So high you cannot
Climb or get close to it;
Raindrops scatter in the flying wind.
The gate is barred with green moss.
Suddenly forgetting thought,
Only then will you be sure
The gate has been open all along.
~ T’aego (Korean Zen Master, 1301-1382)
As I stood on the high mountain pass, catching my breath from the steep ascent, the wind whipped my clothes nearly taking my hat with it and quickly cooling the sweat on my brow. I looked around, taking in the immense scenery, which was both close and personal and far away and distant. Mount Shasta’s white-capped cone lay off to the east, rising over the Marble Mountains in between, while the Siskiyou Mountains, tree-covered and verdant, lay all around, intimate. I became dazzled by the chromatic display of rock lying at my feet – strange greens of ultramafic and sparkling whites and grays of granite. It was everything that brings me up steep mountains to these kinds of aeries – cleansing, spacious and stunningly beautiful. I felt invigorated and alive with the heightened perception rarefied air. As I continued to look around I realized we were not at our intended pass. Where were we and how did we get here? Perhaps most importantly, what do we do now?
Mumonkan in Japanese (Wúménguān in Chinese) literally means “the high mountain pass that has no barrier” but is often simply called “the gateless gate.” Were we at such a high mountain pass? If so, could we see that it was gateless, that it provided no barrier and that we could just walk on through? To be able to discern the difference between true barriers and those gates that are already open but that we think are closed is our challenge and practice. Mental imaginings and self-imposed limitations strongly influence our perception of barriers. “Argue for your limitations and they’re yours”, said Richard Bach. We were at the “wrong” pass so this could not be the way, the gateless gate, we concluded, so how do we get down from here?
Every trip I have ever been on has its own flavor, its own texture. Some trips are smooth and sweet while others are rough and bitter. This trip had a flavor uniquely its own – earthy and real, the flavor of unknown paths and barriers.
After a very early meeting time of 6:00 am, we set out from the high school with six kids, six adults and three cars in a caravan heading towards the mountains with excitement and anticipation. Northward up the Pacific coast we traveled together and then turned inland following the aquamarine ribbon of the Smith River. We soon left the pavement behind, ignoring the sign that said the road was closed ahead, and headed up a gravel Forest Service road. A few days prior, one member of our group had called the Ranger Station to check on road conditions and was assured that this road was open all the way to the trailhead. Not so. As we rounded a bend in the road, we were met with a closed and locked gate some five miles or so shy of our destination. We immediately got out maps, laid them on the hood of a car and set to figuring out where we would head next. After some discussion by the adults, while the kids milled around not paying much attention to the decisions being made, we got back into the vehicles and headed back down to the paved road and off in a new direction. Sometimes there are true barriers on your path.
A short time later, we turned off the pavement again and headed up another Forest Service road. This time, we stopped at the sign that said, “Road Closed 9.3 Miles Ahead” which again would put us miles shy of our destination. Dejected but not deterred we got out our maps and leaned on the hood again to figure out Plan C. Because nearby options were becoming limited, we decided to head farther away but still in the Siskiyou Mountains. Back into the vehicles we climbed and off we were, bouncing our way down the dusty road. This time we drove up and around the very mountains we were trying to make our way into the heart of, going farther to get closer. An hour and half later we left the pavement, for the third time in as many hours, and drove several miles up another dirt road. This time our path was blocked again by the trunk of a large Douglas-fir tree, fallen across the road. We each chuckled, cursed or cried, depending, at this latest barrier to our path. Fortunately, this time we were only a half-mile shy of the trailhead so we hoisted our heavy packs and headed up the road on foot. Sometimes the paths you think you are going to travel, you cannot; and sometimes barriers can be overcome and so you carry on as best as you can.
As we hiked up the trail, we traversed through conifer forests, over serpentine outcrops and across snow fields before reaching the meadow where we camp. It was lush and green, long and narrow, five acres or so in size, and ringed by towering conifers – incense cedar, white fir and sugar pine. A small creek, with diminutive rainbow and cutthroat trout, flowed through the forest, adding a watery tone to tranquil bird and wind sounds of this mountain meadow. Our group arrived at the meadow and was greeted by a large black bear, sitting in the middle of wildflowers. It looked at our group as we looked at it and then it turned and unhurriedly walked into a thicket of creekside willow and alder. That was the last that we saw of it.
