The Sylvan Sanctuary

A church owns some land in my neighborhood.

It’s a small, wooded plot in otherwise urban space, maybe as much as ten acres.  It is bounded by a four-lane road, a cul-de-sac, where a neighbor pounds out open-garage-door drum solos on a Friday night, and a parking lot—for a church that already exists.

It’s nothing impressive, really.  Not enough to really “get away from it all.”  It’s hilly and there’s a big sewer entry manhole and exhaust pipe stuck in the middle of it—the intersection of a few lightly trodden trails that criss-cross the vast expanse of the glen.

But these trails are less than a five minute walk from my house, and all told create about a mile of total walking in the woods.  Perhaps it is a paucity compared to the great trails of the world.  It is no Inca Trail.  It can’t contend with the Tour du Mont Blanc.  But on a fall Friday, it was the perfect antidote—the perfect pocket of sunlight in the dusk hours to take the dogs for a nature walk.

When we first moved into our neighborhood almost a decade ago, our whole street was trees, with only a few houses.  It was certainly more wild then.  Hawks and Owls filled the skies over my backyard.  I could walk the dogs through winding trails, where I would dream of carving a legit mountain bike track.  But all was not sylvan utopia.  On more than one occasion, the urban seclusion of a wooded cul-de-sac drew those who wished to hide their activities from public view.  On multiple occasions, I came off the greenway to find teenagers exploring their new-found sexuality or thieves exploring their new-found cars.  The police said, “There are places like this all over the city, and people know where to find them.”

But then more and more lots were cleared…no doubt funded by our house purchase.  More and more houses appeared.  More and more people moved in.  Lots of families.  Lots of kids.  For better or for worse, the seclusion of the woods gave way to the bustle of a neighborhood.

The kids play football in our front yard.  It’s the largest, flattest open space on the street.  We don’t mind.  We’ve sent some ground rules, and they’re generally nice kids.  One of them comes up to me last week.  Morosely, he informs me that the two wooded lots next to his house have “For Sale” signs.  “They’re going to cut down the trees,” he says.  “And that’s going to hurt the planet.”

I remembered when we struggled against this incursion in our neighborhood.  For Sale signs mysteriously found their way into the nearby woods.  But after years of watching the inevitable, I shrug and channel an old man somewhere on his porch.

“Yup.  Gonna happen.  Back when we first moved to these here parts, there were trees far as the eye could see.”

I’m not trying to burst his enthusiasm.  He’s young, and two lots of wooded area is a vast forest for a child.  When I grew up out in the sticks, there were acres and creeks and deer and snakes that misled me to the true faith of being lost in a vast wilderness, mine for the exploration.  A place to wander—body, mind and soul—through downed trees and crunchy leaves.

These days, I usually drive to my wild spaces—often hours away—to walk in the woods.  The child is, of course, bound by the physical limits of transportation.  But soon, he will mature enough to cross the street to the greenway, a strip of social asphalt snaking beside a creek through the trees.  Within a mile’s journey, he will be able to reach the civilizing forces of three Christian churches and a Hindu temple on its meandering paths.  There he can explore the ancient texts and evolving traditions of finding the spiritual, the transcendent.

But as for the church who owns the lot at the end of my street, the lot adjacent to an already existing church, a church with bi-lingual services, I hope they really enjoy the lot they purchased.  I kind of hope they are a small congregation, small enough that I can meet them on the trails sometime, small enough that an informal, unmarked system of trails is sufficient for their spiritual contemplation.  Otherwise, they’ll probably need books to sing songs, then cabinets to hold those books.  Some members might need stairs or ramps.  Soon, they will need more organizing seating, as the random assortment of dead logs will be insufficient for their gathering needs.  They may need a sound system to reach the masses, and they’ll probably level the land so it will be easy for everyone to see everyone as they congregate.  Then they might decide they need some loud bells to announce their service for all the neighborhood to hear, which if successful will mean their further expansion.

That will probably mean a parking lot.

And—to put it selfishly—that will be the end of the small patch of unmarked trails at the end of the street.  It’s beyond my control.  This small, humble wood, my spot of simple contemplation on a Friday afternoon, where for a brief half an hour I can wander aimlessly with my head in the trees while Juno and Atticus smell the smells and feel more like the wild beasts they believe they are, will be no more on this Earth.  I will find other spots, though not as easily.  The kids in my neighborhood probably won’t be that lucky.  It’s a morose thought, kid, so enjoy those beautiful afternoons watching the leaves trickle down as you peer through the twilight to make sure you’re still on the trail.  And when you do, feel free to hold on the perhaps-naïve hope that the church will want nothing more than to preserve a quiet place where they can come and seek the voice of God.

