10 Days on the Water
I live on land, lots of land, with high mountains and wide mesa, no water in sight. As a newcomer in New Mexico, I walk and hike to make the land mine.
But…, I have a bucket list, a lingering memory of 9 years ago when I kayaked the Sea of Cortez near Loreto, Mexico in a World Heritage Marine site. On that trip, we camped on beaches, watched dolphin pods jump from the beach during breakfast, silver rays jump 15 feet out of the water while paddling. We explored the sea underwater. I saw a blue whale come up less than 10 feet from my kayak - the 12 foot head emerging with its eye looking at me! Even though I knew seeing an animal of such enormity greet me from the water was a once-in-a-lifetime event, my greedy mind wanted it again, and wanted more. In January I booked another, longer trip with the same company, 10 days of kayaking along the Baja Sur coast, from Loreto to La Paz, 100 miles. Oh, what I wouldn’t be able to see!
Old and Strong
For a senior, 9 years is a lot of time passing. At 67, retired from a tough job, with 10-hour days, I was full of vigor and ready for a new phase of life. At 76, things look and feel different. I’m healthy, but my vigor is a 76-yr old vigor. My wants and desires are shrinking (I just decreased my home size by 50% and got rid of half of my possessions). I can muster the strength when needed, but sustaining it all day, is an other story. Traveling to foreign countries has become a chore. I seek comfort.
The flight to Loreto was short and uneventful. The weather is a welcome change from a lingering winter in March at 7000 feet elevation. Walking by the water, smelling the salty air, watching the waves break brings me back to a childhood of beach living and swimming in the waves. I am ready.
Full of anticipation, our group of nine sets off to our launch site, a 2 1/2-hour ride over a dusty, bumpy road. We enter the coastal hinterland of Baja Sur. No towns, a few houses sprinkled in the desert, among cacti and rocks. Our take-out beach has the feel of a long-time-ago beach in Goa, India: a few huts, a small outdoor cafe, an outhouse. My brain is pumping out images of adventurous travel long ago. And here I am, still doing it!
A separate trailer has delivered our gear: they moored double sea kayaks on the beach, paddles, PFDs, kayak seats, 2-20 liter and 1-10 liter dry bag each with our gear for the trip. A panga (fishing boat) waits anchored in the bay. Food, water, tents, chairs, cooking gear are waiting for us when we need it. The crew set up a shade shelter with table and chairs and our first lunch with cold drinks is served. We are “roughing” it in style!! All I have to do is kayak.
I am traveling with a much younger friend. She is good company to have, and can offer extra strength in case my body isn’t up to the task. We climb in our tandem boat for our first 8-mile kayak to a beach where we camp for the night. After some initial adjusting, we start paddling. The water is blue, clear, with light waves. All is well. Despite a recently pulled muscle in my buttocks, I manage to sit with an extra blow-up cushion and paddle for 2 1/2 hours without pain. My brain reaches back to my crew rowing days for managing cresting waves. My torso, legs and arms work together to make a smooth motion. I am moving on water.
The second day, the guides inform us we’ll be paddling a long stretch as the weather forecast says winds will pick up on day 3, and they will beach us at least for a day. We have to meet our destination schedule. A full day of paddling lays ahead with a beach stop for lunch. The sunny weather is changing, more clouds are in the sky, sloshing waves splash us and by the time we reach our lunch beach, we are hungry and shivering with cold. Our panga can’t land on the beach we’re on, so we play “naked and afraid” for a while, trying to stay warm in the sand and bushes that surround the beach. There are no people anywhere; it’s just us, stranded on this beach. Our guide paddles to a neighboring beach to pick up lunch.
Lunch arrives in due time and with bodies re-energized, and minds full of adventurous thoughts, we set out for the afternoon. By 6 o’clock and after18 miles of kayaking we touch land. After a late dinner, and promise of the next day off, I roll into bed with arms so tired that I can barely pull a shirt over my head.
I wake up to sun, wind and a layer of fine sand over everything in the tent. The winds have arrived! We hike inland, find ruins of a hacienda from the 1700th, and a small store with Wi-Fi. We do our last communicating with the outside world for the rest of the trip. We fish and eat fresh seafood that night.
The following day we set out for sea again. The winds are blowing less hard and come from the north, even so, occasional 6-foot swells move us along as long as we stay square to the waves. It is exciting and challenging, my body is working hard, my mind focuses and we cover the day’s distance in 4 hours.
I’m amazed that my body is performing as needed. Stiffness after sitting for hours in the kayak, lack of agility as I try to disembark, or climb in and out of my tent, doesn’t stop me from enjoying the experience. As the hours on the buoyant water roll by, my mind becomes empty. My friend and I have little to say as we kayak. I watch the pelicans, the schools of fish jumping, occasional pods of dolphins that are swimming by. I become part of the water world. Every night in my tent, I fall into a dreamless sleep, still feeling the wave motion in my body, hearing the rushing sound of the breakers. I am a young girl again living near the water, safe, embraced by sun and warm sand. The crew serve food like clock work and my hunger is stilled. The company of others is interesting and laughter accompanies our meals; we become a travel family. Life is simple.
With each day that we move further south, I give up the hope of seeing a whale near my kayak; I look for turtles as I snorkel around the rocky shore. As time passes and we have just a few days left, I realize this trip isn’t about seeing the extraordinary marine life. I’m learning other things.
When Enough is Enough
Living outdoors 24 hours a day for 10 days has made me more aware of my environment, more tired, more grateful, and has offered me insights I can’t get living in my house on land.
Now that I am home, I can say about this journey: it was enough. It was good. I went deeper. Ten days on the water transformed me. I won’t need to do it again.
