“So that’s the way…”
If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.
Out in the high desert, I met him, the unknown traveller who, with just ten words, drove deep the lesson: Direction, not position.
An hour earlier, I had been let off in a small, two roads meeting town in Eastern Oregon. Traffic was light. The short December day was ending. Assuming I’d be camping the night here, I had followed my road out beyond the north end of town to better enjoy the view and, if a car happened by, stick out my thumb. With legs stretched out upon the earth and back resting against my backpack leaning against a highway post, I played my harmonica as I settled into the broad arid landscape of sagebrush and brown basalt rimrock, my home country.
Home lay just a couple of hundred miles north. Tomorrow, after a long bath, I would be sitting around the dining table with Mom and Dad sharing my stories. I felt good. Good to be almost home. Good to be playing the harmonica in the midst of this vast land. But mostly good because of that amazing year. That year is the most important character in this first story so I must take a long detour to tell about it.
A year ago I had also been hitchhiking home but in a very different state. Throughout my youth, I had been taught that the path to success was to get good grades so that I could go to a good college. I had obediently gone along and was graduating cum laude from one of the best colleges in the country.
It wasn’t until a few weeks before graduation that I realized that I had absolutely no idea of what I was supposed to do next. When I checked in with my fellow students, I found that many of them were going on to graduate school. Graduate school? That wasn’t even on my map. Graduate school for what? I was getting a degree in psychology, partly because it was interesting but mostly because I had taken the introductory courses early enough in my freshman/sophomore years to be able to graduate in the expected four year time. I felt no momentum to pursue the study into graduate school. What was next? I had just naively assumed that following the path of college would somehow seamlessly lead onto success – whatever that meant.
The summer after graduation, I explored the possibility of going into the Peace Corps but finally decided that the best thing I could do for the world was help George McGovern replace Richard Nixon as president and bring an end to the Vietnam War.
It was the fall of ‘72 and I accompanied my girlfriend back to her last year of college and threw myself into the presidential campaign, working 70 hour weeks. I knew we were going to win, despite what the polls said. I was driving voters to the polling places on Election Day when I turned on the radio and heard, at five o’clock Eastern Time, three hours before any polls in the country closed, that the networks were declaring Nixon the winner by a landslide. How could my country vote overwhelmingly for such a manipulator? I crumpled back into reality to discover that in my campaign zeal, I had taken my girlfriend for granted and our relationship was over. That was the state I was in (lost election, lost love, and no idea of what I was supposed to be doing) when I had hitchhiked home alone in the gray weather of November almost exactly one year ago.
Like I had throughout my youth, I helped my dad with his one-man business, making a vitamin-mineral supplement feed for cattle and delivering it to ranchers in Eastern Washington and Oregon. We would mix a couple of tons each morning, load the truck with orders which I would then deliver during the day. As I got to know the roads, I started pretending that the empty truck was a race car winding up and over the Blue Mountains. One afternoon it hit me that I was driving way too fast for these mountain roads and had been doing so for several weeks. Was I unconsciously seeking suicide?
Suicide? Encountering that word within my own life brought me up short. Why would I want to do that when there are so many things I wanted to do. Things like …like… What were the things I wanted to do?
I didn’t know. That stunned me. There was nothing I really wanted to do. I could think of things but nothing called to me. The only thing that came to mind was a beside-the-point one from childhood: hiking to the top of the cliffs at Wallula. I had driven through Wallula Gap hundreds of times in my life and looked up at those dark brown basalt cliffs rising above the Columbia River, wanting to know what it was like on top. But in terms of my life, what were some of the things that I really wanted to do?
I tried forcing a couple of tentative ideas but they felt forced. One day, a feed delivery took me again past the cliffs of Wallula. So after my delivery, on my way home, I parked amidst the sagebrush at their base and started to climb, seeking a route to the top. A side valley led me up through rounded spaces nestled within this steep, arid, lovely land. Ascending the valley led me to the vast rolling scrubland beyond the cliffs. The grass-covered soil thinned to bedrock as I walked out to the edge of the cliffs.
The cliff edge was abrupt, dropping several hundred feet to talus slopes that slanted the rest of the thousand feet down to the highway and river. I sat gazing, content to finally be up here, to at least be doing something I had always wanted. The cliff was not smooth like granite or sandstone but was a sheer mosaic of tiny ledges, crannies, and nubbins caused by the erosion of cooled basalt. After a time, my eyes noticed a flitting motion on the cliff walls a hundred feet away, as if the ledges and nubbins were rearranging themselves. This flickering of basalt-colored energy moved closer, gradually resolving into a flock of small birds the same rich color of brown basalt, fluttering from one bird-sized ledge to another.
I lay on my belly and hung my head over the edge for a closer view. Soon they were close enough for me to watch them individually. Strange little birds – brown with gray heads, but when they fluttered, …pink? My attention focused onto a smaller and smaller area as they fluttered and foraged nearer. Then one of them landed only three feet below me. The few inches of that bird and its ledge became my awareness. Edges of pink underfeather peeking out. Its head tilted, one eye scanning down, looking for wind-tossed seeds, the other up, perhaps looking at me. With wings completely closed, the bird casually hopped off the ledge and dropped out of sight. Something in my belly dropped in response.
When I hiked back down to the truck, my depression was gone. I remembered that for several years I had dreamed of skiing around Crater Lake in the deep, deep snows of late winter. So a feed delivery to California set up that opportunity. While getting my permit at the visitor center, I went to the bookshelf to buy something to read, just in case a snowstorm confined me to my tent. Curiosity about that brown and pink bird led me to buy Birds of North America.
Lying in my tent in the snow, I found in the book the birds of my childhood: robins, red-winged blackbirds, house sparrows, mallards, and pheasants. I learned that my juncoes, chickadees, and quail were actually groups of birds containing many species. To tell them apart required looking more closely than I had ever known to look. But there were so many other birds, too. Exotically beautiful ones I had never heard of like long-tailed jaegers, painted buntings, and swallow-tailed kites. When I got back home, I started walking around looking more closely and, yes, some of these species really did exist like the easily-overlooked brown creeper. They were part of my world I had never noticed. I climbed back up the cliff and identified “my” birds as grey-crowned rosy finches, high-above-timberline birds descending lower for the winter.
