From Solo Hiking to Support Magic

PCT section E, mile 454 – 548, Agua Dulce to Tehachapi, via Hiker Town mile 518 in the SW corner of the Mojave desert.

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San Pelone Mountains near Hiker Town CA

After weeks of hiking through a mix of forested and chaparral mountain ranges, some with snow, others bright green with spring grasses and new growth, I entered this drier desert section with mixed feelings. On the one hand, this was what I had come for: to experience the desert and meet my fear of dry, waterless and shadeless trail. On the other hand, my overworked and painful knee made me wonder if I should leave the trail to let my knee heal. However the rest and hospitality at Hiker Heaven in Agua Dulce gave me the courage to tackle the next stretch.

Trail magic sustains and supports long distance hikers. There comes a moment on a long hike you don’t anticipate, can’t plan for in advance; a moment when you need support from others on the journey. L-Donna (and her husband) at Hiker Heaven has dedicated 20 yrs of her life to supporting PCT thru hikers. A hiker herself in the past, she knows the needs of a thru hiker and opens up her property 3 months of the year for hikers to rest, get laundry done, repairs made, charge electronic devices, re-supply, mail stuff home, receive packages, watch movies, rest and hang out with other hikers, shower, cook and exchange trail information. L-Donna does everyone’s laundry for them! She has a few volunteers who manage the mailing and post-office pick-up, and live in a colorful VW-bus on the property. All of this is offered at no charge. There isn’t even a donation box; you have to make an effort to contribute monetarily to this venture.

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Agua Dulce Hiker Heaven

When I walked off in the early morning from Hiker Heaven through a landscape of horse ranches, with smells of fresh cut hay in the air, I wondered what motivated Donna to do this service year after year. She wouldn’t tell me as she spent an afternoon cleaning the hiker trailer, changing linens on the couches by the TV, and scrubbing the hiker kitchen. “Can I help,” I asked? “No, you can help by getting out of here and sit somewhere outside and rest your knee,” was her answer. She runs a tight ship, has a list of rules of conduct, keeps the place cleaned up and looks after everyone. I saw others around her pick up on her generous spirit and share resources, or form new alliances for hiking. Donna is an ambassador for community building, for spreading kindness and, albeit temporary, offering a world of harmony. Flashbacks to my commune days in the 70ties went through my head as I hiked on. Where did it go wrong with the communal spirit of the 60ties and 70ties I thought. Will young people (and older ones) figure it out this time?

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Molly Woppy from New Zealand and I in matching loaner dresses at Agua Dulce

Soon my attention was on climbing the exposed slope to my camping destination for the night. A cool breeze kept me from overheating and fortified by Hiker Heaven rest I hiked 17 miles that day, despite my bum knee. The next few days friendly faces of hikers I had shared a room or campsite with in the last few weeks kept popping up. I now was part of a group that moved along the trail at a similar speed. I had a trail family! The magic of a trail family is the moral boost you get when the going gets tough. A smile, a shared rest stop, someone to complain to about pain, temperature or trail condition. Also someone to share lunch and siesta with. So I talked with the Finnish young couple about their plans for moving to Portugal, listened to the 50some woman who left home and husband to give herself a new purpose as she was dealing with an empty nest, and shared shade with my Welsh Brexit-man on a windy spot near the only cistern with good water that day. Travelers who have an open itinerary opened up about life and ideals, and together we puzzled over new solutions to age-old societal problems.

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Brexit man, Dan and Aussie Stu hiking companions

On the fifth day of this section, after a loud night time thunder storm, I walked through orange and yellow flower meadows down into Mojave valley’s Hiker Town. Hiker town looks like a movie set out in nowhere, right along the trail. It is a conglomeration of wild west movie set fronts with rooms built on to accommodate hikers at $10.- a  night. Laundry can be done by hand, a shuttle takes you to one of the two cafe/stores where you can get a meal and re-supply. This is corporate trail magic. A large corporation, Tejon Ranch, established with a movie producer’s money owns the land and the “town. For the longest time TJ Ranch resisted to open their land to a trail for thru hikers. After much back and forth the PCT organization pulled their trump card to get the last part of the PCT completed. They threatened to start condemnation  procedures. TJ Ranch surrendered, and they completed the trail. In the process of dealing with hikers, caretakers of the Hiker Town property learned that hikers aren’t dangerous or irresponsible and a re-supply stop was born. I think the magic that happened was that hikers changed the TJ people’s outlook and a place with trail magic could exist.

