Valhalla

I exit the plane and walk down the stairs onto the tarmac of the Bonaire airport. Bonaire is a small island off the coast of Venezuela. The hot and humid weather is a stark difference from the rainy Pacific Northwest our group departed from earlier this morning. I turn back to make sure my newfound buds are making it down the stairs without the need of any help. We are a group of military veterans, invited to this Caribbean island to become certified open water scuba divers through "Valhalla Dive Group," a young non-profit that helps veterans overcome physical and mental injuries through scuba diving. Including myself, there are 6 vets, with varying disabilities, and I appear to be the most “able bodied.” I was invited as a last minute replacement by my buddy, Kevin. Kevin is the newly appointed student ambassador for Valhalla. I accepted the invite under the impression that I would be helping the more severely injured students, but I am quickly beginning to learn that they’ll rarely need anything from me on land, and that the amazing team of instructors have everything covered in, and under, the water. What I'm slow to realize, however, is how much help I'll end up needing on this trip.

Kevin and another student, Kieth, have diving experience, while "Chops," Aaron, Jeff, and I merely have a few hours in the pool where we've been acquainted with our gear, practiced essential skills, and gotten a feel for what it's like to breathe underwater. We will now be continuing our training in a destination that many divers only dream of. 

In the airport parking lot we meet up with the other divers and instructors from the dive shop that Valhalla works with, OTR Scuba, based out of Portland, Oregon. They have a bonded group that has traveled to several destinations together, and have welcomed us with open arms and hearts.  We are greeted by a man with a van, towing a small trailer for the luggage. The man has a woman and young child with him. It appears his shuttle service is a family business. The young boy, no more than 7 years old, is proud to tackle the biggest pieces of luggage, some nearly twice his size. The larger the luggage, the larger his smile. The family has dark black skin, and a quick observation shows that the island is inhabited by very dark people, and very white people. I don't point this out as prejudice, but rather as a curiosity as to the history of this island. A quick google search on Bonaire's history showed me that this Caribbean island, now a Netherland territory, has been through many changes since it was originally inhabited by Caquetio Indians thousands of years ago. If you're like me, and fascinated about how people made it to where they are today, and how places have changed along with the people that have inhabited them, you can read more about it's history on Bonaire's Wiki Page

Once we arrive at Captain Don's Habitat, the family crew unloads our bags, again with all smiles, and as I go to tip them, I learn that Rhia, the leader of OTR scuba has already taken care of it. "She always makes sure to take care of the local help," one of her divers says. As I get to know Rhia more, I learn that she takes care of most everyone she comes across. We check into our rooms and now I'm smiling from ear to ear. Paths lined with bright colored flowers lead to a village of bungalows. Ours has a living room and kitchenette, and two bedrooms, each with two twin beds and their own bathroom. I'll be rooming with Keith, and Kevin and Chops will stay in the other room. There's a covered patio with a table that seats six or more, which will serve as a hang out spot in the mornings before we head out to breakfast and then on to diving. We share the path with small lizards, most a plain dark greenish brown, but some have bright turquoise markings that light up when the sun rays shine on their backs. Signs say: "Don't feed the iguanas" of which I only saw a few, but it didn't say anything about rolling up a tiny crumb of bread and feeding one of the smaller turquoise marked lizards by hand. 

The view from breakfast is incredible, as it sits right by the water, a beautiful turquoise shoreline, reminiscent of the lizards. The bright color reaches out from the rocky shore for maybe 150 yards before it turns to a dark blue. From light to dark, represents the shallows to the deep, from 15 feet, to a drop off of around 150 feet, and from there a shelf of reef before another drop off to depths I didn't even research because it was far beyond anything we will experience. 

After breakfast on day one, the first task at hands the dive briefing from one of Captain Don's dive leaders. His name is "Wilco." Wilco's skin is tanned from years of living on the island with the uniform of the day being no more than some flower patterned board shorts. He has short white hair, and a white goatee. His accent is one I hadn't heard before, and I learn that he is originally from Holland. Though I knew it the island was a Netherland territory, I am still caught off guard by these peculiar dutch accents. He told us about how the oxygen tanks work at Captain Dons, where to get the fresh ones and where to put the depleted ones.  "We don't care how many you use, as long as you put them where they're supposed to go." Wilco would prove to be a hilarious guide and companion to have along for the trip. He set the tone that "This is life on the island, we don't get too upset about much. Many people dream to live a life like this, and I'm living that dream." 