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Not with a splash but with a whimper…

Friday—as mornings go—got off to a funky start.  Perhaps it was the music—disruption of my normal morning NPR diet.  “Jungle Boogie” blaring as I pulled into the parking lot.  Deltron filling my head as I climbed the stairs.  So I popped on YouTube and found this gem, blasted for all my hall to hear.

This set the gait for the day, and by third period, I found myself in a common paradoxical place in my teaching: crushing it on the intellectual side—moving between explaining ineffable truths, Platonic Forms, and argumentative structure—while ignorning basic mundane tasks like putting an empty cup under the Keurig where I’ve just turned on the hot water.  My brain does this, getting ahead of my body, out of sync with the simple tasks. Luckily, no physical mess was made, but my brain was chaotic. I was glad I had a hike on the horizon for tomorrow, an activity that always seems to align my balance

2:15 hits and I’m loading my backpack.  On my desk—a small book of Zen koans, picked up in a dusty philosophy section of some book store in the UK last summer and lost in the stream of life until I found it in my truck that morning.  Strange it should happen that way.  It looked the perfect size to fit in my hiking pack, so I grabbed it and hit the weekend in a furious blaze.

Koans—funny little Buddhist stories that make very little sense.  In many ways, it seems they are meant to prompt imbalance,  to create tension in the mind, disrupting the normalcy and complacency one finds in endeavors sacred or profane,  whether making teaching triumphantly or  seeking “the gateless gate.”

Like this:

A monk asked Ummon “What is Buddha?”  Ummon answered “Dried Dung.”

Lightning flashed,

Sparks shower.

In one blink of your eyes

You have missed seeing.

Not exactly a gripping read, but like I said, it fit in the top pocket of my trusty green backpack.  By 8, I meet my homie in Mt. Holly for breakfast.  Grub up and hit the road to walk many miles among the trees.  Soothe my soul.  I hold the door for an older gentleman, a life lived full, no doubt, but now hobbled with age.  I keep swearing to myself that I want to be able to hike until the day I die; I’ve come to close in the past to never having this chance again.  But try as I might, I watch him hobble and know it will still be out of my control in the end, that the frailty of the flesh may inevitably make this the path on which I am going.  Still, I’ve sworn to my small tribe to keep this ritual—long hikes with friends—and forestall the inevitable as long as possible.

Perhaps it’s a treacherous hope, destined for disappointment, but not as treacherous as the trail this morning.  The bands of Hurricane Irma swept through earlier in the week.  Not only is the river a churning maelstrom, but the trail itself reveals itself in abundant fungus predicting slippery rock after slippery rock: at times each step is its own new challenge, a new threat to balance.  Linville Gorge trails are by nature technical and windy as they descend into the belly of the beast, but the battering of the storm has added a new layer of danger to our trek.  No land speed records to be set today.  The trail meets the river again.

We find a tree that the swirling storm has uprooted, blowing out a ordinarily gnarly trail into a nearly impassible field of unstable boulders and terrain above our heads.  In chaotic winds and furious water, the tree met it’s end, disrupting the path as it fell.  The dogs whimper, but we prop them to higher ground before grabbing eye level roots to pull ourself back on the trail.  Soon, we find the first break, a swimming hole at the bottom of a waterfall.

The climb to the bottom is more slick than ever, and we have to crab-crawl to the water to make sure we don’t fall.  As I change and nudge toward the edge of today’s first baptism, I feel the chill of fall in the air.  The water is always cold, but there comes a time when the air’s chill makes swimming in the river a much more dangerous proposition.  The cold will always shock you, but if the air refuses to warm you up, the results can be devastating.  I ponder this as I pick the best spot to jump in—which jump will be the last jump?  I leap.  The cold crushes me and I gulp water.  The current is strong and begins to push me away from the falls, away from the cliffs on the other side where I want to climb.  I regain may bearings and make my way to the ledge next to the falls.  The water is in furious roar, and what was a simple jump earlier this summer now threatens to push me against rocks.  I take more time than usual to consider my safety, but leap twice as hard off the dry rock and fight the current back to shore. You 

Dry again, we make our way on the most demanding part of the trail—between the swimming hole and the Cabin Trail intersection.  It is mostly all rock, and with the humidity in the air and the wetness of the soil, each step over and down seems a carefully measured one.  “Good thing we went hiking today,” Doug says.  “You know the rapture’s coming next weekend.”  Ah yes, another day for the apocalypse.  We chuckle.  We wonder why people love these stories. We break into dialogue. Doug points out that prophecy is open-ended and can be applied to any time period.  I retort that having prophecy gives meaning to a world constantly in chaos and flux, make it easier to experience.  It seems like we’re getting somewhere.  My mind is moving fast while my body moves on auto-pilot.