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coming down from the hills into Hiker Town, Mojave desert CA

As I hiked the chaparral covered mountains with my bum knee, I had concluded it would be better not to risk permanent damage and cut my trip short in Tehachapi. The open desert lay before me and I wanted to experience walking through the Mojave flat land. Three days to Tehachapi, could I do it? An exposed, windy 18-mile walk to the next water source lay ahead. As we were sitting around with other hikers and talking about our hikes, a man arrived who joined the conversation. When I mentioned needing to go slow and hoping to make it across the aqueduct, he offered to be my walking partner. And so an angel walked into my hiking life. Attilio’s caring attitude, his willingness to go my pace and make sure I would be OK, has given me hope and confidence in humanity (maybe he was a real angel and showed up to teach me how to be a better human being). He shared stories of his life, his indigenous Mexican heritage and family (the Carlos Castaneda theme was still hanging around!) and his outlook on bringing humans together by being nice to them was a shot in the arm for believing that we can live in harmony with strangers, that we can build a world in which we support each other with no need for monetary return. I learned on this section hike that the more vulnerable I was, the more support came my way. A’s girlfriend picked us up at the trail head to Tehachapi. A day of rest and getting clean and I had a ride to the airport with my hiker angel.

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Attilio, my unexpected hiker angel

30 Days and 30 nights of roaming the desert was a soul journey. It gave me 350 miles of hiking, a new look at life, a respectable 2000 miles of PCT trail under my belt, a slimmer self, new knowledge about my bodies limitations, and a new love for the possibilities of humanity.

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crossing the Mojave on the only flat stretch of the PCT

Pain and Water

PCT section E, mile 454 – 518, Agua Dulce to Hiker town

It’s only fitting on a hike that’s going nowhere to have to give up on well laid plans. This section gave me the unknown in spades. You’d think after hiking close to 2000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (in sections), you know a thing or two. And I do, but as life has it, there’s more to experience, and more to learn.

Hiking with Pain

I’ve been very fortunate till now and have never had to hike with nagging pain. Shoulder pressure may be, sore tired feet at the end of a long day, but nothing that didn’t resolve with a night’s rest. On a long steep downhill, loaded down with water weight, my aging knee decided it had more than enough. Inflammation, swelling and pain that screamed for relief. Drugs and a slower pace softened the sensation but the truth is, my mind had to focus on managing pain while hiking and this pushed my experience of my surroundings to the background. My empathy for people living with chronic pain has grown with leaps and bounds.

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thru hikers taking care of their sore feet

When you’re focused on pain you meet others in pain. Lots of hikers are in pain! And then there those bouncy strong legs that pass you by, doing a 30-mile day effortlessly it seems. Life isn’t fair and pain distribution isn’t equal among people.

And so I will cut my planned hike a bit short to do the wiser thing and take the knee home for some rest and healing. But first I want to walk the only flat 17 miles on the PCT: the L.A. aqua-duct, where L.A.’s water coming from the Mojave flows under your feet, and where fierce winds can blow in this corner of the desert proper. The weather gods are blessing me with cool temperatures…

Water

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one of the few running streams in the San Gabriel mountains

Hiking The outskirts of the Mojave brings up images of dry barren hills, soaring temperatures and the search for water. Last winter’s abundant snowfall and the cool spring temperatures have kept water flowing in the mountains except for this last week’s stretch. I learned that a half liter goes a long way if necessary (normal calculation is 1 liter for 4 miles).

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the small black tube was my siphoning tube

One cistern produced foul smelling but not dangerous (after filtering) water as I didn’t get sick overnight. The next tank’s water was so low that lying on my belly, sucking dirt while siphoning through a 2 mm tube produced a drip, drop trickle that would take hours to make a liter. A quarter liter was all I got, hoping the next cistern 3 miles ahead would be better. Not so! The smell of dead animal in the green slime below turned me away from that one. Another 2 miles to the next one and what if it turned out to be bad? Navigation comments didn’t seem to be keeping up with current hiker demand.

As I stood on the road by the foul smelling cistern, 2 motorcycle riders came by on their dirt bikes. I flagged them down and begged for water. After some humming and hawing on how to transfer water from their backpack bladders to my water bottle, this strange and dirty looking old lady had a half liter to hike on with. I never thought I would be thankful to dirt bikers.

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cistern with clear good tasting water

The next cistern did have clean, fresh smelling water. I “cameled” up, had siesta and made dinner for an afternoon of downhill hiking (the painful kind for my knee) with plenty of water in case I had to make dry camp that night. I made it to a campsite 6 miles from Hiker town where a little stream was still flowing. A sponge bath was my reward for a long and water challenged hiking day.

Don’t count on supposed water sources in or near the desert. Don’t carry too much water, it hurts your knees. Go figure!

