heart to wild heart: kelsey richardson


the other night a big group of us gathered on top of lawson peak, southeast of san diego, to celebrate one of the sweetest wild hearts I’ve had the honor to meet here in california, before she heads north for the next chapter of the life of adventure that she leads. I first met kelsey at the yoga studio where I teach– her smile lit up the whole lobby, and once we started talking, it quickly became clear we had to be friends, adventure partners, hiking buddies. she introduced me to lawson, whose summit blocks are a playground for wild hearts of all ages to enjoy. it was such a pleasure to enjoy this wild open space with such beautiful people, all gathered to rejoice in the radiant heart of love that is kelsey.

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though she’s busy getting ready for the big move north, kelsey was kind enough to sit down to answer five questions in this next installment of my interview series. enjoy!

1. what is the most epic adventure you have ever lived?

I’ll go with my most recent sailing trip, which was ten months aboard a 46 ft. Beneteau, from Florida, through the Panama Canal, to, eventually, Australia.  Some of the destinations along the way included so much of the romance of the South Pacific, including swimming with penguinos and marine iguanas in the Galapagos Islands, traipsing tropical mountaintops in the Marquesas, checking out Teahupo’o in Tahiti, one of the most respected waves in the world for its weight and form, while we sailed through the Society Islands to Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, eventually to the top end of Oz.  The trip included such a range and diversity of experiences, which, is why I’d go with it being the most epic adventure that I’ve ‘lived,’ so far.

One of the aspects about long term cruising sailing that I love is that the experience is as much about the journey (time at sea during passage making) as about the arrival, by wind and sea, to ever changing landfalls and ecosystems.  We had peaceful days of sailing downwind, spinnaker full, between the Southern Cross in the night sky and Venus’ reflection on the ocean, ‘Venus on the Water.’  We had many storms, one which involved a week long rescue at sea of a sinking catamaran that we’d been sailing with after it ran aground in the shelter of the uninhabited coral atoll of Suwarrow, followed by assisted delivery to the tuna industrial docks of American Samoa for repairs.  We watched the sun and moon rise and set for weeks on end while on passage, observing how, at sea, our world seems to rotate around us on this fluid plane, so sensitive to the smallest changes in wind and weather that affect so directly our tiny vessel in the grandeur of the Pacific.

This last trip heightened my sense of connection to our wild world in its ever changing flavor and variety, from the immediate wind and waves, to the currents that draw us together.. our human to not only other human connection, but the animals and land which we all share.  We experienced the great power of the earth, exploring extinct volcanoes that had helped form both tropical mountains and low lying coral atolls, and an active volcano on the island of Tanna, when, on a hike after a kastom ceremony in a high altitude village, we avoided flying lava chunks erupting from the interior of the land itself.  We marveled with the sealife: the flying fish that speedily skim and skirt the wavetops, airborne, in bird like flock formations; the ‘sail jellies,’ which are small, blue jellyfish with gelatinous flaps on their upper bodies that act as sails out of the water to move them across the ocean; and the awe invoking resonance of out of water humpback whale calls, heard across the flat horizon of the Great Barrier Reef, as they breached and welcomed us to our next landfall.   Night is a particularly special time at sea, when one can observe the wonder of a moonbow (like a rainbow, but silver, created by the light of the moon after a squall), and bioluminescence, like fireflies of the sea, which at times can have the effect on the water of a green neon mirror to the stars above.  I found and developed extended family along that trip in the most unexpected and remote of places, crossing language and geographical barriers.  Travel by sail requires a very involved investment in arrival, and especially in communities whose entire lives are responsive to and dependent upon the fickle moods of the winds and water, arrival by sailboat opened many doors and hearts in that unique language that old salts the world over share and understand.


2. tell me about the next chapter of your life’s story– monterey!– and what inspired you to make the move!

Monterey! I’m moving up there to do a master’s program in International Environmental Policy, with an emphasis on Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, at the Monterey Institute for International Studies.

