The Sun, the Stars, and the Fall

McKittrick GMNP 027The sign just before the Guadalupe Mountains National Park entrance said I had entered the Mountain Time Zone, and then the Ranger who issued my backcountry permit let me know that the clocks were set back one hour further last night for the end of Daylight Savings Time.  In the space of a few minutes I had traveled back in my life two hours, although the sun had not moved at all.

It was going to take about four and a half hours to get up to McKittrick Ridge from the canyon trailhead, and I needed to make it up the unfamiliar trail before that sun set.  When darkness falls higher up, it gets very dark and very cold, very fast.  You need to be ready to curl up in something warm while your hands still work.

McKittrick Canyon is known for its Fall colors, and the first few miles up the creekbed are easy and beautiful.McKittrick GMNP 007 The first few miles are also embarrassing, because you’ll be thinking you’re some kind of badass backpacker, but you’ll be passing families dragging along the 80-year old abuela to see the pretty leaves, and little Chinese schoolgirls dressed like they’re going to Disneyworld.  But almost no one continues further into the backcountry from this side of the Park, and because you’ll stick out with your pack and tent you’re going to draw the attention of the authorities.  I hadn’t even made it to the actual trailhead from my car when I heard “heading into the backcountry?  Let me just check your permit,” which was sort of cool because the Ranger got all excited about my itinerary.  He called it “ambitious.”  No one has ever called me “ambitious.”

The grandmas and schoolgirls and families out for Fall pictures peter-out after the first three miles or so, and you’ll see a lot of moms or dads carrying exhausted kids for their long walk back, which also made me smile because I will never have to do that again.  At 3.4 miles the path shoots up, narrows, and shoots up some more.  You eventually hit The Notch, which looks like an actual notch cut in the mountainside.   You step through The Notch, and you are mountain-goating the next few miles on a narrow and rough cliffside ledge.  It is an impressive climb.

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The Notch

I will be turning 60 soon.  I’m not really happy about it, but accept that it is as inevitable as the sun rising and setting, the stars moving across the sky, and the leaves changing with the seasons.  I had put off all of this hiking for years, put off many things, waiting for circumstances to be just right, but circumstances are never just right.  You are either going or you are not; there is no “want to go,” as Yoda says, and so I decided that I was never going to get any younger, and I should just get going.  When you see sixty coming but still have so much you want to see and feel, you know you have not timed things right.McKittrick GMNP 009

I never saw the sun set that first night.  It dropped behind the mountains, with still a ways to go before it disappeared below the horizon and took its light with it.  But when I arrived at my campsite I realized there had been no transition, no evening, just night, and the suddenly cooled air brought the strong winds that the Guadalupe Mountains are known for.  I had planned on sleeping beneath the stars without my tent, just to feel that freedom, but at that moment all I could think of was getting out of that wind.  I quickly pitched my tent and dove in, leaving dinner for breakfast tomorrow.

It is an astounding wind.  In the Guadalupes you are aware that you are high above the surrounding land, because everywhere you look beyond the mountains, all you see is low, flat desert, and you know you are sort of sticking out up there, nearer to heaven.McKittrick GMNP 033Laying in your tent at night, you hear that wind just overhead, like a jet sitting on the tarmac with its engines at full power but the brakes locked.  And then you’ll hear this suddenly lower-pitched roar as the wind drops down out of the jet stream and hits the surrounding peaks, and you know you need to hunker down because in about five seconds it will be upon you–one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three . . . and when it does hit your tent it is as though the hand of God has smacked down on your little fabric cocoon, noticeably smashing a bit of the air out of your lungs.McKittrick GMNP 052

I knew each day’s leg of this trip was going to be a long haul only because the trace on the map I’d follow was long, and so I planned to be up with the sun.  But the sun never really rose.  I would see the glow below the ridgeline, and then the next time I noticed the sun was up.  It would seem to hover there, all day, somewhere between 1/3 and 3/4 of the way up, never crossing straight-up noon.  The temperature at those elevations in the Fall doesn’t vary much–high 40’s to mid-50’s–and so without that mid-day cue I could never really tell whether I was hiking in the morning or in the afternoon.  I just walked, deaf and blind to east or west, bathed in a sunlight that looked and felt filtered by a soft gauze through crystalline air.

