The girls and I slung our heavy packs onto our backs and headed out the back gate. How can it be that I live someplace where I can literally head out my back door and hike and hunt and backpack? My what privilege I have stuffed into the pack along with my tent and sleeping pad. No wonder it feels particularly heavy.
There is an ease and a freedom in heading out back to an unknown destination. No trail, no destination, no problem. We know that we would be called to the right place and that our feet would not lead us astray. I love not having to drive to a trailhead. Hell there ain’t even a trail here. We follow our own path out back and that is a beautiful thing.
We started out by hiking across an old alfalfa field, which had been part of a large ranch, when such things were the norm around here. Weedy, scratchy and annoying could be an appropriate description of it, but soon we reached what we call the “shrub-steppe,” that is the beginning of mostly native plants and natural habitat. At this point, the land rises at a 30 degree angle up to a flat, glacial terrace. Our little side valley of the Methow Valley, is called Booth Canyon and gets more “canyony” farther up. Booth canyon is hemmed in by two nearly identical terraces created by huge continental glaciers that were several miles thick in this area. We paused at our the up on top of the terrace, where we often gather during Friday homeschool days and just sit and pay attention to the world around us. We call this our “Sit Spot.”
After a short snack break, we continued up canyon, winding our way through sagebrush and bitterbrush. Not much was flowering except for some lovely little daisies and buckwheat. This is rattlesnake country so we paid attention, listening and looking as we stepped.
A bit farther on, we encountered an old two-track road that led back down to the valley bottom. It got weedier again as we neared the old ranch houses and areas where cattle grazed most heavily. Our dog was alert to something, which turned out to be a dead western racer, a bit stinky and already covered with flies. We named this road “Dead Racer Road.”
A bit farther on we neared the creek and found the campsite that we were looking for. An open grassy glade right down to the creek with nearby apple trees that provided a perfectly cozy spot, which my daughters immediately loved. We shared flowers from the shrub-steppe with this spot as a way to thank it for welcoming us in and then quickly set to trimming back dead apple branches so that we could set up the tent underneath their boughs. Before I even had the tent out of my backpack, the girls were climbing the tree and the dog was exploring the creek, lapping up its cold water happily.
A small campfire, tended by the girls crackled away as I cooked a simple dinner. The fire provided the right amount of heat to make ‘smores and, more importantly, gave the girls a chance to learn about fires and how to take care of them. We cut marshmallow sticks from an apple tree, which the girls mostly did themselves. It brought up childhood memories of doing this very same thing with my dad on one of our many camping trips. Before bedtime we made sure we put out the fire completely. They learned to check for hot spots by holding their hands over the coals.
This past winter, Maddie and I camped beneath a ponderosa pine in the snow. We called it the Sheltering Tree and that campsite, “Winter Camp.” This new spot, right on the creek, was given the name “Creek Camp.” Naming things is powerful and should not be done lightly. I feel the connecting power of getting to know places so well that we have our own intimate names for them. Our Sit Spots, the Sheltering Tree, Winter Camp, Eagle Rocks, Dead Racer Road, and now Creek Camp. These are our names for the places that have meaning to us. Come on out and visit and we’d be happy to take you to these places. They’re just right out back!
A mountain always practices in every place. ~ Eihei Dogen (12th Century Japanese Zen Master)
It was cold but not too cold when we woke up in our tent beneath a lone pine growing in a mountain sea of sage and bitterbrush. Snow was lightly falling from a gray sky, which muffled all noises, giving a hushed tone to the world around us. We had a small fire, which crackled and stirred, and breakfast of oatmeal, hot coffee and hot spiced cider. As we took down the tent, I asked her to help stuff a sleeping bag, which she tried but couldn’t. “She is just not trying hard enough,” I thought to myself and may have said something to that effect. Not my nicest words but also not my worst.
A bit later, I could see that she was upset and crying. I immediately felt guilty about my harsh words and was hit by a rush of shame. My mind raced between blaming myself and weakly justifying my poorly chosen words. Then I took a couple of deep breaths and stopped. I just stopped and looked at her, and then wiped off her tears before they froze to her cheeks. I just looked at her and then I listened. Often in these moments, she clams up, especially if I push her to talk, so I just sat with her and did nothing.
“My feet are cold,” she said. “Oh,” I replied. “Do you want me to warm them up?” She nodded, I took off her boots and socks and held her small cold feet against my very warm belly. As her feet came back to live so did she. “Was this why you were crying, sweetie,” I asked. She nodded again.
The wildlife biologist George Shaller once wrote while trekking in the Himalaya to study blue sheep that “The condition of ‘homelessness’ is the maturity of relying on nothing and responding to whatever turns up at the doorstep.”