Birdwatching became a mental focus that led me to look more carefully. The world grew more interesting. Range maps in the book sang of different regions having different birds. I learned that one of the crown jewels of bird watching lay only a few hours away, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a vast series of marshes in the high desert of central Oregon, that was supposed to be spectacular during spring migration. So Dad (I never appreciated until much later how he accommodated and helped me through this searching period) arranged another feed delivery down that way.
I went to Malheur with high expectations and arrived in the waning afternoon of a freezing, gray March day. The biting North Wind forced all the birds down, out of sight, stopping migration. It also kept me in the truck cab most of my time. But on my last day at Malheur, the wind shifted to a strong, warm South Wind and hundreds of thousands of birds rose into the blue sky and rode the wind north. I had never seen white V’s of swans, never heard the rising-energy clamor of snow geese migrating north. Big flocks. Small flocks. They were flying, they were flying and I realized I was walking upon a huge earth that was laced together with a trillion wingbeats. V after V faded into the blue sky’s northern horizon and I wanted to follow.
I was hooked. I liked walking the land, a many-year old Christmas gift of tiny binoculars slung around my neck and over my shoulder with the field guide in my breast pocket, listening all around for unfamiliar songs, scanning ahead for any flutter of movement. I wanted to see new birds every day. I wanted to see exotic birds. The pictures and range maps in the book beckoned me to the southwest in spring. I said goodbye to Mom and Dad and started hitchhiking.
(Some truth in marketing. Hitchhiking was different back then. Gas was thirty two cents a gallon and cars were bigger with more space for another passenger. Lots of us baby boomers were on the road, some hitchhiking, many driving. It was a time of “groovy” and peace signs, long hair and easier hitchhiking.)
I had been hitching the on-ramp in Needles, California for several hours. There were six or seven groups of hitchhikers ahead of me so I knew it could be a long wait. Good hitchhiking etiquette dictated standing further along the ramp so those there first had first chance until one works his way to the front. But along came two girls in a VW bug with space for only one person and I was the only solo hitchhiker. They were nursing students on spring break wanting to go hiking in the Grand Canyon. I had hiked there a couple of times and so I recommended a lesser known, more spectacular trail down. They, having never hiked in the Grand Canyon, asked if I could take them on that trail. Sure. But when we went to get a backpacking permit, we learned that it being spring break, all the permits had been given out. So we made reservations for a few days in advance and set off to explore country none of us had ever seen.
We arrived at a place called Canyon de Chelley with no expectations and sat long on the overlooks, stunned by its tranquil beauty. Horses grazing peacefully down in the flat canyon bottom, a few hogans down there in a different world below purplish red sandstone cliffs. The peace of that place helped one’s inner self emerge and we three travelers came to know and trust one another. As friends we returned to our hiking reservations at the Grand Canyon, only to discover it was snowing heavily (and raining lower down within the canyon). The storm was forecast to last several days. So we pulled out the map, counted the days they had left for their spring break, and decided to go south then turn west to Joshua Tree National Monument. We dropped over the Mogollon Rim and entered the lower Sonoran Desert.
Big PINK cactus flowers. They were so big and bright, you could see them a hundred yards off the freeway. It had been an El Niño winter, lots of rain, and now the desert was outrageous. I had always heard about “the desert in bloom” but I had never seen it. We arrived at Joshua Tree in the middle of the night. Early, early in the morning, I walked down to one of the park’s few oases. A Gambel’s quail, a new species for me, called from the edge of the small canyon. Flowers everywhere. As I walked, birds flushed from baby bird filled-nests in the bushes. So much life within such beautiful peace.
We spent the day wandering slowly through the park. Flowers everywhere. That afternoon, Beverly and I climbed Ryan Mountain. Sheila stayed behind. At the end of this hike, I would have to make a decision whether to remain behind within this spacious place or accept Beverly’s invitation to go all the way with them to Santa Rosa and visit for awhile.
All the way up, alone with Beverly, I struggled with what I should say to her. I wanted to let her know that being with her was opening something wonderful within my emotional senses. I had never come to know a woman independent of the context of students together at school. Hitchhiking did not fit into my narrative for possible romance. No series of dates. No conversations focused on each other. Instead we had simply shared five days of venturing beyond our known world, sharing our appreciation and awe, often silently, of how beautiful this world is and how wonderful life can be. She, like the desert, was beautifully intriguing. I wanted to spend more time with her. I wanted to hold her hand, share the feelings within my heart. Maybe she would even want to be kissed. I wanted that – but I also wanted to spend more days in this place, this gaze out at miles of stripped down beauty so raw that it swept my spirit into unexperienced places.
I wanted to share this struggle with her but I also felt bound to the Hithchhiker’s Golden Rule: Always leave each ride glad they shared their drive with you. (If everyone did that, there would be no stop and go rush hours of fumes rising into our atmosphere. You’d just lift up your thumb and be gliding along your direction within a few minutes, meeting somebody new and wonderful in their own way.) But telling her I liked her, that I wanted to hold her hand, might be experienced as “hitting on her” and that would break the Rule. But what if she misunderstood my respectful distance as dislike? What if she really did want to hold hands? Why had Sheila stayed behind? But how could she fall for a wandering hitch-hiker? Romance required commitment in my mind and I was not capable of that with my current bird focus. So logically there was no possibility for romance – except for the fact that Sheila had stayed behind so that Beverly and I could climb the mountain together.