Dogs on the Trail
It was the sweetest little, chocolate lab puppy, soft and wobbly on its legs. “How old”? I asked, stroking its soft fur. “8 Weeks”, the young woman answered as she held him in her arm, “he can walk along.” She put the pup on the ground and he walked circles around her leg. “You’re thru-hiking?”, I asked, for we were on the Pacific Crest trail in northern Washington state. “Yes”, she answered, “I just picked up this puppy at my resupply stop?” I couldn’t believe my ears. She was taking an 8-week puppy on a thru hike? That’s dog abuse, I mused. “Will you carry the dog and his food all the way? That will add a lot of weight,” I asked, hoping I heard her wrong. “Yep,” she said, “I’ll let him walk when he can. He’s good company.” I couldn’t believe my ears.
On another stretch of the Pacific Crest trail I met a man with an adult dog, who carried his food in a dog backpack. He explained to me that he needed the dog for comfort, to help him with his PTSD. I asked how the dog was holding up on the long trail. He said, “my dog comes first, I adjust daily mileage to my dog’s ability. We don’t often do more than 10 miles in a day. He needs his rest.” This man respected his dog and the dog served him.
Dogs have served man since time memorial. According to scientists, dogs were domesticated anywhere from 30,000 years ago, to 10,000 years ago. That’s a long time for man and animal to bond, and evolve together. Dogs were present in great numbers in North America before the Europeans set foot here; they were present before Europeans introduced horses. Most likely dogs evolved from a less fierce breed of wolves, who came around hunter/gatherer tribes and found they could scavenge for left-over carnage.
On my travels in Asia, I walked around mountain villages where packs of dogs roamed the dirt streets. Packs of Mastiffs roamed the high plains in Tibet. I took care to avoid them, as I didn’t want to be attacked. These semi-feral dogs get fed by owners when they go home at night, but they roam freely, and assert wolflike behavior: they run in packs, they hunt for food together. I was forewarned. They can be dangerous. I walked with a stick in one hand, a rock in the other.
In my new community I rarely see children out and about, but dogs are aplenty, with or without owners. Northern New Mexico appears to be a crossroads between civilized society and the wild West: dogs have homes, but they escape the unfenced properties and the owners are always looking for their dogs when they don’t come home at night.
In my earlier home state of Southern Oregon, I hiked in the hills and mountains. When I hiked near a town on a developed trail, dogs were running loose despite a leash ordinance. When a dog would jump up on me, or growl at me, the owners would tell me, “the dog is friendly, he/she never acts this way.” i don’t enjoy being jumped on by a friendly dog. Talking with owners was a losing battle. I stepped aside, asked the owner to leash the dog so I could pass.
Wilderness trails have provided me with freedom from having to deal with dogs. Most of the time. I enjoy being in nature and knowing wild animals will avoid people 99% of the time. I don’t mind co-existing with animals if there’s mutual respect and distance. When I encounter wild animals on the trail, I keep my distance and observe.
I’m not against dog ownership. With ownership comes responsibility. I have owned a dog. There is a grand-dog in my house occasionally. It’s a pleasure to be greeted when I get home by another creature who loves me unconditionally.
Recently, on a XC-ski outing, a dog belonging to another XC-skier jumped on me from behind, throwing my ski from under me and straining/tearing a muscle. Excited dogs, running loose in the snow, make holes in the ski track, are a danger for skiers. Owners tell me that the dog loves the snow, so they bring the dog on outings where other skiers are present. Would you bring a hyper child to an athletic activity that takes the athlete’s focus, and let him/her run around among the athletes? I wish people wouldn’t treat their dogs as if if they are their child, and give them the same status as humans.
With so many dogs running loose, on trails and roads, I fear taking my grand-dog on a leashed walk around the mesa. I may meet other loose dogs who will become aggressive.
We live in a dangerous world. Stories of drive-by shootings in big cities, pick-pockets in crowded train stations, people with guns going into big box stores, abductions in cartel controlled regions, make the news. I’m privileged and have lived in safe places all my life. But with an exploding dog population, I’ve lost my nerve to go out on the trails frequented by other people and their dogs.
i want to walk, travel, see the mountains, and visit unknown places. Fear of the unknown has never stopped me, and luckily I have never encountered a dire, dangerous situation. I don’t want to walk with fear. Adding pepper spray to my hiking essentials might be necessary.
We’re connected as creatures on this planet. We need to care for each other and our domesticated animals, and not let our love for our dog rule the roost and put the dog or others at risk.
Below, enjoy some of the creatures I've encountered on the trail.
A Year Later, Love and Heartache
A year ago, Russia invaded Ukraine, targeting civilians indiscriminately. Many people fled and had to start their life over again elsewhere. Almost a year later, a devastating earthquake hits Turkey and Syria. A child is born under the rubble and starts life without its mother. It’s been a year since I left the NorthWest and arrived in Taos NM to start a new life. People fight for their lives against all odds; people have an amazing capacity for starting over again.
I wanted a simpler life, fewer material possessions, less stuff to keep track of; more time for what matters to me at this stage of life. This morning, instead of streaming JPR morning edition, I turned to the local NM station and listened to a discussion on water rights and water shortage in the South West. Changing listening stations has been slow in coming. JPR as my morning companion, with the familiar voices of local broadcasters and weather announcers, kept me tethered to a familiar past. A past that comforts me in a brand-new, foreign feeling environment. What stations do refugees listen to? How does a newborn without a mother, find comfort?
