Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset once pointed out, by walking, you assume the attitude of the hunter, the seeker, the eternal problem solver—the “alert man”—for whom “the solution might spring from the least foreseeable spot on the great rotundity of the horizon.”
I’ve returned from a three-week hike in the High Sierras, and am enjoying the luxuries of home: washing my hands with soap and a clean towel to dry them, a comfy chair to sit in, stuff I can leave lying around without it blowing away or getting eaten by critters. The images of bending over a clear, cool lake to wash my hands is still with me, so is the knowledge that not having a chair for three weeks left me limber, flexible and strong. While the fire season was spreading smoke the length of California and Southern Oregon, I was getting my oxygen above the smoke at 12,000 ft altitude with a blue sky overhead.
As I breathed the fresh forest air on my hike, it heightened my senses. I noticed the bark of Ponderosa pine smells like butterscotch. The needles of the Great Western Spruce smell like air-freshener. The rocks along the trail gave off a summer sun-dried sand smell that reminded me of beach vacations. Tall towering granite rock faces don’t smell, but my thoughts bounced off of them. Thoughts of harsh winters, howling winds and unforgiving temperatures. Granite rock faces lifted my eyes up to the clouds, the white billowy ones making dreamy images, the black ones waiting to unload the pelting rain or hail. I talked to the clouds, made deals such as, “I’ll put my rain-gear on if you don’t dump on me.” It worked, just a few sprinkles to dampen the ground, not enough to make for miserable camp conditions, or keep me pinned to the ground waiting out electrical touch-downs around trees or rocks hoping they will miss me. I depended on these deals for my survival, my comfort. What is it that makes man personalize the greater forces around him or her? I don’t believe in God, and I know that my talk with the weather didn’t change the weather. And yet, I find myself talk to greater forces around me when I’m out in the wilderness.
My DNA holds the building blocks of life, and all living things around me. It is obvious when I hike that my life moves with the same electron pattern as the rocks, the trees, the water, the stars above me. I relate to all of it as a living world and lend the inanimate a personhood like primitive cultures have done through the ages. When I feel the deep silence of the granite spires around me, the core of myself melts, my chest widens, my breathing slows. In this place I lose the "doing” force that drives my daily actions.
Despite all the preparations I had done to be safe and comfortable on this hike, fear and anxiety didn’t leave me. The anxiety however, didn’t stop me from moving forward on the journey. I became the “hunter”, the “seeker” as Jose Ortega y Gasset says about people who walk. Not knowing what lay ahead, I became alert and ready to solve problems that sprung up on the way. Should I ford this river and let my shoes get wet, or will I challenge my balance and cross on the log? Will I set up camp in a grove of trees or out in the open? What will happen if lightning strikes? Where is the moon tonight to guide me or keep me awake?
It took about a week before I adapted enough to my environment and trusted that I could manage. The anxiety disappeared. The alertness stayed. Intermittently my thoughts were about things from the life I had left at home. Mostly my thoughts were about what was in front of me, the trail; the rocky, sandy, or duff trail. My legs became appendages of a machine, a breathing, pumping machine. And they moved effortlessly, moved me forward, upward on switchbacks to new vistas, and downward into sheltered valleys, along the banks of a river spewing its snowmelt in an unstoppable force.
I lived life at a minimum. My nomadic routine had me wake up, eat, break camp, walk/climb to the next place, eat when hungry, rest when tired, set up camp, wait for night fall, sleep. No need to hunt for food, I carried it in my pack, no need to build my shelter from natural resources, I had my lightweight gear. To find what the trail could offer, to feel the pattern of living, was simple and yet hard. As I walked, I was a bundle of electrons, star-dust, doing what it knows to do, move forward, move through the big, open spaces with breath-taking slowness, thoughts halting and disappearing in the sky. The building blocks of life fell out of that sky at one point and formed life, gave me a body that can experience its origin, from millions of years ago. I re-discovered that I’m a star child. We all are.
I walked and found the essence of myself. I am back home and pick up where I left off, transformed.
