The Year of the Hike

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. I set an intention, an area of focus for the coming year. 2020 was The Year of the Hike. No set parameters, I just wanted to hike more and learn to independently navigate trails. Quick tip: this is a great idea if a global pandemic is looming,

My endeavor is documented on Instagram under @isallyvardaman, and in case that gives a false impression, I remain a novice. Some interpreted my posts as those of a seasoned hiker. #100, a milestone I did not expect to see, was the three mile walk from Tires Plus to my home so I could leave my car there for service. The whole point for me was that “hike” is a broad and simple concept.

Photo by Charlotte Johnson

Two years ago, a chilly November had me quickly overwhelmed by “winter.” This Mississippi kid has been here almost two decades, long enough to know I had to either give in to months of depression, or get out in the cold. When I opted for the latter, a friend suggested a hiking group through

Before that I had hiked only while on vacations which involved following handsome men. It never occurred to me I could do this at home, by myself, or even with total strangers. From the very first snowy December hike, I absolutely loved it.

It was easy. Sign up for a spot, dress for the weather, show up on time. I could follow along without a care as long as I could keep up, and I could! The company was great and our local trails are beautiful in winter. Content to follow the crowd, it was not about learning something new.

Slots filled quickly and my schedule didn’t align as often as I wanted to go. I grew curious about trails I didn’t know. It became clear I would have more fun more often if I learned, literally, to chart my own path. Maybe I could get good enough at it to lead others. Then I could give what had been so kindly offered to me by this group. 2020 was the place to start.

It began with informal outings with friends, smaller trips to practice trail navigation, with as many willing guinea pigs as I could fit in my minivan. I only got a group lost once early on. “Hike” as a loose term was my theme. We mostly hiked but sometimes did other fun things, like fat tire winter biking in Owatonna in February, during which I had to pause for my anxiety attack to subside. Some leader I am!!

Then COVID shut everything down.

I hiked with a friend the Saturday before my employer mandated us all home. I hiked with a friend that Sunday after. We let the distance widen as the protocols indicated. According to my official instagram record, I had 101 hikes, not including my almost daily walks in my neighborhood.

Travel was not in the cards this year.  Our vacation to New York City for spring break had to be cancelled just two weeks before. The reality of a pandemic had only begun to enter our psyches.   Seven months later, a brief jaunt to South Dakota was a welcome first for all us.    By then we were crafty at avoiding human interaction, a skill I’m not sure will serve my children long term. 

For the last 10 months, every social engagement in real life I had was in motion and on foot. In a small group or one on one, paved or unpaved, my walking habit kept me sane and connected. I saw graffiti and nature coexist. I saw the destruction of my city and its community lovingly tend to its aftermath. I processed all this with my kids and friends, putting one foot in front of the other. I breathed fresh air and basked in sunlight when I was down. My daily neighborhood walk frequently connected me with neighbors I rarely see otherwise..

I found my way on an uncertain path when I felt insecure. I learned to huff and puff while wearing a mask. Sometimes I got lost, even while leading others. I learned I could shift gears and recover on the fly, and still accomplish the intended goal. I met and got to know new faces in a year where that seemed impossible. I learned people are happy to follow me on a journey. They don’t even seem to mind mishaps if I establish risks and expectations up front.

This year reminded me of things I’ve long known, but fail to capitalize on. I love the quiet solitude of a walk alone. And with others, conversation naturally turns more meaningful when we move together.

I learned that adventure for me is simply loving movement – going from point A to point B, flanked by scenery, scents, sounds, company, or the unexpected. Adventure is anything I create it to be, anything I want it to be.

The last few days of the year I listened to Three Marriages by David Whyte, a lovely exploration of our primary commitments in life and where our self lies within them.  In it he looks back on a time he felt himself very off course

 “By what steps had I forgotten the promise I made as a child, not to fall into a false form of maturity, which is actually a form of non-participation; of not seeing, of not hearing, and not imagining.” 

I had no such awareness of what I gave up as I chased the independence of adulthood decades ago. How Whyte knew to promise himself such a thing is beyond me, much less how to revisit that goal later. As I listened to his tender wisdom, it occurred to me what I actually learned this year was how to play – really, how to give myself permission to do so.

I can play when I’m sad. I can play when I’m lonely. I can play when I celebrate and when I grieve. To play isn’t to have a game. To play is to fully engage with my surroundings.

And I will play more as I enter 2021, The Year of the Book. 

5 October 2020 Things

As we head into the scariest election of my lifetime, I am inspired by the ways people continue to live and attempt to thrive.

