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STORIES are everywhere
Are you a walker? I challenge you to find the story of a place. If you find it, it may give you a reason to go on. I found a story as I walked with a group of women on a walking trail in a nearby town. It was a Sunday and near a parking lot the Compassion Highway Project (CHP) was setting up to distribute food and clothing for the homeless. A long line of people, in their twenties and thirties waited patiently. We walked by with our bags full of trash picked up that morning along the walking trail where many of them live. When you’re homeless, you don’t have a trashcan. A man and woman passed us. They smelled and were as dirty as long distance hikers after three weeks on the trail without washing. I wondered when this man and woman would get their next shower, a roof over their head, a bathroom to use? Remembering my long dusty summer hikes, I thought, we all are just one or two major circumstances away from homelessness
My story could end here, a story about compassion and caring for the homeless.
But the story doesn’t end. As we walked along the creek glittering in the late winter sun, Canadian geese rose from the water and flew up to the sky only to land again 10 feet further along the bank. In the Rogue Valley where I live, the Canadian geese don’t migrate. The geese find enough open water and food to stay and survive. They’re called resident Canadian geese. Like the resident geese population, the homeless population has exploded along the greenway that runs north along Bear Creek in our valley. It doesn’t get dangerously cold here in the winter, and every Sunday the CHP distributes free food under the overpass near the creek. Why leave when they hand free food out and you can find shelter in nature? Along the riverbed they erect shanty structures made of plastic and cardboard, a tent here and there, and even a plastic teepee made with poles from the abundant trees that grow along the creek. The teepee has vines growing on its side and an umbrella above the smoke hole to keep out rain. Smoke is rising, it must be warm in the teepee. Along the creek the walkway is littered with garbage, food and drink containers, medical packaging, including needles, and an abandoned shopping cart here and there. Canadian geese can be a nuisance as they produce a copious amount of bodily waste. So is the homeless situation producing a copious amount of garbage (costing $4000 a month to remove it by city patrol I’m told). By giving the homeless food, clothing, and money we inadvertently support the homeless lifestyle. We offer warmed shelters when the nights get below freezing. But we complain about the homeless when we face the results under bridges and along walking paths created for outdoor enjoyment and for exercise.
Maybe this is a story about compassion creating a problem.
A tense debate about the migrant issue is raging in our political world. Shall we call it an emergency? Build a wall? People, like birds, try to survive.
When too many Canadian geese land, a bio mess shows up along our lakes, ponds and rivers. Protected as they are, we can’t shoot them. We’re always lagging with our policies to protect and support vulnerable populations and once we have a policy the slow administrative machine can’t adapt to changes that take place and need attention. So we do what humans with an altruistic bend have always done, we support - temporary and partially - those who are suffering.
Let's give this story a dramatic turn. What if we don’t support them?
Like the birds, the homeless will migrate if there isn‘t enough food and shelter. Humans have migrated as long as they’ve been on the planet. Migration shows the human entrepreneurial spirit and will to survive. Migrants find new opportunities and they integrate in society. What if we stopped dabbing at the wound of homelessness, pooled our resources, paid our share to offer housing, education and training to get the homeless off the street and into a job? What if we accept that a certain group always needs our support to stay alive, a group of people that will never thrive on their own?
The climax of the story: Solve the problem for the long run and take back your backyard
A wall won’t keep migrants out. They’ll climb over, tunnel under or learn to fly like the geese and land where food, water and shelter is available. A program that processes claims for asylum and offers work opportunities, will absorb the flow without creating more misery. Food distributions don’t stop the homeless problem. Food distributions tied to decent shelter and skills training funnels the problem toward solving it. Other countries have shown that this solution works. Government programs and appropriated taxes can solve the homeless problem. If you don’t believe in government programs, I leave you with partial humanitarian dabbing at the wound of homelessness.
The moral of the story found on my walk: homelessness is a complex issue. Complex issues need multi-prong approaches. Round-ups and walls don’t solve the problem.
I hope the story I found along the Greenway will encourage you to act toward clearing up the problem. I hope we can take back our greenway for what it was intended: a place in nature where residents can walk without fear and enjoy nature.
The Wanderers Night song
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
THOU who comest from on high,
Who all woes and sorrows stillest,
Who, for twofold misery,
Hearts with twofold balsam fillest,
Would this constant strife would cease!
What are pain and rapture now?
To my bosom hasten thou!
