Once more I am in the High Country of the Sierra, spending most of my time along the Tuolumne River. Days of solitude and silence; days of encountering interesting people. But mostly it is the River…and the wilderness…that speaks to me in a language that I am only now beginning to hear.
There is the wind blowing in the tall trees, and the river flowing over rocks and boulders. One takes the plunge…literally. Immersed in the Tuolumne at 9000 ft…cold, pure water…coming up out of the water like some sannyasi in the Ganges, baptized into Muir’s wilderness, Muir’s vision…. In the Catholic Church the person being baptized is asked : “Do you renounce Satan and all his works and all his pomps?” Yes! Yes! Yes, absolutely, I do renounce all the lures of modern life that obstruct this hearing and seeing! But recall that moment in the Gospel when the Devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness: “Again the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’”(Mt. 4: 8-9). I knew a Jesuit scripture scholar who shuddered at this passage, saying that we missed its full implications. In the wilderness of our hearts we are lured and tempted by the “glitter gold” that civilizations provide and distract us from our true identity. So, yes, I do renounce all that and seek detachment from all these lures, BUT I still carry my map and compass. An explanation is called for!
Muir wrote about the wilderness mostly as a naturalist who also saw the deeper implications of our relationship to wild nature. Faulkner, on the other hand, wrote some stories about human beings in the context of a vanishing wilderness. He looked at it in terms of the spiritual significance it symbolized and enacted. (For more on this, please see Merton’s marvelous literary essays on Faulkner.) In one of his key stories, “The Bear,” Faulkner tells of this annual ritual hunt for a bear that has by now taken on mythic proportions. No one ever finds this bear or sees him, ever. All they have are some indirect evidences of an incredible bear, like footprints. The gist of the story is a kind of initiation into the wilderness of a young man who goes on his first hunt and he gets separated from the group, alone, lost, without a map or compass,THEN and THERE he meets the Bear. Now he has knowledge of the Bear that the others do not have. They “know of” the Bear by stories handed down; he has seen the Bear. So it is. Of course the Bear symbolizes the One whom we call God. And it may well be that only when we are “lost in the wilderness,” “without map or compass,” that we get to KNOW the Bear and not just stories about him. It takes a lot more than just a dip in the river, or joining a monastery, or even being a member of a church or a religion–it takes a kind of initiation “into the wilderness” where we no longer have “map or compass” and are truly lost. Then we meet the One our hearts have been seeking–not just stories about Him. Granted, this cannot be a “way” or a proposal for everyone; for many all this will seem like gibberish. But I assure you, a time will come in everyone’s life when this “initiation” takes place, when we discover our way has no map or compass and we are lost in an unspeakable wilderness. This is called Death. “Do not be afraid, my friend,” I hear the River say.
Among the ancient Greek philosophers, among the pre-Socratics, the name of Heraclitus (and Parmenides) is preeminent. He was among the last to use rationality and myth and intuition to get some understanding and insight into the underlying principles of what we call empirical reality. For Heraclitus, the most fundamental principle was change/flux/motion/ transformation. “All is change.” His most famous metaphor for this was the river. It constantly flows; slowly or swiftly it is ever in movement. His most famous saying: “You never step into the same river twice.” Change is eternal and constant. Heraclitus is not talking about superficial change or appearances, like what we experience in contrast to our constant sense of self which we find in a kind of continuity from day to day, so that we seem to be the same person psychologically speaking and so we might think that disproves Heraclitus. No, he is pointing us to something much deeper. And the river is a key metaphor for that reality (and fire also by the way). That solid sense of ego self that we have (and which Buddhism deconstructs in a flash!) is ultimately a “fast flowing river”; or, better. part of a Grand River flowing on and on, cascading over boulders and tumbling down waterfalls, meandering tranquilly through awesome canyons and gorges. At first insight it might seem that we are like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Jim, floating on a raft down the Mississippi, but this is merely a preliminary intuition. When the light flashes in our hearts like the lightning bolt of the Upanishads, we realize we ARE this River; and the Divine Reality is both Source and End of this Flowing, and the flowing is eternal.
The hikers; ah, the hikers. Yup, it’s true; the big-trail hikers–the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT)–have increased in number suddenly–perhaps due to the influence of that movie, “Wild.” The Tuolumne Meadows Postmaster told me the volume of packages that come in to re-supply the long-trail hikers has tripled this year. And it’s almost “crowded” at the Tuolumne Meadows store/grill each day as a new batch of hikers arrives for rest and re-supply. And with these numbers people watching becomes fun–like sitting in a Parisian or Roman outdoor café!
1st Observation: What may surprise you is the relative transparency of these hikers in their motivations and goals for the hike. Not hard to see the differences among them. The wilderness does not tolerate too much of “masking.”
2nd Observation: Given the large number of hikers, some tend to glom into little groups of 3 to 6 hikers who then hike together–at least for some distance. Yes, there is safety and security in doing it this way, but then you are at the mercy of other people’s pace, and all the chatter. In some ways the group becomes a kind of insulation between you and the wilderness. Some of the hikers go in pairs: a hiker and a friend, or a hiker and his spouse or girlfriend. These tend to be more quiet. They also tend to avoid the larger socializing going on at places like the Tuolumne Meadows store and keep to themselves. But the ones I find most intriguing are the lone hikers. And on the trail they are very alone! Even with all the increase in numbers attempting the PCT, once you are on the trail, very quickly you enter into the solitude of the wilderness. What astonishes me is all the women who are lone hikers, from young girls just out of their teens to women who seem to be in their 40s or even 50s. More power to them!
