SOLA PEDALING by Carter Helliwell

Sola Pedaling

During the summer after I graduated from high school, I made a new friend in the neighborhood. We did heaps of outdoorsy things together and soon began planning a bike-riding trip through the Mediterranean. He preferred the idea of a boys’ beer adventure trip with his brother, so I decided that biking around Europe alone would suit me fine. I had been an exchange student in Venezuela and had done a fair amount of traveling with my family. I was craving independence and anonymity.

I decided to visit Corsica, Sardinia, Italy, and the Greek Islands. I agreed to call home once a week. (Internet and cellphones were things of the future.) I was only 17 and didn’t have a credit card, so I planned diligent use of my traveler’s checks. I would pack lightly and stay in youth hostels along my route. I would rely on my high school French and some perfunctory Greek that lay dormant from having lived there as a small child. I had no experience speaking Italian, but seeing the beautiful Italian countryside was a top priority. I would muddle through any language deficiencies.

I landed in Pisa and after a bit of greasy bike finagling I was soon happily pedaling. All went well during those early days in the countryside. I enjoyed meandering and carefully composing photos I wouldn’t see until later when I had the film developed. Youth hostel life was mostly straightforward. I slept in my own ‘sheet sleeping bag’ that I had sewn, which helped give me a familiar feeling every night, and I ate well from the fruit stalls, delis, and bakeries in every town. Lots of pointing on my part and eyebrow raising by those behind the counters was the norm as I attempted Italian phrasing about all things delicious.

I was strategic in planning my daily rides, because a miscalculation could find me cycling in the dark. With the same logic that had me omit a bike repair kit, I had reasoned that I didn’t need lights, since I didn’t plan to use them. Now, looking back at that trip from the perspective of a middle-aged mother of three who doesn’t leave the house without an armament of provisions and clothing, I find the mindset of my teenaged-self baffling.

I blissfully soaked up every detail of the bucolic scenery on the quiet back roads, enjoying the rhythmic pace of contemplative pedaling. The friendly people I passed were curious and spoke to me. I saw them watering their yards, playing with their children and grandchildren, walking their dogs, and pegging laundry. Seeing me alone, bolstered their courage to engage me and their eyes widened with incredulity when I answered their questions:

“Si, Canadese.”

“Si, sono sola”

“Corsica, Sardinia e Grecia il prossimi.”

Their surprised reactions turned into amusement when I offered a confident smile. Many gave me a variation of the ‘Go for it!’ sign.

I explored Italy and Corsica before I took a ship to Sardinia. I was keen to see the island’s lush pastoral areas, quaint country towns, and ‘Emerald Coast’ beaches. As I straddled my bright yellow bike and surveyed the landscape from a vantage spot on the ship’s upper deck, I realized that I had neglected one crucial element of geographical research: topography. Sardinia is a small island, but flat, it is not.  As I quickly recalculated the distances on my map, I feared I wouldn’t make it to the hostel before it got dark. Increasing my pace was my only option, so I pedaled with fervor up hills and down valleys, through craggy green terrain crisscrossed with rock walls that only vaguely restrained intrepid sheep. When I finally arrived at the hostel location, I found only an empty lot.

Exhausted and confused, I coasted down the main street of the quiet coastal town just as the sun was setting. I asked a shop-owner who was closing up, for directions. I pointed at the little red house icon on the map that denoted the hostel. He removed his glasses to take a closer look and came up bleak-faced. He said something to his young son who was standing at his side, and then his son said in English “Hotel, no. Next year to build.” I thanked them and had little choice but to check into a tiny pensione at the end of the street where I enjoyed a night of luxury. I had a bath in a private ensuite and then climbed under the freshly laundered sheets of a comfortable bed.

The sleep was transformative and I spent the next day exploring the town, swimming at the beach, and admiring all the yachts in the marina. I got into a pleasant conversation (in English, hurrah!) with a couple of sailors who invited me to join them on their sailing adventures to Greece. Both men were probably only in their 30s, but looked older, their heavily tanned faces already deeply lined. Fear of being alone with men I didn’t know caused me to decline, but looking back, I think I missed that they were likely a romantically involved couple just wanting to offer safe passage to a pint-sized female teen traveling alone.

I continued south where the turquoise beaches were long and shimmered like countless dancing fairies. I spent a couple nights glamping and passed unhurried days lounging on the beach trying to read the local paper. When it was time to retrace my path, I decided instead to avoid the Sardinian Rockies and take the train. In order to make the train to catch the boat I had to leave at 3:00 AM. The moon lit my path like a giant bulb in an otherwise inky sky. The gravel road before me was busy with critters, furry and otherwise, crossing to and fro. I heard crickets and the sounds of birds stirring in the cool morning air as I searched for courage in the pre-dawn light. I settled into a rhythm but faltered when a pair of headlights appeared over a rise. Panicking that I could be abducted by some ne’er-do-well Sardinian, (who else but a deranged person would be driving a lonely road at this ungodly hour?), I quickly ran my bike off the road and hid in the ditch, holding my breath until I saw it was just a pickup truck filled with crates of produce. It rumbled past sedately.

As the sun crept up the horizon, I found breakfast at an already bustling bakery and ate on a bench outside the train station. When I loaded my bike into the passenger compartment of the train, I was surprised to see the car was made almost entirely of wood and was open to the sky and had heavy fabric above like a ragtop convertible. A handsome gentleman entered the car at the first stop and eyed me curiously. He was middle aged and elegantly dressed in a linen suit. He checked his pocket watch when the train abruptly stopped and sat idle on the track for a few minutes. I leaned out the side of the rickety trolley, but all I could see were rows of densely leafed trees. The gentleman offered a quick burst of Italian by way of explanation, but I was no closer to understanding the level of our predicament. How bad could it be? Likely it was sheep on the track or maybe it was a stalled delivery van full of pastries, or gelato at risk of melting?!  My musings over delays of possible yumminess were interrupted when the train conductor suddenly appeared in our compartment, looking pink-faced and warm in his thick sweater and cap, carrying a basket full of cherries.

“A stop to pick cherries?” I thought. “Italy!!  You do not disappoint!”

He gestured for us to share the bounty and moments later we were on our way. The be-suited gentleman and I each took a large handful and passed the basket back. The cherries were small but incredibly sweet and we munched in tasty silence, throwing pits out the side of the train car until the gentleman worked up the courage to ask me the usual questions.

“Canada?! Eppa!” he said with an expansive arm gesture and gold-toothed smile. The fact I was alone AND traveling by bike seemed beyond his comprehension. He pulled out his wallet and I had a moment of confusion until he carefully eased out a couple of photos and began pointing animatedly. I managed to understand that he was on his way to his son’s 20th birthday party. His wife and whole family were already there, cooking. There would be music and dancing and the most delicious ‘torta al limone’ at the party and would I please attend? The photo of his son revealed him to be very handsome and his father gave me a knowing nod. He complimented my physique (miming, ‘strong’ and ‘pretty’) and said something about ‘bambini Canadesi’ and pointed to my blue eyes and winked mischievously.

Even though we had shared food and pleasant, albeit mostly-mimed conversation I didn’t feel inclined to abandon my plans as his stop approached. I lamented my poor language skills hadn’t allowed me to fully explain that I had to have already planned where I would stay the night upcoming. But I suspected it was better that way because I felt sure he would have offered me a bed for the night, and I was almost as sure his son might have been in it!  So I missed singing “Buon Compleanno” and carried on to meet my boat bound for Greece.

In Greece I transited quickly out to the islands and settled on Santorini. There, I stayed in their derelict but oh-so-much fun hostel for a week. I met a crazy Canadian girl who got me into no end of adventures including topless sun tanning, late night dancing, and ouzo. (My bike didn’t move.)

