Friday, September 30, 2011

An Alpine Stream of Consciousness (Part 3 of 3)

I’m awakened from slumber by the sound of footsteps heading up the trail outside. I listen after them for a time, but the rushing alpine stream has already washed away all traces with its omnipresent roar. Perhaps I’m merely imagining things. More likely, though, I’m not. Someone – or even a whole group of stealthy trekkers, for that matter – is likely making their way up to Belford in the predawn darkness in order to make it to the summit and back down before any storms have a chance to develop. I unzip my tent door and peer outside. Daylight has broken – somewhere on the other side of Oxford, anyway. I can tell by the way it lights up the bottom of the cloud cover billowing and rolling over the summit ridge of Mount Missouri. It’s still way too dark, however, for me to make out any sign of movement along the switchbacks zigzagging with staircase-like regularity up the shoulder of Mount Belford.

Looking East From Atop Elkhead Pass

I puff a few more breaths into my pillow and pull myself into a seated position atop it. My mind is racing with anticipation. I so want to start climbing! Let’s see…, I need to get my daypack together, and I need to fix some breakfast. Yes, and I’ll need to replenish all of the good St. Louis water that will be gone by the time I do. Oh, and before I can have any breakfast I need to unstring my bear bag. Hmmm, should I tie it back up when I’m done? Nah, I’ll just stow everything in the tent. The trail will be far too busy for all but the bravest of bears. Besides, I don’t want anyone calling me a backcountry slob for leaving my gear strung up beside the trail for all to see. Hmmph. Or maybe I just don’t want anyone chuckling at my pitifully ineffective rigging... Okay, breathe in…, breathe out…, breathe in…, breathe out…. Gosh, I wonder whether that cloud cover will just keep on growing thicker and thicker. I’d probably explode if had to sit here all day in the rain like that time I was up here with Stan. Maybe I should get a move-on. Yes, there will be plenty of time to meditate when I get back down.

It’s cold outside. I stroll around my campsite to keep warm as I spoon my way through a pot of Grapenuts cereal and raisins and rehydrated milk. Patches of blue are beginning to appear behind the clouds and the sun is beginning to set the top of Mount Missouri aglow.

“Hey, it looks like you’ve got yourself a sweet little campsite here.”

I turn around to see the Texans making their way up the trail.

“I’ve got no complaints,” I smile. “How was yours.”

“Good, good. Chilly, but good.”

“Yeah, it looks like we got a little frost last night.” I point to a patch of grass still covered in white at the base of the bushes.

“Well, I guess we’ll see you again up top.”

“That’s the plan. Have a good climb in the mean time.”

“Yeah, you, too.”

I set about boiling water for coffee in the same pot from which I was just eating cereal – warming my hands around the blue propane flame as I do. When it’s time I stir in some instant coffee and powdered milk. Particles of Grapenuts float on the surface, but I pay them no mind. Drinking gritty coffee is nothing compared to swallowing the toothpaste after brushing your teeth, but that’s what low-impact camping is all about! Besides, it virtually eliminates having to wash any dishes.

I drink half of the coffee and then take the remainder into the tent in order to finish it as I prepare my daypack. Let’s see…, hooded rain jacket, gloves, knit cap, a spare jersey, first-aid kit, sunglasses, sunscreen, survival candle, waterproof matches – I almost have to force myself to concentrate, my energy level is so high. I pack a sampling of all the trail food that I’ve brought. I never get all that hungry when I’m at altitude, and I never know what will be appealing when I do. Before wrapping up I scan the tent floor, rifle through my bear bag, and search the compartments of my backpack, trying to make certain that I’m not leaving anything behind. Okay, that’s it. I just need to filter some water and I’ll be on my way.

A woman and man are making their way up the trail as I head out to fetch water. They swing their hiking poles like metronomes and barely give me a perfunctory nod without breaking stride. They’re on a mission. I get that.

Even though the stream is right next to my tent, I have to walk some fifty meters up the trail before finding a break in the thicket that allows me access to it. I make my way down the steep embankment and begin assembling my filtration system. I let the intake nozzle float downstream until it catches on a cluster of rocks and sinks into still water. Then I slowly begin pumping water into my water bladder – the one that I’ll stow at the top of my daypack with a hose coming out that I can drink from unhindered as I climb. You’ve simply got to stay hydrated when you’re at altitude and losing prodigious amounts of water to the dry mountain air with each exhalation.