I did not know back then how to talk about mixed-up feelings. I was the sort who kept things inside, intent on silently working it out by myself before sharing the conclusion with others. Perhaps school had conditioned me to never admit not knowing the answer; one is supposed to speak only when one knows the answer. (It would take me several years of marriage and wifely coaching before I learned how voicing my confusion into words helped me see the path to a resolution that was invisible when locked within my silent thoughts.) So as we hiked the mountain together, my mind churning unproductively until we returned to the car. We said good-by and they drove off, leaving me quietly alone in this desert.
I walked out to an outcrop of rocks and set up camp. That night, I settled into my sleeping bag for a good night’s sleep. I heard a scurrying sound. I looked out and saw a mouse foraging around my backpack. Oh my God! A mouse might attract a rattlesnake and what if the rattlesnake then slithered into my sleeping bag to stay warm? In the middle of the night and desert, alone, a vague fear of rattlesnakes suddenly loomed into a terror, drawing energy from a part of the brain I had never experienced before. There was absolutely no sign of a rattlesnake, only a mouse. But just the fact that I was sleeping within a place where a rattlesnake might exist agitated my mind with too much fear to relax into sleep.
I spent the next day sitting on the rocks, just looking out at the desert, soaking up the space. A brilliant yellow and black Scott’s oriole was building a nest in a nearby Joshua Tree. During the day, I decided I wanted to return to that oasis of the first morning. It was forty or so miles of warm, April temperature so I had the bold idea I would start that evening and hike the road through the night and then hang out in some shade during the next day, and complete the hike the following night.
I set off in the evening. When the rare car passed, I would step off the road and turn my head away to preserve my night vision. As I hiked into the middle of the night, traffic ceased and I was alone with just the sound of my boots on asphalt and the creak of my pack. At some point in the late night, I felt myself sliding into a sleep cycle I couldn’t walk through. So I propped my pack against something, leaned back against it and dozed off until I awoke from a dream in which I had been handed the golden Book of Life. The book contained the answers to all the really important questions of life. It was a book of golden radiance with this aura of realness as it was handed to me. With wonder I held the heavy book and with a sense of blessing I opened the pages. And there it was, all the wisdom of the universe, all the answers of Life, written right there—I could see and feel it—but it was written in a language I could not read. I could turn the pages and see the markings on the page but they revealed nothing. You might think this was frustrating but no, the feeling was, “the book is real. The answers are there to be read. I just can’t read it.” The realness was the important thing, not my inability to read it.
I walked on and in the faintest first light began hearing the most amazing, nonstop bird song I’d ever heard. “Who is that?” As the light grew, I could see it hanging out on tops of bushes. With binoculars and bird book and astounded ears, I kept working through the identification until I was certain I was listening to my first Mockingbird. Whenever I hear a Mockingbird, I remember that minstrel of the early dawn on the east-facing flank of a vast desert basin stretching out below me.
I drifted down towards the Pinto Basin and sunrise. Breakfast found me at Cholla Gardens. This was a good halfway point but there wasn’t any shade around so when someone offered me a ride, I abandoned my idea of hanging out all day and rode the last 15 miles to the oasis. I wandered in its beauty during the day. On the map, it looked like one of the park trails led to a canyon that, if I followed the drainage downstream, would lead me to the I-10 freeway on-ramp. So I filled up with water and hiked to the end of the trail. Along the way, I stopped for a five minute rest break. The insects started chirring again. A lizard scuttled to his rock top and did territorial pushups. I heard bird songs. It was quiet and peaceful. I started noticing things further away, larger patterns. A half hour must have gone by when I eventually stirred myself to hike on. I slept that night upon the soft sand of a beautiful desert canyon. The total aloneness was courageously sweet.
The next morning, I continued down the drainage. No trail. No guarantee that I would end up where I was hoping. Every step was my decision, my responsibility as I followed the sandy path of the streambed. All the bushes were in bloom. “In Beauty may I walk, with Beauty before me, with Beauty behind me…” That was the nature of that walk. I saw my first Varied Bunting—a purple bird. Eventually, the drainage emerged from the mountains and I saw the freeway interchange just a mile away. In retrospect, that hike was a passage on the quest I was not yet aware I was on. I had staked my life on a route that was untried, possibly dangerous, possibly beautiful. Every intent and step was of my choosing. How vast the world opens with possibilities at such times!
The next three rides took me through Los Angeles and up to San Francisco. But more importantly, I spent those rides in the company of good women. I probably had a radiant glow that burned away years of conditioning about men and women. My conditioning had been a mixture of awkward shyness and sexual fascination. But there was a whole vast realm stretching beyond: the realm of being alive in this vast universe with a consciousness that is learning amazing things from the world. Part of this world is other people and half the people are women who are people like me in a fundamental way and yet with a different perspective in a fundamental way. To be able to shift from my conditioned focus on the female as a body to female as a spirit and talk together with a focus on this world and the wonder of our being here within it was a new, very satisfying delight. Those three rides were like the universe saying, “Paul, you are ready for an important lesson. Here’s a wonderful, self-assured woman to ride with for awhile. Here, let’s repeat that lesson. Here is another wonderful woman to ride with. Did you get it that time? Just in case, here is a third opportunity to learn this lesson. Have you learned it?”
More rides took me up wondrous Highway 1, sensually hugging the cliffy coast. One driver wanted to show me a beach that was beautiful to him. We walked out across a golden brown grassland towards an oak tree on the horizon. The horizon turned into a cliff edge and a trail descended to an amazing beach where waves had cut into a bedrock of nearly vertical strata of browns and golds and grays. The clean beach with this cliff backdrop felt like a Zen stage on which each step had ceremonial significance. Wave-smoothed fragments of purple-pink abalone shells gleamed in the surf zone. I filled my pockets with this nacreous jewelry.