The ocean is my biggest passion, and after graduation in 2009, I was most interested in the power that policy can have to affect progress and positive change in our increasingly polluted and fragile world.  I had written my senior thesis on marine plastics pollution.  After a sailing trip to the North Pacific Gyre with a San Francisco based nonprofit looking at the problem of plastic pollution in ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch,’ I more fully realized that a continued education in environmental policy, and work in the ‘professional’ world was calling me away from a life at sea.  After two other major sailing trips since, I felt like I was ready with my feet literally a little wet, salt and wind inspired, to spend some time on land again figuring out my own calling to care for our watery part of the world.  I chose MIIS specifically for its international focus.  Over the last three years sailing I’ve directly experienced that what occurs in one part of the ocean can have an effect many dissolved borders away, whether it’s a plastic bottlecap in the belly of an Albatross, or changed migration patterns of birds and whales in response to a warming world.  I want to work toward solutions that transcend borders, as most of the ocean is its own environment without borders (I always think of the song ‘Imagine’ as applying to the sea).

I’m also crazy about the area.. Big Sur, Pinnacles, close to the Sierras, the bay area..  I’ll be living aboard my small sailboat, a Cal 29, in a marina between Santa Cruz and Monterey, and am excited to explore more, from the agriculture in Salinas to the local diving scene (complete with adorable sea otters!).


3) you’re such a big inspiration to me. who– or what– inspires you?

Thank you, you are a tremendous inspiration to me also!!  Wow, there is so much that is so beautiful about the world that I enjoy being moved and inspired by.  Particularly: learning, growth, loving and caring for the lives of each other and our environment, both self and shared realization of that something more that we all are connected by and experience together.  Nature in all her varying forms, dolphins and whales, the smell of sage and buckwheat after a rain, a snow covered field in winter, desert wildflowers and ocotillos in bloom in springtime, full moon hikes in the high country of the Sierras in the summer.  The list can be like an exponential growth curve.. although, a good grilled cheese sandwich seems to top the list most days too haha.

My parents have been huge sources of inspiration.  The musician Greg Brown has a line I love: ‘We’re a cross between our parents and hippies in a tent.’  My mom is more mountains, dad more ocean.. mom teaches geography at the state university here in San Diego and has had us going to Yosemite every year since birth.  Dad is a surfer and sailboat rigger by trade whose vision of the potential for a boat’s rig is one developed through a lifetime devoted to a passion for the sea.  My twin brother (‘wombmate’), and my grandmother Jojo (a true elder, with wisdom shared over black coffee and rhubarb pie).  Captain Stephen Mann was a big inspiration for me growing up,.. the most well rounded sailor I know, who can captain anything from a traditional tall ship to his own personal circumnaviation.  Bernard Moitissier.  The sailor/waterwoman Liz Clark.  John Muir.  No more words needed for him than possibly ‘The Mountains of California.’  Also, it’s as cheesy as a grilled cheese sandwich, but Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull is present in every seagull friend I meet.  My college advisor Alastair Iles (he introduced me to the field of Green Chemistry, and affected so much of how I view potential for the modern environmental movement).  Sound too.. whether it’s the sounds of the wind, banjo, Hawaiian slack key or Spanish guitar, or even the didjeridoo all pluck and reverberate my heart strings to dance.  The stillness of sunrise.

4) you grew up here in southern california. what was it like having this chaparral and boulder-strewn sun-soaked coastal desert as your home ‘ecosystem’ and how do you experience it now?

Full of wonder.  So fun.  When I was very young, we lived on a trimaran sailboat on the San Diego bay for a bit (twins on the tri) before moving to Jamul, where my parents built our house on 13 acres in the mountains, about a 40 minute drive east from the ocean and bay.  I saw nature as a playground.  We grew up playing barefoot outside, hanging out with neighbors in the valley, and using our imaginations and bodies rather than Nintendo or tv.  I’ll never forget going to college and realizing that ‘bouldering’ was considered a sport.  It seemed so obvious to me in a non-constructed sense, the satisfaction and raw fun that comes with figuring out a route to the top of the rock, as something that was done in one’s backyard.  When it rained we played in the mud, creeks, and ponds of the valley.  If it snowed, we used our boogie boards as sleds down the pine and oak tree strewn hill across from our house.  We had a pet donkey, mule, horses, chickens, rabbits, dogs, cats, fish.  We also had coyotes, bobcats, rattlesnakes, and the rare deer or mountain lion (non-domesticated neighbors).  Our house looks out across a little valley onto Lyons Peak, a prominent peak in San Diego County, and a constant reminder of the importance and presence of mountains for my life.

