The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Celebrities

Is Keegan Swirbul the Next Lance Armstrong?

WHEN A CYCLIST beats Lance Armstrong, he doesn’t usually get invited to dinner and called the future of cycling by the sport’s disgraced but still competitive alpha male. But that’s what happened last August when 17-year-old Swirbul won the Power of Four mountain-bike race in Aspen, Colorado. Swirbul kept pace with Armstrong over 36 miles and 9,000 feet of vertical gain, then dropped him on a grueling final climb. At a time when cycling is in desperate need of a clean break from its past, Swirbul’s win put him at the front of a new crop of young riders and gave the sport a fresh face to celebrate.

PEDIGREE: Swirbul’s talent for endurance racing became clear when he competed in a regional mountain-bike series as a kid. He didn’t win, but he was regularly beating adult riders—and he was seven years old. Around nine, Swirbul became interested in freestyle skiing and parkour (check out his videos on YouTube), then added nordic skiing to his regimen in high school. He credits those skills for reducing the “fear factor on descents.”

ASCENSION: After focusing on cross-country mountain biking, Swirbul scored an impressive win in last year’s Mountain States Cup series, a five-race regional event in Colorado.

NEXT UP: This April, Swirbul heads into his first year as a member of a pro mountain-biking team, Denver-based Orbea–Tuff Shed, a small squad that Swirbul signed on with last November. His ultimate goal: competing in the Tour de France. “I’m hoping that I can make the switch from mountain biking to road racing like Cadel Evans and Floyd Landis,” he says. One thing remains certain: look for him to continue doing backflips off whatever podium he finds himself on. “It’s my thing!” he says—at least until his sponsors beg him to stop.

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Sebastian Junger Shoots For the Truth

THE SCENE FADES IN from black. A hand-held camera pans the inside of a car weaving through the streets of Misrata, on Libya’s coast. It’s April 20, 2011, and the city, a stronghold for antigovernment rebels, is under siege by forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. We see the driver, a rakish rebel, and his passengers, several photojournalists looking out the windows at the smoldering remnants of buildings. The cameraman asks, “Which way is the front line from here?”

At that point, you realize what you’re watching: Tim Hetherington on his way to die. Hetherington, the man holding the camera, was one of the most respected conflict photographers in the world. Within a few hours of the car ride, the 40-year-old Briton was killed in a mortar attack, along with renowned American photographer Chris Hondros. Hetherington’s femoral artery was ruptured by shrapnel, and he bled to death in the back of a pickup truck on the way to a hospital.

Hetherington’s question, which arrives just minutes into the film, is also its title. Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? premiered at Sundance in January and airs on HBO in April. It was directed by writer Sebastian Junger, who became a close friend of Hetherington’s when the two worked together in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. The 80-minute documentary takes the measure of the photographer’s extraordinary life and work, weaving Hetherington’s own footage, from Liberia to Afghanistan to Libya, together with Junger’s interviews with heart-broken friends, colleagues, and family. As with the new Hetherington biography Here I Am, by American author Alan Huffman, it presents a powerful case that, in the age of citizen journalism, when anyone with a camera phone can be a contributing reporter, dedicated and talented professionals still deliver the most revealing stories.

Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? suggests that Hetherington’s success had as much to do with his personality as his ability to capture the essence of war. Lanky and affable, Hetherington charmed everyone he met. A born searcher, he came to photography in his mid-twenties to, as he later put it, “try to explain the world to the world.”

Hetherington’s most penetrating imagery stands out for what it isn’t: gory, brutal, or shocking. His vision of warfare had him seeking out the pauses between the action that transfixed so many of his colleagues. Beginning in the late 1990s, he spent years in West Africa photographing the fallout of conflicts—victims of land mines, children blinded by war criminals, an abandoned hospital. Hetherington’s 2007 shot of an exhausted American soldier in Afghanistan won the Photo of the Year award from the World Press Association. And in Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?, Junger describes a poignant episode during the filming of Restrepo, the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary the two made about an American platoon in Afghanistan, in which Hetherington snapped portraits of soldiers as they slept.