For more visuals watch slide show here
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The first light comes at 4:30 AM when I’m still snuggled in my sleeping bag, swaying in my hammock. It’s early and I don’t want to listen to my bladder call, so I practice containment. The slight tension in my body doesn’t let me sleep. I want to be a child again and stay in my drowsy dream state, read my book (kindle on I-phone, the greatest invention for ultra-light backpackers) before doing the backpackers morning routine. I watch the sky do what it does best: reflect the light as the earth turns. There is a red coloring on the horizon. “Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning”? No, not at this time of the year, in this place. The red glow is minor and soon the gray-blue dome takes over, the spruce and fir show off their shapely form for another day of standing pretty against the granite boulders and peaks all around.
The last few miles yesterday were rocky and I hope for an easier stretch this morning. Maps show trails, elevations and tree lines, but not what the trail's surface is. As routine as backpacking for the distance is - wake up, break camp, have a bite to eat, check water supplies, hoist the pack, and walk all day until evening calls for a new camp and rest - the what of the trail is a surprise every day. It is an adventure even in the familiar surroundings of the Northern California Cascades. The Cascade range runs from Lassen Park in Northern California to the Canadian border. Over the last six years I have walked the 1350 miles in July and August, and this is the last 75 miles of this range for me. These mountains have shown me their trees, rock formations, lakes, rivers, and alpine meadows full of wild flowers in summer. The gray, green and brown coloring of the landscape with a splash of red rock now and then, the contours of the undulating blue ridges in the distance, and the snow-capped, volcanic peaks lined up along the way, have been my vision for inspiration, my path to health and vitality. Unlike the young thru-hikers on the PCT, who walk from one border to the next to prove that they can walk 2650 miles, I don't feel the need to prove that I can do it, that I can live simple, avoid society’s grab for money, status and addictive behaviors. I walk because I want to know the place. I keep walking, year after year. Will I finish the whole trail? I don’t know, nobody knows. Is it my intent? Some days I want to make it so, but then I realize that it’s easy to get caught in the stressful mind-set of “more” and “accomplishing a goal”. I walk and learn about myself. What will this day teach me?
After breaking camp, and loading the pack, primed by a small breakfast, I walk in the now sunny morning, bright light shining through the trees, reflecting on the white and gray east slopes of the Marble mountains. This is my holy hour, the hour for reflection, since my body is fresh and walking is effortless. Each step loosens up my knees, ankles and muscles tight from a night of inactivity. I am in my seventies and tissues tighten. My feet wrap themselves around small rocks, maneuver up steps, over downed trees, making my body sway and balance with the help of my hiking poles. My hands plant the poles behind me, in Nordic skiing style, and I pull myself forward as the path climbs. The rhythm of step-swing-breathe is as ingrained for me as the in- and out-breath is for most people. My whole body engaged, I can let my mind roam as my senses register the environment.
The green of the grass along the path is solid with pigment and sap. In the thick blanket of grass the flowers erupt. Orange Tiger Lilies, purple Penstemon, red Indian Paintbrush, Yellow Sunshine, purple Aster with yellow hearts, light-blue Polonium, red Columbine, white Yarrow, but most of all Valerian. 3 feet tall, the Valerian raises its pretty multi-flowered head, soft pink in its younger stage, like a rosy cheeked youth, with the tall white stamen sticking up like pins in a pincushion. Valerian sways, as if shaking its little head in delight, as if moving with the music of the wind. I walk and Valerian is my companion. I walk on the path and as if on a people-lined route. Valerian applauds my effort, cheers me on when the effect of the altitude slows my pace; when my breathing and not my muscles dictate my pace. Altitude seems to effect me more now than it did six years ago. I am aging, but I’m aging with vigor. The freshness of the pinkish white heads let me remember my youth when I didn’t appreciate what my body could do.
A wave of gratefulness for being here washes over me. I am alive and hiking in a place few people will see! The mountains, the trees and the flowers are my witness. While nodding its pretty head in the wind the Valerian plant is producing healing properties in the summer sun: a sleep-aid and relaxant. I don’t need her herbal tincture, I will sleep fine tonight after a day of walking in this meadow symphony.
I walked in Morocco, at least 5 miles every day, while supporting a walk-fundraiser for girls and women in African countries; girls and women who have to walk 5 miles to get their daily water; to get to a plot of land they can farm; to get to school.
