A Life of Doing Nothing

Cut off from the internet and phone we enter the Zanskar region, a half day drive over a brand new dirt road full of potholes, bumps and switchbacks. My eyes strain to find the trail I walked 14 years ago, the camping spots where I pitched my tent. Tears well up when I see the enormity of the bare and craggy mountains displaying bands of color that remind me of the painted hills in Oregon. This is a wild land where I’m a speck on the palette of Mother Nature.

We arrive in Lingshed, my end point last time, now starting point of a trek deeper into a roadless region. We set up camp and take a rest/visiting day and wait for the packhorses to arrive from a nearby village. I have to correct, my hiking friend and I don’t lift a finger to set up camp. As guests we are waited on hand and foot; a new role for me, the practice of receiving. The morning starts with chai delivered to our tent, followed by a basin of warm water for washing. Once we’re up, breakfast waits, we drink more tea and have more cups of tea throughout the day as we eat in our mess tent or get them delivered in a thermos along the trail.

We visit the monastery and nunnery, and notice the electricity and solar hot water set-up. We listen to an all-night hammering as a visiting monk directs the last effort for building a water storage tank. Progress and change cannot be stopped even here so far from the faster paced world.

The next day our work is to pace ourselves as we climb to greater heights, stop – catch our breath on the switchbacks, allowing our body to make the most from the 60% oxygen we’re getting with each inhale. The mind is empty, or in slo-mo as we take in the heights and depths with awe. We need a focused mind on some stretches, one misstep and we will slide into the depths. Fear sits on our shoulder and we have our conversation with god, or more culturally appropriate, we recite our Om-mani-Padme-hum to appease the forces around us.

Our guide, a friend and contact from long ago, is our guardian angel who watches us closely, adjusts the pace, reaches a hand when needed and asks us about our altitude symptoms. We’re lucky we have few, part due to taking time in Leh and going slow on this trek. When we reach Hanumala-la, the highest pass (15,200 ft) on day 3, we feel triumphant and grateful at the same time. I’m older and slower but not less capable! On the downhill I think of all the people in my life who’ve been instrumental in getting me to this place on the roof of the world. I’m without worry as Karma is constantly anticipating and taking care of my needs.

We walk, but the place to go is arbitrary. We relax to the sounds of the water rushing by our camp. We widen our horizon as the clouds drift in a brilliant blue sky resting briefly on the tops of the tallest mountains in the world.

Every so often clarity about issues back home rises to the surface and we know that this life of doing nothing, going nowhere is doing its deep transformative work. Step, breathe, step, another switchback up; step, focus, step, another downturn on the path. With our hiking poles we become four-legged creatures who, like our pack animals sway our way to the next stop, the next moment of ‘doing nothing’.

Quaint Comes at a Cost

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Latrop, Sauerland

I hiked 4 days in the German countryside. You may envy me when you see the picturesque hiking photos of quaint villages with slate roofs dotted among green rolling hills, topped with conifer and evergreen forests, but there’s a price for quaint and ordered nature. The Germans manage the forests, exemplary for production, reproduction and environmental responsibility. The hills are green, mono-culture fields and grazing lands. Corn and hay they grow isn’t enough to feed the animals. Animal feed is imported from Brazil where agricultural practices aren’t always that pretty. Not all material for the slate roofs, required building practice in the area, hales from the local slate mines. Local slate is expensive as salaries and mining practices raise the cost. Slate from Spain and Argentina is cheaper and used to augment the local industry. Quaint and ordered landscapes come at a global cost. 

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Bad Fredenburg, Sauerland

In the USA nature is messy. Where I hike, fallen logs may cross or block the trail. Vistas from the ridges include clear-cuts and eroded mountain sides. The trails are often narrow and overgrown with wild berries, grasses and wild flowers; rocky or sandy trails slope dangerously toward a deep canyon. The occasional homestead sports rusted machinery and dilapidated buildings. The USA is too big to control. Messiness and decay is visible.