Hetherington also distinguished himself by his level of commitment. During the Liberian civil war from 1999 to 2003, he and fellow Briton James Brabazon were the only foreign journalists to live behind rebel lines, which prompted president Charles Taylor to call for their capture and execution. He worked with Human Rights Watch on a number of projects. In Afghanistan, he and Junger financed much of Restrepo themselves while on assignment for Vanity Fair.

Ultimately, Hetherington allowed his sensitivity and empathy to direct his camera, an approach that may have been his greatest strength. As Brabazon says in Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?, “Tim didn’t see a division between being a photographer or a videographer or a humanitarian or a participant. He was just Tim.”

View some of Tim Hetherington's photos here.

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Michael Pollan and Other Eco-Titans On Smarter Ways to Cook, Eat, and Clean

IT'S HARD TO THINK of three more influential masters of holistic environmentalism than Michael Pollan, William McDonough, and Michael Braungart. Their classic books The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Pollan) and Cradle to Cradle (McDonough and Braungart) changed the way we think about food and consumer products—and did it by inviting readers to consider greater possibilities instead of browbeating them into limitations. This month finds all three offering long-awaited follow-ups.

In Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart—an architect and a chemist, respectively—introduced a manufacturing paradigm of continuous product reuse. No more planned obsolescence! Shutter the landfills! The ideas were ambitious, but some did find their way into the real world—every U.S. Postal Service Express and Priority Mail envelope is now cradle-to-cradle certified.

In The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance (North Point Press, $28), the pair propose another shift: moving from harm reduction to benefit creation. Where most see pollution, the authors see design opportunities. Why not recover valuable phosphate from human waste? “Stop thinking sewage,” they write, “and start thinking nutrient management.” Turbines too ugly? Use Amtrak’s 14,000 miles of rail easements, the authors suggest, as solar-power corridors. Upcycle’s prose is like a long TED Talk studded with corporate keynote-isms, but the authors have a knack for combining big ideas with commonsense practicality, which leaves readers feeling excited about the future.

In Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (Penguin Press, $28), Pollan is aiming to spark another revolution. When asked what an ordinary person can do to reform the overindustrialized, calorie-stuffed American food system, Pollan gives a one-word answer: cook. That means a return to scratch home cooking, a pleasurable, ordinary act that we’ve outsourced to corporations in the name of convenience and cost savings. We live in an age of the “cooking paradox,” Pollan writes: the less we do it, the fatter we get. Pollan revives the lost art by learning how to do it well, working his way through four elements: fire (barbecuing with a pit master), water (pot cooking), air (baking), and soil (fermenting with the microbes of the earth).

As in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan is never less than delightful, full of curiosity, insight, and good humor. This is a book to be read, savored, and smudged with spatterings of olive oil, wine, butter, and the sulfuric streaks of chopped onion.

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My Perfect Adventure: Gary Erickson

If it weren’t for Gary Erickson, there wouldn’t be Clif Bars. And if it weren’t for his love of being outside, he wouldn’t have gotten the inspiration to create the company.

The story is still printed on each wrapper: It was 1990. Erickson, who worked as a baker at the time (he’d already been a bike-seat designer, a mountain guide, and a sporting-goods employee), lived in a garage. He set out for a 175-mile bike ride with a buddy. During the trip, he suddenly felt disgust at the PowerBar he was attempting to stomach. Then he had an epiphany. “After countless hours in Mom’s kitchen,” the wrapper explains, “Clif Bar became a reality.” He named the cookie-like confection after Clifford, his dad, who’d taken him all through the Sierra Nevadas.

Erickson was lucky to have caught the natural-foods wave right when it was starting to swell. Since his 1992 launch, he has turned down a $120-million buyout offer from Quaker Oats, raked in hundreds of millions in revenue, and written a book about his down-to-earth business ethics, Raising the Bar: Integrity and Passion in Life and Business. He also started a winery near his Napa home and implemented company perks so generous—onsite childcare, a gym with a climbing wall, and an annual paid-for ski trip—that Clif has earned a spot on Outside’s “Best Places to Work” list for five years running.

We wanted to know more about what drives this hard-charging CEO, and what he does on his down time, so we chased him down for some questions. What we learned: Italy holds a special place in his heart. He yearns to get to Tibet. He both loves and hates his iPhone. He wants to meet, more than anyone, the alpine skier Franz Klammer. In another life, he may have been a jazz musician or a pro athlete. He says things like, “If I am not learning, I am not living.” For more, read on.