I saw groups of girls and groups of boys walking to their separate school compounds. The villages had one-room schools. Children walk to school at all hours of the day; 2 hour sessions solve the problem of a school shortage. I saw no schools in the desert. The mobile school project for nomad children failed a few years ago. Nomad children don’t go to school, they herd goats.
In the big city I saw women, dressed in abayas, long over-dresses, and hijabs, headscarves, walk to do their shopping with children in strollers. In smaller towns women carried their small children in a sling on their back as they did their shopping. Men managed the shops, men served in restaurants and tea shops. In the outskirts of the big city women with sneakers peeking out from under their abayas exercise-walked on a walking path.
In a small wheat field near an oasis a purple colored female figure bent over in the green, head covered, was weeding and gathering the weeds. I saw a woman dressed in bright red from top to toe, carrying a large bundle of greens on her back: evening fodder for the animals who don’t get enough when they graze the barren rocky landscape. A bundle a day to feed the animals. A walk to harvest the greens and a walk to carry the greens home.
In the rock desert a woman was sitting by a mirky looking water source filling a jerry-can, which she had to carry back to her settlement. In the doorway of a stone hut a young woman with a baby on her back and a bag in hand, took leave from an older woman and descended the trail we had just climbed. It was a 2 hour walk to the nearest village. We had seen no settlements or houses nearby.
I saw a woman washing clothes by a spring. I counted 9 children playing, or helping with the washing. When I passed, the children came up to me hoping for a candy hand-out; the woman covered her face and bent her head.
There were no women in the dunes. The men in indigo blue turbans lead the camels to the brown camel-wool nomad tents where we slept. Men cooked our dinner. Men served us. The next day, back at the hotel, I saw a woman with cleaning supplies who came out of the hotel room next to me. She smiled. Women clean the rooms apparently.
On our last night in Marrakech we visited a hamam, a spa. Women bathed and scrubbed us, men served us tea afterward. In our hotel the male manager served us dinner. I saw a woman in a room near the kitchen. Did she cook the dinner? On the big central plaza, a woman was getting a henna tattoo on her leg. When I wanted to photograph the scene, she became very upset and waved her naked leg with the half-finished tattoo in the air, saying, “No, no photo.”
There are women in Morocco. Without being locked away, they were hidden from me. Shrouded and living in the background they have the status of being revered and protected. Morocco’s women and girls live in the poverty of inequity. CARE Morocco pays special attention to youth and disadvantaged rural and peri-urban groups. Did the woman at the spring want 9 children? Does the woman walking for exercise want to wear a headscarf and abaya? Does the girl going to school with her girlfriend want to be with girls only? Does the woman carrying her big bundle want to farm and raise animals?
I walked in a foreign country to get to know it. I came back with questions. I didn’t have a chance to talk to women while I was there. I talked with men only. They smiled a half smile when I asked them why I couldn’t meet their women and didn’t answer. I wish I could have walked the desert with a Moroccan woman as a guide. A search for female guides produced a few women who offer guided tours of cities, not treks in the wilderness. It’s possible, it just hasn’t happened.
The fight for women’s rights all over the world is a long fight for freedom of choice; for freedom over their bodies; for freedom to walk as much or as little as they want. I walk enjoying my freedom. I walk to learn. I hope many women will follow.
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I went for a hike in the Moroccan desert. Tourism is one of Morocco’s main contributors to the economy (18.6% of GDP, compared to 2.7% in USA, 7.6% in France). People visiting Morocco means post-colonial progress as the people coming from elsewhere now pay for being in the country. The tourist industry can be seen as a get-back for past colonial plunder and suppression. I understand and don’t take offense when a taxi driver charges me double rate on a rainy evening ride from the airport. I’m paying the ancestral debt, small price for privilege.
To get away from the tourist scene in the big cities I have booked an 8-day guided hike on the Saghro plateau and in the Sahara dunes. The Saghro plateau in Morocco has a biblical feel, a landscape I envisioned when I was a child in Sunday school and heard about the Israelites roaming the desert with Moses as a leader: a barren, dry, difficult, exposed land; qualities of such a land represent my aging skin and body. It seems fitting to explore the desert at this stage of my life.
