Sex at Dawn, live at Budokon
Vantasy Island, wild water, Nature Boner, the Thrill of Victory, jiujitsu, Sex at Dawn, masculinity, openness, John Perry Barlow, and "big, gay Dennys."
I’ve been on the road the past two weeks from where I’ve been living just north of San Francisco, up to Montana and back. Some of you may already know that I live part time on Vantasy Island, looping around the (mostly) western United States on backroads, aiming for top-notch boondocking sites, five-star trails and wild hot springs along the way. There’s usually one thing that provides the initial spark for a journey, and then the rest develops along the way. In this case I found myself pointed towards Whitefish because something caught my eye in one of Chris Ryan’s Tangentially Speaking posts—mention of a retreat that he was co-hosting with a guy named Cameron Shayne on the topics of… “sex, relationship, movement, dynamics, truth, and whatever else comes up,” as Chris put it, to which I’d add writing, gender, ‘polarity,’ non-monogamy—and of course air quality in the American west.
Click on the map or this link for my full route
I’d been following Cameron’s feed for some time because of my interest in what’s rather generically referred to as “movement” as practiced by teachers such as Ido Portal, Dan Altman, my man Peter Bartesch, and many others. Movement is a sort of combination of yoga, capoeira, Brazilian jiujitsu, and calisthenics, and for me it’s all about strength, fluidity, and learning patterns that are deeply functional—that is, useful—for the body as we go about our daily lives, and especially as we get older. Some listener must have introduced Chris and Cameron and they decided to put on a Sex At Dawn workshop, after Chris’ well-known book of the same name. I love to work with great teachers, to put myself in new situations, and also to surround myself with people who are doing things that I want to be doing, so it didn’t take much more than a minute to click yes. With that star to steer by, I found myself pointed north-north-east with the van loaded and prepared to drive at least a couple of thousand miles.
I haven’t written much about vanning yet, but I’ve had a Mercedes Metris fitted out for sleeping and traveling for the past five years or so, and as of yesterday I’ve put 91,000 miles on her. It’s a smaller van, sort of a baby Sprinter with a petrol turbo-four and a seven speed auto. Sold in Europe as the Vito, it’s the ideal vehicle for, say, a DHL delivery van in Zurich, or maybe a plumber in Vallejo. Sturdy, but drives like a car and fits in a garage. Just a bit bigger than a minivan, it fits a full sheet (or several) of plywood, but you can’t stand up inside. You might think that would be a major bummer, but you get used to it, and there are lots of other advantages to a small van.
Vandemonium was also the van that I had before I went half-nomad, and so that’s what I started with. I’ve mostly been traveling by myself these past few years, and it’s been perfect. I’ve got a DC power system with batteries and solar, a fridge that’s always on, a nice bed, and a cute little yacht table, all of which makes it quite possible to cruise and camp and write very comfortably for weeks at a time, and also to use the vehicle as my daily driver—something that is not quite as practical with a larger van. One nifty little add-on is a hard-wired direct-DC-to-Magsafe charger for running my old MacBook pro without switching on the inverter—handy for AC power, but rarely used now that I usually drink MUD/WTR in the mornings and so I don’t need to run the coffee grinder. I still have the whole setup though, and I was happy to provide fresh-ground drip coffee service along way—a real treat in the outback.
Lucky for me, on this trip I had company for the first several days, which happened to coincide with Labor Day weekend—also the culmination of Burning Man. So, more people on the road because of the civilian holiday, but also fewer because of how many were burning themselves up in 110° heat and dust storms out in the Black Rock desert. We saw hardly anyone at all anyhow due to my usual strategy of taking the roads very much least-of-all-traveled, and camping entirely off the beaten path. I learned what I call Turn Left Three Times early on, and I love that it’s still possible to find myself all alone in the big wide open, even in my home state of California.
