I had a strange encounter the first time I went to Pátzcuaro.
Pátzcuaro is a beautiful village in the center of Mexico known for its rich Indigenous and Spanish colonial heritage. At an altitude of 7,020 feet, it’s not the Mexico many Americans think of when they think of Cancun or Cabo San Lucas. It’s an artisans’ town in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, beloved for its handicrafts, particularly its Day of the Dead crafts. Deemed a Pueblo Mágico (magic village) by Mexico’s department of tourism, it was mostly visited by weekenders from Mexico City when my mom and I went there 17 years ago.
One day, we walked up an ancient side street from the Plaza Grande to the Temple Sagrario.
We each bought embroidered pillowcases and a Catrina figurine along the way, then stopped for a drink next to an outdoor market.
Across from us sat someone with the most intensely piercing eyes I’ve ever seen — by far the clearest and bluest eyes I’ve ever come across — eyes that glistened like sapphires with the clarity of supernatural intelligence, eyes that bored into my soul. This clairvoyant took a drink of my marrow that lasted minutes and plumbed the subterranean recesses of my being.
A soul penetration of that magnitude is not something one usually experiences in life. In death, perhaps, because it was as if Thoth and the 42 judges who preside over the Hall of Truth in the Egyptian afterlife were weighing my heart.
It was even more as though this other-than-human could see the after-death movie that shows you every single thing that ever happened in your life — every trial, every tribulation, every joy, every achievement, every loss, every honor, every transgression, every blessing, everything.
I think if you asked this haunt what engendered him to overstep ordinary observation, he would have said he was compelled to because he recognized me and was driven to appraise the development of my soul since we last met.
If he was Mexican — say, from Mexico City — his heritage was entirely European, as he had none of the features of Indigenous peoples of Mexico. If he was from Europe, I guessed his native land to be Spain, or maybe Basque Country. But his otherworldly bearing told me he was not bound by the figment of nationality.
And while this force with lapis eyes was as young as I was, he was old.
“So not all vampire lore can be true,” I thought, because he was sitting outside in the sun in the middle of the day.
Louanna noticed that everyone on the ferry was feasting.
We were traveling from Ullapool, a village in the Scottish Highlands, to the Outer Hebrides island of Harris and Lewis.
I was 17, interested mainly in listening to Lonely Is an Eyesore on my Walkman, so I hadn’t been paying much attention to the people on the ferry.
But now that Louanna (my mom, who called her parents Jan and O, so I called her Louanna) pointed it out, this feasting was strange indeed.
I pulled my headphones down and looked up from Dracula.
“I wonder why these people are eating like it’s their last meal,” Louanna whispered.
Ferry food in those days (this might have changed) was limited to factory-made soggy sandwiches that had been slopped together weeks before inhabiting the snack counter. They were made of Spammy meats and blackened lettuce. You could also get packets of crisps and Cadbury chocolate. And weak tea served somewhat warm in small plastic disposable mugs that were oddly equipped with paper handles.
What heat the tea may have carried from the carafe was conducted to the action of melting the cup, which quickly crumpled on the bottom. These cups could therefore never stand up straight, and you could often find them hunkered in the blue corners of the ships, swept in one direction by the occasional wave that knocked them off the tables.
The fare on ferries was far from fair, so we couldn’t figure out why anyone wouldn’t wait to feast once we landed.
Certainly sometimes you’re hungry, and you’ll scarf anything. You might have a snack to tide you over. But these five people were storing up as if for a winter of want. We heard comments like “I’d much rather wait to eat a full meal rather than 50 of these little snacks,” but clearly, for some reason, they had to seize the moment.
And they were Scottish, by the way. They had some kind of insider knowledge that drove this strange action.
Each person had several packets of everything, and they ate together at two tables, not casually or individually like they were munching quickly along the way, but formally and unitedly like they were reaping a short-lived harvest.
They feasted like they knew they wouldn’t sup again for weeks.
And they stocked their bags up with extra packets of crisps.
I’m surprised Louanna didn’t ask them why they were dining on slim pickins with such zest. She loved talking to people. She loved learning about their likes and their lives and their ways and their whys. But she probably didn’t see a polite way into the convo, so she left the question in the air.