A New World
When I arrived in Taos, it felt as if I had entered a foreign, developing country; a mix of races, native, Hispanic and white, made me feel I was in Mexico. A haphazard array of adobe buildings, some a thousand years old, narrow alleys, and streets that went nowhere reminded me of India, and Morocco. The towering, often snow-clad Sangre de Cristo mountains wrapping their arms around a vast and open mesa reminded me of the Himalayas and the high Sierras; and - as far as the mesa was concerned - when I walked in the wide open, sagebrush landscape, it reminded me of my native Holland’s wide dunes covered with dune roses. The difference is, a distant levy doesn’t mean the sea is on the other side, because there’s just more fields and more mesa stretching into infinity. A mesa falling off into the enormous crack in the earth called the Rio Grande Gorge, where the Rio Grande river moves its water from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. For me, this land holds the places I have lived and found inspiration both physically and spiritually. Will the Ukrainian refugees, the Afghan asylum seekers, find comfort in a new land? Will the trapped Syrians find familiarity amid the rubble?
The Aging Train
At that crucial time in life, when you realize aging is a slow moving, but unstoppable train you’ve boarded; when you know, you may need immediate family into the not-so-distant future to help you navigate daily life, I made the life changing decision to give up the familiar and set out for a change that could support me and my desires for the unforeseeable future. I made the leap while I still had my capacities and functioned independently. It was exciting, terrifying and challenging. I had a choice; I have means. Imagine being ejected against your will from the familiar into a strange culture, language, and climate, having to depend on handouts.
Taos offered me immediate challenges. A very slow moving bureaucracy and long outdated, poorly funded County government system makes getting through escrow a torturing long wait. The house I bought had been 4 months in escrow when I arrived in Taos, but I had to wait another 3 months before we signed the papers and I could move in and set about making my new home into “home”. Those months of waiting offered my 75-year-old slowing cognitive abilities a chance to get to know my new environment, figure out traffic patterns, dead-end streets - often not marked or in the right location on GPS - find the agencies and medical providers I needed and slowly learn to navigate this rural town of 7000 people. I found it exhausting and after a day of venturing out, I relished and thanked my benefactor and friend for renting her second home to me and giving me a comfortable place to end my day, watch a magnificent sunset, retreat in media and books. The challenges the displaced and the refugees face are a hundred times more challenging. They sit in the freezing cold in a tent if they’re lucky. No glorious sunset on their rubble doorstep.
An Unfinished Project
Life was simple since I didn't have a home move into and make livable. I had brought an unfinished project from the West Coast: finish hiking the PCT, a 3-week journey over rocky terrain, difficult passes, a few fast-flowing rivers, among immense beauty, and sleeping in a tent. My outdoor journey had little in common with the dangers of asylum seekers crossing borders, deserts and swamps. I had time to train and ready myself to tackle the 240 miles of California. Most of the border crossers start when danger becomes too great.
I walked my temporary mesa neighborhood; I picked a new trail each week and hiked in the mountains and mesa. I learned what spring weather was, intense sun, fierce winds, and unexpected snow. Under my hiking shoes, I discovered mud season with slick, clod filled soles. I met people as I walked and hiked and before I knew it, I had a set of hiking friends who not only hiked with me but introduced me to good places to eat, and galleries to visit; they invited me to join in local crafts workshops. I made my first basket with the new spring growth of willow. The displaced travel in groups; they find comfort with others who share their journey. They arrive with others who compete for the same resources.
A Spiritual Home
On non-walking days, I immersed myself in the varied and rich local spiritual culture. I visited the Hanuman temple and shared free Sunday noon meals where I met transients and locals; I chanted at a Tibetan stupa, meditated with a meditation group and connected to their Sangha. On arrival, I returned to a vegetarian diet I had followed 20 years ago. It felt right for the planet, right for me, to simplify my food intake. A year later, it still feels right. I continue my meditation practice with local teachers and students of Vipassana. My hopes for spiritual connection in daily life have become a reality. The spiritual community has welcomed me and I don’t feel the spiritual loneliness that had descended on me in the North West. After years of doing my “own” thing, on and off the trail, walking meditation, sitting meditation, self retreats, I’m ready to fill in the blanks of not knowing and get out of my comfort zone with intensified practice. Will the displaced be so lucky and find spiritual comfort in countries that may or may not tolerate their “otherness”?
Simple and Complex
My not-so-simple life of before has become simpler in some ways and more complex in others. There is simplicity of daily living, in my compact, comfortable home with views of the mountains while I write, read or watch the fire in the kiva; with radiant floor heat when it’s cold outside and with sun streaming in through the windows most days. My little spot of mesa is waiting for spring when I can develop a small garden. It’s quiet here, I have a xeriscaped yard, so there’s very little maintenance. Pebble paths meander on the 1/3 acre for doing walking meditation.
Life is more complex in study, and with more immediate family relations, which I both wanted. The routine of walking and hiking year round keeps me healthy and energetic. I’m intent on using the energy left to me, in a more focused way. For refugees with few belongings, life will be distressful in its simplicity, its lack of opportunities. Their waiting time isn’t filled with enticing new things, but with painful uncertainty.
Being an elder, I have a choice to either fritter away my time left, or to enhance the time by simplifying daily living and creating room for delving deeper into whatever I’m still passionate about. I see elder survivors who have lost their family, their entire village; lost the simple home they’ve known their whole lives. Downsizing and moving has offered me simplicity and depth. Destruction of what they knew, is offering displaced elderly entry into an unwanted world. I get it, that they want to sit among the bombed-out houses on the street they know, the only thing they know.
An Aching Heart
For me, my new environment isn’t overwhelming anymore. The stress of uprooting and letting go of the familiar is gone. I sleep long and deep most nights. People reach out and guide me wherever I want to go. Trust in following my instincts has grown. I wait for instructions on what’s next, and don’t mind not knowing. Less feels better.