At the end of my trip, as I waited for the plane to take off from Athens, I breathed a satisfied sigh. It had been a risky undertaking, to say the least, navigating alone with neither credit card nor phone but I managed it. I had enjoyed myself and learned enormously. I’ve read that growth occurs in the space outside one’s comfort zone. I’m not sure why I had to go to the other side of the world to leave my small comfort zone, but that’s when I learned to listen to my own voice. (Maybe that’s partly because it was one of the few I heard in English?)

Today, most of my adventures are less about far-flung locales and more about far-flung soccer socks. As a full-time parent I have graduated from the tasks of potty training and supervising play dates, to the realm of helping to guide appropriate screen use and class selections. I encourage our children to listen to their own voices and I wonder which paths they will choose to take. Our eldest is nearing the age I was when I first ventured out. I know the worry I will feel when she tells me she wants to do something alone, but I also know that my ‘sola’ pedaling gave me much of the confidence and resourcefulness that is the foundation of my life today.

Carter HelliwellCarter Helliwell is a wife, mother, and artist who lives on an idyllic island on Western Canada’s most southern tip. When she isn’t making lunches or doing laundry she spends time in her studio, painting, writing, and creating things full of weirdness and wonder.


MRS. SPOOK, SPAIN, 1965 by Lillian McCloy

Lillian McCloy

Lillian McCloy was the wife of a deep undercover CIA officer during the Cold War. This is an excerpt from her memoir, Six Car Lengths Behind an Elephant: Undercover & Overwhelmed as a CIA Wife and Mother. Frank in this story is Lillian’s husband.

There were times when Frank needed my help, usually to translate intelligence memos written in Spanish. They could not be translated at the embassy, because there appeared to be no secretaries in the political section who could read and write Spanish. I was unable to help Frank in this way until I had been in Spain for a few years and felt confident about my ability to speak and socialize entirely in Spanish.

Once, there was an intriguing assignment for me. Frank had been meeting with a Spanish-speaking Russian (Boris) who was being highly paid for his information by the CIA. Frank was suspicious that Boris was a double agent, working both sides, as it were, so he asked for my help one evening. The plan was as follows: Boris would have coffee in a small café, taking a seat by the window where Frank could see him. Frank would then drive by the café in a particular Volkswagen. When Boris spotted the car going by, he would walk to a designated corner several blocks away and Frank would pick him up there.

When Boris exited the cafe, I was to walk a discreet distance behind, keeping a keen eye on him. I was to wear a black wig (which I borrowed from a friend “for a costume party”) and an ankle-length brown coat. I would also carry a large, black umbrella, which I would use like a walking stick. If Boris talked to anyone on the street, or made a phone call, I was to open the umbrella to signal Frank. This, of course, was a really sappy piece of drama, in my opinion.

Frank was carrying a German passport and wore a fake mustache and thick glasses, as he did every time he’d met with Boris. When we drove away from our house in the Volkswagen, he said he wasn’t feeling well. I suggested it was just nerves, or perhaps the thick glasses. A few minutes later, Frank shot his head out the window and vomited violently. This was not a good beginning, I thought. Definitely not good.

The cafe where we were to see Boris was on an intimate little street in a residential area. We parked nearby. Frank got out of the car with me and we sat on a bench so he could catch his breath. He threw up again. “Put your head down!” I ordered heartlessly, as though I were annoyed with him. I also ducked my head, thinking one of us might be recognized. I realized I was looking at the puddle of Frank’s upheaval and his mustache was in it. I quickly picked up the mustache and slapped it on Frank’s ashen upper lip, but it wouldn’t stick. Half of it did, but the other half didn’t. It hung down to his chin.

Boris wasn’t by the cafe window yet. I could see a farmacia sign (drug store) across the way, so I bolted across the street, my long brown coat billowing behind me. Mission: adhesive tape. I quickly bought the tape and ran back. Folding the tape over, I was able to jam Frank’s mustache back in place. He was so sick by now that he was trembling. He glanced up and raised his eyebrows. There was Boris in the cafe. Frank stood, staggered over to the Volkswagen and pulled away.

I waited until Boris left the cafe, and then followed at a distance. It was a clear evening, filled with stars; the big, black umbrella was a ludicrous accessory and would look even crazier if I opened it. Boris lit a cigarette and strolled down the street. He spoke to no one. I was not destined to be Mary Poppins tonight. After he got in the Volkswagen with Frank, I hailed a taxi to go home, removing my wig and coat to avoid suspicion when I arrived. The driver seemed to find this only mildly interesting. (We had donned our gay apparel in the garage before we left).

Frank’s plan after picking up Boris was to go to a room in a very large and busy hotel. They would have their discussion there, as they had done on previous occasions. Earlier in the day, after booking the room with his German passport, Frank had rigged a reel-to-reel tape recorder behind the bed. (There was nothing simpler at that time). He later told me that when they got to the hotel room, he was imploding with diarrhea and had to apologize to Boris for his non-stop trips to the bathroom. As he sat on the toilet, he imagined the whir-r-r-r of the tape and the impending doom if it reached an end and began to flap.

There was no way of turning the tape machine off without moving the bed and he was becoming concerned. There was only one thing to do. He had to tell Boris how ill he was and arrange to meet him another time. Luckily, Boris had a written report to give him and didn’t mind rescheduling their discussion. A soon as the door closed behind him, the tape started to flap.

Frank spent the following week in bed with stomach flu and high fever. Shaken, but not stirred.

Lillian McCloyLillian McCloy’s memoir was published just after she turned 90 years old, proving that it’s never too late to become a published author. John le Carré calls the book “a charming and unusual portrait of the secret life.”  Her book is popular with book clubs and gets 5-star reader ratings on Amazon and Goodreads.

Excerpt from SIX CAR LENGTHS BEHIND AN ELEPHANT: UNDERCOVER & OVERWHELMED AS A CIA WIFE AND MOTHER by Lillian McCloy, copyright © 2016 by Johanna McCloy. Used by permission of Bordertown Publishing.  All rights reserved.


melissa haynes

“Everyday you can either be a host to God or a hostage to Ego”Dr. Wayne Dyer

Dreamers spend their lives asleep. The early bird gets the worm. Keep your head down and work hard. Your job is your worth. If you don’t have a good job, you don’t have anything. Money makes the world go round. You are your bank balance. Your title defines you. No one will like you if you aren’t successful in business. Things matter. Appearance is everything. Grow up. Get real.

My father had the stage every Sunday night at the formal dining room table. In between bites of roast beef and soggy vegetables he pontificated this sage advice. His well-meaning yet fear-based words were meant to instill a strong work ethic, but as a young child I took these words verbatim and adopted them as my own fear-driven demons beliefs that would form my identity and value.

In The Impersonal Life, author Joseph Benner says beliefs are merely the “rubbish we have gathered from the dumping ground of others.” This is a story of rubbish removal told from the best viewpoint possible: hindsight. It’s 20/20.

It was 2010; I had spent the last three decades desperately trying to fulfill my so-called identity. That started with a paper route and led me to where I was now – about to finish the 2010 Olympics and with it my job as an Olympic project manager. Recession would follow the Games; the economy was already contracting and the torch hadn’t even left town yet.

Melissa HaynesThousands would be looking for jobs and they told us to prepare to be unemployed for at least a year – perhaps two. The prospect of being jobless, worthless for two years was unfathomable. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to. I had an offer to sit at the head of a company in an industry I knew inside and out. The Head of an established company. The Boss. The Big Cheese. The ‘Shit’. I had finally fulfilled my identity destiny and my demons had never been more thrilled.