A couple of days later, I got off in Redding, California. With absolutely no awareness that this would be the place where I would be writing this book forty-three years later, I bought some groceries and headed out to the freeway but got picked up before I could get there by some young people out for a drive. They asked me where I was going. Just as I had always wanted to climb the cliffs of Wallula, I had also always wanted to climb up into Castle Crags, a romantically rugged upwelling of gothic gray rock overhanging I-5 south of Mt. Shasta. I had driven by several times when delivering feed, taking quick glances up at the crags, but never having the time to stop. Now I could. So I told them I was going to Castle Crags. They thought that was cool; they, too, had always driven by without stopping so we all drove to Castle Crags. After they left, I followed the trail up as high as I could and when the trail faded, I kept bushwhacking through manzanita and over rock outcroppings until I was truly up in the crags where I intended to camp. As evening approached, a thunderstorm appeared to be forming. I had no tent; only a plastic sheet. I nestled it down between two crag fins, holding the sides down with rocks. The thunderstorm grew more threatening. I put more rocks on the plastic; drew it lower to present less wind resistance.
The thunderstorm came and oh, it was a dramatic one. Thunder and lightning, of course, and rain. Lots of rain. And I snuggled down in my little plastic cocoon, out of the wind, rain sheeting off just inches above me. The lightning passed but the rain was still falling when I fell asleep.
The next morning’s air was electric. My sleeping bag was completely dry. I felt fully alive — and incredibly competent to have passed through that thunderstorm with just my plastic sheet. I glided down off the crags, under the freeway overpass where I watched my first cliff swallows swooping about just like my spirit. It was May and I wanted to see Malheur again. The migration was over but now it was nesting season and the refuge would be green and full of exotic summer visitors.
At the south end of the refuge is a campground, full of birdwatchers. One old man there could whistle the songs and calls of 240 birds. He whistled a yellow warbler song and in 10 – 20 seconds, a male yellow warbler was in the branches overhead looking for the intruder. He told me that the western meadowlark had over 30 songs that changed subtly through the nesting cycles so he could hear where they were in their cycle by the song they sang.
Each morning, I would fill my daypack with some food and a gallon of water. Then with binoculars around my neck and my bird book in my breast pocket, I’d go walk twenty miles along some dirt road and by the end of the day, as I walked contentedly tired back to my campsite, I’d have added six to ten new species to my life list.
Like a boat generating bow waves, walking over the land sends out ripples of disturbances. In order to observe birds, one has to look far enough ahead to notice the casual flutter of birds before they become scared by your approach. And you listen for sounds. My hearing grew more sensitive, learning to differentiate between a towhee scratching in the leaves as opposed to a lizard rustling through them. My listening extends further out. My gaze is tens of yards ahead. Left to themselves, my feet learn to autonomously place themselves on uneven ground. My focus shifts further and further out of myself.
All of these changes were happening unconsciously within me and simple wonderful moments began entering my life, like the buoyant lightness of terns or coming upon the courtship flight of a harrier hawk, somersaulting and tumbling mid-air only a few yards above the ground and (presumably) an impressed female. Ah, how females can inspire us to dance beyond our limits.
Life was so easy. Just walk and when I tired, sit on the earth and rest; and as I rested, the animals relaxed and started moving again and I found myself sitting within a fascinating world. One time as I sat watching ducks, a weasel popped out of a hole near my feet carrying a dead mouse. Another time as I rested long amidst the sagebrush, I heard a snort behind me. An antelope was standing about ten yards behind me, drawn silently in by its curiosity. Once I came upon a lone pine and after a few minutes I suddenly realized that up in the tree, two big yellow eyes were staring down at me. For five, ten minutes I could not decide if I was looking at my first great horned owl or my first bobcat. And once, in a remote sagebrush region, as I watched a golden eagle through my binoculars, it flew over me and for a split second, I looked directly into the intent, intense eyes of a hunting eagle at a distance shortened by binoculars to five feet.
But the memory that best captures those walking days was a melodic sound floating down from a vast sky overhead with the silver blue snows of Steens Mountain rising in the east. The sound was such a part of the sweet spirit of the place that it took me who knows how long to even become aware of it as a specific part of this world. Many times I would look skyward, assuming there must be some bird up there making the sound but I never saw one. Day after day the sound floated down. One day, my binoculars finally spotted a bird way, way up there diving and with each dive, the sound floated down and so I had my first magical encounter with the common snipe, a bird that many think is just an old camp trick. No, they are real and the winnowing sound of its vibrating tail feathers as it dives floats through blue vast skies. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dam0sDp6Xig)
In the space and wonder of those heady months, I would often reflect back on that rosy finch at Wallula Gap. That bird had changed my life. What I think happened was that bird had revealed what faith in life looks like. Without even looking down first, it had simply hopped off the edge, wings folded, because it was sure it would fly. Something in my belly responded to the casual completeness of its commitment and followed, letting go of some ledge I had been clinging to, and dropping into the void, feeling the passing air spreading wings I had never opened before and now I, the fledgling, was flying.
This explanation of words emerged over the months to explain something that had nothing to do with words. Bird to belly it was, not bird to head. A small bird moved some powerful part within me that our culture doesn’t even talk about and my life changed. This is the world I was beginning to live within, one that can change with the drop of a bird.
It was mid-May when I left Malheur. I got a ride with a veteran bird-watcher. He asked how many birds I had seen. I told him how I was just starting and how hard it was to feel secure in an identification without someone to confirm it. Yellow-headed blackbirds are easy but every day, for example, I had encountered large, long-legged gray birds and had accumulated probably an hour of time flipping back and forth in the bird book between Great Blue Herons and Sandhill Cranes, unable to definitively tell the difference. The man responded by saying how lucky I was. That’s how you really come to know a bird, he said. If someone else identified the bird, you wouldn’t have to wrestle and sift through the whole body of birdness of that particular species. His remark heartened me and now, after thirty years of teaching, I honor his wisdom (and smile at how I had not been able to tell a heron from a crane).
