Can Hiking Become Being?

What actually happens to us when we go on a hike? This is what I’ve been asking myself lately. Sure my muscles are getting exercise, my lungs expand, my heart rate shows its ability to handle temporary stress and I come home with a tired, satisfied feeling that allows me to manage the daily stuff of life. Hiking then is a stress reducer, a resiliency builder, a cognition enhancer – YES, hiking improves cognition! But is this how we want to categorize walking and hiking, as a healthy activity? Or is there more to it? 

Going Wild

In my book Walking Gone Wild, I approach walking and hiking as a healthy pastime and encourage those of us who are on the downhill slope of living to engage in it and extend their years or at least make these later years more enjoyable. Hiking though, isn’t just walking gone wild, meaning doing it more and more, an addiction, one you get hooked on because of its benefits, it also isn’t just a gateway to going into the wild, a way to being in the wilderness. Hiking is all that, but of late I’ve been wondering if we’re missing something when we talk about hiking only as an activity; a way to lengthen our lifespan. The word “wild” is on my mind. This last summer I went on a 3-week solo backpacking trip, hiking a section of the PCT in Northern California. 24-Hour immersion in the wild, and because of Covid I met very few people. It was just me and nature with an occasional stop to re-supply and an occasional road crossing that hinted to another world, a busy world, a world of cars, people, consuming, franticness, fear of Covid, political division. A world wild with stimuli. 

Wilderness that isn’t Wild

What happens when I retreat into the wilderness? And I have to admit, a well designed and marked trail isn’t real wilderness even if the surroundings are wilderness. Forests that have grown up after being harvested by humans, aren’t real wilderness, even if we leave them alone to become wild again. Rivers tapped for energy aren’t wild, we control their flow, we protect their banks to sustain the energy industry. The “wild” isn’t wild anymore. This compromised, cultured wildness however, allows me to hike safely at my advanced age with the help of maps, GPS, light-weight gear and the advice of many who’ve gone before me. All I bring to this wilderness is my determination, my will and training and my wish to experience something I can’t experience in my daily life with a safe home, a controlled environment that protects me from heat, cold and predators.

A Cooperative World

This summer I met the trees in a way I have never before. Since there was no-one talking to me and I don’t listen to podcasts or music when I hike, the trees were my companions. I observed things I hadn’t seen before, I connected the dots between shapes, light, density, undergrowth, animals, and soil, the elements of a forest. I slowly understood the “why” of my environment. The world I hiked in started making sense. The elevation, the temperatures, the light, the rainfall or lack thereof, all worked together to sustain these trees. The bigger trees sustained the smaller ones, the dead ones the next generation, the tree’s fruiting sustained the animals. This was a world that hung together. My intellectual knowledge became intuitive and somatic knowing. The trees taught me that the world around me is cooperative and transformative. 

I realized I wasn’t really part of that world; I am a visitor and at some point I go home to a shelter. I don’t offer myself up to sustain the trees, the undergrowth, the animals. I may try to not disturb the ecological balance by staying on the trail, a deep scar carved into the wilderness, by sleeping in a designated camp spot to decrease disturbance of the environment; by eating food brought from the outside world and burying my waste deep enough to not pollute the water nearby and leave little trace. But I’m not part of the natural world. Even 3 weeks or 3 months living in the wild doesn’t make me a link in this amazingly cooperative world. Being in the wild does change me though. When I return to civilization my body is different, my perception more acute, my mind more at ease. I’m transformed. 

Observing the Familiar

I’m back in my cultured, safe world. I go out for day hikes, I watch the seasons change, I admire nature as she dresses in her splendor, I climb her rocky sides and look out over the distant mountains, the valley with a river flowing toward the next river, and on toward the ocean. I’m an observer. Living in the comforts of my home, the transformation that took place in the wild doesn’t last. I gain weight, I’m less flexible, my eyes don’t work as well, I’m affected by the daily stimuli of news and people, less at ease. 
The Covid pandemic has kept my wanderings closer to home this year. I hike known trails. The familiar vistas and landscape don’t bowl me over with awe. Slowly, it’s dawning on me that only if I slow down, listen and interact like I did on my longer hike, will I enter deeper into the familiar. I want to learn and bring the familiar home to me in a way that lets me be part of the whole. Do I have the courage to slow down? Hike fewer miles, saunter on the familiar trails, listen to the wild part of this world so it can teach me what life is about, and what our place in it is? Only in the slow lane will hiking become being and will we figure out how to live in a responsive way to our environment. 