Snake.  Copper head.  Medium-sized.  Sunning himself on the one dry rock.  For whatever reason, the dogs missed it, but it sees us, and shakes his tail in anticipation.  It arrests our exploration into eschatology and re-orients us to the step-by-step of the trail.   Doug flicks him off the trail with a trekking pole, and we keep picking our way over the slippery rocks.

Soon the trail evens out.  Just past the intersection marker, we can see Babel Tower in the distance, and soon we here the incessant babble from beneath us at what is perhaps the most famous swimming hole on the West Rim.  We slide to the bottom, and there are about twenty people and five dogs spread across the rocks below.  We agree to be patient, tie up the dogs, spread a hammock.  A good time for a snack and a book.

The waterfall pours into a wide pool below rounded cliffs.  It’s not difficult to imagine that at one point—perhaps millions of years ago—the water whipped through this part of the Gorge and shaped these rocks in a torrential eddy.  For this place in geological history, it is a place where people stop, picnic, swim, photograph, slide down the waterfall and jump at least forty feet off the cliffs into the pool below.  We are content to watch this all.  A good time for some peaceful Zen comfort, no?

The koans seem to follow some pattern, a conversation where a penitent asks the monk a question and receives an answer that—on the surface—has, at best, a contradictory relation to the question, if any relation at all.

Q:  What is the nature of the Buddha?

A: This flax weighs 3 pounds.

It seems that so much of these conversations are wrapped up in either the futility of knowing or the futility of searching.  People get so wrapped up in searching for the Buddha, looking for truth, or verifying that their life has had significance, has been successful, or that they have bested the anxiety of death and emptiness.  Paradoxically, it seems the more you seek getting too wrapped up in looking for the Buddha, the more it detracts from a true path.  Huxley argues similarly in The Perenial Philosophy that in many religions, words, stories, and ritual become the focus of the devotee—lost in questions and debate—and they become distracted from the path itself.  And yet, how can one express this in words?  In one koan, the Buddha simply remains silent and the penitent—a philosopher—feels he has received his answer.

Very confusing.  But the motion of the sun and people stirs my thoughts from that particular rabbit hole.  Some of the swimmers are leaving, the sun is getting low enough that if I don’t jump in the water soon, it will make no sense to do so today.  I read one more quick one to carry with me to the water. A monk promises another monk on his death bed to show him the way of “no coming and no going.”  Then I slip on my trunks, next to a dead stump that has flourished with fungus in the moisture of the storm.

I jump off the short ledge, and the current carries me.  I’ve done this before—no big deal—and move toward an eddy on the far shore and climb up the cliff.  I’ve never been up this far, but saw enough people jump today to pique my interest.  I come out to the ledge.  It doesn’t look that bad: lots of flat space.

“No. Go down further,” yells one of the remaining campers.  I go back over the trees and find where he was pointing.  I have to hold onto a tree to lower myself onto a small step, perhaps twice as wide as my shoulders, perhaps two feet out into the air, saturated with treacherous, mossy moisture.

I think of every rock I’ve slipped on today, every time I’ve lost my balance, feeding the unsteadiness of my legs.  I’m worry I will slip one last, fatal time and consider the worst possible scenario from atop this ledge.  This is the way the world ends.  I stand to jump, but I don’t.  I know I’m going to, but I lack the courage to do it at first.  I look down.  Bad choice.  All the rocks I could hit.  I know I will jump, but now all thought has left me.  I’m empty.  I feel the fear extend to my limbs.  I sit down to calm myself before the jump.  It doesn’t work.  Soon the fear overwhelms me, out of conscious control.  My senses began to bend.  The rock in front, the cavernous bowl marked by thousands of years of rushing water, begins to bend and swirl with the sound of the water.  Is this vertigo?  Will I black out over the ledge? Will I be lost in the dark and swift current of time?   Just typing this brings a tinge of that familiar to my fingertips.  It is a jumpy anxiety—an unnamed twirl of excitement and dread.

Finally, I spring from my crouched position.  Down, down, down forever into the dark womb of the water.  The current carries me, and I swim for the near shore.  I’ve caught my breath, but the lights that flickerd on atop the rock are still burning at all of my nerve endings.

Often, a jump in the mountain water invigorates me, but this has ignited a new and caustic fire that smolders whimperingly in every millimeter of my neural pathways, past the pont of getting dry, past re-packing my pack and rejoining the trail, up the ascent out of the belly of the Gorge.  This babble, this running narrative, burns away.  In the silence the answer is heard, and I walk away, step by trudging step.