I have nothing against proprietary orderliness; I encourage it. Let’s keep our dens in order is my motto. The tightness I felt in my chest when I walked around the manicured woods and the ordered villages came from feeling boxed-in. The societal rules have eliminated the wildness in the German landscape. Where is the personal expression; where is mother nature’s wildness? Personal expression is relegated to artistic and craft domains. A carved door, a pattern in the slate wall, an ingenious product.

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I visited an ordered University Hortus, a garden that held species from all over the world. Afterward I went to a Museum exposition on Medieval gardens, where I read: “Gardens are a demonstration by the monarch that he can subjugate nature to himself and thus a sign of his power.” If orderliness in nature as I experienced it in the German countryside, is a sign of power than the wildness I experience in the US is a sign of potential, an opportunity to rise to great heights. 

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Humans have lived in ordered societies since tribes roamed the earth. Societies offer protection and a chance for survival. I ask myself how much order is enough? Can too much order stamp out creativity, exploration and responsibility? Social-democratic systems that take care of people from cradle to grave popped up after world-war II in Europe; it was an effort to share and take care of each other after experiencing and witnessing the horrors of a war based on neo-nazi ideas, horrors of believing that one race is superior to another. The social-democratic systems provide healthcare for everyone; everyone has a home to live in, everyone gets a job or if a job is unavailable unemployment coverage; everyone gets yearly vacation pay on top of their salary. The streets get cleaned, the parks are neat, the trains run on time. Who wouldn’t want such a society? 

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There’s a catch. High taxes, restrictive building codes, restrictive business practices keep and pay for an ordered society. Large administrations make and apply the rules to make sure you don’t step outside the societal box. While the rest of the world wants free trade, creates start-up companies, takes capitalism to its highest reaches (good, or bad), the members of the ordered societies lag, have to jump through hoops before they can join the wild plays OR go rogue as Volkswagen engineers did to be competitive in the marketplace and yet comply with the pollution standards for diesel-operated cars. The members of the ordered societies want their cake and eat it too; the riches and the securities. Those who live here have forgotten or don’t know the ravages of war anymore and entitlement has replaced a sharing society. Stories of aging boomers who expect the state to take care of them even if their own monetary contribution has been minimal, abound. People who see the state as their caregiver, their medical provider, their retirement fund, their family replacement, want to travel and go on paid vacations, have someone organize a ‘nice’ life for them until they die.

I’m generalizing. Not all people fit this mold, but it helps to see that each societal form has its pros and cons. We’re in the race for presidential elections in the US; it’s a time to think about what society we’re in, and for what we vote. The freedom US citizens hold so dear, is a freedom that comes with draw-backs and opportunities. Freedom that allows each of us to make it big or to suffer. It’s a raw society, a young society, a wildly diverse society. In this society you can stand on top of wilderness pass at age 72, knowing you got there on your own power. But in this society you need your friends and family to help you grow old, relations matter and caring for each other is a tool for survival. We are a society of explorers and dreamers who need each other. Let’s not forget that it’s up to us to be kind, to share, to develop and maintain a healthy balance between safety that springs from order and planning, and opportunity that comes from initiative and taking chances. Make your security arrangements but dare to leave the well-trodden paths behind and give yourself a chance at discovery no matter what age you are. 

I’m on my way to the Himalayas. I’ve done all the planning and safety measures I could put in place. It’s time to take a chance on fate, and find insights at new heights.

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trek to Lingshed, Ladakh 2005

Bridging 2 Countries

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I’m living in another country, speaking another language and adjusting to the smallness of things here. After two weeks I notice I’m thinking in Dutch again, I write in my journal in Dutch and I can sometimes not find the English word for what I want to say. Am I Dutch or am I American? What does it mean to be of a nationality? Does nationality define me, tell me who I am? Or am I free to be who I am as I’m bridging more than one nationality? The question ‘Who am I?’ is psychological, philosophical and spiritual.