We may not be familiar with this concept of homelessness whereas many eastern religions like Zen Buddhism are steeped in this idea. Leaving home, literally or figuratively, are important parts of a monks pathway, yet we can embrace this in our everyday lives as well. If I had continued to assume that she was upset because of my ill words then I would not have been able to respond to the actual moment, to what turned up on my doorstep. I may have reacted from a place of inadequacy or feeling bad about myself, which is never a great place for me to react from.
This much I know and have experienced enough times to have learned from it. Respond with openness and inquisitiveness, don’t react from fear, inadequacy or habit. By not-relying on what I thought was going on, I was able to be open to what I didn’t know, which allowed me to respond to what was actually going on. Responding rather than reacting is crucial. When I react, it is habitual and usually not very wholesome. When I respond, however, I root my action in not knowing what is going on and remain open to the endless possibilities that each moment offers. From here, I can welcome anyone or anything that shows up on my doorstep and then just see what happens. This is the mountain (myself) practicing in every place. No matter what happens, from here may I respond to the moment.
“Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.”
~ William Wordsworth
A recent backpacking trip took me, yet again, to a magical and beautiful place. I usually go to the mountains to refresh my spirit, test my body, and to be enveloped in beauty and serenity. This trip was all of those things but the goal was to see if there was a certain rare and special little plant blooming. The alpine forget-me-not only grows in one locality in the entire state of Washington and we have the honor of that place being right in our back yard. Er, well a 6.5 mile hike in and a scramble up a boulder-strewn slope, but, hey, that is our backyard after all! This trip had the added bonus of being with folks as deeply interested and moved by the world around us, particularly natural history and ecology, as I am. The company was perfect, the conversations deep, and the observations astute. Not only did we find the little beauty (pictured below), we found a whole “mountain-side” (really just a mountain shoulder) colored by the most vibrant blue I have ever seen. Getting down on the earth with a hand-lens was all I needed to be struck with awe and care for this delightful planet.
I then stood up and looked around, where mountains beyond mountains, snow-capped and rugged, filled the land. Both the micro and macro can inspire us to be better humans, to care for both the small and insignificant and the grand and jaw-dropping. This was just such a place to remember this but really any place, every place is sacred, if only we see it so.
If you doubt mountains’ walking, you do not know your own walking; it is not that you do not walk, but that you do not know or understand your own walking. Since you do know your own walking, you should full know the green mountains’ walking.
~Eihei Dogen (13th century Japan)
We stood in a circle, bowed to each other and at the sound of the wooden clappers, began walking into the mountains. Beginning in logged over, dog-hair thick conifer stands, we were soon striding through dripping and decadent old-growth forest. For 17 years the zen group out of Bellingham have been doing this pilgrimage into the mountains, into the mind of zen. We were also walking into the Sansuikyo or “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” a teaching given by Zen Master Eihei Dogen late in the night in the year 1240. It begins with the line “Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the ancient Buddha way” and thus we began our ritual enactment of the ancient buddha way of mountains and rivers. In silence, we moved up the trail as one body, leaving no one behind, and just like the mountains there was stillness in our activity. Ascending some 1,500 feet over seven and a half miles in this way, we hiked through ancient temperate rainforest and up the slopes of a relatively young and still active stratovolcano.
Along the way, we stopped to honor sacred places, bowing and chanting a part of Dogen’s sansuikyo each time. The first stop was an old-growth western hemlock, miraculously still alive, that had a lightning scar spiraling down its gnarled trunk. Living and dying in this ancient place isn’t particularly distinct and I thought of Shitou’s teaching (the Sandokai or “Harmony of Difference and Sameness”) that things are “not one, not two”. Like the feet in walking its difficult to say which comes first and which comes after. Maybe living and dying, like before and after, are really in each other all along. They are not one, not two; not different but also not the same.
“Because green mountains are constantly walking, they are permanent. Although they walk more swiftly than the wind, someone in the mountains does not realize or understand it.”
Our second stop was for lunch, which we shared in silence, and I was struck with how well humans can communicate without saying a word. During this lunch I came to understand not only how distracting talking can be but also what a crutch it can be. Because we remained in silence, we each had to pay close attention to what was going on in order to serve others, in order to share what was available. If someone wanted the bag of crackers or the beef jerky, they couldn’t simply ask and get someone’s attention. In this realm of silence, attention needed to be freely given not raucously garnered. During our usual mode of talking and eating, we can sort of not pay attention because someone will get our attention when its needed. But in silence, we all had to remain firmly rooted in the moment, like the ancient hemlocks all around, in order to engage in the simple act of sharing food. It was beautiful, simple and profound.
After a few more hours of silent walking, we stopped at a babbling little waterfall, which gushed forth from the mountains, through the mountains and through us. This was our second ceremonial site and we continued to read Dogen’s teaching together as the waters poured forth from rock and rubble. It was beautiful to hear our voices mixing and mingling with one another and the waters cascading down the mountain.
