D, Your Sunrise

CDT June 2018 089Yesterday I will meet Cracker on a frozen slope.  I will find magic in my hat.  I will take my first ever nap on the trail.  But this is the morning of Day 4, when everything becomes new.

Mornings on the trail all begin the same:  I wake up spontaneously just before sunrise, lie there in my sleeping bag thinking “it’s cold,” and then I roll out of the tent, start the coffee, and pack up.  I make it a habit to get up at least once at night, ostensibly to pee, although I know I could hold it.  I just want to make sure I look at our shared night sky at least once–all those stars, just once.  I’ll spend the day seeing and thanking the day sky, and it seems crazy to sleep through the deeper experience of all those stars and planets.

Dawn in the mountains is an embrace, part mother’s, part lover’s.  There is no neat horizon for the sun to rise above, but the light comes, almost imperceptibly–it is dark, and then everything is a shade of dark blue-grey, and then the stars are gone save one or two of the brightest, and then there are the mountains standing around you in every direction.  It is a dim light that envelopes you, and holds you gently.  Mornings in the mountains you are busy, heating water for coffee, breaking down your tent and packing up, anticipating.  And so I was not prepared for this dawn to explode on the mountains before me.  I could not see the sun, only it’s golden light striking the mountains before me.  It took my face in two hands and drew me in to it.  It held me there.

Aparigraha means letting go.  It means recognizing that impermanence is the only constant, and you can’t hold on to things.  But I will never let go of your sunrise.  It was there so briefly, and then it was gone and became something else.  It didn’t need me or want me; it just was.  Aparigraha also means learning to be let go of.CDT June 2018 093

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Honey Badger, Asteya, And Why It Always Comes Down To Satya at the End of the Day.

CDT June 2018 060My trail name is Honey Badger.  The thru-hikers would always ask “what’s your name?,” and “George” did not register with them.  But when I answered “Honey Badger,” they’d almost always smile and respond “Honey Badger doesn’t give a shit!”

The day I left the trailhead, I’d caught an almost forgotten feeling:  fear.  Not an everyday fear, but this specific deep fear I’d felt once trapped in an underwater cave in Italy when I was sure I’d never see my newborn son again because of a tiny, stupid mistake.  Or when I had to swim a quarter-mile through open ocean to recover a drifting boat if I wanted to live, through water I knew very well was full of very large sharks.  But then I asked myself what exactly I was afraid of, and I realized that I was only worried about missing my connection back to my car at the end of the trail.  Anything else unfortunate that could possibly happen (I ran down a short mental list) didn’t really matter to me, and that took a load off.  I was embarrassed that Honey Badger’s priorities had gotten confused.

Day 2:  Asteya and Satya:  Asteya means appreciating all that you genuinely have.  And hopefully, when you truly appreciate your wealth–whether it is a richness of time, or space, or incredible friends, or a whole bunch of really cool stuff–you’ll want to share all that with others and help them.

Once you start walking like this though, you don’t feel rich.  You feel tired, and you feel like your pack could be ten pounds lighter.  But you have to walk, because just yesterday you had affirmed that you would see this thing through.  Luckily, I kept meeting thru-hikers.  Early on Day 2 I saw one striding down the trail behind me, and reflected that this big walk certainly gave women incredible legs, something I had noticed yesterday:  muscled, tanned like dark caramel, entirely smooth and perfectly proportioned.  When this hiker came up to me I had the pleasure of meeting Tomahawk, and gentleman from Osaka, Japan.  Score one for gender and ethnic bias awareness training.

CDT June 2018 055 I kept trying to be grateful for all I had at that moment, but I kept coming back to thinking “I’ve got at least ten pounds of stuff in this pack that I don’t need.”  I was trying to keep in mind yesterday’s swadhyaya and tapas, but that too heavy pack, and the trail that just got irritating going downhill because I knew that meant I would just have to go back up, and eventually all I could think about was making each step I took a perfect step.  I imagined the most efficient, relaxed, powerful, beautiful step I could possibly take.  I forgot the step I had just taken, didn’t worry about the one coming next.  I just thought about taking one beautiful step.

Satya is a commitment to the truth in the present moment, as it reveals itself.  It is a decision to see and communicate things as the actually are, not as we wish them to be.  And in the middle of one of these perfect steps I realized again that my choice of these two yamas was not random.  I was immensely pleased with each individual step I took.  Everything else was just not there.  And I looked out before my little tent at the end of that day to recall a key concept of asteya, to take a moment each day to dwell on at least one gift in your life.  And all I could think was “isn’t this incredibly beautiful?”CDT June 2018 111

Tomorrow:  non-violence and compassion, letting go, and the most incredible sunrise I’ve ever seen.

Swadhyaya, Tapas, and One Damn Mountain After Another

CDT June 2018 063The plan for this trip was to leave my car at the Wolf Creek Pass trailhead, hike six days up the CDT (Continental Divide Trail) past Hunchback Pass and hook west up the CT (Colorado Trail) to follow the Elk Creek drainage toward Molas Pass where I would meet me friend Rob Graham, who would take me back to my car.  But I have accepted now that things never turn out as planned, and that in itself becomes part of the plan.  Things went exactly as expected.

To keep myself honest, I decided before leaving to set an intention for each day’s hike, something I’ve learned through yoga.  It didn’t really matter what, because there is always a lot to think about, but if you don’t focus you are just out walking around in a bunch of mountains.  I decided that each day I would focus on two yamas or niyamas, ethical do’s and don’ts, a moral code of conduct given expression through the vocabulary of yoga.  All stuff I knew or felt already, but the actual words give focus.  And intention.

Day 1:  Swadhyaha and Tapas.  “Swadhyaha” means simply self-study; whatever you are drawn to with the intention to know yourself through it, and most importantly in this case, to see the process through.

