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Adventure & The Distillation Of Creativity- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Adventure & The Distillation Of Creativity- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Adventure & The Distillation Of Creativity


Stripping life to its essentials.

Nancy and I just returned from a backpacking trip, which is not something we’ve done a lot together. By spending three nights out on the trail, we doubled our collective lifetime total.



Nancy contemplating Lost Coast hike


The Lost Coast


We hiked a stretch of California Coast called ‘The Lost Coast,” called that because it was lost to road engineers but otherwise just as found as all the other segments of California’s coastline.



Lost Coast Trail of California

Lost Coast Trail of California



It’s too steep and remote to yield to the ephemeral hubris of road-builders, their brash statements in concrete and steel, their mechanical words drowned out by the roaring waves ending their thousands of miles journey from polar regions and the gushing creeks eroding deep fissures in the upthrust faulted mountain range.

We chose this particular walk, which involved parts of four days and a total of three nights, because Bruce heard about it decades before and put it on his bucket list.

Life’s currents ebbed and flowed, but the small flame of desire and aspiration never wavered.


Camping on Lost Coast Trail

Camping on Lost Coast Trail



Though the hike is technically a long walk on the beach, it was much more difficult than it sounds.

Stretches of the walk involved making our way through a field of slippery seaweed-covered boulders the size of major household appliances, slipping and stumbling.



Big boulders on Lost Coast Trail

Big boulders on Lost Coast Trail



Other stretches had us sinking deep into soft “sand” made of pea-sized gravel. About one-third of the mileage was walking on gently rolling paths through fields of blooming lupines and poppies, but even those had the extra frisson of being next to hundred-foot crumbling drop-offs and the occasional rattlesnake.



Bruce on an easier section of hike



It was a world not made for humans, no special dispensations, no engineered comforts. It was safe, but danger lurked in the adjacent possible.



Elephant Seals sunning on Lost Coast Trail

Elephant Seals sunning on Lost Coast Trail



Two long stretches of coastline had to be traversed at low tide, with a significant probability of death if you tarried too long, trapped against towering cliffs by freezing turbulent surf.


The difficult footing made hurrying impossible. We allowed large margins and still barely made it on the first tidal segment.



Unforgiving cliff and beach underwater at high tide



The spring winds howled, but the skies remained sunny and temperate and the wind was at our backs, pushing us along and sometimes trying to push us over. We encountered about twenty other hikers, most of them young enough to be our children.

Bruce procured and filtered water along the way from the gushing streams. Carrying it would have been too heavy.


Procuring water on Lost Coast Trail

Procuring water on Lost Coast Trail



Why did we do something so uncomfortable?

To know beauty not packaged for our palates like baby food. To challenge ourselves. To engage in radical simplification. Many goals that are shared by the practitioners of artistic creativity.



Sunset over ocean and freshwater pond


Simplicity & Constraint


Life is stripped to its essentials when backpacking.


Lost Coast Trail at Night

Lost Coast Trail at Night


The number of different objects in one’s life diminishes to a few dozen from the tens of thousands of physical things that accompany a modern technological existence. Very light versions of common things have the best chance of coming along, like a featherweight titanium cook pot instead of a cast-iron Dutch oven.

We didn’t have cell phones and computers for endless clicking and scrolling, we didn’t even have books to read. We had each other to talk to and sometimes other hikers, but it was a time of contemplation, of letting the world enter in softly.

Carrying everything on your back is a very strong filter. Your needs are focused and distilled. If it doesn’t have to do with covering ground or staying alive and nourished, it becomes an optional luxury.

Even bringing a book becomes a subject of existential debate. By being ruthless in our choices, we were able to reduce our pack weights from punishing to merely tiring.




Returning from The Lost Coast Trail

Returning from The Lost Coast Trail


When we emerged at the far end of the walk in a little remote hamlet by the sea called Shelter Cove, we got ourselves to a little cafe operating out of a hotel and found that they had stopped food service a few minutes before.

We bought two Cokes and a couple of bags of Fritos to round out the balanced meal. Later, we drove twisty mountain roads for almost three hours to our next destination, which was only 50 miles away as the crow flies. 

We had planned our recuperation in the historic and touristy town of Mendocino, a well-preserved Victorian enclave that is in the hyperspace of cute. 