I notice little things around me as I’m slowly filling up the quart and a half capacity of my water bladder: the rippling water, clear and cold, moving quickly in places and slowly in others; the plump green leaves of the bushes that I’m nestled amongst; the way the sunlight slowly descends the craggy ridge on the other side of the stream; the way my boots settle deeper and deeper with each passing moment into the rocky streambed where I crouch. When my water bladder is full I drink deeply from it and then pump it full once again. I reach for my bottle and pour some powdered electrolyte mix into it. When it’s half full I shake the powder into solution and taste it. I add more mix and then top it off with water and taste it again. Okay, I’m ready to go.

My daypack is gloriously light compared to the one that I packed in with yesterday. I feel like I’m almost dancing as I make my way up to where the Belford trail branches off from the one heading up to Elkhead Pass. The switchbacks loom up ahead. Half a dozen people are already up there. I can see them slowly moving back and forth, higher and higher – like tiny dots. The Texans are surely up there. Maybe the man and woman with their hiking poles swinging like metronomes have made it that far, as well – yes, and whoever else might have passed by unbeknownst to me as I was getting myself together.

Another stream flows down from the vast couloir between Belford and Pecks Peak. A boulder the size of a delivery truck apparently tumbled down it once, coming to rest where the slope becomes shallower as it transitions to the valley floor. Maybe it happened twenty years ago – right before I first arrived on the scene in these parts. Or maybe it happened a hundred thousand years ago – before there were even any humans in this land that we now call the New World. At any rate, it now makes a perfect breakfast table for the couple who hiked past my campsite close to an hour ago. They’re a little bit more talkative now that they’ve got a little bit of breakfast in their bellies. We chat ever so briefly, and then I begin climbing the switchbacks just beyond.

I feel it in my left knee almost immediately. It’s kind of a loose-hinge sort of feeling, coupled with the subtlest of hitches somewhere in the middle of my range of motion. I shorten my stride and adjust my gate accordingly in order to let my hip take a little bit more of the weight. Yes, that does the trick. I bring my breath in tune with my footfalls, just like during kinhin – walking meditation – only with a somewhat different rhythm. I breathe in and take a step, and as I breathe out more slowly I take one step and then another. My lungs are like the cylinders of some pneumatic machine. Each inhalation and exhalation drives the machinery of my body – propelling it onward and upward. Breathe in, step…, breathe out, step, step... Breathe in, step…, breathe out, step, step...

My tent is now but a little aquamarine dot nestled amongst the succulent green along the valley bottom with the mountains rising steeply either side, dwarfing it, making it appear as but an inconsequential brush point amidst broad strokes on an unending canvas. But even though it appears so far away, I can still hear the stream that was my companion the whole night through. Its roaring reverberates up into the sky – amplified by the bowl-like valley walls.

The air is thin, and the effort required to keep on climbing is great. I step off the trail for a moment to shed a layer of clothing and allow the couple that I passed down below (but who have maintained a faster pace ever since) to pass me once again. At some point I notice that I’ve switched from taking two steps with each exhalation to one. It’s not like one has to deliberate such things, after all. What a simple rhythm it now is: breathe in, step, breathe out, step; breathe in, step, breathe out, step… I listen to the whistling and rustling of pikas and marmots as they scamper across the rocky slopes – communicating to their friends that another sojourner has arrived. I listen to the wind – whenever it can find something to blow against, that is. Occasionally the buzzing of a bee sets the air to vibrating in my vicinity. And always, always, the incredible vastness of the landscape is with me – a landscape that opens up to greater vastness with each step, and with each breath that I take.

Where did the roar of my alpine stream go? It was here a moment ago and now it’s not. We must have parted ways when the switchbacks finally crested that massive shoulder, and the trail continued here while the echoing stream went there. Breathe in, step, breath out, step. Each movement is my entire being. Each movement is the entire world. It is neither cliché nor hyperbole. It is a truth that hangs on the periphery of the field of vision of my being. Yes, the fire at the heart of the universe still roils beneath my feet, sending continents colliding and mountains rising. And since the mountains are not the plains, the plains are with me now. And since the mountains are not the ocean, the ocean is with me now. Because that which is with me is with me, and that which is not is still with me by very nature of its absence. Did you lead me to this place, or inspire me to seek its truth? If so, you are with me now. Did you run with me and help me gain the lungs to do this? Did you sit with me and help me learn to watch my breath as I do now? If so, you continue to be with me each and every step of the way? Did you build this trail, or perhaps inspire the ones who did? Did you help me in even the subtlest of ways in word or deed at any point along the way – this way – this journey toward wisdom? Did you give of your body, your mind, or your being? If so, you are with me now. Everyone and everything is with me now.