You will understand quite early when hiking the CDT that it is just one damn mountain after another.CDT June 2018 093 You go up one, and it is hard, but you think “when I get to the top, I will have accomplished something important, and I will see more clearly.”  But then you get there, and you see the damn trail just goes right back down the other side, and back up another very similar mountain.  You have accomplished nothing.

Tapas” is a burning enthusiasm for what you are doing, the fervor of striving to be the best you can, simply by going against the grain of habit, of complacency, of doing what is easiest.  Tapas is important when you look at that damn trail going down again and then back up after you’ve arrived at the top of a hard climb.  I spend a great deal of my time amazed out how things work out–I know some people who will say the word “dumbfounded” is more appropriate–but I was happy when I understood that it was not pure chance that led me to pick these two niyamas for my first day on the trail.  There were many easier choices I could have made for how to spend this time, but I needed to see this through if it was going to mean anything.CDT June 2018 052The only other people I saw during my hike were CDT thru-hikers, people walking from the southern border with Mexico up to Canada during the 3-4 month window when lack of snow up high makes the trip possible.  These were amazing people.  So positive, so full of joy and gratitude for being exactly where they were at each moment.  And walking so much faster than me!  Cardboard, Hercules, Ketzyl, Cracker, Nugget, Kodachrome, and Yellow Mustard:  trail names, the only ones that mattered to anyone up there.  We’d chat a bit, and then they needed to move on, cover more distance before sunset.  And when they were gone I’d say “there’s no way I could do that.  What am I trying to prove out here?”

I ended Day 1 camped at a small alpine lake, alone except for a group of mule deer.  Getting there was a first for me, my first glissage, sliding on my ass down a frozen slope when the trail was blocked.  CDT June 2018 045The great thing about a day like this is that you are so tired that you don’t have the energy to still wonder what you are trying to prove.  You just want to eat, get warm, and sleep.  I was forcing dinner down when something spooked this deer, and she actually hissed at me.  Twice, like a really big, angry snake.CDT June 2018 049And I was at that moment so grateful to be right there, grateful to have set those two intentions for the day and not done what was easiest.  To have seen the day through, and gone to sleep on a mountain surrounded by hissing deer.

Tomorrow:  Honey Badger, Asteya, and why it all comes down to Satya at the end of the day.

 

La Pointe aux Cachelots

Thirty meters down, you are looking toward deep water.  There is no transition, you are simply looking at a wall of blue water one second, and then there are the two enormous sharks, swimming directly toward you.  It is as if all that infinity of water suddenly coalesced into a darker round form with two beady eyes, and then pectoral fins, and then a tail, and then your brain understands how big they are.  They are really, really big sharks.photo-requin-bouledogue-playa-del-carmen2

These two bull sharks are, amazingly, not the center of attention.  We are diving at Pointe aux Cachelots, but I have not yet named this place because we have not yet seen the cachelots.  I am, for the moment, overwhelmed by the concentration of life we have dropped into.

November 5, 1995, dive 3,027.  We are at the extreme western tip of Recif Doiman, and I am sure we are the first people to ever see this place.  Eleven miles from this hard and unforgiving coast.  You have crossed into Thule.The beach at very low tide.

I am in a small boat, in a very big ocean.  “Here is the top of the reef, there is that big canyon on the right, and then we’ll make our way around all those big blocks behind it, and then we’ll turn around at the point and let the current bring us back on the outside.  This is a big-fish dive, so look up a lot.”  Blank stares, some silent scanning of the surrounding, apparently featureless seas, little looks of trepidation and fear, and then they just gear up thinking “he seems to know what he’s doing.”  I have become Hussein.

We are surrounded by an enormous school of perroquet à bosse.  These are, individually, quite large fish, and we are barely wet and find ourselves surrounded by a grazing school of fifty.  Moving down the reef top toward the canyon, I realize the bottom below is moving.  perroquet-a-bosseIt is covered, literally covered, with spawning loche marbrée, hundreds, perhaps thousands of them. fakarava-passe-sud-1 Not understanding yet what I am seeing, I look up just in time to deflect three incoming thon a dents de chien, enormous tuna, with giant, unblinking eyes, entirely fearless.  Everything alive around us is, I now understand, fearless.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The bull sharks do not want to eat us.  It is abundantly clear that they, like every other creature swarming around us, simply wants to understand what we are.  I have been fortunate to be the first to dive several great sites, and that first time down, when the fish are curious and don’t know what you are, is overwhelming.  So much life, so intense . . . it is as if all of Creation wants to touch you.

We are drained and excited when the dive is over, but we do not get to rest.  Before we’ve even lifted anchor, the cachelots are there.  Sperm whales, exactly as you expect them to be if you’ve read Moby Dick.  They are everywhere.  They are lifting their tales, or breaching, or simply floating there in place.  And then humpbacks, more common whales in this region, but to see the two together is exceptional.  And then “exceptional” loses it’s meaning when the petit rorquals, Minke whales, arrive.  Everywhere you look, whales.  We shout “look, over there!,” only to suddenly have another one rise within arm’s length of the boat.  I see one swimming like a rocket on the surface, enormous and powerful, but cannot figure out what it is until I realize it is a sperm whale swimming on its back.  That long lower jaw open, but on top now, with each of those enormous teeth silhouetted.  They jump, they raise their pectorals, slap their tails.  It is too much life in one place for one lifetime.

From the shore, I could look at the sea some days and think “there is the sky, and there is the sea underneath, and that is all there is to see.”  You cannot know what is underneath.  I don’t know why I got to see these things.  I just went underneath because that is what I wanted to do, I wanted to see, I wanted to be, in that place.  Because you cannot know what is underneath.