Because our house is so close to Mexico, for years we had many illegal immigrants moving through the hills.  In addition to the adventure of finding machetes while on explores on the mountain behind our house, it was an education in shared humanity, and care for so many people we saw walking through our property hungry, thirsty, and dirty on their own long trips looking for something better out here.  Some of our neighbors were very intolerant, ‘minutemen’ type personalities, who responded with their guns and racism.  That was a unique insight early in life into shared humanity, tensions between different cultures living near one another, the importance that education and exposure can bring to these.  Because it is so dry too, the area has been hit hard by fires over the years.  The combination of the mountainous borderlands, and arid, fire prone environment were formative in growing awareness of the role of land in both interpersonal interactions and sense of place, when everything can, literally, go up in flames given the wrong combination of Santa Ana winds and the right spark.  In returning home after some of the major fires, a certain recognition was made toward both the sameness and security of place, the steadfast quality of the oaks through the fire, and the strengthened sense of community, coming back to grow together under more freshly fertile conditions.

One of my favorite quotes is “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time” (T.S. Eliot).  After spending 7 years away in college and traveling by sailboat, since returning home last August I’ve been both remembering and discovering my ‘home.’  I view this land as so open and wild.  One of the things I missed most while sailing was the mountains, and I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the peaks and canyons of the mountains in the borderlands.  Very special, powerful places, many of which are still ‘undiscovered,’ but with so much to teach, and to listen to and learn from.

5) you spend so much time on the water– and so much time exploring the land. describe your relationships to these two elements and what resonates about each.

I love them both.  They are so connected.  I feel most strongly drawn to the ocean.  Even inland, when a breeze travels through the trees, I think about its origins at sea, whispering so many memories of its journeying.  The ocean for me contains great depths, freedom, and power that commands respect more wholly than any other experienced environment.  The salt is healing, the air cleansing, the winds enlivening.  I’ll never forget my first time swimming in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  When I opened my eyes and looked down into the sunlit deep blue, I experienced my strongest, and very unique, sense of vertigo, most similarly compared to that felt when standing on a tall building looking at a city below.  It was like my body’s knowledge of the greatness of place.  Most of our world is ocean, the sea, and.. viewing it that way seems to make the most sense (like calling our planet Ocean rather than Earth), with a lot of land/islands in between it all.  I view our experience here as so inextricably linked to what is occurring with the oceans, and feel so connected with that.

It is hard for me to go a few days on the water though without craving the mountains, or even the desert.  The desert is most like the ocean to me.  A seemingly barren landscape, that once given some time and quieted, slowed interest, becomes so alive in such a freeing and expansive sense.  I was overlooking the Anza Borrego badlands a few weeks ago, and had the very specific sensation while listening to and feeling the wind of being underwater.  It was so surreal, poignant, and powerful, given that that desert had once been an ocean, now well below sea level.

Tall mountains to me are young, so full of energy, excitement, life, possibility.  The desert and the ocean feel old and wise, extremes, harboring and continuing the story of our earth as mountains rise and fall.  One of my favorite aspects of mountains is their opportunity for perspective through their stature.  I love standing atop a peak and observing from a tall height so much of the surrounds, so much of what we find ourselves fully immersed in and involved with daily, seeming small, separate, accessible.  I love being in the lowlands, looking up toward the mountain, feeling its presence and physical beauty on the horizon.  Observing the impact that the place of the mountain has visually, as a geographical barrier, and providing for its surroundings (whether it’s water, animals, recreation, wood, stone, and more).  I also enjoy simply walking upon and with the mountain.. exploring lakes, streams, meadows are my favorite, becoming lost in the forests and watching the sun and shadow plays with the trees.

I know I’m leaving out other environments (prairies, tropical jungles, caves! I love caves).  Gives an impression for my land and water fixes though.  I love the fluid quality of the sea, and though land is so seemingly stable, seen over a long period, I view certain places in similar ways to the Borrego experience.  That that which is now ocean may one day be desert.  Seeing the highest of mountain peaks now as future aged hill country, for possibly some great Appalachian music and moonshine to be developed within by future generations.  Small islands to turn into underwater caves.  And so on.  In that way of viewing these elements, I do love both land and water, as they are, and with their memories and stories for future change.


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