It’s so still up here, and quiet. I’ve crested the false summit and now the trail has leveled off considerably. Compared to the effort of before, it feels as though I’m merely strolling towards the summit. Its craggy outcropping is just ahead of me – solid and immovable – like the stillness all around me. There is no trail anymore. There is only solid rock. There is only that which remains after all else has fallen away. I clamor up to the summit with hand and foot, and then I rise up and look around. For as far as I can see are Mountain Buddhas sitting in solid, steadfast Samadhi – with clouds of incense wafting through their zendo and swirling about their heads.

It's difficult for me to wrap my head around this photo (or vice versa) and I took it! At the center is the trail leading up to Belford from Missouri Gulch. Far left and far right both reveal the trail heading over to Oxford, the peak that appears as a dark silhouette.

"Congratulations!” the more talkative of the Texans calls up to me from the other side of the summit.

“Would you like me to take your picture?” the other one asks.

“Sure.” I say, and hand him the camera after I’ve finished snapping a panorama of photos.

We talk for a bit longer – about the clouds streaming over Mount Missouri, and about the trail threading its way down the craggy ridge to then sweep across the saddle and on up to the summit of Mount Oxford. They’ve already decided that they’re going. They’re merely taking a break to eat some lunch and regain their strength. I study the clouds and recall for them the thunderstorm that rose so quickly on Bill and Linda and me as we were, oh, so close to the summit! I open my pack and fetch the bottle of electrolyte drink stowed at the bottom. I drink deeply from it and then start nibbling on a handful of trail mix.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you guys over there,” I finally say, while nodding in the direction of Oxford.

“Will do! You have a good one!”

“Yeah, you, too!” I say, and then I turn and begin making my way across the flat expanse to where the trail looks as though it drops off the edge of a precipice.

Along the way I pass a couple of gray-haired gentlemen making their way up to Belford from the valley on the other side of the mountain from where I’m camped. They’re walking slowly, with looks of wonder on their faces.

“Will you be going on to Oxford?” I ask.

“No…, no…, Belford will be enough for today,” one of them says. I nod in recognition.

The fact of the matter is that heading on to Oxford is an appreciable extra commitment in terms of time and energy. There’s close to a 700 foot loss of elevation as you descend from the summit of Belford to the saddle between the two peaks – a loss that you must earn back almost in its entirety in order to make it to the top of Oxford. But that’s not all. In order to get back down you’re pretty much required to retrace your steps – the most difficult ones being the 700 foot climb back up to Belford. That’s more than the height of the Gateway Arch, by the way! And if foul weather should arise along the way – like a lightning storm, for instance – there is little one can do but get as low as one can get amongst the rocks, there to wait until the worst has passed.

That is precisely the vulnerability that I open myself up to as slip down off of the summit plateau and begin picking my way down the trail. But that is precisely the vulnerability that cracks me open further to the wonder and beauty of my journey. If there is a final walk to heaven, this is it. If God is sitting upon a throne atop the summit of Mount Oxford, I’ve found the heart and mind to greet Him (or Her!). Methodically and deliberately, if not exactly slowly, I descend, keeping in mind that I must pass this way again. This is no proud march to my second peak of the day. This is a solemn procession of wonder and humility – breath by breath, and step by step. Can words convey this feeling – the absoluteness of this letting go? Can words describe such joy? No, this is no anthropocentric sentiment growing out of a belief that the universe exists to make me happy. This is a letting go of any claim to separate existence, whatsoever. For to be granted just one step along this long and wondrous journey is cause for infinite gratitude to arise – the type of gratitude that is the only gift worthy of bringing along on a journey into the Divine.

“You’ve not much farther to go!” a young man smiles at me, as he heads down from Oxford and I head up.

“Thanks,” is all I can manage to say.

The man and woman who passed my campsite so long ago are sitting on the summit, smiling, as I arrive. They’re eating lunch and gazing out at the clouds streaming toward us from out of the southwest. I settle in with them amongst the rocks and nibble on my snacks. To my left is Mount Harvard, looming over a vast valley all its own. As I gaze upon it I recall the woman I met on the way up the Missouri Gulch who said that the view from Elkhead Pass looking out across it is the most beautiful of any along the Colorado Trail. Straight ahead is the trail back over to Belford. The young man who greeted me earlier is now but a speck of movement receding into the distance – preparing to climb back up that craggy ridge. The Texans are approaching, with a good half mile between them. Indeed, this is a place of solitary journeys into a realm where nothing at all is separate. Oh, if only I could stay up here forever! I could watch and watch and watch the passage of time. No, I could be time – like the mountains. Alas, though, I know my time is short within this godly realm. I bid adieu to the man and woman, and the quickest of the Texans who has just arrived, and I head back over to Belford.

