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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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Earthquakes, hurricanes and fires, are shaking and burning our world. The biggest storm flattening the USA however, is the current administration. What to do when the world-as-you-know-it, is coming to an end? I’ve been thinking about this predicament, because it’s happening.
I have found signing on-line petitions, holding signs in front of a library, financially supporting organizations that fight the political fight for us, dissatisfying.
“We must resist,” they say. “Really?” I say. You can’t “resist” an earthquake, a hurricane, a wild fire. The Jews couldn’t “resist” the Nazi regime. Neither are you “resisting” the current administration. Read “Stones from the River”, by Ursula Hegi and tell me again if you’re not one of those citizens who just walked along with what was happening, their speaking-out reduced to a whisper, a stone-faced silence while the “others” were hauled away.
What can I do while the world around me is burning up, blowing away, shaking on its foundations? Can I make a difference?
I’ve come up with a short answer: Live a responsive life.
To live a responsive life, you have to be able to respond to changing circumstances. Easier said than done. Here are some ways you can become more “responsive”.
The current administration can’t take away my desire for living. Natural disasters can’t squelch my joy in the experience of nature. A new world order can’t erase the survival skills I’ve gathered over a lifetime, deny my community building experiences. I can lose my home, but with help I can rebuild, the earth can be scorched, but plant life will come back. My money may become worthless, but I can make and grow things I need. I can walk, meet people and embrace them, travel to a different part of the world and start over again. If that happens, it will be true transformation travel!
Smoke is in the air everywhere, from hazardous to moderate on the air quality scale. Everyone is waiting for the rains to give us back the fresh air we depend on for our health. But the rains will not give us back our forests. Or will they?
I have hiked for days in Oregon through areas of burned forest, called snag forests, lamenting the loss of green trees, the endless sticks on the horizon, the small size of evergreens even five years after a fire. How much evergreen forest will we lose this year? Climate change doesn’t look good.
Listening to the radio while driving North on I-5 and pondering my options for a fall hike under these smoky conditions, I heard an interview with a wildlife biologist on Community Radio. The radio interviewer mentioned the John Muir project. The name of John Muir always grabs my attention. What did they do this time to preserve the wilderness in his name? “Snag forests are a good thing” the biologist said. A good thing? All those dead trees a good thing? She continued: only 2% of our forests are snag forest and that percentage isn’t enough to provide habitat for a multitude of species who depend on the dead and decaying trees for nesting, depend on the new plant life that erupts after a fire, depend on the food chain provided by insects, small and larger critters who live in hollow trees and under decaying wood, who bore in the dry wood, and eat the beetles who lay their eggs in the boring tunnels.
The current practice of harvesting the snags decreases biodiversity, even with re-planting. The monoculture of re-planting doesn’t provide the environment many plant, bird and small animal species need to survive. A good forest is a messy forest, even though it’s counter intuitive. People like order. But a groomed forest as I experienced walking in Germany, doesn’t allow for the greater diversity a wilderness forest provides.
I listened and it all made sense. Nature takes care of itself if we leave it alone. The enormous wilderness I love can survive these fires, as threatening and devastating as they may seem. I learned from this interview that green trees burn hotter than dead trees and allow fires to spread faster. Patches of snag forests halt wild fires or at least slow them down.
The Jan 2003 issue of Science published a research paper by graduate student Dan Donato. Dan made a case against the efficacy of post wildfire logging, and quoted his research of the Biscuit Fire in Oregon. Sarah Gilman in an article on the value of post fire logging in the High Country news, Feb 2006, says: “The new study is part of a growing body of literature that questions the ecological value of post-fire logging. Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist with the World Wildlife Fund, says that there is an emerging consensus among scientists that logging burned areas can exacerbate soil damage and erosion, harm waterways, increase fire danger, and hinder natural forest recovery by killing seedlings. More importantly, it removes the big dead trees that contribute to habitat diversity and critical forest processes such as nutrient cycling.”