The job wouldn’t be easy; I’d work long hours at least six days a week, and not have much of a life outside of work; something that was strangely alluring in the past. I’d be so committed to work that I’d quickly bypass the point of no return when it came to children; also something that was strangely alluring in the past. So why then, was I hesitating?

It was the nudge.

The nudge came in the form of a story the late Dr. Wayne Dyer recounted in many of his PBS specials and his movie, The Shift.

Wayne Dyer was 19 years old and had just entered the navy. He was about to make the 28 day voyage to Japan by sea. Before he boarded the ship his uncle Bill gave him a book of short stories written by Leo Tolstoy. One of those stories was called, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan Ilyich was a judge who lived in Moscow. He hated his wife because she had pushed him into this prestigious career, one he did not get any sense of purpose from. He was filled with internal rage and anger. Laying on his deathbed, his wife holding his hand, he looked into her eyes and whispered his last words, ‘What if my whole life was wrong?’ then he died.

Wayne set down the book, opened his notebook and wrote these words: Dear Wayne, don’t die with your music still in you.

While I stood at the crossroads of perhaps what was the biggest (in hindsight) decision of my life, the nudge was too powerful to ignore.

Would I dare to fail? Would I dare to be embarrassed when I fell flat on my face? Would I dare to be judged? Would I dare to let my bullshit identity die? Would I dare to expunge the one thing that defined me? Would I dare to challenge my demons beliefs?

The temptation of comfort and the known was great, but the possibility of living a muted life was even greater.

I turned down the job and dared to do what I had wanted to do my entire life. A spark of passion that was ignited in kindergarten while daydreaming within the pages of National Geographic magazine – I would go to South Africa and save the animals.

At the time I didn’t know if I had just made the best or worst decision of my life. I was leaning towards the latter. But now from the vantage point of the hind, I can see it was the best damn decision I ever made.

After researching many organizations and projects I decided on a Big Five conservation project with an organization called Edge of Africa. I liked that the project was small and very hands-on.

HiShortly after, I arrived in a tiny pocket of South Africa just off the Garden Route to a small game reserve. The reserve was home to rescues of the Big Five: lions who had been saved from a trophy-hunting farm, elephants whose herds were annihilated by poachers and sent to be touring elephants – a fate they rebelled against so they ended up here. Rhinoceros, giraffes, wildebeest, buffalo and crocodiles plus many other animals also called this place home – it was a dream come true.

That was at least until I was shown to my tent camp, a small triangular plot on the edge of the reserve, where I would be sleeping alone. Nothing but a thin electrical wire that merely served as a ‘mental block’ to the animals was all that separated me from them.

065 - Version 2The lion camp bordered one side. The elephant camp was on the other side and the open reserve on the last. The lions were so close, I could hear their roars every night, needless to say I didn’t sleep a wink that first night.

Work began at dawn and ended at dinnertime. The first time I put on the soft, butter yellow, work gloves I had never felt more proud. That is until I began to actually work. Have you ever lifted elephant dung? It’s as heavy as a bowling ball. Mucking out ellie stalls took hours of backbreaking, stinky work. But you know what? It was great. I loved every grueling second of it.

Days were spent patrolling the reserve, tending to the animals, tracking cheetah, and overall reserve maintenance. Working with the animals was exhilarating. I had never felt more purpose or alive because I was finally taking out the rubbish. I had never learned so much about things that really mattered. Every day I gave of myself trying desperately to even out the balance sheet, but the more I gave, the more I received – forever indebted to the animals of Africa.

037A few days in, the worst storm in over a century pummeled the game reserve. Our conservation effort quickly morphed into a massive clean up effort. Rebuilding roads by hand one stone at a time. Chopping reeds from within a crocodile pit to relieve the flooding. Cutting tree branches for food, our only tool for all these jobs – a machete.

One of the casualties from the storm was a red hartebeest, a regal creature. She didn’t die instantly; it would take a few days. I cried and cried for that hartebeest but I also witnessed the perfection of nature and life in her passing. It was a gift that would release me from my own grief over my mother’s passing a few years before.

Soon I no longer feared sleeping in my tent, the lull of the roar of the lions put me to sleep every night. In fact, pretty soon I didn’t fear anything and was ready to confront a life-long phobia: Great White Sharks.

The finale of this volunteer project came weeks later, off the coast of Mosselbaii, South Africa. Pumped-up from my experience thus far, I began to shiver with fear when I climbed into the titanium shark cage. There we waited in the deep blue darkness and silence save for the loud thumping of my heart.

And then it began.

101The cage began to rock. Not from the current, but from the massive weight of the creature that had just slipped past behind us. I tried to look but only caught a glimpse of a dark shadow disappear into the blue. The terror was overwhelming. I reminded myself to breathe.

Within minutes shark after shark came to check us out, one even pushing his nose through the cage just inches in front of my face. Oh my God! Would he bite my head off? Smash the cage? No, no he would not. He would retreat and move on just as quickly as he had arrived.

In this moment I realized that this life-long phobia was nothing more than an illusion. Great white sharks were the coolest and most beautiful beings I had ever seen.

My fear quickly morphed into profound love for this misrepresented creature. A graceful, inquisitive, powerful predator who, after surviving millions of years was now endangered at the hand of the greatest super predator of all: the human race.

As the sea turned pink with sunset I made it my mission to spread the truth about these magnificent creations and put an end to the myths by supporting shark advocacy groups and speaking up for legislation to protect sharks.

My time in Africa was a brief sojourn, merely weeks. I went there to save the animals but the animals saved me. They saved me from my beliefs demons that kept me from daring. They saved me from . . . dying with my music still inside me and I’ve been dancing ever since.

Hindsight. It’s 20/20.

Melissa Haynes is a shark advocate, animal lover, adventure junkie, and author of the book, Learning to Play with a Lion’s Testicles. Her book has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and on Ellen. She is now working on her second book. To see more photos visit her website. (Her crossed-out words in this story are intentional.)

ISN’T THAT FABULOUS by Jenna Jolovitz

Isn't that Fabulous Jenna Jolovitz

Fabulous. It’s not a word that comes out of my mouth naturally. Saying it feels alien, like wearing a hairpiece or playing softball.

Fabulous women have long, tousled hair or extremely short bangs. They wear vintage Chanel with jeans and scarves for belts. They throw casually chic dinners and vacation with friends on islands.

I have, however, done what I consider to be some fairly fabulous things in my life. Okay, I’ve been told that some of things I thought were “fabulous” were actually “weird,” and eating a beef rib in the women’s bathroom of Harrods is apparently “gross.” But the following, I believe, qualifies as fabulous. For you see, I went topless. Not just topless, but topless in the south of France. Cannes, to be exact.

So far, so fabulous.

Yes, it was the beach in Cannes, and everybody was doing it. In fact, I would stand out more if I didn’t do it. And even better, I knew no one, and no one knew me. I was completely anonymous.

So I did it. Like a banana, I peeled down the top of my tank suit (Did you really imagine I owned a bikini?) and into the water I went. Quickly.

There I was, topless in the Mediterranean. The tops of my breasts gleaming white like the top halves of two hardboiled eggs. I felt empowered and alive and sensuous. I felt like a woman capable of enticing an attractive Italian man, spending the evening with him, and then making out at dawn before we caught separate trains – without ever learning his last name. For the first time in my life, I was in total possession of my sensuous femininity. Electric. Powerful. I was a Jackie Collins heroine. Then, from very nearby, I heard:

“You go to Duke, don’t you?”

As it happens, I did.

Lowering myself a little further in the water, I turned to see a young man, my age, right next to me.

“We’ve met. I’m Brad Lastname’s roommate.”

