Down in the Valley, the Belly of the Beast

Hike #18, 12.2 miles, no elevation gains, Feb 12, 2018, Bear Creek Greenway from Ashland to N. Medford, Rogue Valley Oregon

 

The bottom of valleys tend to have water sources, a river, or lake for irrigation and transport. The bottom of the valley becomes the main living artery for a region. As Paul Salopek, a National Geographic journalist who is walking the path of human migration from Africa to South America, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/out-of-eden-walk/, stated in a recent interview, human migration takes place along the water sources, bottoms of valleys and coastal regions. To get to know the people of a region you must walk along the bottom of the valley.

IMG_1538Walking along the main artery of a valley is like traveling with a scope along a main artery inside a body, exposing its internal workings.

I live at the top of the Rogue Valley, the southern end. I have long wanted to walk the whole Greenway that runs along Bear Creek, the river in the trough of the valley that flows north to the Rogue River which flows west to the Pacific Ocean. Currently the Bear Creek Greenway is 19 miles long, but soon it will be connected with the Rogue River Greenway running from Grants Pass to the town of Rogue River, at the end of the Bear Creek Greenway in Central Point. A 19 mile walk or bike ride will become a 45 mile one running the length of the valley.

The morning was sunny and cold, with a recent snowfall dusting the Siskyou peaks in the distance. We had company from two other walking women for an hour and a half. I’m a firm believer at this point in the value of knowing the place where I live on foot. Our brains are wired for taking in the world at a 2-3 mile an hour speed. Our bodies respond well to such a pace, and so was mine on this day. After an hour and a half warm-up, just about at the point our walking companions called it quits, my body moved with ease and joy. It takes about 5 miles of walking before I experience joy flowing through me and a smile is permanently plastered on my face.

The greenway at the top of the valley is well maintained. In the small town of Ashland it runs along the railroad track, its freight line transportation artery, and shows the backside of well-to-do mixed-purposed buildings. When it emerges from the town, the trail runs along the river with a wide stroke of natural habitat on both sides of the river, where plant and animal life flourish.

IMG_1535As we left the first stretch of the Greenway and walked further north (into the body of the valley), more and more debris cluttered the green zone along the walkway. As we moved from one rural community to the next, the Greenway showed trailer courts backed up against the fences that bordered the Greenway on one side, the freeway on the other, baseball courts tucked in an open space. A narrow artery running between busy commerce and less affluent living, like an artery running along the busy stomach and pumping heart of the body.

As we approached the larger town of Medford, the main city in the valley, we met more homeless people sitting on the side of the trail rummaging through their belongings, stroking the head of their dog-companion, passing time in the now warmer sun, faces wry and weathered. Our greeting was met with a nod, a hello and “God bless you”! God seems to be all present for homeless people as I’ve noted on the signs they hold up when asking for help.

IMG_1545The river now also showed a shopping cart here and there floating in the water, plastic bags, trash mixed with late winter plant debris on its banks. As we walked under the freeway, creeks trashed with torn clothing, shopping carts, styrofoam cups fed into the river now further away.

The city, as a digestive track, absorbed all the debris and created pathways to go over and under, a footbridge, the trail joining a city park, where artists had transformed the concrete underbelly of main thoroughfares with large murals of living creatures on bridge supports, creatures that support and maintain the natural environment we all need to live, bees, birds, cats, fish and turtles. Bright splashes of color in a concrete environment with little real plant life to remind us what feeds us.

It seemed only appropriate to eat our lunch and digest and rest in the park along the greenway in the digestive section of this valley. The place where industry, commerce and trade takes place. 10 Miles down, the knees were talking from walking on a paved trail. We called our ride for a pick-up further on.

We walked another 2 miles to the N.Medford Railway park, the trail swerving through an older neighborhood with sweet little backyards, along shopping mall parking lots into the industrial part of town, appropriately displaying its old glory train engines and cars. We had walked 51/2 hours, 12.2 miles and found what makes the place we live in tick and hang together: care for the environment, room for diversity, historical sentiment and a taste for art. A bit of trash here and there, but considering the amount of people using this trail, relatively little. I know we will work together to clean up after each other. At a time when many of us wonder what the American way is anymore, this is an American way I can live with.