Captain Don's has everything you need to adventure underwater and explore the protected reef of the Bonaire coast. The rental shop has the buoyancy control devices (BCD's,) weights, and wetsuits. The oxygen tanks are stored down by the lockers near the dock, and if you don't have your own mask and fins, there is a shop right across from the rental shop to make any purchases you need. Though our costs are covered by Valhalla, I still check in on what it would take to stay here for a week of lodging and scuba diving, and it is a surprisingly affordable rate, especially since the tanks were unlimited. One of the instructors tells me this is one of his favorite parts about coming to Captain Don's, because most places charge by the bottle. That can have a big impact on a week's worth of diving at up to 4 dives per day. Mentioning Captain Don's without commenting on their staff would be an incredible injustice. From the manager, to the wait staff, to the boat captains, such as Ricardo, aka "Captain Black Sparrow," every single person made us feel like family, and by the end of the week, we all knew each other by name. 

Once we have all of our gear rented, the OTR divers head out on the boat, and us from Valhalla stay on the shore to finish our training. We attach the tanks to our BCD's, check our regulators and pressure gauges, and then our instructors double check them and have us disassemble them and start again. When you're relying on this device keeping you alive underwater, it's essential that you know how to operate it properly. After a few runs of that, we gear up and head down to the end of the dock with our fins in hand. Fins are always the last thing to go on when beginning a dive, and first come off when ending. It's no fun to be a "fish out of water," and that's exactly what you are if you try to walk anywhere with your fins on. In the water the fins are essential, on land they are down right dangerous. We practice "the giant leap" off the end of the dock, which is the standard method of entry from a diving boat. Your left hand holds your hoses and gauges in place, and your right hand holds your regulator in your mouth and mask on your face. You look at the horizon and take a giant step forward and then splash into the water below. 

Once I'm in the water, I'm floating because I'd already filled my BCD with air. The device has an air bladder attached to the air tank. The regulator assembly I used was called an octopus, with three air lines coming from the assembly. One is the primary breathing regulator, the second is a back up to be used if the primary malfunctions or if your diving buddy has an emergency and needs to use your air to safely make it to the surface. The third line affixes to the BCD itself and a button will open a valve and release air from the tank into the air bladders. It's standard practice to fill them with air before you get in the water, so that you float when you first get in as you wait for your diving buddy to enter. Underwater an "okay" sign with your hands is commonly used, but when you first get in the water a fist bump on the top of your dome signals to your diving buddy and boat crew that you're okay. When you're ready to descend, you either raise the valve on the bcd and press the button opposite of the fill button, or tug on a pull cord to discharge the bladders and allow the lead weights to start taking you below the surface. The slightest press of the button to add a bit more air back into the bladders will stop you from sinking, and the goal is to become "neutrally buoyant." I've heard that becoming neutrally buoyant is the closest thing to flying through the air that you can imagine. Yet, I'm having a hard time doing it. I see the instructors suspended motionless in the water, calmly surveying their new students. I'm sinking to the bottom, and then rising to the surface. I battle with this all day, annoyed and disappointed with myself that I'm struggling more than anyone else with this before realizing that it's because I'm overweighted. The weight is dropping me too fast, so I'm compensating with too much air to stop me from hitting the bottom, which shoots me back up to the top. I ditch a mere two pounds and suddenly I'm so much closer to achieving that tranquil neutrality. Still, I'm frustrated that I haven't somehow mastered this after a few hours in the water. I'm not sure who I think I am that I put such pressure on myself to learn something immediately, or at least not be the worst at it. I know, however, it's spent from a childhood of being the smallest and weakest, that I had turned around through years of hard work in the gym, leadership in the military, and camaraderie forged over years of experiences with close friends. Yet, I have since let my body go, I haven't held a serious leadership position in nearly a decade, and I live far from any of my close friends. I can't help but to feel like I'm reverting to that undersized boy who didn't really belong anywhere growing up, and is now still looking for that place, that thing, those people. As I battle through my own pity party, I look over and see Aaron. Quickly, my own problems leave my mind, and I'm awe struck at the sheer will this young man has. One of the skills that we have to learn to be certified is taking the BCD off and putting it back on underwater. This is important in case you get tangled up on something underwater. You need to know how to safely remove the device, free yourself, and then put it back on. If you're under the surface, the air bladders will be mostly empty, and the weights attached to the vest will be what keep you from floating. The neoprene from the dry suits are very buoyant, so once you take off the BCD, your body will want to shoot up to the surface. We were taught to quickly set the BCD on our knee to use it's wait to hold us at depth while we simulated freeing it from entanglements. This was not easy to do. I found myself tumbling backward and holding the BCD more on my chest one of the times. Yet, when I look over at Aaron, he is doing this with only one arm and one leg. Aaron stepped on a claymore mine in Afghanistan, losing his right arm and leg. Yet, here he is, breathing underwater and passing the tests necessary to become a certified open water diver. How little I really have to complain about. From then on, I was just happy to be in the water, and happy to be there with such amazing people. 

