Few Drops of Water, Many Grains of Sand

View of Mohave desert

I hiked twenty miles with four liters of water, weighing 10.8 lb, in my backpack. The desert stared at me with its prickly smile, its flashy neon blooms, its fringy gray-green sage leaves rustling against aged, twisted woody stalks. Where was its water? How did these living things quench their thirst? Roots in sandy soil, porous, absorbing every drop of dew, spread out to hold on against drying winds searing over the landscape. I pulled my buff over my mouth to protect my cracked lips, tightened my hat deeper over my face.

The desert has always intimidated me. I come from temperate, cool climates. I don’t do “heat” well. I’m white, blond, thin skinned and succumb easily to heat exhaustion.

Temperatures were moderate when I hiked the desert. I hiked to learn, to observe, and embrace these ever increasing dry zones on our planet. If climate change is any indication of what’s to come, I may have to learn to live in the desert soon. The Armageddon of heat, drought and fire seems to be here on the west coast of America. 

Why deserts?

As I hiked, I pondered why we have deserts on this earth. An earth that can be lush, and green, with tall trees providing shade; where bubbling brooks lap at shores, and nurse the plant roots to make thickets along its banks. Where wide rivers flood the land and enrich the soil for next year’s growth. Why the deserts? 

The simple explanation is: water evaporates where the sun is closest to the earth. The water is stored in clouds high above the earth. Winds caused by pressure differentials move the clouds toward a less hot area, and rain falls, creating lush forests next to deserts. 

While I hiked 2400 hundred miles of the PCT between Mexico and Canada over the last eight years, I have seen what we’ve done to our forests. I’ve walked through old growth forest, clear-cut forest areas, mono-culture forests, diseased forests and burned forests. Just in the years I’ve walked, I’ve seen the loss of forest and I know, we don’t have time left. We need to turn the tide of loss of habitat now, or there will be more desert. 

Water is life

As I hiked this time, I pondered living in the desert. I saw the plots of land, given away for minor sums of money to those who can survive on the land for 5 years. I saw the abandoned shacks and mobile homes, rusted out, plastic window coverings flapping in the hot wind, as nearby tv-disks stared empty at the sky. Without water, people can’t make it. 

Stories of old tell how prophets come out of the desert. The shamans, the chosen ones, the future spiritual leaders roamed in these empty lands; they had “visions” and gained insight before returning to society to teach. I imagine hallucinations come easy under a scorching sun. You can lose your mind in the heat if you’re not careful. You must find water to survive. 

I left the world of comfort, food and plenty of water behind and entered the vast stretches of sage brush, chaparral, rock and sand to test my stamina and find empty mind as I walked the miles. Who wins in the desert? The tough ones or the lucky? 

Perry’s Nolina flower

Grains of sand

I was lucky. The weather was favorable. Trail angels brought me food and water; my body was strong enough to walk the sandy trail. I found relief in the shade during the hottest parts of the day; my empty mind experienced awe and wonder as surprise beautiful blooms broke the monotony of sand and sage. A full moon shone pink on the landscape. Even though I went for 5 days without water for washing, I was never thirsty. Water became my measurement for energy, not for cleanliness. Sand became the story of earth I want to save.

The average temperatures of the Northern hemisphere (Europe, North America, parts of Asia) have been much higher since 1950 than in any 50-year period in the last 500 years.

Indeed, almost all the zones surrounding current deserts are at risk. In the next decades these zones will become more and more arid, or worse, turn into deserts too.

Beaver tail cactus

Changing habits to save habitats

Back in the world of relative comfort and (still) plenty of water coming out of the tap, I pause when I wash, drink and water my garden. How much longer?

I want to use the insight I gained in the desert. Water shortages are a reality in many areas of the world. We can learn from others who have solved water shortages. Namibia’s capital turns wastewater into drinking water. Israel gets 55% of its domestic water from desalination plants. What will we do where I live? 

My hike in the desert reminded me and taught me again that we need to change our ways if we want this planet to be inhabitable for future generations. I must reduce my water usage and change my habits. It starts with turning off the tap as I wash my hands, mulching my garden, and taking fewer showers. I will revisit and review my assumptions about cleanliness, without giving up health practices. On the trail I was fine with 3 1/2 L of water a day and an occasional bath and clothes’ washing. Compare that with 80-100 gallons a day, the average person uses living indoors! We must reduce our energy consumption to reduce the rise in temperatures and stop the deserts from spreading. Governments will not reverse the heating of the planet, our individual behaviors will. Join me and walk more, use less water, eat locally and tell your neighbor.