 

 

A Beautiful Idea

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It’s hard to not feel stupid at the beginning of the Cap2k Open Water Swim.  I’m 59 years old, this water is really cold, it is early on a Sunday morning, and I am surrounded by people who are very good swimmers.  They don’t look like very good swimmers.  They have body fat.  That is why they are laughing and talking, while I am shivering.  Bobbing around out there at that imaginary start line between two giant buoys, surrounded by people very happy to be right where they are, right then.  It is a beautiful thing, to be surrounded by these laughing people.

Well, here I go again.  By the time you read this, it will all be over.  It’s a long river, but I only swim 2 kilometers of it, from Redbud Isle to the Rowing Dock by the Mopac Bridge.  I did it at first because blowing blood out my ass piqued my interest in prostate cancer (the race is a prostate cancer awareness and research fundraiser; see my post from 2012 https://georgeschools.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/swimming-with-my-prostate/).  I’ve swum it twice with my son Chris, back when he was able to use his legs.  His record slow finish–the cutoff time is one hour, but despite his legs cramping up and then going numb, he gutted it out, crossing the finish surrounded by those amazing support kayakers in 1:07–was the proudest I’ve ever been of him.  Finishing last, unable to stand, but unwilling to quit.  Fatherhood did not turn out as expected.Cap2k_finsh_2012_087 I’ve swum it with Dave Shook, who I served with on Embassy Duty in Barbados so long ago.11181734_10206198400066613_5302446038558257308_n  You are a fortunate man, to count friends across space and time who are still there for you.

I’ve swum it with a woman who loved me and suffered me, and one day forgave me when I couldn’t even forgive myself.  Smarter than me, clearer of purpose and thought, truly good, and she came all this way to freeze and choke in the river with me, just because it is a beautiful idea.

When I picked up my race packet this morning, Sandy Neilson, the race organizer, was visibly pleased to see me.  She couldn’t stop smiling, and at first I thought she was just stalling because she couldn’t remember my name, but then I thought for a moment that she was either going to cry or hug me so I said “it’s George.  George Schools.”  “I know, George,” she smiled.  “How many have you done?”  Number six, this one, looking forward to seven.

It is a pretty cool swim.  The start is always terrifying, bobbing around out there in the middle of the river, surrounded by so many people yet feeling so isolated, completely alone.  You cannot know what is in their hearts, but they are there, in the water, with you.  Just you in your little swimsuit, swimcap and goggles, all alone.  The first 250 yards or so determine whether you make it or quit, as you try to master your breathing and get into a rhythm. You are either able to breath amongst all those flailing arms and legs, or you literally cannot.

The rest of the swim is, in my case, simply endurance.  The pack thins out, you try and hold a straight line, and just hold it together until you make it to the finish dock.  Most years my entire body will contract as soon as I exit the water,

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My 2013 finish

pulling me forward into a ball barely able to walk or stand.  Every year I will begin to shiver uncontrollably, violently, but gently warm by the sun and the surrounding finishers, all still so happy to be right there, right then.  No one else ever seems to be suffering in the least.  Last year, the adipose guys who had finished before me laughed when I came out blue, one saying with a smile “I bet you miss that body fat now!”  There is a picnic after the race in nearby Eiler’s Park.  It is pretty laid back, and honestly the food is sort of an afterthought, but I love each year to sit there in the grass, submerged in the feeling of friendship, almost family, surrounded by these strangers.  That is where I first met Sandy, who had worked so hard, and mothered us all through, and made me feel so strongly why you want to thank people like her.

I had to skip the picnic this year because I needed to jump immediately in the car and drive up to Dallas to visit actual family, which is a great treat for me.  But I hadn’t realized the deepest reason I love doing this race until my wife said “the picnic sucks anyway,” and I crumbled .   I don’t like to crumble.  “I don’t do it for the food,” I said.  “I love these wonderful strangers.”  You cannot always know what is in the heart.

 

 

Dongan Hiengu

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In 1988 I was standing on the wooden deck of Thakurufaan, our dive dhoni, somewhere in the middle of North Male Atoll.  “Here is the big reef–you can see the hole in the top there.  Then the little one at the end, and the third one out there to the side.”  Hussein, the captain–a man who had never put on a mask or a scuba tank–was describing for me in detail Okobetila, which is now quite a famous dive site in the Maldives.  All I saw was water.  As far is you could see in any direction, nothing but water.  And down–a lot more water.

“You take this rope, dive down and pass it through the hole in the top of the reef, and bring the end back up to tie off the boat.”  I had no idea what I was going to dive down into, but Hussein seemed to see clearly something I did not, and I trusted Hussein absolutely.  That was my 505th dive.

Nineteen ninety-four, dive 2,629, the northeast coast of New Caledonia, near Hienghene.  Hienghene is one of those places in the world you really have to want to get to.  It’s not near anything else.  But I had seen a lot of water by then, and every time I looked at what had become living, moving, breathing water, I thought of Hussein.

When we got the opportunity to open a dive center in Hienghene, I didn’t really need to dive there first to know if the diving was going to be any good.  If you know which way the wind blows most of the time (New Caledonia sits in the trade winds), and understand water, and had paid attention to Hussein, you could stand on the shore with a nautical chart and take a pretty good guess where the coral and fish would be.

Most people may not know this, but a lot of the ocean is not particularly interesting.  Diving in New Caledonia, you had to hit a pretty exact sweet spot:  exposed to current, near deep water but with an accessible top not too deep, and moderately protected from waves once the wind picks up.  We’d asked the local kanaks where they thought diving would be good when we first arrived, but whenever the sea was calm and I had time, I’d take the boat and my chart, and go look for sweet spots.  I dove multiple times almost daily with paying customers, and should have rested, but when one of those incredibly rare calm days came by–the sea literally like a sheet of glass, clear skies–and we had no divers, I decided to drive the five nautical miles out to Passe de Hiengu (I’m going to use the French/Kanak place names now, because that’s what they were to me), and I asked Helene, the equitation instructor, if she wanted to come.