For five days we hike like nomads, driving beasts, carrying loads and sleeping in tents. Five days let me feel, smell and breathe the place; let me see the rocky, craggy landscape. We see occasional small stone dwellings, built from rocks and dirt in the landscape, that blend with the sandy, beige environment. Small plots of wheat and an almond tree orchard here and there add temporary brightness of color while sucking up what little water there is near a spring or small creek. When the temperatures on the Saghro plateau soar to122F in summer, the heat will dry up the water and force the people to move north to the Atlas mountains with their goat herds.
I see young girls and boys tending the herds, roaming alone all day, greeting an occasional passer-by. I watch a girl climb the spires to rescue a goat stuck on an outcropping, risking a 300 feet fall into the canyon below. There is no-one to rescue her if that happens.
Our days are regulated by the sun and moon, and by a prayer routine our guide and muleteers share with the non-nomadic Moroccans. After their evening prayer, the muleteers joke when they serve our meal using their arabic tongue to pronounce the guttural sounds of my native Dutch. We laugh and learn a few arabic words in return. They wait until we are done eating before they have their meal; honoring us as guests, or a remnant of servitude?
I think about my status as tourist-nomad. When I hike here, do I become an invader? I may not take over the land, but by hiking in this nomad land I change life for the people that live here. My money allows for incremental changes in their life style. The local handicrafts go home with me, the carpets will cover the floors in my home. I ask my guide why he chose to become a trekking guide. When he gives me his answer, I find that we share a love for walking and roaming in nature, a love for getting to know people of other cultures. Our sameness erases the guilt I have felt about entering his world with my money.
The first humans were nomads. Nomad existence is in our DNA. The extremes of the desert bring me face to face with my reason for existing, teach me how small I am against the largesse of nature. The towering Pleistocene rock formations offer shade, a place for my animal body to hide from the burning sun. A brilliant star-lit sky on a wide open stretch of undulating sand dunes tells me that I’m just a speck of sand. These extremes enhance my aliveness, my appreciation of my surroundings. A hike in the desert fills me with wonder.
I’m home again sitting in a comfortable chair, with running water to make my cup of tea, with a small garden plot that gives me greens for my supper, and a hearth to warm me when the temperatures dip low. I know the season will change and I’ll answer the call of my nomadic DNA to roam and find what feeds my aliveness: the emptiness of a place, the sameness of a people.
Do you have Nomadic tendencies? How do they express themselves in your life? Let's have a conversation!
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A week of Horror, a week of Grief. Stunned faces. Angry faces. A gripping sense of safety lost. That is not the America I like.
I’m leaving for a month of traveling; four neighbors are watching and caring for my home in my absence. This is the America I like.
I can lose and find myself in the endless Wilderness. This is the America I like.
I am welcome, when I go to a pow-wow, meditate in a Buddhist temple, attend Shabbat in a Jewish temple, Eid in a Mosque. This is the America I like.
For a small fee, I can set up a business and market ideas, sell products to my hearts’ desire. This is the America I like.
Parkland High school students turned their grief into action, went to Fort Lauderdale and told their representatives, Never Again! This is the America I like.
This is a land of community action, a land of wild and beautiful places, a land of diverse spiritual practice, a land of opportunities, a land of freedom of expression. A vast land where you can move, if you don’t like the opinion of your neighbor, your co-workers. This is a land so big that cultures can exist like countries within countries. If you avoid TV, you can live somewhere and not know there is a way of life other than yours.
We are paying a price for diversity, for freedom of expression, for economic opportunity. We’re paying it to a divided government that can be bought; a government that bows to extremes in opinions, beliefs and interpretation of the constitution. We’ve entered the Wild West of governing. See a chance for gold? Grab it, claim it and deal with ownership later. Don’t like your opponent? Let the media kidnap him and hold him hostage on an embarrassing or incriminating behavior.
Government politics have evolved into a wild-west life of gold and guns. Wealth and power have become a necessary tool in the political survival arsenal. This political landscape won’t change until the people demand it.
People will have to decide that the Wild West times are over, every part known to all. It’s time to create a more civilized society. In this society not every member has to be armed to be safe. Let's establish a society where people care for each other, not out of survival instinct, but because there is enough to go around for all.