I ache for those who are not so lucky; those waiting for news of loved ones, news of a possible return. My heart aches for those who can only sleep from exhaustion, jarred by every noise that reminds them of what was, and will never come back.
DNA Fueled Living in 2023
If you’re reading this, you’ve come through the holidays, passed the shortest day if you live in the Northern hemisphere, considered new-year’s resolutions and are back to normal life. I hope you can look back with satisfaction on the transition. The whole seasonal thing took effort on my part, but the baking paid off, the gatherings strengthened friendships.
I’m still enjoying a slice of Xmas stollen with my morning cuppa Jane, a few cookies with the afternoon cup. I’m weaning myself of the rich buttery foods. The last wines I turned into cheese fondue and shared with a friend at the end of a hiking day. The extra set of tech long-underwear I gifted. The lights that graced my garden wall are packed away. I’m thinking of spring time planting as I’m looking out at 11,000 ft-high Pueblo Mountain covered with snow. It’s 20F outside, the sun has that January feel, a cool yellow, low in the sky, but bright during the -still- short daytime hours. “I’m returning”, the sun says, and my animal nature responds. What’s next?
Down-time lends itself to future planning. I wonder if hibernating animals dream of swollen rivers full of salmon, bushes laden with berries, fat grubs in decaying forests. As a hiker, I read many social media posts talking about summer hiking trips. People are beyond dreaming and planning their trips. A good thing, because if you want to hike a long trail section, you must decide now, start training and gather information. you’ll need the time between now and then, to get ready. Tribal, nomadic living was similar: winter time was for eating the stored fattening foods, repairing and making baskets, tools, clothes, foot coverings and go out to check traps. Food gathering was lean in winter, or non-existent. People kept themselves going with dreaming of and storytelling about the abundance spring and summer could bring. This is how they nurtured hope for better times.
A Life of Ease
In 2023 we don’t starve in winter, we don’t need fattening foods to stay warm, we don’t need to tell stories because we have a plethora of digital entertainment. Yet, people follow the DNA fueled pattern of thinking and planning for the next season. Even if you’ve escaped the cold, dark winter and are snow-birding somewhere, you’re following a seasonal trek. Those living in the tropical belt year-round still have dry and wet seasons to prepare for.
Living according to your DNA is most natural and will help you stay healthy. Someone asked me, “Why don’t people seek out nature? Why have they forgotten what nature can do for them?” The answer is simple: when you numb your tastebuds with too much sugar, fat and salt, you can’t detect what foods can nurture your body. Same with activities: if you have your head in a video game, watch movies continuously, and spend most of your time indoors, you don’t notice the imbedded need for physical movement any longer, or the need for fresh air. The result of a life of ease, is disease.
Nomadic tribal living was hard. People felt the cold, the heat, and they went hungry. But, they also knew the satisfaction of eating their fill after a successful hunt, knew the belonging that comes from hunting and gathering and preparing food together. They knew the power of waiting, they knew their inner and outer strengths. They knew they were responsible for their survival, unlike modern man who is dependent on government interventions and solutions when storms strike and floods the back forty and the home. Don't take me wrong I'm not against systems that protect and help, but I don't like the one that make people helpless. Modern man can only control the cost of his/her grocery bill and supplies he/she needs to build a home by making do with less, not by growing more food or finding his building supplies in nature. Not very empowering.
Listen to your DNA
We’ve spun out in our developed society in a wish to protect, provide, and ease the life of people. By doing so, we’ve taken away valuable self governance. We’ve taken away the ability to listen to oneself, to honor the need for movement, for living with the seasons, for taking care of self. In this new year I wish you an increased ability to listen deeply to what your body and mind need, so you can stay healthy and connected with nature.
I went for a walk today. It wasn’t a planned outing; just a step-out-of-the-door and see where my legs would take me walk. The prior day’s snowhike had left me stiff and ungainly when I started out. I discovered a new trail, ended up trudging through snow and mud and had walked 5 miles by the time I came home. I got thirsty because I didn’t bring water; I could’ve used my micro spikes on the slick snow and a walking pole, but I enjoyed myself discovering the foothills where I live. The more I walked, the easier my body moved and I came home with a hungry body and a satisfied mind. I got a taste of my DNA infused need for movement and exploration. I found I can take care of myself on difficult terrain and I can handle being thirsty for some time without losing my zest for exploration.
I’m not eager to travel, not yet. I’m fine with walking the foothills and skiing a snowy track nearby. But promises to myself and family ties are calling and I’m planning trips several months from now. When the spring and summer arrive, I’ll be ready to take myself on a nomadic journey, finding my connection to the big realm. I hope you can do the same.
The Holiday Stretch
Are you in limbo? Are you waiting for that darkest day, so that you can reach for the next day, the next year, more light, and new possibilities? Maybe, you are too stressed because of holiday preparations to notice the days are getting shorter. After all, putting lights up is an antidote to darkness.
Birth and Death
The poet David Whyte said in a recent gathering, “We’re stretched between our first breath and our last one. When you take that first painful breath, everyone around you laughs; when you take your last one, everyone around you cries.”
We’re somewhere between that first breath and the last one. We’re propelled forward by the tension that exists between growing up and growing old. Each breath is an expression of that tension. The inhalation pushes the lung walls and diaphragm; the exhalation lets everything relax. We can’t stay in the state of relaxation or we won’t get enough oxygen and we’ll die. We need tension to live.
Living is Tension
It’s difficult to ignore the patterns of the seasons. It’s difficult to ignore major holidays unless you retreat to a place where media doesn’t reach you, where you don’t have to go shopping for your daily needs. If you decide to forget the whole hoopla of holiday celebrations while living in a western society, you will feel different because of what you’re not doing and what others are doing. Tension, again.
