With just ten words.
With just ten words, spoken in passing, the nameless desert traveller revealed the wisdom of “Direction, not position.”
An hour earlier, I had been let off in a small, two-roads-coming-together town in Eastern Oregon. The short December day was ending. Traffic was light. Assuming I’d be camping the night here, I had followed the road north out 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 my home country, this familiar broad landscape of sagebrush and brown basalt rimrock.
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 describe 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 from a good college.
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. (To this day, I am still amazed at how clueless I was weeks before graduation, how obediently I had gone along the designate path without thought.) 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 complete a major 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 1972 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 poll 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 she no longer loved me. So that had been my emotional state (lost election, lost love, and no idea of what I was supposed to be doing post-college) when I had hitchhiked home alone in the gray weather of November a year ago.
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 on the way back from deliveries 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 trivial 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 gazed up at those dark brown basalt cliffs towering above the Columbia River, wondering what it was like on top. But something like that didn’t really qualify as an answer to what did I want to do with my life. In terms of my life, what were some of the things that I had always wanted to do? I couldn’t remember. I didn’t know.
One day, a feed delivery took me again past the cliffs of Wallula. < http://hugefloods.com/Wallula-Gap-Columbia.jpg > So after my delivery, on my way home, I decided to at least do the one trivial thing on my list. I parked off the road 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 to do. The cliff was not smooth like granite or sandstone but was a vertical 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, looking at me perhaps. 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 for the winter.
Bird watching 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, an 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 ladies 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 so I recommended a lesser known, more spectacular trail down. They, having never hiked in the Grand Canyon, asked if I could accompany them. 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 Chelly 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, we said good-bye 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 sounds of my boots on the asphalt and the creak of my pack. At some point in the late night, I slid 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 pages 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 him hanging out on the top of a small desert tree. 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. He is long dead now but we shared that moment together – that minstrel of the early dawn and I – on the east-facing flank of a vast desert basin stretching out below us.
[This chapter contains some links to bird sounds that are foundational to particular memories. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/ is an amazing resource for learning about all the species of birds in the United States. The species accounts include recordings of their songs and calls. So if you have never heard a mockingbird, check it out there.]
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 park brochure 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 farther 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-five 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 Uplift 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 up to Castle Crags. They thought that was cool; they, too, had always driven by without stopping so up we went.
After they left, I followed a 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, and 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 headed to 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.
Birds I had never known became known. My sense of birdness expanded. Short and stocky like a meadowlark; sleek and slender like a cormorant. Upright like a robin; upside down like a nuthatch. Unafraid like a flock of bushtits; wary and skittish like wild ducks. The sweet descending cascade of a canyon wren’s song. The primordial rattle of the sandhill cranes.
Like a boat generating bow waves, walking over the land sends out ripples of disturbances. In order to observe birds, I have to look far enough ahead to notice the casual flutter of birds before they become scared by my approach. I listen for sounds. My hearing grows more sensitive, learning to differentiate between a towhee scratching in the leaves and a lizard rustling through them. My listening extends farther out. My gaze is tens of yards ahead. Left to themselves, my feet learn to autonomously place themselves on uneven ground. My focus shifts farther and farther 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 Northern Harrier, somersaulting and tumbling mid-air only a few yards above the ground and (presumably) an impressed female. Ah, how females can inspire us males 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 “the world so fresh” of 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 days to even become aware of it as a specific, identifiable 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 snipe, a bird I had only known as an old camp trick. Each time it dove, the winnowing sound of its vibrating tail feathers floated within blue vast skies. (Song #2 on lower right side of < https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/wilsons-snipe > or < https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Wilsons_Snipe/sounds > The sound I heard was farther away, fainter and more diffused than these recordings.)
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 in an instant what faith in life looks like. Without even looking down first, it had simply hopped off the edge, wings folded, because it knew 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. Dropping into the void, the passing air pushing wings open that I had never spread before, my fledgling spirit flew.
This explanation of words emerged over the months to explain something that had nothing to do with words. Bird to belly it had been, not bird to head. A small bird moved some powerful part within my core 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 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, at the beginning, 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 life paths that were comfortably secure but that weren’t their paths. 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 I had never thought of. 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 outstanding binoculars. I had been working since I was a young kid, helping Dad mix feed and working in the summer harvests of onions, peas, and wheat. I had saved without spending. To spend some of my precious “hoard” on something like binoculars had just never happened before.
Off the Leash!
When I was a kid, I would take Mersey for walks into Whitman College’s large open campus. I liked to try keeping her leash 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 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, a land more immense than I had ever imagined.
Going north was more than a direction. Going north was longer light, longer shadows, more rainbows, shorter trees. My 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 smooth, arctic-green shrub-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 did stop because the sun had stopped setting. The sunset did not 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 such a low angle to the horizon and it was moving, not lower, but to the right, just below the horizon, until in a few hours, it would become an hours-long glorious 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. (< https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Willow_Ptarmigan/sounds > As you listen, imagine ten or twenty of these conversations going on all 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, gazing, could be this intense, this enough.
