Both Feet on the Ground Review – “Reflections from Outside”

Ulrich is sharing his love of nature with his daughter Alexandra (Ali) Dowdatop Mount Whitney 2018
Both Feet on the Ground, book cover

Somehow, in the creation of the universe, the elements swirled, collided, exploded, and Mother Earth happened to form in the perfect spot, simultaneously close and far enough away from the sun to make it the only planet known to humans that can sustain life. Can we possibly grasp what this means? In the infinite universe, our home is the only one we know of doing what it’s doing now: keeping us all alive. Everything that lives on our blue and green marble is made of the same stuff humans are made of, beautifully connecting us to all the living things around us, from other humans to animals and plants. Unfortunately, with the responsibilities of being human and living on this planet, such as working, raising children, or living through a global pandemic, we don’t get to appreciate all of the tiny miracles happening right outside our doors. For some, the most time they get outside is when they are walking from their work to their car, looking at their phones and thinking about what they have to do next. It can feel impossible to lay down all those stressors and responsibilities and give the sun, moon, and Mother Earth a chance to re-energize and strengthen you. However, one man, through many extreme tests of endurance, learned how to set down his pain and discovered a deep and intense connection with nature. From summiting Mount Everest to completing a 146-mile marathon across Death Valley (twenty-three times!), Marshall Ulrich’s adventures in his biography Both Feet on the Ground, inspire the reader to get outside, take in everything nature can give you, and keep both feet on the ground.

selective focus photography of yellow sunflower field during golden hour
Photo by Mike Marrah on Unsplash

Marshall Ulrich grew up on a small dairy farm in Kersey, Colorado. He worked hard and spent most of his time outside, and his appreciation for the natural world was instilled in him at a young age. “Because of my upbringing, I grieve for those who never do this or anything like it — never pick a berry off a bush, never grow a sunflower, never tend a garden of their own,” wrote Ulrich, which struck a chord with me as a mother of a young child. Ulrich further asked, “why do we allow ourselves to become so detached and disengaged? Why do we choose to shut out the natural world, adapting to an artificial environment, dulling our instincts, and becoming apathetic about the most basic element of our survival: food? It’s pretty simple, I think. Being disconnected from nature, including what we eat, can make us feel quite comfortable.” It was like he was looking in my window and writing down what he saw, my child playing with artificial toys with the TV on in an air-conditioned room. A wave of guilt washed over me, and then I read the next line: “Now, I invite you to be uncomfortable.” I took a break from reading and took my child to a plant nursery, and we spent the rest of the day planting corn, tomatoes, zucchini, watermelon, and a handful of herbs. Not only did I engage with my child more than I had in the first few weeks of quarantine, I got to watch my two-year-old get his hands in the dirt, smell the flowers, water the plants, and eventually pick the food off the vine. Starting our garden gave us a reason to get outside, to pay attention to all the growth and vibrance of nature. We had more energy, and every day it was harder to go back inside. We began exploring the world around us and discovered all of these beautiful natural areas that were right in our neighborhood we had never bothered to notice before. Ulrich was right when he wrote, “working the land goes beyond metaphor and analogy…you don’t ‘master’ the land, nature, the environment. You are part of it.” 

Ulrich running across Panamint Valley in Badwater race in 1992 when he set the 146 mile record.

Ulrich worked hard to achieve happiness, running his own business, getting married, and having a child. Life was good, until breast cancer caused the untimely death of his wife. “The painful loss scarred me. It also gave me a powerful conviction and a new passion: running,” Ulrich wrote. However, Ulrich is not your average athlete, he is an endurance athlete. With many impressive accomplishments behind him, such as a 500-mile trans-Himalaya race and summiting Denali (formally Mount McKinley), Ulrich took on the ultimate mountain climbing challenge: Everest. Besides all of the physical training that goes into climbing Everest, one of the most challenging aspects of summiting the great mountain for Ulrich was to “go slowly, slowly. The mountain teaches you to adapt. To adjust. To pay attention to the environment and pay it proper deference. To go slowly, indeed.” Ulrich achieved his dream and successfully summited Mount Everest in 2004 but felt conflicted about the accomplishment. “The people who live near [the mountain] work the land and revere the mountain, giving it a holy reference most Westerners don’t. I can’t imagine any one of them thinking about ‘conquering’ the summit or ‘bagging’ the peak…instead, they experience a connection with the ‘Goddess Mother of the World.’” In 2015, a violent earthquake in Nepal killed thousands and triggered avalanches on the mountain. 2015 was the first year in forty-one years that nobody summited Everest. “Call me superstitious, but I’ve come to believe that disregard and disrespect have plucked the mountain gods’ last nerve,” wrote Ulrich, regarding the earthquake. “Humans quite literally leave their shit laying all around up there — not only their climbing trash, but also their body waste. In addition, about half don’t have the skills or experience to climb in such an extreme environment, thus endangering the lives of others.” For Ulrich, climbing Mount Everest was, “a sacred quest. To race up the mountain with disregard to everything it has to offer — peace, beauty, wonder, joy, immense spiritual presence — is to miss the point of climbing.” Unfortunately, this is not limited to Mount Everest. Instead of appreciating what has occurred naturally in the world, like towering mountains and thriving rain forests, we constantly want to conquer, invade, “improve upon,” completely missing the point. We are only hurting ourselves when we go through nature without simply appreciating what has happened without human interruption. 