On a recent winter morning with a partial government shutdown and a world full of “strife”, I went cross-country skiing in the woods around Hyatt lake near my home. I had to abort my cross-country ski-tour because the tracks were filled with conifer debris because of the soaring 25-50 mile an hour winds that were rocking the trees of the forest. Even though the trees protected me from the wind surges, when I heard the loud creeks around me and a loud cracking of one giant as if the world was coming apart, I knew it was safer to return to my car. Once there, I wasn’t ready to leave the forest; I walked from my parked car through the wooded campground to the lake. The woods, uniform in their winter green color, towered over me and only let their tops sway. These woods are my refuge when in the bustle of daily life I lose my connection to what life is about. The trees in the woods are a reminder of summer nights spent sleeping among them in my hammock, a memory of overcoming fear of the unknown, of letting myself become part of nature.
Around 1820-30 German poet and writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe allegedly went into the woods of the Etterberg, near Weimar, his hometown and sit under a mighty oak tree alone or with his lover and let nature soothe him. Goethe alleged wrote “The wanderers night song” under that same tree.
The famous oak tree was the only tree left standing when the forest of Etterberg was cut to make room for concentration camp Buchenwald in 1937. It was the only tree the prisoners saw from inside the camp. The mighty oak died alongside the prisoners as it became bleached from lack of water and isolation and by 1944 was barren. The bare boned trunk burnt in an allied bombing just before they liberated the camp in 1945.
Goethe’s poem may cause the reader to think Goethe is talking to God (comest from on high, who all woes and sorrows stillest), but you could attribute it to Love in its purest sense that enters us when we meet someone or experience something with whom or which we make that out-of-the-ordinary connection.
As I trudged through the snow, the frozen lake opened before me and showed me a display in white, gray and blue. A field of dried mullein stalks let their decaying bodies stand together on the edge of the lake against a threatening stormy sky in an eerie beauty of death, a reminder of pencil thin bodies, emaciated from hunger and hard work waiting for their death in a different forest, a different country, Buchenwald in Germany. Even though Buchenwald means beech forest, I like to think of another translation of this word: book forest - German word “buch” means book in English -, since camp Buchenwald was built around the mighty oak tree Goethe, a writer of books frequented. The forest inspired Goethe. Forests inspire me, help me connect. As I walked back from the mullein cemetery following someone’s snowshoe tracks, I felt a sudden surge of love in this forest, where these trees stand together, hold each other up, protect the young ones below and sway their tops in the mighty winds. And I wished we as people could stand together, hold each other up, nurture our young and give oxygen so life can continue. Goethe was right in saying:
“THOU who comest from on high,
Who all woes and sorrows stillest,
Who, for twofold misery,
Hearts with twofold balsam fillest,
Would this constant strife would cease!”
On my way back to my car I followed what I thought was an exit road. It wasn’t, and I ended up on a detour and a momentary realization how easy one can get lost in the dark woods, where the trees look alike, where direction is circular and the sun doesn’t shine. The woods hold both sides of the coin of living, danger and connection. I found the camp bathroom buildings that led me back to a road I recognized. If only our politicians, our opposing parties, our allies and our enemies could take a walk in these woods on a cold winter day and reflect on the strife that fills their life. I wish the mighty trees would bring them blissful peace and give them a warning about how small their power really is.
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I take the concept of transformation-travel loosely. Any way you move through your day, be it literal movement from one place to another, or travel from one moment to another with awareness, it can change your perception and change you as a person. Done with intent, the change is more noticeable. Since listening a month ago to a TED radio hour program about where joy hides in our brain, I’ve been on a little journey of finding joy during the holiday season. I’ve long ago left the experience of finding joy in a church with bells ringing, voices resounding in an arched cupola with my eyes on a colorful stained glass window. At my age I’m no longer a candidate for holiday cocktail parties with a sleek sequined shiny dress finding joy in a glass in my hand. Instead, I’ve been paying attention and recording shapes, colors, abundance, sounds, and movements that produce a jump for joy inside me. Joy differs from happiness, is momentary, and relates to a feeling of aliveness. Happiness is more enduring. It rises out of the ability to do something, to have or engage in a relationship. It often signals potential, a promise for the future. A whole bunch of joyful moments strung together produce happiness.
This is what I’ve learned as I went around finding joy:
The holidays full of sparkles, lights, glitter and round balls on the tree are a sampling of ways we can find joy if we are open to it. Not only do the sparkles and lights offset the darkness of winter, they are a sample of how we can keep a feeling of joyful aliveness if we look for it, even after the holidays. Donald Hebb, a psychologist once said, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” This means that the more you find and experience joy, the more your synapses thicken and “remember” the positive moment.