“What do they know that we don’t?”
We got our answer when we disembarked.
We’d had no idea that the Isle of Harris would be composed of black granite boulders and not a scrap of anything else.
There was nothing on Harris, which caused us no end of laughter (and hunger). This was the island of our people, and there was nothing on it. We’d never heard of the Isle of Harris before, but when, on our travelsthrough Scotland, we saw it on the map, we knew we had to make this pilgrimage.
And there was nothing as far as the eye could see.
Except for black stones and a little B&B.
There were no restaurants. There were no pubs. There were no grocery stores. There was probably a little market somewhere, but wherever it was, it was definitely closed.
There was fog, and there was descending darkness, and there was mist.
The mist turned to steady, cold, COLD rain, and it was all pretty Dracula, so we stayed in our room and read our books. I had three crisps in my possession, so we each ate one and split the other.
I know we ended up laughing about something, because I remember that the owner of the B&B yelled for us to be quiet. We were her only guests, and this area was so remote that we were probably her first and last guests for a long time.
I’ve been a night owl since I was born, so I’m sure I was up extremely late reading and writing.
In the morning, I could not get up. I was exhausted and for the life of me I couldn’t pull myself out from my slumber of the dead. And I didn’t even want to, because I was warm and sleep was savory.
Louanna went to the kitchen for breakfast, and came back talking about oatcakes. Through my dreams I heard something about sawdust and how “those stony little fuckers could break teeth.”
Apparently not a drop of sugar, not a pinch of salt, not a splash of milk or a dash of cinnamon flavored the homemade hockey pucks.
We felt terrible that the owner of the B&B, a solitary woman in her 60s, had worked so hard and so thoughtfully to make us her special oatcakes — and not only had Louanna barely been able to choke a bite down, I hadn’t even made an appearance.
So I dragged myself up.
And then the owner started banging on the door.
“Checkout time!” she yelled.
I flew into the bathroom to brush my teeth.
“OK!” Louanna called as she went to open the door. “Sorry — we’re running a little behind. Can you give us 10 minutes?”
“Now it’s past checkout time!” the lady yelled.
She was tiny and feisty and steaming.
“It’s past checkout time!”
In the bitty bathroom I tore off my pajamas and threw on some clothes, and then we chucked our stuff in our bags, which were oversized duffel bags.
No wheels. No backpack straps. Just short handles for carrying each monstrously heavy bag in your hands. Those bags were cumbersome as fuck, and it was no easy task dragging them around.
“It’s past checkout time!” The lady was yelling. “Now it’s five past 10!”
We hauled our bags out of our room….
“It’s past checkout time!”
Down the hall…
“It’s past checkout time!”
Out the door…
“IT’S PAST CHECKOUT TIME!!!!!!!”
And to the gate…
Where the irate woman shook her fist in the air and screamed:
“AND NEVER COME BACK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
We were banished from our namesake homeland by a very angry distant relative.
We felt like jerks.
But really, we were not horrific assholes.
Sometimes people laugh at 8:30 at night. Sometimes teenagers sleep through breakfast. Sometimes people run late at checkout.
Sometimes angry people overreact.
In a state of laughing shock and guilty astonishment, we popped over to Lewis.
We caught a bus down the road from the B&B. It barreled us away from black granite desolation and dropped us on the other side of the island.
Lewis was verdant. It was an oasis. It had food, and nice people, and buildings, and shops, and we visited the awe-striking standing stones of Callanish.
When we saw the following photo for the first time, we nearly died.
We must have laughed for twenty minutes, howling, guffawing, falling on the floor in hysteria.
This was no representation of my beautiful mother. Rather, it comically captured how disarrayed we felt that day, rushed to check out, teeth barely brushed, hair wild in the damp wind, banished by an estranged relation, sporting bagged-out clothes the way you do when you haven’t seen a dryer in weeks.
Even in the hard times years later, we still referred back to this shot for laughs.
The other day I was cleaning out my sock drawer and decided to finally get rid of some socks I’ve been dragging around for over 20 years. I’d kept them because I bought them on Harris, along with my Harris tweed hat (which has long since been lost to time).