That day as I headed towards the Oregon coast, the universe lined up three more rides to teach me a life lesson. Three rides in a row, all with people who had been pursuing a successful life path that wasn’t their path. In all three cases, the people had chosen to leave the known path to step onto their own path and they now were reporting how important and right that decision had been. One of these rides was with a couple who had traveled into the bush of Alaska and written a book about it. They said, “If you love birds, you have to go to Alaska in the summer.” Alaska was a place beyond my imagination. But after that ride, Alaska became the plan. Three weeks later, I was hitchhiking to Alaska. With me I was carrying the first, significantly expensive purchase of my life: a pair of really good binoculars.
This was life Off the Leash! When I was a kid, I would take Mersey for walks. I liked to try keeping her leash always slack so that she could do whatever she wanted, not controlled by me or the leash. If she wanted to sniff some other dog’s poop for five minutes, fine. If she wanted to snuffle along some invisible meandering scent trail, I would trot along behind, so that she felt no constraint from the leash. But every time, every single time, at some point in the game, some thing, some scent inspired her to burst into a run beyond my ability to keep up with and I would have to rein her in. Every time. But this bursting forth – this following birds north from the southwest desert up to Alaska – I was off the leash. I could go anywhere. Total freedom.
As I hitched up through northern British Columbia, we would cross some large river whose name I had never heard of. Then we would drive through forest for a couple of hours until the road crested some gentle pass where we would look out over forests stretching to the horizon. Then the road would begin a barely perceptible descent until a few hours later, we would cross another large river whose name I had never heard of and begin the gentle ascent to the next pass. Vast drainage after vast drainage, day after day, this land was more immense than I had ever comprehended.
One day I just couldn’t take riding in a car any more. I had to go hiking through this land. So I got out of my ride, put on my pack, and just started walking out into the forest. The ground was soft and spongy between fallen logs and the mosquitoes started swarming and in about half an hour, I pitched my tent and crept in chastened. I returned to the road, humbled, and hitched on.
Going north was more than a direction. Going north was longer light, longer shadows, more rainbows, shorter trees. This bursting forth culminated with a ride from a fur trapper, ending on a pass in the northern Yukon Territory looking out over the most heart-pulling space I had ever seen. If the man had offered me the opportunity to stay the winter and run the trapline with him, I would have gone, so powerful was the pull of that land. I was on the southern edge of the arctic tundra, surrounded by three-foot high dwarf shrubs: alder, birch, willow. The uniform height of these bushes allowed one to see the shape of this glacially-smoothed land beneath this arctic green carpet. The space was immense. And the light. The light. May everyone experience the Arctic summer light. It was near midnight. We gazed north at an immense orange sunset that hung there without changing as if time had stopped. And so, in the eye-cued mind, the awareness of time passing stopped because the sun had stopped setting, because the sunset did not gradually fade. It just hung in the north glowing. The only change came from the movement of the golden clouds drifting within the timeless light. I did not yet understand that the sun had set at a very low angle to the horizon and it was travelling mostly sideways, to the right until it became in a few hours, the glory of sunrise instead.
But in this great golden space, people were jabbering nonsense. All around me, they were having animated bossy arguments with one another. I couldn’t understand the words but I could hear the proper syntax and emotional lilt of scolding speech. I laughed at the over-the-top uninhibitedness of their jabberings. The trapper told me the talkers were Willow Ptarmigan, singing mind-bending verses in a mind-bending land. (http://www.birdwatchingvideo.com/the-odd-sounds-of-the-willow-ptarmigan/ As you listen, imagine ten or twenty of these conversations going on around you simultaneously. )
As at Joshua Tree, I had to leave my ride to just sit there a few days in the most incredible space I had ever breathed within. I stayed in an orange-painted hut beside the road that the trapper said was part of his trap line. It was an 8 x 8 foot plywood box with a bed frame and small wood stove. There I hung out for days being bathed in the amazing light of the Arctic summer. The light. The light. It must do something to the chemicals that influence the mind and body. In that light I just gazed forever, feeling something flowing into my eyes and mind that I had never experienced in such pure form, something never mentioned in all my education.
The land. The light. They were so real in a way I had never experienced before. I couldn’t tell if the place was putting me into a trance or waking me from a life-long trance. I didn’t know that simply sitting within the world could be this intense.
To the east, a low gentle pass stretched between two sets of rolling, low mountains, about a half-mile away. The trapper had told me that beyond that pass lay the headwaters of the Wind, the Hart, and the Bonnet Plume Rivers. What names – The Bonnet Plume!! They were out there, just over that rise. But also out there were grizzly bears. The same uniform height of the tundra shrubs that revealed the shape of the land also obscured the possible presence of a bear. Just the possibility of grizzlies raised an impenetrable wall of fear a few feet from the road that confined me to walking up and down a half mile stretch of the road. To the west, miles away at the head of its drainage, loomed the most incredibly wild, tilted tombstone-shaped mountain I had ever seen. It lured me with its siren shape but I knew I would never walk that far into this country.
But that nearby pass to the East! That low, rounded pass, easily crossed, just a half-mile away, was The Divide. Beyond it lie drainages no road enters. On this side is this dirt road that I feel safe while sitting or walking upon. On the other side of that divide flow the Wind, the Hart, and then the Bonnet Plume. That pass was the divide between frontier and the Wild. Beyond, just the land stretching for miles upon leagues upon days. My spirit smelled the wild over the divide and strove for hours to curve my line of sight so I could look beyond. But the only way I would be able to experience that Wild would be to walk to that pass, alone, through a half mile of grizzly country.
Several times I took a few steps off the road – but the bear fear grew with every step so quickly that within 10 to 20 steps, I hit a wall of fear that forced me back to the road, shaken from the collision. I was off my cultural leash but this constraint was something else entirely. Two primordial forces stretched my soul: the pull of this arctic wild and the fear of grizzlies. Between them I hung, for days, out along the road, gazing at the space. Like a salmon holding its position within a smooth current, nosing upstream with the smell of its birth waters, heading home, I just hung there within the wild flowing from that pass. I sat, simply sitting within, waking from a trance, waking to a world more real than I had ever known. And I would come fully alive if I walked out to that pass. That pass kept calling. Fear barred me but I couldn’t leave either. The scent was just too strong.