What You Can Do
The current forest practices haven’t caught up with the new science and snag forests in the Sierras are still being harvested. It is important that the new science gets out there, that new forest management policies are created. We can help by spreading the word, by writing to our representatives, and by sharing the information about a film the John Muir project supports, “Searching for Gold Spot, the Wild after Wildfire”, an Indie movie which documents the science of snag forests and the rare black backed woodpeckers. This movie will debut at the Monterey Birdwatchers festival September 23. https://www.facebook.com/Searching-for-Gold-Spot-Black-backed-woodpeckers-the-Wild-After-Wildfire-1676889475900932/?hc_ref=ARQZcZlatACRz4ENvLRzCqc9JIeBK72MeSnZYAt0REjEatIX-05-UeuYjy0YbLe0iAA&fref=nf
You can watch a trailer of the movie on U-tube to get you enthused.
This is not a movie to save a rare bird. This is a movie to help us understand how wildfire is a good and necessary part of the big cycle of natural change.
To know this helped me overcome my dread and despair in this smoky part of summer. I look forward to seeing rare bird species and appreciate the large cycle of life, when next I hike through a snag forest. I will let my representatives know what needs to be done with our forests. You can too!
Something is wrong when groups that want to deport and even kill people we’ve encouraged to enter our country, may organize and express their hatred.
Our constitution doesn’t say, it’s OK to threaten people as part of expressing beliefs and opinions, it doesn’t say, it’s OK to organize a militia in times of peace. We are a country that opened its arms and said: “Give me your hungry, give me your poor…”.
Perspective: I worked in a youth prison for 15 years. I met the downtrodden, the poor, the unprivileged, the throwaway kids. They were black, brown, yellow and white. They all had a story of misfortune, abuse, the “wrong” cards dealt in life. The story of 18 foster home placements by the time you’re 9 years old; or being “saved” by a grandfather at 14, who molests your younger sister after he brings you and her to this country from Mexico (illegally), after your mother is murdered. The story of having to steal food for survival because your Vietnam Vet father is too drunk to care and your Vietnamese mother can’t take being beat up anymore and leaves you and your younger brother with your father. The story of being an adopted drug baby, who doesn’t, will not have the brain power to make good decisions, and is urged to go to church to be “saved” from sins. The story of surviving in an unheated, leaking trailer with your 3 younger siblings for 6 months on a deserted piece of property, while mom lives in town with her boyfriend high on meth, and nobody notifies social services until you get caught stealing.
Privilege: These stories don’t belong to color of skin, these stories belong to children who don’t have a chance in a society, called the land of the “free”, where you have to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Equality means nothing when you don’t have the means, the brainpower, the support you need to grow into a well-adjusted adult. Privilege means support, a functioning brain, the basics of food, shelter and education.
Power: Once in a while I’d get a Neo-Nazi kid on my unit. He’d (I worked with young men) tell me about his father, his father’s friends, the meetings, the weapons they were collecting, the skinhead tattoo symbols imprinted on their bodies forever. I’d ask, “Look around, are you better than them?” He couldn’t let himself think it, it meant no longer belonging to the only group he belonged to, and he stuck to his guns, pun intended.
Everyone needs a group to belong to. If you don’t get a good family, if your community is riddled with gangs, drug users and dealers, you do the only thing available to you, you adopt the group that will take you in. In prison it means the most prevalent gang representation on your unit because they’ll have your back when mayhem breaks out in a late night uprising in your sleeping quarters. In the outside world, it means whatever group will take you in, feed you and give you a purpose, be it doing the “work” of beating up the rivals, or learning to shoot a gun for when the big takeover will take place.
What do we do?
In prison it was forbidden to draw Swastika signs, to expose hate tattoos (if they had them they had to cover up, or get them removed), to shave their heads, to wear markings of a gang or violent, homophobic organization. Any expression of hatred and bigotry had consequences, meant counseling, could mean temporary isolation until the offender engaged in counseling. In prison, someone in charge made rules to reduce hate and create equality among inmates.
In 2017 we have a president who divides, waffles between encouraging violence and expressing a desire for a peaceful society. We have a president who takes away privilege with the executive orders he signs.
We, the privileged, cannot let this happen. We the people need to use our voting power to put someone in charge who turns this tide. Get out there; do the canvassing; talk with people who have a disenfranchised story to tell. Develop perspective and listen. Give them opportunity to belong to a healthier society.
“I told the students [….] that places were more reliable than human beings, and often much longer-lasting, and I asked them where they felt at home.”
― Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
The flat open valley floor meets the mountains on the horizon both west and east and greets me with waving grasses, shows me rock formations that call out for climbing and standing on the look-out. The valley hides wet indentations where horses, grazing cattle, rabbits and deer quench their thirst. Light streaking from either side colors the grass, green in spring, yellow in summer and brown with snow tufts in winter. This place screams openness, emptiness, possibility. I love this place. Towering over this valley to the South sits Mt Shasta.