 

The Tribe Stumbles on Unmarked Trails

It was an inauspicsious start.  I put my boots down on the railroad tie behind my truck.  Atticus promptly pissed on them.  I told him he was a bad dog, but I guess if he’s trying to spread his scent all over the woods, he wins for ingenuity.

We make our way down the Pine Gap Trail, the first trail on the West Rim of the Gorge that makes its way to the main Linville trail, looking to make it to Babel Tower and back in the afternoon. We are down at the water after twenty minutes of twisty trail.  Atticus jumps in the water and stares at me like “Yay! We made it!”  But someone’s already put their hammock up, and we have more miles to hike today.  He stares at me in disbelief, as if he can’t fathom why we would ever leave this perfect spot.

But leave, we do, and the trail climbs to the intersection of the Bynum Bluff trail.  It’s and odd intersection, and I accidentally head down a side trail that heads for the river.  I even pass an older couple who have stopped to evaluate the map, but I somehow miss seeing that omen and keep pushing ahead.  I’m worried about the bend in the trail that offers a straight drop over the cliff, worried that Atticus will make haste over that edge.  But he and Juno are hiking methodically, patiently.  And soon we are at the river, walking up on three other perfect spots–glorious campsites, filed away for future use.

I know I have missed the main trail, but it doesn’t concern me.  As long as the river is to my left, I know my bearings. I briefly consdier climbing back up, but I follow the path in front of me.  This isn’t the first time I’ve ended up on a side trail and discovered some hidden nugget in this place, and it’s not the first time I’ve had to bushwack to get back on the main trail.  After all, the main trail hugs the west side of the river, so as long as I keep to the West Bank, I should eventually run into it.

This is going on swimmingly.  Large, even rocks protrude from the west bank into the Linville River, and we are trucking at a good pace. I come upon several hidden, secluded camping spots next to deep pools fed by roaring cascades, and I file them all away for future use. I feel like this trip’s post is going to be all about lucky missteps or being willing to take an adventerous route and being rewarded or some other such bullshit like that.  Then the trail changes slightly.  I’m climbing over fallen logs and through roots.  The journey has slowed.  I consider turning around again, but—too late!–I see the Bynum Bluff Cliffs (of insanity!), and sense my reunion with the main trail is near, so I push forward.

As the cliffs near, the progress grinds to a halt.  The bottom of the cliffs drop to a sheer, impassible, vertical façade into the water.  There is no way to continue on this side.  My two choices are to return to the original trail or cross the river.  I look to the other side:  a shore line of large boulders and rocks jutting from the East shore.  Boots off.  Water shoes on.  Making my way down to the waterfall on the other side—in my not so humble evaluation–should be no problem.

To be fair, my hiking has involved many river crossings this summer, so I am undaunted.  My four-legged companions are less enthusiastic.  Juno is supsect of the water on general principle, and Atticus—though he likes to slosh around in water when the can see the bottom—becomes frozen when he is unable to judge the depth in running water.  No amount of wheedling or cajoling can get them to come forward, so I perform my version of the old joke about keeping the wolf away from the sheep while crossing the river.  I drop my pack, come back, get Juno to the other side, come back, get Atticus—who has stood statue-still on a rock for the last five minutes–to the other side.  I only fall once but I soak my backside to the waist.  I catch my breath and we continue downstream.

There is, of course, a problem.  I am a biped, six feet tall with hands that grip. My body, despite a battery of age and lingering injury, intuits a relatively swift passage to the water fall.  My companions are quadrapeds, 1-2 feet tall at the most with bulbous paws.  They’re really good at staying on a trail in front of them, or chasing a rodent off the trail and finding it again.  But in a place where there’s no clear path, they’re kind of lost.  They watch me for cues, but what is easy for me is not readily availible for them.  I stand ready to pick them up by their pack, but they are not always eager to hike in this manner.  Atticus will get to a point and stop, getting this “I need an adult!!!” look on his face.  Juno, on the hand, whimpers and runs back, looking for an alternative route, or perhaps hoping I’ll follow her, back to the more sensible part of the trail.

Each time I have to climb over a rock and return—one at a time—to shepherd the dogs, I become frustrated.  I take treacherous steps—a knee-to-nose climb—and realize that this is a full-body leap for the dogs.  They stop and look at me, and I cross wobbly footing in reverse, then walk it forward again, dog in hand.  Atticus looks at me like “Is this really worth it?” I wonder this myself.  But we are on the dark side of the moon.  The only way out is forward.  Nevertheless, I can’t convince them with my powers of logic.  They keep stopping and stopping, and running up the hill and running down the hill.  Could they just follow me instead of making this such and ordeal???