Winter, the season when nature’s growth slows is upon us. Covid is still with us and we too can go a little slower. May we use this time to our advantage, and learn something from our familiar environment for the next season, the next political fight, this and the next pandemic. 

A Trek into the Unknown

The days in social isolation have a rhythm of their own. A rhythm determined by the body, the weather and the immediate environment. Similar to when I trek in the mountains, my body, the weather, and the terrain determine my movement.  Now that it’s May, the days are long and sunny from sunrise to sunset in my part of the world. Nature is showing itself in all its glory.

I have a garden that needs tending, a few hours each day. The first harvest of artichokes and lettuce, spinach and greens adorn my kitchen counter. A May turnip offers its taste of sweet white flesh inside its purple skin, a delight for the palate. Cooking with these fresh delicacies brings forth new recipes. Today it’s sourdough pizza with greens, artichoke hearts and the pesto left over in the freezer. Each day something new grabs my attention. Today I wanted to make pizza and build a squash-plant bin, a wire tube filled with compost, manure and a drip line to water the contents. The plants will grow long tentacles outside the bin as the ingredients decompose inside and feed the squash’s roots. Life changes I can see right under my eyes, nudged by my hands. I can’t wait to see how big they’ll get and all the different winter squashes that will appear!

Life is happening right here, right now. My weeks are no longer scheduled full. I make up the day’s doings as my mood requests, and my basic needs demand. As the weeks go by, the world news has become a hum in the background; a litany of data and uncontrollable changes in peoples lives. It’s as if I live on an island ruled by a far away government that decides over my living circumstances. The strife between maintaining a lockdown and opening the world up again with all the contingent risks is not my struggle. As a privileged elder living on a pension, I’m not waiting for the outside world to move my life along. 

Living in isolation reminds me of hiking solo on the long trail. Cut off from the buzz of news and media, surrounded by nature and tuning in to a body that walks, eats, sleeps and rests. As I’ve mentioned in some of my hiking blogs, hiking lets me experience life at 2 miles an hour. A pace that allow my senses to take in and process the environment. A pace my brain can absorb. Life in lock-down effects the brain in a similar way. Life is slower, not so jam-packed; there are no places to go; no-one to entertain. Zoom get-togethers lose their charm quickly. So it’s me and the daily routine, determined by my bodily needs and nature’s offerings. Each time I think up a project and what it entails, I soon realize that only essential stores are open, so I have to improvise, make my own, or go without. When I eventually do go to an essential store, I find most of what I need. The times of having what you want at the click of a button — now! — are a thing of the past. I don’t know if I want that time back again. I like this simple living. Each day my awareness expands a little more. I take time to sit, think, observe and be. I hear a bird singing at sunset and I am listening, even if it may take me three days to learn its name. 

My birthday balloon, a mark of the beginning of the lock-down – still half-inflated after 8 weeks – the air/gas contained in flowered plastic, dances lower in the  breeze from the ceiling fan. How long will it be before it is totally deflated? How long will things last when re-supplies aren’t coming? We may run out of pork on the grocery shelves, I hear. I can be a vegetarian. We may run out of toilet paper, I can create a bidet. Water is still flowing, rain will come again, wind and water can drive our turbines to make electricity. And haven’t I lived without electricity before when I was on the trail? I feel like a child again; a child who doesn’t know yet what can be had, and entertains herself with what is within reach.

This may be a year-long journey, a trek into the unknown. I look forward to what I will discover about life. For now, the change feels expansive. The unseasonal heat of this day is winding down. While the pizza is baking, there’s weeding to do in the shady part of the garden.