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The road into Hiker Town Mojave desert CA

From the Devil’s chair to Paradise to Heaven

PCT section D, mile 364 to 454, 90 miles, Wrightwood to Aqua Dulce.

In biblical times the devil would visit and test prophets who roamed the desert to do their soul searching. On my way out from Wrightwood I decided to avoid snowy Mt Baden-Powell and hike an alternate trail, not the PCT. The first 6 miles went according to plan on my map; as I approached Big Rock camp where I had to turn onto South Fork trail I met a man hiking with his young son (!) who when I asked confirmed that there was a trail to Ipsli Gap. “Just cross the river and you’ll see the trail on the other side.” Indeed the trail was waiting, wide and inviting. When I checked my GPS, the marker didn’t show (!), so I went on trust. Soon another young man (!) came towards me asking if I was thru-hiking. When I said where I was going, he also directed me on this trail. As I hiked on, I felt “lucky” to have guides appear in Castaneda type fashion (Carlos Castaneda was a much read shaman in the sixties who found his spirit guides in the Sonoran desert) After 1 1/2 hours of hiking uphill and down I came to a river and campsite where a black snake (!) slithered across the trail. I hiked across the river and further up, kept seeing the land on the eastern side of the mountains, not what I thought I should be seeing.

And then there was the wooden sign: Devil’s chair keep going, South Fork Trail go back. I was on my way to Devil’s Chair and 3 miles out of my way! Those men were no spirit guides, they were the devil in disguise leading me the wrong way!

As I consulted my GPS again, the marker showed up and told me I needed to hike back to the first river!

Did I lose an afternoon? I hiked and I was fine, so what is there to lose when time is all I have? When I eventually came to the South Fork Trail, it was barely visible and definitely in a different river canyon. I made my way up the canyon along a very narrow rocky and sketchy trail until I was too tired to go on. My fury over being fooled by the “devil” moved me along (really they were nice Hispanic people with a cultural bend to want to please even if they didn’t know where to send me). I found an impossible small rocky patch to pitch my tent for the night and slept like a rock (pun intended).

This detour and the following morning’s hike up to Ipsli Gap, a hike where every step required my focused attention so I wouldn’t slide into the river ravine below, showed me that the road to heaven is narrow and difficult. The road to hell is wide and easy.

That afternoon I did arrive back on the PCT and walked through a beautiful forested section, with wide granite sand and plenty of water called Paradise Valley. I met up with another senior hiker and we leap-frogged together for the next 4 days, sharing rest moments along the trail and campsites at night. I passed PCt mile 400.

The monotony of the desert landscape left plenty of room for thought. And yet thoughts have become far and between. The activity of the day is hike, find water, hike until my body has had enough, usually around 5 PM.

The end of this section led me by a noisy KOA campground with terrific ice cream and showers, through hills of flowering sage and poppies to a true Hiker Heaven in Aqua Dulce.

Fire and Flood

PCT section C mile 209 – 266. I-10 to Big Bear City

Hiking the PCT is a commitment to the unknown. The allure of surrender to a world out of my control has brought me back to testing my strength and my patience. That first day the Gorgonio mountains, normally chaparral covered, showed themselves blanketed in yellow, orange and purple. The uphill with loaded pack was hard on my breathing. Sun and wind a radical change from rainy Oregon.

After camping on a windy expanse the next day brought lovely hiking temperatures, and a down slope with more flowers to Whitewater creek crossing. To keep my socks dry I waded across in bare shoes. That was the first and last concern for dry socks that day. Up hill we went to Mission Creek canyon, the main artery that feeds the innards of these mountains. By midday the trail disappeared in a tumble of rocks, branches, gravel and gullies, the result of a recent flash flood. Water coursed down wherever it could find an opening. Wet feet were the order of the day as we crossed, re-crossed and climbed up and down the riverbank to catch sections of intact trail going up the canyon. Adrenaline and “can-do” attitude kept us going through this arduous bushwhacking. We camped on a white sandy river beach and I let the river wash away the salty sweat on my body before sinking into a deep and dreamless sleep.

The next day the enormity of climate changes were even more apparent as we worked our way up the changed river canyon to more open terrain where charred cacti and shrubs struggled to put out new sprouts and buds in the spring light. While I slept in my cosy bed this last winter the torrent waited as rain and snow fell to burst forth and wreck havoc on its way down. I became just a witness as I broke my hiking pole when I tripped working my way around a blowdown cedar up to the top of the canyon where Mission Creek Camp waited. I used a willow snag to make a new pole. Nature provides. I am a visitor who steals an image of wildness, force and raw beauty. The remnants of burned trees stood silent in their blackness against patches of white snow. How long will they stand before they too tumble down?