Finally, we make our way to the top ledge of the waterfall.  I see the older couple across the river, taking a small break.  Atticus lets me lower him down.  But Juno is tired of this tomfoolery.  As I try to reach for her backpack, she sprints back through a fallen tree and up the rocks.  I’m tired of chasing her.  And I’ve hiked with her so long that I know I don’t have to.  I leash Atticus to the rock below, climb back up to the ledge, and sit and wait for Juno to come to me.

I wait.  Within a minute, she has walked beside me and is licking my face.  I hold her backpack and begin to lower myself down to help her. But she refuses, leaping 7 feet down to the next ledge on the falls.  We are at the pool.  It’s not Babel Tower: it’s the swimming hole at the 90 degree bend where I was going to rest on the way back up the trail.  But now it is the turnaround, and the trail is still on the other side of the river.  So, I slip on my swimsuit and take my dogs, first Atticus then Juno, by the handle of the backpack, and swim them across the river.

It’s 4:00, three and half hours since I left the car at the trailhead.  In some ways, I try to take this accomplishment as a measure of solace after a long, grueling trip.  Neither of my dogs have swum any great distance.  However, all of my muscles are so tired that it is difficult to feel celebratory.  I throw down my pack and dig for snacks.  I string up my hammock and begin to feel like myself again.

I turn to head back to the swimming hole, about 25 feet up the river.  There’s a guy in a blue shirt.  I think he’s talking to me.  I walk closer.  It’s my amigo—a fellow teacher from school.  We talk camping talk all the time in the halls, and we have randomly run into each other a two hour drive and a four mile hike from home.

Atticus nuzzles up to him like he does with everyone, and soon we delve into the trail and the camping and what we’ve been doing all summer.  We trade in knowledge.  “I saw an older couple from Vermont,” he says.  “They haven’t even broken a sweat.”  Soon, I am jumping back into the river to clean off my hard-earned miles of sweat with an afternoon swim, testing the depths, leaping from the rock face, feeling the frustration of the trek wash away in the chilly water.  By 5:30, I’m packed and up the trail, back at the car in an hour.

On the way back up the trail, I watch Atticus and Juno climb.  A proverb comes to mind:  “if you want to travel fast, travel alone:  if you want to travel far, travel together.  A couple of times, Atticus needs a boost, but Juno shows off her still fresh vertical leap skills.  They are short, sharp-nosed quadrapeds.  Amazing in many ways, but perhaps not as prepared to brave the nefarous terrain as a bushwhacking, boulder-hopper like myself. But this walk in the woods is a walk in the woods compared to the hike to the bottom of the Gorge.  This place always has a way to humble your expectations, to present a more grueling experience that you had imagined.  But in the end, the day was fresh air, strong exercise, a swim in a sunlit waterfall, a chance encounter with a friend, smiles and ear scratches and dog kisses and the whole posse coming safely home to sleep the best sleep in the world.  The tough steps of the trail and the refreshing calm of the woods all wash over us as we drift out, as always, better for having made the journey together.

A Love Letter to my Wife on Thoreau’s Birthday

It’s Tuesday morning when I call you.  By 9:00, you and I hang up, and I point the ship westward.  This happens quite a bit at our house.  We often get pulled in two different directions over the summer.  You’ve been pulled to Denver to train for AP Capstone, while I have been pulled by the song of running water and the rustle of trees to go sleep in the woods for a couple of nights.

What’s odd about this week, however, is that it’s our anniversary.  Maybe not odd, actually.  In the seven years we’ve been married, we have had almost half of our July 12’s with us in different dots on the map.  We try not to let it be a big deal, and we try to make something up for not being there on the actual day, but our hearts miss each other nonetheless.

Tuesday afternoon, I arrived at Lake Watauga around 1:30 and hit the AT south just before two.  Short time to hike, so I needed to bust it.  Over a paved road, the trail begins to climb.  I see three hikers coming off the trail—the last three people I would see until I emerged on the other side of the mountain.  The area is called Pond Mtn. Wilderness.  It is an empty, empty space, one path winding over a mountain and back down it.  Once I got off the lake shore, the buzz of humanity came to a calm.  Then for the remainder of the mountain—silence.

In silence, the daily chatter, the constant stimulation of modern life begins to fall away, and I begin to hear the truth within my heart.  I enjoy the solitude.  And while I wish you were with me, I know this might make you miserable—the dirt, the sweat, the bugs.  We don’t always want the same thing, a fact that sometimes has us moving in two different directions, and when I move in this direction—out to the nether regions, out in the middle of nowhere–you worry over me.  But such is the open space we hold for each other, to let us explore our happiness, whether together or apart.

On the other side of the mountain, my legs are weak and my knees wobbly.  The descent is like a rocky goat path, and I take a break near the water.  I aspire to push further—at least another four miles by sunset—but as I continue on the path, I realize that a secure campsite for the night is better than a hypothetical one down the trail.  It is perfect—secluded and quiet.  The dogs rest, I start a fire, and doze in an out, lying in my hammock, reading Alan Watts and staring at the stars.

