From Spirituality to Religious Commerce part 1

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View from Swyambu temple of Kathmandu valley 2019

My memories of Swyambu in Nepal are images of a rural village, a teashop-stop with a few houses along a road that circled around a hill crawling with monkeys. On top of the hill a white stupa with painted slanted eyes dominated the view. I lived on that road in a rented apartment for two months. Daily I went to the well to get water and smiled at the local women. The slanted penetrating eyes of the stupa saw my everyday activities of carrying water and sweeping the floor. Eyes that would become famous in the fight against unnecessary blindness through the SEVA foundation which Ram Dass and friends started in the 1978. 

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Swyambu in 1972

I remember living in Swyambu as an expansive, mind-altering experience. On the full moon in May (Buddha’s birthday) when I was there, the long horns of the Tibetan Buddhist monks sounded their deep resonant sound from the top of the hill over the green valley. Pilgrims doing their prostrations filled the road around the temple. The air was thick with spirituality. It was contagious and sent me searching to find a practice that would give me insight and answers to life questions.

Almost fifty years later I’m back to visit the temple and see how I’ve changed. My travel partner and I take a taxi to the temple to avoid getting lost in the concrete jungle of streets and houses that have sprung up between Swyambu and Kathmandu. What used to be a half-hour walk through the countryside from the temple to downtown Kathmandu is now a chaotic, noisy maze of streets filled with cars, motorcycles and rickshaws. Construction is going on everywhere; infrastructure to connect the neighborhoods and funnel the traffic is absent. Everyone is on a mad dash to weave their way through the chaos. We let the taxi driver do the work of finding the back alleys and drive us to the temple.

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I’m not used to living with chaos. My daily life is ordered, spacious, quiet. The chaos of Kathmandu makes me tense and belligerent. I don’t want to fight traffic, hawkers, and shopkeepers demanding my attention so I choose the taxi-bubble protected by doors and windows. I envy the lithe, relaxed movements of the motorcycle riders who sway and turn like fish in a school of their kind without bumping into each other. They’re used to this environment; they don their breathing masks and helmets and follow the stream. 

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Buddha statue at bottom of stairs leading up to Swyambu temple

The taxi driver asks if he should wait for us for a return ride. We decline. We don’t know how long we’ll want to visit the temple and its current scene. I look up to find the familiar stupa with its slanted eyes. The tip of the stupa is visible, but the eyes are not. The stairs seem steeper and higher than I remember. I climb the stairs. The weather is humid, and the climb feels like a 1000 feet elevation gain. It takes will to reach the top. The hill is now covered with thick foliage and obstructs the view of the temple. I remember sitting on the walls of the steps with the monkeys jumping around me. The monkeys are still here, but they don’t pay attention to me or the many visitors. Near the top of the stairs is a ticket office. If we want to see the temple, we must pay. I swallow the commercialization of this religious place, and pay. 

IMG_5957At the top of the stairs the slanted eyes on the stupa become visible. Small temples and altars surround the stupa; smoke rises to the heavens, people sprinkle offerings of food and flowers everywhere for the gods who no longer live here. Tourist stalls sell spiritual curiosities. The walkway around the stupa is short and narrow, and there’s no room to do full body prostrations. I remember the road that circled around Swyambu in 1972 where Buddhist devotees would do their prostrations to improve their karma for their next life. No-one is doing prostrations now. A party of Japanese photographers take pictures of dressed up geisha’s with the temple in the background. They use the temple for commerce. 

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author with buddha statue in 1972

 The belligerence I felt in the chaotic traffic turns to sadness. How can I find the inspiration I found so long ago in this spiritual circus? I look around at the valley below filled with houses and can’t find the road that used to circle around the temple. The only road I see is a pathway descending on the North side to a parking lot lined with more spiritual souvenir stalls. I want to find a place to sit like I did 50 years ago, when I was a young western woman in a Tibetan dress practicing newfound spiritual techniques. But I can’t find a place to sit and have to go to the backside of the temple to find a quiet place. This religious site doesn’t inspire me any more. The sadness constricts my chest. I wander by a pool of water with a statue in the middle. Visitors lean on its wall and toss coins while making wishes for a better life. I just want to get out of here. The past is gone; there’s only the present. Swyambu has become a religious icon without spirit. 