Helene was and is beautiful.  It is mostly in the eyes, where you see her intelligence and will, but the rest sort of knocks you back on your heels, too.

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Helene is second from the left. Itzel, Helene, Didier, Veronique, Mustafa, Jean Philip, and Noriko.

Helene and I took the boat to Donga Hienga, the west side of the pass, first.  It looked like a pretty easy dive, just a double barrier facing northwest, about 10 meters deep on top and then a vertical drop to perhaps 30 meters, and deep water very gradually offshore.  I did not realize it at the time, but I dropped anchor at precisely the best point on the whole reef, right next to a small chimney descending straight down through the reef top, turning 90 degrees, and exiting the reef on the wall through a gorgonian-lined cave facing the morning sun.  I would learn over many dives at Donga Hiengha that the channel inside the double barrier was one of the few places in the world to consistently find ribbon moray eels,

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murene ruban

and that the top of the chimney housed extremely rare Rascasse de Merlet.

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Rascasse de Merlet, taken by the guy I eventually sold the dive center to.

It was not generally a dive for big fish, but it was where I saw my first Tiger Shark,  a 20-footer who swam directly over me near the end of a later dive without showing any particular interest, but left me with a lifetime sense of humility.

The day was still beautiful after the dive, so Helene and I took the boat to the other side of the pass, which is actually just a pivot in a very large reef structure, anchored by a reef named Dongan Hiengu:  between Donga Hienga and Dongan Hiengu you have the North/South-running Passe de Hiengu, but then from Dongan Hiengu the lagoon swings out directly north, where the barrier rises six miles further out at Recif Doiman.

map 002Dongan Hiengu was not going to be an easy dive.  The sea was calm and clear, and I could make out a series of submerged reefs extending seaward from that pivot-point, and I could also see all that water roaring by both sides, the falling tide exiting the lagoon via both Passe de Hiengu and the transversal Grande Passe north of the reef.  Two great oceanic rivers, pouring out to sea.  We dropped anchor on top of one of these faint glows beneath the surface, and as I paused to consider our options I was embarrassed to realize I had been momentarily transfixed by Helene’s beauty, sitting there across from each other on deck, and Helene had shyly looked down when she realized it as well.

More to change the subject than anything else, I asked Helene if it would be ok with her if I just went down very quickly alone to see what was down there.  There was obviously enough current to make the dive a challenge for an experienced diver, and Helene–new to diving–looked at me with those enormous green eyes, and even 24 years later I can’t remember what she said but I can still feel those eyes.

The current was so strong that I was forced to go down the anchor line hand-over-hand, and was only able to scan briefly the area around the reef–patate in local parlance–for a few minutes before I had to ascend.  A small reef shark flew by in the current, gorgonians bent like willows in a wind storm, thousands of Fusilier swarmed above the coral.  Definitely a place to explore further, so a few days later–after waiting out the moon so that a smaller tidal variation would weaken the current–I returned to Dongan Hiengu with Helene, and this time my wife, Nathalie.  I found again that glow I had seen from the surface the first time, explained what to expect to Nathalie and Helene, and then waited on the boat while they became the first people ever to dive Dongan Hiengu.

Waiting on deck, I had the leisure to look at the water, the reef nearby, the patates, that glow.  Something looked different.  And when Nathalie and Helene returned, the incredible dive site they recounted did not resemble what I had seen briefly only a few days before.  I realized that the first time, I thought I was diving at the spot on the map where we were today, but that I had actually been closer to the visible reef marking the pivot in the lagoon.  This day, I had returned to what I thought was the same spot I had been before, but had accidentally ended up where I had intended to dive that first day.  And Dongan Hiengu remains one of the most beautiful spots on Earth I have ever seen.  Five separate reef structures, aligned perpendicularly to the strong current, covered in hard and soft corals that attract hundreds of species of reef fish, hundreds of thousands of individuals, and then of course all the way up the food chain.  Arches, caves, occasionally very large bull sharks, plenty of smaller ones–a pulsating concentration of life, invisible from above.

Today, Helene lives in a castle in Saumur, France.  Dongan Hiengu is still there, probably will be long after I am gone.  For a time, if you knew where to look and zoomed in enough, you could spot my little boat via Google Earth moored there, alone in that big, empty sea.  And I was standing there, seeing all that water, seeing it roaring by as clearly as if each strand of current had it’s own texture and tint, seeing that glow where the life was strongest, seeing first the big reef here, the second, smaller one there, and the other three, heading off toward deep water.

 

 

Santosha and the Apple

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type
noun
  1. 1.
    a category of people or things having common characteristics.
    “this type of heather grows better in a drier habitat”
  2. 2.
    a person or thing symbolizing or exemplifying the ideal or defining characteristics of something.
    “she characterized his witty sayings as the type of modern wisdom”

You show up early at Barton Springs often enough, and you eventually realize you are becoming a type:  There are a lot of healthy old people.  They actually like to swim their laps.  There are usually a few younger guys (in their 30’s-40’s), always alone, but very natural and fast swimmers.  They don’t waste time, in and out.  A few triathletes, usually women, who really seem to take all the joy out of swimming.  They look like very dry sticks, but I honor their quantity of work and have compassion for them, for that day when they ask themselves “why?”

I was talking with Lou–“call me Lou, please.  Lou, from Long Island”–in the dressing room, which always reminds me of a Roman bath.roman bath  Lou is one of the healthy old people.  I thought “I hope I look sort of like him when I get old,” and then I realized he was about my age and reconsidered.  “I swim every day.  Swam all around Long Island.  But this is nice here.  You look like you swim a lot.  It’s great, isn’t it?”