This summer I walked 14 days on the Pacific Crest Trail in a wide arc around this mountain, the tallest one (14,610 ft) of the Cascade range in Northern California, 50 miles south of the Oregon border. I walked with the spirit of the mountain as you might say, as she - I think of her as feminine, maybe because she is so accessible in a landscape of tree-covered ridges and grassy valleys - showed her white self on every ridge I climbed, and through openings in the woods where I hiked. The local Karuk Indians call Mt Shasta, Úytaahkoo, which translates to “White Mountain”.
On my two-week hike I encountered steep snowfields. Shasta mountain gave me back memories of climbing her steep sides and I remembered the techniques I needed to traverse what was in front of me. When the trail became confusing, the mountain helped me orient myself. When the sun was blazing on the ridge, Shasta looked at me from beyond the ridge with a cool white eye, reminding me that “this too will pass”. When I dunked my sweaty body in the glacier-melt McCloud river, I thanked the mountain’s year round snow cap, providing coolness. Mt Shasta is the epicenter, the umbilical cord of what I call “my place”. A place I chose after wandering around the planet for the first trimester of my life. A place where I raised a family. A place where I found community.
Why this place? Does the mountain have “a spirit” as the Karuk say? Does she call the ones to get to know her spirit? When it was time to choose a place for my family, I chose this place with a statistical approach, listing and rating the things I thought we wanted and needed. I thought myself smart and conscious in doing so. I didn’t know whatever place you choose doesn’t become “your” place until you spend time, shed sweat and tears, accept its good and bad, and slowly form a relationship that enters your bones. It took time to discover that Mt Shasta is the epicenter of the place I call home. I have walked this place when I felt overwhelmed, when I was distraught; I have walked when I was curious, in love, happy and hopeless.
I have walked and by walking I always find myself again, find the heart of what moves me forward in life. As I walk, breathe and carry, my life is reduced to the basics of living at two miles an hour at the base of a mountain that has spewed out the terrain I walk on. A mountain that supports plant and animal life with rivers that flow from her snowy peaks, a mountain that calls the rain and snow to her. I meet Mt. Shasta when I move about this place. I’m a visually oriented person; the mountains, vistas and light of this place bind me. Walking brings me to myself and walking around this mountain gives me a sense of place, my place.
For you, it maybe different. You may find your place because of the sounds, the smells, the food, or its people. Walk and meet the spirit of the place you can call yours!
My legs felt rubbery, and they were harder to lift over the rocks and unevenness of the trail. I missed the swinging rhythm of early morning hiking that always accompanies the coolness of the air, the soft yellow sunlight as it peers through the trees, and dances on the shrubs along the trail. It had been over twelve hours since I last had quenched my thirst to satisfaction. Last night when we found that the indicated water source on our GPS at mile 1519 of the PCT before our evening camp was inaccessible due to a steep snow bank, we had one liter of water between the two of us, given to us by a generous hiker going in the opposite direction. One liter to cook dinner with, re-hydrate through the night and walk the 5 miles to the next water source the next morning. Too tired to hike any further from a long day climbing uphill we made camp and used water sparingly to prepare our food. It was unusually warm that night as we camped on the ridge with sweeping views of Mt Scott to the North-East, the Trinities to the South and a glimpse of Castle Crags to the East. I slept fitfully, waking up sweaty multiple times. Take only a small sip at a time, I told myself, you need to save the water for walking.
Morning came early, we skipped our usual cup of tea and started out at 6:20 AM, one cup of water sloshing in a too big water bottle. What is it like to be thirsty, and walk while carrying a backpack? The interesting thing was that I could forget hunger while I hiked; in fact hiking reduces my hunger until I stop and rest. Being active didn’t make me forget that I was thirsty; expansive views didn’t take my mind of the tangy dry sensation in my mouth; focusing on placing my feet didn’t take away the rubbery, weak feeling in my legs. Should I take a sip now, or wait another half mile? Could I trick my body in thinking a little water will go a long way? I took another sip, it didn’t change the dryness in my mouth, it didn’t expand my breath into that feeling of “enough-ness” I get when I drink a pint at the end of day near a water source. A cup of water is not enough for 5 miles of hiking.