A Shot in the Arm

The sandy trail stretches itself out in front of me up the exposed ridge, a dusty carpet rolled out. At each turn, the narrow switchbacks lure me into thinking a flat stretch awaits me. Not so, each turn means another 50-100 feet elevation gain. I’m glad it’s early morning, my can-do enthusiasm still high, the breeze cool because the pack load with 4 liters of water isn’t getting any lighter. I marvel at the weight distribution of these light backpacks. The weight doesn’t pull me back or push me down, once I hoist the pack on my back and tighten the straps in just the right places; I can walk upright, I can lift my legs without struggling. I can do this despite my age!! 

Hiking this first section of the season is my self-appointed job: I must hike day in, day out, with a rest day once a week. I rise early in the morning, let the caffeine do its wake-up work, and start on the day’s task, another 12-14 miles up and down, and through a desert landscape, mountainous, tree-covered sometimes, but mostly sage or chaparral covered, bone-dry, rocky ground. The edge of the wind-blown Mohave desert where I hiked its flatland 2 years ago, is to the east, Bakersfield and the hot Central Valley of California to the west.

The Mohave desert in the distance

If I succeed, I can fill in the sections I have missed to connect the PCT-line on the map into one long trail I will have hiked mile after mile. Age is playing its part. How much longer will my body tolerate this strenuous activity? When will I slow down so much that the daily mileage becomes impossibly little, and I must carry too much food, and too much water, to cover the distance between re-supplies? 

A South Carolina young hiker tells me he thinks the chaparral covered mountains are beautiful. I tell him it’s relative, and just wait till you get to the high Sierras for jaw-dropping beauty. I’m spoiled with the vistas I have seen, the mountains I have climbed. This stretch is more of a daily hum-drum; a job to get done. 

I do enjoy the walking. As I let my body find its rhythm, my legs do their DNA imprinted work. I’m in awe of my body’s resilience, the lack of pain, the ease with which I fall into this daily effort. My thoughts recede, my eyes absorb the world around me, my brain remembers names of flowers and bushes, my being dissipates into the wide open distances with range after range of mountains resting on the earth, waiting for me to come to them and, stand in the high places, find the water sources, scour for a flat place to pitch my tent. When the birds start singing at 4:45 AM, I never wake up thinking “I don’t want to do this today” or “I want to stay in bed”. I become part of this natural world. My body responds to light and sound and wants to move, relieve itself, drink, eat and see what the day will bring. The deep inner drive to find food and water, to scour the environment for shelter is the essence of a nomadic life. A life in which survival is the thing that counts. Of course on this trek I don’t have to find food, but I do have to keep moving to find water sources, move to find safe shelter for the night, away from gusty winds or a bright moon. When we live in one place, in a home, the inner drive to move becomes muted. Only a social need to connect moves us about. We may have an inner voice that tells us we need exercise to stay healthy. 

Full (Blood) Moon in May rising over the desert

These last 8 years I gave up home and hearth for periods of time, to explore the effects of living and moving on the wilderness trail, away from convenience stores, chairs, beds, readily available water spigots, electric lights, screen entertainment and artificial waking and sleeping schedules.

I’ve found my connectedness in nature, my health, my contentedness, my confidence. I’ve learned that doing with less, eating less, moving more is a formula for happiness. I haven’t made the wilderness trail my permanent way of life. I watch the through-hikers pass me by with the 5-month-long view in their eyes, the sense of newness, ownership over their lives in their voices. And yet, they too return to the daily world of cars, jobs, noise pollution, light pollution, and stress to carve out a living that satisfies. 

We can learn from our experiences; distill the essence, and apply our new knowledge in the life that follows. When I come home, I keep moving daily. I find places to hike, away from noise and light pollution. I listen to my body’s food needs and try to change my bodyweight set-point to a lighter, healthier number. I find alternatives for chair sitting and sit on the floor more. 

Spending 3 weeks in the outback has given me a shot in the arm. I’m vaccinated against the onslaught of society’s disabling habits. Will I get the disease? Yes, but not as severe. Will I succumb to easy temptations? Of course, but not for long. Another section is waiting for me. I will explore again as long as my body lets me.