In Memoriam Baba Ram Dass

An icon of the New Age world of the sixties and seventies has passed on December 22, 2019. I learned about Ram Dass on a bus in Afghanistan in 1971 when someone handed me his book, BE HERE NOW. A hippie book full of drawings that expose our human suffering, acknowledge our lustful thoughts, hand drawn text to help us get out of the cycle of suffering and be in bliss, it brought the story of a Harvard psychology professor who went to India to meet a famous guru, Neem Karoli Baba. Now you’d think a Harvard scientist studying mind and consciousness will make short work of an Indian Guru in a blanket, sitting in the Himalayas. The opposite happened: Neem Karoli made short work of Richard Alpert and turned him into Ram Dass. Alpert has gone through life as Ram Dass working on his inner transformation ever since and passed away with a large following of friends who will mourn his passing and carry on spreading his message of love. 

I met Ram Dass in November 1971; it was a shock when I realized I shared a hotel rooftop balcony in Delhi with a famous man. I was a seeker of answers about living and he was a student of Mahara-ji, as Neem Karoli was called by his devotees.  I didn’t know then that Mahara-ji would have a lasting effect on me. A year of traveling around India and Nepal brought me eventually at the master’s feet under the pressure of another traveler. I was thoroughly fed up with the whole guru scene among westerners and skeptical of yet another guru. I spent 10 days around the ashram; Mahara-ji did his mysterious work with me, changed my name and sent me off into the world to do “my work”. Mahara-ji passed on to another world the next year and I didn’t visit the ashram again until 2005.

I heard Ram Dass speak a few times in my life in the US. He inspired me and others to sit and listen to our heart and love everyone. I’m sure many members of the New Age Community have done that.  We lived the seventies hoping love would change the world and bring peace. In 2020 that notion deserves question marks. Yet love is an essential ingredient for survival and well-being. 
My upcoming memoir: “When Love is not Enough” will tell you my story of a slow awakening to the truth of living: love is essential, but love doesn’t fix the worldly problems. Ram Dass lived a life of loving kindness, but he couldn’t fix climate change; he too had to lose people, had to deal with physical limitations and demise, and could only serve others when the opportunity arose. 
We can learn from an inspiring man’s life that he can bloom and inspire; he can move others to do the same, but in the end he dies. If lucky someone else will carry his message despite ongoing war and treachery, despite short sightedness and misuse of power, despite climate change, hunger and overpopulation. 
Ram Dass inspired peaceful living and loving kindness; we can carry on doing the same. We live in an era when teenagers are fighting for the survival of the planet, when child soldiers are taught to kill, when children still starve from hunger although 40% of the food produced in the US goes to waste and is thrown away. What’s happened since the late sixties is a shift. A shift in how people suffer and where people suffer. Suffering still happens. Love doesn’t take away suffering, love soothes. 

The big take-away from my encounter with Ram Dass and Mahara-ji has been that we each have our work to do to reduce our own suffering and help others to do the same. Once you have experienced the state of bliss – of non-suffering – you will still find yourself in a body and you still, as Ram Das said in Be Here Now, have to chop wood and carry water. You can honor Ram Dass by living the ordinary life without getting swept away by it, without drowning in it, and find the quiet moments that remind you that peace lives inside you.

The Journey of 2019 in Review

IMG_5470The year, or as the case is the decade, in review gives us pause. Does it do any good? Do we learn from our history? This last year I took a trip to retrace my steps of former years, a review of sorts. You can never go back they say. But I did; I went back to the places that have been significant in my life, my country of birth and the Himalayas in India, Nepal, Tibet. Everything has changed, I expected that, but I wanted to see how I have changed. 

The Netherlands, my native country formed me. The Himalayas have been my place of spiritual seeking, my place of finding myself. I don’t know why I chose the Himalayas, probably combining seventies rebelliousness – an anti-establishment act – and a deep longing for a different belonging than my Dutch-Calvinistic upbringing and environment offered. I wasn’t an exception: 35,000 young people were on the road to India on any day in the late sixties and early seventies. I wasn’t original, nor was I an outlier. 