We spent the first night up above the Hat Creek valley, which lies between Mount Lassen and Shasta in northern California. My beautiful friend had requested “wild water,” and I’d learned of a good spring on prior trips I’d made to the area to fly paragliders. After a very nice trail run and some outdoor exercise the next morning, we headed out 299 to Alturas and then up 395 past Goose Lake and across the Oregon state line, turning right so as to make for Dinio well to the east. I’d always been told that far eastern Oregon was a “desert,” and so I expected a fairly bleak landscape, but most of the drive was more like the Eastern Sierras—mostly above five thousand feet and I suppose it technically is a desert due to the lack of rainfall, but covered in meadows and conifers, small rivers, ranches—and lots of exposed geology. Goose Lake was a massive green sea dotted with dark cattle and sky-colored springs, and from there onwards was full of lush pocket basins with winding streams topped by layer of basalt caprock, spread over of the landscape like thick chocolate ganache.
We even managed to find a good grocery store in Alturas. John McPhee would have loved it—not the grocery store I mean, the geology, and the route—and I’m sure he probably found his way through this country on his travels as well. I love his writing in Basin and Range, as well as Coming Into the Country and The Control of Nature.
I heard it was all smoked out just a few days later, but we had clear skies all the way to Alvord Hot Springs, where we parked Van-Again-Off-Again on the edge of our very own playa and laughed ourselves to sleep after someone asked if we’d been to Burning Man, and we replied that no, “we went to Burney, man.” Nothing against that vast and beautiful art party in the desert, I’ve been there—and I prefer Black Sabbath to EDM. I don’t need to go back. I was on fire when I got here.
After a beautiful night under the Milky Way swirling above us and then breakfast on the salt flats in the morning with a crowd of German motorcyclists in the near distance, we drove back down through Fields and up into the Steens Mountain Wilderness. Steens is incredible! Don’t go! I mean, definitely do go, especially if you’re on the way from Weed to Boise or back, and if you like unspoiled juniper and piñon and alder forest, perfect U-shaped glacial canyons, green springs of leftover snowmelt, high mountain lakes perched above parched desert, and enough distance from civilization that the skies are dark—really dark, dark enough to see the dusty clouds of stars and the fainter shapes of the zodiac slowly wheeling through the night sky.
If you’ve ever done any navigating in the world, whether in the backcountry, on the back roads, on the back streets of a foreign city, or perhaps at sea on a sailboat, you know how fucking amazing it feels like to find yourself in exactly the right place. At least, that’s how it feels to me. Still. In fact, more and more all the time. I mean, it is happening more and more all the time, but what I mean is that I’m enjoying that feeling more and more all the time. Does it feel the same sort of incredible to you? I feel like finding my way is my primary skill and also my primary joy in life, or at least one of them. Walking, running, driving, finding campsites, finding the right places, places that feel so damn right. I used to use this finding skill more for finding pair of shoes, a restaurant, or a bottle of wine, but these days I’ve turned so much more to the outdoors that when I think about those other, more city things, I know that I was once expert in them, and that now I am no longer. Now I’m expert at finding great places to roll up to in Van’d-Aid for the night, great singletrack to hike and run, great lakes and rivers, and great hot springs.
For me, wayfinding feels like intuition on the land, and also, intuition feels like finding my way. Feeling my way forward in life with the subtle guidance of my inner voice feels a lot like following the signs in and on and of the landscape, reading the clues and the curves, greasing the corners, turning on the wind’s ear, drifting with the snow. You have to know what kind of pizza you want to find great pizza. You have to know that there’s likely somewhere better than the campground to go looking and find it—and when I do, I don’t know any better feeling. It feels like winning. It feels like the “Thrill of Victory,” that terrific phrase that I remember from the old Wide World of Sports that used to air on ABC. The opposite of which, of course, is the Agony of Defeat, which is what it sounds like those who actually went to Burning Man suffered this year.