I hiked on slower, thinking of water rations, how I drink a liter for every 4 miles I hike, thinking about people walking in the desert to find water, the quiet slow submission of the body to heat and exhaustion. We stopped and checked our mileage, 3 miles down, 2 more to go. I saw rocks on the trail, bushes that hamper my progress, I felt the weight of the pack as a slow-down. I saw them as things that keep me from getting to water. I walked, my mind gyrating negatively. Half a cup of water will do that to you.
Distances change when your perception changes. You will become delirious when you’re deprived of water for too long. My perception was still in the normal range, I was aware of what I was thinking, I was letting myself have an experience, an experience of thirst. At mile 1514 a bubbling spring cascading down the rocks in a moist glen was the end of my experiment, which was only a beginning into the realms of thirst. One cup of water in twelve hours will go a long way.
Long distance backpacking isn’t about accomplishing miles for me, it’s about encountering the edges of my comfort zone. It’s about learning what and who I am at the edge. I am a person thirsty for experience, experiences of life that connect me with others and the world. This one cup of water got me a little closer to humans pictured in the requests for donations for hungry desert dwellers in the Sudan. Once cup of water put me on my edge.
Multiple terrorist attacks on innocent people in the last few weeks have shaken the world. In the wry and funny play, Mojada or Medea in Los Angeles, written by resident playwright Luis Alfaro for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a re-write of Euripides tragedy, Medea shakes up the audience. This is theater in its truest sense. The play is set in current time, in LA, among Mexican immigrants with an administration that scorns illegal immigrants. A timely piece you might say. The eery quality is that the story of Jason and Medea produced as a tragedy in 431 BC is relevant in our time. In the original play Jason in search of power, wealth and security for his offspring, forsakes the values of love and loyalty. In a male dominated society the woman treated as a slave or possession has no power but her love, her cunning and her revenge. Each of the main characters in the play ends up being pushed with their back against the wall because of cultural traditions and the Darwinian push for survival of the fittest. Nobody wins.
When I hear working class Trump supporters say on NPR that the Democratic party didn’t listen to them, didn’t help them with their situation and that they support a man who speaks their language, who says he will change things for them for the better, i.e. give them jobs, let them earn money again, I hear Jason in the play (Lakin Valdez) explain to Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela) that he has to say yes to everything his (female!) boss asks of him if he wants to secure a future for his family. Trump supporters, including members of Congress, give up their values and say yes to the orange boss to secure a future for themselves. Saying yes to the boss, is how it’s done in America, both the boss and Jason state in the play.
Do we give up on human values for the sake of progress in America? Many people do and I don’t think this happens only in America, it’s a societal problem Euripides pointed out in 431 BC. This is how it’s done in America, Europe, in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Yemen, in Sudan to name a few societies. Enough abuse of power in any of those places will lead to rage and in current time to terrorism.
For Medea, love had been her ticket out of servitude in her ancestral land Mexico. When her beloved sells his love for her, for advancement in society and a future for his son, all Medea has left is cunning and revenge. She uses it to take everyone down with her. She has nothing to lose and becomes a raging maniac. She kills the female boss and her son taking away everything Jason was betting his future on. When the boss, powerful only because she adhered to ruthless business practices, tries to make Medea go away, she comes up against the rage of what she thought was a subservient woman; she meets the Warrior. Sound familiar?
One terrorist attack after another is the echo of power hunger, of self advancement at the cost of others. The boss who sold out her ancestral values a long time ago, i.e. the corporation, is no longer human in her dealings; Jason in his desire for advancement becomes a tool in the hands of the boss, a corruptible politician, a possession like Medea was in the hands of ancestral culture. As a result Medea, at the end of the power chain, becomes the terrorist who takes down the innocent. Medea’s blood curdling scream at the end of the play is a volcano erupting after the pressure becomes untenable.
There is no simple solution for the dog-eat-dog world. I scorn when I hear Teresa May and Trump both in their offices of power, say regarding the terrorist attacks, “this is unacceptable”. They both need to go back to the farm so to speak and live the ordinary life, like the country’s rulers used to do in the beginning of the American Republic. Our government officials don’t go home enough. The current Washington power heads are removed from everyday living, out of touch.
We have a long road ahead to release the pressure on all the situations where power is abused in our world. Though many of us are working hard to create a compassionate world for all, we will hear many more blood curdling screams on the way.