From my first year-long journey around India and Nepal I brought back notions of spirituality, new ways of improving myself (the Calvinistic need of bettering oneself in the eye of God ran deep), and a thirst for living in community with people who weren’t afraid to be innovative. 

Holland felt stifling, small. I wanted something different. I emigrated to the West Coast of America and joined the back-to-the-land movement of the seventies. My explorations into alternate realities, alternative medicine, food styles, and living arrangements gave me community, a new family. I practiced skills and habits that promoted an emotionally healthier life than the restricted formality I had experienced growing up; I thought. The New Age paradigm had me in its grips.

Life unfolded and despite the newfangled notions of personal reality, unconditional love, and spiritual materialism, our family followed the predictable path of educated, middle class, privileged white people. We bought a home, a safe place to live and raise children, we accumulated modest wealth, comfort and opportunity for implementing new ideas on a small scale. My life didn’t look so different from my parent’s life; morals and values hadn’t changed. Had I changed considering what I was seeking earlier in life? Was I happier? More enlightened?

Then the next predictable life thing happened: misfortune and illness. Meditation doesn’t stop chronic illness; Love doesn’t heal dementia; alternative medicine in China doesn’t turn the tide of decline.

In 2005 I went back to the Himalayas to escape the misfortune, the illness and figure out a new direction. I found what I was made of: physically strong stock, a mind comfortable with emptiness, a body and mind that can walk itself into happiness. New Sarum Press will publish my memoir of that journey in 2020.

Life and loss taught me I create my happiness; it taught me belonging is a state of mind that changes like the tide of the ocean, the season, or the time of day. 

IMG_6092Back in the Himalayas this year, I walked, I watched, I embraced community. At my slow travel pace, I found the stories of the places I re-visited. The places have changed: prosperity is entering people’s life like a glacier moving forward burying everything known in its path, while the real glaciers have receded and the lack of water will drive people from their homes. Global migration is real and unstoppable, both in Europe and Asia. I found that the search for spirituality is trading places with hungry commercialism. Addiction to cellphones is replacing the need for community even in roadless nomad areas. 

And I? How have I changed? I no longer run away from my roots, I accept my not so exotic earthy sturdiness that came with my Dutch upbringing. I question the form of the ancient Eastern teachings, but I have absorbed the quiet stillness that comes with being present in the moment. I no longer need to find answers in foreign places, to look for teachers elsewhere. I am my own teacher. I can find answers on a trail in my own backyard, or on my meditation cushion. 

P1020608At the end of this journey of traveling with strangers, being fed, and cared for by nomads and innkeepers alike, I feel more love for humanity, even the ones who are making a mess of this world. You could say that after finding my thirst for inner clarity in India in the seventies, and reclaiming my self-belonging in 2005, this year upon my return to the Himalayas I’ve found a home inside myself. 

Like many people migrating the globe, I traveled around the world to find where home is. I discovered hope for the future in the heartfelt effort of a Ladakhi nomad teenager who walks 4 hours daily to school and back to better his future. I felt sadness over the belief of the faithful as the religious commerce at the temple of Swyambu in Nepal and the monasteries of Tibet sold them salvation. I looked the end of my time on earth into the eye at base-camp Mt Everest as the misty snowy clouds shrouded my vision and my slowed breathing made me feel I could dissolve into the clouds. I found that life at 72 can start anew after climbing over 18,000 ft Dolma-la pass at the base of Mt Kailash in Tibet.

The story of my journey is archetypical, a story of loss and renewal. Many years and many miles later I have arrived at the feeling of being at home within myself. It could have happened in one place, one town on an island. For me it happened, one foot in front of the other, one journey after the other, even a re-tracing of my steps to know that home is where the trail ends.

 

Bridging 2 Countries

7b51b911-9c9b-406e-bf4e-e76f5a7e677f

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.

P1020099

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.

P1020223

 

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.

IMG_5275

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!

