“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi

All I could think, as I turned the last pages of the Epilogue of When Breath Becomes Air was, “I just read a man’s life.”

Even remembering the book makes my chest tighten and pressure build behind my eyes. It wrapped me up, gently pulling my mind into its depths, teaching me and singing to me in a way both beautiful and endlessly sad. The book is a record of Paul Kalanthi’s life and is his last days, as he spent them mainly recording his mind in words.

Paul’s book is not simply the story of a man with cancer, though; he writes from an incredibly powerful perspective, one with the wisdom of many lifetimes, about the intersections of life, death, and meaning. These themes were at the forefront of his mind from the beginning ~ as a child he was led into the world of literature by his mother, and quickly developed an intense desire to understand mortality and meaning. He used books to understand, finally studying both literature and neuroscience in college.

Paul realized quickly that he had two paths he could follow: that of experiencing externally or of personally understanding. He could either read about mortality or come in the closest contact with it without dying: becoming a neurosurgeon. He chose to enter medical school and learn from there.

Paul’s descriptions of med school, medical ethics and the experience of wishing to be personally invested in patients yet needing to survive constant death were unbelievably well stated and easy to understand, even as someone not involved in medicine (or science, for that matter). He wrote with philosophy and science in the same sentences, explaining that a spiritual and scientific approach weren’t necessarily exclusive. Paul’s pages read as if he were explaining directly to me; I now understand how I personally understand the world, and find meaning, worlds more than I did before opening the book. I do not want to discuss how he defined meaning because I cannot say it in a manner near as effective as Paul, so I shall leave that and let you read his words for yourself… but what he wrote is entirely unlike anything I have read even as a student of philosophy and religion. I underlined probably a fourth of the entire book, simply because his words are worth remembering. As Lucy mentions, this book is a teacher. Through it, Paul shared what he found most valuable and meaningful in life. What more could we ask from anyone.

The book does not end; instead it is left. Lucy writes in the epilogue that Paul never finished the book; instead it ended when he died, which is the most honest way it could have happened.

This book is now one of my most cherished experiences, for it was truly an experience to be allowed and welcomed into the mind of Paul Kalanithi.

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Heart Lake

As I’ve mentioned before, my mom and sister visited this past week. They arrived Sunday and stayed until Wednesday. It was wonderful to spend time with them and show them my favorite parts of Boulder (the general theme was hiking and food, obviously). Even more than that they brought a feeling of home and the comfort of family, for which I am endlessly grateful.

Although they left Wednesday (for Colorado Springs to visit my uncle and cousins) I had the entire week off from work ~ I felt like my time in Boulder is waning and I deeply wanted to try a solitary hike, so I made that time for myself by asking for the last two days off. Thus Wednesday evening I scanned through hikes on the Alltrails app and finally chose one called “Heart Lake.”


I woke up with David on Thursday morning (7 am) and prepared for my hike as he prepared for work. I had barely planned and only knew the hike was about 12 miles long, was dog friendly, and would bring me to a lake. After dropping David off at work and returning home to grab a few more items, Lacey and I were on our way down Canyon Road toward Nederland.

We wound our way through the mountains, Spotify hooked up to the Aux cable, and I felt a bit nervous. I hadn’t hiked anything other than Chautauqua without human company, and Chautauqua is only 15 minutes from our apartment. It’s also highly trafficked and the trails are in one general area. Basically, Chautauqua is safe whereas the hike I was headed toward, Heart Lake, was completely foreign to me. Furthermore I didn’t have a functional GPS so I was driving based on somewhat-educated guesswork.

I knew how to reach Ned, though, so Lacey and I made it there easily. I stopped to fill up the car’s tank then dropped into a local grocery store. In the store I picked up 4 Clif bars and a couple of apples. I was searching for something for Lacey and struck up a conversation with a man working there. He was so kind, and recommended chocolate (not for Lacey but for me)… although I subtly avoided the chocolate I did find an entire buffet-style wooden cart full of different kinds of dog bones right behind the guy, and we had a lovely conversation.

Conversation empowers me ~ I always forget how much connections with other people matter ~ so I set out from the grocery store with a smile and blasting my music, driving upwards toward the Rockies. I had general directions in a photo on my phone, so I knew to drive forward until a main road in “Winter Park.”