Brad Lastname was a friend at school. He briefly had an unrequited crush on me before graduating, winning a great deal of money in the lottery and posting extensively on Facebook. And there his roommate happened to be: that particular day, in Europe, in the South of France, in Cannes, in the water right next to me, as I went topless.

What are the odds?

“Oh yeah, hi.”

“So, you are studying abroad?”


A typical, banal conversation except for the fact that under the water, my breasts were exposed and we both knew it. That knowledge could have given our conversation a sexual charge.

“You have a Eurail pass?”

“I do.”

“The two-month one?”

“No, the one month. You can’t use it in England. That’s the BritRail pass.”

Do I need to say we didn’t make out? When he left, I pulled up my top, and left the water. Nature, or a higher power was sending me a crystal clear message.

Stop doing that.

What else was I supposed to think? To me, the lesson was laid out before me, Nathaniel Hawthorne-style. I was Hester Prynne, only there was no place to sew my “A.”

I’d like to say that since that experience I’ve found the self-love and acceptance I need to express my own uniqueness and use the word fabulous about myself without extending the “a” way too long in a deep voice. But I can’t.

I am not, nor will I ever be fabulous.

But I learned that it’s not what women wear, or do, that makes them fabulous. It’s not joining or following or copying anyone else. It’s that they dare to express their true selves — from the inside out, for all to see. They carry themselves with a confidence and boldness that no roommate of Brad Lastname could ever shake. That’s what we all find so fascinating.

And they do it in their home countries.

Age has allowed me to appreciate the fact that I am not the norm. I make instant pudding with half the milk, because I like the mortar-like texture. My hand gestures don’t illuminate what I say. And I get way too way too much joy from the $1 Ikea breakfast to be truly mainstream.

I am authentic. Isn’t that fabulous?

Jenna JolovitzJenna is a freelance writer and an alum of Second City in Chicago where she wrote and performed shows alongside Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, and others. She has been on the writing staff of such shows as MADtv, That ’80s Show, Steve Martin’s The Downer Channel and King of Queens, as well as a guest writer on Saturday Night Live. Jenna has also written an upcoming comedy feature, The Flaming Jerk.

TRUCKIN’ by Johanna McCloy


It was the fall of 1984 and I was a sophomore at Duke University. My boyfriend Mark had just graduated and was uncertain about what he wanted to pursue as a career, so he extended his summer job as a driver and mover for a local moving company while he pondered his path and his future.

The moving company that he worked for was founded by a couple of Deadheads, Doug and Toni. Besides them, the staff comprised of Mark, Mark’s brother, and about five other employees, so it was small and had the feel of a large family. The name of the company was Truckin’ Movers and their logo was the same famous Grateful Dead boot that is seen on the cover of the band’s live Europe ’72 album. (I was told that Doug ardently pursued and happily received the band’s permission to use the name and logo.)

In addition to being Deadheads, Doug and Toni were also Krishna devotees, so Doug sometimes wore traditional Indian clothes to the office and donned a tilak (ash mark) on his forehead. In their Durham warehouse, incense smoke wafted in the air and shoes were stashed at the front door. Tapes of the Dead played all day with occasional interludes of Krishna chanting. We knew to be quiet upon entering the warehouse whenever chanting was heard.

While I made my way from Philosophy to Japanese to Geology classes at Duke, my beau mastered the art of loading and driving an 18-wheeler. The large truck had just been added to their fleet of smaller vehicles and Mark was the first employee to get a big rig driver’s license. It wasn’t easy. Maneuvering such a large truck was one thing, but there were also 12 gears and a very specific approach to braking. (If you’ve ever seen runaway truck ramps, that’s what they’re for, braking problems.) Mark had to know about the truck’s mechanics and followed a regimented checklist before each trip, just as a pilot does with a plane before taking off. He also had to know what to expect at highway weigh stations and how to address any issues that might arise there.

When Mark drove long distances over holidays, school breaks or weekends, he’d sometimes take me along, picking me up at the house where I lived off campus. Everyone knew he was coming for blocks before he arrived, because you could hear the truck’s rattling diesel engine and the hissing and squealing of its brakes. Large rigs weren’t supposed to drive through smaller neighborhoods, so as soon as I heard his truck approaching, I’d run outside and wait at the curb. He’d drive up and I’d open the passenger door, take the three large steps up into the cab, plop into the large rotating seat awaiting me, and throw my duffel bag into the sleeper area behind us while the truck barely idled. Then, he’d get the truck out of there before the police could arrive to hand us a ticket. (Doug and Toni weren’t always informed that I joined him.)

Truckin TrailerThe truck’s CB created another world on the freeways, an audio salon covering about a five-mile radius. Over the CB, truckers talked to each other about their jobs, the roads, their trucks, or the area around them. The most common use of the CB was to announce “Smokey” (highway patrol officer) sightings, which allowed truckers approaching the area enough time to slow down and avoid a possible speed trap. In Mark’s case, he received a lot of questions regarding the relatively new crate and tarp system that was being used on his 18-wheel trailer. After explaining how it worked several times, Mark suggested that I take the next query. I happily consented and we decided to make my CB “handle“ Tokyo Rose, based on my years of living in Tokyo as a teenager. It wasn’t typical for a female voice to be heard on the CB and the actress in me loved it. I’d use any excuse to start a conversation. “What’s the weather like in Bammy [Alabama]? Over.”

Truckers also used the CB to comment on motorists, looking down from their high perches into neighboring car windows and taking note of what they saw. Approaching truckers would be told to watch out for the chick in the blue skirt in the brown Toyota, for example. They’d look into the car as they passed, commenting to everyone with a “woohoo,” or “let’s see more of those legs, darlin’.” Little did that poor girl know that all the truckers in the vicinity were talking about her. Moving freely to her tunes, she was likely feeling invisible inside her boxed enclosure.

I learned about runaway ramps located off steep inclines for trucks whose brakes were failing. I learned about the frequency of torn tires and the need for replacements. I also learned the silent ways that truckers communicate by blinking their lights once to tell a truck behind them to go ahead and pass, and blinking twice as a way to say thank you after getting in front, if you were the truck that did so.

When we went to truck stops, we always used North Carolina accents so we could blend in and converse without calling attention to ourselves. When we pulled into weigh stations along the freeways, we’d hear the universal request from the officials awaiting us, arms outstretched with a palm open toward the driver’s window, their words jumbled together as one: “drivuhzlicenserestrationlawoogbuuk!” (driver’s license, registration, log book.)

A trucker’s log book identifies the drivers, the truck owner, the type of truck and the commodities being shipped in its trailer. It also tracks the location and miles for every 15 minute interval of time, whether on or off duty, and throughout every 24 hour period. (This is because there are strict laws regulating how much time a trucker can drive between rests. A faulty log book can result in harsh fines and even prosecution.) After the officials checked the documents and found them to be okay, which was most of the time, Mark would drive onto the designated scale markers on the ground. Each axle would be weighed to ensure compliance with state law maximums and a red or green light would indicate whether we’d need to pull over for further inspection or were free to move on.

When Mark first started driving for Truckin’ Movers, they only owned small trucks, so we were accustomed to riding together on those long vinyl seats that ran across the cabs and rattled along with the truck engines. When he graduated to the 18-wheeler, it felt like we’d become freeway royalty, bouncing with soft air suspension above everyone, in big comfortable easy chair thrones. The first couple of times we rode in those trucks, we’d inevitably break into British accents, pretend waving as if on a parade, “greetings to the minions.” When I rode along with him on multi-day trips, we generally stayed in motels overnight, but when he was alone with the big rig, he’d park at the large truck stops and sleep in the sleeper section of the cab, occasionally awoken by truck stop prostitutes knocking on the cab door to see if he might need anything.