Another thing that I’ve been noticing more and more lately about being in the outdoors is what I’ve started thinking of as…Nature Boner. I mean… that’s just shorthand, a placeholder for a future piece, so bear with me, little bear. What I mean is the energetic activation of my animal self that I often feel when I’m active outdoors. Out on a long hike, for example, there’s often a time when I start to feel a subtle, visceral energy glowing in my balls. This colorful tingle often has me shift my eyes to the surrounding landscape in search of a sheltered resting place off the trail, with sun and shade, something soft on the ground, or a nice smooth, warm rock. It’s often occurred to me lately to observe myself in the wild, and in these moments, I can see the animal in me looking for a particular kind of place, and that looking is prompted by what feels like an appreciation of being in nature that is comes right from, and up through my root. I can feel the vibrant aliveness of the natural world, I feel myself in it, part of it—and, not infrequently, it makes me want to fuck.
What can I say, I’ve been feeling my animal self, and it feels good, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with gettin’ it on in the out-of-doors if the opportunity arises. I suppose I used to allow my still-largely-hypothetical view of sex-in-the-wild to be occluded by sand, twigs and difficult angles, but in reality, of course, human animals know what to do just fine in the bush. And so, on top of finding oneself in just the right place in nature, there’s the added bonus of mutual delight brought about, I’d say, as a natural response to being so damn well positioned! Sex in the wild, whether at dawn, sunset, midnight or in the afternoon is yet another reason to ride on past the campground and find a spot completely alone, so that you can really howl good and proper at the full moon rising over those two mountain mahogany there on the rise, black limbs against the night sky, Jupiter and Saturn already bright amidst a sea of stardust.
As the long weekend began to come to a close we could see smoke in the air out to the west. Fortunately we’d been sleeping on an island in the sky at seven, eight, and nine thousand feet, but the plains below were covered by a reddish-brown pall which stretched from horizon to horizon—increasingly the norm here in the western states in “fire season,” which now extends from June through November, from California up into British Columbia, and often throws smoke as far east as Detroit. We had a look at the air quality map and made a run for it to Boise. I dropped my friend off there and carried on northwards alone. I gassed Bobby Van Halen up towards Sandpoint and then east to Whitefish, passing several large fires along the way. Luckily a big wind blew through just as I arrived and flushed the smoke out of the Whitefish valley through the weekend, although by Sunday it was building up again.
I spent the weekend at Cameron’s Budokon University compound and finally got to tune into the Chris Ryan Experience. Spending time with Chris and Cameron was very much stepping into a different world, albeit with some parts that felt very familiar. Turns out that Chris also digs vanning it, so much so that he describes himself as both a writer and a “vanthropologist.” I hadn’t known this previously, but he lives and travels in his van close to full time—certainly way more than I cruise around in mine, even if my six-year-old niece does think that I “live in my car.”
We did compare vans (mine is smaller, his is big and red), but those of us that were in attendance mostly hung out around the fire and talked, and most of the talk was about relationships—and, perhaps not surprisingly, about masculinity (and not at all about femininity, even though there were more women than men at the event). Fair enough—it’s masculinity that needs more attention these days. We need to redefine masculinity—and probably femininity too, again, I suppose—but the big hand has swung around to men, and I’m all for some serious attention paid to the question of what it means to be one, and what, if anything about that is different from just being a person.
Plenty of people are writing and speaking about men lately, and I’m not sure how much I have to add yet, but for one I’d say it’s high time that we just stop talking about how men “are” less emotional, or more “protective,” or pretty much any other generalization about either the gender as a whole. Surely there are some behaviors that actually are based in biology—no doubt—but do we really know which those are, versus the much higher proportion of “masculine” or “feminine” or just plain old human behaviors that are the result of relatively recent acculturation? And since (I would argue) more of what we think of as defining masculinity (or femininity) comes from culture than from biology—and we can all probably agree that there are some things about being a man that we’d all like to change—I’d like to point us all in the direction of what Grayson Perry has to say in The Descent of Man, that is, that masculinity is “mainly a construct of conditioned feelings around people with penises,” and ‘the energies that a particular person who happens to be a man is embodying,’ including “tenderness,” “tolerance, flexibility, and emotional literacy.”