An hour later, I was absolutely lost. I decided to find somewhere to ask directions but realized my options were pretty limited… I was in the middle of nowhere, curling my way through a few homes, but mostly unadulterated mountain wilderness. Finally I saw a liquor store coming up on the right and I pulled over.

Getting out of my car I saw an ancient looking man sitting on a bench outside of the store. I didn’t know whether he was the owner or a customer or maybe just chilling, so I tentatively said hi. He just nodded so I just decided to make my way inside. It was dark, and filled with bottles. I was a bit lost simply looking around when I saw a younger woman standing at a cash register to my right. I said hello and she smiled, greeting me as well. I said something like, “So, I’m actually here for directions…” worried she would be disappointed I wasn’t buying (it didn’t look like they had many customers on the daily) but she just laughed and asked me where I needed to go. I told her I was headed to Heart Lake. She called to her friend; neither of them had heard of it so I said, “Winter Park?” She furrowed her brows. “Winter Park is pretty far away,” she told me, showing me on her map. I knew I couldn’t be that off the mark so I told her I’d grab my phone from the car and show her the coordinates from the Alltrails app.

“Oh, I know that hike!!” She exclaimed once she had plugged the spot in on her GPS. “It’s awesome, but it’s really steep…” She looked at me quizzically. I guess I appeared the mountain-happy-yet-inexperienced tourist. I just smiled. She gave me directions, telling me to take “the only road in Rollinsville” (back toward Ned) all the way to its ending at the trailhead. I thanked her and her friend, and we parted ways after wishing each other a good day.

I got back in my car, Lacey eagerly greeting me. We did a U-turn and I could swear the car groaned as we made our way back from whence we came.

After maybe 15 minutes we were in Rollinsville; it was definitely a tiny town. At the first major road I saw I turned, guessing it was the “only road” the woman had been talking about. After perhaps 200 feet of pavement and a tunnel, the road changed to clay and gravel and we bumped our way into the forest.

I was on this road for over half an hour, wondering every other turn whether I should turn back. I decided each time to trust myself and trust the road; that’s always part of traveling~ trusting. Finally the road curved over a railroad and I saw a campsite to my right. A man was sitting at the edge of his tent, eating something. As I passed he looked up and I saw that he was wearing a cliche pirate’s eyepatch. At first I was slightly creeped out, but then he smiled. There was something about the simplicity and openness of his expression gave me a feeling of peace. Soon after, we arrived at the trailhead.

I parked and eagerly threw my scattered gear into my backpack, lacing on my hiking boots and slathering sunscreen on my face, arms and chest. I looked up when I heard someone call, “Are you from Florida?” It was an older man, perhaps my dad’s age with another guy. They both had easy smiles and were preparing to hike as I was. “I saw your license plate,” he continued, “and my daughter lives in Sarasota!” I smiled back, happy at his happiness at having found a connection in a total stranger. “Yeah!” I replied. I explained that I was from Pensacola and we discussed Florida for a few minutes. “Are you going for the top?” he asked, and I answered truthfully that I really didn’t know what I was getting into, but I would see how far Lacey and I could make it. He agreed, saying that he and his friend had gotten a late start and that they just wanted to have a good time on the trail. Their openness and harmony with the present moment was breathtaking. We parted ways, saying that perhaps we would meet on the trail as I made my way with Lacey to the trailhead and we began walking down the dirt path.

The beginning of any new path is disconcerting, in some ways, because there’s no real way of knowing what’s ahead. This feeling washed over me as Lacey and I made our way past pine trees of all shapes and sizes, through aspens with their flickering green leaves, and over the creek, which cut across our path several times throughout our journey. The path was easy at first; I could see enormous mountains looming ahead with white patches of snow adorning their ridges, but we were too far away to even imagine being atop them. I slowly let go of control, allowing my mind to slip into the easy pace of my steps. I began to look up from the path, trusting the trail and letting my feet guide me, gazing at the deepening woods surrounding me. Lacey bounded around me, darting into the trees and leaping over logs, her ears flapping wildly as she moved.