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 a great name – 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.
This is not my picture. It is the best picture I have seen of this place. It captures the space and the light and the wildness that called me so strongly. In good faith, I have tried, unsuccessfully, to locate the photographer to ask his permission to use this picture. If I finally contact him and he doesn’t give permission, I will remove it.
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 makes me feel safe as long as I am on it. 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 smelling the Wild flowing from that pass. I simply sat, waking from a trance, waking to a world more real than I had ever known. 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, farther 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 farther away from the road, I listened more intently during each stop. Every ten yards I would startle as yet another Common 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 seconds away.
Eventually I did crest that pass, crossed that divide into the Wild and looked out upon a gentle headwater of the Wind River. 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 (it was called Mount McKinley National Park back then but I will use the current name in my telling), 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 ranger 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 so much more exciting. This story was unique, specific to this place; it could not be read from a book. A book can teach me some of the “vocabulary” that helps me recognize stories I 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. That ranger had just taught me some of its words. The process by which I learned more of its language and some of its wisdom is one of the main themes of this book. I will often use the phrase “the golden book” whenever I refer to this theme of learning nature’s wisdom through direct encounters.
I met 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 of the Toklat. 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. Periodically we made loud, bear-scaring sounds. 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, something I had only read about in geology books and stories of the Ice Age. We scrambled up the snout’s steep slope of loose rocks onto my first glacier. Its medial moraine, following every curve of the glacier, offered a dark, rocky, curving path that lured us further up the glacier. Books mentioned that glaciers can be dangerous but the piled rocks of the moraine felt secure. Mist over the glacier transformed this never-seen-before setting into vast, mysterious space: white snow and blue glacial ice with the dark rock path of the medial moraine curving upwards into the fog towards the enclosing cliffs composed of the same dark rock. And I’m walking on this Thing, this glacier, this thing 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 slowing melting deeper until, suddenly, the meltwater would drop through a hole into some deep crevasse and disappear into subterranean water sounds echoing 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, in an instant, I understood why geologists call glaciers “rivers of ice.” This glacier was flowing just like a river but it was a deep, slow-motion flow. A rounded, mountain peak lay beneath that bulge, forcing the flow up into a standing wave, cracking into crevasses as it curved over the crest.
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 grizzly ahead, a big, solitary boar (male) 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 just 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 enormous! 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 admire these young-like-me seasonal naturalists (working in the summer, roaming in nature through the off-season) 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.
A rosy finch hopping off a ledge leading to birdwatching leading to Alaska leading to becoming a naturalist… Life was cross-country hiking where every step changes what one sees which changes where one wants to head. Living is roaming within an amazing space that feels so right and radiant. But I did not yet feel worthy of the high calling of serving as a seasonal naturalist in Denali. I would need to come back up here a second summer and go far enough into the wild to deem myself 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 high in the dim Arctic sky. I hadn’t seen a star since early June down south. Nights were coming back– fast. I awoke 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 for me to migrate south too. 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 one’s 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 up 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 immense sound of crickets and other nocturnal insects – an all-around-me sound absent from the North.
After watching the eastern autumn hawk migration at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, I started west to get new boots and pack. I 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 not to head home quite yet. Hiked up Mt. Whitney, helped a rancher fix his rail fences in the aspen meadows above Zion Canyon, finally encountered my first rattlesnake while roaming a side-canyon within the Grand Canyon.
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. Returning to camp at the trailhead, I found another guy camped twenty yards away. Older guy – maybe late forties. 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 occasionally bring out whiskey and women for the crew.
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 sign on for 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 scent of the Wild coming from 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 would kill you to keep his gold mine a secret. And here I was camped twenty yards away listening to them talk, like Jack Hawkens in the apple barrel 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. I 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, or 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. Smoothly slinging the binocular strap over my neck, then under my left arm and sliding the binoculars into my left breast pocket each morning. From my pocket, they could easily swing up to my eyes in a second, right on target, quickly focused to scan 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 dwindled as my experience increased. Cold food and a plastic bowl replaced stove and cooking pans. 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 dark by feel within seconds. Flashlight never used. No keys. No watch. No camera. No recorded music replacing 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, determined by 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, towering above me. Silence. The driver rolled down his window. I looked up expectantly with my apprentice park ranger, eager to help consciousness. Looking down upon me, the nameless desert traveller 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 ten words of condemnation but by the profound gap he had revealed 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 on down the road, 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 away. 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, long-haired man sitting in the evening dirt with a dwindling pack. He could see only that position. He could not see the direction. Direction involves change over time and he saw me for only a few seconds, not long enough. You need time to sense direction – and the direction is everything. I came to call this lesson “Direction, not position”. 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 contentedly sit, playing my harmonica. Focus on direction, not position. Focus on change, not appearances. Keep exploring this upward line.
The man in the RV drove on but his ten-word comment remained, prompting me over the years to come up with numerous replies, many just as judgmental as his. But now, forty-five 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 a ledge and my belly followed.