The sun warmed me as I hiked another day at 8000 feet altitude. We met the still snow covered north slopes while working our way around another crest. I looked far to the Jacinto Mountains to the south and down to what seemed like a benign ribbon of river feeding what grows in the Mission Creek basin. I know better now, benign is only one side of the coin. If you mess with nature, death and destruction will be the other side.

On a 16 mile waterless stretch trail magic gave me a new hiking pole from a hiker box along the trail. A child like happiness told me to trust I will be provided for. We camped with hordes of PCT hikers in Arrestra river camp that night. A wild wind woke us to a day of traversing a sunny wide desert expanse into the Bear City valley. My spirit soared in the sun and wind. I survived fire and flood.

52 Different Hikes in 52 Weeks, the Take-Away

We live in a world where our value is measured by our accomplishments and our possessions. 

Hiking groups are notorious for celebrating accomplishments, i.e. miles hiked or mountain tops scaled. 

When I started the 52 hikes in 52 weeks challenge, I had no interest in raking in the miles. As a long-distance hiker, I didn’t need to prove that I could hike many miles. I also didn’t need to challenge my motivation to get a hike in each week. So I asked myself, what could be my challenge? I decided that I’d hike 52 different hikes, no hike twice, count one hike each week (sometimes that meant my hike was a week-long hike) and see what I could learn from doing so. 

By hiking we take back the earth

I learned that it’s not so easy to find a different hike each week. In the valley where I live offers many hiking opportunities but finding ones that appealed and were “new” in less than an hour drive radius, turned out to be a stretch. In the end I had to expand my radius. Could I have walked in and around town in different neighborhoods?Yes, but I rather walk on forest duff than concrete. The amount of miles didn’t matter so much, I wanted to return from my hikes inspired and connected with nature. With the help from weeks of distance hiking throughout the year I found 52 hikes that inspired me. Only 4 involved urban hiking and were inspirational in their own right. Now I know many more nooks and crannies of this valley and this earth.

Hiking means inspiring others

I learned that I can build community and inspire others to adopt the walking/hiking life by inviting others. I learned to adapt my desire to go “further” and exchange finding my edge with finding camaraderie. Others joined the challenge, gained confidence about their bodies and found joy and happiness.

Even though I knew solo hikes were my favorite go-to hikes for feeling connected with nature and the universe, I learned that hiking with another person gives both connectivity with nature and shared joy that comes with that connectivity. Hiking with an ideal hiking partner is a gift.

Hiking means communicating

I learned to mince my words with hikers hiking with dogs. I learned to have a productive conversation with bikers on the trail. I learned to accept that we share the outdoors and nice words go much further toward seeing each other’s point of view than judging or critique when people and animals annoy me on the trail.

Hiking is humbling

I learned that hiking through towns exposes the “belly of the beast”, the inner workings of a community. Instead of getting away from it all, town/city hiking brings me more in touch with the world I live in and helps me understand the issues of a town/city better. Homelessness, trash, art murals, city lay-out, parks and industrial areas all paint a picture of how we live together (or divided). Experiencing the local issues at 2 miles an hour makes for a deeper understanding. Not only have I learned about the communities I encountered in populated areas, homeless clusters in Medford, farmers in encroaching urbanization in Holland, I learned about other communities, nomads in Morocco, and young mileage-hungry groups in the Sierras. I learned again that I’m a minor cog in the workings of this world. 

Hiking is enlightening and politically motivating. 

I learned that climate change is affecting the wilderness trails. Many miles of burned forests, many miles of dry desert, fierce storms in the high mountains in summer, told me we’ve crossed the line of being able to preserve our natural resources and will need to adapt to living with fire, flood, and storms, and do my part to preserve this earth.

Hiking fights age related depression.

I learned that hiking at least 8-10 miles a week, keeps love for life flowing.

Hiking stirs gratitude

And as for the numbers, in 52 hikes I hiked 645 miles. The shortest hike was 1 mile (with my grandson) the longest 75 miles in a 5-day hike. Elevation ranged from below sea level in Holland to 13,200 feet at Forester Pass in the Sierras. Temps ranged from a low 25F in Germany in February, to a high 85F in Northern California in early July. I hiked in Oregon, California, Washington, New England, Holland, Central Germany, the Sub-Atlas plateau and Sahara dunes in Morocco. Aside from 5 to 10 mile hikes in the forests, around lakes and on mountain ridges of the valley where I live, I hiked 42 miles along a designated wild and scenic river (the Rogue), I hiked 120 miles in the craggy Southern Cascades on the Pacific Crest Trail, and 115 miles in the High Sierras on the John Muir Trail; I hiked 3 urban hikes, and 60 miles in the (Moroccan) desert. It’s been a year of variety in terrain, of altitude challenges and gratitude for my health and strength. 