Yes, it is great.  I’m getting ready for the Cap2K again.  I swim a lot of pool laps, which I enjoy, but once a week or so I come to Barton Springs to swim in cold water, water without nice straight lines to follow on the bottom, water closer to what I’ll race in.  I go for a run after, because it’s a beautiful place to run, and then usually come back and swim a little more.  And I always come away from it amazed at these wonderful strangers.  And cold.

I’ve read a lot lately about people up in the Arctic, people functioning at -40 degrees and happy for it.  It has caused me to think about what “cold” is.  If you’ve lived your entire life above the Arctic Circle, and don’t know what “hot” is, does “cold” even mean anything to you?  It is like Adam in the Garden, with no knowledge of good or evil, and no conflict between what you want to do and what you ought to do.  You have to be expelled from Eden to know sin.

And now, unexpectedly, I am not “cold.”  Oh, I shiver after the swim, and turn a little blue, and when I was finished this morning all the muscles on the right side of my body contracted together and stayed that way, but while I was in the water I was ok with that.

“So this is what cold feels like.”  Not “I am cold, and wish I was warm.”  I mean, I know what warm is; I’m not Adam in the pre-Apple Garden.  But once I let go of wanting to be warm, I discovered that cold can be a good place, an interesting place.  You just have to stop comparing it to someplace else.  I’m learning to be at peace with whatever circumstances I find myself in–santosha in Sanskrit–which is not the same as happiness, but it sure gets you closer.  You can be afraid, or happy, or heartbroken, but instead of wanting the fear to go away, or worrying that your happiness will not last forever, you gain the peace of discovering “so this is what heartbreak feels like.  I understand heartbreak, now.”

Despite being naked, I don’t suppose Adam knew “cold.”  He just wandered around the Garden with Eve, and was.  Unlike Adam, I could not swim in that water forever if I’d just follow the rules, because both hypothermia and exhaustion are very real physiological processes that have nothing to do with contentment.  But near the end of my swim, I fell into pace with another swimmer, one of those natural, fast types there alone, an all-business type of swimmer.  We weren’t really racing, but sometimes you just fall in sync with someone and it draws you both higher.  We finished together, got out of the water together, and stood there breathing in that morning air and bathing in that light you only get around tree-lined water.  Smiling, he said “this is wonderful,” to no one in particular, I think.

 

Mr. Bad Decision

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Call me Honey Badger

During the eight hour drive to Guadalupe Mountains National Park I decided that I had had enough of obeying the dictates of time and distance.  “I need to be on the trail by 2 P.M. to make it up to Bush Mountain and set up camp before the sun sets and it gets frickin’ cold and dark.”  Bullshit.  It’s fucking oppressive.  So I just let go of one of those constraints, and it didn’t really matter which.  Just not both at the same time.  Never again.

I struggled with this dilemma as I passed Ozona, Texas, which for reference is the last place to get gas before you make it to Fort Stockton, an hour and a half away.  Or 108 miles, if you’re keeping track of distance, too.

Sixty miles beyond Ozona, immersed in the flow of time, I checked my gas gauge, which cares only for distance.GMNP2018 001 With 48 miles to go across that emptiness to Fort Stockton, all I could quietly say was “I hate to make mistakes.”  West Texas is not a place to make mistakes in your car .GMNP2018 005

There really isn’t any Plan B out there.

“It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation”

Have you ever heard of Bakersfield, TX?  Neither have I.  It is not on the map.  It was not on the road between Ozona and Fort Stockton all the other times I’ve driven out there.  But there it was, right at the exit ramp as I ran out of gas, consisting exclusively of a gas station.  It was not there on my return trip.  Call it Trail Magic.

Later, heading up Tejas Trail, I felt strong.  I flew.  I was so grateful for my body, all it does for me.  I carry a little Tiger Eye stone with me most days for the positive vibes, but I’d left it in my car before heading off because I didn’t want to lose it.  I felt so good–joyous, and overwhelmed with gratitude.  “My Tiger Eye must be going crazy back in my car, this is just so incredibly good!”  At the top of Tejas, after the hard climb, I stuck my hand in my left pocket . . . and my Tiger Eye was there, love made tangible in the palm of my hand.GMNP2018-2 062

Bush Mountain is another couple of hours past the top of Tejas, but by the time I reached it I was asking myself why I needed to go that far the first day, why not stop at Pine Top, and maybe just spend two nights up top instead of three?  That whole section of trail is nothing but unstable limestone and incline, and the 25 pounds of water I carried for three days out was kicking my ass.  I no longer flew, and was not strong.  That evening I collapsed in my tent.

Honey Badger is my trail name.  Rob Graham bestowed it on me somewhere near Greys and Torreys years ago, but at the time and since, I didn’t feel I deserved it.  Real backpackers have trail names, people who thru-hike the PCT and AT.  Rob and I were going up Mt. Taylor in New Mexico a couple of years ago and met some thru-hikers:  “What’s your trail name?,” to which Rob could answer authentically  “A Lo Hawk,” while I just looked off and pretended to not hear the question.  I knew the truth, that I had not committed to Honey Badger.

“I quietly take to the ship.”

I’d decided I needed to get as far as Bush Mountain the first night, because I wanted to make it all the way to McKittrick Ridge by the second night, so that I could come out through The Bowl and Bear Canyon my last day.  Time and distance.  Fucking oppressive.  And it occurred to me that I had decided to make this hike because I had also decided to not do something else, and so this trip needed to damn well be worth whatever I had decided to give up.  It was easy to push myself after that understanding–everything I do needs to be worth what I choose to give up.