3rd Observation: Overheard conversation–ranger talking to hiker: “So what kind of drugs can you get on the trail?” Wow! Even here. Our drug infatuated culture spills over everywhere. Lots of money to be made there. Lots of people feeling the need for some kind of drug. So there are people selling drugs at these various rest & resupply points on the PCT, and I think there are even people carrying drugs to sell on the trail itself. Absolutely incredible to me. Why even go on this hike if the only way you can feel alive is by doing the very opposite of “aliveness”? I wonder if any of these people SEE the wilderness.
4th Observation: The big overweight backpacks still dominate even though an ultralight movement is underfoot. Just from the sample I witnessed I would say that about 70% are the traditional heavy packs, weighing over 30lbs, some even over 40 or 50! About 20% could be considered in the “light” category, say 20 to 30 lbs; and about 10%, or 1 out of every 10 are “ultralight,” under 20lbs. (Though of course the ultralight masters don’t consider you in unless you get down to something like 12lbs!!) So what weighs these packs down? Very often it’s stuff we simply feel we cannot be without, whether it’s clothing, books, or “toys.” Ah, the toys! I saw people carrying, attached to their packs, solar-powered rechargers for their phones, pads, etc. Just can’t leave the toys at home! I asked a couple of young ladies why they were carrying so much (each was carrying at least a 40 lb. pack). They said they needed everything in the pack. I said, “You know when John Muir rambled through this wilderness, he carried only a bag of dry bread and a blanket to wrap himself with at night.” They looked at me like I was some daffy old guy. No sense of humor, these kids! And by the way, so many of them are in such a hurry. They bring the fast pace of modern life into the wilderness. So many want to finish the Big Trail as soon as possible, so they can go home and say they have done it. In that case I would say they have not “done” the Trail; they have done something else. Something that did require endurance and energy and effort, yes, but they did not meet the wilderness in their heart. That’s what the Trail is really all about–not just speeding through it, like some mall or theme park.
Thoreau: “Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”
5th Observation: Met a nice young man who is doing the PCT with a 10 lb. pack and a small American flag sticking out of the pack. Commended him for his light way of going. Asked him about the meaning of the flag, and he said he loved his country. I nodded my head and said nothing. It was neither the time nor the place for questioning that “love.” In fact, I think mostly that kind of dynamic is something that unfolds by itself when a certain maturity of vision is born. Met another older man, a Black man, a former Marine, a vet of Iraq, one leg amputated and a prosthetic leg attached. He was planning to do a short hike. I said to him, “Thank you for your service, sir, but I wish you hadn’t gone.” He just looked at me with no expression.
Bumper sticker: Go Outside. Remain.
A perfectly succinct summary of Traildog Philosophy. I get what it says and means, but I would change the wording a bit:
Go Inside. Remain.
Phos Hilarion: It is evening. The glow of the sun low behind the trees. Darkening shadows of the forest. At many monasteries now they are praying vespers, evening prayer at the close of day. Most monks are not even aware of the significance of Vespers. In some of these monasteries they will use this hymn from ancient Eastern Christianity: Phons Hilarion(in Greek), O Gladsome Light. Here is a translation of some of the lyrics:
“O Gladsome Light of the holy glory of the Immortal Father,
the Heavenly, the Holy, the Blessed, O Jesus Christ,
having come upon the setting of the sun, having seen the light of the evening,
we praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: God.
Worthy it is at all times to praise Thee in joyful voices,
O Son of God, Giver of Life, for which the world glorifies Thee.”
There is a Light within the fading light; a Light within all things and persons who are always and essentially “fading.” It is that Light which makes this fading light even possible. And believe me all other lights are fading lights, including those of the beauties of nature and those of the mystery of our own life. In the Easter Vigil, that most solemn moment, we light the Great Easter Candle in the darkness surrounding us and within us. This is the unending Light that is within all that is fading. And we are fading into the evening of non-being–or so it seems. But what seems darkness and emptiness finally is really our first discernment of this Light which blinds us at first, so brilliant and so beyond anything we can know or sense. We are flowing into this Light in our frail and ephemeral self; no, we are tumbling, falling like a gushing waterfall into this Light Eternal and Infinite. We have witnessed (glimpsed) the Presence and meaning of this Light in the person of Jesus Christ. But the ancient seers of the Upanishads, living in the forests of northern India (and many others) also glimpsed that Light truly. The Light abides within every man, woman, and child; every animal, every rock, etc. And so, as Merton once put it, if we could truly see it, we would all be blinded by the brilliance, the luminosity of reality; we would fall down and worship each other! No matter who we are; no matter the “wrinkles” of personality, the distortions of the frail body and the dysfunctions of the even more frail mind; no matter the mistakes made, the “sins” committed, the horrible deeds, the accountings of morality; no matter anything human, and mortal. This Light is so Beyond all that, but all we need do is “turn” toward that Light in the midst of the very fading of our own light, to turn toward it like the river which ever flows from, in, and toward the Light. But in SF and LA and Chicago and NY and Washington they prefer their meager, little, fading lights of buying and selling, of satisfying every craving of the ego. Nothing “gladsome” in all that!