P1020214

Return to Native Soil

P1020031

Actually, there isn’t that much soil where I was born.
Water is everywhere, crisscrossing the land retrieved from the sea and riverbanks. Windmills pump excess water back into rivers, canals and ditches to send it back via the main rivers to the sea. Land is a marshy commodity, but a fertile commodity and the locals know how to mine their gold. Dairy products, meat products, fruits and vegetables grown in meadows, fields , orchards and acres and acres of glass greenhouses have flooded the European market for years. Oh, and let’s not forget the flowers, grown on the sandy soil behind the dunes. When the soil isn’t marshy, it’s sandy and has just the right qualities for growing bulbs and sending the flowers all over the world. The Dutch are the 2nd largest exporters of agricultural products behind the USA and 90% of those exports are produced in the country. https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/actueel/nieuws/2019/01/18/nederlandse-export-landbouwproducten-in-2018-ruim-90-miljard  
P1020035
I’ve been rowing and swimming in the small rivers, bicycling along its banks on the narrow, cart-wide roads, stopping at fruit stands and tasting the luscious berries and tree-ripened fruits of summer. Fruit tastes like fruit here, soft, sweet, and deep flavored. Even the fruit from the supermarkets have real fruit qualities because that’s what people expect. The Dutch are discerning about what they feed themselves. I don’t know yet how they do it, but I suspect smaller operations and less transport and storage costs keeps the price down. Eating local is the answer. They don’t subscribe to irresponsible agri-business and are implementing a circular agriculture; it is innovative, efficient and deals responsibly with the side effects of producing so much food in such a small area. https://www.wur.nl/en/newsarticle/Circular-agriculture-a-new-perspective-for-Dutch-agriculture-1.htm

It’s a small country, 17 million people on 16,000 square miles and one of the most densely populated countries in the world. And yet, they make it work. They carve out green spaces, maintain their national parks, build high-rises on re-claimed land. People live close together, people have postage stamp yards, or if they live several stories high they maintain a community garden nearby where they can nurture their connection to the land and the water. They all hail from farmers, traders and sea-farers.

It’s summer and the Dutch who are still in the country (many set out for a two week paid (!) vacation to other lands) are putting along in their pleasure boats on the rivers and waterways, watching the waterfowl, herons, Nile geese and flocks of birds diving for fish, plants and insects, or bicycling the dense network of bicycle paths that crisscross the fields, marshes, dunes, moors and forests. They’re an active bunch, industrious they say. That industriousness has earned them a front-row seat on the international market. The smallness of their country allows them to carry out new ideas on a small scale and when it works sell the idea to the bigger economies. It’s easier to make changes when you’re dealing with a smaller population. Easier to communicate, easier to reach out, easier to make the change visible.

One of these changes has to do with dealing with a dwindling bee population. In the US we’re realizing the devastating effects a lost bee population will have on our food supply chain. In Holland they’ve already litigated against neonicotinoids that kill the bees. But not only that, now they’ve come up with a cheap and positive way to increase the bee and insect population: berm management. The farms and small towns are surrounded by roads with berms and waterways with riparian zones. Instead of spraying and cutting the grass one community after another is implementing ecological Berm Beheer – berm management, not as catchy in English – by sowing wildflowers along berms and riparian zones and letting the flowering plants attract bees, butterflies and insects that will pollinate the agricultural products, beautify the road and river sides and delight the locals who walk, bike and boat. How simple can it be? https://www.zuid-holland.nl/actueel/nieuws/januari-2019/start-ecologisch/
P1020037 (1)
When we travel to other places, we can learn. I’m learning again that living close to the land creates an economy of happiness. I buy fruit at the local farmer’s stand. I will drive to a cheese market to watch, taste and experience the ancient ritual of bargaining over the cheese produced in the area. Go find yourself a local market, go taste the fresh fruit and veggies and support your local economy. It will make you and those who produce these products happier. If you can walk or bicycle there even better.

P1020108
Alkmaar cheese market

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.

‘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…

PCT_Map_High-370x1024

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.

P1060946
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.

P1060841
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?

P1060950
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.