  1. I am a lifelong fan of Beth Henley, native of my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. I stumbled upon this glimpse of one of her many plays I have yet to get to see, and look forward to the day I can see a production: Laugh.
  2. I’ve fallen in love with the work of Larry Madrigal, who elevates the beauty and intimacy of the mundane and everyday.
  3. I love this essay, but especially the truth it holds: “Art is always a performance. It can be true, but it is never completely honest.”
  4. I just finished Hunger by Roxane Gay. It is hard to read a memoir about sexual assault and obesity, but the words of humanity and survival also make it hard to put down. Both experiences are common, and we should not pretend otherwise by looking away.
  5. I frequently say my favorite setting is change of scenery. This is me yesterday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota at Falls Park, basking in the sunshine, time with my kids, and lots of pretty sights.

5 Truth-Tellers

  1.  I watched the Joan Didion documentary on Netflix currently, and was surprised to discover her essay on the Central Park Jogger case, asking important questions a decade before these gentleman were acquitted – an insightful consideration of competing resentments indeed.
  2. Like in #1, as I age I am always surprised to hear voices had shouted the truth, but the sentimental narrative is still what sticks in our national psyche.  That is clearly true of Hiroshima and our national vengeance.
  3. That very sentimental narrative we cling to likely will resist the truth of this.
  4. And among legendary truth-tellers, Fannie Lou Hamer did just that 56 years ago today at the DNC.
  5. You can argue big government and small government all day long, but when we fail to recognize the interdependence within our large economic system, we waste valuable resources in the name of saving money.

5 Things, week of August 10

  1.  I wish I had heard this gentleman’s wisdom long before I became a parent.  Not sure if I had the maturity to listen.  His vlog on YouTube is everything I think really matters in parenthood and family.
  2. I overheard my son selling his sister on the merits of reading A Choice of Weapons by Gordon Parks.  Thank you Minneapolis Public Schools.
  3. A friend suggested I read this book.  When I got a hold of a copy (551 page, plus 300 pages of notes!)  And now I am taking it as a personal challenge to do so.  I am giving myself through the end of the pandemic.  🙂
  4. I have a renewed appreciation for the United States Postal Service and hope you do to.  I’ll be either voting early or personally dropping my ballot off to be counted.  How did we get here?  Because we did not believe it could be this bad.  Remember that when you vote this November, and every time you have the opportunity to vote.  You can drop off your mail in ballot but not at your polling location.  Use your friend google and make sure you follow instructions.  For Minnesota friends, see here.
  5. The most brilliant ad play I’ve seen in a long time is UBS hiring a spokesperson who is the widow of a rock & roll icon who notoriously cut her out of his will before his death.

5 More Things

1. Regina King is directing a movie and I cannot wait time see it.

2. For Mrs. America fans, this is a compelling editorial pushing to recognize a different version of history.

3. This is what terrifies me most lately – crisis at the Post Office when we need ballot by mail the most.

4. When the world seem to be falling apart, there is always someone making a difference. Thrilled to see New Rules and Christopher Webley recognized Forbes.

5. I finished a great tale of learning confidence and strong decision making in face of adversity and uncertainty. Poker isn’t personal. I’ll be nagging my kids to read it.

5 Voices

I love seeing the work of many black authors get attention, but equally saddened that black is often perceived as a limited, one-sided perspective.  Many of us go looking for the black experience, and it is about time we did.  But what is found is the human experience, made more honest by the wisdom of a pain we white people can never fully understand.  These voices have the nuance and compassion that is carved from having to reconcile the worst parts of our humanity.  That lens of pain yields a wisdom on things like love and parenthood and justice that we – all of us – desperately need.

These voices move me this week.

1. Intimations by Zadie Smith, written and published in the wake of COVID-19 and the impact of losing George Floyd. A powerful juxtaposition of what insidious virus most plagues us, and ponders what America we really want to be.  

2. Myrlie Evers on the Mississippi flag removal, and what it was to love and be loved by Medgar Evers. Love is powerful indeed.

3. Breathe by Imani Perry. This is strong motherhood.  No sugar coating.  No romanticizing.  This is real and gritty and intellectual and philosophical.

4. A grateful remembrance of John Lewis by Barack Obama.

5. And the inspiring last words of John Lewis himself, a man whose strength and bravery were stunningly anchored in love.  May we honor his legacy and continue the progress he relentlessly sought.  


5 Things

I question the value of saying anything on social media, a cacophony of shouts in itself. I see so much that enrages me, amuses me, breaks my heart, and inspires me. I doubt the value of engaging with any of it. When I have the urge to speak, I wonder what unheard voice I help crowd out.