One time, we were hit by a horrible storm in Alabama. I usually helped him by tracking inventory of the items being moved, but that day, I helped him load the truck as well. He was solo and the weather made the work even more grueling. The shipper couldn’t have been nicer and didn’t balk about the trucker’s girlfriend helping him load. After we finished loading, it was after dark and we were frozen to the core. We drove to a motel, took long hot baths and buried ourselves under the blankets, our bodies aching from head to toe. Another time, we unloaded a truck in San Francisco, where Glen, Mark’s “humper” (that’s the actual job title used for the person who assists the main driver/loader in the moving business), literally humped the client in her bedroom as we inventoried and unloaded her furniture on the floor below. She came downstairs with a wide grin on her face and when we were done, she took us all out for pizza.

Mark and I enjoyed all the adventure and independence that came with life on the road. We enjoyed it so much, in fact, that we seriously pondered buying our own truck and taking a year to live and work on the road as independent owner/operators after I graduated from college. That didn’t come to pass, but it remained a dream for some time.

When I’m on road trips and I pass big trucks on the highway or on long country roads, I consider my brief sojourn into that world and smile. Sometimes, I blink my lights to offer a trucker the chance to pass me, or as a way to say thank you for letting me do the same.

Tokyo Rose says hi. Over.

Johanna McCloy is the editor of Dare to be Fabulous. She is also the editor of her mother’s memoir, Six Car Lengths Behind an Elephant:Undercover and Overwhelmed as a CIA Wife and Mother by Lillian McCloy. (An excerpt from that memoir, “Mrs. Spook, Spain, 1965” is also featured on Dare to be Fabulous.) 

ON THE EDGE by Alison Levine

Alison Levine

On May 24, 2010, I made it to the summit of Mount Everest. After turning back at the South Summit—just a few hundred feet from the top in 2002—I swore I would never try again. And trust me, there were many moments of self-doubt.

I am often asked what it was like—to go back to that mountain eight years later, after everything I had been through, and finally stand on top of the highest mountain in the world. I can honestly tell you (wait for it…deep breath…) it just wasn’t that big a deal. Heavy sigh. Think about it for a moment. It’s just a mountain. It’s nothing more than a big ol’ pile of rock and ice. And you are only on the summit for a very short time. You spend two months climbing that mountain, and only a few minutes at the very top. I was up there for thirty minutes. Standing on top of a mountain is not important, and the people who stand on top of Mount Everest are no better than the people who turn around short of the summit. Because climbing mountains isn’t about standing on the top of a pile of rock and ice for a few minutes—it’s about the lessons you learn along the way and how you are going to use that knowledge and experience to better yourself going forward.

I promise you that plenty of better, stronger, more skilled, much more deserving climbers than Alison Levine didn’t make it that day—for whatever reason. Most of them turned back because of the weather. But because I had that failed experience from 2002 under my belt, I knew what it felt like to get beat up and knocked around on that mountain. I knew what it was like to get the snot kicked out of me high up on the summit ridge in a storm. And I wasn’t afraid of that this time around. I knew what my risk tolerance was, and I knew what my pain threshold was. Had I not had that failed experience eight years prior, I very well might have turned around when most others did.

Shortly after my return, the New York Times published a photo of me at the summit, which resulted in phone calls from dozens of friends congratulating me on the accomplishment. But there was a lot more to that photo than what they could see. Let me tell you what they didn’t see: the sponsors who helped to fund my trip, the logistics providers who got all the permits in order, the amazing team of Sherpas who helped ferry loads up and down the mountain, the incredible guides who gave me direction along the way, the friends who helped me train before I left for Nepal, the loved ones who gave me their moral support leading up to the trip…I could go on. Always remember: nobody gets to the top of Mount Everest by themselves. Nobody.

Alison Levine is a history-making polar explorer and mountaineer. She has climbed the highest peak on each continent, served as team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition and skied to both the North and South Poles. This excerpt was provided exclusively for Dare To Be Fabulous.

Excerpted from the book ON THE EDGE: Leadership Lessons Learned from Mount Everest and Other Extreme Environments by Alison Levine.  © 2014 by Alison Levine.  Reprinted by permission of Business Plus.  All rights reserved. 


Tabra Tunoa logo

I am Tabra Tunoa, Fabulous, Creative, Jewelry Designer, Artist, and Very Courageous World Traveling Adventurer. That’s how I like to think of myself….

In the summer of 2006, I decided the time had come for me to stop designing and manufacturing jewelry in the U.S. and move “Tabra International” to Bali, Indonesia. I couldn’t afford health insurance for my employees any longer and the increasingly difficult economic times were stressful. I had marched and marched in the streets of San Francisco protesting the beginning of the Iraqi war and was becoming discouraged as the war started anyway and then dragged on year after year. I was angry, depressed and obsessed about it.  I was losing interest in creating beautiful art.

My business had grown from selling jewelry on the street to a corporation with jewelry sales close to five million a year. My business won the “Inc. 500” Award for one of the fastest growing small businesses in America for two years in a row along with a prestigious Award for Diversity and Social Responsibility in the Work Place. There were many newspaper and book articles written about the way I created jobs for refugees.

In 1997, I faced a difficult life situation. I went bankrupt and lost everything – my house, my car and of course, my business. I was penniless with no prospect of a job. Realizing that there was no one who would hire me at the salary I wanted or give me the freedom of “running the whole show,” I began slowly and painfully to rebuild my business.

During my 20s, I lived with my son in various countries in the South Pacific, the Caribbean, Europe and Central America. I only returned to live in my home in Texas, when it became clear that the war in Vietnam was ending. However, I never really fit in there, so my former college art teacher suggested that I should try Berkeley, California.  Sure enough, at the age of 29, I found a place where an eccentric, non-conforming gypsy, hippie artist and single mother, could thrive.

I sold on the streets of Berkeley for many years before deciding to try the Renaissance and Harvest Festivals. That’s when I began to make real money from designing and creating my hand-made jewelry. The next step was to hire employees to meet the growing demand for my work. I also hired a professional business therapist to teach me how to manage and run a business.

For some 30 years, while traveling in remote corners of the world, buying stones and beads, looking for inspiration, and selling in fairs across America, I continued to grow my business and raise my son in California – all at the same time. In 2006, with my son grown up, and me without a significant other, I was ready for life in another culture again. I was ready for more adventure. I would go alone and I would be okay.

After making that difficult decision (the logistics of it all were absolutely daunting), I gave my employees six months to find another job. The majority were Asian refugees who had fled oppression in their own countries. Some of the refugees had worked with me for 20 years and many had chosen my company when they first arrived in the U.S. fresh off the boat, so to speak. They took my announcement with amazing grace and supported what they knew I had to do.

Powerful Bronze Indonesian Moon Goddess Amulet Bracelet With Lapis Lazuli Eye Symbols To ard off Evil and Protect the Wearer. Set in Sterling Silver Designed by Tabra and Fabricated in Bali.

Some of my employees found other jobs right away and some stayed with me until the end – helping me with the difficult business of closing down my life in America. Some didn’t like the new jobs they found, returning to work with me again until they could find another job that suited them better. I had been advised that this was not the way to close the business – that it would be best to announce the closing as I passed out their final checks, the same day I closed, but I closed my business in the manner I felt my employees deserved. They had to make their own adjustments and it would be difficult for them, as well. What I kept reminding myself throughout the process was “this is not all about me.” We had worked together for so long, through major ups and downs, and they were like family. Those who stayed with me got jewelry-making equipment, office supplies, computers, beads and bonuses at the end. Everyone got something.

During those hectic six months, I took time to write up plans for my future – a one year plan, a five year plan and a twenty-five year end of life plan. It was important for me to be very clear with myself about what I wanted to do with the remainder of my life.

