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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.
I walked in Morocco, at least 5 miles every day, while supporting a walk-fundraiser for girls and women in African countries; girls and women who have to walk 5 miles to get their daily water; to get to a plot of land they can farm; to get to school.
I saw groups of girls and groups of boys walking to their separate school compounds. The villages had one-room schools. Children walk to school at all hours of the day; 2 hour sessions solve the problem of a school shortage. I saw no schools in the desert. The mobile school project for nomad children failed a few years ago. Nomad children don’t go to school, they herd goats.
In the big city I saw women, dressed in abayas, long over-dresses, and hijabs, headscarves, walk to do their shopping with children in strollers. In smaller towns women carried their small children in a sling on their back as they did their shopping. Men managed the shops, men served in restaurants and tea shops. In the outskirts of the big city women with sneakers peeking out from under their abayas exercise-walked on a walking path.
In a small wheat field near an oasis a purple colored female figure bent over in the green, head covered, was weeding and gathering the weeds. I saw a woman dressed in bright red from top to toe, carrying a large bundle of greens on her back: evening fodder for the animals who don’t get enough when they graze the barren rocky landscape. A bundle a day to feed the animals. A walk to harvest the greens and a walk to carry the greens home.
In the rock desert a woman was sitting by a mirky looking water source filling a jerry-can, which she had to carry back to her settlement. In the doorway of a stone hut a young woman with a baby on her back and a bag in hand, took leave from an older woman and descended the trail we had just climbed. It was a 2 hour walk to the nearest village. We had seen no settlements or houses nearby.
I saw a woman washing clothes by a spring. I counted 9 children playing, or helping with the washing. When I passed, the children came up to me hoping for a candy hand-out; the woman covered her face and bent her head.
There were no women in the dunes. The men in indigo blue turbans lead the camels to the brown camel-wool nomad tents where we slept. Men cooked our dinner. Men served us. The next day, back at the hotel, I saw a woman with cleaning supplies who came out of the hotel room next to me. She smiled. Women clean the rooms apparently.
On our last night in Marrakech we visited a hamam, a spa. Women bathed and scrubbed us, men served us tea afterward. In our hotel the male manager served us dinner. I saw a woman in a room near the kitchen. Did she cook the dinner? On the big central plaza, a woman was getting a henna tattoo on her leg. When I wanted to photograph the scene, she became very upset and waved her naked leg with the half-finished tattoo in the air, saying, “No, no photo.”
There are women in Morocco. Without being locked away, they were hidden from me. Shrouded and living in the background they have the status of being revered and protected. Morocco’s women and girls live in the poverty of inequity. CARE Morocco pays special attention to youth and disadvantaged rural and peri-urban groups. Did the woman at the spring want 9 children? Does the woman walking for exercise want to wear a headscarf and abaya? Does the girl going to school with her girlfriend want to be with girls only? Does the woman carrying her big bundle want to farm and raise animals?
I walked in a foreign country to get to know it. I came back with questions. I didn’t have a chance to talk to women while I was there. I talked with men only. They smiled a half smile when I asked them why I couldn’t meet their women and didn’t answer. I wish I could have walked the desert with a Moroccan woman as a guide. A search for female guides produced a few women who offer guided tours of cities, not treks in the wilderness. It’s possible, it just hasn’t happened.
The fight for women’s rights all over the world is a long fight for freedom of choice; for freedom over their bodies; for freedom to walk as much or as little as they want. I walk enjoying my freedom. I walk to learn. I hope many women will follow.
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I went for a hike in the Moroccan desert. Tourism is one of Morocco’s main contributors to the economy (18.6% of GDP, compared to 2.7% in USA, 7.6% in France). People visiting Morocco means post-colonial progress as the people coming from elsewhere now pay for being in the country. The tourist industry can be seen as a get-back for past colonial plunder and suppression. I understand and don’t take offense when a taxi driver charges me double rate on a rainy evening ride from the airport. I’m paying the ancestral debt, small price for privilege.
To get away from the tourist scene in the big cities I have booked an 8-day guided hike on the Saghro plateau and in the Sahara dunes. The Saghro plateau in Morocco has a biblical feel, a landscape I envisioned when I was a child in Sunday school and heard about the Israelites roaming the desert with Moses as a leader: a barren, dry, difficult, exposed land; qualities of such a land represent my aging skin and body. It seems fitting to explore the desert at this stage of my life.
For five days we hike like nomads, driving beasts, carrying loads and sleeping in tents. Five days let me feel, smell and breathe the place; let me see the rocky, craggy landscape. We see occasional small stone dwellings, built from rocks and dirt in the landscape, that blend with the sandy, beige environment. Small plots of wheat and an almond tree orchard here and there add temporary brightness of color while sucking up what little water there is near a spring or small creek. When the temperatures on the Saghro plateau soar to122F in summer, the heat will dry up the water and force the people to move north to the Atlas mountains with their goat herds.
I see young girls and boys tending the herds, roaming alone all day, greeting an occasional passer-by. I watch a girl climb the spires to rescue a goat stuck on an outcropping, risking a 300 feet fall into the canyon below. There is no-one to rescue her if that happens.
Our days are regulated by the sun and moon, and by a prayer routine our guide and muleteers share with the non-nomadic Moroccans. After their evening prayer, the muleteers joke when they serve our meal using their arabic tongue to pronounce the guttural sounds of my native Dutch. We laugh and learn a few arabic words in return. They wait until we are done eating before they have their meal; honoring us as guests, or a remnant of servitude?
I think about my status as tourist-nomad. When I hike here, do I become an invader? I may not take over the land, but by hiking in this nomad land I change life for the people that live here. My money allows for incremental changes in their life style. The local handicrafts go home with me, the carpets will cover the floors in my home. I ask my guide why he chose to become a trekking guide. When he gives me his answer, I find that we share a love for walking and roaming in nature, a love for getting to know people of other cultures. Our sameness erases the guilt I have felt about entering his world with my money.
The first humans were nomads. Nomad existence is in our DNA. The extremes of the desert bring me face to face with my reason for existing, teach me how small I am against the largesse of nature. The towering Pleistocene rock formations offer shade, a place for my animal body to hide from the burning sun. A brilliant star-lit sky on a wide open stretch of undulating sand dunes tells me that I’m just a speck of sand. These extremes enhance my aliveness, my appreciation of my surroundings. A hike in the desert fills me with wonder.
I’m home again sitting in a comfortable chair, with running water to make my cup of tea, with a small garden plot that gives me greens for my supper, and a hearth to warm me when the temperatures dip low. I know the season will change and I’ll answer the call of my nomadic DNA to roam and find what feeds my aliveness: the emptiness of a place, the sameness of a people.
Do you have Nomadic tendencies? How do they express themselves in your life? Let's have a conversation!
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