Let’s not even talk about the tension that results from participating in the holiday, traveling to see family, hosting family, holiday parties, holiday relationships, holiday gifts. you just filled up the time of year that calls for less, because nature rests in the northern hemisphere, with more, a lot more! It can be a tense time.
Keeping it Simple
I’ve been simplifying my life. Less stuff, a smaller home, fewer responsibilities. I opened up the one box with Christmas stuff I moved to this new, simpler life, and it’s like opening a box of Pandora. As the items go through my fingers, I recall memories of Christmas past. I pause and test the little lights and before I know it, I’m decorating. A few lights here, a few glittering balls there. Oh, where did I put the extensions cords, the timer for the lights? I filled 3 days with creating a small holiday world. I shopped for ingredients to do some holiday baking; I’m inviting a few people to help bridge the longest, darkest night of the year. The deep rest of winter just got busy.
Why can’t we rest? Why can't we hang in the deepest part of the out-breath? What is that need to fill up our time, light up the dark corners, fill our mouths and minds with delectables? Why do we create stress?
Nature knows how to rest. The tree sap stops rising, the seeds fall and dry out, colors fade, animals burrow, sleep more and use their body fat for survival.
I walked a long walk in the short winter hours of sunshine. I looked at the trees, standing quietly. They wait for the temperature to change, when the sap will rise and the busy-ness of growth, making new leaves or needles starts again. I want to learn from the trees. It will serve me. I will use the shortest days to be still, sleep more, walk less and eat less. I will leave the holiday exercise challenges I’ve signed up for behind, leave my worries that I’ll become out of shape on my cushion, let my body become slower, stiffer. For a while. I know that as the days lengthen, my energy will rise again, and I will resume the task of growing food, traveling to loved ones, and doing another season.
Stretched between Points
I’m somewhere between my first breath and my last. I’m somewhere between these two points in a cycle that I call my life. I’m stretched between points that are connected with thousands of breaths, millions of moments, rising and falling, balancing between the high and the low points, connecting the points at each end with a beautiful wave.
Life is an amazing process. I want to take time to be and sit in awe. I put the half empty Christmas box in the spare room. The handmade and wooden ornaments won’t hang on a tree this season. A few lights, a few glittering balls on the Chamisa bushes outside will do. The golden balls sparkle against the blond, dried-up flowers on the bush in the daylight. The yellow lights give the bush an outline in the dark of the night. I’m at peace with this simplicity. I hope you’ll find your balance point, somewhere between the highs and lows, and rest awhile.
Comments are always welcome!
Politics Big and Small
We’re in midterm elections in the US. Unless you were holed up, cut off from media, they have bombarded you with polling forecasts, predictions of potential violence, voter turnouts and the aftermath you can expect if the balance of the current governmental power changes.
The world is watching. A friend in my native country Holland told me the Dutch are curious to see what will happen in a country with big politics. The political and racist violence that takes place in the USA astounds them; they cannot imagine the vast divide with which we’re living. Easy to say when you live in a small, social-democratic (scale does matter!) country with good economic and political relations with big brothers on all sides. “Do you not have extreme views over there”, I ask, reminding my friend of the influx of immigrants and migrants with different values. “Yes”, she says, “a political party with very conservative views is growing, but they don’t have guns. They shoot with words and slogans.”
What Works and What Doesn't Anymore
When I was in Holland last year, I read a news article about the new annual budget in the Netherlands. I hail from a long line of people who believe in social democracy. That means we take care of the underdogs and share what we have. These beliefs seem to be challenged in this social-democratic country. People with high incomes (the top 10%) pay 61% of their income in taxes to support the system. Health care with a growing and longer living population is taking up 40% of the budget. Education is absorbing another 30%; that leaves 30% for other expenses. Not enough to take care of roads, increased public transportation, military, the King’s new work quarters, and let alone nature reserves. That happens when you give the population the right to entitlements. I realize that the more we take care of the underdog, the longer the underdogs live, producing more underdogs, driving us to a zero income state. A thriving economy is needed to relieve economic suffering. Some say the income gap between rich and poor is a good thing. It drives the economy. Does this start to sound like Ayn Rand is talking?
When Goodness Fails
What happened? When I was a child and a young adult, the political system provided stability. Now that system doesn’t seem to be working any longer. The Dutch are suffocating in their own “goodness”. Left leaning politicians in the USA want a societal system similar to the Dutch and Northern European countries . This may not be the solution to our problems as the global dynamics of migration, climate change, and universal rapid access to information, upset the accepted norms.
There is a deer problem in Ashland Oregon. It is a bear problem in Tahoe City. In Africa the problem is elephants. Increased population encroaches on the wilder places in this world. The animals migrate into people's territories. Global migration toward the wealthier countries caused by war, economics and climate change is a similar problem. In small town Ashland the deer roam streets and alleys. People’s gardens provide delicious and easy accessible munchies. Can anyone blame the deer for coming out of the drought stricken hills, and take up residence in the empty lots around town? People can’t shoot them; and you can’t charge the deer rent. The ordinance says don’t feed the deer. But aren’t the gardens a way of feeding the deer? To have produce and flowers people must build fences. When I lived there, I wanted my peas and tomatoes to feed myself. How does this all translate to big politics? So much for my humanitarian outlook on sharing.
Hanging in the Balance
It’s easy to disturb a delicate balance. Disturbing the balance of nature has harsh consequences, both for the climate, but also for politics There are forces greater than us that will create a new balance. We, as humans, are lousy at doing that. My neighbor is driving a big loader tractor, scraping his mesa property bare. What will happen with the soil when it rains and snows? Mud run off into my yard? What happens when the sun destroys the soil's microbes and invasive species take root? Can you see the parallel with the big imbalances in our world?
