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.

Not-Knowing

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’.

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

IMG_5106

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.

Picture 168
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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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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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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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 sharing 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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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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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. A’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 angel.

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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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