The Race that can’t be won

I came to Ladakh to see how things have changed after 14 years; how I have changed. The expected changes are here: more cars in the capital of Leh; the poplar trees are taller; more houses, guests houses and hotels fill this valley that sits at an altitude of 11,200 ft, surrounded by the tallest snow capped peaks of The Himalayas. Progress you’d think. The amount of small businesses selling the same ware, catering to tourists is astounding. How can anyone make a living?

The valley sounds are honking horns during the day, barking dogs at night. Cows and dogs roam everywhere looking for scraps along the roads. There has been a concerted effort to reduce trash and it seems to work. The dogs go hungry and the valley is no trashier than it was 14 years ago.

Climate change is here. Dawa, my guesthouse host, tells me they couldn’t plant barley this spring. The ground was too dry. When the rains came it was too late in the short growing season. Barley is a staple that gets them through the winter. One dry summer isn’t a problem, but shrinking glaciers and a lower water table is. Every time a tourist flushes a toilet he or she helps lower the water table. Yet, Leh needs the tourist income.

When I walk around the valley I enjoy the many Buddhist symbols, the clang of the prayer wheels, the stupas and gompas with their colorful religious paintings on whitewashed walls, the gold and deep maroon of the monks’ robes. I no longer hope to be saved or enlightened by doing rites and rituals. I find my daily meditation enough. But I recognize I have found this ‘enoughness’ here. I’m grateful I got clarity in these mountains and among these friendly people.

The Ladakhis strive for a better life by doing their rituals, by pushing a cart of bottled water up the hill to sell to thirsty tourists; they organize treks, yoga retreats and ultra-marathons for the hungry western mind and ego. They will never catch up to the comfortable luxurious western life. We’ve robbed them of that possibility. I can spend my money here, but it’s a drop in the bucket of need.

Climate change will be the great equalizer. My host family still knows how to grow food, work hard and be entrepreneurial. They may fare better than my trekking guide who lives in a house without a garden and sees his clientele dwindle under the political upheaval in Kashmir. My host family may fare better than those of us who depend on what the global economy will dole out when shortages hit hard.

I will continue to grow my garden when I get home. I will continue with my daily walks while I’m here. That hasn’t changed for me.

Retracing Steps

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I’m setting off on a journey to the Himalayas to retrace steps I took both 48 and 14 years ago, and to take steps I couldn’t take then. I want to see how things have changed.

Forgetting and Letting Go
Since 1971 and 2005 I’ve aged. Aging means losing short-term memory. That means forgetting where you put something and having to retrace your steps to find the thing. Sometimes you don’t find it until months later in an odd place. I found the sunglasses I traveled to the Himalayas with in 2005 in a flower pot under my deck, a year after I had “lost” them. How they ended up there, I will never know. Why did these glasses come back to me? I had moved on, bought cheaper ones readying myself for more losses and let go of the pair. Finding things when you least expect it reveals the mysteries of life. It was the year of a big personal loss in my life and the glasses became a metaphor for life returning even when you don’t expect it.

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trek to Lingshed, Ladakh 2005

The Bucket List
My journey to the Himalayas is one of those journeys that rose in my gut. I stood on top of Forester pass in the high Sierras last summer, reveling in my brush with the transcendental as the clouds raced in the sky and the terrain was nothing but awe inspiring, when the voice inside me (I feel the voice in my gut) said: “if you want to see Tibet, do it now, while you still can”. The wish to see Tibet was born after I met Tibetan refugees in India in 1970 and 1971 and fell in love with their presence, their calm ability to roll with what life dealt them. They were the embodiment of detachment I thought then. That wish increased when in 2005 I lived and trekked with local guides of Tibetan descend in Ladakh and saw their way of life with its inherent human flaws in more depth. Ladakh is also called Little Tibet, apparently it’s a replica of Tibetan life and Tibetan landscape and architecture. You could say Tibet has been on my bucket list. I will retrace my steps in Ladakh, revisit the Kathmandu valley where I lived for 2 months in my younger years under the painted eyes of the Swyambu stupa. I’ll walk in the valley from where I hiked to the Mt Everest glacier in 1971; a glacier which has turned from snow and ice to rock and talus. I will visit Tibet, the North side of Everest and walk around Mt Kailash if my body can deal with the high altitude.

tibet transportation map

The Past 
What happens in almost 50 years to a landscape, a people? Globalization and climate are the biggest changers. What was an unsophisticated trek 50 years ago, our white faces a novelty in the mountain villages, is now a booming tourist industry. An industry the people depend on for survival. We trekked without maps, used only local directives, had no GPS devices, no cellphones, no WhatsApp to communicate with the outside world.  Tibet was elusive closed to us. The people suffered, were oppressed and looked to us to give them what we had: freedom of expression, money to buy our way out of difficult situations, a level of comfort I had not appreciated until I saw their often squalid circumstances. The romance of simple living, of spirituality drew me to them; they only saw what I brought with me: comfort and wealth.

Becoming
There is no going back to what was. Changes abound. I will notice the changes and discover the new. But more than that, I’ll find the changes that have taken place in me. The places will tell me who I’ve become. The young woman on a quest for meaning, the mid-life woman on a journey to get lost in her grief in the mountains, are gone. Who am I now? This journey isn’t about losing and letting go, it’s about finding a new me. The place will tell me. Tibet has called and I’m answering the call.

1972, on top of Kala Patar with view of Everest

I look forward to your comments.

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.