Days 84-87: Forest Bathing

John Muir, environmental philosopher and activist, once wrote “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.”  I hadn’t heard of Muir before my journey (or his writing had yet to resonate with me), and when I “discovered” his simple wisdom of the wild on a bookshelf early in my travels, I was quickly taken by his words, experience, and loving admiration for all things natural and wild.  One of my favorite memories of my time on the road is hiking away from the crowds of Redwood National Forest, finding a fallen tree, and climbing atop it to read from a collection of Muir’s works.  I laid there, soaking in the energy of the tree, and looking up at the clouds moving ever so slowly past the canopy high above me, completely present in the moments.  It was my first such experience of the journey, and it felt right to conclude my trip in a similar state of just being – doing what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku.

Shinrin-yoku is “forest bathing.”  It’s the “practice” of going out into nature to move slowly amongst the trees and plants, taking it all in, without timeline or expectation, just being in a state of mindfulness with nature.  (The fact that it’s been given a name and become a “recommended practice” reminds me a little of the modern movement toward eating simply and organically.  This “practice” was just eating before the advent of processing and fast foods and genetic modification; there wasn’t an alternative.  And there must certainly have been a time when going out in the woods for rest and rejuvenation didn’t need a name or recommendation from doctors; I imagine it’s just what people did.  Funny how far we’ve come from that place and time… Still, forest bathing is definitely a wise prescription for what ails us as a modern people and society.  And I’ll continue partaking!)

I’d planned to spend the last two weeks of my journey in Washington State, exploring the North Cascades (apparently breathtaking in the fall) and the Olympic Peninsula.  I was looking forward to completing my travels in places I’ve never visited relatively close to home…but I was also tired of rain after spending several days in it on the San Juan Islands…so when I discovered the forecast was calling for most of a week of it in both the Cascades and Olympic National Park, I planned my escape.  I journeyed quickly south and east of the mountains and found a quiet, secluded place in the southernmost area of the Baker-Snoqualmie Wilderness.  In four days, I saw or heard probably only ten vehicles, and, much to my relief, none of their drivers had any interest in me or my location.  Plus…I had next to no cell phone service!  Couple that with the babbling creek I found to pop up my tent beside, and I was set for some shinrin-yoku.

Sitting beside the creek, just listening and breathing in the forest, it struck me that flowing water provides a great analogy for a Zen Buddhist way of life…and these words just seemed to come to me.

The river doesn’t wonder
about the rocks it just flowed past.
It never stops to think
on the trees along its way.
The river curves and winds,
sometimes falling over cliffs.
It never seems to question
the path it’s meant to take.
It doesn’t look back
or try to change what was.
It never stops to wonder; the river, it just flows.

Water has always spoken to me but never quite so literally as this.

For a few days, I walked around the woods, slowly, without intention or destination.  I stopped to watch, listen, and even speak gently to animals.  I was struck by the way that one squirrel and two finches in particular seemed to engage with me, sticking close by and just being, the way animals do every day, so wisely.  The squirrel cocked his head, back and forth, as if he were really listening to whatever I said.  The birds chirped away, dancing on their branches, close by me without flinching, seemingly comfortable and content.  I sat by the creek and took in the sound, the scents, the essence of the forest.

It’s when I’m in nature I feel closest to my own true essence.  I feel alive and connected with the Universe, at once energized and at peace.  It’s my happy place.  And if I had my druthers, I’d occupy this space everyday for the rest of my life, in a state of shinrin-yoku, bathing in the forest that Muir regarded as the ultimate healer.

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Day 43: Kismet at the Grand Canyon

I woke up this morning under a canopy of Ponderosa pines outside the national park.  As I watched the tops of the tall trees sway back and forth with confidence in the wind, I couldn’t help but think of the strength of their roots and wish to tap into their tenacity.

All the noise I heard in the night came from nature – the wind, the rustling of trees, birds chattering, insects rattling and chirping, deer making their way through the woods… I’d made reservations 60 miles north on some Hipcamp land, but the Kaibab National Forest beckoned me to stay within her quiet confines.  It’s funny for me to think back on the first time I “boondock” camped on public lands.  I was just this side of terrified and thought every noise was an animal or – worse – a human coming to menace me…but I was determined, finding peace in Grandma’s moon outside my window.  By now, these secluded spaces are my favorite finds and offer me the best night’s sleep.  (I look for the moon in all her phases keeping watch on me from above.)

Later this morning than I would have liked (darn that tricky border between the Mountain and Pacific Time Zones!), I set out to explore the scenic drive along Cape Royal Road, stopping to take in vistas along the way and hike the Cape Final Trail.  It was a tranquil hike, for the most part, flowing with rolling hills out to the rim of the Canyon.  I was frustrated by the grumpy faces of nearly every single hiker I met but grateful they were relatively few and far between (excepting the group of 20-some of the unfriendliest hikers I’ve ever met, spread out along the trail but identifiable by their matching shirts proclaiming “I don’t know these people”).  For the most part, I hiked alone, in quiet contemplation.  Visiting the Grand Canyon and looking out upon her majesty felt like something of a dream to me.

I’d been thinking of Karen last night and into today.  She was one of the other riders on my mule outing yesterday and was traveling with her daughter and grandsons.  The whole group of them made me smile and feel like I was a part of something on our ride, and I’m so grateful for those moments of connection out here.  There was something about Karen specifically that reminded me of a couple of dear women I’ve been lucky enough to call friends in this life, and I wished I’d gotten the names of her daughter and the boys (who, by the way, were much better at riding mules on the side of a canyon than me!).

Wandering toward the last of the look-outs, I heard someone call my name and looked up to see none other than Karen and her family.  I surely lit up at the sight of familiar and SMILING faces!!  The North Rim isn’t as ginormous and crowded as the South Rim section of the park – at least that’s the impression I get – but I was still surprised to run into someones I “knew.”  We caught up on our day and shared stories then went our separate ways, or so we thought…then an hour later, as I was heading into the Park’s public showers, I met them again, and we knew we were meant to share dinner together.  The Universe must have brought us together again and again for a reason!

It’s not very often I treat myself to fancier dinners on the road, but the occasion called for a splurge.  I’d been debating about where to spend the night (in my reserved spot up north or back in my secluded spot in the forest) and was grateful to Karen for making my decision for me – we’d eat and then I’d boondock nearby.  We managed to snag a table at the restaurant at the Canyon Lodge, where visitors apparently make reservations months in advance, sharing a dinner of trout and venison and pork and chicken and playing my favorite high-low game (What was the lowpoint of your day? What was your highpoint?), which they call “Thistles & Thorns.”  We drank wine and shared traveling stories and even talked a little politics (carefully, of course) and splurged on rich desserts.  I felt like I’d encountered kindred spirits in Karen and her daughter, Bridgette, and something tells me we’ll keep in touch.  And as far as kids go, I found Anders and Carston delightful and entertaining (even when their mother didn’t).

Once again, the greatest beauty of my trip comes not in solitude but in connection.