The following day we headed off on a day hike, leaving our backpacks behind and traveling light, essential gear only. We headed up and over a low mountain pass and into another valley which contained a small, unnamed lake stocked with stunted brook trout. At this point, our party split in two: one group stayed at the lake and then slowly made their way back to camp, while a second group, my group, headed off towards Youngs Valley (which was our very original destination). We would then take a trail around Polar Bear Mountain, over a higher mountain pass and back to camp. This was going to be a long and arduous day hike and I really looked forward to it. Youngs Valley was beautiful – a big meadow ringed with conifers and covered with wildflowers in splashes of purple, red and yellow. Here we were in the headwaters of Clear Creek which flows into the Klamath River near Happy Camp but we soon hiked over a low divide and found ourselves in the headwaters of the Illinois River, which flows in the opposite direction on into the Rogue River. We continued on in the Illinois River watershed, our path becoming less and less obvious as the backlog of maintenance needs in this area became apparent. The trail continued on, mostly level as it followed an old road, and at about the point when we thought the trail would begin to climb, it did and we followed along. We breathed heavy and sweated in the hot sun. Climbing higher we passed by an old metal jeep bumper and other automotive debris strewn by the side of the road and I wondered how anyone ever drove up such a steep and rocky road. As the trail steepened I wished we had a jeep.
A few hundred feet below the pass, the road became less obvious and so we decided to leave it behind and just head upslope toward our pass, which we could see was not much farther upslope. The going was relatively easy as there was no underbrush to trip us up and the scree was stable enough to provide solid foot holds. We quickly reached the pass, out of breath and exhilarated, where we were greeted with two very different sensations. First was spaciousness as we were able to see mountains upon mountains in all directions – the Siskiyous, Red Buttes, Kalmiopsis, Marbles, Trinity Alps and Mount Shasta. The light of this place was all-encompassing and the air fresh and clean. The colors, mostly bright greenish grays of ultramafic rock, lent the feel of a Dr. Seuss book to the place. Contrasting quite sharply with this heavenly feeling was a heavy, sinking feeling in my gut. We were not at the right pass and our meadow was not in the valley below as it was supposed to be. We were blocked, we were stuck and what were we going to do now? Was this a true barrier or simply the perception of one?
We considered our options while also trying to take in the beauty all around us. Having several more hours of hiking in an unknown direction created a sense of foreboding making it difficult to relax and enjoy the view. We thought about going back the way that we had come but didn’t really know where we had left the trail behind and didn’t like the fact that this would put us back into camp after dark, creating worry in others awaiting our return. At least we did have headlamps and could hike safely in the dark. We also considered heading back down the way we had come and going cross-country with the hope that we would pick up the trail across the mountain slope – a short cut of sorts but treacherous ground from the looks of it.
While back at the pass I had noticed the trail from the lake to our campsite that we had walked a few hours earlier was several hundred feet below us. I suggested that we hike down that way, which would be off trail, but would get us back to camp in a reasonable amount of time. We were apprehensive because we didn’t know how difficult it would be, especially for the three high school students who had never done anything like this before. They were game and as we didn’t have any better options, down the mountain we went. It was steep, rocky and uneven ground but not overly difficult or treacherous. Within forty-five minutes we were back on the trail and heading towards camp. We still had many miles to go but were all so relieved to be on safer ground that we nearly danced our way back. Had we continued to perceive this mountains pass as a barrier, who knows what our path would have been like.
Our feet and the old mountain took us where we needed to go and taught us lessons that we would not have learned otherwise. Lessons about truth and beauty being found off in so-called wrong directions – “off the trail, on the path” as Gary Snyder said – and that resilience, fearlessness and courage are only truly cultivated in the challenging moments of our lives. Perhaps most importantly this experience taught me that joy and happiness result more from letting go of my expectations rather than fulfilling them, and to embrace uncertainty with the trust that the gateless gate will appear. Had we navigated as expected and had we stayed on the trail then we would not have learned so much. We would have been on the trail and off the path. These unexpected moments are not the path we think we are on, but the true path we must travel. If we are open to it and able to perceive with clarity then the gateless gate will always appear.
I have considered this trip since, with thoughts arising like, “Where did we go wrong”, and “How did we lose the trail?” It is easy to over-analyze situations like this, thinking solely about the “what-went-wrongs” and the “how-did-we-make-that-mistakes” but we need to be careful with such thinking. It puts up barriers where there aren’t any, shutting the gateless gate. We assumed that we knew the path we needed to take, in this case a trail, but in reality our path went somewhere else. Luckily we were open to it, although we almost weren’t, and I shudder to think of what would have happened had we taken another path. This mountain pass, then, was our path, in spite of our thinking otherwise, and it had no barrier, only stunning beauty, immense spaciousness, and the clean air of high mountain majesty. To perceive that our moment-by-moment life is this way is the crux of our matter – the gate is always gateless; it has been open all along, if only we can see it that way.