Describe your perfect day. Where would you be, who would you be with, and what would you do?
Well, it depends on the season. In summer, it would be a 100-mile ride in Northern Italy, and in winter, it might be a day of backcountry skiing in the Sierras. Either way, the day would be pretty simple. It would start at 6 a.m. with a good cup of coffee and a light breakfast. My wife, Kit, would be with me, and we’d spend the day tackling challenging terrain. We’d also have a few breaks to rest, eat Clif Bars, and enjoy some beautiful vistas. When I’m cycling, I like to stop at little local stores for lunch—it gives me a chance to interact with people and to test my language skills even if I’m just ordering a sandwich or fruit. At the end of the day, we’d celebrate together over a good beer or a glass of wine and a delicious meal as we recounted our stories from the day. 

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go?
Tibet. I was in Nepal in 1982 but at the time, foreigners were restricted from crossing over into Tibet. All I could do was stand at the border and look. I spent some time in a border village and was able to get a small taste of what Tibetan culture might be like but never the full experience. Tibet has been open for some time now and I would love to go there to do some trekking. It is definitely on my bucket list.

What’s the best place you've ever visited?
I have two answers to that. There’s a place that keeps bringing me back, and a place I’ve only visited once but had a big impact on me. The first is Italy. I visit Italy a lot. I love the culture, the food, and the mountains. And I have great friends there. Visiting Italy is like coming home. The other place is Nepal. Unlike Italy, Nepal didn’t feel like home at all. It was entirely new and different in terms of both culture and landscape. When I was there, I trekked every day and got the chance to spend time with the people, who are incredibly kind. The food was simple but delicious and the mountains were otherworldly. My time there was intellectually, physically, and spiritually energizing.

If you could have lunch with any adventurer or athlete, who would it be?
Franz Klammer, the 1976 gold medalist for downhill at Innsbruck, Austria. He was the last of 15 skiers to race, and the course was completely skied out—the odds were totally stacked against him. He launched out of the starting gate and gave it absolutely everything he had in him. For most of the race, he skied on the edge of disaster. I remember being glued to the TV not wanting to miss a single second. Judging from that race, I can only guess that he’s a unique, wild character. I’d love to talk to him about that run, what was going through his mind in the starting gate, what he was thinking on course, and how it felt to cross the finish line and see his winning time.

What can't you travel without?
For better or for worse, my iPhone. It makes traveling safer, and I love that I can come up with new routes on the fly, which is how I prefer to travel on my bike. In a pinch, it helps me find and book hotels. The bad thing is that it can take away a lot of the adventure of traveling. It tells you what’s around every turn so you can’t really get lost. Instead of just walking into a restaurant and trying it, you can Google it and see what everyone thinks about it before taking a single bite. I love all the little discoveries that arise when I’m traveling, so to keep them alive I try to limit my phone use to mapping, staying in touch with family, and on-the-fly reservations.

When you arrive at a new destination, what's usually first on your agenda?
I usually travel with someone else, whether it’s my wife or a friend. I never do any kind of organized tour, so the first thing we do is usually ask, “So what's tomorrow going to be like?” Even though the trip might have a general plan, when I arrive somewhere new, the map comes alive and everything looks different. Revisiting and exploring the map over dinner or a beer is a great way to embark on the journey and decide what we’re going to do.

What motivates you to keep doing what you do?
I love learning and I love the challenge of getting better at something. For instance, I am really into alpine ski racing right now because the learning curve is steep and exciting. Once that learning curve plateaus, I’ll probably be looking for the next big challenge. The same is true for business. I love to learn and be challenged by new things whether it’s coming up with a recipe for a new flavor or pursuing a new venture like the Clif Family Winery. If I am not learning, I am not living.

As a child, what was your dream job?
When I was 14, I worked at a sporting-goods store because my dad said, “If you want to keep skiing, you're going to have to buy your own skis.” I loved that job—I loved the community we had in the shop, skiing with my coworkers, seeing all the latest and greatest equipment, being part of the industry, and, of course, the free lift tickets. Working at that store, I dreamed of having my own ski shop one day. While I don’t, I feel like Clif Bar shares many of the same qualities. It connects me to the things that I love: food and the outdoors. I work with really fun people who are also passionate about food and the outdoors, and we have a great ski trip every year.