We hobbled and limped our sore and stiff bodies into the Albion River Inn and ran the shower out of hot water scrubbing off our backpacking trip.


View from Albion River Inn

View from Albion River Inn


Then we set out to have a nice celebration dinner only to discover that the power up and down the coast had gone out a couple of hours before, shutting down almost all food options. We thought we might have to eat freeze-dried chicken fried rice on the camp stove for a fourth night, washed down with ginger tea. 

Life’s disappointments are shaped by expectations. Rice and tea had been something to look forward to on the previous three nights, but now we were yearning for lobster, steak, and champagne at Cafe Beaujolais. We had “earned it,” whatever that meant.

Frustrated tourists swarming like ants in search of food, following the pheromones laid down by cell phones and reception desks word-of-mouth, fanned out over the landscape in hurtling SUVs.

We eventually found dinner at the Little River Inn, even though it had more guests than it had probably seen since before the pandemic. 


Meal at Little River Inn

Meal at Little River Inn


The following day, slightly less wobbly, we spent some time in Mendocino proper. True to form, we yearned for the same two things—books and food, as heavy as possible because we didn’t have to carry them on our backs. 

On the way to fulfillment of our desires, we stopped in a general store, a very compact space with a little bit of everything. Our perusal of the store offered a clue to some perhaps profound sociological sleuthing.

The store had a liquor section. We were not looking to buy any, but we wanted to see what was on offer, as it is often a litmus test for the tastes of the community and sometimes can tell you even more than that.

We found an impressive variety of rum. This was odd. Californians are not big rum drinkers. They drink wine because the state is famous for it, and brandy made from wine, and tequila because of proximity to Mexico and deeply intertwined histories, and bourbon because it is a distinctly American spirit.

So I cogitated on places I had seen lots of rum before, and remembered Maine, Massachusetts, and Florida. All East Coast places with a history of trade involving Britain and the Caribbean, the birthplace of rum. 

Mendocino was founded by entrepreneurs and sea captains who made their way from the East Coast of the United States around the Horn (the tip of South America and the only way to get to California by sea before the Panama Canal) to found a logging and whaling village in the unexploited California wilderness and to supply the unquenchable hunger for materials created by the Gold Rush. 

So, 170 years later, a store shelf full of rum might actually harken all the way back to those Boston sea captains who founded this village. Their descendants kept drinking it because their parents had drunk it.


Taste Clustering


It’s only a theory, but the correlations of geography and history are starting to accumulate in my rum-soaked view of what I’ve come to call “taste clustering.”

It could be that the person in charge of purchasing for this store just happens to like rum and gets an employee discount, but that isn’t nearly as interesting a theory.

It also points out the persistence of arbitrariness. Taste choices made two or more centuries ago (maybe rum was cheaper and more available than cognac or whisky at one point) can quietly persist and become deeply embedded to the point where they are invisible. And this extends far beyond the purview of after-dinner drinks.

It makes one wonder if this happens in life in general. An arbitrary choice becomes embedded, then encrusted, bricked over, grown over, lost to questioning.



Railroad tracks found and lost in Healdsburg, California 





And perhaps this happens in many aspects of human existence and forms a justification for occasional bouts of radical simplification, tearing an existential structure down to the studs, excavating the archaeology of desire. 

And perhaps it’s not by accident that the concept of “distillation” applies to liquor as well as thoughts and feelings. Distillation involves a kind of molecular “discomfort,” heat and pressure and cooling and condensation.




Distillation apparatus



This is the pursuit of the artist and the scientist, stripping away the veneer of obfuscation to expose the structure underneath, like the bleached whale bones littering the beach on our hike. 


With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce



P.S. Our forthcoming book, The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories of Artistic Transformation is getting closer to being published. Meanwhile, we’re still running the cover contest and we’d love your help selecting the cover!

Here are the 3 contenders. Which do you prefer? What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below.

The Adjacent Possible Book Cover Contest




Meanwhile, we found out this week the first Adjacent Possible book in the series won an award! The Book Excellence Award in Art! Find out why. Nab your copy of the first book in The Adjacent Possible series- you can get the eBook for only 2.99 for a limited time. 

The Adjacent Possible won a Book Excellence Award in Art

The Adjacent Possible won a Book Excellence Award in Art


The Adjacent Possible by Nancy Hillis MD

The Adjacent Possible by Nancy Hillis MD

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