My next obstacle, funny enough, would actually be with being too excited. Once we finish the days repetition of skills such as BCD removal, shared breathing, mask clearing, we finally get the chance to swim past the shallow water and toward the reef. Though the shallows had a decent amount of beauty, it was nothing like what presented itself to us in the deeper waters. Swimming toward 30ft opened up an entirely new world, and my heart races as my mind processes the millions of new bits of data. The bright coral, the schools of colorful fish, the spotted eels swimming through the sand of the white ocean floor. These are all things I've only seen on the Discovery Channel, yet...here I am. I am BREATHING UNDERWATER!! Most everyone has split fins that are very flexible, good for slowly moving through the water at a leisurely pace. My fins are solid and rigid, and my stocky legs can use them to propel me through the water in a way that made me feel like I was truly flying. I keep my legs together and kick as if my feet are a dolphin tale. I swim sideways in a big circle to survey my team members. I do barrel rolls. The many dreams that I'd woken up from disappointed when I learned I couldn't fly have finally come true. I am flying...under the water. However, this comes at a cost. Your time underwater is directly related to your air use, and the physical output to swim like a dolphin greatly increases oxygen use, and decreases the time underwater. The last thing you want to be is the person who runs out of air first and causes your team to have to return with air still in their tanks, and time they could still be exploring the ocean they traveled to see. "We need to get you to settle down underwater." was the first comment I received from Marissa, the founder of Valhalla Dive Group. Damn it. I'd like to eventually be able to come back and help vets like Aaron and Jeff, who need extremely focused dive buddies to ensure they stay safe underwater. "I need to get some more of this excitement burned off under there, I just can't help how amazing it feels to fly for the first time. But I'll settle down. I can focus when it matters." I sensed my reply was received with a bit of skepticism, understandably so. I've had so many changes in recent years that my ADD has been going nearly unchecked and my mind will rattle off in a thousand different directions with millions of thoughts invading throughout the day. It's something that I am very self conscious of, and only a few things really help me with it. Photography, writing, general labor, and cycling are the things that pop to mind first and foremost. Meditation, however, had helped immensely for a while, likely more than anything I've experienced. Yet, about a year into the practice I suddenly had an extremely hard time doing it. I've tried to get back into it, but every time I sit down to do it, my mind turns up the volume on those thoughts rather than identifying the thoughts, sensations, emotions, and letting them go. This is where scuba comes back full circle. 

Meditation is all about breath. Deep breaths, deeper than you ever knew you could breathe in, and pushing that breath out until there's nothing more to push out. All the while, working to clear your mind of thoughts, keeping focused on that breath. When thoughts arise, you let them go. A meditation group leader once told me to imagine a pond in the middle of the forest, and when the thoughts or sensations arose at the surface, you learn to identify them for what they are, and let them go. When you ask someone what the essentials to survival are, they often say "food, water, and shelter." So many forget air, and when you remind them, they'll usually respond something along the lines that "Well that's a given." What that tells us, is that air, and our breath along with it, is taken for granted. We will die much faster, nearly immediately, without air, while we can last for days on end without the other essentials. In the moment, air is all you need to survive. During meditation, you are giving your body what it needs the most, and reminding it that it has plenty of it. If you have an abundance of what you need most, then everything else should be okay. Every other problem should be able to have some sort of resolution, because you have your breath, and in this moment, that's all you need.

Scuba diving is mediation. Of all the factors to pay attention to under the water, buoyancy control, your gear, your location, marine life, physical hazards, your breath is the most important. The first instinct during distress is to jet up toward the surface, spit out your regulator, rip off your mask, and take in a giant breath of air. Yet, as long as you have air in your tank, there is no need to panic. Even if you don't have air in your tank, your diving buddy should be with you and the two of you should be able to safely surface together using the skills that are taught in the basic certification classes. This is why we practice "losing" our regulators and staying calm underwater as we reach back and put them back in our mouth. This is why we practice sharing air with each other. This is why we practice taking off our BCD as if it were caught on something. This is why we fill our masks with water and practice clearing them. Because, as long as we have our air, we can breathe. As long as we can breathe, we can take the time to think clearly to resolve any situation that we may have gotten ourselves into. Taking this information back to life on the surface is the real lesson here, and that's one of the most alluring things about scuba diving to me. That the lessons learned under the water will translate in ways above the water that can truly be life changing. When I encounter a problem my mind often races and fills with anxiety or anger, inflating the problem to something much larger than it is, perhaps with enough practice of staying calm underwater...I can remember that my breath is all that I need.

