Monthly Archives: July 2013

Ah, Wilderness

This is the title of a play, a comedy, by the great American playwright Eugene O’Neill. It is not one of his “great works,” a piece of fluff based totally on the East Coast, having nothing to do with real wilderness! However, I felt like stealing the title! The urge to do some reflecting on real wilderness has hit me due to some experiences in the real wilderness!

In one of the very early blog postings I had written extensively about “the call of the wild” as a kind of spiritual journey for some people—as organized religion became less appealing, some have turned to the wilderness for guidance of the inner self. John Muir said that he could not go into a church, but the wilderness was his cathedral. That I find very understandable! Don’t forget, the wilderness was the original training ground of holy men and women, of hermits, of spiritual seekers. It seems that every society and every civilization has a way of blunting that spiritual urge or redirecting it to something else. So off we go and flee!

Recently I got a chance to go out into some real wilderness. A few reflections seem called for. As usual, the “problems” I saw were the first things to hit me and nag at me! I still remember vividly from years ago an encounter with some German tourists on the edge of Death Valley in one of those roadside “desert rat” cafes. They said they were in a hurry to get to Las Vegas and were looking for a shortcut. I advised them to take their time and take in the desert vistas—it was winter and cool. One of the young Germans said,”Why? There’s nothing there.” In a sense he represents a whole group of urban sophisticated people for whom the wilderness has nothing to offer and means nothing. The number of this group of people is increasing rapidly and that bodes ill for all of us. A variant of this view is of course the vision of wilderness simply as a place to exploit, a moneymaker, wilderness as a commodity, etc.

Then there’s another group, and this one I encountered frequently—people who are curious about the wilderness but avoid real engagement. They only touch it from the outside. Often they come by bus to a well-prepared spot, get out, get a talk, take photos, get back on the bus, and are gone. Wilderness voyeurs—they enjoy it as a picture. A variant of this is the group that only approaches wilderness when it is packaged well, tamed down, a kind of theme park. I am afraid that a bit of Yosemite Valley is like that. There, on a daily basis in summer, about 25000 people squeeze into an area about 5sq miles. They are treated to a thoroughly packaged experience with many of the amenities of home. Admittedly the views of Half Dome and El Capitan and the other peaks are just plain awesome even from the Valley floor, and they are there to beckon you to go further—for those who have eyes to see and heart to follow. Then there is the rest of Yosemite, hundreds of thousands of acres of true wilderness for you to encounter and learn from. Even Europeans who are familiar with the Alpine scene are blown away at the size, the scope and the enormity of this wilderness. There are trails to campsites so remote you would think you were hiking with John Muir himself!

Speaking of peaks and mountains, I am fascinated by these people who actually climb mountains and even more by those who climb the rock faces of these enormous cliffs. What an incredible sight it is to see someone hanging from the face of a cliff about 2000 feet up and perhaps having no more than a 3 inch ledge! Yosemite is the world capital for such climbing—this is where they all come to prove themselves because there is no place that has so many cliffs of such grand proportions providing an ultimate challenge. First of all, you have to admit and admire the skill, the courage, the determination that is involved. But there is also something else going on, I think. A kind of focus that is hard or impossible to duplicate in any other situation. When you are way up there and you have to get from Point A to Point B and move upward, in a sense you have to solve a problem and there is absolutely nothing that can get in the way of that process—no fear, no thoughts of others, no regrets, no worries, etc. There is only this one problem to attack: how to get to that point. A mistake here could mean death. A super focus has to be there. Normally this is not how people live—usually we are scattered all over the place. So that is one thing. But there is still something else—does this kind of focus “relieve” one of the burden of facing “other problems?” Maybe, maybe not. I mean when you are “up there,” way up there, you cannot be thinking of a failed relationship, of how lonely you are, of the fact your father did not accept you, etc. Or even more to the point, you really set aside the very deep inner question of Who am I, anyway? I don’t mean to be hard on these folk—I admire them immensely—I just sometimes wonder if the adrenalin of that focus is another kind of drug. But I definitely still stand in awe of their achievements and wonder if I can learn from them.