From Oxford Looking South to Belford

The other Texan smiles at me when we meet and keeps on walking, wordlessly. Shortly thereafter I meet a young man with so little gear that it’s almost as if he were teleported to the ridge from someplace else. And he’s looking wide-eyed enough to make me believe that he quite possibly was!

“Do you think that I can make it?” he asks in a vaguely European accent while pointing up at Oxford and then at his watch.

The question takes me by surprise. In fact, I have no idea, whatsoever! I neither want to encourage him unduly nor insinuate my fears into his journey. “Just keep an eye on those clouds,” I finally say, pointing at the sky to the southwest. “Belford is mostly hiding them from view right now, but you’ll soon be meeting people coming down who will be able to give you a better idea of how they’re developing.”

He smiles at this. Perhaps just knowing that there are others still up there is all the encouragement that he needs. He nods in appreciation and continues on his way.

Yes, I know what it means to be appreciative of the presence of others along the way. I thought I wanted to be alone in coming out here, and yet I’ve come to realize how very much these brief interactions along the way have meant to me. There is such great wealth contained within a smile, or a word of direction, in the knowledge of the presence of another, or in a little pile of stones marking the trail. No one can walk it for us, and often enough our next step must be taken in solitude, but we are never, ever alone.

The trail begins to ascend the narrow ridge back up to Belford, threading its way amongst and around the chunky rock formations poking out of the debris-fall either side. I’m lightheaded and weak, and each step seems now to require the full effort of everything I have left – always everything I have left. As vast as this world is there is no room anymore for any thinking. There is only room for just what is. There is only time for just what is. I breathe in and as I breathe out I take a step. I breathe in and as I breathe out I take a step. There are no questions anymore. Questions are needless embellishments on the masterpiece of this moment. There is no fear anymore, for what I was has already died to make room for only that which is: a boot skidding across the dusty trail to find its purchase…; a gloved hand reaching out for solid rock…; a vast couloir channeling skyward the yips and howls of coyotes down below…; a cap pulled low against the wind…; a patch of forest in the distance…; an entire mountain an arm’s length away…; a deep breath of air like cool water on a sweltering day…; and sunlight dancing with the clouds.


To see and read more of what has been described in these posts:
You may visit Mount Belford and Mount Oxford by activating their respective hotlinks here.
The pika and marmot photographs are from their Wikipedia pages.
Activate their respective hotlinks to learn more.
All other photographs were taken by the author and merged into panoramic images using Photoshop.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Sunday, September 18, 2011

May Their Compassion Embrace Us - A Tribute to Ginny Morgan

I feel compelled to interrupt the flow of my Alpine Stream of Consciousness series in order to pay homage to a woman whose Dharma teaching has had a profound impact on me for over four years now. I just learned that Ginny Morgan passed away on Tuesday, August 30th after living with cancer for longer than I have known her. Readers of this blog will know that, despite my being a Soto Zen practitioner, I’ve tried to recognize wisdom wherever it is to be found – be it amongst the various branches of Buddhism, the Abrahamic religions, Native American Spirituality, Yoga, Tai Chi, etc. In that regard, Ginny and I are kindred spirits.

Ginny was a teacher in the Insight Meditation tradition. She lived a couple of hours away in Columbia, Missouri, and so I only ever saw her when I was attending one of the meditation retreats that she was leading. During those retreats her Dharma talks often took on a free form sort of character – not without structure, mind you, but nevertheless shaped by the needs of the present moment and whatever issues were arising amongst the practitioners in attendance. She would have a notebook beside her as she spoke, and frequently she would rifle through it in order to find a quote or a poem or a story from any one of the various “wisdom traditions”, as she referred to them, or from someone whose personal experience of suffering was so profound as to spontaneously transform them in ways that those wisdom traditions attempt to convey. In that spirit, then, please allow me to honor Ginny within the context of the wisdom tradition that is my home.