When and how did you first venture into entrepreneurship?
When I was in fifth grade, I mowed and edged lawns. I just went around the neighborhood soliciting business and doing as many homes as I could, sometimes 12 in a row. I earned about $25 or $30 a week, which was a lot back then—I earned enough to buy a small TV for my bedroom, which was pretty cool. It wasn’t pure profit, though; I also had overhead. I had to put money into gas and sharpening my blades. Managing that business, including my clients and balance sheet, was a fantastic early lesson in running a business.

What advice you would give to an aspiring entrepreneur in the outdoor space?
Whatever product you make, you better use it and you better believe it's the best product on the market.

Who have been your most influential role models?
I am fortunate to have a lot of really wise and interesting friends who continue to enrich me as a person. One of these friends is the climber Ron Kauk. As a novice climber in the late ‘70s, I was inspired by his accomplishments. Later in life, I had the chance to meet him and our friendship grew. He has taught me a lot about climbing, which in turn has taught me a lot about life and business. One of his greatest lessons has been that rock-climbing isn’t about muscling your way to the top. It is about moving over rock with patience and a gentle touch, especially when faced with difficult problems. When he climbs, he communes with the rock; he doesn’t try to conquer. This is a lesson that I carry with me in life and in business. I’m always reminding myself to slow down, breathe, and relax my grip.

Do you have a life philosophy?
Life’s too short to be on a conventional path. Seek challenges and try unexpected things.

Have you ever experienced a near accident that made you think twice about going out again?
My buddy Jay and I were cycling in Switzerland in 1987, chasing these German guys. As the chase escalated on a tricky downhill, they started passing cars and taking blind corners. We were going so fast and braking so hard into corners that Jay and I finally said, “Forget it.” Just as we let them go, my front wheel blew up, sending me flying 30 feet without a helmet. Right before hitting the ground, I tucked and rolled, then slid down a hill. Eventually I came to a stop, completely unharmed, not even a scratch on me. I fixed my tire and hopped back on my bike. It didn’t scare me then, but it scares me now to think about. Now that I’m older and wiser, I realize how lucky I was—I could've flown off the cliff or gotten hit by a car. I am still really competitive and I still like fast downhills, but I wouldn’t put myself in that position again.

If you could choose a different career, what would it be?
I’d either be a jazz musician or a professional athlete in one of my favorite sports: cycling, skiing, or baseball. I can envision both equally.

Name three things you still want to cross off your bucket list.
I have two big ones that I can think of: One, travel to more countries and continents. I’d love to go to Tibet and Vietnam. I’ve also never been to Africa or South America. Two, music. I want to record with some great musicians. This dream is going to become a reality later this year. I play in the Clif Bar company band, the Grove Valve Orchestra, and we’re going to record an R&B CD. That said, I’d also like to record a dozen or so jazz tunes on my own that I can share as a musical legacy with my friends and family.

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Don't Mess With Perfect

In the lifetime of every traveler, we encounter two distinct types of unforgettable cities. There are the cities we love so much that we wish we could return there every year. For me, this list includes such places as Rome, Bangkok, Miami, and Vancouver. Then there are the cities we love so much that we must never, ever go back again. For me, that list is short: Luang Prabang, Laos. It’s the only city I’ve ever encountered that is so marvelous that I refuse to revisit it, because I can’t take the psychological risk that anything might disturb my perfect memories of the place.

I was in Luang Prabang in August 2006, traveling with a man whom I had not yet married. We were in love but under a tremendous amount of stress. It had been a tough year. Six months earlier, the Department of Homeland Security had thrown my unoffending Brazilian sweetheart out of the United States—where we had been living together—and we couldn’t return home until Felipe’s application for a fiancé visa was approved. Thus, we’d been traveling in exiled limbo, all throughout Asia, trying to pass time without spending money, as we waited for bureaucratic permission to come back to the U.S. and wed. We were tired and worried and without a home. Our budget was tight, and our future rested in the hands of some nameless civil servants back in Washington, D.C., who did not seem to be in any hurry to resolve our problem. All this anxiety made us restless, and our restlessness kept us moving from place to place, simply to keep our minds off our troubles. Somebody in Thailand told us we might like Laos. That’s how we ended up there. We weren’t expecting much. We were kind of numb by that point. We were just going someplace in order to go someplace.