Snow plant (Sarcodes Sanguinea)

A 100 Miles to Earth day for All

To damage the earth is to damage your children”, Wendell Berry, farmer and poet

Thousands are crossing the border in boats across a river into Southern Mexico. The shuttlers drop them off under cover of the jungle to avoid Mexican border patrol. The people scurry in small groups through the green and start their 100 mile walk to a place where they’ve been told there will be a shelter; a shelter that will receive them and where they can get help to travel North to the United States to find work and safety. Single young adults, without certainty, walk not knowing where their water and food will come from, while carrying their meager belongings in small backpacks. Many have a contact in the United States on their phone, that promised them a job once they get there. They nurse their blisters; they tighten their belt when hungry; they wait for the dark of night to travel. Hardship born out of trauma, poverty, and an economy based on corruption.

At the same time, thousands of young adults are setting out on their first 100 miles from the Mexican border going North on the Pacific Crest Trail. They are following a well-marked trail; they form small groups, called ‘tramilies’ (trail families) as they make their way North. Their goal is the Canadian border. They are taking a break from the safety and comfort of their everyday lives. They are taking a break from the stress of modern living to get to know themselves better. Many of them won’t get past the first 100 miles. They find out they aren’t cut out for dealing with the daily grind of walking miles, nursing blisters, fighting tiredness, monotony and uncertainty. Those who make it past the first 100 miles find a new connection to themselves, nature, the wide vistas, and the challenge the trail gives them. They carry their shelter on their back; they use an app on their phone that tells them where they can find the next camping spot, the next water, the next place to re-supply. Self imposed hardship with an edge of privilege. 

For the last 9 years, I have joined hundreds of such hikers to walk sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. A hundred miles, two hundred to four hundred miles at a time. I left the comfort of home to test my endurance, to find my belonging, and to give myself a new perspective on living. Each year, it rewarded me with new insights, peace of mind, and a healthier body. On and off trail I met people who shared what they had with me; I found new enduring friendships; I learned friends are everywhere I walk and that trail angels do exist. I had a job that gave me paid time off to explore the wilderness and allowed me to come back to the certainty a steady income provides. You can say I have led a privileged life, to be able to walk in safety, with enough money to take care of my needs. My yearly treks continued into retirement. 
I came to this country in my early twenties, legally, on a green card. The sponsorship and protection of an American family made this possible. I didn’t have money. My enthusiasm, my adventuresomeness, my educated brain and willingness to work is what I brought. I had what so many young adults from Middle America are attempting to get: legal entry, safety, and protection. 

Rhyme nor reason governs the political patterns that affect immigrant lives. Climate change and an ever increasing world population does. Historically, countries have been able to control the influx of people pouring in from other countries by setting up check-points, requiring visas and immigration applications. Desperation makes people circumvent the official entry points. In the countries affected by floods, droughts, war and poverty, a sense of Armageddon, the end of days, causes people to make desperate moves. Walking a 100 miles for a chance of reaching safety doesn’t seem so bad in the face of violence, sex trafficking, lack of food and shelter.  
Can the “haves” share? Does this vast country have room for more people, more workers willing to do (slave) labor for minimum wage in exchange for stability in their life? Of course there’s room. Will there be an end to the stream of economic, climate and war refugees? Not likely. Until the pendulum swings and we treat the world as our home and not as a collection of separate, good or bad countries we may or may not call home, we will have people trying to cross our borders. It isn’t only our attitude we’ll have to change. We need to reduce, reuse and share, so there will be enough for everyone; so that the atmosphere can produce healthy air; so water will be a life giving commodity again. As people born into privilege, into a society that protects our rights, we must share this privilege with others who are not so lucky. Earth Day isn’t one day in April, Earth Day is every day. Give back to the earth as much as you can. Share the earth with others.

Numbers too Big to Fathom

burnt forest PCT near Crater Lake Oregon

Nearly 7.5 million people are grieving in the US as we’ve reached 500,000 Covid deaths in the USA. These are big numbers. Numbers too big to fathom. We can relate to numbers we have experienced. We’re at a loss when the numbers are outside our experiential number world.