All of this being said, though having air under the water may be all that you need to survive in the moment, there several other factors that require focus to ensure that the dive goes safely. I already mentioned an understanding of your gear, such as buoyancy control and proper weighting, but it's equally if not more important to understand how to manage your air, how deep you can go on the air that you have, what breathing the air at those levels does to your body, and how to come back to the surface safely. This doesn't include awareness of the environment nor an understanding of the forces of the water you're diving in. Learning and understanding all of these things are important to ensure you and everyone with you is safe under water, and they are also just that much more to be focused on underwater, which leaves no time for invading thoughts. Recognizing this, makes me want to get back under the water any chance that I get. 

Now that I've gotten all that generic blubbering out of the way, I'll get back to our actual trip. I told you about Aaron, working with missing two limbs, but I haven't yet mentioned Jeff. Jeff is paralyzed from T-5 down from a vehicular accident while he was in the Navy. Experiencing Jeff's attitude in the airport quickly showed me that he was not a person to let his disabilities define him. Jeff rolled toward the escalator and an airport staff member said: "Sir, you can't go down there!" Jeff turned his chair around, backed it up to the moving stairs, and said "You gonna stop me?" Jeff grabbed onto the rubber black railings and held on, riding down the escalator backward as the staff member stared in awe. He didn't let this stop him from diving under the water with an air tank strapped to his back, either. Rather than getting help carried down the stairs into the water, Jeff tosses his gear into the water, rolls his chair to the end of the dock, and flings himself into the water.  The instructors and helpers help him put on his gear, and have learned that strapping his legs behind him help out with his buoyancy control as well as keeping his legs from spasming. He swam upright, like a big ol seahorse, and it was absolutely amazing to see him underwater, propelling himself forward with his arms. By the end of the day, an underwater photo of him became his profile picture on facebook, and reading the comments put a big old warm and fuzzy in my heart. That's what this is all about. I have so much learning of my own to do, but if I can get enough experience under my belt, and enough excitement of exploring the new world burned off, I'd Love to be back in the water someday, helping someone else like Jeff or Aaron get the opportunity to experience this magical feeling.

By day three, all of us were officially open water certified. Jeff and Aaron stayed back on the shore dives, and Chops, Jeff, Keith and I went out on the boat. On our very first official dive as open water divers, we were able to do a shipwreck dive, reaching depths of nearly 95 feet. We didn't push our luck and go through the ship, as not all the instructors were keen on us doing this for our first dive. I'll admit, the night before I was heeding their concerns and didn't want to make them uncomfortable, when Chops pulled me aside and set me straight. "Dude...we may never get the chance to something like this again. You think you can do this?" "Definitely, man." I replied. "Well, then do it. Stop living for everyone else and live for yourself." Like I said, it was me that ended up needing the help on this trip. After our first two days on the shore dives, diving as far as 60ft, and gaining confidence in our gear and our abilities, I knew I could go further. Yet, I noticed one of the instructors felt uncomfortable with us going, so rather than speaking with confidence that I could make it safely, I said I would skip it. Yet, Chops was right. When would the next chance be? Whenever I think of things in this perspective, I think back to my brother and sister's deaths. When was their next chance to do anything? They didn't have another one, and I may not either. "Let's do it." 

The dive went flawlessly, we stayed within our limits and kept to the outside of the ship. Merely seeing a ship that had been sunk after being abandoned with copious amounts of cocaine on it decades ago was still an incredible experience. We also got to see our first Tarpon! Tarpon are anywhere from 4-8ft long, and though they eat smaller fish, they are harmless to humans. The additional atmospheric pressure at 90+ feet was still barely noticeable, but I did feel as if I may have had a bit more resistance as I filled my lungs, and a bit of help pushing the air back out of them. What was really noticeable was how much more quickly we depleted our air. It was our first real lesson in how going deeper isn't always better, because it's a trade off for time under water.

Our next dive was a night dive and that brought forth an entire new level of meditation. I have a beard, and would use a special wax on my mustache to help the mask seal. I forgot to apply it on this particular dive and my mask kept filling with water. Being in nearly pitch black water at 40ft deep, with only a handheld flashlight to light your way is one thing, but then when your mask keeps filling up and you're blind to boot...it takes a whole lot of woo-sah action to remain calm and enjoy the experience. No matter how friendly I just said the Tarpon were on the wreck dive, it doesn't change the pucker factor when you're looking out of one eye in the dark and suddenly a fish that's as big as you swims into the beam of your light trying to hunt fish in it!! Wilco was leading this dive, and was able to show us a pair of seahorses, one red and one yellow. Their tails were wrapped around a piece of coral or some type of underwater vegetation, and they swayed back and forth as a group of bubble making onlookers with flashlights came to observe them. We saw a giant spiny lobster hanging out in a small cave, and some members of the group got to see a pretty good sized moray eel.