The Psychological Me

To function in the world, we must figure out if we’re a girl or a boy, tall or short, light-skinned or dark-skinned, a smart or slow learner. From the day we’re born our parents and caregivers give us messages about who we are and who we need to become. I learned that I was a blond blue-eyed girl, attractive to the other sex, smart enough to do well in school and too adventurous to fit well into my family of origin. I loved my country, its dunes and beaches and felt emotional listening to the Dutch anthem. I moved to another country, became fluent in another language and took a long time to identify myself as an American national. But I did; I let go of my native nationality reluctantly like letting go of a first love. That letting go felt like a psychological loss, a change in how I knew myself. I learned I’m not a finite collection of genetic and acquired attributes.

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The Philosophical Me

Plato told us we’re prisoners in a cave perceiving shadows of what’s real on the wall in front of us. Philosophy tells us we’re an entity defined by our surroundings. Does this entity become a different entity in a different space/time/cultural context? Or does me, my entity just take on hues of different manifestations of reality? My hair color doesn’t change because I speak a different language, I’m still a woman even though I’m walking in a different country. Philosophically, me, my entity, is the same, even if it manifests different aspects of that entity. Adopting a new nationality has taught me I haven’t lost my original being; who I am has expanded, has become more complex, acquired another layer. I’m richer for it.

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The Spiritual Me

The mystics tell us to ask ‘Who am I?’ as an exercise to know oneself. By questioning who we are, we can connect with a greater consciousness, and discover an expanded self. Moving between nationalities, languages and countries is stretching my awareness and grounding me deeper in the ‘me’ that is connected with the whole. I feel a happy me when I move through nature wherever I am. Nature is universal in its message to me: you breathe, you move, you belong. My nationality has nothing to do with this feeling. My tastebuds, my eyes and smell senses expand when I become Dutch for a while, old grooves come to life, temporarily, because when I’m back in the States, I forget the smell of the Dutch hayfields, the taste of a particular childhood treat. My being is like a ghost, a spirit moving about and absorbing the local flavor without becoming it. My being has a memory that takes me back to other moments in time, full of other flavors. I am not the flavor.

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Today I’m acting on the Dutch stage, next week I’ll be on a German stage, after that I’ll enter the Himalayan stage and I will return to the American stage eventually. I am me, less attached; local determinations don’t define me; I respond to what the stage presents without becoming the stage.

Nationalistic tendencies are raging everywhere as global migration is increasing. People fear losing their sense of identity, their sense of ‘me’ when faced with other nationalities. I asked a family member who kept talking about how different we are as siblings, to look at how the same we are. By doing so we’ll develop a sense of oneness this world desperately needs. We’ve got a long way to go!

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About Brexit and Exits

PCT section C,D, mile 266 – 369, Big Bear to Inspiration point.

Dan is a ruddy robust man from the UK, who, when asked why he’s out here hiking the PCT, tells me, “to get away from the Brexit mess”. His hiking buddy Stu nods his head and in his Aussie drawl confirms he’s getting away from Australia as well. Both are contractors at home and have found kinship on the trail. I camped with them a few nights and saw how helpful they were to others. How they shared their stove with a couple whose stove was malfunctioning. Dan and Stu had an ease about setting up and breaking camp and they were willing to look after me as I tried to cross Holcomb Creek and stay dry. “It’s complex”, Dan says about Brexit, “but immigration has a lot to do with the Brexit mess.” Stu adds, “Yeah, we’re getting African gangs in Australia, they’re messing up the order there.” We agree that migration is a global phenomenon and rattling people’s comfort zones. We’re not coming up with solutions as we talk.

Soon their younger legs outpace me and I meet others who’ve made an exit from their normal lives. There are day hikers, a couple near Splinter’s cabin. He’s done sections of the PCT and looks ready to tackle the whole thing; she tells me their kids are teenagers and hiking the PCT will have to wait. Still there is the longing in their eyes to exit their busy L.A. life.