Countries transform because the people living in it, grow in awareness and change their interactions. Hanging on to gun laws based on living situations from 200 years ago, is a mistake and needs updating. Let’s bring people together and talk sense, one small town meeting after another. Americans are community-minded people who care about their neighbors and value their wild lands. Let’s keep our communities safe by banning assault rifles and hunt with less power and more skill. In November, lets vote out politicians who were bought by the NRA. I want to use the democratic process and like America again.
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At the time of writing this post, you have 358 days to make something of the year 2018. If you think in terms of years lived, a year is a solid time span to get something done, to change a habit, to have adventures, to bring a family together, to… to… to… you name it! Even if you, like the Epicureans, see seeking pleasure as your goal in life, and you commit to the Carpe diem motto Horace espoused by enjoying the moment, you still have to decide what comprises that enjoyment. Aren’t we all enjoyment seekers? I can’t imagine anyone wishes for a year of suffering, of boredom, a year of strife, unless your name is the ‘Drumpf’ or Ebenezer Scrooge.
Epicures didn’t encourage hedonism, but believed to find pleasure one had to curb desires, simplify life, and gain knowledge of the workings of the world. The philosophers from long ago had living figured out way before us, and we can learn from them.
So here we go, what do you want to do with your precious year 2018?
To answer this question, I’ve come up with a few questions to ask yourself:
1. Do my actions serve me? i.e. Leave me feeling better/vibrant/satisfied/accomplished/loved?
2. Do my actions serve the greater purpose of enhanced experience, enhanced living,
i.e. increase my awareness, improve my health, vitality, emotional balance?
3. Do my actions leave someone else feeling better/satisfied/loved/enlivened?
4. Do my actions serve others/the planet?
Let’s see how these questions could play out:
Question 1, How does this serve me, applied to sleep: In winter, I end up going to bed earlier, sleeping longer, skipping the late night snack and having fewer hours in a day to wrestle with calorie intake. In summer I get up earlier, go for an early morning hike, work in the garden or write before my brain gets clogged by news and other distractions. Winner!
Question 2, how does this enhance my experience? Applied to food and weight maintenance: If I ask these questions while I’m eating or preparing food, my chewing slows down, and I relish my food more (I am a foodie, no way around it); I chew my food more thorough, avoiding run-ins with my aging teeth, and improving my digestion. I’m not a lingering person, so I won’t be able to eat as much since I’m ready to move on to the next thing. Winner!
Question 3, Does this make someone feel better, applied to communication: Since talking is overrated in my book, a sort of chasing your own tale thing I’ve been know to do, I listen more when I ask myself the questions. Instead of talking, I end up asking others a question to bring out their stories. One pertinent question can evoke a long story. Others feel better because someone is listening; I use my brain thinking up pertinent questions and I get new material to write my blogs; writing blogs is more creative than talking. A winner!
Question 4, Does this serve others/the planet, applied to making and drinking homemade chai-tea: I enjoy the ritual of simmering spices before adding the tea, having a pot on the stove ready for anyone who drops in on me. No packaging (I use loose tea), or throwaway cups to litter the planet, no need for “air-fresheners”, the spices do the trick of making my house feel good and reducing inflammation. There is always chai on hand to put in a thermos when I go on a winter hike or long car ride, again, not using throwaway cups on the road. Used tea and spices will speed up my compost pile. You get the idea, and if you don’t enjoy chai-tea, substitute soup. A simple act, a winner in many ways!
What if DT asked himself these questions with regard to his Tweeting? With regard to playing golf with a security entourage every weekend, to watching Fox news to become “informed”? Yes, all his actions aim at making himself feel better, enlivened, and America Great Again, but forget about making him or others feel healthier, loved, accomplished, or emotionally more balanced. Oh, I could only wish!
If you are an engaged human, your days fill up with events, projects, family and societal obligations and (YES) distractions. To increase pleasure in living the next 358 days, take time daily to reflect on what and why you’re doing what you’re doing. I can’t expect others to transform their life by asking these questions, but I know some readers may want to give it a try. You’ll soon find that your actions take a positive course.
The Winning Point: You need not make a list of New-Year’s resolutions to improve your life!
Have a happy 2018!
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At 3 PM the sun sets behind the west ridge above our little town and I view the last of its rays in a red light show on the east ridge from my window. At the height of summer I stood on that ridge in the early morning hours to catch the delicate sunrise on its flowering slopes. The shorter days limit my outdoor activity and I’m on an inward trek. Around the winter solstice I shut down computer and TV screens, mute my phone with a do-not-disturb message and spend a few days focused inward to observe the subtler energies in my body .