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author sitting near small stupa in 2019

We walk down the road on the North side of the temple to what must be Swyambu village and I recognize what looks like the main street, now lined with houses and shops. Will the increasing population crowd out the temple? Can spirituality exist in this maelstrom?

We find a taxi that will take us to the old downtown of Kathmandu. When I step out of the taxi on Durbar square a motorcycle slams into the open door and falls to the ground. Fish don’t mingle well with taxis. After an excited conversation between the taxi driver, the motorcycle rider and 5 police men, we are free to go. I give the motorcycle rider some money for his trouble and discomfort. The taxi driver takes the motorcycle-rider to the hospital for a checkup. I hope he will find his way back into the school of motorcycle-fish soon and live his life of adapted chaos in a world that is no longer peaceful and inspirational. A few orange-clad sadhus (holy men) are sitting at the side of the temple in Durbar square. They let me take their picture for some rupees. Even holy men need to make money….

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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’.

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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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.

When does a walk become a hike?

December 4, #3, A winter walk/hike along the Bear Creek Greenway, week 2, 4.2 miles, 10,000 steps, 2 floors, 37 F

52 hikes, 52 weeks

 

 

 

 

 

I want to hike 52 different hikes for this 52-hikes-in-52-weeks challenge, and now with snow in the mountains around the valley, I have to find trails closer to home. A friend who wanted to come along on hike #3 suggested the Greenway. I consider going on the Greenway a walk, not a hike, but limited by my friend’s schedule we decided to walk/hike out from my home to the first freeway underpass and back, 5 miles or so.

I realize I may have become a bit snobbish about what I consider a hike and need to re-consider my definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines hiking as a long walk for pleasure, but when does a walk become a hike? When I hike from Etna summit to Payne’s lake on the PCT, the distance is 5 miles and I consider that a hike. I guess length of the walk/hike isn’t the issue, because my 3 mile hike up Ostrich Peak last week I considered a (short) hike. The Bear Creek Greenway is green, there is wildlife, there are ponds, a river, wetlands, so being in nature as a determinant doesn’t apply either.

What then makes the difference between a walk and a hike? Difficulty of terrain? I’ve hiked stretches of the PCT that felt like a highway and weren’t difficult. Bike access? No that doesn’t turn the hike into a walk. I’ve hiked multi-use trails that were accessible to bicycles that I considered a hike because the dirt trail was in nature away from streets and houses. Pavement? When you hike the 490 miles on the Camino in Spain and much of the “trail” is paved, does it become a walk? Maybe pavement is the determinant; indeed people usually say they “walked” the Camino.

Our Greenway is a community trail. It was built in sections – with continuous community involvement and fundraising – in 1973, 1980, 1995, and 1998. The Greenway is now a 17.9 mile trail/bicycle path that connects communities in the Rogue Valley. It runs along a tributary to the Rogue River, Bear Creek.I can access the Greenway in a five-minute walk from my home.

I walk and talk with my friend on the path. My body takes in the light. The dried grasses wave in the wind. The clear blue sky reflects the cold light, moves the icy wind and tightens my face. I talk, but notice, and feel the slight incline and descent of this river’s wetlands in my calves, the spring in my feet. I hear birds screeching, water rushing and know that nature is providing for animals that live here.The freeway to the East makes an ever-rushing ocean sound.

As I walk, I think about the power of a trail, what it does and offers to humans and animals. Some trails take me away from my community and let me enter the surrounding wilderness, but this one lets me experience my community as people and bicycles pass me (interesting, no dogs today). The Greenway lets me walk the length of this valley without having to get into a car, it lets me know the place where I live at a pace my body can integrate. I mostly walk the trail from my home to where my town ends on the North end, about half the length of my town. I can walk south and do the same. I can know my town from one end to the other without cars rushing by. In my life time ever faster moving transportation modes have robbed us of that intimacy of place.

I walk and talk and greet other walkers, move over for an occasional bicyclist. As we reach the underpass, I want to keep walking, walk the whole 18 miles of this trail. Does it become a hike when I do that? I’m still confused. John Muir, the famous naturalist and hiker, didn’t worry about the difference when he said, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out until sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” It may take a few more hikes/walks before I figure out what the difference between walking and hiking is for me. Stay tuned!