You don’t meet other hikers in this part of the park.  Perhaps an authority, checking the fucking permit of the only backcountry hiker in the whole 86,000 acre park.  But on my way down to Dog Canyon to re-supply with water, I met a guy hiking up for the day about five miles from the Dog Canyon trailhead who looked like he’d spent a good life outdoors.  He was happy, amazed at the beauty, and then he said “I’m just out with my dad.  He’ll be along.”  I swear, his father looked like Gandalf the Grey.  Long, whispy beard, hair pulled into a pony tail, wide brimmed hat–and so happy and at peace with who he was, shriveled and tanned and very old.  We chatted a bit, and I told them how to get up nearby Lost Peak.  As we parted I said “just be sure to get down before dark,” and Gandalf laughed and said he was not worried by time and distance, but there were beers on ice waiting for them when they got back.  When I left them it was as if the miles I’d already hiked had never happened, as if the day were just beginning.

Dog Canyon over the Marcus Overlook, where the wind was so strong it blew off the backcountry permit tag wired to my pack and kept it.  Up the Marcus Trail, which I thought was going to be the most difficult but wasn’t bad at all.McKittrick GMNP 013My pack seemed oddly empty at the start of this trip, and there was not much left to carry at the end.  My last night, back up on McKittrick Ridge for the hike back over The Notch, the tent was rolled and my pack was ready by 4 a.m.  That moonless night was so very, very black, and it is amazing to recognize that there are such degrees of blackness.  Where I sat, against a stump on the forest floor, my eyes took in only an absolute absence of light.  Where I knew there were trees or ground, I saw only an empty black field with no depth.  But looking up through the trees, where I could clearly see the millions of laser-bright stars, I realized they were set in a softer darkness that permitted me to experience the total blackness of the forest.

I wanted to time my descent of the McKittrick Ridge goat trail for the aurora, and so I brewed myself a cup of coffee and watched the stars.  If you have ever sat for very long beneath a desert night sky, you realize that the stars are moving across the sky, and the expanse of their canvas and arc of their journey can make your legs wobbly if you look too deeply and begin feeling the Earth turning beneath you.  But this night the stars were not moving across the sky, just hung there in precisely one spot, as though time had stopped.  I sat and waited, waited for the stars to move, and for the sun to come up, but eventually I just said “well, it’s never going to get any lighter than this.  I should get going,” a statement which I immediately knew was untrue yet true at the same time.  I asked myself why, but it was hard to argue a frozen firmament, and so I hoisted my pack and found the trail.

I never saw the sun rise on my trip down from McKittrick Ridge.  The sun went up as I went deeper down the canyon, a few steps ahead of the light.McKittrick GMNP 090

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It’s All Bear Country

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(this is a long one, so grab a beer and break it up)

Two Medicine to Oldman Lake

They take their grizzly bears very seriously in Glacier National Park.  Up until now, my trip planning had always centered around not killing myself:  don’t get lost, don’t run out of water, don’t freeze to death.  Now, my entire visit was planned around not getting killed by something else.  It was disconcerting.

The Rangers make you watch a 15-minute video before giving you your backcountry permit, covering everything you could want to know about not getting eaten by a grizzly:  never store, prepare, or eat food near where you sleep (my mom had the same rule).  Make noise as you hike so you don’t surprise the 500 pound carnivore.  Carry bear spray ($40).  And never hike alone (Oops).  They let me know as I was leaving that a grizzly had been seen several times in the last few days on the first part of the trail I was hiking, said goodbye, and shuffled me out the door.  (For the history behind the NPS effort to minimize bears eating people, read the true story of what it was like before night of the grizzlies).

Near the Glacier trailheads, where you will pass people out for a day hike, you will not hear the roar of bears and the trumpeting of elk.  What you will hear is clapping hands and “hey, bear!” shouted so as not to surprise the 500 pound carnivore, and you quickly understand you will not see any living animal if you don’t get far away.  I had spent my adult life outdoors trying not to make noise so that I could see as many large animals as possible, and here I was bracketed by people making sure I wouldn’t see any, all on the theoretical and minute possibility that we might be attacked, torn to pieces and eviscerated, and then eaten while still conscious by a bear.  Disconcerting.