I had read that one should make lots of loud noises to alert bears to one’s presence so they have time to run away. But what if a bear was sleeping out there in this vast expanse of three foot high bushes? I’d never see it until a few feet away. Better to not wake it, I thought. So I decided to try sneaking to the pass. If a bear was asleep, I wouldn’t wake him. If he was awake and moving about, I would hear him ahead of time. With sensors on maximum, I crept towards the pass, taking four or five quiet steps and then stopping and listening. Then four or five more steps and listening again. In this way, I got a hundred feet off the road, further than I had ever gotten before. But I reached a point where I knew that, even with a head start, I had no chance of outrunning a bear back to the assumed safety of that shelter beside the road. That point stopped me for a long time. I was prey. It was still a long way to the pass. And then I crept on. As I moved further away from the road, I listened more intently during each stop. Every ten yards I would startle as yet another redpoll flushed two feet away from its nest in the birches. This is what a prey animal feels like, always looking out and around, pausing and listening, death possibly only a few seconds away.
Eventually I did crest that pass, crossed that divide and looked out across a gentle headwater of the Wind. Turning back, bear fear took a different form. Going to the pass had been a closely balanced strain between the pass pulling me forward and fear pulling me back. But now there was nothing holding me back. Now I just wanted to be back in my shelter as soon as possible. I felt this growing panic to just run like crazy back. And the disciplined part of my mind kept saying “No, if you run you won’t be able to hear anything and you might wake the sleeping bear. You must return in the same careful way you advanced.” But the panic to bolt and run grew stronger. I felt this panic rising further with every step. “You’re close enough now. Just run and get it over with.” “No. Walk quietly. Stop. Listen. Walk again.” The closer I drew to the shelter, the stronger the desire to run rose. And then, as I drew nearer, the panic subsided and I walked back to the shelter, bringing some of the wild back within me.
Finding My Path
A week later I was in Denali National Park, falling even deeper in love with the North. I stayed there a month, captivated. Every day I would ride the shuttle bus system, gazing out the window. The National Park Service had ranger-led walks and I went on every one of them—partly for the safety that the ranger presumably offered from bears and partly for what I was learning. I went on one nature walk and asked a question about a mark on a tree. The ranger replied, “I’m not sure” and started looking around making observations, connecting them together until he came up with an explanation involving the fall of another tree, now almost rotted away. Up until then, I had thought that learning about the natural world was a matter of acquiring book knowledge and applying it to the proper part of the world. But this was different. The stories are specific to the place; they can’t be read from a book. A book can teach you some of the “vocabulary” that helps you recognize stories you might otherwise overlook. But the actual story itself resides in that place. This was letting the world speak directly for itself, learning to read the world.
“Ah,” my mind realized, “the world is more than pieces. The world fits together into a logical story that can be read by looking for patterns.” I remembered that golden book of life I had held in that dream beside the road in Joshua Tree. I was starting to learn some of its words. That ranger was able to read complete sentences.
I would talk with other enthusiastic travellers and we would share our life stories. Just as fairy tales begin with “once upon a time”, so all of our life stories seemed to begin with the same two words: “After college,….” What was it about our youth that we felt like our life stories didn’t begin until after college? Surely our stories should start sooner than that! Does schooling somehow put us into a trance?
I met Andres Finstedt, a Swedish birdwatcher/hitchhiker my age. We were both intimidated by grizzlies so we paired up for strength to go hiking in the true backcountry of Denali. Our first hike was up the East Fork, periodically making loud bear-scaring sounds. This country was less terrifying than the Yukon pass because we hiked on the gravel bars of the silt-heavy glacial streams. These gravel bars were a half-mile wide and relatively open so you could see all around you. Suddenly, in the vegetation a hundred yards off to the side, a mother grizzly and her cub were running away from us through the brush. What a great first bear encounter—to have your first awareness be of the bear already running away. Our confidence soared. We had met our first bear and the world was ours. On we strode.
The next morning, we walked up to a glacier…. Came face to snout with this thing I had only read about in my geology books and stories of the Ice Ages. We scrambled up the snout’s steep slope of loose rocks onto the glacier. It’s medial moraine, following every curve of the glacier, offering a dark, curving path that lured us further up the glacier. Books mentioned that glaciers can be dangerous but the piled rocks we walked over felt secure. Mist over the glacier transformed this never-seen-before landscape into vast, mysterious space: white snow and blue glacial ice with the dark path of the medial moraine, composed of the same dark rock as the enclosing cliffs, curving upwards into the fog. And I’m walking on this Thing, this glacier, this thing I’ve read about from the Ice Ages. It’s underfoot and somehow flowing, pulsing, brooding. It’s right here and I’m on it! Streams of icy meltwater flowed along ice-smooth channels they were slowing melting into the glacier until, suddenly, the meltwater would drop through a hole into some deep crevasse and disappear. Cold, subterranean water sounds echoed up from the spooky darkness. I saw a great crevasse-riven bulge in the glacier that looked just like a river bulging up as it flowed over a large boulder and I could see clearly that this glacier flowed just like a river but it was deep, slow-motion ice and a small round mountain peak lay beneath that bulge, forcing the flow up into a standing wave and over.
We did a second, longer hike together. Denali does not have trails; it’s all cross-country hiking. On the second day, we were working up through the tundra towards a pass. Suddenly, Andres pointed out a bear ahead. A big, solitary boar bear. A very big boar bear ambling down towards us. We started making bear-scaring sounds but the bear seemed not to hear. The wind was blowing down from the pass so he could not smell us, seemingly not hear us. He kept ambling toward us. I pulled out my harmonica and we sang our bear song, the Beatles’ “Get Back! Get Back! Get back where you once belonged!” We slowly moved to the side, hoping to move away from the projected path of the bear but on he came in his own introverted way. On we shouted. And then he stopped there in the midst of the treeless alpine tundra. Nothing for us to climb or hide behind. He stood there looking around. (Bears don’t have very good eyesight.) Sniffed the air. Then, he rose up onto his hind legs. He stood very tall and big! He swayed his head back and forth, trying to get a depth sense of what was out there making strange sounds. And then he sat down to think about it. We stood there singing. He sat there brooding. It felt like a long time and I think, in truth, it was a long time. Finally, the bear got up and continued with a slightly resentful detour around us. We watched and then hustled up the slope and away. Crossing the pass, we saw his fresh tracks in the snow. They were very big! We tempered our self-confidence with respect and walked more mindfully. But the fear of grizzlies was shrinking to more realistic proportions that allowed me to start exploring the land.