We only passed perhaps 6 people as we climbed higher. Most people said hello and moved on, but a few stopped and we chatted by the pines or atop the bridges as the creek grew larger and stronger. These people, the ones who took the time to stop, told me about what awaited me at the top. They said to continue onward after the first lake to reach Heart Lake; although there had been two places where I could have chosen the wrong path because I didn’t have directions, I had somehow chosen the right direction and was headed for the summit.

The path became steadily steeper as we followed switchbacks upwards. Every so often I found myself surrounded by seemingly leafless pines, with this indescribable moss draping from the branches. It was like a fairy world.

Eventually the forest become less dense and I began to see glimpses of blue above the branches of pine. The air was clear and thinner, and I had to stop more often. When we curved above treeline it was like a door opening; there was no subtle shift, instead it was as if the forest chose the moment to give us up to the open sky above. I had to stop, staring around me in fascination. Open fields arced over small hills to my left and right, wildflowers glowing from every inch. I saw the first lake to my left, and called Lacey off the path to touch the impossibly turquoise water.

We met a couple who were descending from Heart Lake. They encouraged us onward, and even took a picture of us next to that first lake. I felt the effects of altitude ~ we were above treeline, and although I don’t know the exact altitude it must have been at least 11,000 feet ~ but I decided to continue to the next lake.

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The path toward Heart Lake was open to the wind, which gusted wildly as we tried to move upward. I fell down more than once and felt awe and some fear; this was not what I had expected. My legs were exhausted and my mind was foggy. Even more than that, the weather is subject to nearly-instant change above treeline, and I’ve been warned more than once to watch out for afternoon storms on the mountain peaks. It was already past 2 o’clock, but when I checked the sky I saw only very distant clouds and they looked peaceful enough. I decided to continue on.

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We saw Heart Lake but decided to stay on the path; it was downward from the path we had already climbed, and when I looked up the trail arced toward the summit. I was utterly spent but something within me stubbornly pushed forward… also Lacey had decided to move toward the top regardless of what I did, and I was too tired to call out to her to turn back. So, we climbed.

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After what must’ve only been 15 or 20 minutes along the path, we neared the top. Each time I looked down I realized generally how dangerous the path was; it was very narrow, and the fall was absolute. File_000 (6)My brain didn’t truly register it as an issue, though, and eventually I realized we had made it to a slight hill. The path ended and I giddily ran toward the other side, needing to reach an edge, an endpoint. I halted atop the hill and gazed forward.

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The entire expanse of the Rockies was laid out in front of Lacey and me, and we gasped for air as we both stared. I don’t know what Lacey was thinking, but I believe that essentially we were the same in that moment. The shades of blue, fading, fading. I quickly understood that we would have to turn back, though, when I saw dark clouds hanging above the mountain range; they could’ve been too far to reach us anytime soon but my impeded brain was noting a distinct possibility of danger. I brashly decided to stop for a few moments, sit down, and take everything in… I ate a Clif bar as Lacey ate a dog treat… then we turned tail and began to speed down the trail. I cast glances behind us at the sky every few steps, a foolish move as the trail was already dangerous, but somehow we made it to the bottom of the steepest part of the trail. There was a young man with a large brown dog making their way toward us; I said hello but warned him of the impending weather. He acknowledged this but said he would continue forward, if only for a few more minutes. I would have done the same, I think; the stubbornness of my altitude-brain would’ve needed to get to the top despite the weather. But we had reached our goal, and Lacey and I continued to jog quickly over the rocky path toward the treeline as the clouds grew darker.

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Further down the trail we met more hikers, continuing to warn those we saw. The boy and his dog met us a little below treeline. He told me that they had turned back soon after my warning, and that the weather had indeed become worse at the top. The biggest issue above treeline is lightning, highly dangerous because of the extreme exposure to the open sky. They passed us at a run as Lacey and I slowed among the trees.

The world had grown much darker, the pines blending together in a sea of greens. Rain began to fall, only lightly, and ceased as we descended. By this time, I could only think of rest and a solid meal; we made our way quietly down the mountain.

