The Journey of 2019 in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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’.

When does a walk become a hike?

December 4, #3, A winter walk/hike along the Bear Creek Greenway, week 2, 4.2 miles, 10,000 steps, 2 floors, 37 F

52 hikes, 52 weeks

 

 

 

 

 

I want to hike 52 different hikes for this 52-hikes-in-52-weeks challenge, and now with snow in the mountains around the valley, I have to find trails closer to home. A friend who wanted to come along on hike #3 suggested the Greenway. I consider going on the Greenway a walk, not a hike, but limited by my friend’s schedule we decided to walk/hike out from my home to the first freeway underpass and back, 5 miles or so.

I realize I may have become a bit snobbish about what I consider a hike and need to re-consider my definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines hiking as a long walk for pleasure, but when does a walk become a hike? When I hike from Etna summit to Payne’s lake on the PCT, the distance is 5 miles and I consider that a hike. I guess length of the walk/hike isn’t the issue, because my 3 mile hike up Ostrich Peak last week I considered a (short) hike. The Bear Creek Greenway is green, there is wildlife, there are ponds, a river, wetlands, so being in nature as a determinant doesn’t apply either.

What then makes the difference between a walk and a hike? Difficulty of terrain? I’ve hiked stretches of the PCT that felt like a highway and weren’t difficult. Bike access? No that doesn’t turn the hike into a walk. I’ve hiked multi-use trails that were accessible to bicycles that I considered a hike because the dirt trail was in nature away from streets and houses. Pavement? When you hike the 490 miles on the Camino in Spain and much of the “trail” is paved, does it become a walk? Maybe pavement is the determinant; indeed people usually say they “walked” the Camino.

Our Greenway is a community trail. It was built in sections – with continuous community involvement and fundraising – in 1973, 1980, 1995, and 1998. The Greenway is now a 17.9 mile trail/bicycle path that connects communities in the Rogue Valley. It runs along a tributary to the Rogue River, Bear Creek.I can access the Greenway in a five-minute walk from my home.

I walk and talk with my friend on the path. My body takes in the light. The dried grasses wave in the wind. The clear blue sky reflects the cold light, moves the icy wind and tightens my face. I talk, but notice, and feel the slight incline and descent of this river’s wetlands in my calves, the spring in my feet. I hear birds screeching, water rushing and know that nature is providing for animals that live here.The freeway to the East makes an ever-rushing ocean sound.

As I walk, I think about the power of a trail, what it does and offers to humans and animals. Some trails take me away from my community and let me enter the surrounding wilderness, but this one lets me experience my community as people and bicycles pass me (interesting, no dogs today). The Greenway lets me walk the length of this valley without having to get into a car, it lets me know the place where I live at a pace my body can integrate. I mostly walk the trail from my home to where my town ends on the North end, about half the length of my town. I can walk south and do the same. I can know my town from one end to the other without cars rushing by. In my life time ever faster moving transportation modes have robbed us of that intimacy of place.

I walk and talk and greet other walkers, move over for an occasional bicyclist. As we reach the underpass, I want to keep walking, walk the whole 18 miles of this trail. Does it become a hike when I do that? I’m still confused. John Muir, the famous naturalist and hiker, didn’t worry about the difference when he said, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out until sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” It may take a few more hikes/walks before I figure out what the difference between walking and hiking is for me. Stay tuned!