But then–having departed with the certainty that Glacier is crawling with grizzly bears, and then not seeing any within the first few miles–you gradually feel duped, as if it was all some sort of Montana joke they play on the tourists.  You stop clapping your hands as you approach a blind curve in the trail, stop wondering how your friends and family would react to the news of your being eaten.  Funny how the mind works.  You start seeing the land for its beauty, not its danger. GlacierSept2018 184I made it to my first camp at Oldman Lake in about 3 hours, an easy hike in for my first day with only 2,000 feet of elevation gain.  I had plenty of time to set up camp and familiarize myself with the food storage/anti-grizzly system:  stick everything scented in a stuff sac and hang it between two trees, far from your tent.GlacierSept2018 080Excited to see all there was, I hiked up tomorrow’s trail to Pitamakan Pass.  It’s nice to hike without carrying the tent and sleeping bag, just the minimum to not die should things go wrong–as they sometimes do–like water and a little food.  And bear spray.GlacierSept2018 017I meet the most wonderful people outdoors.  At the top of Pitamakan I met a young guy from North Carolina through-hiking the CDT.  It was sort of weird at first, because there was just me, standing at the top of this huge pass and looking down at the lakes and forests on the other side I’d pass through tomorrow.  And suddenly, out of nowhere, he was standing there too, about 20 feet away and also just looking quietly down the other side.  “Ahem, uh, nice view, isn’t it?,”  which is how you start a conversation when someone suddenly appears next to you atop an 8,000 foot pass on the Continental Divide.  We chatted a bit, and then this guy–who’d left the border with Mexico on April 2, had walked 3,000 miles, and was now within maybe 100 miles of the CDT terminus–this kid tells me that he’d heard Dawson Pass was pretty awesome and so he was going to head off in that direction for a look instead of continuing down my path on the CDT.  I realize an extra 20 miles or so is maybe no big deal after you’ve walked 3,000, but once again a CDT through-hiker had blown me away with his awesomeness.  I decided I needed to see Dawson Pass before I returned home.GlacierSept2018 013

At Oldman I shared dinner with two brothers–one who worked in the Park, the other who was the success of the family and taught “corporate team building” around the world–and within minutes of conversation we’d bonded over our mutual love of coffee.  Excited to wake up the next morning and drink coffee, we shared our meals and headed off to our tents–no one said it, but we all understood that the sooner we went to sleep, the sooner we could wake up and drink coffee.  Life is much simpler, outdoors.

 

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The view from Pitamakan north down the other side toward Atlantic Creek and next day’s hike.

Pitamakan Pass to Triple Divide Pass

The next day’s trip down the other side to Atlantic Creek was easy enough, although as the descent continued I began to wonder just how far down I would have to go before I started back up another pass.  I believe that was the longest downhill stretch I have ever hiked, which sounds good but that downhill walking is pretty hard on the feet, knees, and quads.  I heard elk bugling in the trees, unseen but close, during the entire segment.  How creatures so big and so loud can be invisible is something I marvel at constantly outdoors.

I arrived at Atlantic Creek with plenty of daylight left, and so decided to hike up a few miles to Medicine Grizzly Lake.  It is a beautiful hike, and dead-ends in a glacial cirque, so it is not on the way to anywhere and is not visited much. GlacierSept2018 049 On my way in I stopped to look at a stand of dead pine trees, all inclined at the same angle away from the mountainside behind them, the result of an avalanche some time in the past.  Standing there, reconstructing in my mind’s eye the long ago avalanche, I suddenly noticed something moving in the background, and realized I was looking at a grizzly bear with two cubs, walking back and forth on the scree field between the trees and the mountainside.

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You can see the momma grizzly in the bare patch slightly left of and below center. One of the cubs is to her left.

On my way back out, the bears weren’t there anymore, but I realized there was a trail on the mountainside that the bears had been walking on.  “That must be a game trail they use all the time up there.”  It looked inaccessible, and so I guessed that they were able to walk around undisturbed on that mountainside for generations, gradually wearing a trail into the rock.

I did not realize at the time that they were actually walking on the trail I would take the next morning up and over Triple Divide Pass.

Triple Divide Pass and Beyond

When you have seen a grizzly bear the day before on the precise spot you are walking past, everything suddenly looks like prime grizzly habitat.  I was no longer embarrassed to clap my hands and yell “hey bear!” as I followed the trail up to Triple Divide Pass.  Once again, how something that big can become invisible the next day–I knew it was around there, somewhere–just amazes me.  Looking down from the trail toward Medicine Grizzly Lake, I saw moose and deer moving through the brush just off the trail I had walked the day before, unseen to me then.  Just amazing.