New to me, McKittrick Ridge was beautiful.GMNP2018-2 034  The trail had actual soil in it, not just rocks, and there hadn’t been any fires up there for quite some time.  I flew.  I decided that evening to leave my bag of trash in the small foyer area of my tent.  Around 3 a.m. I was awoken by a sound my brain instantly recognized as a small trash bag being pulled out of a tent, and yelled “Bring that back!”  Got out of the sleeping bag and tent in time for a stare-down with the biggest ringtail I’ve ever seen.  “Just walk away, wanna-be raccoon, just walk away.”  Ugly-ass; that’s right, just keep walking.  Fuck with my trash?  I don’t think so.

I let go of time.  The miles are hard in GMNP, scrambling up and down crumbled limestone trails, and then there’s all that water to carry, and a cruel sun.  But the time–the time just is.  For those of you who know me, you might be surprised to learn I have problems with linear time.  I’m pretty good at showing up for appointments and work on time, but it really doesn’t register with me that one thing might precede or follow another.  Time is a great, flowing river; I jump in and out, travel along in my stream, passing by and through other streams of time, each very real and tangible.  I feel immersed in all of it, but my relationship to it is a human construct.  It has caused me a lot of sadness.GMNP2018-2 027

From McKittrick it was a pretty easy shot out to Pine Top for my last night.  Every step became an imperative:  make this moment worth what I chose to give up that brought me here, to this place right now.  I offered myself a few additional miles by looping off the main trail through The Bowl, hotter and drier than I’d expected.  “Why did I decide to do this?,” but I knew that answer.  That evening, situating my tent, laughing after two brief loses of consciousness followed by partial blindness, I rewarded myself with 16 ounces of water and an early dinner.  It had been a day worth living.

That last morning out I was up very early.  The trail down from Pine Top is practicable in the dark, and walking down a desert mountainside under the stars fills me with a deep sense of peace and contentment.  About half way down, my headlamp caught a radiating glow on the trail, the eye of a nighthawk sitting quietly as I passed, invisible save for that eye.  When she realized she was not, in fact, invisible, the silence of her taking flight was remarkable–no beating of wings or rustling of brush, only a silent transition from stillness to flight.  Further down, I passed through a trail section of quartz, and a thousand twinkling flecks reflected back my light underneath a thousand-starred night sky.

I reached the trailhead and my car right at sunrise, where everything was luminous, if not yet clear.GMNP2018-2 065

Like Ishmael, clinging to Queequeg’s coffin.  Call me Honey Badger.

 

 

Life In A Desert

“I like to take things one step at a time, one foot in front of the other.  I like to think things will all work out fine, and follow along behind.”

Mesa de Anguila 086I’d never hiked Big Bend’s Mesa de Anguila, and there is not much useful information available to prepare you for what is in store:  “offers an opportunity for solitude in an area with exceptional views.  The trails may not be obvious as animal trails diverge from the main trail, and sections of trail may be overgrown with grass and shrubs. The trek is recommended for experienced desert backpackers only.”  That’s about it.

Seven hour drive to park headquarters for the permit, another hour further to the trailhead at Lajitas.  There’s really nothing in Lajitas, but I still managed to not find the road the trailhead was supposed to be at the end of.  Stopped and asked directions at the town store, and the first person I asked said “I’ve only been here since September 19, maybe you should ask Natalie.”  It was mid-January, and although I wanted to learn more about how you could not know where everything was in Lajitas in that space of time, I was in a hurry and got directions from Natalie.

Loaded up and hit the unknown trail at 3 pm.  Hiking in, I met a really healthy looking couple on their way out from a day hike.  As is often the case in our National Parks, they were not from the U.S., in this case Namibia.  “This is our favorite hike here; we really love the views.”  I asked how long they’d been here, and they replied “since December 1st.”  Again, an exact date for how long since they’d arrived in Lajitas.  There’s something going on in that town.

Up to the top of “The Saddle,” which is an obvious landmark rising before you as you leave the trailhead.  That’s the steepest part of the Mesa de Anguila hike, and it’s not bad at all.  When you get to the top, before you head off toward where the sun will come up tomorrow morning on the mesa, don’t miss the little trail turning off to the right.  There’s a beautiful view that takes in the bends of the Rio Grande and countless unnamed mesas down Mexico way.  You won’t have any company.Mesa de Anguila 094

“And some things they just happen, and some things you can plan.  And some of those things you just can’t help, but some of them you can.”

This is the quietest place I’ve ever hiked.  No chirping birds, no planes passing far overhead, no trees to russle leaves in the wind.  Only your thoughts, which can be quite loud at times.  Just before leaving on this trip I’d learned that a friend from years ago had died.  On the day of her funeral, Alice’s sister had said “she just wanted to move on,” and I wondered what had made Alice want to hurry the pace and shorten the trip.

From the top of the mesa I knew of only one trail, and my plan was to walk it as far as I

dll805

Map I got at the permit check-in. I added little x’s before and after La Mariposa indicating the best camping spots I saw. Note particularly that the trail down to Santa Elena Canyon passes east of La Mariposa; there is another unmarked trail at that intersection that passes west.

could before I ran out of sunlight.  I had the whole next day to get a feel for the terrain and figure out how far I could go and make it back to my car after a second night out. Generally speaking, on most multi-day backpacking trips I try and walk as far as possible each day, but I have to make sure that where each day ends there is a decent place to pitch a tent.  It’s no good to walk as far as daylight permits and then find yourself half-way up a mountainside trail, which is what I did that evening.

Mesa de Anguila 021

Where I found myself at sunset.

I suppose I could stay in one place and see and hear and smell all things new to me, but I have to walk.   There is so much to know, and I’m afraid I might miss something if I don’t keep moving.  And so I wondered that first night what had stopped Alice so short?  She still had a lot of ground to cover.

