Backpacking in Lower Burro Creek (Part 2)

Day 2

Today we walk five physically strenuous miles in heavy brush. After dropping our packs in a remote canyon, undisturbed by any sign of human presence, we explore another half mile farther into the canyon. We come to a pool of water below stark cliffs that make for some rather difficult climbing. I decide to risk it and engage in a little primitive recreation, without ropes or harness, in order to scale the walls to the north. After doing so, I run ahead for a few minutes, dodging prickly pear and teddy bear cacti, looking for a spring expected to be another mile and a half ahead. No luck. It’s either elsewhere or farther on. I return back to my adventuring companions and jump into the pool, into the cold water.

Day 3

Sunrise over the canyon walls. I awaken early and climb up a little ways to meet it. I find a rock, take my hiking boots off, and listen to the multitude of birds giving glory to the rising sun.

Glory in it, with it, and to it. Feel your smallness; feel your significance. You are small, yet you are significant, for you welcome the sun with human song while the birds welcome it with birdsong. Let the birds educate you in the primitive art of sun celebration. Let the rocks educate you in the primitive art of waiting patiently for the sun’s warmth. The plants can teach you something there as well. Let the trees teach you how to soar while staying grounded. The branches soar and the roots are grounded. “There is knowledge only the wild can give us, knowledge specific to the experience of it. These are its gifts to us,” Jack Turner writes. Some days the gift is silent and wraps up in silence whoever uncovers it. The gift this morning is the gift of song. The birds sing to celebrate the gift of the sun as I celebrate the gift of undisturbed solitude on this hill in the sun. We are brought together in celebration.

A day to glory in and give glory to. Glory to the sun in the highest. Sing, glory to the sun. Glory to this rock that I sit on and peace to all the myriad creatures on earth. Let us be reconnected and reconciled.

Day 4

Morning, the last day of the trip, time unknown. The sun touches the highest point of the cliffs that stand above me as I climb up the western hillside, listening to the barely audible trickling of Kaiser Spring, now thirty yards below me. Almost all of the plants on this hill are some shade of green: palo verde, ocotillo, saguaro, prickly pear, barrel cactus. All living organisms in this green desert lean towards spring. I join this open procession, this renewal; I listen as Life sings itself to wakefulness. I continue up the hill, each step on ground I have never before stepped on. Each step restores me to a new equilibrium that I could never have found on my own; I am reintroduced to the stores of energy and power within me.

The sun is now on the cliffs directly behind me, but I am still in shadow. I hear the canyon wren below me, and other unnameable birds, birds I cannot name, around me. I am surrounded by beauty I cannot name. The birds, by serenading the unnameable, become an integral part of it. They soar beyond label. They sing and I listen. I am not only the audience. I try to translate the unnameable with the power of human symbol, try to get a loose hold of some of that beauty on paper.

I climb up to a rock where the sun shines. Sitting on the rock in the sun, I say a wordless blessing. I am blessed by the existence of a place that no human can improve. It would be arrogant of me to believe I could improve this place; the best I can do is receive its gifts, be receptive to its grace, and then let it be.

Humans attempt to improve what cannot be improved in order to prove the superiority of civilized man over wild nature. Leave all that talk of superiority and inferiority, of subordination and dependency, of administration and management, of comparison and improving—leave all that to relationships between human beings. The relationship between human beings and the wild cannot be one of comparison or of improvement. The greatest improvement in ourselves is when we cease trying to improve anyone or anything else, above all anything wild.

Instead of trying to control the outer wilderness, we should strive to understand what is wild within us, which will lead to an understanding that we cannot control anyone or anything else. The more we try to control the wild, externally or internally, or use it for our own benefit, the more out of control it becomes. What is wild is intrinsically perfect, is whole as it is: “To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness.” When we try and control what is whole, we split ourselves. We separate ourselves from what we cannot be separate from. To become a part of the whole we must strive for wholeness within ourselves. “The whole is made of parts,” Snyder writes, “each of which is whole.”

The wordless blessing has now found words. I bless this day where I am restored in this place that needs no restoring. This place that needs to be left how it is. It is not a blessing I give so much as it is an acceptance of the blessing I receive. The wild does not need my blessing. It is already blessed in every respect. It needs to remain that way.

I scramble farther up the cliff for another moment or two and then head back down to our campsite. Before we take our leave, the four of us linger by the clear water of Kaiser Spring. The sun slants through cottonwood and willow trees, reflects off the water dripping down from the pure spring. No one says a word. “In the beginning,” Terry Tempest Williams writes, “there were no words.”

The origin of Kaiser Spring is another quarter-mile on. We shoulder our packs and depart for the Source. The sound of the water flowing the other way alongside us is like silence.

Backpacking in Lower Burro Creek (Part 1)

Day 1

I sit by Burro Creek, not yet in the proposed wilderness area, close enough to a road to attract those with a Jeep or Subaru. A family is nearby: an older man, his wife, and two young children. The man, who looks to be the grandfather of the young boy and girl, is wearing an NRA cap. So this is not yet undisturbed solitude, but his mere presence neither disturbs me nor deters me from exploring this place. I do begin to feel slightly disturbed when he throws rocks into the stream to entertain his grandkids. But soon they leave, and I am left alone.

Let even the rocks alone; let them be where they are. Leave the rocks alone that do not move on their own. Can we be unmovable like the rocks? Can we be fluid like the water moving over and around the rocks?