I decided that Costa Rica and Bali, Indonesia would be my focus countries. I knew that I wouldn’t be happy being tied down to just one country or one culture and I wasn’t finished designing and creating. There were still many women who enjoyed wearing and collecting my jewelry and I wanted to supply them. I also knew that wherever I went, helping educate young women in Third World countries would be an important part of my life.  That would be my gift to the world.

Figuring out what I would need in my new life and what I should let go of, working with lawyers, accountants, realtors and distributors, shipping beads and stones to Bali – took the full six months. It was difficult, fun, physically and emotionally exhausting, exciting and sometimes sad. I was working 16 hours a day, making important decisions every hour that would directly affect the rest of my life. Although it was scary, there was really no time to think about how difficult and complicated I was deliberately making my life.

On the third of January, 2007, I flew to Bali alone – to begin the next phase of changing my world: setting up my workshop and making my jewelry in Bali, selling it directly on my new website and opening up my beautiful little gallery on Hanuman Street in downtown Ubud, the Art and Cultural Center of Indonesia.  I continued to sell my Tribal, Modern/Ethnic Jewelry to wonderful craft galleries in the U.S., Australia and Japan. I hired five smart, young Balinese women and began English classes for them and Indonesian classes for myself – so that we could communicate. I told them my life goals and they told me theirs. That way we could all help each other achieve those goals.

Three months after arriving in Bali, my condo back in California, sold. I took the profit and made a down payment on 85 acres of jungle and a small cabin in the Turrubares Mountains of Costa Rica. I put the rest of my money into gold and silver investments. I had worked with silver and gold for so long, I felt I understood that market best.  It turned out I had made wise decisions. I sold my house and invested in metals at a very good time.

My future plans continue to develop as new opportunities arise or the unexpected occurs and I have to change directions. However, my overall plan has remained the same: live part of the year in Bali, visit my friends and family in the U.S. every year and develop my land in Costa Rica for eventual retirement. I will build cabins for my artist friends, people I like and family  to live near or visit me often as I grow older. It will be another calculated, but crazy adventure.

The challenge of changing your world takes the courage to be different, to risk disapproval, and to take chances, but for me, it has been worth it. My life is interesting and full of change. I have no regrets. I love the world I have created for myself.

Returning to the U.S. to see family and good friends for a few weeks each year is very important to me. I miss the long walks in the forest with my best friend and seeing her two or three times a week in California. Best friends are not replaceable. But I write long letters and visit her twice a year and I cherish the memories I have of the good times.

I have made many mistakes, but I have tried to learn from them and live my life with grace. Now, I am ready for new challenges. My life in America is finished. From time to time, when things get really tough, I tell myself that maybe I will settle down and live a safe, uncomplicated, predictable life. But I can’t. And, anyway, I don’t want to. I’m addicted to adventure and change.

Tabra TunoaInternationally known artist, Tabra Tunoa, is a leader in the Contemporary Ethnic style of Gypsy Jewelry. She studied Mayan and Aztec art at the University of Mexico City and in San Jose, Costa Rica. She also studied jewelry design at the Masana Art Institute in Barcelona, Spain in the ’60s and ’70s.  She continues designing jewelry and working with young Balinese women in her home near Ubud.

ROLLER DERBY: THE NEW SELF-HELP SPORT by Laura Madson, aka Pippy Longstalker

Pippy Longstalker Photo by Mark Nockleby

Let me introduce myself. My name is Pippy Longstalker. My number is 36 and I skate for the Dominion Derby Girls. Roller derby has evolved and has become very organized with rules and regulations. But, it is a full contact sport that requires agility, skill, teamwork, and most of all, confidence in yourself. I have been skating since February 2009 and have loved every minute of it.

The Dominion Derby Girls is an all-female flat track roller derby league formed with the purpose of promoting the sport of roller derby and giving back to the community. We follow all rules and regulations of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association and are very proud members of the WFTDA. Above all, we are an amateur athletic organization, priding itself on the strength and diversity of its all-female skaters. As such, we have a rigorous training and practice schedule that enables to participate in national competition.

My interest in roller derby began in Portland, Oregon, with the Rose City Rollers. My sister was looking for an athletic-, social-, and community-oriented organization and started learning how to skate in 2005. That fall,  I relocated to Arlington, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C.. Once I was settled into the fast-pace lifestyle of Northern Virginia, I started looking for a similar outlet. Family was 3,000 miles away and running on a treadmill and going to a gym was starting to become monotonous. I had heard that D.C. had a roller derby league and a co-worker and I started looking into joining. But, after seeing that the practice facility was an hour outside of town (in good D.C. traffic) and after figuring in my work schedule, I wasn’t able to commit.

Fast forward to the fall of 2007 and a relocation three and a half hours south to Norfolk, Virginia. Again, that feeling of being lost and alone overwhelmed me. I dove into my career and spent as much time running and working out as I could. But, I still felt dissatisfied with my life. Something was missing. The team atmosphere that I had grown up with wasn’t there. I was a Division 1 softball player in college and have been involved in athletics my entire life. Team sports are part of who I am. However, upon graduating, I realized that outside of a few community leagues there aren’t many competitive opportunities available for a former female athlete. I was looking for a team that would push my physical and mental abilities and fill that void that was quite prominent in my life.

So, after a year of soul-searching I did a little Internet searching and voila! The Dominion Derby Girls were recruiting!!! I shot a quick introductory email to the Fresh Meat Committee and found out when practices were. I went and watched a practice and immediately fell in love. Women of every variation—size, age, career, race, and sexual orientation—were out on the rink skating their hearts out! They were smiling! They were sweating! Most of all, they were a team. I immediately ran to the local sports store and bought my protective gear and skates. I couldn’t wait for the next morning and my first practice as a derby girl!

Let me just say that my first practice was not pretty. My skating skills were probably about as good as Bambi on ice. But, the coaches were great! They taught me the necessary skills and I started to become more and more confident on 8 wheels!

Roller Derby Laura MadsonMy very first bout was incredible. The feeling of nervousness mixed with excitement was overwhelming! After donning my uniform and my pigtail braids, I grabbed my gear and headed off not knowing what was in store for me. Warming up, I felt the nerves begin to grow. The other team wasn’t intimidating–it was the unnerving doubt in my abilities and the fear of letting me teammates down. But, before I knew it, introductions had started and the announcers were calling my name. “Number 36 AA, PIPPPPPYYYY LOOOOOONGSTALKER!” Oh no! What do I do? I quickly raised my arms and blew a kiss to the crowd with the biggest grin on my face. This is it! My first bout! My debut as a Dominion Derby Girl! And then, the whistles blew and the skating started. The first half went by quickly. What happened in that first period is all a blur. Half time came and went and the second period was starting already! A sense of determination came over me. I was not going to let my teammates down. I was not going to use my inexperience as an excuse. This was a new period and a chance of redemption.

My name was called in the lineup and out I went. Lining up on the inside behind my pivot, The Ruffian, I looked around me and realized that the opposing team wasn’t any different from me. They weren’t any better than me. We all had 8 wheels strapped to our feet and I wasn’t going to let a little bit of nerves get in my way. And then, the whistles blew. Off we went. All I could think was “Stay together. Hold the line. Hit them HARD!” Then, it happened. Their jammer was coming through the pack! I pushed off and skated straight into the path I knew she would take and WHACK! My shoulder went straight into her chest. Take that! That’s right! A newbie just knocked you down!

A wave of confidence and pride came over me. I did it! It doesn’t matter how good another skater is as long as I remember what my coaches have been teaching me and I put it to use. I can succeed at this sport! I can help my team! The rest of the period played out and it was over too soon, but I will never forget that first hit. Every bout I skate in, I remember that rush of adrenaline and emotion that flooded over me.