In between hikes, I went to every ranger-naturalist program I could and loved the effect these naturalists had on their audiences, had on me. I came to really admire these young-like-me seasonal naturalists who radiated such a zest and groundedness. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be able to read passages within that golden book of life. I wanted to be a seasonal naturalist in Denali National Park! An exultant “Yes!” replaced my after-college lostness of “what am I supposed to do with my life?” I now knew what I wanted to become. I was learning to hike cross-country where every step changes what one sees which changes where one wants to head. And this experience of a rosy finch hopping off a ledge leading to birdwatching leading to Alaska leading to being a naturalist… Life was cross-country hiking and living was roaming within an amazing space that was becoming so right and radiant. But I did not yet feel worthy of the high calling of serving as a seasonal naturalist with the National Park Service. I would need to come back up here a second summer and go far into the wild and get to know it and feel at home within it before I would feel worthy to apply.
The twilights of the Arctic summer were lengthening and darkening enough that in mid-August, I saw a star! So beautiful – a point of light barely visible in the dimmer sky. I hadn’t seen a star since June down south. Nights were coming back– fast. I woke to frosts. Autumn colors filled the tundra. Flocks of birds, large and small, were heading south, some flying high, others low. By early September, nights were dark and long enough to watch the Northern Lights before turning in. It was time. It had been more than five months of constant exploring and my gear showed it. A separated boot sole was flapping larger and larger unless I tied nylon rope around its toe portion. The rope would fray after about five miles so I would be replacing it several times a day. My backpack’s aluminum frame had cracked and was being held together by tape. It was time to head home to Washington.
But just as the path can change with every step, so a van stopped whose driver needed to get to a job in New York. He needed another driver to help drive. I couldn’t pass the opportunity to tell my grandkids that I had once hitched a 4000 mile ride across the continent. Several days later, I got out of the van in upstate New York in the middle of the night to the sound of crickets that I hadn’t heard for months.
I woke the next morning, planning on hiking up Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in the Adirondacks. I staggered only a few hundred feet. I felt awful. Something was horribly wrong. I had no energy. All I could manage was sitting listlessly by a creek for most of the day. In the late afternoon, I felt slightly better enough to at least stand by the road. I got a ride up to the trailhead. Massive storm clouds were forming over the mountains. I started walking slowly up the trail. Storm clouds grew darker. Suddenly, a shift in the air signaled my mind that if I rushed, I would have just enough time to pitch the tent before a storm broke. I dashed off the trail a few yards to a flat spot, yanked my tent out of the pack, set it up in triple time, dove in and suddenly the atmosphere changed. The temperature plunged. Water poured out of the air. Lightning crackled and all my energy was back to normal. I had come straight from cool Alaska into the East Coast humidity preceding a thunderstorm and was too displaced to know what had hit me.
I slept with delight through the storm and rose to a restored self and world. Hiked up Marcy, then hitched to Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania to watch the eastern autumn hawk migration. But I still needed to get new boots and pack. The best place I knew of for that was in Berkeley so I turned westward. I stood out by the Pennsylvania Turnpike one morning and got picked up by a guy in a big black Cadillac who needed to get to California fast. He picked up hitchhikers to help him drive nonstop. “Drive fast,” he said. “I’ll pay any speeding tickets.” 90 miles per hour across the country nonstop (no tickets). The following evening, I got out of that car in California. Hitched up to Berkeley and bought new pack and boots. They felt so good I decided I didn’t need to head home quite yet. I had dropped south out of early Alaskan winter into early autumn and the southwest was inviting. So I hiked up Mt. Whitney and was delighted to see gray-crowned rosy finches on its granite summit. I remembered an aspen meadow high above Zion Canyon I had stumbled upon one summer during college that was so beautifully white and green I had named it Lothlorien. What would Lorien look like in October? I hitched towards Zion to find out.
Almost to Zion, I got picked up by an older man who needed help towing a truck to a mechanic. I did a good job helping so afterwards he asked if I wanted a 3 day job fixing rail fences up in the high meadows above Zion. It was hard work but the setting was beautiful. Golden aspens and blue sky. Each evening in his cabin, he’d tell me stories. He had actually seen Hitler, at the Olympics in Berlin. Afterwards, I hiked on down to my Lothlorien, all golden. I camped again upon the edge of a thousand foot cliff. The first time I had found this place, I had been so afraid I might roll off the edge in my sleep that I had constructed a net of logs at my feet to “catch” me. But this time, after a couple hundred nights of sleeping out without moving, I simply placed my backpack below my feet and worried no more about it. Just like we mature from the beginning driver who clutches the wheel to someone comfortable eating a sandwich and changing CD’s while driving, so I was growing comfortable in the wilderness, the less visited part of our home.
Hitching from Zion to the Grand Canyon, I got a ride with a guy who gave me his copy of Desert Solitaire, a lyrically gritty nature book written by a seasonal park naturalist. I welcomed Edward Abbey into my life.
I headed down to hike across the Grand Canyon and spend some time down there exploring its side canyons. I was descending the last few yards of the head of a pink side canyon when a hissing sound like steam stopped me in my tracks. Five feet ahead of my feet lay a coiled rattlesnake, rattles vibrating, its head up and dancing back and forth. A second of terror and then fascination. My first rattlesnake. It eventually retreated beneath a rock, taking with it some of the fear I had always been carrying in the desert. I never felt as afraid of rattlesnakes again.