If you’re tired of resisting and are losing hope for our democracy let me share with you from my travels.
I visited an American cemetery in the south of Holland near the former German and Belgian borders. This piece of history of the allied invasion into German-occupied territory in 1944 preceded me. My existence as I know it now, full of freedom and choice, depended on what happened here. People banned together to fight atrocities, people gave their lives to fight an unacceptable morality of xenophobia and white supremacy. I stand bridging two countries, two continents in shared beliefs and values. The value of all-lives-matter, the value of equality among races, the value of caring for one another, the value of freedom of speech and religion. Without this piece of history, refugees, victims of oppressed regimes, victims of religious fervor, victims of corruption and economic inequality wouldn’t be flocking to this part of the world. A part of the world that has had open arms for the oppressed and persecuted for a half century since WWII. A part of the world that has experienced peace and economic progress through holding high its values of freedom, equality and caring for one another.
The American news of xenophobia, cronyism, corruption, attempts to oppress women’s rights, to restrict voting rights for the underprivileged followed me as I traveled here. A place once freed of these oppressions by the same American people. Or maybe not the same people? Have we changed so much in the last 60 years that we can’t remember? What has changed that a nation of freedom lovers, of generous sharing people have a xenophobic, crony favoring, greedy, oppressor of women’s rights and liberties in charge?
I walked the green isles between white grave markers of different religions. Young men with different beliefs fought next to each other to give freedom and protection to the oppressed. They shared values and are lying next to each other in this cemetery. White clouds, racing overhead, forming and re-forming, told me how fleeting existence is. A large tree, pruned in winter of its new growth stood raising its knotted hands to the sky, waiting for new life to sprout, again and again.
Opposites of belief exist. The last 60 years in this part of the world have shown these opposites can live together and provide safety and peace for society. Will the force of democracy prevail in the tumult over questionable relations with Russia? Despite similar differences of views in Holland and France it seems to be so. Dutch opposing political parties are struggling to form coalitions to govern in parliament and are asking each other, “Can you put your beliefs aside to form governmental strategies and legislation? Can you govern with common humanitarian values in mind?"
We must hang on to democratic principles if we don’t want our world to tumble into the abyss of totalitarianism. We must remember what such regimes have done and why these men laying here in Margaten cemetery, have lost their lives. We must open our eyes to what happens to good people who live in countries under totalitarian rules, people who beg us for protection. As an immigrant to the USA I am keenly aware of the choices given to me and the choice I have made bridging two countries. My travels bring renewed awareness of what can happen if we don’t fight for the values of equality, free speech and religion. If we don’t care for each other. Lets remember and fight the fight for humanitarian values.
Now that Trump has completed his first 100 days in office, I’d love to take him on a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail and show him the Cascade-Siskyou National Monument in Southern Oregon in its spring glory. I want to show him the diversity of trees and flowers (I counted 50 flowering species on a June day!), the ancient geology of a piece of earth that has not been subjected to glacial movements. I want to point to the far vistas of the Cascades to the North, Mt Shasta to the South-east and Mt Ashland to the West. Once Mr Trump experiences the comforting trump-a-thump of his heart, and the relaxed tiredness that sets in after miles of muscle movement, when he inhales the refreshing air, I may yet be able to change his mind on his “review” of the usefulness of our National Monuments.
Of course this isn’t going to happen, you say, he’s too busy playing golf and making “deals”. Well do I have a deal for him! How about an American infrastructure upgrade: building trails! This project will provide plenty of environmentally friendly jobs, it will reduce health costs by improving the workers’ health, diminish the great divide between the left and the right by working in teams. We can have prisoner teams, drug rehab teams, illegal immigrant teams, Wall Street hob-nob lobby teams, Silicon Valley teams, DeVos charter school teams to name a few. In exchange for a week of trail building the prisoners get “good-time” on their sentence, the jobless drug rehab people get to pay the benefits forward and take others on the trail, the illegals get points toward legal status, the Wall street guys get a tax break, Silicon Valley techies get to choose between a tax break and counting the hours as creative time working off-site, the charter school teams will do the math for DeVos on free outdoor education versus voucher paid religious education. We can connect trail heads with public transportation, build more wheel chair accessible trails with money saved on lowered cost of housing prisoners, on fewer drug rehab programs, ICE salaries, lowered expenses in lobbying favors, lowered scientific and tech development costs since studying nature is free on the trail. Americans will walk more, enjoy their country more, and become grateful for the beauty the president makes available to everyone. America will FEEL great again!