You can change your brain AND your experience of living by seeking joyful moments. Go find the surprises of light and abundance in nature, move your body and feel the joy of the movement, sit in quiet contemplation to empty your mind and let joy arise, look at the shape of the moon, surrounded by thousands of sparkling stars in the night sky, surround yourself with brilliant flowers, let your hands curve around a face you love, wrap an arm around a shoulder of a friend. Find your aliveness and share your joy.
To listen to the TED Radio hour on Joy go here: https://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/668359164/where-joy-hides
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We live in a world where our value is measured by our accomplishments and our possessions.
Hiking groups are notorious for celebrating accomplishments, i.e. miles hiked or mountain tops scaled.
When I started the 52 hikes in 52 weeks challenge, I had no interest in raking in the miles. As a long-distance hiker, I didn’t need to prove that I could hike many miles. I also didn’t need to challenge my motivation to get a hike in each week. So I asked myself, what could be my challenge? I decided that I’d hike 52 different hikes, no hike twice, count one hike each week (sometimes that meant my hike was a week-long hike) and see what I could learn from doing so.
By hiking we take back the earth
I learned that it’s not so easy to find a different hike each week. The valley where I live offers many hiking opportunities but finding ones that appealed and were “new” in less than an hour drive radius, turned out to be a stretch. In the end I had to expand my radius. Could I have walked in and around town in different neighborhoods? Yes, but I rather walk on forest duff than concrete. The amount of miles didn’t matter so much, I wanted to return from my hikes inspired and connected with nature. With the help from weeks of distance hiking throughout the year I found 52 hikes that inspired me. Only 4 involved urban hiking and were inspirational in their own right. Now I know many more nooks and crannies of this valley and this earth.
Hiking means inspiring others
I learned that I can build community and inspire others to adopt the walking/hiking life by inviting others. I learned to adapt my desire to go “further” and exchange finding my edge with finding camaraderie. Others joined the challenge, gained confidence about their bodies and found joy and happiness.
Even though I knew solo hikes were my favorite go-to hikes for feeling connected with nature and the universe, I learned that hiking with another person gives both connectivity with nature and shared joy that comes with that connectivity. Hiking with an ideal hiking partner is a gift.
Hiking means communicating
I learned to mince my words with hikers hiking with dogs. I learned to have a productive conversation with bikers on the trail. I learned to accept that we share the outdoors and nice words go much further toward seeing each other’s point of view than judging or critique when people and animals annoy me on the trail.
Hiking is humbling
I learned that hiking through towns exposes the “belly of the beast”, the inner workings of a community. Instead of getting away from it all, town/city hiking brings me more in touch with the world I live in and helps me understand the issues of a town/city better. Homelessness, trash, art murals, city lay-out, parks and industrial areas all paint a picture of how we live together (or divided). Experiencing the local issues at 2 miles an hour makes for a deeper understanding. Not only have I learned about the communities I encountered in populated areas, homeless clusters in Medford, farmers in encroaching urbanization in Holland, I learned about other communities, nomads in Morocco, and young mileage-hungry groups in the Sierras. I learned again that I’m a minor cog in the workings of this world.
Hiking is enlightening and politically motivating.
I learned that climate change is affecting the wilderness trails. Many miles of burned forests, many miles of dry desert, fierce storms in the high mountains in summer, told me we’ve crossed the line of being able to preserve our natural resources and will need to adapt to living with fire, flood, and storms, and do my part to preserve this earth.
Hiking fights age related depression.
I learned that hiking at least 8-10 miles a week, keeps love for life flowing.
Hiking stirs gratitude
And as for the numbers, in 52 hikes I hiked 645 miles. The shortest hike was 1 mile (with my grandson) the longest 75 miles in a 5-day hike. Elevation ranged from below sea level in Holland to 13,200 feet at Forester Pass in the Sierras. Temps ranged from a low 25F in Germany in February, to a high 85F in Northern California in early July. I hiked in Oregon, California, Washington, New England, Holland, Central Germany, the Sub-Atlas plateau and Sahara dunes in Morocco. Aside from 5 to 10 mile hikes in the forests, around lakes and on mountain ridges of the valley where I live, I hiked 42 miles along a designated wild and scenic river (the Rogue), I hiked 120 miles in the craggy Southern Cascades on the Pacific Crest Trail, and 115 miles in the High Sierras on the John Muir Trail; I hiked 3 urban hikes, and 60 miles in the (Moroccan) desert. It’s been a year of variety in terrain, of altitude challenges and gratitude for my health and strength.
In between hiking my hikes, I’ve published a book about walking and hiking to inspire others to explore what I’ve experienced and learned. Walking Gone Wild tells you “how to lose your age on the trail”, because I know that I feel younger and healthier each time I return from a hike.