I wake up on Wednesday.  It’s our anniversary.  July 12.  I’m in no rush to get out of camp.  I see if I have enough of a signal to send you a happy anniversary text, but by opening that portal on my phone, a flood of updates and chatter comes to me.  I turn off the phone again.  I want you to know that I’m safe and that I love you.  I don’t want to be distracted by what is on my phone with all this beautiful wonder around me.

It’s Thoreau’s birthday, and perhaps by the accident of chance, I find myself waking up underneath the canopy of trees beside the rushing water on this day.

When we set a wedding date, we chose the summer because we are both teachers.  But you suggested this day because of the birthday of one of my favorite writers of all time.  I wonder if you knew what you were gettng into, marrying a guy who was honored to share Thoreau’s birthday.  After all, Thoreau himself was a notable loner of a crank, a guy who could be stubborn and aloof, a guy who feels like he has to get away from people and into the woods to feel fulfilled, full of contradictions, all qualities that—for better or worse—I see in myself.  But after I have broken fast and had my morning meditations, I am off to fulfill the purpose of this day.

I cut out a climb by crossing the water twice and find myself at the base of Laurel Falls, a primeval cascade that over millennia has carved a pool beneath.  When I was 22 and living in Boone, this was one of the first places I learned to hike by myself.  I would hike here, jump off the cliffs a few times, nap, and hike out.  There are already people here snapping pictures of themselves in front.  I plan on making a morning visit then looping back for an evening swim.


Transcendentalists are–by nature–animists, believing in the living spirit in all things.  Of course, Thoreau was reading Vedic texts by Walden pond, but it’s important to see this as a more primal relationship with the natural world around him.  At a basic level of walking through the forest, we recognize our biology as harmonious with those beings around us, and recognize them as beings much like ourselves at a molecular level.  Trees, mosquitos, moss, snakes, frogs–we are all the same building blocks.  The mid-day sweat and my mind are rolling, and I find myself melting into the sea of green that rolls over the mountain, and over the next and the next, an intricate network of roots and limbs that stretches further than my ability to see but not my ability to imagine.  Soon, I come upon a waterfall in seclusion, and as Atticus plops in a pool, I too bathe in its waters to cool me down.  I hear you imploring me to be careful, knowing that taking the time to cool down in this heat is the most careful thing I could do.  Later up the trail, I find myself crossing deep stream after deep stream, wading knee deep through rushing currents.  By the time turnaround approaches, the path has led me to an open and quiet pool embraces by giant rocks, large enough for swimming and treading and sumberging myself beneath the cold surface.  We all rest as I wash off the sweat of the last two hours, a final ablution before I return to the mothership.


I return to Laurel Falls around 6, snack, make my sacred offering, and dive in.  I’d love to tell you what it was like to swim in those waters, to stand under the waterfall and feel the water pounding on my head.  But I can’t.  The words are insufficient for the experience.  The best I can say is that it filled me with song. A song I know but sometimes forget to sing. A kiss from the heart of God.  A song I carry with me today.  A thick, rolling song from deep within my chest, exploding to the tree tops and through the sky.  As night falls and the fire dies, it is the song that sings me to sleep, infusing my dreams with the gentle rhythms of the forest.  I have met my soul on the path I have walked today.

It’s Thursday morning.  Time to pack up.  Time to go back over the mountain.  Time to rejoin the world of paved roads, smart phones, and automobiles.  Up the goat path with wobbly rocks, back over the hump, and back down to the Lake.

On Tuesday, I had wondered what I would do when I came home on Thursday afternoon.  Somewhere in my reading out here, Watts discussed anxiety over the future as that which disassociates the mind from the body.  Plus, I know this will be a strenuous journey.  As I climb the rocks, I have no capacity to think so far ahead as when I get home.  So this morning, it’s just one step in front of the other.  Left.  Right.  Left.  Right.  I’ve told myself I’m going to be patient.  This mountain isn’t going anywhere.  I take a break at the top.  And as my foot starts getting hotspots, I consider pushing through, but then wonder why I’m in such a hurry, and opt for self care: I won’t get any medals for getting their quicker with painful blisters

There’s been time in the last few months where our life has had to take this plodding, deliberate pace, when we have had to sacrifice time and planning for self-care.  Sometimes it was hard to tell what the next weekend or the next day might bring and we have had to walk our path side by side, putting one foot in front of the other.  On the mountain, it is relatively easy, as the mountain isn’t going anywhere.  In life, it can be much more daunting, as we have often wondered which hairpin turn or treacherous descent may come next in our path, and we can worry for all the opportunities that may have passed us by.  But as we’ve taken this pace down our path, I see your resolve.  I see your capacity to care for others.  I see your grit and determination.  I see your vulnerability.  I see your ability to move and adapt to the contours of the land.  While we are thousands of miles away as I walk the miles on this path through the Pond Mountain Wilderness, I am and will be your companion and the paths that matter most.