The results

In between hiking my hikes, I’ve published a book about walking and hiking to inspire others to explore what I’ve experienced and learned. Walking Gone Wild tells you “how to lose your age on the trail”, because I know that I feel younger and healthier each time I return from a hike. 

The future

People ask, “What’s next?” Rest and writing is what’s happening now. Walking and hiking is a part of living for me, so I walk. Sharing with others means organizing local group hikes. I’m dreaming about and planning to (re-)visit places in the Himalayas next year. The surety of summer forest fires, drive me to seek higher places. 

The future is unknown, but finding joy and community wherever I will walk is a constant. 

We Are All Star Children

Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset once pointed out, by walking, you assume the attitude of the hunter, the seeker, the eternal problem solver—the “alert man”—for whom “the solution might spring from the least foreseeable spot on the great rotundity of the horizon.” 

P1070726I’ve returned from a three-week hike in the High Sierras, and am enjoying the luxuries of home: washing my hands with soap and a clean towel to dry them, a comfy chair to sit in, stuff I can leave lying around without it blowing away or getting eaten by critters. The images of bending over a clear, cool lake to wash my hands is still with me, so is the knowledge that not having a chair for three weeks left me limber, flexible and strong.  While the fire season was spreading smoke the length of California and Southern Oregon, I was getting my oxygen above the smoke at 12,000 ft altitude with a blue sky overhead.

IMG_2680As I breathed the fresh forest air on my hike, it heightened my senses. I noticed the bark of Ponderosa pine smells like butterscotch. The needles of the Great Western Spruce smell like air-freshener. The rocks along the trail gave off a summer sun-dried sand smell that reminded me of beach vacations. Tall towering granite rock faces don’t smell, but my thoughts bounced off of them. Thoughts of harsh winters, howling winds and unforgiving temperatures. Granite rock faces lifted my eyes up to the clouds, the white billowy ones making dreamy images, the black ones waiting to unload the pelting rain or hail. I talked to the clouds, made deals such as, “I’ll put my rain-gear on if you don’t dump on me.” It worked, just a few sprinkles to dampen the ground, not enough to make for miserable camp conditions, or keep me pinned to the ground waiting out electrical touch-downs around trees or rocks hoping they will miss me. I depended on these deals for my survival, my comfort.  What is it that makes man personalize the greater forces around him or her? I don’t believe in God, and I know that my talk with the weather didn’t change the weather. And yet, I find myself talk to greater forces around me when I’m out in the wilderness.

My DNA holds the building blocks of life, and all living things around me. It is obvious when I hike that my life moves with the same electron pattern as the rocks, the trees, the water, the stars above me.  I relate to all of it as a living world and lend the inanimate a personhood like primitive cultures have done through the ages. When I feel the deep silence of the granite spires around me, the core of myself melts, my chest widens, my breathing slows. In this place I lose the “doing” force that drives my daily actions.

Despite all the preparations I had done to be safe and comfortable on this hike, fear and anxiety didn’t leave me. The anxiety however, didn’t stop me from moving forward on the journey. I became the “hunter”, the “seeker” as Jose Ortega y Gasset says about people who walk. Not knowing what lay ahead, I became alert and ready to solve problems that sprung up on the way. Should I ford this river and let my shoes get wet, or will I challenge my balance and cross on the log? Will I set up camp in a grove of trees or out in the open? What will happen if lightning strikes? Where is the moon tonight to guide me or keep me awake?

P1070630It took about a week before I adapted enough to my environment and trusted that I could manage. The anxiety disappeared. The alertness stayed. Intermittently my thoughts were about things from the life I had left at home. Mostly my thoughts were about what was in front of me, the trail; the rocky, sandy, or duff trail. My legs became appendages of a machine, a breathing, pumping machine. And they moved effortlessly, moved me forward, upward on switchbacks to new vistas, and downward into sheltered valleys, along the banks of a river spewing its snowmelt in an unstoppable force.

P1070560I lived life at a minimum. My nomadic routine had me wake up, eat, break camp, walk/climb to the next place, eat when hungry, rest when tired, set up camp, wait for night fall, sleep. No need to hunt for food, I carried it in my pack, no need to build my shelter from natural resources, I had my lightweight gear. To find what the trail could offer, to feel the pattern of living, was simple and yet hard. As I walked, I was a bundle of electrons, star-dust, doing what it knows to do, move forward, move through the big, open spaces with breath-taking slowness, thoughts halting and disappearing in the sky. The building blocks of life fell out of that sky at one point and formed life, gave me a body that can experience its origin, from millions of years ago. I re-discovered that I’m a star child. We all are.