The socks are thick wool forest-green knee-high socks, which served me well during those damp, chilly weeks up in the remote Highlands.
Before I tossed the socks in the donation box, I thought I’d try ’em on.
They’re in perfect condition, and they are the softest, coziest, most wonderful socks for cold January days like these.
My mom’s last 20 years didn’t turn out the way we expected them to. She lived far from Costa Rica, where she had wanted to retire. We didn’t visit the pyramids in Egypt or go to Bali together as we’d planned.
But we had memories of our travels to lots of cool places.
I exaggerated about the landscape of Harris. The Harris side is bleaker than Lewis, but the entire island is stunning, as you can see in all these flickr pics. The actual population of the island is shockingly about 21,000. Our stay was a million years ago, and now there are loads of gorgeous Airbnbs.
In fact, Airbnb is now sending me emails that say “Hi Erin, if you’ve been eyeing Isle of Harris, look no further.”
This is very helpful. Cuz my heart’s in the Highlands.
I’d always wanted to go to Delphi, so last September I took a bus from Athens and fed my soul on the majesty of the ancient site.
I spent three glorious days sweating on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, and hour after hour traversing the ancient sanctuaries.
I stayed at the Kastalia Boutique Hotel, which I recommend if you’re journeying to Dephi. It is the embodiment of Greek hospitality. When I arrived, the owner said:
“Ask me anything you please, and your wish will be granted.”
And she meant it.
Cheaply I had chosen a street-facing room, and naturally it was loud. I didn’t sleep well my first night, so the next day I asked to switch rooms. It was no problem at all, and the owner even went so far as to not charge me the higher price for a room with a breathtaking view of the valley.
She also gave me clear instructions on how to get to the ruins, and how to ensure blessings from the goddess Athena.
The Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia
The iconic ruins are a short walk east from Delphi Village.
Athena’s sanctuary is further from the village than Apollo’s temple, but the owner of the Kastalia said the best way to take it all in is to go to Athena first because she’s always held the gateway to the main sanctuary.
There was a tour group wrapping up when I got there, and then I had the place to myself. I asked Athena for healing, and my month in Greece only got better from there.
The Castalian Spring
For millennia it’s been customary to make a stop at the Castalian Spring on your way from Athena to Apollo.
In ancient times, travelers purified themselves here, taking rest on benches that lined a beautiful fountain-house carved into the rock. The priests and priestess also used to bathe in the spring in preparation for divination.
Nowadays, you cleanse your feet under the modern fountain next to the ruins of the ancient bath. The water is said to be high in minerals and deeply healing, so I soaked my toes and filled my bottle up. From time to time, locals stopped by to fill 5-gallon jugs.
With blessings from Athena and purification from the fountain, I was ready for the main sanctuary.
The Temple of Apollo
It’s astounding enough to see the ruins of Apollo’s temple. To imagine the awe it must have commanded in its full glory is powerful when you’re standing among its foundations. (And in a weird way it’s less of a tease as a ruin, because Hephaestus’ temple is intact in Athens [as are others] — and I can’t tell you how much I wanted to go inside that one, though they rope that puppy off to protect it.)
Above the Temple of Apollo is a horseshoe-shaped theater:
Between Apollo’s temple and the valley you can see a treasury… cuz everyone who was anyone had a treasury at Delphi.
And above this sweeping vision is the gymnasium:
It was here that athletes competed in the Pythian Games in honor of Apollo.
I had always thought of Apollo as god of sun like Helios (which he was, until Helios took over the chariot of the dawn), but I learned that Apollo is also god of archery (which makes sense given the games)… plus knowledge, healing, protection (which makes sense given the heavenly feeling of this sacred site)… and much more.
The entire sanctuary is infused with peace.
It feels like holy land — intrinsic holy land — and the ancients made it more so with the sacred geometry of their architecture.
It’s so otherworldly that this is where the Oracle of Delphi, or the Pythia, gave prophesies from the divine.
Nowadays it’s believed that the high priestess’s oracles were gibberish induced by vapors emanating from a chasm below her tripod. Some even say that the priests translated the gibberish into false prophesies for political gain.