It’s midterm voting in America. In the next few days the vote will give us answers to our questions. Will people care enough about each other to drown out the extremists, and vote for a moderate ticket? Will the outcome of the vote make a difference for the have-nots? Make a difference for the planet? Enormous forces are at work. I wonder if my changing views on politics will only add to the chaos.
It’s a soft voice, insistent, swirling in my brain like mists on a morning hike after a rainy night. The soundless voice is chilling. I’m alone. The nights here are dark and people are strangers. The world around me seems bigger when darkness comes. Will that bigness pull me into that dark vortex? Last night I flipped on the porch light. The sky became even darker in contrast. A coyote howled on the mesa. Do coyotes howl to express their fear? My fear is a sensation. My chest is tight, my skull prickles. If I relax, the words may come.
A Dark Night for my soul
This isn't the beginning of a horror story. Even though the dark night before All Souls Day, is soon here, I don’t have a display of pumpkin, mums and ghost lights on my portal. My front yard right off the portal is a disaster zone with empty concrete bags, coffee cup lids and Lacroix cans strewn around among tools left out as a courtyard wall is taking shape. A wall to keep out intruders? No, I don’t carry that fear. A wall to protect plants more delicate than sage brush from harsh, cold spring winds, offer some shade from the intense sunlight. The workers come and go as they please. An air of a local culture of living in the moment, and responding to daily situations at home (trucks break down, the road is muddy, I don’t feel like working today). Weather adds a separate unpredictable dimension. The workers are messy in their operations, but the wall looks good. They know how to stucco. I have no control over this project any more. The voice in my head says, they’re stretching things out. They’re robbing you of your privileged white-woman money. Mind spinning tales of fear.
Fear of Belonging
Since I’ve moved to a new state, a strange environment, the voice of fear swirls in my brain. What if I don’t belong here? What if I don’t find people with similar values? What if living near family is not what it’s trumped up to be? I step out, join groups, meet people. Time is my enemy. It takes time to build trust, develop relationships that can stand the difficulties of a fast-paced, always changing world. If I stop reaching out, will anyone look for me, reach out? The phantom of aloneness hands me my tricky thoughts of fear.
The Great Rift
When I arrived in Taos six months ago, I saw the mesa embraced by the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Pueblo Mountain rising in the center of the stretched-out arms like a heart, a bosom from which generosity flows, the Rio Pueblo river cascading to the Rio Grande, below which lies the great rift, the crack in the earth, a doorway to the underworld. The land looked like a woman lying on her back, welcoming me. The river is her lifegiving voice. The crack in the earth is the door to the (under) world of this planet. I’m nearing the time in my life of transition to another world. I don’t fear that transition. The Rio Grande rift is my reminder of what’s coming.
Fear of Others
It’s not in my bones to sit and wait for things to come. I move, I do, I use my brain. My fears rise when I meet my aloneness in the dark of night, when I feel my vulnerability as winds fly, am reminded of my white privileged status when I meet the others who are not so protected: the ones who are carving out a life on the mesa where land is cheap, water absent, roads are dirt and mud; the ones who live on pueblo land and want to protect their ways and values that rely on spirit and intuition. The spirit of land and sky, and an intuition that won’t fit white men’s regulations.
An Era of Fear
We live in an era of fear. Politics of fear create division and mistrust. A war full of fear and uncertainty tears apart the world. Those who have been cornered, flee or fight. Hunger and homelessness numbs resistance to policies and terrorism that rob people of their human dignity. The privileged in fear of the tsunami of disasters, violence, and criminality, bar themselves behind the walls of their homes, their gated communities, in privileged neighborhoods.
We don’t need Halloween to tickle our fears. Many refugees already have their fears; not just fear appropriate for a Halloween holiday, but gutwrenching fear while waiting to see if they’re welcome in a new land where they don’t speak the language, don’t know the values. Fears of climate change and aging propelled me to make my move. Can I belong in a small community where the poor rely on the rich while resenting them at the same time; where the educated need the natives to teach them how to survive on the land since they themselves have robbed the land in their pursuit of profit. I must wait to see if trusting my intuition that said, “move to a place where spirit will shake your certainties, will help you grow, where family wants to be community”, was a good choice. While waiting, I’m building a wall, cover my vegetable plot and make a small greenhouse; I stack extra firewood.
Time to be Still
The wood in the Kiva is turning into coals. The bread loaves finished baking and rest on the counter. Pear butter waits on the stove to be put in jars. the season of being inside is around the corner. As the natives say: “it’s the time of being still; the time when mother Earth sleeps”. Outside, the wind has blown the rain clouds away, the sun is out, evaporating the mists of fear. Time for a quiet walk.
My Season is Changing
Today is a gray, rainy day in Northern New Mexico. I expect the sun to peek out later in the afternoon; it seems, she always makes an appearance once a day. Living here, the sun has taken a primary place in my life.
My Friend the Sun
The sun is my loyal friend. I rely on her to lift my mood, greet me early through my bedroom window, and tell me “time to get up; no more lazing around!” Today I have to motivate myself to do something with my day. Living the life of a retiree, it’s easy to slip into puttering around the house, ordering things that don’t need ordering, scrolling social media and news for a dopamine drip, streaming and listening to my favorite radio station 1800 miles away. Yes, there’s local culture, but technology has given me regular, reliable access to friends across the world, access to world renowned programming for entertainment and news. A high-tech shopping industry and UPS or FedEx delivery energy bunnies deliver products I can’t get in this remote part of New Mexico.It doesn’t matter anymore where you live, products you want are available.