People ask, “What’s next?” Rest and writing is what’s happening now. Walking and hiking is a part of living for me, so I walk. Sharing with others means organizing local group hikes. I’m dreaming about and planning to (re-)visit places in the Himalayas next year. The surety of summer forest fires, drive me to seek higher places.
The future is unknown, but finding joy and community wherever I will walk is a constant.
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“But all the same, there’s something about me that doesn’t change, hasn’t changed, through all the remarkable, exciting, alarming, and disappointing transformations my body has gone through. There is a person there who isn’t only what she looks like, and to find her and know her I have to look through, look in, look deep. Not only in space, but in time.”
The Wave in the Mind, Ursula LeGuin
The warm umami flavor of onions and slow-ripened tomatoes frying for an omelet fills the kitchen. Little red beans are steaming their way to a pot of beans for an open table gathering with friends and neighbors. Out of my window I see the Japanese maple has turned blood red. The Hosta’s leaves have lost their brilliant green and are deathly pale yellow. The sun was setting mid afternoon as I raked and gathered the leaves of the Ash tree. No more long gardening hours till 8:00 PM. I get up slowly in the morning and the daylight-savings-fall-back time releases me from guilt when I start my day late. It’s only 8:00 AM! I’m ready to drop guilt at my age. Yet, it’s hard to do so. A life long habit of productive accomplishments has me in the grip of doing, doing. Yet it’s November and the season of hibernating is here.
Curled up in my overstuffed chair I watch the weather do its thing from my window. I’m no longer active in the garden, or on the trail all day; I have time for projects. I’ve scattered photos of summer adventures, printed and enlarged, on my project table waiting for a frame, a place to display. I walk around in my winter cave and see the moments of spring and summer that delighted me and connected me so deeply with nature. Pictures are stories gathered. I’m going on an adventure of finding what lives inside my mind. I look forward to the gift of thought as it transforms my outlook on living.
My brain doesn‘t store completes stories, but it can evoke the building blocks of images, smells and muscle memory and trigger a sentence, a story. Cranking out the words is like turning out the miles on the trail. You start and you don’t know where the train of thought (or the trail) will take you. Discovery is adventure. A plan is a time frame, an idea, and a distant goal.
The act of putting thoughts on the page is transformative. Brain synapses exchange their chemicals and trigger new thoughts that lead to ideas, and sometimes actions. I can watch the thoughts and ideas take shape without writing. As in gardening, planting seeds and watching them grow is fun, but the harvest gives meaning beyond the momentary pleasure of being active in the natural world. When I turn my thoughts into words on the pages, it’s possible for others to read and comment.
Writing is a way of becoming real to others. My thoughts can activate thoughts for you, can cause reflection, new insight and change. By writing and sharing my writing I break out of the solitude that writing requires. It’s a perfect circle, connecting you and me, a wholeness that gives my life meaning.
I’m an old woman living in a cave. I’m listening to my aging body that wants to rest more, reminisce and savor. The drive to produce, nurture, and prove myself has slowed to a trickle with the shrinking of the daylight hours. I relish in meditation time, savor a full-bodied soup, wrap myself in soft blankets and take off for a long sleep every night. This is how I want to end my life. I know I’m only hibernating, but the practice of letting myself slow down is a practice in dying. I look forward to the change of seasons, and I hope to approach the end of my life with the same delight.
While in winter hibernation I’m still creating, as I digest what current life has offered me into a story I can share with my readers. While hibernating I rest my body so the small injuries of the summer trail can heal and I will be ready to do it again next year. As darkness increases, The emptiness expands inside me and leads to that elusive, all-encompassing peace. Winter time is a time to try on the later stages of living, sampling the reduced flow of energy, while knowing the sap will rise again. I’m an old woman, thankful for the season, at peace with her aging body, her slowing mind.
Is your mailbox getting bombarded with political mail, both snail mail and web mail? I bet you feel overwhelmed and want to hide from the mudslinging-choose-me-I-will-change-everything promises that populate the media.
Maybe you’re fired up and out there canvassing, supporting and donating to get the candidate of your choice a winning chance. Either you’re in the race or hiding from the race and hope this raucous will be over soon so you can go back to normal living.
What if normal living means that you’re living without social security? It means your healthcare premium sky-rockets? Your job gets outsourced, taken over by a robot? The weather stays out-of-control? Minorities become majorities? The images of flattened coastal areas, of starving children’s faces, of black skeleton houses left over from the flames, travel across our screens. We’re numb and helpless on the big stage. For a moment we can get outraged when we hear they tortured a person, cut him up and murdered him for expressing his opinion.