Now, less than a year after stepping out onto the rink with unsteady feet, I have filled that empty void in my life. My teammates are my new family. My skates have propelled me into a world that I could never have imagined existing. When I step up to the jammer line at a bout, I am transformed into a fearless woman with confidence and agility that I never thought I’d possess. I am a stronger woman because of roller derby, not just physically, but emotionally and mentally.

Laura MadsonLaura Madson was born in Bremerton, Washington, and has lived in Venice, Italy, upstate New York, Portland, Oregon, and many more places—she wants to see as many places as possible! She currently resides in Portsmouth, Virginia. Laura earned her Bachelor’s degree in music but is now a veterinary nurse. She has two dogs, Roxy and Abigail, and one cat, Gracie Growleypants. Things that tickle her fancy are good-hearted people who try to make the world a better place, ice cream any time of the day, and trying new things.

VIEW FROM THE TOP by Nalini Nadkarni

Photo by Michael and Patricia Fogden for National Geographic

I have a great job; I climb trees to study the rainforest canopy. My journey to understand trees started early in my life, when I climbed the eight sturdy sugar maples in the front yard of my home in suburban Maryland. Most afternoons, I would drop my school books inside the front door, grab a snack and a book, and scramble up one of those trees, each with its own vertical pathway to a comfortable nest aloft. Those perches were refuges from the world of homework, parental directives, and the ground-bound humdrum of the everyday. I could look out across my home territory, check on the progress of squirrel nest constructions, and feel the strong limbs of those trees holding me up for as long as I wished. It was in those afternoons of arboreal repose that my sense of kinship to trees germinated.

Trees were not my only focus in those formative years. My parents provided me with modern dance lessons from Erika Thimey, a German-born dance teacher who offered the gift of creativity to her students. I learned the expressive ways the body can move and acquire the discipline that is needed to hone my muscles. From Miss Erika, as we called her, I learned that with mindfulness, the simple act of walking across a wooden floor or noting the graceful fall of a leaf can be an aesthetic action. It opened up a whole different way of seeing that has kept me aware of the multiple ways that one must look at nature to understand it fully, an approach I now bring to my scientific work.

In college, I first discovered the world of forest ecology through the lectures of an ecologist, Dr. Jon Waage. When he wasn’t teaching undergraduates, he carried out research on damselfly behavior. I was amazed to learn that he could make a living by sitting at stream edges to record the movements of these aquatic insects. From him, I learned about the world of academic science. He posed seemingly narrow questions that later turned out to relate to much broader issues about life and death, competition and mutualism, and the evolution of life on Earth. Wrestling through the labyrinth of the scientific literature, I learned to trace citations to their sources and recognize the key players in a scientific discussion. Science seemed the right approach to really understand the world.

But what of dance? With my deepening passion for science, I soon fund myself in something of a love triangle, having to choose between very different professions. Parallel with my enthusiastic forays in science, I delighted in the sparks of creativity that flew from each composition in the dance studio, the sense of feeling my body move with others, the messages about life and emotions conveyable on stage, which no scientific paper could communicate. Right after graduation from college, I decided to test out which would be the better profession for me – field biology, manifested in the scholarly persona of Dr. Waage, or modern dance, exemplified by the graceful spirit of Miss Erika.

I first tried on the life of a field biologist. By writing letters to 70 field stations all over the world, and offering my services as a volunteer field assistant, I found a temporary position to help a septuagenarian entomologist (insect biologist). He studied the taxonomy of tropical leaf-feeding beetles and directed a tiny field station in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, in the South Pacific. I accepted with joy. In January of 1978, I arrived at the entrance of the Wau Ecology Institute, in the foothills of the Morobe Province. The field station consisted of a few shabby wooden buildings, a small herbarium and insect collection, and a central table occupied by a chipped coffee pot around which staff gathered each morning to discuss progress on their research projects. I spent the next twelve months on expeditions around the country, thrilled by the stunning diversity of the rainforest. In that rainforest cloister, I felt at home with the people and work I encountered.

After the year in Papua New Guinea was over, it was time to investigate dance. I traveled to Paris, and made contact with a modern dance company, Danse Paris. I first took classes, and was then invited to practice with their troupe. The opportunity to dance for hours at a time and hang out with professional dancers was perfect to test out my potential future profession. After a year in the rainforest, it was a delight to gulp in the cultural offerings that only Paris provides. The art museums, city parks, urban architecture, and evening concerts filled my non-dancing times.

After six months, I had to make a choice. I knew that I could not do both professional science and professional dance. The former demanded years of academic preparation and wildland settings; the latter required years of physical and aesthetic training and an urban homespot. On a sunny morning in April, I sat down with my journals from both locales at a neighborhood café. Over numerous cups of tea, I read through them all and then sat back to decide which was to be my choice. The forest or the stage? As much as I loved the world of dance, the time I spent in the tropical rainforests seemed truer to my own spirit. I felt closer to my biologist colleagues, and more at peace in the forest environment.

I returned to the USA and entered graduate school in forest ecology at the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources. I spent a summer in Costa Rica on a field biology program, surrounded by fledgling graduate students and experienced faculty who opened the world of tropical ecology with enthusiasm and expertise. Each had his or her own specialty: hummingbird physiology; beetle distribution; songbird migration. Early on during that course, my eyes looked up to the complex world of the forest canopy – the plants and animals that lived their lives high above the forest floor and were among the most poorly known in the world.

I had the good fortune to encounter another graduate student who was studying canopy interactions. Don Perry had developed modified mountain climbing techniques, and he agreed to ‘show me the ropes’ in exchange for help with his field study. After a month, I was ready to climb on my own and to pursue my own set of canopy questions – activities that would enliven my life for the next three decades.

My canopy research colleagues, students and I have enumerated the rare and often unknown species that dwell on branches and twigs that never appear in ground surveys. I discovered that some trees put out “canopy roots” from their own branches and trunks, which gain access to the arboreal soil that accumulates beneath mats of canopy-dwelling (“epiphytes”). We learned that treetop versions of traditionally terrestrial insects and even earthworms – are found in this canopy-level soil, living out their entire life cycle high above the forest floor. We have measured the amounts of nutrients that the epiphytes intercept and retain from rain, mist, and dust, which can be considerable.

Over the last 30 years, new techniques of canopy access have evolved to include hot-air balloons, treetop walkways, hanging platforms, and 30-story construction cranes. The answers that canopy researchers report in scientific meetings confirm that trees are a critical part of ecosystems, landscapes, and the biosphere. Canopy researchers now quantify the amount of oxygen tree canopies produce, the amount of carbon dioxide they store, the volumes of soil they protect, the amount of water they retain, and the scores of wildlife species they support. Urban foresters have documented the “ecosystem services” provided by trees in urban settings: reduction in noise, temperature, and pollutants. Thus, the growing body of treetop research documents that loss of canopy diversity and function is a loss to the forest as a whole and to the landscapes beyond them.

Over the years, aware of the importance of the forest canopy and forest ecosystems in general to the health of the Earth, I have made deep forays into doing outreach and communication of what I have learned. I am especially interested in reaching “non-traditional” audiences, those who don’t automatically pick up a Natural History magazine, or watch a nature documentary film. Each of these projects involves connecting with other partners. One of my programs involves gathering scientist, urban youth, and scientists to spend time in the field and create rap songs about trees and insects. Another program brings science research projects involving endangered plants and animals into prisons so that incarcerated men and women can contribute to solving environmental problems, even though they are behind bars.