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A Hike to Nowhere

hike#9 of 52, 40 miles in 10 days, walking in circles; 150 feet elevation gain; Dhamma Manda Meditation Center, Cobb, CA.

NCVC out gates

There was a small walking path in the woods, a circuit that took 3 minutes to complete, with a 150 feet elevation gain. I walked about 50 of them a day for 10 days. The walking path was at a meditation center in the woods of Northern California, where I had chosen to retreat from the world and do an internal hike of the mind, observing a Buddhist monastic code for living, which meant no killing, no speech, no food after 12:00 PM, no reading, no phone, no, no.… 

My small room was no bigger than the standard prison cells we assigned to young inmates I worked with during my professional career, when they misbehaved. A cot, a mattress, blanket and pillow, a small side table with a lamp, some hooks on the wall. Misbehaving inmates don’t get lamps they can dismantle and do dangerous things with, no hooks to hang themselves off, no shelf to use as a weapon, but otherwise…,not much different. A place to be, pace and sit, meals provided, lights out at 10:00 PM, wake up gong at 4:00 AM. Daylight entered through a window which I could open, not so for misbehaving inmates. I had daily opportunity for solo recreation in the outdoors several times a day. I went in this cell voluntarily, inmates don’t. Or do they? 

I remembered conversations I had with them during mental health check-ups, about turning their isolation into something productive, and told them about people who chose isolation to improve their life, to know themselves better. The inmate would look at me wondering, considering. Then he would turn his attention to the one book allowed, to escape the reality of the cell.

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I sat on my cushion to observe my monkey-mind for 10 days, 10 hours a day. I followed my mind meandering through the past. For variety my mind would switch to planning my next trip, my next hike, the future. Seldom did I find my mind at rest, attentive to the sensations in my body at that moment. 

How can something so simple, be so hard? How come, after having sat 17 or 18 of these retreats in my lifetime, am I still subject to the same repetitions, the same stupid useless mental detailing of events? “The path toward liberation is a very long path”, the teacher says in his evening discourses. No kidding.

With the lack of talking, the reduced visual stimulation, it gets better. At times, my mind stays focused for a minute or two, the restlessness in the body subsides, I sit with no need to change my posture every 15 minutes, I can be with the sensations of the moment. I still walk briskly during breaks in a small wooded area, grabbing on to the normalcy of daily movement, watching my breath move in and out at a different speed as the path climbs and descends, counting steps, how many to each breath? How many breaths in a day? How many breaths/steps in an hour? 

On day 4 the technique switches. I scan the whole body, and all hell breaks lose. If hiking up a mountain at 16,000 feet is a hard, mind-numbing task of putting one foot in front of the other until you get to the top, this task of scanning is no different, except I have no app that tells me how far I’ve come, tells me the distance I still need to cover before I get there. I’ve learned from sitting past retreats that, “this too will pass”. When and how, who knows. As I direct my wandering attention to observing of what’s going on in my body, like dragging one foot after the other up the mountain to the elusive 360℉ view of the world, my mind rolls out its paranoia: “This is a cult, why did I never see that?” What if this is all baloney and I’m wasting my time sitting here? I could be out hiking, at least I’d enjoy the fresh air, the views!” “Get a hold of yourself, this is just your monkey mind talking!” And then the real tricky stuff starts. My body produces sensations I’ve never felt before, my body is swaying. It’s like a drug. There is pleasure to be had. The technique teaches to ignore, to stay with observing, to keep the body still. Eventually, the druglike sensations pass; a deep, stuck piece of grief releases; my body and mind let go. By day 9, I can sit, centered on what is happening at the moment, no urge to leave, get up, plan the future, regurgitate the past. I’ve arrived.

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On day 10 semi-normal living resumes with a day of meeting and talking with fellow meditators, a few hours of meditation, still no access to our phones and the outside world, but there are smiles all around. The retreat is over; I have to return to ordinary life. This sit is just another hike in a string of hikes. 

I’m home again. I climbed the mountain to nowhere. I have no pictures to show you; I can only tell you my story to encourage you to take the hike.