I walked and found the essence of myself. I am back home and pick up where I left off, transformed.

A Battery Charge without Technology

hike #27 of 52, May 2018, 42 miles, the Wild and Scenic Rogue River,OregonIMG_2135

When hiking a #1-beautiful nature trail for 3 days you expect to learn something from nature. Every day the carpet of flowers under the freshly leafed-out tan-oaks and twisting Madrone trees stretches out in its pattern of yellow, purple and white: 42 miles of blooming yellow and purpleWood Iris, 42 miles of sunny yellow tar-weed, pink Lewisia, delicate yellow Henderson’s Triteleia, patches of white popcorn flower, tiny blue-eyed Susans, and endless fields of blue Brodiaea. I think about the flowers while I walk, their abundance, their species relations. Are the purple Wood Iris the same as the yellow ones, just growing in a different soil? Are they different species? Is there racism among flowers? How can we love flower diversity and yet have racism among people? My questions remain unanswered since I can’t Google or phone from the trail. This is a digital no-man’s-land. My flower app on my phone is unavailable since I forgot my charging cord and have only one charge on my phone for the duration of the trip. Reading my kindle app at night or looking at flower pictures during the day are my choice.P1070229

The trail map is in my car at the trailhead (a no-no, always have a paper map!). Luckily I know the trail like the back of my hand and since this trail doesn’t have side trails, this leaves 42 miles of following the path ahead. I have to rely on my memory for names of the side creeks, the points of interest along the way, and the names of flowers. P1070210

This is turning into a no-tech hike; a reminder how people used to hike. A foray into the recesses of my brain. I have to rely on myself and trust in my navigation and memory abilities. I feel silly as a guide as I’m taking a newbie on this trail. On day threeI realize that I can do this, I can show that self reliance trumps technology. I learn to find answers to things I can double check later, but for now I trust my instincts around how nature works. (When I checked the local species upon my return my musings were correct, there was cross pollination and there were several species).

As my legs move through the miles and my brain empties its daily clutter, I remember the names of places along the way, I still know the special waterfalls, the camp spots from a year ago. I see the changes in the riverbank. I still know the place and can share it with someone else. My hiking buddy finds new confidence in her abilities, leaves her fears behind in her footprints on the path, and opens to life with new possibilities. P1070214

I hike this trail yearly during nature’s most abundant blooming time. My eyes bathe in beauty, my ears fill up with the rushing sound of the river that runs its winter water to the Pacific Ocean. Life ever continuing. This hike gives me hope when the daily news is disheartening. This hike fills me with a river of aliveness despite my increasing wrinkles. The wrinkles of my skin are like the ripples of the river: a rippled surface for a deep current. I fall into a deep sleep along its banks at the end of a day of hiking, barely able to read a few words on my kindle before my eyes fall shut. I never use up the one charge on my phone. My life battery is recharged the natural way. 

A Week of Nomadic Living

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

IMG_1826“To be situated in place is to be engaged in a reciprocity where survival, both physical and spiritual, depends on our understanding of gestures.”

from “The Hour of Land,” by Terry Tempest Williams

I went for a hike in the Moroccan desert. I’m a tourist. Tourism is one of Morocco’s main contributors to the economy (18.6% of GDP, compared to 2.7% in USA, 7.6% in France). People visiting Morocco means post-colonial progress as the people coming from elsewhere now pay for being in the country. The tourist industry can be seen as a get-back for past colonial plunder and suppression. I understand and don’t take offense when a taxi driver charges me double rate on a rainy evening ride from the airport. I’m paying the ancestral debt, small price for privilege.

To get away from the tourist scene in the big cities I have booked an 8-day guided hike on the Saghro plateau and in the Sahara dunes. The Saghro plateau in Morocco has a biblical feel, a landscape I envisioned when I was a child in Sunday school and heard about the Israelites roaming the desert with Moses as a leader: a barren, dry, difficult, exposed land; qualities of such a land represent my aging skin and body. It seems fitting to explore the desert at this stage of my life.   

P1060774For five days we hike like nomads, driving beasts, carrying loads and sleeping in tents. Five days let me feel, smell and breathe the place; let me see the rocky, craggy landscape. I see occasional small stone dwellings, built from rocks and dirt in the landscape, that blend with the sandy, beige environment. Small plots of wheat and an almond tree orchard here and there add temporary brightness of color while sucking up what little water there is near a spring or small creek. When the temperatures on the Saghro plateau soar to122F in summer, the heat will dry up the water and force the people to move north to the Atlas mountains with their goat herds.

