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.

Notes from The Lookout Tower on Spruce Mountain

A quiet morning at the lookout tower on Spruce Mountain. The woman who womans the fire lookout is apparently named Suzie. She isn’t here today. Regardless of her age, she is attractive to me, purely because of her choice of occupation. And even though I haven’t gone up to the actual tower to meet her, I did sit below for a time one day reading. That day I had been considering whether or not I wanted to intrude on her solitude for a good fifteen minutes when an older man started walking up the stairs. I hadn’t even noticed he was close by. You enter the tower from below; the door opens in. When Suzie heard someone coming up, she opened the door and the man walked on in. I headed back down the trail, back towards the trailhead. It was good that I hadn’t gone up to the tower, I thought. It wouldn’t be right if I had gone up on a day when another person had gone up. This was the thought that came to me on the way down.

A clear morning today, clear and quiet and not too warm. I’ve hiked this trail for the 5 days prior to this, twice doing the 9 mile loop, the other three times going down the same steep, 3.5 mile section I had come up. The first day was when the rest of my family was here, the other 5 times including today I’ve done it alone. Although I don’t usually like to go the same way on the return hike, I like the 3.5 mile part on the way up because it’s steeper and on the way down because it’s shorter. Short and steep is my ideal hike.

Just the birds, the flies, and me up here today. So far I haven’t woken up early enough to get up here by sunrise. That’ll be my daily goal once school starts. Even if the rest of the day gives you nothing to celebrate, to be up at 8,000 feet at sunrise is an achievement, something to give the day some value, to redeem it before it needs redeeming, liberate you before you need to be liberated. The rest of the day can go as it goes, can leave you unfulfilled, wanting, yearning, lonely, hungry, exhausted. Just let this moment be, up at the top of the mountain, having risen with the sun, fulfilled by forgetting what does not need to be remembered and remembering what cannot be forgotten. Not lonely, wanting no more than this, revitalized by physical exertion and natural beauty.

I hear someone hiking and quickly get dressed. I had been indulging in some simple animal pleasure, sitting naked on the granite in the sun. I thought I’d have the tower all to myself this morning. Ah well, a selfish desire, no doubt. The hiker doesn’t come all the way up; he sits on a rock a little ways down and takes out his binocs to watch birds. He must want some solitude as well. Not everyone wants it, perhaps not everyone needs it. Some need it more than they want it, some want more of it than they need, sometimes I want it too much, seek it too often and don’t like it as much when I get it as I thought I would.

Those are the times I seek it to distance myself from others rather than to connect with my true essence and thus bridge the gap between others and myself. The times when I need it to get away and evade rather than to meet and come towards; when I need it to avoid pain, ignore conflict and division, forget, rather than to face the pain, understand the division, remember; when I need it to escape feelings of alienation and separateness, rather than to feel more intensely the inalienable aloneness which, when felt fully, does not separate but rather connects me to all who go alone by free choice, who know no other way to truly rejoice, who find joy in the most complete, undeniable sense when by themselves, joy which does not do away with sorrow, joy which includes a sweet melancholy because of the awareness of its passing.

The knowledge that it will fade, far from detracting from the joy, adds to it, lets the man or woman more completely enjoy the solitude. Like the truth of sadness lying beyond and beneath the pleasure of lover above lover, the melancholy attaches to without detracting from the joy of the hour of solitude. Somewhere there is the knowledge that you will feel the alienation again, that your head will again be filled with unnecessary burdens you wish you could forget while somewhere below a vague intimation of your essential essence floats unseen, sinks unconscious.

I let the flies land on my legs, my feet, my thighs. I discourage them from going further, as the other hiker has gone down and I am now back to my natural state. When that essence starts to become a dim memory rather than a daily experienced reality, it becomes more difficult to let the flies land, let other people near. Unlike the flies who are harmless, other people, I think to myself, suck my energy, drain me of me until I am not sure of anything least of all that indistinct thing I call my self. Is it they who drain me, though, or I who do not have the power to resist being drained, maimed? Why among others can I not be the man I am alone? The more the essence is forgotten, the more the questions refer back, centering on its search, dismissing what does not lead directly to its rediscovery. Now the thought is: Instead of being drained, passive, better to go on the offensive, get active. So you try and prove to others your worth instead of acting from an internal sense of self-worth. In trying to prove that you have more than nibbling worth, you start to feel a gnawing sense of worthlessness. Looking for some external reward, some sign you’ve made it in the world, you resign yourself to feeling inwardly empty, unable to stand the sight of yourself alone. You work harder for recognition. Others must recognize your greatness. You are special, unique, unlike them.

Ah, how quickly is the fall from individual essence to societal menace! There is a fence around you now, but you have grown blind to it, it is visible only to others; there is condescension in your eyes, a defiant willfulness in your furrowed brow. Perhaps it is better never to realize any depth in yourself than to grasp it only for a moment while the rest of your life you feel both worse than and superior to everyone else. You can’t reach for the heights without sinking to the depths, can’t have the one without the other.

Well now, let’s try a different tactic. Instead of trying to force others into a recognition of your unique brilliance, instead of filling your hours with useless thoughts of how you are hopelessly misunderstood, couldn’t you spare a few hopeful thoughts in trying to understand others, understanding yourself through relationship with others? A novel idea. Realizing that your uniqueness, though not an illusion, not a terminal uniqueness, realizing that this life-giving, self-creating uniqueness, since true in yourself must be no less true in others, couldn’t you try, instead of feeling drained by piercing and insensitive eyes, pierce through to the sensitive, unique soul of another? Seeing the one, can’t you see there is no other?

spruce mt