But I ought to have known that we were heading for something unusual just from the plane ride in. We flew into Laos from Chiang Mai, and I have never seen a more magnificent approach to a place than the flight to Luang Prabang. We flew over a wild, verdant geography of insanely configured, jungle-dense mountain-ettes (some with round peaks, some with sharp peaks, some shaped like strange, giant replicas of Abe Lincoln’s hat). We pressed our faces against the airplane windows and gasped at this crazy, jutting landscape in dumbstruck wonder, acting for all the world like we’d never been off the farm. We landed in a tiny airport and watched as our luggage was carried from the plane by a team of oxen. A bicycle taxi took us into town, on the only paved road around. A cheerful, shirtless boy ran alongside us with a slingshot in one hand and a fishing pole in the other: a Southeast Asian Norman Rockwell painting come to life.

Then, quite suddenly, we were there—in this tiny, glittering, peninsular city in the middle of the jungle, embraced by the scary curves of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. Oz-like, this town felt more conjured than constructed. Every bit of it was a piece of wizardry. There were elaborate, bejeweled Buddhist temples everywhere (more than 30 of them, we later learned) and small, golden-skinned novice Buddhist monk-boys everywhere, too (a countless number of them, it turned out, as Luang Prabang is the spiritual center of Laos, and it seemed like the monk-to-non-monk ratio was five to one). And then there was the beautiful, crumbling colonial influence—the relics of French Indochina—with all the collapsing mansions and the sweeping verandas and the graceful boulevards and the endearingly Francophile cafés. Luang Prabang was a place where you could eat an extremely nice baguette as you sat on a riverbank and gazed out at the fishermen in their conical Southeast Asian hats.

We found a room in a decaying French mansion for $4 a night—just right for our budget. There was no air-conditioning, but the slow, ticking ceiling fan made me feel like Graham Greene. I awoke at 4:30 in the morning to the sound of temple bells. I heard a muffled—almost polite—sort of commotion from the street outside. I padded out there in my pajamas and bare feet and soon witnessed the most extraordinary sight: the townspeople of Luang Prabang were kneeling in the sidewalks while endless lines of monks and novices streamed out from every temple. The monks were carrying small bowls with them. I watched the townspeople place rice inside each monk’s bowl, while the monks offered blessings in return. I soon discovered that this was a daily ritual in Luang Prabang—a centuries-old practice meant to teach humility (through begging) to the monks and compassion (through almsgiving) to the locals. I found myself rising before dawn the next day and watching from a respectful distance as this wise and gracious custom played itself out again. After a few more mornings, I was down on my knees, too, putting rice in the monks’ bowls, and eliminating, with every handful offered, a little more restlessness, a little more discontent, and a little more stupidity from my soul.

Was this the world’s most perfect place?

SOME VISITORS MIGHT NOT have found Luang Prabang to be perfect. It was difficult to get a good Internet connection. There was no movie theater, if you need that sort of thing. No shopping, aside from the night market. No amenities to speak of. Laos is a nation that suffered behind a brutal bamboo curtain of repression for decades, and poverty is evident—not as crushing as in other parts of the country, but decidedly evident. It was a terribly quiet place, both by day and by night. The flimsy mattress in our hotel room bent around our bodies like a big, damp taco. Also, it was hot. Some people might even have called it insufferably hot. I’d seen some heat in my day, but the climate of Luang Prabang was absolutely bananas. It took the breath out of my lungs, sucked the strength from my muscles, swamped me with sweat from sunup to sundown, and nearly made me hallucinate. It was interrupted only by long bouts of cataclysmic rain, which did not make anything cooler, but did make everything stickier and muddier. And there were mosquitoes.