I see young girls and boys tending the herds, roaming alone all day, greeting an occasional passer-by. I watch a girl climb the spires to rescue a goat stuck on an outcropping, risking a 300 feet fall into the canyon below. There is no-one to rescue her if that happens.P1060837Our days are regulated by the sun and moon, and by a prayer routine our guide and muleteers share with the non-nomadic Moroccans. After their evening prayer, the muleteers joke when they serve our meal using their arabic tongue to pronounce the guttural sounds of my native Dutch. We laugh and learn a few arabic words in return. They wait until we are done eating before they have their meal; honoring us as guests, or a remnant of servitude?

I think about my status as tourist-nomad. When I hike here, do I become an invader? I may not take over the land, but by hiking in this nomad land I change life for the people that live here. My money allows for incremental changes in their life style. The local handicrafts go home with me, the carpets will cover the floors in my home. I ask my guide why he chose to become a trekking guide. When he gives me his answer, I find that we share a love for walking and roaming in nature, a love for getting to know people of other cultures. Our sameness erases the guilt I have felt about entering his world with my money.

The first humans were nomads. Nomad existence is in our DNA. The extremes of the desert bring me face to face with my reason for existing, teach me how small I am against the largesse of nature. The towering Pleistocene rock formations offer shade, a place for my animal body to hide from the burning sun. A brilliant star-lit sky on a wide open stretch of undulating sand dunes tells me that I’m just a speck of sand. These extremes enhance my aliveness, my appreciation of my surroundings. A hike in the desert fills me with wonder.P1070055

I’m home again sitting in a comfortable chair, with running water to make my cup of tea, with a small garden plot that gives me greens for my supper, and a hearth to warm me when the temperatures dip low. As the season changes, I’ll answer the call of my nomadic DNA to roam and find what feeds my aliveness: the emptiness of a place, the sameness of a people.

A Hike to Nowhere

hike#9 of 52, 40 miles in 10 days, walking in circles; 150 feet elevation gain; Dhamma Manda Meditation Center, Cobb, CA.

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There was a small walking path in the woods, a circuit that took 3 minutes to complete, with a 150 feet elevation gain. I walked about 50 of them a day for 10 days. The walking path was at a meditation center in the woods of Northern California, where I had chosen to retreat from the world and do an internal hike of the mind, observing a Buddhist monastic code for living, which meant no killing, no speech, no food after 12:00 PM, no reading, no phone, no, no.… 

My small room was no bigger than the standard prison cells we assigned to young inmates I worked with during my professional career, when they misbehaved. A cot, a mattress, blanket and pillow, a small side table with a lamp, some hooks on the wall. Misbehaving inmates don’t get lamps they can dismantle and do dangerous things with, no hooks to hang themselves off, no shelf to use as a weapon, but otherwise…,not much different. A place to be, pace and sit, meals provided, lights out at 10:00 PM, wake up gong at 4:00 AM. Daylight entered through a window which I could open, not so for misbehaving inmates. I had daily opportunity for solo recreation in the outdoors several times a day. I went in this cell voluntarily, inmates don’t. Or do they? 

I remembered conversations I had with them during mental health check-ups, about turning their isolation into something productive, and told them about people who chose isolation to improve their life, to know themselves better. The inmate would look at me wondering, considering. Then he would turn his attention to the one book allowed, to escape the reality of the cell.

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I sat on my cushion to observe my monkey-mind for 10 days, 10 hours a day. I followed my mind meandering through the past. For variety my mind would switch to planning my next trip, my next hike, the future. Seldom did I find my mind at rest, attentive to the sensations in my body at that moment. 

How can something so simple, be so hard? How come, after having sat 17 or 18 of these retreats in my lifetime, am I still subject to the same repetitions, the same stupid useless mental detailing of events? “The path toward liberation is a very long path”, the teacher says in his evening discourses. No kidding.

With the lack of talking, the reduced visual stimulation, it gets better. At times, my mind stays focused for a minute or two, the restlessness in the body subsides, I sit with no need to change my posture every 15 minutes, I can be with the sensations of the moment. I still walk briskly during breaks in a small wooded area, grabbing on to the normalcy of daily movement, watching my breath move in and out at a different speed as the path climbs and descends, counting steps, how many to each breath? How many breaths in a day? How many breaths/steps in an hour? 