I was in Yosemite as July 4th was approaching. Patriotic symbols and music were seen and heard. Sorry, but I don’t see America as Beautiful or the home of the free and the brave. The mountains, the desert, the rivers, the bears, etc. are beautiful but not the United States of America. This is NOT God’s country, folks! When the first white people came into Yosemite Valley they hunted down the Natives who lived there like they were wild game. Those they didn’t kill they simply drove out of the valley. Enough said.

Tuolumne Meadows, where I was staying, is a crossroads of a sort for various kinds of trails, short, long and very long. The John Muir Trail, which is over 200 miles long, starts in Yosemite and goes to Mount Whitney. The much longer trail is the Pacific Crest Trail which goes from Mexico to Canada. Yosemite is about 900 miles from Mexico and about 1700 miles from Canada. I saw hikers coming off both of these trails. There is a grocery store and a post office at Tuolumne Meadows, so these long range hikers get resupplied here and they are allowed to crash at this backpackers campsite to rest. I enjoy people watching! So I observed a bunch of these hikers. Most were young people—I would say under 30. But there were a few older ones. There was one older guy who looked like a classic picture of a Chinese hermit, except he was not Chinese! I mean he had this flowing long white beard, and flowing long white hair and these incredibly beautiful peaceful eyes. Indeed! They all carry these big backpacks stuffed with necessities for they might be up in the mountains for several weeks before they get to another supply point. Some of the young people had that trail weary look and were happy for a refreshing beer from the store! But you could see there is this real camaraderie of the “long trail”—they share an experience that the rest of us can only dream about.

So like I said, there are these two focal points in Yosemite: Yosemite Valley, which is very crowded in the summer(but the sights are spectacular), and Tuolumne Meadows. Tioga Pass Road runs through the heart of Yosemite connecting the two centers. At Tuolumne there is a Wilderness Permit Center, a Visitor’s Center, a grocery store, a post office, and a hamburger grill with a small menu. So there are usually a lot of people gathered in this area too, but nothing like the Valley. There are picnic tables outside the store/grill where you can sit and people watch! There is also a large campground nearby, the main Tuolumne Meadows Campground with about 300 sites(and a special hikers campsite for those coming off the long trails). I stayed there. At first I thought it would be horrible, but I was surprised how nice it was. I mean first of all the campers were all very quiet, so there was almost like a monastic silence in the evening and early morning. The only sound was the Tuolumne River flowing rapidly nearby. Lots of big trees and boulders for shade. Then there are literally dozens of trailheads nearby for day hiking or overnight hiking into the wilderness, and that’s what most of the people were doing. For overnight hiking you need to get a permit(free), and then you can camp anywhere on the trail. Lots of bears in the area, trust me!! The scenery is beyond anything words can say. Just riding along Tioga Pass Road is so spectacular you have to watch not having an accident by gawking! (By the way there are many other campgrounds along Tioga Pass Rd which also have their merits). I will only say this: there is a kind of Wisdom present in those granite rock cliffs and peaks and gorges and walls, there is a kind of Wisdom present in the beauty of that Wholeness which they silently speak of, the Hidden Wholeness that Merton referred to in one of his poetic reflections on Sophia. It is a Transcendent Wisdom but it also abides in our hearts, and we, all of us campers and hikers and climbers, come to a place like Yosemite in a sense to get closer to what is in our own hearts—even if we do it in some very inadequate and mixed up way. Hopefully we will touch that Wisdom some day before it is too late.

I was reading Han Shan by lantern light amidst these mountains and cliffs and big trees and bears—a very fitting setting that he would find congenial! So I will give him the last word:

I climb the road to Cold Mountain,
The road to Cold Mountain that never ends.
The valleys are long and strewn with stones;
The streams broad and banked with thick grass.
Moss is slippery, though no rain has fallen;
Pines sigh, but it isn’t the wind.
Who can break from the snares of the world
And sit with me among the white clouds?

Translated by Burton Watson