So for now, I’ll just do this.  These are 5 things this week that occupied my mind, and to which I wish everyone would pay attention.

  1.  Just when I think we could not be any more off the rails as a society, the federal government is sending federal agents into cities it deems not brutal enough on their own to snuff out protesters.  Among them is Chicago, which pays annually about $100 million in policy brutality case settlements each year.  Despite experts and research all over the country demonstrating that butality is not the way, we are about to have multiple brutal and uncoordinated factions in one city.  The Department of Homeland Security “was not established to be the president’s personal militia.”
  2.  I’ve seen plenty of subtle sexism in my career, but in 2014 I had a manager go off complaining about how awful it is to have to work with women.  As he tried to clean up his outburst the next day, his non-apology included “I’m not sexist.  I mean, I married.”  If for no other reason, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s speech last week resonated with many of us because we are so tired of this bullshit defense.  She nailed it.  If, as NYTimes journalists claimed, this is simply AOC “amplifying her brand,” then sign me up for #fuckingbitchsquad.
  3. And as you carry your weariness from tired narratives about and toward women, this short bit by Katherine Ryan is gold.  CW: it’s also filled with profanity.
  4. There are too many lovely memorials to the great John Lewis I cannot pick just one, but in doing so Fresh Air also included an old interview of civil rights attorney J. L. Chestnut, whose largest focus was on changing laws that interfered with black people’s access to their natural rights as citizens.  It’s inspiring and worth a listen.  The high arc of our moral failings against people of color is so recent, and the laws on our books matter.
  5. Heaviest on my heart and mind this week, I just finished Waiting for an Echo by Dr. Christine Montross, a psychiatrist who has worked both in prison and psychiatric hospital settings, and describes the patients at each as “virtually indistinguishable.”  While there is plenty of evidence that our carceral system is a trauma farm, and failing at its stated purpose of ensuring a safe and just society, this is a compelling new piece of work.   We as a country are committing the very crimes against the incarcerated that we claim the system protects the rest of us from, and we are doing it to some of our most vulnerable members.





A Stranger Held My Heartbeat

I love collaborations – the more different the contributors are, the more their shared product surprises me and opens my mind.

The Weisman has an exhibit on display called Walk Back To Your Body, a collaboration between healthcare researchers and artists. I loved the concept so much I did the unprecedented – abandoned my kids on a weeknight to go to the opening presentations last week.

And there, a stranger did hold my heartbeat.

I was able to lie in The Daydream Chapel, also with a total stranger. I guess we adults need a fancy art gallery to give us permission to return to the simple forts of our playful youth.

But my absolute favorite was the work of psychiatrist Dr. Kathryn Cullen and poet Yuko Taniguchi. As the placard below from the exhibit indicates, adolescents struggling with behavior disorders learned to find a powerful identity as an artist rather than a person with a diagnosis. I missed their talk that night, but Taniguchi has a different one here that is worth a watch.

I could only stay for the start of the presentations, but was deeply moved by what I did hear. Dr. Jakub Toler, Dean of the University of Minnesota School of Medicine is also a bone marrow transplant surgeon. He talked about how art teaches us how to work with humanity. He said he learned 5% of the skills he uses in his work life from medical school – that he learned more from David Hopper about how to work with human beings as they suffer.

Another gem from the evening that lingers with me is from the curator, Boris Oicherman. He defined collaboration as the labor intensive work of different people finding a shared meaning.

I cannot tell if this exhibit is otherwise available, but I highly recommend if it if you have the chance.

Things I Love in the Twin Cities

For now, I have set aside performing to do the most basic things that will keep me sane, which are working (that day job that pays the bills), time with my kids, and really boring self care things that keep me sober.  I am not going out much, because one of those really boring self care things is getting a good night’s sleep and making sure my house is in order (kind of).

But I live in Minneapolis and the Twin Cities are filled with so many amazing things to do, here are a few of my favorites I see when I do get out.

Any comedy open mic: Love comedy but limited on funds? There open mics every day all over town.

Baddie’s Comedy Club: Great monthly showcase at New Rules. Great food and drink offerings.

Comedy Corner Underground: One of the best comedy clubs in town, run by a cooperative of local comics. Regularly features nationally touring comics in an intimate club setting.

Huge Theater: Great Improv! Great community theater.

Sisyphus Comedy Room: My favorite comedy room second only to Acme.

Strike Theater: Amazing stories galore and a variety of spoken word events.

Yellow Tree Theater: Yes, it is all the way up in Anoka but it has an intimate theater, incredible quality productions, and very reasonable prices.