But seriously, at this 100 day mark of the president in office, I want to remember all the hikers who have completed their first 100 miles of the PCT. All you walkers and hikers and trail angels are a force that make America Greater all the time. You are an inspiration to the depressed and the stressed, you embrace the veterans, the mentally unstable, the rich and the poor in sharing the trail and supporting all who walk the trail. You teach the children, our future, that there is more to life than collecting stuff. Every step you take on the trail is a step toward a better America, another cheer for our National Monuments. You are the ones who rouse support and build more trails. Walk on!
“But do not ask me where I am going,
As I travel in this limitless world,
Where every step I take is my home.”
As translated in The Zen Poetry of Dōgen : Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace (1997) by Steven Heine, p. 61
I touched the wall!
Before walking North from the Mexican border on the Pacific Crest Trail I wanted to touch the much debated WALL. The corrugated metal pieces rattle in the breeze, the brown and dirty yellow paint match the surroundings of desert sand and rock. Peek holes let me see the other side, more sand, rock and chaparral. It’s an ugly wall, the number three —— a gang sign I recognize from my years of working in juvenile corrections —— hovers above my pack. Who are we to draw this wall in the sand? Who am I, white Northern-European woman, to be living on the freedom side of this wall? A side of the wall where I can walk without fear of being picked up, of being deported? In Tijuana I can even cross this line to the other side, get my teeth fixed at low cost, taking advantage of the lower standard of living on the other side. I have it all, freedom, health, money, a prospering family. I’m here at this border to walk a section of the trail that leads North to the Canadian border, 2650 miles away. I want to meet myself in the desert, the dry, rock strewn chaparral, with displays of naked bushes burned in wild fire, where occasional trees hide in narrow canyons along a flowing creek, or hug a cold ridge at higher elevation, waiting to sprout their leaves. It is spring, a long wet winter has soaked the ground and a great shout of wild flower color and perfume has burst out of the dry, sandy soil, moving North with me. At two miles an hour each day brings a new landscape, different blooms, far vistas of what is to come. Like an illegal crossing the border, I have my one set of clothes. My spare belongings comprise a shelter for the night, a warm sleeping bag, a pad, a small cookstove, water bottles and a filtration system, a warm jacket. I have food for a few days. My basic needs are met. I am the lucky one walking North.
After eight days I arrive at a resource center for travelers, where I can pitch my tent, take a bucket bath with warm water, wash my dusty, dirty clothes, connect with the virtual world via a free WiFi connection. The Resource Center in Warner Springs is a refuge for hikers. Hikers are the refugees of a fast moving, stress full world. For some the stress maybe the dangerous risks and abuse of a career, for others the stress maybe modern living that robs them of the connection with nature and natural rhythms. At the resource center volunteers offer free fruit, a hamburger. It is Sunday and many hikers are camped out, waiting for Monday when the post office will open and give them access to a re-supply package. The camp looks like a refugee camp, a temporary haven on a long journey toward personal freedom. People share experiences, talk about how far they are going, the blisters, knee and back pain, the loneliness they feel. They relish the moment of being clean, the ease of sitting in a soft chair for a few hours, the company of fellow hikers for the evening.
Hikers hike their own hike, walking to their own moment of freedom, be it in accomplishing the length of the trail, or in learning to live moment to moment, mile to mile, in sun and wind, cold and heat, at the mercy of the natural forces all around, lifted up by the exposure to the natural beauty, supported by breath and movement and dreamless sleep at the end of each day of physical exertion.
I walk and carry my little load. Dogen Zenji talks about the practice of “home leaving”. I hike my yearly hike and do my practice of home leaving, trying to grasp the 63 possibilities of becoming “awake” in each minute, every 70 steps I take.
This is as close as I’ll ever come to understanding the plight of an illegal immigrant leaving home and walking to a better life, a refugee leaving family and country and walking to freedom and safety. When miles no longer matter, when I recognize that my legs are stronger than my mind on a long uphill, when I know my vulnerability alone in my little tent at night far away from any human contact, I surrender, I come home to the place. I let go of the need to be anywhere else and find my freedom.