Again, not to say that there aren’t some things that do have to do with having particular body parts. I do believe that there are! However, I’ve come to think that it’s more useful and more interesting to focus on the ways that we can be men, women, or anything else in ways that we choose to be, and—again from Grayson Perry’s outstanding book—that masculinity is “a plurality,” and most of all that it is “whatever you want it to be.“ I’ve been starting to feel that my masculinity is the same as my individuality—and I feel fairly confident that if more men felt more free to be more themselves and less caught up in trying to be whatever it might mean to be a “man,” we’d all be better off.
Just say say a few words about Cameron—here is a great example of someone who is very much a man and who is certainly very masculine, very strong, very much a total bad ass who can defend himself six ways from Sunday, the kind of guy (or, let’s just say, person) you want to have around after the apocalypse—and also the sweetest little touque-wearing sugar daddy of an elegant dancer, a great listener, quiet most of the time and incredibly clear when he does open his mouth. Despite that fact that he’s a world class MMA and Brazilian jiujitsu trainer, a fighter to the core, he’s also very much the opposite of a muscle-bound lobster carrying around his giant insulated water bottle like a teddy bear. As much as I suppose I’d like to have great big shoulders, Cameron’s practice showed me once and for all that pumping iron really isn’t all that useful in practical terms, and it reinforced for me the feeling that much of what men do that they think goes towards being more attractive to women—or even just healthier and stronger—is actually designed to make them more attractive to—that is, in competition with—other men.
As for non-monogamy, Chris is a certainly more than a bit of an expert on the subject, and I certainly am not, never having been involved in anything more exotic than the one all-too-brief cocaine-fueled heteronormative West Coast three-way that most of us seem to be allotted. All of my actual relationships have been on standard autopilot from the-man-pays first date at the wine bar to assumed exclusivity to standard automatic monogamy (SAM?), and as you can imagine, they have all been “unsuccessful,” of course, in that none have resulted in marriage, let alone life-long marriage. In fact, none have survived more than about three years in anything like the configuration that I grew up thinking was normal, moral, attainable, and also the only option. Instead, I have a collection of stories about sisters who have been lovers, and not lovers, many beautiful friends, a ton of exes, and a fairly-recently-discarded pile of guilt and shame about not having exemplified or attained or embodied a more stable, traditional sort of relationship status by the age of fifty-two. By which of course I mean: divorced.
While thought of by many as a call to go-do-it where “it” is be non-monogamous, or open, or polyamorous, Chris’ book Sex at Dawn is really focused on the simple question of whether human evolutionary history actually does favor long-term monogamy. Most of us assume—or at least assumed—that humans are born to mate for life, like penguins… and then it turns out that neither species actually does. Sex at Dawn does a pretty convincing job of showing that, in fact, humans were not monogamous until pushed in that direction by, or at least around the time of the emergence of agriculture, and that our modern idea of monogamous marriage as something that should come naturally to just about everyone is… well, mostly a fantasy—as it’s in fact often portrayed—but of course the reality is often lacking the part where the fantasy comes true.
Beyond the evolutionary biology, Chris’ central moral question seems to be: why should we be limited to loving just one person? The fact is that we aren’t, and we don’t—that is, we do love more than one person, in all the other contexts in life—with our family, our friends, and our children, if we have them—and so why would our moral compass somehow automatically limit us to loving or being attracted to just one person at a time, when the love includes a romantic or sexual component? And, why would pretending otherwise be beneficial, even if we do agree that monogamy is still usually what works best, despite it being not quite so wired in from the start as we’ve been led to believe?
Look, I have no idea, and at this point I am not really a proponent of any specific relationship configuration, but I do very much appreciate the opening of my mind to new ideas and expanding the horizons of my experience. Reading Sex at Dawn some years ago, and just now having spent some serious time talking openly with others about their non-traditional relationship experiences has helped to do just that.
I came away with a number of ideas about what “open” means to me in relationship:
First of all: open-mindedness.
Love is not a promise—it’s an action, and an energy that’s all around us.
Being more intentional—why be in relationship, and what is it serving?
Relationship as a container for personal and spiritual growth.
Moving past possessiveness.
Moving past automatic exclusivity.