I believe it could have come to that. But soaking up the soul of the place, I could feel that the oracles began as trance-connections with the divine. I suspect that even their translations began as authentic.
It was gloriously hot.
I was wearing a thin white cotton shirt, a thin light-colored skirt, and sandals, and I was sweating bullets as I basically did interval cardio up the slope, stopping from time to time to absorb the atmosphere. I found it staggering that other people were wearing long-sleeved black shirts and tight jeans and socks with trainers as they climbed up — and they didn’t seem to feel the heat or break a sweat. And yet it was 34°C (93°F).
One thing that people did do, though, really impressed me. See the pert buttocks on this sarcophagus? (Look left)
A group was walking by this sarcophagus and a lady said, “Nice ass.”
A gentleman said, “Thank you.”
Oh, those magnificent days of delight and discovery.
I also loved Delphi Village.
There’s nothing like good, hot, dry weather and a landscape like this:
Surprisingly, Delphi Village was built around 1891.
Before that, villagers lived in what was called Kastri, right on the site of the ruins.
French archeologists moved the village to its current locale at the end of the 19th century so they could excavate the sanctuary.
Here’s what the modern village looks like above the Kastalia:
Years before I came here, I’d had dreams of riding a motorcycle down a street like this.
In waking life, a little further up this street, I had a magnificent Greek salad and souvlaki.
What I love about Greek food is that, everywhere I’ve eaten throughout three month-long journeys in the country, the food is always fresh and never pompous.
Down the street from my lunch spot was a pomegranate tree.
… this pomegranate picture has particular significance for me now in December, with Persephone stationed in Hades for the winter.
You know the myth of Persephone and Demeter?
Persephone was off limits to the menfolk as far as her mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, was concerned. But all the gods wanted Persephone because she was a hot young slice who embodied beauty and fertility.
So Hades, god of the underworld, swooped up and pulled Persephone to his realm.
Demeter was so distraught that she forbade the earth to fruit, and winter came.
Eventually she got wind of Persephone’s whereabouts, and Zeus made Hades return Persephone to the upperworld, marking the season of spring and the rebirth of life.
But Persephone had tasted the fruit of the underworld in the form of six pomegranate seeds, and became Hades’ wife. She has co-reigned his realm ever since for six months every year.
Where I come from, winter is indeed six months long, and the climate is so fierce that we could never grow mild-region fruits. Thus for the novelty I longed to pick a pomegranate, but they weren’t mine to pick, so I headed back to my room for a nap.
By my second night in Delphi, the waiter at the Kastalia knew how much I loved their hummus, their salads, their wine, their view.
When I was done with dinner on my second night, he said to me, “What is your little name?”
“Your little name.”
“‘My little name? Erin.”
“Erin, do you like chocolate cake?” he asked.
“I do,” I said, even though I’ve been gluten-free for 17 years.
He said, “Erin, because I like you, I will bring you chocolate cake.”
Another thing I loved about Delphi
was a peaceful moment while I was waiting for the bus back to Athens. There was a lusty breeze blowing between what I believe are chestnut trees, enormous and ancient, soaring above wrought-iron balconies with painted wooden shutters.
It was then that I noticed a restaurant sign that had the most wonderful typo I’ve ever seen.
It said lamp chops.
I’m an editor as well as a writer, so you might think I’m a spelling snob. But this filled me with as much happiness as drinking an Alfa under the hot Grecian sun.
When we arrived in Athens, I grabbed a taxi and was off to the ferry port, headed to the Akrotiri excavations of ancient Thira.
The first time I geared up to go hang gliding, I couldn’t stop smiling.
I had probably smiled three times in the three years before that because life had been incredibly difficult.
Now I was turning 40 and I was actually smiling because I was about to do something that my soul had been longing for. Something life-affirming. Something fun.
I wasn’t smiling on purpose — this was an autonomic phenomenon, like breathing or maintaining blood circulation with your heart. And I knew it — I knew that my permagrin was rooted in every part of me — body, mind, spirit, soul — all of me anticipating great joy.