On day 4 the technique switches. I scan the whole body, and all hell breaks lose. If hiking up a mountain at 16,000 feet is a hard, mind-numbing task of putting one foot in front of the other until you get to the top, this task of scanning is no different, except I have no app that tells me how far I’ve come, tells me the distance I still need to cover before I get there. I’ve learned from sitting past retreats that, “this too will pass”. When and how, who knows. As I direct my wandering attention to observing of what’s going on in my body, like dragging one foot after the other up the mountain to the elusive 360℉ view of the world, my mind rolls out its paranoia: “This is a cult, why did I never see that?” What if this is all baloney and I’m wasting my time sitting here? I could be out hiking, at least I’d enjoy the fresh air, the views!” “Get a hold of yourself, this is just your monkey mind talking!” And then the real tricky stuff starts. My body produces sensations I’ve never felt before, my body is swaying. It’s like a drug. There is pleasure to be had. The technique teaches to ignore, to stay with observing, to keep the body still. Eventually, the druglike sensations pass; a deep, stuck piece of grief releases; my body and mind let go. By day 9, I can sit, centered on what is happening at the moment, no urge to leave, get up, plan the future, regurgitate the past. I’ve arrived.

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On day 10 semi-normal living resumes with a day of meeting and talking with fellow meditators, a few hours of meditation, still no access to our phones and the outside world, but there are smiles all around. The retreat is over; I have to return to ordinary life. This sit is just another hike in a string of hikes. 

I’m home again. I climbed the mountain to nowhere. I have no pictures to show you; I can only tell you my story to encourage you to take the hike. 

Fear, the backside of Joy

hike #5, Pilot Rock Summit Elevation: 5908ft, 1000 Ft elevation gain over 2 miles from the trailhead. Thursday Dec 14, 2017

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The trailhead hides in the shadows of the trees on the North-West side of Pilot Rock, a snowy/icy entrance. My car sits lonely in the empty parking lot. Even though it’s only mid-day, because of the shadowy light, low in its slant, it already feels like the end of the afternoon. I hike the incline, happy to be out, smell the pine trees, and feel the air and sun, thin as it is. A burst of joy erupts in my chest, as my body warms to the trail, and my senses take in the smells and colors of nature. I call it “happiness in my heart”. It’s a predictable happiness when I go out solo and surrender to the laws of nature.

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Dry trail follows an icy, snowy section, then more snow, melted and refrozen, a small meadow with dried grasses struggling to keep their bowed heads above the snow. It’s time for micro-spikes. As I struggle with muddy boots, and messy hands, I say to myself, why didn’t I put them on right away? But, no use crying over spilled milk. Fighting my wobbly stance, I get them on though, and feel more secure as the spikes crunch into the icy crust. Perfect tool for the job!

The trail keeps climbing. Onward and upward, rocks and ice, I wonder if my spikes will wear down on the rocks, so I step in the icy spots to avoid hitting the rock. I don’t want to trouble with taking the spikes off since I’ll need them on the way back down. The trees sway above me in agreement, letting light through from the South, showing a sunlit valley in the distance. I feel vulnerable with the sun not here to warm me, the cold air waiting in the shadows. This is December, not hot July.

With my senses on alert from finding my footing, my breathing sped up as I exert myself while climbing, the accompanying adrenaline releases a wild fear. What if I slip, what if I break my ankle, what if ….None of it is likely to happen, I know the trail well, I have a GPS device to call for help and yet, I’m here by myself, I am the one to take care of me. This is what animals must feel as they roam, always on alert for danger, even if part of a herd or pod.

I reach the top of the trail, stand at the bottom of the chute that leads up to the top of the rock. A top I can’t reach today. The last time I climbed to the top was with my husband many years ago when he gave me a boost to pull myself up through the chute. I tried it last year on a warm spring day, but couldn’t get up by myself, my legs not long enough to reach. With snow and ice on the rocky ledge, it’s foolish to try. My husband’s death anniversary just days ago still rummaging around in my mind, I realize I may never again stand on top of Pilot Rock. I call out in my mind why aren’t you here to give me a boost? To go with me on the trail?

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Since solo is my mode of living now, surrounded by friends and family but not tied to them, I go out in nature to feel connected, to feel joy. On this hike I know the fear that’s the other side of that connectedness: the quick turn life can take, an afternoon with a wrong step, the chill of a cold wind. I look out along the rock wall to the hazy, far away valley far below and know, it’s time to find my way back to the safe hollow of my house, like the shelter every animal finds when night falls, a hiding place from the danger of prey, a respite from the continuous search for food and water, when the senses can come to rest. I use my spikes and poles for support as I descend, retracing my steps, finding comfort in the momentary familiarity of the trail’s markings. Despite the fear lurking in the back of my mind, I am at home here. I carry that at-home-ness in my heart, next to the joy that burst out earlier. Later I drive in the late sunlight on the snow covered dirt road. This is my place. The gifts of nature will nurture me until the next time.