Walking Number Worlds
My 4-year-old grandson looked at me with enormous eyes as I read the Grandma Gatewood’s picture book about her trek on the Appalachian trail. We discussed how long the trail was, and how much I had hiked on the PCT. He said: “that’s like a hundred miles?” Now that he can count to twenty by single digits, and by tens to one hundred, the number 100 is the limit of his number world. 
My 8-year- old granddaughter thought she couldn’t take another step, so tired she was after a day on the slopes. To help her tackle the half-mile walk from the ski-lift to our condo on her exhausted legs, I asked if she thought she could walk ten steps. “Oh, easy,” she said. Ten was a small number in her world; so, yes, she could. How about 100 steps? She started walking and counting by tens and reached the condo in no time. 
Numbers have meaning relative to our experience. When I tell people I’m going for a 300 mile hike on the trail, averaging 15 miles a day, eyes glaze over and people can’t relate unless they’ve walked 10 or 15 miles in a day themselves. For some, the number just means the hike is outside their reach; for others, the hike challenges them and makes them wonder if they can do it themselves.

300 mile post on the PCT in Southern California

Numbers and Meaning
I’ve seen the Covid death number steadily climb in the last months and have had an intellectual knowing that the totals are awful. I don’t know anyone I’m close to, who has died.
A half million deaths in a year because of a contagious disease is making me pause. When I do the math, it means one death for every 662 people. When I consider that equation, I know that deaths in the Iraq war for Iraqis is much higher, one death for every 250 people. In Iraq, a generation of men of fighting age has been decimated. In the US, 80% of the Covid deaths were among the 65-and-over age group.
We cannot attribute value to these numbers unless we’ve lived them. Is losing a generation of young man who could have built society, worse than losing an aging section of the population? I don’t know. I imagine that physicians and health care workers have a more feeling reaction to the numbers than I do. They’ve been on the battlefield and seen people die, one after another.

Loss isn’t a Number
Losing someone close to you is painful. The age of the person who dies doesn’t change the pain and grief. We can tell ourselves that the young man died for his country, for freedom, a noble death. We can tell ourselves that losing a loved one who’s approaching the end of their life, is part of living and dying. The pain of loss doesn’t change because of what we tell ourselves. We can connect each person who dies to someone else, often a family group. Families are grieving. For each person who died of Covid, I guess at least 5-7 people are grieving. The nation – and the world – is grieving. 

PCT/JMT toward Forester pass in California

Bigness in Nature
My experience with the ‘bigness’ of things is in nature. When I walk 3 days through burned forest, my heart aches. Walking a week through green conifers, connects my heart with tree life. I meet the sky and the vastness of the universe when I climb above tree level; my mind expands and my heart experiences transcendence. In a year of living with Covid, I have hugged 6 people. Not having body warmth and breath near me, has created a heart that is still; alone in its experience. 

What It Means
In a world of ‘too much’ – too many choices, products, stress, people – we’ve had to do without – without family, travel, jobs, eating out, or toilet paper – and we’re experiencing loss. I value periods of living ‘without’. I hike the long trail to experience just that. It opens me up to life in fresh ways; I experience life with new meaning. Considering these big Covid numbers lets me relate the number to things I know. I’ve walked for days in forest of the Pacific Northwest. 500,000 Trees in Oregon make a forest of 1200-1300 acres. If you walk 2-3 miles per hour, it will take you 65 hours, or 8 (eight-hour) hiking days, to cross a forest with a half million trees in Oregon. Think of a forest of dead people and walking 8 days to experience losing them. These are numbers the people on the battlefields of the Civil War experienced!

Finding the Equation
We cannot experience what we cannot grasp. Doing the math brings this loss closer to me. When I walk in the forest this summer, I will relate my hiking days to the Covid deaths that have occurred. I may then grasp what this pandemic means. You, the reader, must find your own equation for the loss this nation is experiencing. Only if we experience and live the loss, will we build empathy and make decisions that will mitigate a repeat. 

It’s the Journey, not the End

The official quote is: “Happiness is a journey not a destination”. The current national sentiments battered by an insurrection in the Nation’s Capitol and a spiking pandemic leave little room for happiness. The journey we’re on toward a better America seems endless, non-achievable. 

Travel and Pandemics

Now that travel is dangerous because of the pandemic, I read about faraway destinations. Currently I’m reading about Lake Baikal. This lake in Siberia is the biggest, deepest, purest lake in the world. The Russian people believe that Lake Baikal cannot become polluted, because it can purify itself because of its unique ecological balance. Millions and millions of tiny shrimp – Epischura – that live in the lake water, absorb pollutants; pollutants people put in the water that feeds the lake. The water stays pure, but the animals up the food chain – the animals that eat the shrimp, the insects, the fish, the bigger fish that feed the seals, called nerpas- become toxic at the top of the chain. People who live near the lake eat toxic Nerpa blubber and toxic fish. World organizations recognize that Lake Baikal is in danger. The Russians don’t see the problem.