“All waters appear at the foot of the (eastern) mountains. Accordingly, all mountains ride on clouds and walk in the sky. Above all waters are all mountains. Walking beyond and walking within are both done on water. All mountains walk with their toes on all waters and splash there.”
In thick clouds, light rain (hard to tell the difference), we ascended to an open heather meadow which was to be our camp for two days. Exhausted we set up tents and our camp kitchen and hung our food bags before dropping off to heavy sleep. Ahh the exhausted sleep of mountain walking! We knew the 5:30am wake up bell would ring all too early.
And it did. Both mornings we woke up in this way. First the high sound of the morning bell and later the thud of wood on wood as we set up a makeshift han (the traditional way to call monks to at monasteries), which was struck for ten minutes calling us to meditation. The first morning we sat in the open air, using our sleeping pads for cushions and wrapping ourselves in our sleeping bags for warmth. These were our mountains seats and mountain robes.
The second morning we had set up the log lean-to as our zendo (meditation hall) which has served the group in years past. Both mornings we were visited by well-known camp robbers – gray jays – who startled us by flying shockingly close to our heads to find bits of leftover food to eat. Zazen or seated meditation was interspersed with kinhin or walking meditation which we did outdoors under the looming glaciers and peaks of Mount Baker (10,781 feet). Looking around, there was Mount Baker, Easton and Deming glaciers, Black Buttes, Cathedral Crag, Park Butte Lookout and to the west, the Twin Sisters Range with its own sets of glaciers. Mountains all around, dancing with their toes in all waters, whether frozen or flowing.
This day included an hour and half period of solo time, where each of us sat in a little nook of our own. We were instructed to meditate, write, read or sleep as needed but to no move around a whole lot. I was placed up a dry ravine where rocks cascaded down where water once flowed. I set up my mountain seat, wrapped myself in my mountain robe and just sat. Before leaving camp, I quickly grabbed water, first aid kit and “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” in a greedy way, thinking that I might want one of these things. I quickly discovered that I really didn’t need anything. I just sat, taking it all in and letting it all go like the breath. Nothing else to do, nothing extra needed.
“Keeping its own form, without changing body and mind, a mountain always practices in every place.”
In the afternoon, some of us went on an optional day hike up a trail that took us eastward over a ridge and then up to Park Butte Lookout (an old fire lookout that can be camped in – first come, first serve). As we ascended up the talus, rocky slope, we heard the high pitched whistle call of pikas (small mammals related to rabbits, who make haystacks in order to dry grass for winter), which we eventually spotted among the rocks and rubble. Once we crested the top, we were greeted with a most amazing view. To the north, Mount Baker and Easton glacier carving lateral moraines into the mountain; to the east, a long line of craggy peaks stretching from Canada seemingly to the end of the earth. This was the North Cascades in all its alpine glory – mountains upon mountains stretching as far as I could see. My heart soared and my feet nearly did too!
“Because mountains are high and broad, their way of riding the clouds always extends from the mountains; their wondrous power of soaring in the wind comes freely from the mountains.”
Our last day, we awoke early again to the sound of the bell and the han calling us to meditation. After a couple of rounds of zazen and kinhin we ate a delicious breakfast of oatmeal and then set about to breaking down camp and packing up to leave. A clear day in the mountains with clouds coming and going on Mount Baker in a never-ending game of hide and seek. I reminded myself to remember that just because it is covered in clouds it doesn’t mean that shining, lovely Mount Baker is not there. We did another ceremony, this time facing the mountain itself before beginning our descent back to the trail head.
“The Buddha said, ‘All things are ultimately unbound. There is nowhere that they permanently reside.” Know that even though all things are unbound and not tied to anything, they abide in their own condition.”
We continued to flow downward as mountains walking, stopping frequently for short breaks especially for our knees. Again, as one body we moved and there was stillness and silence in our activity. We stopped twice more on the way down to perform our ceremonies and to recite the rest of the sansuikyo. The first stop was a rocky gulch, looking northwestward down a long, green drainage (Middle Fork Nooksack, I believe).
“Mountains have been the abode of great sages from the limitless past to the limitless present. Wise people and sages all have mountains as their inner chamber, as their body and mind. Because of wise people and sages, mountains are actualized.”
We trudged onward and downward, experiencing the mountains as walking, constantly walking. Lunch was had again in silence in a meadow at the top of a pass. After a needed rest, we continued down the trail to our next ceremony site, which was a rocky outcrop overlooking mountains beyond. As we chanted the final part of the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” I looked around and noticed a strange assemblage of tree species. There were western hemlock, like all the forest around, but also Alaska yellow cedar, Douglas-fir, western white pine, subalpine or Pacific silver fir, and a creeping species of juniper. Wow, this was a place where species came together that are not normally found together. What a special place!