Another set of my partners to help communicate scientific messages are artists. One of my favorites is a wonderful collaboration with a modern dancer and choreographer. On an afternoon last year, I got a telephone call from Jodi Lomask, the Director of the San Francisco-based modern dance troupe. She wanted to make a modern dance about tropical rainforests, but wanted it to be based in science – could she come to my rainforest study sites with me to learn about them? Indeed she could, and did, and this year, we are performing the dance she choreographed while climbing my rainforest study trees to public audiences in Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. I feel happy that the two seemingly divergent forces in my life – studying trees and making modern dances – has come together for the sake of protecting rainforests.

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is a Professor of Biology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and a leader in the scientific field of rainforest canopy research. Nalini created a unique method for rappelling to the top of the canopy using mountaineering equipment and has become known as “The Queen of the Forest Canopy.” She is featured in the Emmy award-winning National Geographic documentary “Heroes of the High Frontier.” She is also the author of three books and numerous scientific research articles. 



I feel like lately I have read quite a few accounts of agoraphobic middle-aged women. They don’t like to grocery shop or go to work or otherwise leave the house. I think, “of course you are agoraphobic.” I think, “agoraphobia is an irrational fear of the outside world. What is irrational about fearing the outside world?” I became a gardener in my late thirties after years of doing nothing of the kind: before I cycled and ran and spent hours at the gym. The garden is an extension of the house, surrounded by fence and foliage; it is an outdoor room enclosed from the city streets.

I always thought it was kind of cruel to keep cats indoors. They should be allowed to roam as is their wont. Why should cats be restricted for their own good, like so many Victorian wives? Yet lately I have become an indoor kind of cat. I cannot precisely place the transformation. I feel however that I have less and less interest in what goes on outside of my house. I have no interest in meeting new people. I don’t like to try new restaurants. I don’t know what this is exactly. A creeping fear or shyness, sensory saturation, diminishing returns? My husband, who is perpetually writing four novels at once, feels we are mirror opposites. His surfeit of interests makes it difficult for him to finish anything and so he feels like he accomplishes nothing. In contrast, he thinks I have become overly specialized. I have narrowed down my interests so much that I am in constant danger of attempting nothing. And yet I must do something. I am a relatively successful anthropologist. But the struggle is there.

Where does the struggle come from? As I age, I do find it less satisfying to live an outside kind of life. The ambient vibes, positive and sexual, don’t bounce from the pavement anymore. In fact, there is a negative or absent quality to my public face. Being in public I am no longer affirmed, and sometimes I am effaced. Recently, I was in a café awaiting someone I was to interview. We had not met, but we had exchanged descriptions: he, grey-haired, medium height, thin build; me “big” curly dark hair, on the short side. I saw him arrive, order his coffee. This was obviously my informant—he was the only grown-up in a small sea of Midwestern college students. I waited for him to approach my table. I watched as his eyes scanned the crowd and scanned it again. I watched him turn back to the coffee counter to see if I was there. I watched him turn to scan the crowd in my direction another time, his eyes never touching my face, as though they had an internal editor. At that point I hailed him enthusiastically, with a smile, and we proceeded with the interview.

My experience as a college professor has been disillusioning. Even in the enlightened university hamlet women ought to “be nice.” If your colleagues find you pushy, aggressive, or bossy (a former boss’s preferred adjective to describe me) within the department you might not get tenure. If you are not assertive, confident, and self-assured outside of the department you will never get past the negative reviews of your colleagues, essential if you want to publish and not perish.

And I am also more fearful. Out at a salsa club in Mexico a few days ago, I told some friends that I had once ridden my bicycle through Mexico. “And yet now I am terrified I will be hit by a car as I walk along on the sidewalk.” It is just mortality, said my friend. You are becoming aware of your mortality.

Mortality, sexism, diminishing returns. These are all persistent themes in our lives, and yet we live them still. I notice the themes in Chiapas, Mexico, where I study coffee farmers. To get to the coffee communities, I take a collective taxi on a daily death-defying journey over curving mountain roads that the taxi drivers handle quite deftly. As they narrowly avoid the oncoming traffic, they tell me stories of migration. Pasqual tells me he was a gardener, a carpenter, and a handyman in Washington. I ask which Washington? He says the one that is the home of George Bush. We laugh. To arrive in Washington, D.C., he had crossed the Sonora Desert in Arizona. It took four nights of walking, with some hours of rest during the day. The polleros (this literally means someone who raises chickens) charged $2,500 and took him in a truck to Virginia. Life was very sad, he said, during that year, because he missed his family. But he said life in Tenejapa is also very sad because you can’t earn enough money and that makes everything hard. You make maybe 80 pesos a day ($7.50) and you have to buy food out of that and everything else. (Groceries are running me about $10 a day). I have heard dozens of variations on this story. Some taxi drivers allude to the deaths of compatriots. Increasing border security has led migrants to across ever more dangerous desert routes.

Dangerous crossings are not new. Before roads and buses made it possible for rural people from the far south to migrate to the border, they made long journeys to the coffee plantations on the coast. What is now a bus journey of a few hours from mountains to seaside was once also a four-day walk. A snapshot. Alonso, Ana, and their son Umberto are together a nice family. They fill in each other’s stories and listen to one another with interest and compassion. The couple is in their late sixties. Their unmarried son is in his thirties and their only helper. Umberto tells me they have had a particularly hard time in the last few years because they are Zapatistas and therefore have lost access to the few government programs that exist. They grow organic coffee for the fair trade market and organic honey. Alonso and Umberto dress me in a beekeeper’s outfit to take me on a tour of their hives.

Alonso, the father, was an orphan. His dad died when he was ten of drink and his mother when he was 12 of fever. So he had to go work on a coffee plantation when he was ten, at first working in the kitchen because he was too young to work in the fields. When he was 12, he began agricultural work on the plantation under the care of a man from his own community. The man felt sorry for him and was kind, making sure that Alonso got to pick the most loaded trees so he could fill his bags quickly and earn well. Alonso worked seasonally for 12 years on this plantation. As an adult the work was much harder. He had to get up at two or three in the morning and work until five in the evening. He worked from about 1950 until about 1975 on the plantation where he often “felt lonely in his heart.”

Eventually he inherited six hectares from his father’s estate and married Ana. At first they grew peanuts for the world market and corn and beans to eat. Alonso continued to work seasonally on the coffee plantation. About thirty years ago he started growing coffee, which was promoted through a government agency called INMECAFE. At that time, the government had a lot of progressive programs aimed at raising the economic position of rural people. Growing coffee at home meant that Alonso no longer had to make the seasonal journey to the coastal coffee plantations. Coffee cultivation has brought some improvement for Alonso.

In the old days, Ana had to bring all of their water for drinking, bathing, and cooking from the well that was one and a half kilometers away. There is now tubed water, but even with this improvement, life is still very hard. Ana is too weak to grind the corn for tortillas, even though it needs to be done, and making tortillas is painful because she has terrible rheumatism. Ana says: I want to die already. I am ready to die. I am discouraged with this coffee. There is still no result. Look at my kitchen. It is falling apart. It is like the house of the black wasp [a mud house]. All of our work and I live in a house like this. I would just as soon abandon the coffee and go live in a cave! Ana starts to cry.

I know how she feels. I want to abandon it all and go live in a cave! Of course, unlike Ana, I get to escape the grind. I often retreat to my garden, my cave. It keeps me satisfied and sane. But when am I happiest? When hurtling irrevocably toward an oncoming semi, ranchero music blaring in my ears, the taxi driver busily looking for a new CD he would like to play. Or stuffed into a beekeepers suit, stiff as an astronaut, deafened by the whine of worried bees and blinded by smoke.

Molly DoaneMolly Doane is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She studies the producers of fair trade coffee in Chiapas, Mexico, as well as the roasters and consumers who purchase it in the Midwest.