The greater L.A. enters my awareness as I hike out of Deep Creek to the Mojave River delta. The catch basin behind the dam, when I follow the trail across, is empty, but a downpour could quickly change that. The dam is regulating the water flow in the Mojave river flood plain below. Soon Deep Creek and the Mojave River merge and I cross Deep Creek for the last time, this time it’s a knee deep wade, which feels good on a sunny noon hour.

That afternoon I hike through a landscape filled with poppy bush. I meet a local hiker. He appeared out of nowhere, taking a Sunday afternoon walk among the blooming poppy bushes. The gray in his hair matched his soft-gray SPF hiking shirt. He sports two skinned and whittled sticks for hiking poles. “Ola”, he grins, stretching the wrinkles on his weathered tan face. He is no stranger to this desert landscape. He belongs to this land. For him the exit from his homeland happened a long time ago.

That night I share a small windy camp spot looking out over the Mojave River Valley with “Sunny”, a Swiss psychology student taking a break from student life. “I’m ready for adventure and get perspective on what I’m studying. We talk about Freud and neuro-psychology. She cowboy camps and writes furiously in her journal.

Sunny leaves camp the next morning before me. “I like to hike alone”, she says as she pushes earbuds in her ears. I myself don’t hike with earbuds. I let my mind rock and roll around the issues and challenges of the day on the trail until I get moments of emptiness in my head and communicate with the landscape: the destruction caused by trees and big desert plants falling and disintegrating on a salmon colored rocky plateau; the deep purple masses of bellflowers hanging on for dear life in the poor granite soul and fierce winds in DeepCreek Canyon; the slow growing pines at higher elevation holding their own through snow and drought. The message is clear: “adapt or die”.

With that notion in mind I wind my way to Cajon overpass. I watch Route 66 from afar coming closer. I come close to it and visit MacDonald’s, the only restaurant civilization offers me here. It’s the only stop for food, power and water for the next 22 miles.

After a chat with an Australian family who are in shock over traffic but love how nice everyone is, I set out “cameled up” with water for the next day. I cross under the famous Rt 66, step over railroad tracks an hike back to the hills that will take me to my resupply in Wrightwood.

In the first days of this section temperatures had been down to freezing at night and the last day turns loose a cool low-cloud misty day. The weather gods are with me as I hike up the 5000 ft elevation to the top of the ridge above Wrightwood. When the weather turns colder and rainy in the afternoon with snow on the ground I am ready for my exit from the trail for a few nights.

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‘T Is the Season

Get ready, engines roaring, lift off, my nomadic season starts again. In a few days I’ll be on foot after coming down from the sky in Palm Springs. I’ll depend on the help of others to get me to the trailhead; I will ride in strange vehicles, sleep on unknown beds and have the sky as my ceiling for many a night. Outside my living room window I watch the buzzards soaring on a thermal above the mountains where the snow is rapidly melting as the sun is warming the slopes. I want that sun on my body for warmth, I’m done with the cold weather, rain and snow. The frenzy of packing, calculating food quantities, and shipping re-supplies has taken a turn for double checking, and slower decisions of which gear to leave behind, what shoes to wear. Choosing from the abundance of gear is like wine tasting, which goes with what, and what experience do I want on my palate, or in this case my senses?

I must have inherited the nomadic gene from my father. As a young man he used to set up camp in the dunes near his home town and live outdoors for the summer with a group of friends while bicycling back and forth to his job in town. I think of nomads in other places who are packing up tents and supplies to take their herds to new pasture where they will wander to find food. I don’t have to go find food for myself or for a herd, for me living like a nomad means wandering to find food for my soul. I’m setting out to find story. My winter’s store of writing material has dwindled and has found their way into a book and blogs. My body has a layer of fat from holiday eating. Hiking training has melted some of the layer and turned it into muscle. This trend will continue as I hike day in, day out. I will parcel food out in just enough quantities, for carrying it I must and weight matters. A little suffering makes the end of the hiking day so much sweeter, the ground so much softer when sleep comes. I’m eager to find out what life, nomadic life, has in store for me.