GlacierSept2018 064From the top of Triple Divide I stopped.  I stopped for a long time, which is not something I do often.  I do not have any pictures from Triple Divide, because my hands were too cold and I dropped my camera so many times that it wouldn’t focus.  But mostly I just wanted to stand there, in that precise spot.  I have never felt so perfectly in the place I was supposed to be–that exact spot–in my entire life.  I knew I could not stay there long, but it filled me up.

Down from Triple Divide you follow the Hudson Bay Creek drainage, and if you’ve seen the film “Grizzly Man” grizzlymanyou will feel little doubt that you will not make it out the other end.  The trail is tightly hemmed by thick brush and stunted trees, and my constant thought was “if I was a grizzly bear, this is exactly the kind of place I would live.”  GlacierSept2018 065GlacierSept2018 076The long trail out Hudson Bay Creek and on to Red Eagle Creek and Lake was uneventful, accompanied only by the tiny white specks of mountain goats, high up on the mountains both east and west of my path.  I cannot imagine what their days are like.  The moose, down in the bottoms with me, lounged down low in the willows, so much so that after a while I would stop a moment whenever I came to a low spot and see if I could pick out a moose, and in the right frame of mind I’d almost always find one.  GlacierSept2018 114

If you look at the map of this part of the trail, the feature you will see mentioned most often is “falls,” printed in glacier-melt blue.  So much water, falling, falling.  The time of my passage was inconsequential, without meaning in the long arc of time and place, but you could feel the water falling without end, even during the frozen white winter, the water poised in place waiting to continue its fall.

I met more wonderful people along this part of the trail.  A Welsh couple, wearing rain gear for the Scottish Highlands that they looked like they were born in.  The middle aged lady with the French press coffee maker, brewing up pots of coffee for everyone underneath the pines beside the fog enshrouded lake!  “Who wants another cup?  It’s really no problem. No problem at all.”   Jim and Tom, from Wisconsin, Jim being older than me and Tom quite younger.  I met them at Atlantic Creek my second night, and ran into them again at No Name Lake much later.  You knew Jim had had a full life, and wasn’t done yet.  And Susan, suddenly there beside me next to the water at Upper Two Medicine Lake, fog so dense it wanted to become rain.  Her red parka, no gear other than her camera, equipped only with an enormous smile.  She was so happy to have arrived at that spot.  “Oh, I envy you.  I want to stay here, this is so beautiful,” she beamed.  I didn’t understand the whole scenario, but her husband and son had continued back to Winnipeg with the tent but without her, it was too late and too far if she was planning on hiking out to a trailhead before dark, and she didn’t seem concerned about where she’d sleep.  A golden eagle flew over us, my first ever.  I tried to tell her that I was sure there was a moose just down the shore from where we stood, an easy picture, but she just wanted to stand there in the fog and mist and take it all in, smiling.

I will never see any of those people again.  The moose, the elk, the mountain goats, the grizzly.  The water.  None of that will be there when and if I return to Glacier, replaced by others.  But the place will always be there, and from this spot in time, I would like to return.  Perhaps up around Many Glacier, where I had originally planned to go.  Or maybe start up around Kintla Lake in the northwest corner, if I could figure out how to get there.  It is a beautiful thing, to want to get to a place that is difficult to get to, and know it is possible if I am willing to give up other easier, less important things.  I did not know that Kintla, which is on the North Fork of the Flathead River, is a major corridor for game as it migrates north and south.  What a wonderful world to live in, where game still migrates along corridors, north and south.GlacierSept2018 124

 

 

The Absence of Sound

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It was so silent, I found myself waiting for a sound to happen.

I had been having trouble in Glacier.  I just wasn’t feeling it.  Usually, there’s this precise point–I come around a bend, over the top of a ridge–and the bottom just drops out (see Letting The Bottom Drop Out).  You feel so small, so insignificant, so part of something grand.  But it just wasn’t happening.  I thought it might be geology, that here in Glacier I was down underneath all this grandeur, not up on top yet, but knew it was too beautiful to be that.  I thought about karma, that perhaps I’d brought some not worthy of the land I walked through: I hadn’t felt like taking my journal, knew I wasn’t going to take any pictures of myself, only of the place.  I thought maybe I was just out of emotions, too much in one short year.