What we can and can't control
Except the weather. The weather still has autonomy. Corporate greed doesn’t control it, the privileged can’t shun the weather. Yes, if you can afford it, you can move to a mild climate where housing is expensive and gated communities offer safety from the less privileged. But, the weather isn’t what it used to be. For the last 50 years, we’ve sent so many CFT’s and CO2 into the atmosphere that things are changing. Weather doesn’t care, it does what it must as temperatures rise in the oceans, causing winds to gather unparalleled strength as we just saw in Florida, bringing unexpected moisture even to this high desert land. We know that hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, tsunamis, and flooding do not care if you’re rich and privileged, or poor and living marginally. Weather is the great equalizer.
The sunny side of the weather and I have become fast friends. In midlife, I discovered that my moods in winter had a name: Seasonal Affect Disorder or SAD syndrome. I learned that sun exposure made me a happier, more energetic person. I seek the sun and she gives me jolts of happiness as I walk in the outdoors and receive her gift.
Creating a day
Today I am in charge of my mood. My healthy body had to answer the call of nature and got me out of bed in the grey morning. My long-time daily meditation practice routine put me on my cushion; while I worked on focusing, my mood lifted while I emptied my mind. A cup of black tea followed; it gave me energy for puttering. I fixed the heater in my workout room (it just took new batteries to get things going!). Happy with my success I did a strength-workout while streaming news from afar. Social media check afterward sent me friendly comments from Facebook friends. While it was still raining, I grabbed a ripe avocado and made avocado toast for breakfast, feeling very California “hip” and satisfied. I want to write, was my next thought. The season is changing, my writing season is here.
My New Season
Writing makes me happy. Like hiking and climbing mountains, writing is type2 fun. You must effort, overcome frustration, admit mistakes, re-do, until you stand on top of the mountain, or the skyline view, a glittering lake, a splash of golden Aspen awe you. You rejoice and feel good in your body. Writing does the same thing for me. I reach deep inside instead of outside. I discover, I am renewed after spending time in a state of “flow”. Flow is a measurable dopamine experience in the brain.
So here is my morning blog for you, my reader. I hope you will take charge of your mood, find what gives you energy, makes you happy. I can see snow on top of Mt Wheeler where I climbed last weekend! The grey sky to the east is getting lighter, the rain has slowed to a drip. The sun is burning the clouds that hang over the Pecoris mountains. I bet she’ll show her face soon. An energizer FedEx angel just delivered and helped carry my new, heavy, adjustable craft/sewing/painting table in the box into my studio, so I can put it together. More creativity awaits! Autumn and winter can come. I’m ready to switch between sunny and grey days and keep my mood from plummeting.
What's the Buzz?
It is day 11 of the meditation retreat I'm attending. I’m sitting on my cushion. Mid morning after breakfast, my energy is still strong and I’m intent on staying focused on breathing and body sensations. Yes, there’s still a desire to enter that effortless state when the boundaries between body experience and mind dissolve and I can enter a state of absorption that feels very much like being in the moment forever. Ah, goals of meditation, the traps of the mind!
The day has warmed up already, and as I did my morning walking meditation in shorts, I sit with bare knees and lower legs. My breathing becomes regular and my attention deepens. Thoughts are fleeting. Yes, there are always thoughts, I think. Isn’t that the point, to notice the thoughts and let them go? Back to the breath, the body.
The fly lands on my knee, crawls around, flies away. Lands again and walks around my knee. I swat at it and it leaves me alone. For a little while anyway, then the fly is back. My attention is now fully on the fly, not on my breath, but on the tickling sensations the fly is causing. Tickling, tickling. How long can I stand it? The fly leaves, restless being that it is. I’ve taken a vow not to kill during this retreat. Maybe I can catch it, maybe I can cover up and not give it attention. I put a shawl over my knees and for a little while, the fly comes and goes and walks around on my clothes. I open my eyes, see the fly sitting on the shawl, slowly move my hand to cup the fly. No luck, the fly escapes. I wait for it to land again, try again; escape artist, that he is. Since the fly is a living being, maybe if I repeat my loving kindness phrases, the fly will calm down and sit somewhere quietly.
The fly lands on my face. Sensation galore! This is too much! I will have to hide from George, which I’ve named this being by now. I pull the shawl over my head, covering my hands and knees and face, with just a little breathing opening. Thoughts of the flies during my first meditation retreat in India float through. Thoughts about the women pulling their saris over their heads. I go off on a tangent of thoughts about head dresses in the Afghan desert. Are all these turbans a way to keep the flies off your face? Back to breathing, back to body sensation, I remind myself. Heat under the shawl, sweat dripping down my face. I observe, I react, not liking what I experience. George finds his way into the crack of my shawl and walks around on my cheek. Well, if it’s going to be like this, then I might as well take the shawl off my head and cool down! I readjust, check my watch, 25 minutes to go to th end of this session. George is gone, it seems, maybe, maybe? I observe my breath, body sensations calm down. I focus.
Soon George is back, on my left cheek, on my eye, my eyelashes. I experience less reactivity, I can handle the eyelashes twitching. George walks along my eyelid and enters the corner of my eye. George stops moving, George stays, I observe and wonder how long?
George doesn’t move. What is it about the corner of my eye? Is he drinking from my eye, bathing in the eye liquid? Has he been thirsty, flying around in my house for the last 2 days? Thoughts keep coming, but at least I’m not swatting, reacting, hating this creature. I’m calm, I’m focused on George. Then I have a thought: maybe I can cup my eye with my hand and catch George before he can fly out of the cavity. Slowly, I move my hand. George is still sitting in the corner, inebriated. Lightly, I bring my hand down. I cup the corner of my eye. George flies up, but his wing is under my hand. I’ve caught George!! Slowly I get up, holding my hand over my eye socket, walk outside and let George fly away. I return to my cushion to finish the session.