Since I turned 65, I’ve been hiking sections of the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2650 mile-long trail that runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian border along the mountain crests of California, Oregon and Washington state. This year my plan is to hike 500 miles in the desert of Southern California, which will take me approximately 40 days and 40 nights. The number 40 as it was used in the Bible, when Jesus roamed the desert, or the Jews spent 40 years in exile, meant a long time and show times of soul searching. A long hike in nature brings up thoughts and questions about life. I get to experience myself against the backdrop of grand scenery, plays of light, dirt and sweat. My head will clear as my life simplifies, and falls into a routine of walk, rest, eat, make camp, sleep, break camp, walk. Each day will bring new scenery, new people, and new camps . It’s like opening a book and not knowing what the story is. I’ve had samples as I’ve hiked more than 1600 miles of the PCT, but the story of this journey is unknown. The decisions I make as I walk, eat, rest and meet people will write the story of this journey. I’m excited to begin and find out…

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Hiking Training for a Long Trail as a Senior

Hiking training for a long trail is a different puppy for a senior than it is for a young person. On a recent morning five-mile hike while walking off the stress of nightly presentations about hiking and backpacking to an eager, older audience, I was like a horse let out of the stable: my stride lengthened with each step until I found the rhythm that sustains me and lets me breathe deep and free.

The Rhythm

Getting trail ready.

Working at night doesn’t suit me anymore, but crowds don’t show up at 2 p.m. when I’m ready to download my enthusiastic stories about walking, hiking, and backpacking. So evenings it is. I see the ones in the audience who yawn behind their hand, hoping this talk won’t go too long. It’s been a long day for them, too, and they need to be in bed. As the days lengthen, I enjoy the rhythm of getting up earlier when morning light visits me at 6:30 a.m., slowing down my activity at 6:30 p.m. and getting to bed at hiker midnight… 9 p.m. Travel and presentations have interfered with my bedtime routine and my trice-weekly training hikes up into the hills, snow or no snow. My trail date is only a month away and when I climbed 1,900 feet over four miles to Ostrich Peak in the snow with 25 pounds on my back, I could feel I was ready. So now I have to hang on to this state of physical readiness by hiking short hikes regularly and work on my mental readying.

Toughness Within

The conditions on the southern part of the PCT in the desert are rainy and snowy. Postholing those four miles uphill last week told me I don’t want to start my 600-mile trek in snowy conditions, sleep in snow, bite down to deal with cold feet and wet gear, and pull out my toughness from the start. Toughness lives deep inside me. I don’t have to prove it to myself and I don’t have to seek it on the trail. My mental training for the trail happened long, long ago. It happened when I gave birth to my children, or when I challenged high-risk youth who needed to drop their tough stance and learn to trust. It happened when I watched my life partner’s strength diminish in his terminal illness. When I sat in “adhitthan” (no movement) in month-long meditation retreats I found my determination. My mental training came through living, and because I’m native Dutch, my trail name became The Iron Dutchess.

Freedom

Senior hikers who seek a long trail differ from the young ones who need to find their toughness. Senior hikers find other things. They find freedom from ageism, they find transcendence, and they find a reboot of their aging body. Many older people forget that they have that mental toughness and let their lives shrink. I can tell you, if you’ve made it to 60 or 70 and are still walking and doing, you have what it takes. You just have to activate it.

I go back to the trail every year to find freedom. Freedom from the jaws of comfort, freedom from the lazy-making stream of food and conveniences I ingest. I wean my self from the ever-open spout of stimulation, and entertainment our advanced society pours out. I go without, and I find inner freedom.

In these last weeks before I take off on the trail, I’m like a squirrel preparing for winter. I gather nuts, seeds, freeze-dried foods, and luxury tidbits to sustain me as I walk the miles. After six years of section hiking the PCT, I still think I need a fixed number of calories, I still am attached to the spout of daily living.