Soft like the water and hard like the rocks. My legs are hard from biking but my heart in this place cannot be anything but soft, as I listen to water flow over granite, the soft over the hard. I feel my heart overflowing, love flowing into me. It is the soft heart that spurs me on my journey and decides where home is, and the legs that harden to get me there.

And where do I need to get? Call it nowhere. Here I am. I want to get right in the middle of here. In the wild, no place alone is central because each place is a center connected to some circumference, is a place where we can experience solitude without being alone, or where we can be alone without feeling pain at our aloneness. In the wild, we can get to the core of our loneliness, we can find that the deeper we sink the less lonely we become. It is not so bad to be alone, though we are always forgetting this fact. “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” Thoreau writes. I write of solitude and I mean connection. I write of recreation and I mean re-creation. I write of going out and, like Muir, I mean coming home.

I listen to the water; I sit on the rock; there is no need for any other companions at this time. The great longing for connection, the yearnings for truth and beauty and power and love, are here fulfilled. I have always longed to be, and to be myself. Now, I be-long. I am. I am here.

Here, I am.

I let the creek take all my confusion. The creek takes it without being burdened by it. It takes it by not taking it too seriously. It takes it by giving me peace. Letting me be at peace. Let the water let me, let me be by the water. I let myself be. I let myself see.

I let myself go and am held.

We need to let ourselves go. We need to let go of the idea of ourselves as superior to what holds us. We need to go to the wild and behold its beauty. Let go and be held.

But I do not intend to speak for what we must do; I speak for I must do. I find I can speak most clearly in places where humans are awed into silence. I want to speak for that which does not speak through any language human beings can understand. I want to speak with the force of the rivers’ rapids, with the calm of a still-moving stream, with power and with stillness, with the same even-keeled equanimity of the clouds that drift above the creek, languid and fluid at this moment yet containing the power to bring storm. I want to speak like the body of water that connects and cannot be separate from the two banks, that answers all questions without words. I will speak with words until I have learned to speak without them, until I understand the language that no longer needs them.

I sit on a rock by the creek, close my eyes, and say a silent prayer, praying to understand the language of not needing, of being without needing to be otherwise.

I sit on a rock by the creek and try to exist with the rhythm of the water, to be part of its song. I try to listen for the sound beneath the sound. I don’t hear it; it doesn’t matter.

Only where people predominate do I need to listen for the sound beneath the sound. Here, where I am now, in the aliveness, where all things move and exist freely, there is no sound beneath the sound. The sound on the surface is enough. What I hear and see is more than enough. What I hear and see is the abundance of life at the end of the day.

I hear the water in the creek below me. I hear the chirping of crickets around me, filling the darkening sky with their bright song. I see the clouds above me moving to the west, towards the sun, now going down below the horizon.

“Alone With The Desert”

The Prescott College orientation is a three-week backpacking trip in the Arizona wilderness.
We have just finished a ten-day trek through Grand Canyon,
Now we are in the Superstition Range of the Tonto National Forest,
Outside of the Phoenix-Tempe-Mesa-Scottsdale metropolis.

It is the first morning of solo.
Two days to be
Alone with yourself,
Alone with the desert.

I go to a spot on the western hillside where I will feel the first rays of the sun.
It was a cold night; the water is frozen in the Nalgene.
I sit and listen to the bee-like buzzing of the hummingbird,
Hear the spirited call of the cactus wren.
Perhaps it rasps with expectation, watching the sun come down the hill,
Closer to this spot.
Or maybe the bird is above,
Already feeling the sun’s warmth from the branches of a juniper.
Good to be a bird, able to fly up and meet the rising sun.

I close my eyes
As the sun comes up from the east, over the hill.
I feel its warmth, feel my toes as they thaw out,
Touch the leaves and the sticks around me, the rocks.

In my mind’s eye, I see the shrubs and trees I know to be close by:
The tall alligator juniper behind me, the beargrass in the sun to my left,
The smooth red manzanita in the shade to my right.
I see too without opening my eyes the cloudless blue sky,
The rocky wash between the prickly pear cacti and the cat claw and the velvet mesquites,
And the small flat area, just big enough to lay down the pad and sleeping bag,
Where I bedded down last night.

More birds chirp and sing now; the sun is up and over the hill.
I don’t know the names of the birds,
But my ignorance does not detract from the loveliness of their songs.
I hear bees buzzing around me,
Feel the first fly of the day land on my left foot,
Perhaps attracted by the scent of unwashed flesh, two weeks now.
I feel the slightest of winds, hear a plane flying overhead.

I open my eyes
And pick up the book I had been reading.
The truth of the words within feel as natural
As the sun that warms me this morning,
Have all the clarity of the deep blue desert sky.
I bring the book close to my face and smell its pages,
Like a librarian who in the early morning when no one is watching
Opens her favorite books at random,
Breathes in the sweet pure fragrances of the pages she loves so well
And then puts each book back in the stacks,
Carefully, gently,
As if the books are lovers,
And maybe they are.

I close my eyes again.

The sun is warm now.
I take off all my clothes and sit on a rock,
Fully nude,
Feeling my bare ass contact the cold hard granite surface.
Another airplane flies overhead
But does not disturb the stillness or my solitude.
The plane is distant, far away;
It can only be heard for a fleeting moment, and then it is gone.
The desert is here.
I can see it, hear it, smell it, feel it.

I open my eyes.