A Democracy in Peril

What do Lake Baikal’s problems have to do with America’s problems? If you think about it, you can compare the American democracy with lake Baikal. We think our democracy is pure and will stay that way. Freedom of speech is an unalienable right for Americans. But when people are saying dehumanizing things, these words become the pollutants for our democracy. The president has been polluting our democracy for 4 years and made it okay for others who harbor hateful thoughts. Words play on emotions; emotions become opinions; opinions become conspiracy theories; theories become calls to action. Unless we break this chain effect of words, our journey of living in a democracy will end. 

What to take on the Journey

The American lands are beautiful. To experience the beauty I hike in nature. When I go on a long trek I prepare and look hard at what I take with me. I only take what I can carry up and down mountains. To see the beauty of this country I have to live simple and rely on mental acuity and physical strength, not guns, pipe bombs and offensive slogans. What I do moment by moment, my respect for the environment and my kindness toward the people I meet, mark my journey as a positive one.


It has come to this: politicians have become polluted/toxic and are defending their vote based on conspiracy theories and saying they are representing their constituents. My representative in congress is such a man. He represents a large swath of farm and ranch land where people see Ted Bundy as a hero, where carrying – and using- an automatic weapon is seen as manly and a constitutional right. This politician bases his vote on a lie. When I sit in not-knowing, without solutions I witness my feelings about what is happening at this time and my deeper feelings that lay buried. The pandemic has slowed my life, and I use this time for reflection and re-organization. I ask myself, “what will we take on this journey of making America great again? Humanity and good moral values, or do we continue with competition and cunning? Do we let everyone pull themselves up by their bootstraps or do we lend a helping hand? Are we willing to do with less to save the planet, or are we on lemming run toward the cliff? The questions that arise lead me to action.

Taking Action

I’m just one white-skinned, privileged person. Reduce, re-use and re-cycle is my motto. My government bonus check can go to a needy neighbor. If I’m discerning I can avoid conspiracy thinking. If I listen I may find not so obvious actions for the current situation. At this point I don’t know how to de-escalate the adrenaline addicted, gun-toting, conspiracy abiding fellow citizens who drive their big powerful trucks flying the Trump nation flag. I’m encouraged by the gestures of big companies who refuse to do business with seditionists, who close on-line accounts that spout falsehoods and violence. I ask myself, is it enough? Is it too late? The journey of being a democracy requires us to listen. Only by showing empathy and take well-thought out steps forward can we break the cycle of hate. Let’s slow our lives, think before we use words and interact with others. Let’s act by calling oppressive, and divisive policies for what they are. 

Words and Deeds

Lake Baikal attracts tourism because of its famed purity, but not for much longer. America, known as the land of the free, could follow that route of decline. The rest of the world is watching. We can start by no longer polluting the nation with words and deeds. We can listen to the fear of fellow citizens when we have a chance. Then the democratic journey has a chance to become a happy one and the end will be a good.                 

Hiking for Wholeness

“We must learn to view everything as part of “Undivided Wholeness in Flowing Movement”                                David Bohm, American physicist 1917 – 1992

The elections have been certified. Opposing camps are each in their own bubble and aren’t seeing eye-to-eye. Our world is as divided as ever, despite certification of election results, despite the growing pandemic numbers, despite the cry for help from the unemployed, the almost-homeless, the ones grieving the loss of a loved one to COVID-19, or the loss of a loved one to police brutality and racial profiling. Division weighs heavy. The sides blame or shake their head in disbelief. Maybe they suspect, fear, or know that the force is against them and deny being that force. We can’t look the other way and say, “I didn’t cause your fears, your suspicions, your evil acts; this is not my world.” The fact is this world is all of our world. We are in this together.

What If? We conduct our business, walk through our days, share with those we love or feel affinity. Can you give to the man-down-the-street who disagrees with you? Can you keep a friendship going when you discover your friend believes in conspiracy, or believes they’re the “good guy”? Does the woman on the other side of the divide, want you in her life? What if? What if we adopted a family we disagree with for Christmas? Gave them what they ask for – if it’s within our means? What if we shared without judging? I received an unsolicited phone call from a woman belonging to a group of volunteers who wanted to spread a positive message with a bible verse. This woman called me across the divide, shared from a faith that isn’t mine. 

