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.

Days 34 & 35: Sedona

I’d been looking forward to Sedona and its red rocks, though I wasn’t sure what to expect of the place in general.  There’s so much hype about its new age religious mysticism and energy centers…and I wondered if the place might be teeming with tourists (it kinda was).  But I do love exploring a new town.  It reminds me of when I first moved to Portland and everything was new and waiting to be discovered.

It’s almost unbelievable how beautiful the views are in every direction from anywhere and everywhere you go in Sedona.  I felt overwhelmed with trying to capture pictures of the landscape and ultimately kind of gave up on trying to get a single shot to encompass it all – or enough shots to splice together for a grander view of it.

My first day in town, I did a driving tour, beginning at the visitor center (I love visitor centers!) and hitting the local hot spots, including viewpoints and the renowned Chapel of the Holy Cross, a Catholic church built into the red rock.  Just like I did at the Old Santa Barbara Mission, I felt a sense of peace just sitting in that space…and then I went outside and nearly told a woman about herself for being aggressive and demanding and ungrateful as I graciously took pictures of her and her friend… Ugh.  So much for my zen moments.

I did just a bit of hiking that first day then headed to camp early to catch the sunset from my camp chair.  It was a hot night in my tent without much of a breeze.  It wasn’t 116°, like back in Phoenix, but it certainly wasn’t a pleasant night for sleeping outdoors…!

I woke early the next day to what sounded like a fire-breathing dragon outside my tent, which rather surprised me because I’d only read warnings about rattlesnakes… Turns out there was a hot air balloon flying just above my site!  You can understand, perhaps, how that might have sounded like a dragon.  Anyway, it got me up and going at sunrise and off early to hit the “quintessential” Sedona hike – the West Fork Trail.  Lucky for me, not a quarter mile into the route, I met Carlos from West Texas, and we hiked together the rest of the way.

The trail was nothing extraordinary…until we neared the “end,” when the red rock cliffs “closed in” on either side of us, with the creek filling in between and getting progressively deeper the further along we went.  Carlos and I hiked and hiked, almost to the point of needing to swim in deep waters to continue.  Wading in the cool water with the hot air and red rock all around us, outlasting most of the other hikers on the trail…it was truly incredible – and, yet again, something I wouldn’t have ventured solo.  I slipped and fell just once on a mossy rock, and I’m certain Carlos was more upset about it than me.  It’s funny with company how even spills are easier to take.

We took two more hikes together – one to the top of a mesa for sunset and another the next morning, our last in town, as our farewell to Sedona (for now).  We’ll probably never see each other again, and we may never even talk, but having a companion certainly made my time in town that much more enjoyable.  And that hike…it was unforgettable!

Day 16: Water

I grew up in a farm family, so talk of water (or lack thereof) is nothing new to me.  As a kid, I was surrounded by what seemed like a perpetual fear of drought.  Every year, it seemed lack of rain was bound to lead to the worst crop ever.  Before we moved “to town” when I was 11, we got our Rural Route #4 drinking water from a well, and I remember summers when it dried up and my uncles and dad had to refill it from a large tank they transported in the back of a pick-up truck.  Now that I think about it, I have no idea where the giant tank was filled or where that water came from…

Around about the fourth grade, I decided I wanted to be an environmentalist lawyer when I grew up.  I was probably at least partially inspired by my then-teacher, Mrs. Madden, who taught our class about recycling and conservation and even helped us write and illustrate a book on the subject, which we submitted for publication (unsuccessfully…but I’d sure like to find my copy and give it a read), but I’m not entirely sure why law.  Regardless, over the years, I let go of that dream for reasons I won’t bother listing here…then in the last two years, my interest in environmental issues and conservation have piqued anew.  It began with my concern over the wastefulness of single-use plastics (like grocery bags and drinking straws) and continues to grow and deepen.

In part, this trip represents an opportunity for me to slow down and give thought to what the heck I’m gonna do with the rest of my life, or at least the near future (where, what, how…).  For a long time, I haven’t had much direction with regards to a career, and I long to change that…but have no idea where to begin.  As a result, I’m wide open to inspiration!  When I told my Tahoe hosts of my long-ago dream of environmental law, they suggested I explore water rights law, suggesting I’d always find work in that field.  I’d never even heard of such a thing, but water seems to be a pretty serious topic of conversation around these parts.  And – since the the Universe has a way of presenting us with lessons at precisely the right time – a few days along in my trip, I came upon Mono (pronounced MOH-noh) Lake and its story and happened into the screening of a documentary film called “The Longest Straw” – about water and shortage and rights!

Here’s the long and short of it: Mono Lake, located outside of Lee Vining, California, is one of the oldest lakes in North America.  It’s a “terminal” lake, which means it has no outlets; water runs into it from the mountains and leaves only through evaporation, causing the lake to be very salty and highly alkaline, a little like laundry detergent.  The lake is fed by a number of freshwater tributaries.  In the early 20th Century, the city of Los Angeles began running out of water for its growing population and built a miles-long aqueduct to divert water from the Owens River (south of Mono Lake, also in eastern California) across the state to the city.  Just shy of three decades later, when that source proved inadequate to meet growing demand, LA bought more land and – thus – water rights and extended the aqueduct north to Mono Lake.  It cut off the tributaries so no water ran into the lake, diverting all fresh water to a city some 338 miles away by way of the aqueduct.

(As I write this, I’m currently 301 miles from LA, sitting on land that is property of the city for no other reason than WATER.)

The diversion changed the lake and its ecology dramatically (exposing the limestone “tufas” in the picture), and if it had continued at the intended pace, it would have threatened the existence of the lake altogether.  In 1974, conservationists, lawyers, and the City of Los Angeles entered into a 20-year (!!) court battle that resulted in compromise: LA now diverts some water from the lake so long as precipitation and snowpack allow for Mono to fill back up again to an agreed-upon “healthy” percentage of its pre-diversion level.

In the documentary “The Longest Straw,” one intrepid LA resident (Samantha Bode) hikes the path of the aqueduct from her home in the city to its sources (the Owens Valley and Mono Lake Basin).  She’s amazed by the great length(s) water must travel for her use and curious about the experience and perspective of folks living along the pipeline and affected by its existence.  Bode learned much in her 65-day backpacking journey, and I learned much from the film.  (As an aside, I loved my time and company in the “theater” at the Mono Lake Committee headquarters.  I’m glad I stuck around Lee Vining an extra day to see the film and experience the community in that way.)

For most Americans, water just…shows up.  It flows into our homes and out of our faucets and shower heads, through our washers and down our toilets with the pull of a handle or press of a button.  We take it for granted.  But it’s not guaranteed – and it makes good sense for us to know its source.  Most of us won’t go to the great lengths Bode went to locate it or give as much consideration to the consequences of its flow…but her journey certainly made me think – and I’d encourage you to check it out, even if you’re a rural Midwesterner and most of your water comes [almost] directly from the clouds.  Being in the southwest where water is and has been difficult to come by, paying $3-6 for each shower and scrambling to finish washing in time for shut-off, I’m thinking about it more than ever before.

I’m not saying I’m applying to law school or committing to a career path in water rights…but I’m extremely fascinated by all of it.  And I’ll continue to stay open as I journey along to whatever destination manifests itself in my future, all the while taking shorter showers and savoring every drop of water I drink.