Radical changes are real and finding refuge in times of change is a necessity. Ideologies, safe places and communities have traditionally provided a refuge for those who needed it. Churches or mosques can no longer house victims of flooding and hurricanes as they’re getting blown away or burned. Charity organizations and military can barely take care of their own, let alone travel around the globe to offer a helping hand because the climate disasters keep coming.
Finding refuge, protection in times of upheaval and change means we have to rely on ourselves and our neighbors. We have to develop a “refuge” mindset, practicing finding calm and resourcefulness in ourselves and develop connections with people around us. Wasn’t the tribe the original community, the village, and a way for humans to band together and survive?
After decades of centralizing, merging and cutting out the middle man we see a society that depends on Amazon for their daily needs. People order their toilet paper and groceries through Amazon. We live in a society of people who can’t fix things themselves any more, and order new, when something breaks or malfunctions. Chinese products are too cheap to fix. We’re a society that depends on their elected representatives to fix their life, their health, and their climate. Representatives who, if they don’t sell out to large corporations, don’t stand a chance. We’re back in feudal times, selling our souls to what used to be the church and now is called the media, and the power-hungry billionaires who used to be called monarchs.
Maybe things haven’t changed that much after all. We’re experiencing a turn of the wheel as the Buddhists call it. Do what you can to stay alive and healthy and find refuge in a balanced mind and a local community. Go for a walk with a neighbor, attend your local climate meeting, elect a representative who thinks about the wellbeing of the next generation.
What do you think? Your comments and likes are welcomed!
Fall is here; Summer travel is ending. I’m thinking about staying in one place for a time and resuming the writer’s life. The nomads in Morocco are returning from the grazing grounds in the high mountains to the desert plateau where I met them in March of this year. They will await the winter rains and watch the grasses return. We have a kinship across borders and oceans. Moving with the season is an ancient pattern of man and animal. My hikes in the high mountains this summer took me out of the smoke and heat that plagued the valley I call home.
After an intense wild fire season there is talk of moving in my valley. Talk of finding a place to live that isn’t plagued by disasters caused by climate change. It’s getting hotter everywhere in summer and colder/wetter in many places in winter. Climate change has its effects. Will there still be year round livable places? Will the changes in climate transform our living habits?
History and research tells us life on this planet adapts. How will we adapt to the current big changes we’re experiencing? Will we develop technological solutions to solve the problems we encounter or will we become a more nomadic species?
Technology can’t disappear a smoky sky, stop the sea from rising, stop the wind from becoming a hurricane. We can protect ourselves with new tech inventions, which can give us safe places to hide, breathing masks, amphibious vehicles. But we can’t stop the damage to plant life or animal life as temperatures soar, water warms. Technology offers limited solutions.
Will we experience a more nomadic life pattern to avoid exposure to difficult, dangerous climate changes? We may, especially among the privileged who can afford to be a snowbird, a smoke bird, or a climate bird and migrate with the season.
What about people who can’t afford to live in two places, who are eking out a living while traditional means of survival are disappearing? Water for agriculture? Forget it! Abundant fish catches? Not happening. Forest lumber? All burning up.
Right now there are an unprecedented number of refugees, as much as there were after World War II. The refugees are moving away from war, violence, famine, and lack of economic opportunities. They are coming to the few places perceived to be safe, to have food and water and vibrant economies. However, the “haves” want to hang on to what they have, move to the best places to live and close the doors on the desperate and the poor. There’s just too many of us, the resources are dwindling and it will become uglier before it gets better.
With the world population soaring, moving or migrating is no longer a solution for dealing with climate change. How we live and operate as humans is the better solution. It’s painful because we must change our lifestyle, our habits and adopt new values. Livestock farming contributes 18% of human produced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This is more than all emissions from ships, planes, trucks, cars and all other transport put together. Can we become vegetarians and save the planet? Chemical byproducts of our consumption society pollute our water and our air. Are we ready to live with less stuff? I remember what my guide and friend in the Himalayas said, when we discussed the increased wish for western products, “You try living here for a winter, and you’ll understand why we want what you have.” Do we have enough empathy in times of climate stress and resource shortages to share with the have-nots? Are we willing to share our shrinking livable land?
I encourage people to walk, hike and see what’s left of nature. Going out for a long walk gives you increased awareness and may convince you to embrace the place you live in, change your lifestyle, fix things locally and encourage others to do the same. Talk to the person who is drinking water from a disposable plastic bottle, wake 'em up to the facts. Grow a garden or support a local farm and help shift the carbon imbalance.
Think WE instead of ME and contribute to a real solution for a livable planet.
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.
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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.