The next day we were able to help spot lionfish for those that were hunting them. Though the reef is protected, hunting lionfish is actually encouraged because they are an invasive species, brought by humans, and are devouring the native fish of the reef. On these dives, Chops and I were able to reach our goal of over 100ft deep. We had come so close on the ship dive, that we just had to make sure that we broke that barrier before we left. It's a military thing. Speaking of which, the instructor that wasn't excited about us going on the shipwreck dive later told us: "You know, I think I've been treating you guys like civilians, and it's hard to realize that you guys aren't average people." That made me smile a bit, and I responded that this very attitude can get us in trouble, but yeah, these aren't average people you're working with here. 

Amongst my favorite things to see underwater would be puffer fish, a moray eel, the spotted eels, the seahorses, a 4ft+ barracuda, countless variations of trumpet fish, schools of dark blue fish and silver/yellow fish that I would swim through, flying fish sailing about a foot above the water for nearly thirty yards, and my heart almost left my body when we alerted of a sea turtle. He wasn't very big, a hawksbill I was told, but to float above him and watch as he carried on his turtle day of foraging in the reef for little bits to munch on was a true dream come true. By then I had really gotten a better understanding of the utilization of my lungs underwater as my own buoyancy control device, breathe in and you'll rise, breathe out and you'll sink. I hovered around the little guy and took as many mental pictures as possible. Cheech, one of the instructors with us, had his underwater camera and captured a few of the both of us. I'll make sure to share those whenever he gets them to me. I believe he has a website, and I'll share a link so that you can see all of the amazing creatures and divers that he was able to capture on our trip. Speaking of divers, I have to include them in my favorite sightings. The excitement on Chops' face after every new fish he spotted. Aaron making the shark signal on his head and pointing to the nub that was once his right arm. Keith swimming to the surface with a hefty lionfish on the end of his spear, Kevin floating in perfect neutral buoyancy as his two prosthetic legs shine bright below the surface. The ocean obviously has such a wide variety of marine life, but I'm not sure if it's had such a wide variety of human life as this bunch.

Below, I've included some of my favorite above water photos of the Valhalla Crew. You'll see the Vets; Kevin, Chops, Keith, Jeff, and Aaron. Next are the staff, Cheech, Karen, Nic, Rory, Jasmine, Rory again because that photo is too cool. Then Marissa, the founder of Valhalla, and finally Rhia, the OTR Guru. Oh, wait...there's Wilco and Ricardo as well! Haha. I could say so much more about each one of these amazing people that I befriended on the trip, but I'm going to let the photos do most of the talking here. Below these photos are a few shots of the tattoos that tell stories of their own. 

When I bring my camera along, I always hope to be able to give those with me a bit of a gift. It's like my mom and her crocheting, every where we go she has to give somebody something. For me, it's a photo that I hope they'll cherish, or at least appreciate. Sometimes it's the words along with the photos that they appreciate more. I'm still finding my own path along this crazy thing called life, but taking my camera with me to capture a story and sharing it with anyone who may be inspired by reading it, seems to be where my path keeps leading me. With each new place I see, and new relationship I form, I feel that I'm doing what I'm meant to do. Explore. Learn. Grow. Share. I feel fortunate for having so many wonderful people in my life who make these things possible. I truly have lived a life I could never have dreamed of. For that, I am very grateful.

With that being said, make sure to visit www.valhalladivegroup.org and share this link with any ENABLED veteran who may be interested in such a life changing experience. 

Thank you again to Marissa, Rhia, Karen, Cheech, Nic, Jasmine, and Rory for giving us an experience to remember for a lifetime. I can't wait to get back out and under the surface with any and or all of you!! Same goes to all the friends I made through Valhalla, and the staff at Captain Don's. Spending a week together and having an experience like this makes friends for life, in my book. 

Much Love,

-Rob K.

"The West Place"

-Nebraska-

I met with a good friend today. A long time friend. A friend of the family. A mentor. We met him years ago while my mom provided in-home hospice care for his father. From a family of ranchers, he has carried on the tradition, as well as passed it on to his children.

He would become a mentor to my brother Mike, and spoke of Mike like a son at his funeral, voice cracking from underneath his mustache as he uttered gracious words.  I'll never forget the moment he placed his jump wings, from his military service during the Vietnam era, on Mike's casket.

His daughters each spoke beautiful words as well that day. The intertwining of our families was evident. 

When I'm back in my small hometown of Broken Bow, I do my best to make the drive to see this family out in the country. Mom always comes with me. She Loves spending time with this extension of her family, and they're always welcoming.

We drive East out of Broken Bow, then turn left to head North, between cornfields, down a narrow winding highway full of patches and potholes. Giant wind turbines decorate the horizon, dwarfing the grey metal windmill I see in the field next to us.