At the base of the mountain, as the forest opened up to show us the first signs of the trail, I turned to look behind us. I saw the enormous, distant mountain I had glimpsed as we began and recognized the snow on the peak; this is where we had been, only hours before. The sky was blue but less bright, the afternoon light filtering through a few clouds spread over the horizon… I knew it was time to go home. File_000 (7)

We reached the car and Lacey fell asleep the moment she laid down in the passenger seat. I loosened my shoe laces and began the long drive back to Boulder.

Walking on the Hessie Trail, Nederland, CO


The rock beneath me is smooth, nearly perfect for sitting upon. If I narrow my eyelids just shy of closed the aspen leaves look like flickering gold-green lights among the dark evergreen stillness. The sound of the wind is my soul, it moves like waves through the forest. It breathes on my skin. 

The path breaks over the land in remnants of ancient boulders; the small rocks shift under my feet as I climb. 

Descending it slowly molts into dirt and crushed pine needles, rocks with streaks of orange and black peppering the way underfoot. 

 

I drink in the depth of the mountains arcing above me, the creek flowing joyfully below my feet padding on a wooden bridge. Lacey darts into the underbrush only to return minutes later once she’s chased some innocent forest creature, panting exhaustedly. 


Tomorrow I’ll wake up early and leave for the mountains with only Lacey as a companion. I’ve taken the next two days off of work for the sole purpose of spending quiet time among the mountains with my feet to guide the way. 

Why I Hike

After a breakfast at The Buff (which was incredible), Mom, Maggie (my sister) and I took Flagstaff Road up, past where David and I rock climb, past our sunset spot, all the way to a sign which read “Leaving of Open Space and Mountain Parks.” I had found directions to “Green Mountain Ridge Hike” on the Alltrails app. We parked by the sign and started on the trailhead hidden behind it.

Slowly we made our way into the evergreen trees with Lacey bounding excitedly ahead. Step after step it became easier and I felt myself bleed into the forest. I think I’ve figured out why I find myself drawn toward hiking and it has to do with 4 stages:

  1. The beginning: the first few minutes of hiking always feel more like exercise than anything. Each time I wonder why I love hiking so much and my mind whirls from one thought to another, one stressor to another. I trip over root and call out to Lacey each time she wanders from the path.
  2. Focusing the mind: As I continue to walk I slowly realize what’s around me — pine trees, ancient boulders, wildflowers, small golden butterflies… and I find myself in awe. My eyes flick from side to side, trying to absorb every aspect of the beauty around me. I am mentally and physically active.
  3. Conversation: This is the part of the hike when conversations happen which only happen among nature. I am loudly joyful, calling to Lacey and stopping often to witness breathtaking vistas. I talk with fellow travelers about what I see; we discuss what it may mean, letting our words wander as our footsteps do.
  4. Quietude: The point where the path takes precedence over all else. I forget to think, I forget to call to Lacey as she chases squirrels and chipmunks. I am wide open. I witness. My feet move forward of their own accord and I am allowed to simply breathe.

Hiking has taught me to trust that peace has its own way of finding me.

Mt Sanitas

“Sanitas,” in Latin, means “health.” Mt Sanitas was originally a quarry owned and operated by the University of Colorado, but was bought by the city in the early 1900s in order for the beautiful mountain to be preserved and protected for future generations.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, it has been bothering me that I spend so much of my time at work or at home, exhausted from work. I see the mountains every day and breathe the mountain air, yet I deeply yearn to be among the pine and boulders.

As I feel the time here waning I grow more and more motivated to do. It’s a skill, I’ve learned, to simply move in the direction of what I want. Yesterday, I woke up, made a hearty breakfast for David and myself of eggs and refried beans with melted soy cheese on top, and prepared for a hike. I didn’t know where we would go, but I knew how to accomplish the hard part — getting into the car and driving toward the mountains.

Around noon we piled into the car (Lacey included) and headed up Canyon toward the range. I had my Alltrails app open and saw that I had looked up Mt Sanitas earlier and yet had never attempted it; using this as a push of fate, I asked David to take us to the trailhead.