The peak and valley of light-filled days are two polarities that hold life in between them. As I sit, I remember how, at the height of summer, I gathered the light in my fibers as I walked day in, and day out, sleeping in the outdoors. I remember how the resulting lightness of being stayed with me far into the fall. In the last month leading up to the winter solstice my body has felt dense, a denseness that no amount of exercise can shake. I seek warmth from food, hearth and covers. The occasional hike in the outdoors has been a snippet of summer, as the evergreens stand still on snowy ground, while dried grasses hang their heads around them. The absence of sound hangs telltale in the air, since most birds have gone south, water from snowmelt isn’t around yet to sing its gurgling song, and wind doesn’t find leaves to play with. An occasional crow cries out in the emptiness, stressing the hollowness of nature gone to sleep, curled in on itself as plants and animals survive the long cold nights as best as possible. I can only mimic nature and hurry home to the warmth of the hearth, soup warming on the stove, and, wrapped in a blanket, a meditation hour on my cushion.
Meditation is supposed to create inner peace. It’s difficult though, to make peace with the state of a world that rewards money and power, a government that leaves compassionate action to the less well-off. How to make peace with a world where the military doesn’t protect people from invaders, but instead, within its borders, burns people’s homes, blows up their villages because the villagers are of a different race and religion? It’s maddening to think of a world where the sick get care based on their income not their need.
And yet, I sit, to make peace with life. The images float through me, as I breathe in, breathe out. I feel powerless because I want to do something, fix the state of the world. In summer I gathered confidence in living as I walked. In fall I harvested that confidence and turned summer bounty into products, that line my pantry shelves. In the deep of winter I share my herbs, sauces and salves with my neighbors, tokens of a life force that keeps on living, keeps on healing. I sit and remember the wildfires raging through the forests and know that nature seeks balance, even if it kills in doing so.
I have made my peace with nature and trust that the world will continue despite the despicable actions of humans on the planet. I will live on watching my breath come and go until it will no more.
Let’s honor nature’s cycles and celebrate the return of the light first with a candle, then with increased outdoor activity. Let’s make peace by offering compassion toward people around us, and lets raise our voices about the injustices created by governments snared by money and power.
Hike #1, November 24, 2017
I set goals that keep me engaged. So I signed myself up for the 52 hikes in 52 weeks challenge. I walk the first of 52 hikes. What will I learn by doing this? I have hiked 52 hikes several times in the last few years of my life. So why commit to an official counting and recounting? Walking and writing keeps me honest. Walking and writing about it can inspire others to take up walking. Walking and writing keeps me that much closer to the essence of living.
My first hike is familiar, a quick jaunt into the hills while the sun is warming the day for a while my sourdough bread is rising in the kitchen. I often choose this hike because I don’t have to get into a car to get to the trailhead, my breathing gets going strong as I go up and up to the top of Bandersnatch trail. I feel my body working, enough to shed layers and gloves. I’m healthy, I’m thankful, I love the feeling when my quads contract and move me up into the hills. The yellow light dances, filters through the evergreens and now bare black oaks, touch the tips of fine filigree ferns. The madrone trees ignore the seasons and shed their crisp leaves and bark in an ongoing brown and maroon symphony. I’m happy.
I meet the first dog on the Ashland Loop Road before I enter the trail. The owner grabs the dog’s collar to let me pass. I greet them. I meet the second dog, dressed in neon orange safety vest a little up on the trail. “Where is your owner?”, I ask because I don’t see a person following. The dog turns back around the bend and joins his owner. The owner puts the dog on the leash. I greet the owner. She unhooks the dog as soon as I have passed. Mm, why can’t people follow the rules of the trail? My dog-hiking sore spot is showing itself. I meet the second dog a little further up, owner talking on the phone. I ask if she can leash her dog. “Oh, I didn’t see you”, she says. She leashes her dog, I thank her for following the rules of the trail. She answers that she lets the dog off-leash by mutual consent. I’m not aware that I consented. I feel miffed, she’s playing with my head. I meet a father and daughter who have their dogs on leash and hold them close off trail to let me pass. I thank them. More people without dogs are enjoying an opt-outside day.