After a week in the Grand Canyon, I wanted to test myself against the Superstitions, east of Phoenix. They were the mountains of the fabled Lost Dutchman’s Goldmine. The books, possibly hyped, talked of land so wildly convoluted that people easily got lost. So I first did a simple dayhike staying on the trails. Came back to camp at the trailhead to find another guy camped twenty yards away. Older guy – maybe late forties. He came over to talk. He was thinking of hiring on with Big Bart, becoming part of his crew looking for that gold mine. Big Bart carried a .45. It would be hot, hard work but they were getting close. Big Bart had proof of that. The deal was, Big Bart would show him some of that proof—after he had signed on. And once you signed on, that was it. If ever you left the group, Big Bart would have you tracked down and killed so word didn’t get out as to where they were looking. The pay was great—$500 a day—but payable only after they found the mine. In the meantime, there was free room and board and Big Bart would bring out whiskey and women for the crew occasionally.
And I was thinking, this is crazy. This is voluntary slavery of the weirdest kind. You work real hard and think you are earning $150,000 a year but are probably just working for food for the rest of your life. Each year you work deeper into a trap. “If I leave now, I’ll be throwing away yet another $150,000 and I’ll always be living in fear that Big Bart will track me down some night.” Why would anyone want to do this? But the guy was contemplating it, talking about it to me, trying to sort it out in his head. The lure of a gold mine. The lure of an Arctic pass. The chorused promise of a college degree. Each life is a unique voyage through a sea of siren calls and opportunities.
In the middle of the night, a truck drove in and I could hear voices. It was Big Bart of the .45 who will kill you to keep his gold mine a secret. And here I was camped 20 yards away listening to them talk, like Jack Hawkens overhearing Long John Silver. I couldn’t believe I was actually in this B western movie scenario. Life is so strange. When I woke the next morning, the man was gone. Had he joined up? I disappeared into the heart of the Superstitions and found my way around quite easily. Met javelinas and sat by beautiful dark shaded pools in desert canyons until winter approached the southwest and it was time to head home.
So . . .
So now here I sat, almost home, playing my harmonica beside this very quiet evening highway. It had been quite the year. Months spent roaming beautiful wilderness alone; sitting only on rocks, logs, and the ground; waking in the middle of the night and knowing by the position of the stars how many hours remained before the new day’s roaming began. Slinging the binocular strap over my right shoulder and under my left and slide the binoculars into my left breast pocket was part of getting dressed each morning. From there I could swing it up to my eyes in a second, right on target, quickly focused to pick out the route ahead or to intently focus on a tiny gnatcatcher’s tail, waiting for it to flick again so I could see if the edge of the tailfeathers were indeed the black of what would be my first black-tailed gnatcatcher rather then the whiter feathers on the edge of the tail of the more common blue-gray gnatcatcher. Months spent exploring the world using only what was within my pack – and those possessions had dwindled as my experience increased. Stove and cooking pans dropped away. Flashlight never used. My backpack evolved into lean efficiency. My few necessities such as a toothbrush each occupied a specific place in my pack so that I could find them in the complete dark within seconds. No keys. No watch. No camera. No recorded music replaced my own thoughts. Months spent not waiting in lines. Months spent thinking without commercial interruption. Each day knowing what phase the moon was in. Each night, needing only 15 square feet of level ground, lying somewhere new in my sleeping bag reflecting on a day that had been unique in so many ways, lined with steps of my choosing.
When we are open to the world in this way, the world dances with us in ways I had never been taught or told. And within this dance, I had somehow found what I was looking for—or at least the next step of what I was “becoming”—a National Park naturalist, a friendly, helpful, enthusiastic emissary for the world at its most magnificent. My life had a direction.
A big RV came driving down out of the north. As it drew near, it started slowing down. This was strange because, as I mentioned, I was a mile north of town, sitting out on the edge of nowhere. The only possibility was that the man and woman needed help with directions. The RV continued to slow until it came to a complete stop, right there in the middle of the highway, rising above me. Silence. The driver rolled down his window. I looked up expectantly with my apprentice park ranger “May I help you” consciousness. Looking down upon me, he pronounced with judgmental disdain, “So that’s the way you’ve chosen to live your life,” rolled up his window, and drove on.
I sat there stunned. Not by his condemnation but by the profound gap between what he saw from without and what I felt from within. I wanted to tell him about walking into bear country step by fearful step or share the exultation of finding a direction within one’s life. But he saw a ride-sucking tick in the roadside dirt who had dissipated his life’s hopes in a shockingly short time. There was nothing I could do to change his perception; he was beyond, leaving me there to contemplate the difference between what he saw and what I knew.
There was no way for him to know if I was heading home or drifting. There was no way he could see whether my life was coming together or falling apart. There was no way he could see that I was on a rocket ride upward. That was my direction. But my position? That was of a ready-for-a-bath person sitting in the evening dirt with a dwindling pack. He could see only that position. He could not see the direction. Direction is change over time and he saw me for only a few seconds, not long enough; you need time to see direction – and the direction is everything. “Direction, not position” I came to call this lesson. If I am moving in the right direction, then my position happens to be wherever I am at this moment. If that happens to be sitting in the dirt beside the road, then here I am. Focus on direction, not position. Focus on change, not appearances. Keep exploring this upward line.
The man in the RV drove on but his comment remained, prompting me over the years to come up with replies, many just as judgmental as his. But now, more than forty years later, my reply has mellowed into a simple “Yes, this is the way I’ve chosen to live my life.” A bird hopped off of a ledge and I followed.
Over my forty years of roaming since then, “Direction, not position” has accumulated deeper meaning. My sense of direction has shifted into the fifth dimension, a dimension that lies at the heart of this book. But it will take a lifetime of stories to explain it. Therefore the book is organized autobiographically but it’s the autobiography of learning to see nature as an invitation to help move our world in an upwards direction.