Marshall Ulrich’s ability to find great appreciation for natural beauty is not limited to great mountains, but also great deserts and bodies of water. Ulrich has run across Death Valley  29 times and, on August 24th, will attempt his 30th crossing of the Valley 30 years after his first crossing in 1990; at age 69. 146-mile race across the desert, running the race solo, and even doubling back after reaching the summit, running back through Death Valley, making it a 292-mile race. “Although this land has been called alien and strange, I’ve never felt as much at home as I do there. The place intoxicates. It punishes. It purifies,” wrote Ulrich of Death Valley. Even though the Death Valley race does not include summiting Mount Whitney, for Ulrich, “it’s imperative for me to go the entire distance — starting in the desert and then continuing onto the top of the mountain, I feel connected with something ineffable. Those environments speak to me, telling me or reminding me who I am. They connect me with Nature, show me how fragile life is, and how my own could change in an instant. They ground me, and I feel gratitude for being alive. And they make me feel small — so very small in the grand scheme. They bring me peace.” 

Ulrich’s description of his passion for the desert made me think about what environment stirs those emotions within me, and I landed on water. Lake Michigan, a happy place for many Midwesterners, has always given me a sense of peace. All of the pain and damage my heart and soul takes throughout everyday life is healed by submerging myself into that fresh blue water, even just breathing in the lake air brings me back to Mother Earth. This energy is felt by my child, who at just two years old will throw himself into the waves seconds after we walk onto the beach. “Water often symbolizes emotions and the subconscious,” Ulrich said. “It may be meaningful that, for most of my life, I have been hesitant about anything to do with it.” Tragedy may have motivated Ulrich to become an extreme athlete and take on many intense challenges and environments, but his aversion to water made him begin to consider how his accomplishments may have been a way to avoid looking back on the pain of his life. “It wasn’t until I was fifty and my romance with Heather, now my wife, that I marshaled the courage to dive into my past, to reconcile difficult feelings and actions.” More than halfway through a 100-mile snowshoe race in Alaska, Ulrich took a moment to stop and look up at the sky, and was thrilled to see Northern Lights putting on quite a show. “I stopped, lay down on the ice, and marveled at the sight. It was a rare instance of calm connectedness, made even more unusual for me because of its association with the water, turned solid to hold me up. All of my senses were attuned: the support of six feet of ice under my back, the boundless silence, the vivid display. Despite the ten-below temperature, it warmed my soul, and I must have stayed for ten minutes at least, though I’m not sure how long it was, because time ceased to exist for me. When I stood up at last, I felt refreshed, replenished, renewed, ready to move on. I was filled with joy and gratitude.” While I have never been to Alaska or snowshoed 100 miles, Ulrich’s description of feeling connected to nature, feeling replenished and renewed is exactly how I feel after jumping into Lake Michigan. Ulrich’s book has helped me recognize what nature can do for you, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Ulrich wrote, “no matter how complicated my life may be, getting outside rights the wrong, helping me to see new perspectives, reminding me that life is fragile and I am vulnerable, revealing my weaknesses and reassuring me of my strengths. The more I engage with the natural world, the more in tune I am with myself and the people around me. In a word, nature grounds me.” 

Ulrich pulling his sled and carrying his gear in Denali in 2002

In the infinite universe, Mother Earth is the only planet we know of doing what it’s doing now: keeping us all alive. Existing on this planet is miraculous, living among people, plants, and animals that are made of the exact same elements, connecting us all. Regrettably, existing on this planet also comes with seemingly endless responsibilities and stressors, and we begin to focus on everything that is going wrong. If you are feeling like this, it may be time to pick up Marshall Ulrich’s book, Both Feet on the Ground, and, in Ulrich’s words, “may [nature] ground you, too. I hope you find excitement in the world outside, and peace, also. Let it enliven your imagination and lift your spirits.” 

So inspired by the book, this journalist grew this corn-delicious (Photo: Elizabeth Carter)

As noted earilier, Marshall Ulrich is making his 30th attempt to cross Death Valley on foot in the summer, beginning this Monday, August 24th. If you wish to keep track of his progress, you can    track him here  starting at 6 a.m. PDT! Good luck, Marshall!

To order Both Feet on the Ground

Photos: Courtesy of Both Feet on the Ground unless otherwise noted.

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