I backtracked a bit to find a flat spot for my tent, but got settled in as the light disappeared and the temperature plummeted.  My bag is rated to 20 degrees, and I was definitely cold.  Freezing in my bag and tired from the long drive, I was late hitting the trail the next morning, but made it to the north bank of the Rio Grande right at the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon by noon-ish. Mesa de Anguila 054

The canyon is beautiful, but you can’t really get into it without a boat, and once in you are not coming back.  Check out my visit across the Rio Grande at the Park’s other end along the Marufo Vega Trail (https://wordpress.com/post/georgeschools.wordpress.com/1501).  I dawdled at the river for a light lunch, soaked my feet in the cold, silty water, spritzed a bit, and turned north to head back out.  That’s another part of pacing yourself, remembering that whatever you go down, you eventually have to go back up.

Mesa de Anguila 062

What I had to go back up.

Once back up on the mesa, I knew where I was going to camp my final night:  the last decent spot I’d seen on my way in, about two hours from the trailhead.  Excited to get back on the road and head back home, I planned to wake a half-hour or so before first light, break camp, and be on the trail as soon as there was enough light to see.  But now in tune with the desert vibe, I was up and about around 4:30 am, and everything you’ve ever heard about the night sky out in the desert is true.  Watched the stars a bit, saw a shooting star, and then had to look down because my brain was freaking as it gradually began to understand the depth of field I was looking at.  There really are more stars in the sky than you can count, or even comprehend.  It hurts your brain once you understand how tiny, tiny you are.

On the trail as soon as I could see it.  I hadn’t realized that up on a mesa, the sun would clear the horizon down below well before it made it above the mesa.  I had a good hour of light before I ever saw the sun.  Walking, pacing myself just right, moving along, I suddenly had to stop.  It was so beautiful, that light.  Like everything was new, and life was just beginning.Mesa de Anguila 065

“Some things they just happen, and some things you can plan.  And some of those things you just can’t help, but some of them you can.  Oh, some of them you can.  As a matter of fact, those things are driving me crazy.”

Why give up looking at those stars and that morning desert before you had to?  It is a strange feeling, to know someone intimately yet not understand what would cause them to hurry things along.  Alice was a professional musician, from a family of professional musicians.  She was alive to all those notes and melodies, so far beyond what I could hope to understand.  I suspect the brief time we spent together was irrelevant to the great arc of her life, but the arc was there, full of infinite possibilities, nonetheless.  Just imagining what she might have discovered, had she allowed herself more time, is awe inspiring.  Like a map full of blank spaces instead of trails, or a night sky full of stars.

Big Bend is beautiful.  In a certain frame of mind, though, you look at it and think “but what does it all mean?”  This is a mountain, that is a sunset, those are all the stars in the sky–but that is all they are.  They don’t, by themselves, mean anything.  And what does it mean that I am here, in this place?  These mountains, this sky, are totally indifferent to my existence.  They just are.  As am I, or Alice.  We have to give ourselves meaning.  And then it can be quite beautiful.

“There are things that come too soon, and some things that come too late.  It’s the best thing to come too early so you have some time to wait.  Oh, have some time to wait.”

 

 

“Things”

I like to take things one step at a time
One foot in front of the other
I like to think things will all work out fine
And follow along behind those
One act play-things can give you a thrill
Guess it depends on the actor
Dreams can come true, but some things never will
As a matter of fact, those things are driving me crazy
Those things are keeping me sane
I like to take things and make a design
Keep a low profile. Oh and
I like to take things and put them to rhyme
Like those things that are confusing
And the things that seem so clear
And the things that seem so far away
And yet they seem so near
There are some things I have lost
And a few things I have found
Well it’s so hard to keep track of things
There’s so many around
There’s so many around
And there’s things we have to look for
And a few we never find
And we all have things in common
You got your thing, I’ve got mine
And some things they just happen
And some things you can plan
And some of those things you just can’t help
But some of them you can
Oh, some of them you can.  As a matter of fact, those things
Are driving me crazy
Those things are keeping me sane
Some things turn out all wrong
And some things turn out all right
Some things don’t turn out at all
But then again they might
There are things that come too soon
And some things that come too late
It’s the best thing to come too early
So you have some time to wait
Oh, have some time to wait
Well it’s hard to talk with words
There’s some things you just can’t say
And it’s best to leave some things alone
In case they go away
You can share some things with friends
There’s some things we’ve all been thru’
Well it’s things like this and things like that
And how are things with you?
Oh, how do you do?
You can hang things on your wall
You can leave your things around
You can mark some things 2001, and put them in the ground
And maybe later on, they will dig them up some day
And ooh and ahh, and ‘how ’bout that?’
Who knows the things they’ll say.

Joe Walsh

 

 

 

 

 

Is/Is Not

WheelerHumboltCO 064

It’s a simple sign, and all I had to do on my last hike in Colorado.  “Go right!”

It’s hard to mess up something so simple.  It’s not like there are twenty different trails up there, just the CDT and the CT.   My friend Rob shuttled me to the Cunningham Gulch trailhead after leaving my car at my Little Molas Lake endpoint, then hiked with me as far as the section of the Colorado Trail that follows the Continental Divide Trail.  I’d planned on three days out, he thought it could be done it two, and all I had to do was hike to this sign and turn right.  I didn’t even take a map because . . . well, there aren’t twenty trails up there.  Turn right, hike down the Elk Creek drainage, up over 10,899 ft Molas Pass, and find your car.

Isaiah 41:10
“Do not fear, for I am with you. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.”

I did not hike down off the CDT along the CT Elk Creek Trail, and I did not climb over Molas Pass to my car at the Little Molas Lake trailhead.  This trip was not that, but I know exactly what this trip was, because I know exactly what it was not.