We pass through a village that seems to be a memory of a time long passed, but still well Loved. The road turns into gravel. We drive by our friend's old home.  His daughter now lives there and she's raising a family of her own, continuing the ranching tradition.

We continue driving and head up a hill that brings back a memory. My mind works like a projector, and the memory plays out in front of me. The rancher's son and I are barreling down the hill on 4-wheelers. Perhaps too fast for our young age. A dust storm forms behind us as the tires throw dirt into the air.  I watch the memory of these two boys zoom passed us with smiling faces. I look into my rearview mirror.  They dissapear into the dust cloud that is behind me today.

So much has changed in the years since that memory, but it seems the dust stirring up behind us remains the same.

Once over the hill, the road comes to a t-intersection. We take a right. We turn right again at the first driveway. A large, well constructed sign bares their family name. The sign is significant. It reminds you that generations of hard workers have labored endlessly to make this place what it is today.

As we pull between the house and the bright red barn glowing in the evening sun, two cattle dogs greet us with wagging tails. Mom and I get out of my 4Runner. One of the dogs is shy and retreats to a viewing point from behind a work truck. The other is already at my feet to introduce herself. I know her. She belongs to the smiling boy I just watched ride next to me down the hill. Yet, he's not a boy any longer. I don't see his truck, he must not be here. He lives nearby, somewhere along that winding country road. He has his degree in agronomy,  working in the area to help farmers understand their soil conditions and what is needed for healthy crops. My nephew is taking that path, but with the two vs the four year degree. I often tell my nephew he should link up and get some advice and maybe mentorship from someone already in the field. I chuckle as I say "in the field." Get it?  Hashtag dad jokes.

I kneel down to give the pup some good ear scratches. Sometimes farm dogs guard their property ferociously. This girl submits for some good belly rubbing. The other dog gets a sense of us and comes out from behind the truck to take a closer look. He deems us okay to enter.

Mom and I walk up to the porch and I knock on the door. He's a bit surprised to see us. He didn't get his daughter's message saying that we would be coming out to see him, nor that I came with an agenda.

He invites us in and I shake his hand and hug his wife. My mom comments on how much this place has changed. He now lives in his mother and fathers old house. The house that mom spent years helping in long ago. They've done an incredible remodel. We've seen it several times since then, but it's like the first time for mom each time we visit 

When asked what brought us out, I come clean.  

I'm working with a website, capturing photos of animals for their veterinary services. I need photos of horses, and I ask if I can photograph theirs. I tell him he can have any he likes, but inform him I'll need him to sign a release that allows the website to post them. We make a quick joke about lawsuits, and he approves.

He had just come home from a long day's work, minutes before our arrival. Only enough time to clear one dinner plate. I tell him I'll be fine on my own, but he insists he drive me out to where the horses are. He knows how bad I can be with directions. He likely thinks I won't find them. "If you want to see a horse, there's one over in the corral. If you want to see a band of horses, you'll want to come with me."

Of course I want to see a band of horses.  

He puts on his boots and I follow him outside to the side-by-side atv. (A Polaris Ranger) I apologize for interrupting his dinner only to ask for a favor. He tells me he's just happy to see me. He sits down behind the wheel. I hop in the passenger seat. He starts up the atv and we head off through the pasture to the gravel road, back down memory hill, and toward "The West Place."

The West Place is an old abandoned farmhouse. It's not just any farm house. It's the one he grew up in.  There's a large pasture next to it where the horses roam free amongst acres of tall grass.

We open, and drive through, a solitary gate to the pasture. There's nearly a dozen horses gathered nearby. Maybe less, maybe more. They're herded so closely that they kind of blend together in a single multiheaded shape.

They are magnificent. 

I approach them with a bit of caution. I know they need to understand that I'm not a threat, but also that I'm confident enough in myself that I'm not going to be a detriment to their herd. As prey animals in nature, they need to make sure that someone has control of the situation. If you don't, then you're a liability, and they don't want a liability in their herd. At least that's what I've been taught. So, I try to approach with respect and confidence.

I bring my camera to my eye and they radiate a majestic energy as I peer at their soulful eyes and muscular bodies through my viewfinder.

The sun is lowering behind the structures and the horses are half in and out of the shadows. I make clicking noises and even try calling them like a dog with little effect. I hate to be a nuisance but I take my friend's advice and remove my hat. I wave it between me and the horses. It works. They move out of the shade. Darn it. Too far. Now I am seeing nothing but horse tails as they gallop deeper into the pasture.

My friend knows exactly where the horses are headed. The south hill. He says the horses like the hill because it gets them away from the bugs. Perhaps they appreciate their vantage point as well. Today I'm the bug they're trying to avoid. 

