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. 

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!

 

Of Rules and Breaking Them

52 hikes, 52 weeks

Hike #1, November 24, 2017
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I set goals that keep me engaged. So I signed myself up for the 52 hikes in 52 weeks challenge. I walk the first of 52 hikes. What will I learn by doing this? I have hiked 52 hikes several times in the last few years of my life. So why commit to an official counting and recounting? Walking and writing keeps me honest. Walking and writing about it can inspire others to take up walking. Walking and writing keeps me that much closer to the essence of living.
My first hike is familiar, a quick jaunt into the hills while the sun is warming the day for a while, my sourdough bread is rising in the kitchen. I often choose this hike because I don’t have to get into a car to get to the trailhead, my breathing gets going strong as I go up and up to the top of Bandersnatch trail. I feel my body working, enough to shed layers and gloves. I’m healthy, I’m thankful, I love the feeling when my quads contract and move me up into the hills. The yellow light dances, filters through the evergreens and now bare black oaks, touch the tips of fine filigree ferns. The madrone trees ignore the seasons and shed their crisp leaves and bark in an ongoing brown and maroon symphony. I’m happy.
I meet the first dog on the Ashland Loop Road before I enter the trail. The owner grabs the dog’s collar to let me pass. I greet them. I meet the second dog, dressed in neon orange safety vest a little up on the trail. “Where is your owner?”, I ask because I don’t see a person following. The dog turns back around the bend and joins his owner. The owner puts the dog on the leash. I greet the owner. She unhooks the dog as soon as I have passed. Mm, why can’t people follow the rules of the trail? My dog-hiking sore spot is showing itself. I meet the second dog a little further up, owner talking on the phone. I ask if she can leash her dog. “Oh, I didn’t see you”, she says. She leashes her dog, I thank her for following the rules of the trail. She answers that she lets the dog off-leash by mutual consent. I’m not aware that I consented. I feel miffed, she’s playing with my head.          I meet a father and daughter who have their dogs on leash and hold them close off trail to let me pass. I thank them. More people without dogs are enjoying an opt-outside day.
I’m on the downhill side of the trail now, enjoying the golden light through the trees. An overweight bulldog shar-pei mix with wrinkled skin ambles on the trail off leash toward me, another overweight small furry dog follows slowly with the owner. I stop and ask if she can put her dogs on leash. She puts the wrinkled bulldog on the leash and as I start to thank her, she says to me: “I shouldn’t have to do this if you could live without fear.” Now my simmering dog irritation is reaching the angry stage. “I’m not afraid of your dog”, I answer, I wish you would follow our community agreements. She walks on, I turn at the switch-back and see her unhook her dog again. I can’t contain my self and call out to her: “Yeah, make your own rules and don’t care about others on the trail!” Immediately I feel embarrassed for letting this issue get a hold of me. My happy equanimity is shot. I hike on wrestling with thoughts about people, rules and community-living on the trails.
A quarter mile later I realize I’m not seeing anything around me, I’m absorbed by the thoughts in my head. Then I remember what Thoreau said in his book Walking: I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. —………..— The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is—-I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business do I have in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” I look, smell and take some deep breaths to return to the woods.
I finish my hike, crossing the downtown area. When I come to the undeveloped land where the railroad tracks run, I take the short-cut home as I always do and cross the tracks where the sign to the North says, Private Property, no trespassing. I cross the tracks and break the rule. I’m no better than the dog owners.

 

Toward a better 2016

Microsoft Word - The Paradox of our Age.docx
We know all these things the Dalai Lama mentions in the text on the picture, but do we live better because of it? Can you make a commitment to change just one of these facts in your life in the next year?
The statement that jumps out for me is, “We have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor”. This year I finally got the poetry box up at my house, it took me a year and a half to manifest the thing. The idea for it came on my travels, but getting it done was a process of finding the post,finding the just right moment to put the post in the ground, and finding the friend who wanted to build the box to put on the post. It could all have been done faster. I could have hired someone to put in the post, I could have ordered a three hundred dollar poetry box online and have some person for hire put it up for me. That is not how I felt about the project. This was a project of sharing, using materials I have laying around, utilizing relationships in my community to build the box, this was a project to bring people together, to slow things down, allow someone to stop, read and ponder, to say hello and ask questions, to let neighbors participate and share their poems.
The idea I had is working: people stop and read, people bring their poems to share, people now think about what they can do at their house to make contact with the strangers that walk by. I took the window of my room to the edge of the street. I share what I read in my room, what I think about and what I love. I am communicating with the people in my neighborhood through my poetry box. People have to walk a few steps to receive it, healthy steps. Poems are without judgment but full of awareness. Poems don’t take much time to read, but linger inside you, and infuse the next moment in a person’s life.
What if all you readers, shared this blog with one or two other people and these people shared it with one or two others and so on? Wouldn’t we have a pyramid of power that could change our world? Will you take one line of the Dalai Lama’s text and change it in the next year? The world in 2016 will be better for it.