“There are mountains hidden in treasures. There are mountains hidden in swamps. There are mountains hidden in the sky. There are mountains hidden in mountains. There are mountains hidden in hiddenness.”
My pace slowed as we neared the parking lot, which it usually does when I am coming down out of mountains. I am both excited to be home with my family and reticent to return to town. Such beauty and imagination was experienced in the mountains and waters and I wondered how I could cultivate that same sense in my everyday life. Could I see mountains in traffic, mountains in frustration, mountains in worry? Could I learn to see rivers in anger, glaciers in paperwork, cascading waters in the conditions of my life? This, I now saw, was the green mountains constantly walking, and the practice of the wild that I came here to do.
I wanted to share the following poem by David Whyte because it so beautifully captures what I experienced at this snow lake in the Trinity Alps (see previous post). The sense of wonder that I was trying to convey, I am beginning to realize, came from a place of non-questioning. I simply existed and went about my tasks of setting up tent, starting fire, warming feet and the like, without questing, analyzing or judging my actions. It was simple and easy because there was no second-guessing and it was full of wonder. Not elation nor ecstatic joy, but deep felt belonging and satisfaction. Thank you David Whyte for your brilliant poetry!
“With thoughts clear, sitting silently, wander into the center of the circle of wonder.”
~ Zen Master Hongzhi
The upper canyon and the trail I was following was covered in snow, as were all of the mountainsides around me. My attempts to follow any trail that might have been there were thwarted by an early season snow storm and lack of a thaw. I was pretty sure that I could have figured out where the gap in the mountains was where I was suppose to cross over to the other side but I had never been there before and didn’t know what the snowpack was going to be like on the other side. Pausing, I caught my breath and listened to the sounds of water trickling everywhere from snow-melt, and realized that my feet were soaked from hiking in trails that had become streams. I thought this was going to be my last trip of Fall and I was not prepared for winter, not yet anyway.
Farther down the canyon, I had hiked through an autumnal world of slanted light colored by leaves releasing colors previously hidden by the photosynthetic rapture of summer. Yellow willows, red dogwoods and golden elderberries reminded me of the splendor of fall foliage in upstate New York where I had grown up. While nowhere near that colorful, I delighted in the splashes of deciduous color in an otherwise monochromatically green conifer world.
Unable to find the gap I was looking for which would have taken me over into the next drainage, I turned around and headed back down following the footsteps that I had just made in the ankle to shin deep snow. The upper canyon, in this part, was dotted here and there with montane conifers like western white pine and mountain hemlock, old friends of mine whom I was glad to see. We always see to meet in such beautiful places. Red rock boulders sat like giants on their haunches amidst an otherwise granitic mountain world.In addition to the red rocks and green conifers, willows stuck out through the snow, the yellow hue of autumn emerging through the sparkling white of winter. They seemed as surprised by the snowfall as I was.
I thought I would just keep descending back into the canyon in order to find snow-free camping and firewood by which to stay warm. That would have been the prudent thing to do but I also knew that a lake lay off-trail to the south. Without giving it much thought at all, my body simply turned up the chute that lead to the lake and I started climbing. It quickly became apparent that this was going to be a slog through soft snow that was shin to knee deep if not deeper and that it was not going to be easy. The pull of wonder – where was I going and what would I find there- kept me going and onward I trudged, stopping every now and again to pant, sweating all the while in the cold mountain air.
What is wonder, what is the feeling of wonder and where does it come from?
After an hour of hard climbing through deep snow, I crested the top of the pass and was greeted by a cold wind and an icy and breath-taking world. While I was not thinking then about wonder, I was blown clean and cool by the wind and the wonder of it all.
As I now consider wonder and wonderment from my cozy house, I realize just how much it was a part of this trip for me and how ordinary it really is. The climb to this lake was not a conscious decision; really it just happened. And once I was there I just set about clearing snow away so that I could set up my tent. I simply flowed and wandered in the mountains, finding myself on a snow-covered pass with a dark and brooding lake some seventy-five feet below me.
I have often thought of wonder as being close to ecstasy but realized on this trip that it could also be very simple and plain. Most ordinary. I went about clearing snow, setting up my tent and laying out my sleeping bag because those were the things that needed to happen. While I did not stare about me in amazement, I was full of wonder at where I was and how I had even arrived here. Wandering and wondering go hand in hand and it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. It’s best to remember that not all who wander are lost – they could simply be on the edge of wonder.
As I lay down in my down sleeping bag, feeling returning to my frozen toes, I simply breathed deep and stared in wonder at my tent fly. I was full of gratitude for being so very much alive in such an wondrous place.
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, Without attainment, 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.