He takes me on the side-by-side down into a small ravine and sure enough, we see the horses climbing the hill. He dodges deep ruts and drives through passages in the trees. He knows this terrain like the back of his hand.

I ask him to stop a ways back, I don't want to chase the horses away all evening. They're in perfect light as the sun shines yellow on their bodies. Yet, they are once again bunched together in an unidentifiable mass.

I crouch down and focus on a seed pod of a yucca plant in the foreground. The old Minolta film lens I'm using on my Sony digital camera creates a beautiful effect called bokeh. Bokeh is the blur of the portions of the image that are not in focus, creating an uncanny depth of field within the photograph. If the shapes of the individual horses are going to be mixed together, perhaps making them blurry in the image will have an effect that doesn't make you look too closely at what's what. I take the photo and I'm pleased with its results, but I need more. I need an individual face or body or sillohoutte of a horse. It can be multiple horses. I just need to have them look like separate animals so there's a distinct image for the viewer at first glance.

I walk closer. The horses are standing head to butt. I'm told they do this to help each other be on the look out, as well as swatting flies off each other's faces with their long tails. Still, I need a horse face without a horse butt.

My friend starts his side-by-side and drives to the other side of the herd. The horses split. Here's my chance. I snap a few photos. Got one! Ok. Now I just need a couple more. The sun begins to set and I try my hardest to get a good sillohutte shot. A hundred photos and twenty minutes of pestering these beauties later, I think I've got a shot or two that will work. My favorite likely won't work for the website due to the lack of space left for graphics. That's okay. That one is for me. To print for my wall and perhaps to offer up for sale so that others can own that moment on their walls.

I hop back in the side-by-side and we drive back down through the ravine and out through the gate, shutting it behind us. I offer to chain it up, but it's easier for him to just do it in the particular way it's always been done rather than explain to me.

As we start driving back he tells me stories of how they used to have so many horses, but as people ride them less and less, they are slowly disappearing on the farms and ranches. I could sense such sorrow in his voice as he reimagined having nearly 40 horses in years past. He tells me the horses he has left are called "The Last of the Mohicans." I understand the reference to the film about a dying Native American tribe, and it tugs at my heart. Not much more wild and free than picturing a Native American out in those pastures with these horses. Not much churns the guts than envisioning them both slowly ceasing to exist.

As we turn down the gravel road, he shows me the route where he rode his horse to school as a young boy, and even his children, not much older than me, were able to ride before their tiny one room school house down the road was closed. My imagination projects their images on the road, riding to school with the rising sun. 

When we drove by his old place, where his daughter's family now Lives, he pointed and said "That fence there is the last thing your brother built for me out here. Before he left for his third tour."

The tour he didn't come back from.

Again, I sense sorrow in his voice.

As we continue back toward the ranch, I share a special story about a moment that recently happened with me in relation to Mike's life and passing.  A moment that took years to manifest, but it happened in such a serendipitous way I knew it was meant to be. 

He cracks a smile and says, after a deep breath in, "What's that country song, 'I'm already there?'"

Yeah. I was already there.

(I'll share this story in my next post)

We arrive back at the house and chat for a while before mom and I finally say our goodbyes and let them get back to their peace and quiet. There's not much quiet when the two of us get to jabbering. I bend down again to give the cattle dogs a farewell scratch, and then mom and I load back up in my 4Runner.

On the drive home, keeping watch for the glowing eyes of deer, I can't help but think of how great it feels to have just had that experience.

It was such a beautifully peaceful little moment, going back in time with my friend, the rancher. Picturing him as a youngster amongst dozens of horses. Picturing his parents living in that old abandoned house and what it must have looked like years ago. Picturing him riding his horse to school, then his children decades later. Picturing my brother building that fence with his famous smile, likely accompanied by a few flare ups of his equally famous temper.

It feels good to have the past visit every now and again, and it definitely feels good to be home.

Traveling to the major cities across the country I often hear remarks about where I'm from. People assuming we're ignorant without an understanding of the world.

Yet, if they could only see how beautiful the world can be...outside of the city, and outside of their own perspective. Perhaps then they may learn, that ignorance is a two way street.

 

 

 "The Last of the Mohicans" 

"The Last of the Mohicans" 

A Battle Lost...

 "Did you hear about Matt? He's gone, brother."

 

"Matt who?? Not Matt Dean?!"

 

"Matt Dean."

 

Fuck.

 

 

This. This, right here, is why I do what I do. This is why I am who am. This is why I share so often and as openly as I can.

 

This man lost his battle with post traumatic stress this week. It's scary as shit when a man as strong as Matt loses the fight. I met Matt a few years ago at "Save A Warrior," a holistic healing program for Veterans, that's practice has now been adopted in a few different organizations I've been involved in. They're teaching some of the most important lessons, values, tools, and perspectives that are invaluable in not only the healing process, but the Living LIFE process.