We’ve started daydreaming about where next summer will lead usMaybe next year on Thoreau’s birthday we’ll stand under a waterfall together or traveling foreign lands.  Or maybe we will again find ourselves apart in two different points on the globe.  But on the path that matters most, I will happily walk with you side-by-side, singing the song of my soul to you.

Sanctuary Sunday and Mid-Week Pilgrimage

 

Sunday morning is my sanctuary.  One of the dogs wakes me, and I slowly roll out of bed and walk ten minutes to a yoga class in my neighborhood.  When done, I walk ten minutes back in a neighborhood of old-growth trees and creeks.

This past Sunday was beautiful, with just the right flavor of breeze to make the trees sway a hypnotic dance and remind me that I hadn’t gone on in a long hike in a couple of months.  It was enough to make me rush home, grab Nic and the dogs, throw everything in the car and head west.  Unfortunately on my agenda for the day?  Home repairs.  Yes, in this extra wet summer we’ve endured here in the South, one of my gutters decided it needed to be free, and I need to convince it to stay, lest I continue to have rain leak behind the paint of my bedroom wall.

Ordinarialy I enjoy home repair as well as a root canal.  Look, I get the virtue of it, and the cost/benefit analysis for it.  But do I enjoy it?  No.  I always find myself mulling the opportunity cost…where I’d rather spend the money and time, which takes a ding on the “job well done” feeling.  Not to mention I feel our culture has a strange fetish with home perfection that I never have been able to buy into, what Kahlil Gibran calls a “lust for comfort” that “murders the passion of the soul.”  However, today while in the last few still minutes of class of yoga, I found myself at peace with my chores, and realized that if approached them thankful that I had a sound house in which to dwell that my attitude toward repairing it might improve, that I should love my house and love the work I do on it.

It also didn’t hurt that I was going to go hiking later in the week, making the tedium of the labor easier to endure with that on the horizon.  When your only day off is a weekend or a holiday, spending that time sweating on housework is soul-crushing.  However, when you’re on vacation, not only can you wait patiently, you can wait until there are fewer people with the day off and you can have sweating on the hiking trails all to yourself, a sentiment posed beautifully in the song below–when you have every day off, weekends and holidays is when it’s crowded for you. One of my friends once posed that this NOFX song should be the summer anthem for every teacher, and that remains to this day the smartest thing he has ever said.

So while everyone else went back to work on July 5, I threw the furry beasts in the back of the truck and headed west to Wilson Creek, kind of a modern no-man’s land, if you will.  All the trails are off dirt roads, and you can’t really use a conventional driving GPS to plot it, so it feels like you are going deep in the middle of nowhere to get your hike on.  If Sunday was working on building the sanctuary from the storm, Wednesday was my mid-week pilgrimage to hike unknown (to me) paths, to find undiscovered (by me) waterfalls.

The goal for the day is Grogg Prong Falls–I know, a mouthful–for a turn around.  According to one website, it will be about a 6-7 mile out and back.  According to the same website, this hike and this waterfall can be treacherous when wet.  As I walk down the trail, I hear a distant drum roll of thunder and realize that my rain coat is in the car, not in the pack.  Too far down the trail to want to turn back around at this point, I shrug it off and make my peace with the potential rain.  It’s summer.  There’s always some threat of thunderstorms out here.  When it does rain, it’s usually just enough to cool things down.  Unless it dumps, then, of course, you’re all wet in the muggy, muggy woods, hiking yourself into certain rashes and abrasions.  If only there were a roof and gutter system to keep me dry and comfortable.

But rain does create other dangers as well.  Rocks slicken.  Rivers bloat.  Trails muddy and erode.  And in this part of the world, when things get wet, they stay wet.  It’s clear from early on the trail that rain has been here recently.  Slippery roots frame muddy bogs on narrow trails that overlook the river.  On one section, maybe six inches wide and thirty feet up, it seems that the trail has completely eroded.  A family camps across the river, and they later tell me the had to but slide down and wash it off.  Ugh,  river crossing, the gentle dance of the trail.  Always a game of “do I take my boots off or do I rock hop?” which includes the extra obstacle of the dogs getting them all good and wet before I start.   But seeing this ubiquitous wetness as a series of obstacles is a very “hiker-centric” orientation.  The continuous moisture animates a world of colored fungus and fauna that puts any pre-planned garden to shame: life–vibrant and unpredictable–sits around every corner.