I don’t know why we didn’t mind any of this. Maybe we were seduced by the orchids that grew wild in the local trees or by the tiny adorable stray dogs with unaccountably giant ears that roamed the streets in friendly, shaggy gangs as though rendered by Pixar. Maybe it was the monks on bicycles who charmed me. Maybe it was the waterfall we hiked to that one day, where we found dozens of local women and children doing laundry and bathing and laughing, while the men cleaned their water buffaloes downstream, as though at a giant all-natural car wash. Maybe it was the Kuang Si Falls we hiked to, high in the nearby mountains, with their glittering cascades and swirling mists.

Or it might very well have been the food. Felipe and I had the best meal of our entire lives in Luang Prabang, sitting outside an old French hotel one balmy night, sharing a bottle of ice-cold local rice wine. The food in northern Laos is unlike anything I have encountered. It’s not Chinese, nor Thai, nor Vietnamese, nor French—though it reminds you somewhat of all those things. Laos has a different geography than the rest of Southeast Asia, and so they eat differently there. Luang Prabang is mountainous, isolated, rugged, and the food reflects that—venison and wild boar, river fish and mysterious herbs. We had a stew that night that was so transformative, so perfectly exotic, that we haven’t stopped talking about it since. It was a slow-cooked potage of buffalo meat and local vegetables with the oddest and most surprising ingredient—a sizable chunk of wood, like a small piece of kindling, boiled right into the mix. We asked our waiter about this strange addition, and he told us that the wood was a chip of bark from a local tree whose flesh was permeated by a strong, mentholated oil. We were instructed to suck on the wood when our stew was finished, and to trust... and so we did. The long-boiled wood released a spicy explosion into our mouths—something sort of pepperminty, sort of cinnamony, sort of pine-pitchy—that was the single most breathtaking (literally) flavor I have encountered anywhere in the world. Then I splashed some of the fizzy, cold rice wine into my still-astonished mouth and the spicy peppermint-cinnamon-pine-pitch sensation only doubled. I swear to the heavens I saw stars. At that moment I thought, Well, that’s finished—I can now stop looking for the best meal on earth, because I’ve just had it.

As we were eating, the restaurant lights kept flickering on and off from a thunderstorm that was gathering. Groups of young monks walked slowly down the sidewalk in the dark and the rain, carrying umbrellas and candlelit lanterns, looking in their orange robes like small patches of flame in the night.

My not-yet-husband cast me a look of desperate desire and said to me, “Let’s stay here.”

He did not mean, “Let’s stay here in Luang Prabang for a little while longer, while we ride out our Homeland Security visa-application problems.” He meant, “Let’s stay here forever.” I could see it in his face. Maybe it was just the tree-bark oil talking, but I very nearly agreed. We almost decided that night never to come back to the United States again—to give up on the immigration battle, give up on the modern world, give up on traveling, and settle in this tiny, 1,300-year-old mountain city between the two great muddy rivers.

ULTIMATELY, OF COURSE, WE didn’t. What would we—a Brazilian and an American—have done in Luang Prabang for the rest of our lives? Eventually, we came home. At last we were given permission to marry. Now we live in New Jersey, which is kind of exotic.

By the end of that impossibly beautiful meal, we were already sad, because we knew we would have to go and never return. Luang Prabang had been tinted for us by a patina of nostalgia and melancholy and regret—as though we were already remembering this place with longing, even while we were still there. I’ve never had such a feeling about a place before or since.

So you should go there, is what I’m saying. You really should. Luang Prabang will still be beautiful, I promise. From all I hear, the town has not been ruined, despite a sharp increase in tourism in recent years. The nice people at Unesco have made Luang Prabang a World Heritage site, drawing a talismanic, protective circle around its sublime marvels to protect it forever. There will never be a Hard Rock Casino there. There will never be Dunkin’ Donuts. In many ways, it is safe forever. But since I won’t be going back—since I can’t bring myself ever to go back—will you do me a favor? I ask this in the nicest possible way, but should you ever be so lucky as to find yourself in Luang Prabang on a hot and rainy evening, dining at a crumbling French mansion with your mate, listening to the sound of thunder and watching the monks flicker through the darkness, please take a moment to suck on a chunk of wood, watch the stars explode across your brain, and remember me.

Elizabeth Gilbert is the bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love and Committed.

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