And then one morning, I don’t even know which, I stood on the shore of No Name Lake and felt everything, absolutely everything, stop in total silence.  I have never known such silence, such stillness.  I stood there and it actually hurt, waiting for a sound to happen.

From that moment, I had more sound, more life, than I knew what to do with.  After I set up camp at No Name, I took a short hike to the bottom of the cirque, just because I was here to see, and had time and effort only to spend.  At the end of the cirque there was a plateau above a rockfall, and I figured there was probably a melt-pond on top.  I started to hike up for a look, aware that the distance was probably much greater than it appeared–you cannot imagine how truly small you are in such a place.  About 3/4 of the way there, I had just decided that the distance and the risk were too great when a group of bighorn sheep came down the mountainside and the sheep–9 in all–came right up to the edge to have a look at me.GlacierSept2018 178  We watched each other a bit, and then I turned back to my tent to leave them in peace.  Not five minutes later I heard an enormous crash of falling mountainside, dropping precisely where I had stood in the rubble field.  Lesson learned.

That night, almost as soon as I had retired to my tent, the elk began.  At first I heard only one, very close, bugling just at the edge of the campsite.  A Great Horned Owl called, and flew over close enough to my tent that I could hear each beat of its wings.  Then a second elk called from the other side of the campsite, and the conversation continued all night long.  At one point I heard a steady, rhythmic “wumpf,” “wumpf,” wumpf,” and knew something very large was walking past my tent.  “So this is what it was like to sleep in Noah’s Ark,” I thought.

I was happy to sleep with that.  And then . . . I heard something very, very large and very loud crashing through the forest behind my tent.  Toward my tent.  Whatever it was, it was destroying a lot of shrubbery on its rampage, and bawling in . . . anger? pain? fear?  I couldn’t tell, and had time only to curl myself into something tiny inside my sleeping bag as the destruction arrived and raced past.  I could tell there were two somethings, still not sure what although I knew it wasn’t an elk and so probably moose.  But what was it bellowing about?  The thought suddenly occurred to me, “Please don’t let that be the sound a moose makes when it is being killed by a grizzly bear.”

The sound receded, and, exhausted, I tried to go to sleep.  I could still hear the howling in the distance, and decided that if it had been a bear killing a moose it wouldn’t have lasted this long.  And then I heard it again, large and angry, right outside my tent, destroying shrubbery.  This time, the motive was clear–whatever it was, it was angry.

I decided to face my fate.  A moose or a bear or Bigfoot, it was right there, and not going anywhere.  It was big, and it was pissed, and it wanted me to know that.  I crawled out of my sleeping bag, armed with my tiny flashlight, and found my pissed-off moose, the other still crying way off in the distance now.  I did not need to understand animals any better than that, and so went back to bed.

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There’s a moose in there.

The next morning there were moose everywhere.  The next morning there were golden eagles flying over the lake, and snow-white mountain goats perched on the cliffs above the trail.  I cannot imagine what they find so desirable up there, beyond the view, beyond the freedom.  All of this, and I had not yet had my morning coffee.

I had a moment of unexpected fear:  I thought I had lost my spoon.  My pack carries no more than 30 lbs, including gear, food, and water, and absolutely everything in it is considered and important.  I cannot lose my glasses, to read a map.  I cannot lose my lighter, to start a fire and boil water for food and coffee.  But I had never imagined that losing my spoon, my only eating implement, would be catastrophic until I could not find it.  And the moment I found it, tucked inconspicuously exactly where it was supposed to be, I realized how wonderful it was to carry everything you owned on your back, and for each of those things to truly matter, for that to make you happy, and how monumental the loss of a spoon could be. GlacierSept2018 142

I did finally take one picture of myself.  I am not sure exactly why.  I had arrived at the top of Triple Divide Pass, which earns its name by the convergence of three enormous glacial cirques, and when you stand at its top you are on the knife edge between three worlds–three enormous, grand worlds, so very much greater than yourself.  I did not feel the bottom drop out; what I felt was competent.  I felt at home yet insignificant, and I felt that I mattered by being there.  The place gave me meaning.GlacierSept2018 068I suppose I took the picture of myself as a reference, a way to remember where I stood, what I felt standing there in that place and time.  It reminds me that we each have a visual horizon of our own, in the center of which we live and move and have our being.  And so to efface yourself from this scene–the remove the center–is immeasurably freeing.

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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

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.