And it was an immense feeling, setting off at high speed down the runway, taking flight into the summer sky. My guide and I were secured to a hang glider that was tethered to a plane that lifted us from a flat green field into waves of warm air. As we ascended I felt a joy like the joy I feel when taking off in a plane, but much stronger, with vastly more awe as the gentle breeze streamed against my face.
It was exhilarating to look down and see how small and far ordinary life was. It was delicious to look ahead as I drank in the sky at this height, 2,000 feet above the ground. It wasn’t like a view from a 35,000-foot airplane flight. It was infinitely more visceral because I was suspended in the open air.
Words like elation and euphoria form new definitions in your bones when you’re literally high.
This kind of floating felt exactly like a dream, one where I’m flying above treetops, getting a glimpse of how beautiful life can be. The universe showed me its expansiveness and I could feel more hope and goodness than I ordinarily imagine possible.
Anytime we got a ripple of wind it was like soaring up in a giant swing. When we disconnected from the plane, there was a little bounce-back, and jolting forward again was like a second taste of the takeoff.
I tried to cement every instant of the 15-minute flight in my memory, so the experience would be there for me to return to in detail whenever I want. It helps too that there was a GoPro on our left. Here’s a condensed version of the video, cut together with a little footage from my phone on my second flight:
Isn’t hang gliding crazy?
Isn’t it dangerous? Wasn’t I nervous? Wasn’t I scared?
All I was aware of was being thrilled. My brain had been starving for endorphins, and this was like manna on my tongue after a long famine.
Speaking of food, after our flights, my friend Angela, who loved the experience too, took me to a Mexican restaurant I’d never been to, where the beans were ambrosia. I’ve been back there since and they’re definitely good, but not like that magical dinner after a free-fly in the sky.
Though it should be said that I am afraid of heights in certain ways. My chiropractor, for example, has virtual reality equipment that’s intensely realistic. There’s one beautiful under-the-sea program, and another grim futuristic city program. In that one, you’re on top of a building on a black, high-tech, dystopian space station. The building is taller than the Empire State Building. Since it’s VR, you can theoretically step your foot out, but it feels so real that when I tried it, my brain was convinced that I would plummet to my death. I couldn’t bring myself to stretch a toe out a millimeter. I think it had partly to do with being vertical, and significantly to do with an aversion to the antiutopia.
Hang gliding is different for me. Maybe because I’m horizontal like a bird, maybe because rural Wisconsin is beautiful, definitely because I feel carefree. I consider it no more dangerous than getting in a car. Or than living life for that matter, where we have no limit of frightening things like all the shit that’s in “the news” every day.
I meant to go hang gliding again this past summer, but I spent the warm days working, and then in September I went to Greece, and it was halfway through October by the time I set off to get back in the air.
One of the things I love about going to Wisconsin Hang Gliding is the drive. You could definitely say I like locomotion. I live to travel ground that I don’t cover every day, and it intrigues me to see fresh landscapes. On the two far-apart occasions I’ve made the drive, every bend in the road felt new to me, curving with rolling hills, scattered with farms, wetted with marshland.
On this glorious autumn day, the orange and yellow leaves caught the sun as I cruised past untroubled cows, gnarled oaks, and pumpkin patches. At one point I saw a boy of about 10 fly off his school bus and race up the long drive toward his house. Was he running to get faster? Was he rushing to see something he’d missed all day? Was he thinking, “If I get to the barn before the dog barks, I’ll get what I want for my birthday”?
I dunno, but he was part of the idyllic scene for sure. He and his beautiful free soul.
When I got to Wisconsin Hang Gliding, the office was empty because Rik, the owner, was in the air. Danny the tow pilot was on the ground, out in the field, waiting for Rik to land. While I waited for them, I took photos of the grounds and a video of Rik’s landing:
A minute after this, we were preparing for my second tandem flight. I was thinking about friends who’d said, “Hang gliding? Are you serious?” or “All I can think of is the hot-air balloon accident” or “I prefer to keep my feet on the ground.”
So I asked Rik and Danny:
“What do you say to people who think hang gliding is crazy, risky, or dangerous?”
Obviously I’m not implying that if this is your perception, you should go hang gliding. I asked because I have a different view of crazy, and I wanted to know if they do too.