About an hour and a half into the pilgrimage, I reach the turnaround–Grogg Prong Falls.  The water begins in a pool atop then slides down in a serpentine twist down a gradual rock face into an open valley flanked by tall cliffs on either side.  The solitary swimming at the bottom is enticing, but the path is treacherous.  Someone has even taken the liberty to paint yellow arrows to the best possible path to the bottom.


However, the rain that has glazed the rocks and churned the dirt has made its mark here as well.  Though it is sunny and warm, all the rain in the soil atop these cliffs have slowly bled down the rock face, creating a continuous, mossy slick.  I begin to inch my way toward the bottom, but Atticus is a good bellwether.  At 100 pounds he does well, but he’s not always the most feathery on his feet. As he stares at me panting,  I remember a maxim good for hiking and life in general–any thing you climb up,  you need to be able to get down, and anything you climb into, you need to be able to get back out.  True for humans, but more so since the dogs are my responsibility.  By the time I’m twenty feet down, the whole time sliding butt to ankles, I catch my center of gravity precariously turn just enough when I look and see that the sheerest part of the face is all wet and I imagine it turning past the point where I can catch myself. A few more inches and I may find myself sliding another twenty feet. I’ve reached my limit for day.  Maybe another day during drought situations this place is safer to scale, but today is not that day.

“Pushing your boundaries” is one of those classic outdoors cliches that people use to justify all manner of risk-taking.  I’m not saying to don’t push them, but I’m also not an adrenaline junkie.  Sure, I’ve taken risks when they’re available, but I’m pretty good at looking before I leap.  Also, I didn’t come out here for that “rush.” of pushing to the edge of death.  I’ve been down that trip before.  But I do make my way into the woods to find things deep inside that I can never get sitting in the four walls of my house, staring at my television.  I never really know what it’s going to be, but opening myself up to those possibilities–the touch of fingers on rock, the wild rush of water, the slight fear at the edge of danger–always yields something that makes the pilgrimage worth the effort.

A clap of thunder breaks me out of this eddy of thought.  I gauge my time, probably an hour back to the base of the trail, where Hunt Fish Falls and a gorgeous swimming hole await, and another 30 minutes to the car.  So to play it safe in case the rain decides to fall, I start to hustle back to the south. By 3:15, I’m out on the rocks underneath the falls looking for a quick dip in the water before the patches of grey overwhelm the patches of blue and break a deluge on me.

Every thread of my hiking clothes are drenched in sweat and my legs and shoulders are getting the beginning of fatigue.  I figure this will be a short swim with the storm looming, so I change quickly.  The thunder rumbles behind me to the east, so I waste no time diving into the water, climbing up the rock face next to the pool, and jumping into the waterfall current, swept back to a large, mostly flat rock jutting into the river.  Atticus romps happily through the water while Juno explores all dry areas to eventually lie in the shade with utter indifference.  Soon, I am back on the rock, and the grey has receded slightly, seemingly moving to the south of the area, so I sit on the rock to dry.


But just as quickly, the storm returns.  The leaves flutter in the soaring wind, warning of the deluge to come.  Then the water starts: small droplets, medium droplets, but curiously never enough rain to chase me from the spot. just enough to cause discernable coencentric circles in the waters surface, a slight percussion just enough to edify the dreamy melody of this perfect afternoon.  Then the sun returns, its light refracting through the river surface to create a fractured golden glow beneath the falls.  Its glow is the perfect temperature for a brief nap on the rocks, lullabied by the gushing water, the calls of birds, the receding timpani of the sky.  The very molecules of my body vibrate to this harmony.  I rise to find a part of me will always stay here, and a part of here will always stay with me.  As I gather my things, a group of fellow hikers make their way to the second level of the falls and melt into the waterfall.  The life without me and within me flows with effortless connection.  I find myself in a subtle, peaceful bliss as I head up the trail.

It’s a moment now etched in memory, one I could have never grasped had I allowed myself to be consumed by a “lust for comfort.”  Through these journeys over muddy trails and through muggy air, there are often these moments that are too beautiful and perfect for words, too unpredictable to be planned and packaged.  I cherish them in sacred space of my memory. But they come only to those willing to brave the storms to take the blind pilgrimage to receive them.  As Gibran says, those who can not be tamed by the lust for comfort see their house as “not an anchor but a mast.”  And so, the glow of the afternoon fading into evening, I make my way up the 30 minute climb out of the gorge and point my ship to the sanctuary of my home, the comfort of my bed, where I will sleep dry, rested, and sated–the best sleep I ever have–until the call for the next pilgrimage comes.