Examining the source of jealousy—and moving past it.
Asking without blame (here’s example of how to do this).
Actually having clear boundaries, agreements and communication.
Being allied and aligned both in private and with others.
Enjoyment of each other’s freedom.
Embracing the possibility that love, attraction, and desire are not intrinsically exclusive—and that love is unlimited.
Expressing fantasies and desires openly.
Integrating sexuality more fully into personality and being.
…and whatever else I—or you—can think of.
Again, Sex at Dawn isn’t necessarily advocating for non-monogamy, and neither am I. Most of the above can be applied in any kind of relationship, and I think it would be pretty hard to argue against any of these ideas being good things to try to put into practice.
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This weekend was also an opportunity for me to meet people who embody values and choices and ways of being that I admire and feel close to. Both Chris and Cameron are good people and good men, living well and enjoying some actual fulfillment in life because they are both following a path that they’ve carved and custom-crafted to their own very individual selves, and have built and attracted community around. That said, I wish I had been better prepared to ask more questions. Aside from everything else, the main reason that I took the time to be there was to connect with a fellow writer, one that I respect and that is doing it in a way that I very much identify with. Chris was very open in sharing some of his experience with the publishing of his two books—and I wish I had asked him more about Substack, about why he doesn’t publish in magazines, and about a whole bunch of other things that are only really of interest if you are in fact a practicing writer. I must also admit that I was totally unfamiliar with the work of Chris’s co-host and partner Anya Kaats, and similarly—and regretfully— unprepared to engage with her more deeply as a writer and creator.
On that topic, he did ask me the standard and correct question that in response to me saying that I’d been working for the past three years or so to “turn myself into a writer,” that is, “what makes you a writer?” by which he meant, “what makes or make you ready feel to call yourself a ’writer’?” The traditional answer might have been getting published, but these days that “getting” has changed quite a bit, and there are of course plenty of very successful writers who haven’t ever gotten a traditional book deal or even been published in print magazines. There’s also the line that “writers write,” and that a writer is someone who writes, i.e. who writes regularly—well… yes, and, you can write every day and never have your writing see the light of day, or still never feel like a “writer,” so I don’t really subscribe to that definition. What I realized in answering his question is that I feel like a writer now because 1) I feel that after some years of practice, I can and feel free to write the way that I want to, in my own voice, and that it comes fairly naturally 2) that I now have no trouble filling my days with writerly work—writing, research, notes, thinking, podcasting, etc. to the point that it feels like work, work that I like, 3) that, more and more, I finally feel to decide, in the original sense of to cut away everything and anything that distracts me from my core mission of continuing to become more of this chapter of my self—and most of all 4)—and this is what I said to Chris—that my writing is bringing me into deeper connection with people in the world, from old friends to acquaintances back at Crissy Field to strangers on the internet.
As we wrapped up, Chris and I traded stories about John Perry Barlow—I once suggested that the restaurant that he had chosen for the evening was a “big gay Dennys,” and he didn’t hold it against me when I called him for a jump one day in Mill Valley—and Chris mentioned that Barlow had written a piece back on Salon back in the 90’s outing himself as chronically unable to love just one woman at once. I couldn’t find it in the internet archive, but I did manage to dig A Ladies’ Man and Shameless up on Reddit and it’s a great read from another great man. I appreciate the truth-telling. We all need more of that, perhaps especially from men.
As mildly embarrassed as I still am once in a while that the best name I could come up for the conference business that I founded in 2000 and sold in 2015 was “AdMonsters,” that business did teach me a hell of a lot about building community, and I’m grateful that it did finally occur to me these past few days how I can start to put all of that experience to work in my third career as a writer. That said, I don’t mean conferences! I mean paying attention and being open and engaging and collecting and curating and caring for the people that find me and that I find along the way.
So, if you’re here, welcome, and thank you, and I’d love to hear from you. What’s on your mind? What’s new for you? What does love mean to you? What have you learned lately that has changed how you live your life? What do you want to learn—and is there anything that you’re afraid of saying, or doing, or being?