Rick said that tandem hang gliding with an expert is probably the safest sport you can do in the sky. What Danny said was one of the best things I’ve ever heard anyone say.
“It’s only crazy in your mind.”
It’s only crazy in your mind.
Like, what do you consider crazy?
When I was thinking about leaving my full-time job, I thought, “It’s crazy to give up health insurance and paid vacation and a stable income and a job I love.”
But I did it because I needed the liberation of working remotely for both my soul and my family obligations. And I’ve never regretted it. I was afraid to do it, but as soon as I did it, I learned that it had been crazy only in my mind.
That’s when I looked at it as doing something crazy because I’m sane. If I hadn’t done it, I would still be living the restrictive life that wasn’t good for me. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to take a 23-day vacation to Greece. And I sure wouldn’t be hang gliding on a Monday.
So now we were taking off again, Danny in the plane and Rik and me on the glider. We soared into the air and there was the wind again, streaming against my cheeks as I felt the freedom of flight. We soared up and the wind was invigorating. The fall colors radiated brilliance. Because it was my second flight and I was obviously a convert, this time we went to 3k high.
Flying like a heron
I thought of how my grandfather had once asked me, “Wouldn’t you love to be a bird flying in the sky?”
We were in marshland at the time, and we’d just seen a blue heron lift out of the water and float into the air.
My grandfather was a brilliant bird carver, and a fervent collector of Owen Gromme‘s wildlifeart. I wondered if he would have liked hang gliding like a bird. I thought he might, because for a mild-mannered chap he was a bit of an adventurer, especially when he was in his late eighties.
That’s when he took a helicopter ride over a volcano with me, rode in a rowboat in the choppy Pacific with me and my mom and my aunt watching for whales, and took a motorboat with us down the river and through the jungle of the Dominican Republic. He very well might have loved hang gliding.
I’d asked Rik if I could film with my phone, and he didn’t mind. I think it was because he could tell that if I dropped it, I would realize it was my own fault. I had my phone strategically placed in a pocket on the chest of my harness. Rik had given me gloves to wear because the wind was chilly, and it was quite an ordeal to take each one off while up in the sky, tuck them in my cleavage like my grandma safekeeping Kleenex, unzip the little pocket, and wrangle my phone out.
It was tricky business, but eventually I succeeded. I got my security code pressed, and the camera app open, the slider set to video, and the video turned on. I filmed the 30 seconds you saw above and decided that was more than enough. It would help preserve the memory, but it was taking me out of the moment. It was better to gaze in awe, so I spent the rest of the flight locking every glorious detail in my mind. I even decided to consider taking lessons to become a solo flyer like this guy. If I could, I’d fly every day.
Fear and perception
Now there are crazy things that are super crazy-crazy. Because crazy’s on a spectrum. But sometimes when you do something kind of crazy, it’s actually more liberating than you imagine.
What I think is crazy is not doing what you feel you will love. Of course, I’m not saying go hang gliding. If you don’t want to go hang gliding, don’t go hang gliding. What I am saying is:
Are all our fears for real?
Just about everything we do is crazy. Driving 4,000-pound steel boxes at 70 mph is crazy. Bombing people is crazy. Having healthcare that bankrupts people is crazy. Even having a child is crazy because of the physical, emotional, and financial risks it brings to the parents — and the risk of life it brings to the child.
It’s only the seemingly “weird” stuff we classify as crazy.
But it’s only crazy in our minds.
When we landed, the wisdom of Danny’s words was still slaying me. As I wobbled onto my feet, I wondered if he’s some kind of Zen Buddhist master.
But as far as I know he’s just a guy who, like Rik, has been hang gliding for 40 years. They’re both in one piece, so that’s a good sign. Not only that, they look strong and healthy. At 58, Rik moves like he’s 16. Doing what they love seems to keep them young.
When we were leaving, Danny said that if he doesn’t get in the air after awhile, he gets antsy. He waved goodbye and ducked into his car wearing watershoes. I think he was headed for another crazy adventure. Maybe scuba diving.
When I drove away, I was still smiling. And I smiled all day.