The Balancing Act When I do the Covid safe thing and hike the hills around my home, I find my belonging. I’m part of a world that is whole. Trees, grasses, moss, lichen, shrubs, insects, worms, animals, birds support each other in their survival! Too much lichen? The tree dies. No birds of prey? Too many rabbits will nibble the greenery and the grasses die. No grass? Erosion follows. You see, it all hangs together. So I hike to remind myself, to think, to find solutions. We haven’t acted as if everything hangs together. We’ve sponsored our species – (hu)man – over plants, trees, soil and animals. We’ve cut trees – too many – and spewed toxins into the air. We are the ones who’ve created the imbalance. Is nature sending us a message? Is it necessary for the continuation of the whole that 2 million people die from a pandemic? When a rabbit population grows exponentially, because of an imbalance in nature, rabbits starve and die. 

Thinking in Slogans We’re taught to think in slogans and save ourselves and the planet. “Better to wear a mask than a ventilator” makes sense. “Reduce, reuse, recycle”. A slogan to save the planet that isn’t a solution anymore. Reduce, reuse- that’s a beginning. “Family will hang together”. Try it. Kids in lockdown doing long distance learning don’t bring families together; it tears them apart, if the parents are juggling jobs and teaching, and never get a break. “Time for Nature” causes the hordes to descend on our National Parks and pollute the environment. If we can’t teach people how to behave as part of an ecosystem, sending people into nature leads to disaster and not a turn to “Whole” thinking. Among the political candidates in 2020, I found only three with slogans that infer we’re part of a whole. Beto O’Rourke “We’re all in this together” Sanders: “Not me, Us”. Hickenlooper: “Come together”. (Who is coming together here though?) Others focus on America in contrast to other countries. America isn’t a separate world that stands on its own. Trump uses, “Make America Great Again”. Amy Kobuchar says: “Amy for America”. Wayne Messam, “Wayne for America”. Are these folks thinking that their loyalty to America solves the problems w’re having? Maybe, what we need is Yang’s “Make America Think Again”; it cleverly stands for “Math”. However, doing the math of the divide we’re in, doesn’t bring us together. Congress is trying with the extra spending bills, and you can see where that’s going. Not much “whole” thinking there. Biden who uses the slogan, “Our best days still lie ahead” is on to something, because the current days are not very good. Not that it brings people together, to have a better future hanging out there like a carrot on a stick. People’s appetites for a better future across the divide are different: some want hot-dogs, others carrots-on-a-stick and they’ll fight over who gets what. 

Hiking toward Wholeness So I’ll keep hiking to experience my connection with the “Whole”, I’ll shop locally to support businesses with disparate views, give financial support to all people who’ve suffered in the last wild fire, and contribute to the food bank to feed people no matter what their belief, their opinion or reason they need help. The whole of this planet in this universe will bump along until it doesn’t anymore. “Share the Love” for the holidays, not by buying a new Subaru but by driving the old one that is doing just fine. I agree with Tom Steyer’s ”Climate Change Cannot Wait” and “Actions Speak Louder than Words”. 

You can find the documentary on David Bohm and his search toward proving Wholeness here
Comments and shares are always appreciated! 

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. 

Love and Roses

Roses and Romance

I was 62 when my lover friend sent me 12 red roses for Valentine’s. It was the first time in my life I received this token of romance. It also was the last time. This lover friend developed Alzheimer’s and spent his last years locked in an institution. In my romantic younger years Valentine’s day didn’t exist, but flowers came my way in the form of corsages. I spent several years going to fraternity parties with my boyfriend; the gentleman that he was he did what we considered romantic in those years. When a Marxist group in the late sixties radicalized our thinking, we considered corsages from then on a bourgeois excess. 

The flower-power years followed and anything that reeked of commercialism was taboo; certainly bunched red roses flown in from South America. A bunch of field-picked wild flowers was the closest to a romantic flower gift then. 

Love and the Heart

When long-term love and marriage entered my life, we cut paper hearts with the children and pasted them on construction paper for a multitude of “friendship” cards. Some chocolate to go with it all, was the extent of our Valentine’s gift. 