 We found Centennial Trailhead but it took us a few minutes to find the actual trail; once we did, it felt simply right. It was the hottest part of the day, around 1 o’clock, so we sunscreened up in a little picnic area at the beginning of the Mt Sanitas Trail. OH a really cool thing we bought: we had a $20 certificate at REI, so we ended up purchasing a Camelbak water bladder (without the Camelbak backpack) and hanging it in one of our backpacks… it’s an awesome hiker hack I’d totally recommend!!!!


So we hiked onward and upward. Lacey was the one who kept stopping, finding shade and refusing the move. David and I ended up finding a cool spot to paint; the paintings ended up like blobs of color but we had a wonderful conversation with a few hikers as we painted, so all is well in the world.


 We found a camouflaged bag at one of the places we stopped; it was similar to a geocache but inside was a notebook, a stamp and an ink pad. It was a letter repository. We wrote a letter and left it as we found it.


We finally made it to the summit after a few hours of hiking and stopping, hiking and stopping. We looked over the entire city of Boulder and could even see Denver, with its huge office buildings all crowded into a penny-sized speck on the horizon.


The walk down was a million times cooler. We took our time, lazily making our way through the switch-backs and toward the city. We found the Mt Sanitas Eagle painted on a particularly large boulder, and David found pokemon along the path. It was more and more peaceful.


When we arrived home we rested until the sunset. As the sun just began to set I felt that we should witness it, so we jumped in the car again and drove all the way up Flagstaff Mountain, catching the last wisps of peach and fire in the sky and watching the blues and purples seep into the mountains. We saw lightning approaching, the storm clouds growing larger. We found ourselves watching the world change.

 

“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

This book… has so many layers. I don’t know how to begin to describe it.

I’ll start with feelings: I loved it and yet it terrified me. In each moment it reminded me of a world I could not survive — one without sunlight and pine trees and the sound of birds in the morning. McCarthy’s ability to drain the world of all color, to limit the mind to shades of gray as the eyes move from line to line… his writing style is far too effective for comfort.

That was, of course, the point.

The Road is as gray and non-changing a story as the world in which it is set. McCarthy describes a man and his son walking on a road, the road, toward warmth as winter is descending. Every so often something immense happens quickly then everything returns to normal — almost like a scream in the night without echo — and these are what make the story addicting in a sick way. People resorting to cannibalism… the man trying to hide rotten corpses from his son’s sight… torture and mutilation… this is a truly dystopian world. It is a world in which there truly is no hope. A specific conversation between the man and the boy puts this in perspective: they are talking about life. This life is the only which they boy has ever known… the man tells stories of the time before, yet the boy only half believes them. Finally the boy will not hear any more of the man’s stories because they are not true. The man stops, wondering. He asks why they aren’t true. The boy responds that this life is not good, like the lives of people in the stories. The man asks what it is, then; the boy responds, “okay.”

The dialogue within McCarthy’s tale is itself a huge aspect of the storytelling. There is little to no use of apostrophes in contractions or elsewhere. There are no quotation marks and capitalization within sentences is rare to nonexistent. It is stripped of anything unnecessary, just as their lives are. The paragraphs are short and descriptions barren yet somehow fully effective. McCarthy succeeded in creating a tone of despair and lack and also creating an entire world.

I would recommend this book because it moved me and because it is a warning. If you read it, though, perhaps try to read it quickly; McCarthy’s writing inevitably will pull you into his world until the very last page.

Storm on the mountain

There was no moon. The clouds twisted in the sky, pale to dark-grey wisps dripping toward the earth like black dew off of midnight leaves. The last remnants of sunset hovered on the horizon, nearing brightness yet more dull, as if the rain reached through he brilliance to place its mark on the sun. The chin-high grasses whipped and whispered around us, our silent forms slowly rising, blending into the mountain.

We hiked at evening-time, wishing to become a part of the mountains ringing our valley for a change. Sitting atop the rocks at the trail’s crest, we wondered at the vastness of the city, breathing to the flickering lights and feeling somehow alone. We heard the city’s sounds and we were not a part of them; we had walked away, up into the mountain, giving ourselves to nature as the storm coalesced above our heads. There was something immense in our silent trust. We gave ourselves to the mountain to protect.

As we walked back down the darkening path I held my hands out at my sides, palms facing up.