I’m on the downhill side of the trail now, enjoying the golden light through the trees. An overweight bulldog shar-pei mix with wrinkled skin ambles on the trail off leash toward me, another overweight small furry dog follows slowly with the owner. I stop and ask if she can put her dogs on leash. She puts the wrinkled bulldog on the leash and as I start to thank her, she says to me: “I shouldn’t have to do this if you could live without fear.” Now my simmering dog irritation is reaching the angry stage. “I’m not afraid of your dog”, I answer, I wish you would follow our community agreements. She walks on, I turn at the switch-back and see her unhook her dog again. I can’t contain my self and call out to her: “Yeah, make your own rules and don’t care about others on the trail!” Immediately I feel embarrassed for letting this issue get a hold of me. My happy equanimity is shot. I hike on wrestling with thoughts about people, rules and community-living on the trails.
A quarter mile later I realize I’m not seeing anything around me, I’m absorbed by the thoughts in my head. Then I remember what Thoreau said in his book Walking: "I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. —………..— The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is—-I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business do I have in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” I look, smell and take some deep breaths to return to the woods.
I finish my hike, crossing the downtown area. When I come to the undeveloped land where the railroad tracks run, I take the short-cut home as I always do and cross the tracks where the sign to the North says, Private Property, no trespassing. I cross the tracks and break the rule. I’m no better than the dog owners.
My summer nomadic life has come to an end. The flow of travel, trekking, packing, unpacking, trekking, planting, harvesting and gathering is no longer coursing through my body, no longer dictating my daily actions. I’m in one place, going out for day hikes, cleaning up in the garden and protecting winter crops from oncoming cold weather where needed. I could travel if I wanted but my body is responding to the longer nights and wants to sleep more, stay warm, eat and fatten up. Hibernation is setting in and I’m at odds with it, I miss the light.
I think about nomadic tribes. They hunker down for the winter months or wet season; they send their children to school, fix their gear, make hard cheeses that need months to ripen, they sleep and tell stories. Do they miss the open steppes, the high ridges where they herd their flocks? Do they miss the hardship of living outdoors, packing and unpacking their shelter in pursuit of new grazing grounds, as they settle in their more elaborate winter housing and face the hardship of winter or wet survival? I’d like to know.
I believe our vacation patterns are a remnant of the nomadic life our forebears lived, the appendix of our life’s digestive track. My recent forebears were farmers. Their vacations were a 3-day trip away from the farm to visit relatives. The farm couldn’t survive without them away for longer times. The animals, the crops needed them to be present. Since we’ve become less connected to natural cycles by living in cities and small towns and buy our food from a grocery store, we can close up our homes, turn down the blinds, and go away for as long as our jobs and pocketbooks allow us. Flying in a plane, sailing across the water, driving a car or motorhome down the road, or for some, riding a bicycle or carrying a backpack, we become temporary nomads.
I’ve wanted to explore and travel since I was young. The urge to see other places, meet other cultures has shaped my world view. I have often felt more at-home on the road than settled in one place. My at-home feeling isn’t dependent on a home. When I roam the world, move about from place to place, I feel connected to something bigger than family or a local community. I feel connected to life on earth.
Yet, every year at the end of summer, I return to place and home. The tension between sedentary and nomadic life is the paradox of human existence, the koan we are given to enlighten ourselves. The tension between the known and uncertainty. Experiencing that tension teaches us about the essence of living.
So when I settle in for a long winter’s night, I already know that my sedentary life is temporary. The temporal quality of winter hibernation puts me in touch with the temporal nature of things, and urges me to make the most of the now. It is the same temporal quality of living I experience when I travel, because the traveling day, the place along the journey, the experience of a new place is always a passing one.
I will take the hint from the nomadic tribes who use their winter or wet season to stock up, fix gear, sleep (repair of the body takes place during sleep), and learn new skills I can use when I go out on the road again. I will send this old body back to school, study languages, write and read stories, care for minor ailments that need attention. The dried herbs and colorful canned goods on the shelf, the frozen veggies in the freezer, give me a sense of accomplishment and security. I can join in celebrations of thanks, welcoming the season with those who form my tribe.
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