I didn’t kill; I kept a kind attitude; I stayed even-handed. I focused on the sensations at hand and deepened my understanding of what meditation is about. Sometimes insight is delivered by a fly. The 36 Buddhas on the thanka in my meditation corner would make an affirmative hand sign if they could.
P.S., I’ve been quick with opening and closing the front door and keeping the flies outside. One session with George is enough.
Puzzling the PCT together
Veering away from the Tuolumne river, I have only 2 miles left to walk in the forest with duff underfoot. 1:00 PM, I know I will finish barring some extraordinary event. My legs move like a machine, left, right, left right. Swinging my arms, I pole my hiking sticks in rhythm. My breathing is easy. Yet, I feel a bone tiredness deep inside.
All Things Change
Is it my body? Is it my mind? Elation I’ve felt in the last 3 weeks passing through jaw-dropping beauty, cheered on by a super wildflower bloom, up and down rugged passes, has left me. The forest, once a refuge and comrade, is now just a bunch of trees providing shade as I move along. The white granite rocks lining the path in tribal-like groupings, once a delight to touch, rock to lay my body on, are a sprinkling of stones strewn around by an otherworldly force no longer holding me in awe. My last moment with nature was 15 minutes ago, sitting at the bank of the Tuolumne river as it glided over these massive stones toward somewhere unknown, telling me that everything passes. Telling me that all these moments on the trail pass.
Reaching the Goal
In an hour, I will have hiked 2650 Miles on this trail, year after year in periods of two to five weeks. An hour from now, I can say that I finished hiking the whole Pacific Crest Trail. A goal I set myself 3 years ago as finishing became a possibility if I kept my health, if I could keep up the training, and if I could hold on to the desire.
Teachings on the Trail
Every year when I hiked a section, the trail taught me something profound. I like profound. I reach for experiences that are transformative. This deepens living. I learned I was not afraid of being alone in Big Nature. I felt connected and free. I learned I can hike with pain and still appreciate my body as it moves through this world. People want to be helpful if you ask. Otherworldly forces in high altitude places got my attention; forces that protected me, forces that guided me, that told me what was in my future. Forces I don’t understand, but certainly can’t ignore. There is more to life than meets the eye. The mystery of life is a thing.
I found out my body and mind can do a lot more than I expected. When a difficult climb looms, my body obeys my mind and works together in rhythm with my breathing beyond the point when I feel it’s been enough but when I’m still not at the top, as long as I remember to just put one foot in front of the other, take breaks at regular intervals and feed myself the fuel this body need. It’s a simple formula for living.
Only 2 more miles. Day hikers pass me going out on the trail, excited, looking for adventure. I’ve lost interest. My mind is done. My body needs a rest. I walk on till I get to the end point of this section, Tuolumne Meadows, store, stables, parking lot, people milling around.
“Congrats, amazing, well done!” The words spill over me. Our support person hands me a leis of marigolds; a friend gives me a gift, a puzzle of the PCT. I can go home and put the pieces of the puzzle together on long winter days, she says, relive the places I’ve been.
The Hiking Puzzle
Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is like solving a puzzle, with many, many pieces. Pieces of life, opportunities, purpose. Mental pieces of wishes, grief, elation, wanting to get lost. Social pieces of needing connection. Hiking the PCT is living a life within a life. Separate from normal day-to-day living, hiking the PCT provides an alternative for living, a simplified form that enhances awareness and teaches skills we’ve lost in our comfort-rich environments. “Back to Nature” is exactly that, a return to original being, a stripped-down version of living, with only your mind, the environment and people you meet to entertain and support you ( I don’t listen to music or podcasts when I hike).
Finding and organizing the pieces is a big part of putting a puzzle together. The obvious pieces of miles to be hiked, accessible places for entry and exit that will mark the sections, get laid down first. The not so obvious ones as meeting just the right person who becomes a friend or support on the way, or turns into a friend for life, form the connecting piece to other parts and sections you still need to sort out. The pieces that spell the right gear, gear that supports and doesn’t weigh you down, make or break the puzzle. A lightweight tent that keeps you dry in a downpour, a sleeping bag that keeps you warm on freezing nights; shoes or boots that support your feet to walk all those 2650 miles without being heavy, without cramping your style and your toes. These are the pieces you find slowly and sometimes painfully through experience. Food and getting food are ongoing pieces of the puzzle, the pieces that fill the holes in the hiking puzzle, that provide the energy to keep going on a tough day; that keep your body hiking, day after day, all day, carrying a 30-pound pack. You have to figure out what kind of food works for the body you have been given as you hike.
The hike is done, the goal reached. The puzzle is complete. Or not? Are there pieces I haven’t discovered yet, the aftermath, the pieces of how this "life within a life" affects my future, my outlook on life?
I will hang up the pack that traveled with me for 2650 miles. I no longer want to carry a heavy pack. My body is asking to go lighter, not to have to work so hard. I’m listening and obeying. I trust my body to tell me what it needs.
I’m not done living, but I’m ready to live lighter and use the things I learned from hiking the PCT. Even though the trail seemed endless when I hiked day after day, there is an end to it. So it is with life. The yearly section, the daily mileage hiked, done with vigor, with presence of what happens in the moment, each step, every mountain top, river crossing, meadow view and desert wasteland adds up to a hike I can look back on with pleasure and gratefulness. I hope I will live out my life the same way.