the latter.

A western hike through the volcanoes this week shows the signs of the dry season to come: gold-brown patches have appeared amongst the green, and the walls of water that once dominated the sky are no longer. It will be a while before desperation creeps back over these lands, but it is inevitable. Like the amazing Rose of Jericho, the desert will crawl into its dusty brown turmoil, looking dead until the next season of monsoons hit, allowing it to bloom for only another moment.