No romantic dinner’s, no surprise get-aways for that one day in February when everyone expresses their love. Gold-dipped chocolate roses arrived for my teenage daughter but not for me. My husband and I loved each other and wasn’t that enough? I found a card in my card recycle box the other day with a sweet, meaningful message for one of those not-so-Valentine’s days. I smiled and remembered our love, still in my heart even though he is no longer in the body. 

Love Moments

Ahh yes, love! The elusive, yet real feeling. Can we  experience love when we don’t have a lover? Love produces longing when we don’t feel it. Yet love, according to some, becomes pervasive when we are close to death. Rilke wrote: “Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” When we feel the moments slipping away and each moment we still have becomes precious and radiant, many people report experiencing a state of love. Can we feel romantic when we don’t receive red roses? Can love just arise out of nowhere? 

Spontaneous Love

I say yes! Love arises when I sit in meditation long enough; love arises when I surround myself with the beauty of nature; love comes up spontaneously when I slow down, straighten up from bending over a garden bed and take in the beginnings of spring. So instead of rushing around to find a gift for someone you love, be the gift of slowing down and be present for a friend, yourself, or your loved ones. Make Valentine’s day a slow day and see how you feel. Get up slowly. Drink your tea or coffee slowly; chew your food slowly and eat less; walk slowly, drive slow. Gaze out the window, stop and look at a tree, a bird, a river. Feel. Look everyone in the eye, stop to listen, be with whoever is asking for your attention. Breathe. Love for all-that-is will rise inside you, and who needs roses when you feel that kind of love?

When The Facade of Affluence hides Cast Discrimination

What if you were born to be poor? Your status in life was predetermined by cast?

I’ve just left Ladakh, a predominant Buddhist part of India, where there are many poor people. My trekking guide came from such a poor family. He was handed over to a monastery at age eight so he’d get fed and educated. He left the monastery at age 34, married and developed a business. He’s no longer poor; his children have a university education, his wife has a steady job at a hospital. In Ladakh you can work your way out of poverty – religion and societal status don’t keep you poor.

In Nepal I’m staying at a B&B in a small merchant town, populated by Newaris. The Newaris are traders from way back, the little town was a trading center on the route from India to Kathmandu. As the Prithvi highway eliminated their trading monopoly, the Newaris turned from goods to tourists and created an old-world ambiance with modern amenities to attract their clientele. The Newaris do well for themselves; it’s obvious in the wellfed happy children walking to school and the chubby men and women running their small businesses.

But there is another side to this story: the B&B has partnered with a Scottish Rotary club and uses the profits of the business to help children of a nearby village to get an education. The Bhujel who live here are of a lower cast, most likely Dalit, untouchables. The men drink, the women make bamboo products for sale; not enough to make a living. Living in a fertile, land rich area the Bhujels miss the skills to be farmers and most likely were never allowed to own land. They live in predetermined poverty.

Our young guide Roshan tells us that at the end of the civil war in 2005 between rebel Maoists and Nepali royalists, the cast system was abolished as a condition for a constitutional Nepali government. “Everyone now has the same opportunities, we can marry across cast”, he says, confident that the change is real. When a group of Nepali tourists introduce themselves to me that night as Brahmin (the superior cast), I’m not so sure I can share his optimism. Just as with the abolishment of slavery in the US, the attitudes and prejudice do not get stamped out with the passing of a law.

The Newaris in Bandipur exude confidence; they know they can avoid poverty if they work hard. The Brahmins draw their confidence from privilege; what we call ‘white privilege’ in the US.

Roshan worked in Qatar for a few years. The money sent home from Qatar is 20% of Nepal’s GDP. Many of the Nepali migrant workers are the new slaves of the modern world as they work in construction for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. They are indentured servants; often don’t get paid for months and owe a debilitating recruitment sum. Roshan was lucky, he’s not a Dalit; he could get back to the shelter of family with improved English language skills and have a new start in the tourism industry.

Will western thinking and secularisation change the cycle of poverty? Probably, slowly, it will. Maybe, just maybe, my travel and presence here shifts the balance a bit more to opportunity for all. I tell a young Newari woman, named Jun-ko after the first Japanese woman to summit Mt Everest, to go climb a mountain. I tell her what I’m doing on this trip. She looks at me and asks my age. I tell her, “I’m 72”. I can see the glimmer of possibility in her eye. She thinks, if you can, I can too! Dream Jun-ko, you live in a country of magical mountains. Go make ’em your own.

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’.