 

When I met Matt, he was physically intimidating with a large, muscular frame, arms covered in tattoos. He bore the history of a Warrior from 1st Battalion 5th Marines, and stories of being a rough-necker in the oil fields. He had all the ingredients to be the cocky testosterone fueled meathead. Without knowing him, you could easily peg him as "that guy." Yet, Matt wasn't that guy. Not even close.

 

Larger than Matt's physical presence, was his Heart. The man I met was nothing but kind and caring. Matt was a Shepherd. A guide and protector to his fellow Warriors. 

 

To think that he felt he couldn't Live in this world, or perhaps that this world wasn't worth Living in any longer,  breaks my heart. It breaks my fucking heart.

 

I get it. Boy do I get it. I battle with depression DAILY and sometimes wonder if it's really all worth it. I keep going because I believe it is. I truly do. I believe that Life on this amazing planet with these incredible animals, beautiful landscapes, and inspiring humans is WORTH Living in.

 

Yet, if I read headlines on any source of media, it looks as if the world has come to shit, and who would want to continue living in such a place full of gloom, doom and despair.

 

Now, I'm not blaming suicides on media, but I am saying that I'm sick and effing tired of it grabbing any and all of the negative stories they can find, fueling conflict, immortalizing murderers, and putting outrageous ideals of radicals into homes and on cell phone screens across the world.

 

It's an unfair representation of LIFE on this Earth. Over the past two years I have visited nearly every major city, several rural areas and national parks, met people from all races religions and creeds...and we were all amazing to each other. Views may have varied greatly, but actions spoke otherwise. Welcoming, Loving, encouraging, inspiring, Beautiful effing PEOPLE!! 

 

 

I've seen some of the most INCREDIBLE sights here in the United States alone. The entire world is left to discover. I may never get to see it all, but I'm working it into my Life goals to try and see as much of it as possible.

 

I don't want to do this just for me...but for those who can't, maybe wanted to do but never got the chance. I also want to continue to do this for everyone who just may be INSPIRED to KEEP LIVING. That's why I share what I share. It's always been with a purpose.

 

Bella and I's journey...that wasn't just for Bella...it was for me as well...and it wasn't just for us...it was for everyone.  Especially for those who have lost Hope. That's why I shared it. I wanted to share that Love still exists!! Humanity still Exists! But we have to be open to it! We have to experience it! We have to believe in it!

 

As I've been on this journey I have had critics who tell me to get a real job so I "know how other people feel." They obviously don't know or have forgotten that I know exactly how that feels. I've worked countless jobs. Most of which left me depressed and longing for more. Dredging through the workday with disappointment in myself:  "This isn't why I am here. There's more out there for me. I have a larger purpose, I know it!"

 

So...I set out to find it.

 

The journey over these past few years hasn't been easy, or as fun as it may seem from the outside. It hasn't been a vacation. It's been   a search. Yet, I believe those years of searching have been purposeful. I believe they've been making a difference in myself, and all those I share with. In fact, I know it's making a difference… Because people commonly reach out and tell me that it is.  To keep going. To keep sharing. So why would I stop? What could be more purposeful?

 

After experiencing death in many ways, a brother in the war, a sister in a car accident, grandparents to cancer and old age, friends to suicide, my perspective was blown wide open. Why are we here? What really matters. What really effin matters. Life. Loving and appreciating Life. Loving this planet, its animals, its lands, and its people. Loving BEING ALIVE.

 

That's why I spent so much time with Bella...because no one reminded me to Love being Alive more than her.

 

That's all I want to do, Love being Alive. and that's what I want to help others do. This is a gift. I truly, truly, truly believe Life is a gift, and we are so fortunate to be experiencing it together. I don't want to waste it. I don't want to feel like I want to end my own. I don't want anyone to feel alone in their struggles. I don't want people to give into cynicism and give up on humanity. I want us all to wake up, drop the petty differences, and realize that we are all in this together. This tiny blue speck. This is it. We're all in this...together.

 

I don't claim to have the answer, by any means, and I struggle with these idealistic viewpoints. But, I do believe that as I continue to travel, see new places, meet new people, smile into the eyes of strangers, Love on pups, and share stories and photographs along the way, that I am living my own answer. I am doing my part to feel purposeful. I feel it is part of my mission. For all intents and purposes, it is my job.

 

Matt, I'm sorry I wasn't able to help you, brother. It kills me that we didn't link up in Texas, that I didn't take that extra hour or so to come see you. Yet, I take solace in knowing you're hearing and feeling everything I have to say. I'm sending Love to your family, as I'm sure you know how much pain they are experiencing with your absence.

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