Pre-Trip Anxiety

Clarity and focus.

For me, physical training is easy compared to the psychological preparation. My brain gets anxious when it faces the unknown and I find my senior brain more anxious as it ages. As a senior hiker I’ve lost my It won’t happen to me!thinking of the junior hiker. I fret more about the unknown and prepare more than many a junior hiker. Until I set foot on the trail I’ll have to deal with the unknown. No matter how many miles I’ve hiked, the preparation for the Long Trail always challenges me.

Folks who say they don’t worry and take it as it comes must be ignorant of what awaits them, or blissfully young and foolish about what they think they can do.

So I walk and watch my mental gyrations about daily distances, food packages, devices that might not work, gear I might need and will forget. At the end of today’s five-miler my mind is calm and ready to do some more prep without feeling anxious. Hiking training has the benefits of what the trail offers: strong focus, mental clarity, confidence and an emerging feeling of freedom.

Nomadic Living 2: Hidden Women

Hike #16 of 52, 3/6 -3/11 2018: 40 miles, Saghro Plateau, and Merzouga Dunes, Morocco, day temp varying from 69F – 89F, average elevation gain: 500 – 1500 feet

P1060921I 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.

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In the 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.

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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 getenough 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 sat 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 handtook 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?

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I walked in a foreign country to get to know it. I came back with questions. I didn’t have a change 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.

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.

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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. 

Nature as My Companion

Hike #8 of 52,  Jan 4, 2018, Ostrich Peak, Rogue River National Forest, 8 miles, 2000 ft elevation gain to 4630 ft

Dark clouds are racing through the sky, the temperature is dropping and I’m hiking down from the top of Ostrich peak on a January day. Not the best time of year to get caught in a storm. Trees line the trail both sides, a forest of madrone trees, obscuring the view of the valley and making my world even darker. My boot steps on a muddy spot on the trail. I notice the 5-inch bear track in front of me in the mud. A pile of scat showing madrone berries, follows further on the trail.

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“I’m alone.” The thought is a reminder that small fear rides on my shoulder when I’m out in the wilderness. My mind infused with endorphins from 3 hours of hiking, doesn’t linger in fear. It turns to an awareness of my surroundings: the deep quiet in the trees, a sense of waiting for what is coming; the variegated trunks in beige and maroon, wearing the peeling bark as playful rosettes on a smooth young skin. These are young Pacific madrone trees (Arbutus Mensiesii), growing close together, supporting each other as their gangly limbs reach for the light. A family of trees, silently exchanging nutrients through their shared root systems, sucking the nutrient straw through the cambium up the trunks to their leaves for an exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen. These trees need one another to make it to adulthood. Many will perish to make room for fewer and fewer adult ones. Other species will move in under the adult canopy. And so the forest changes as it gives me passage, lets me lean into its silence, as if it’s interested in my thoughts.

So I think, following the illogical gyrations of my mind. I think grateful thoughts for being able to walk, for having a body that is still strong enough. I think family thoughts, letting my children go their own way, far away; I’m an elder tree, and new species are moving into my life:neighbors, friends, changing faces. I think thoughts of loss of my daily companion many years ago, and as sadness rises in me, still, the soft quiet air envelops my body. I relax, let go, accept the changes that life brings, and think how I’m making this a positive, comforting day by being out here by myself, breathing the fresh air the trees make for me.  I’m not alone, I’m just hiking solo. Like the bears need these trees to survive, I need them too.

As I descend, the cushioned feeling of the trees’ embrace remains with me. A feeling I can recall while writing, while looking at the photograph of the trees, while thinking of the hike. I marvel over the mind’s capacity for repair, for the yoga of synapses, bending to connect memories with feelings.

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The art of living is simple: seek positive experiences and your mind will think happy thoughts, despite loss, despite the changes aging brings. This 8th hike of the 52 hikes has brought me joy and comfort.