I remember clearly now, looking back and seeing the trail I was supposed to be on, zigzagging down from the Divide, but it didn’t register at the time.  I’d camped the night before at Hunchback Pass, WheelerHumboltCO 071but of course I didn’t know that because I didn’t have a map.  I was just up high, at a pass.  I found an old mine way up there, which you can see clearly on the map, but you need a map to see things clearly on a map.WheelerHumboltCO 073  I was pretty excited,  because I was hauling ass, moving fast, doing something extraordinary.  Way up high.  From my little tent, next to the abandoned mine, I heard dozens of unseen foxes howling their hunger right at sunset.  And the next morning, right at sunrise, every little pika and marmot within earshot sat there chirping, grateful to see another day.  Extraordinary.

Somehow, after I’d turned right that morning, I found a trail and followed it down the drainage.  As the trail descended, it became less and less a trail, more a game path, but I’d occasionally spot a cairn and say “this must be it.”  Eventually I had to admit that this little shit of a trace couldn’t be the CT–I might have been able to fight my way down it, but no way could anyone make their way up.  So down I went, scrambling my way to an alpine lake I could have dove down through and stayed forever. WheelerHumboltCO 081

When I realized I was not where I thought I was, I was angry with myself but not worried.  I had shelter, water, and food enough.  I felt strong, I was not afraid, and I’ve learned to take care of myself because no one will ever uphold me with their righteous right hand.  My only concern was that the Weminuche is very big, and whatever trail I was on could be taking me even deeper into it.   But I figured that if I followed the drainage I was on far enough, I’d end up at the Animas River (this assumption turned out to be incorrect), and from there find my way back.  I was also worried that after four days out, Rob would alert Search and Rescue and I’d get served a $60,000 bill for the operation even though I didn’t feel I needed to be rescued (this assumption also turned out to be false, as Rob was blissfully unconcerned with my welfare once he’d left me at the CDT).

I eventually stumbled upon a real trail, and I could see someone had been down it recently on horseback.  Following it for several miles, I came to a post that read “Valecito Creek” on one side, and “Johnson Creek” on the other, neither of which were part of my knowledge of where I was supposed to be.  “We’ll, you’re fucked now” was all I could say, so I walked.

Genesis 11:4

“And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”  That’s the story of the Tower of Babel.  I’d always thought the story of Babel was about Man attempting to raise himself to God’s level, but after reading the actual Bible I realize they were just trying to do something memorable.  They could have done nothing, and just lived out their lives down where they were, but they wanted to make themselves a name, a life worth remembering.  But “the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city.”  Trying to live a life worth remembering is often met with frustration, and although they didn’t complete their tower, the attempt endures.  It’s in the Bible.

My problem now was the opposite: I did not want to be remembered as the idiot who got lost in the Weminuche.  Luckily, the next day, hiking further down the same trail, I met an old-timer camped in a grove, who told me he knew exactly the pass I was looking for, and all I needed to do was go back the way I came and take that Johnson Creek trail up over the pass.  “I ain’t never been up over the pass myself, but it’ll take you where you’re going.  Plus, there’s a river you’d have to wade down this here trail, and it’s a big river.”

So back I went, angry but hopeful, and found the Johnson Creek Trail.  It made sense to me now, that I’d have to go up a drainage instead of down to get to where I needed to go, and up I went.  And up.  When I thought I was high enough that I should see a pass any minute now, up further went the trail.  There was a brief moment of desperation as I rounded a bend and saw the top, and saw the trail continue on down my side of the crest without finding a pass, but a bit further along, there was the pass.  Looking at those last switchbacks, I thought “I can do that” and reached down deep.  And then the freezing rain started.  And then the sleet.  Pausing to put on my rain gear, I had time to laugh at God’s righteous right hand.  And then it began to hail.

As I got nearer to cresting the pass, I told myself “don’t be upset if you get to the top and don’t see what you expect to see,” meaning the Animas or a highway or some sign that I was not just getting deeper into the Weminuche, but when I came over the top and saw even deeper canyons and darker forests, all I could say, again, was “now you’re really fucked.”  I thought I should take a picture, but told myself “this is really not pretty.”Colorado June 2016 105

But I couldn’t go back down the way I came, so over the pass and down the other side I went.  Incredibly, after a mile or so I came across a tuft of mountain goat hair on a bush.  There is only one place I know of in the world with mountain goat hair littering the ground, and it is the place I hiked last year in Colorado.  “Fucking mountain goats” was all I could say.  A little further down, I recognized another abandoned mine–which is a pretty cool thing to be able to say, now that I think about it–and knew exactly where I was, and also where I was not.Colorado June 2016 050

I had come over the backside of 13,094 ft. Columbine Pass, about 20 miles from where I’d planned to be.  The year before, I’d crested the Chicago Basin side of Columbine, and looking down the other side said “that looks really hard.”Colorado June 2016 069It was.

Once I knew where I was, and also now where I was not, a veil was lifted.  I could situate myself on the face of the Earth–and my entire life, all 58 years of it, felt suddenly re-centered as well.  All that was left was to haul ass three hours down to the Needleton whistle-stop and catch the train to Silverton, and then hitchhike back to my car.

I did not hike down off the CDT along the CT Elk Creek Trail, and I did not climb over Molas Pass to my car at the Little Molas Lake trailhead.  Instead, I walked hard down, up, and over a lot of other ground, for the pure pleasure of being subsumed by the mountains.  I did not know where I was, but I knew where I was not, and now that makes all the difference.

I can’t stop thinking about this, how a thing or an idea can be defined both by what it is, and by what it is not.  0906171146a

These are each the exact same thing, but one is the thing and the other is what it is not.