In the Soto Zen tradition we chant what we call ‘the lineage’ every week during our formal Sunday service. The lineage is a list of the names of all of the teachers who have brought the Dharma from India to China, Japan, and America. The chanting of the lineage is initiated by a designated individual (the doan), who intones the following introduction:
We honor the boundless virtue of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,
May their compassion embrace us,
We prostrate ourselves before Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,
May their wondrous power enter our hearts.
Now that we have chanted the Heart Sutra,
All merits elicited in this recitation are dedicated to:
All present then proceed to chant the eighty-eight names of those who have passed the teachings down through space and time, from individual to individual, from mind to mind, from the time of the Buddha to this very moment. The final name that we chant at the Missouri Zen Center is that of Jikai Dainin Daiosho – the formal honorific of our teacher’s teacher, Katagiri roshi. In fact, our teacher, Rosan Yoshida roshi, has another formal teacher, Tsugen roshi. Every once in a while we talk about the fact that the lineage we chant should incorporate that of Tsugen roshi, as well, branching off from some common Ancestor and converging in the person of Yoshida roshi. We haven’t quite figured that one out, though! After the actual chanting of the eighty-eight names, the doan continues:
We express our heartfelt gratitude
and acknowledge our obligation
to all successive Buddhas and Ancestors
who have transmitted the Right Dharma
through India, China, Japan and America.

This part of the Soto Zen service encompasses two key and interrelated aspects of Buddhist practice: gratitude and compassion. It is compassion that motivated our Ancestors to purify their practice and actualize the Dharma in order to alleviate the suffering of all beings. At this point we can shrug our shoulders and say to ourselves: “well that’s kind of a nice ritual”, or we can really, really “get” the reality of what others have done for us, thereby allowing a profound sense of gratitude to arise – a sense of gratitude so profound that we can’t help but feel obligated to act on it. Of course, such action will involve us actualizing the Dharma in our own unique way, offering the universe our own sense of compassion for all beings as we strive to be the best “self that is not other” that we can possibly be. And so the Dharma is passed on through time and space in an unbroken chain of gratitude and compassion, gratitude and compassion, gratitude and compassion….
I have a profound sense of gratitude for Ginny. The multi-day residential retreats that she led over the New Year’s Eve holiday became a regular part of my practice in recent years. That yearly retreat was a touchstone of sorts – a return to a place of refuge. The very first of these retreats that I attended with Ginny was with my wife (from whom I am now divorced). To this day that retreat remains for me one of the highlights of our marriage. Inexplicably, three months later our marriage was over. I returned to that same retreat center the very next year, with Ginny leading and with many of the same practitioners in attendance – but not my wife. That retreat remains for me one of the most deep and raw and moving experiences of my life. I had entered the crucible, and by doing so my sense of gratitude and compassion became so much stronger than it ever could have become otherwise – as if forged in the fires of suffering.

Ginny’s retreats were quite commonly places of such transformation. There was never a reason to doubt the safety of the spiritual environment that she was instrumental in bringing forth. No matter how deep, or raw, or painful a place your practice might be taking you, you always knew that Ginny was prepared to be a guide for you. You always knew that she had been to that place herself

Ginny embodied the wisdom of meeting suffering head on, thereby allowing it to transform you. As I have said, from the very first time I met Ginny I knew that she was living with cancer. At times – due to the harshness of chemotherapy, I presume – her hair was but a wispy remnant of its previous self and her movements were slower and more measured. I never once, however, sensed even a shred of self-pity on her part. I never once sensed any diminishment of her capacity to be with others in their suffering. It would have been easy for someone in Ginny’s position to spend her time living for herself, working her way through some ‘bucket-list’ of desires rather than spending her remaining days leading us out of the forests of our suffering. But that is not the way of the Bodhisattva. It might have been easy, as well, and maybe even instructive on some level, for her to give us all a wakeup call, saying: “You know, each of you have time to get over your divorces, resolve your relationship difficulties, come to terms with rejecting parents, heal from past abuse, find your path in life…; I, on the other hand, am dying.” She never, ever did. She was as present with others’ concerns as if they were the only thing worth dealing with, and as if there were all the time in the world to deal with them. Of course, with her passing, Ginny does give us that wakeup call; and amongst the many teachings she has left us with, one of the most powerful is the gift of the profound realization of the impermanence of all things.

Let me close with a metta offering, an offering of loving kindness. It is one that I learned from Ginny – one that I’ve come to know has incredible potential to open one’s heart:
May all beings be safe and protected.
May all beings live with ease and wellbeing.
May all beings be free from both inner and outer harm.
May all beings come to embody the gift of freedom in this very life
– not one left out.

I know that there are many family members, friends, and students who will be coming to grips with Ginny’s passing for a long time to come. I hope that we are all able to find comfort in the knowledge that Ginny is a Bodhisattva, and her compassion will continue to embrace us for as long we hold her in our hearts.

Friday, September 16, 2011

An Alpine Stream of Consciousness (Part 2 of 3)

Hello everyone. I apologize for the delay in finishing this post. It ended up being a little bit more involved than I’d first anticipated; and that was before I became obsessive about its editing! Yes, it’s long; and, yes, it’s long in coming. But I do hope you enjoy it and find it to be a meaningful read. I've change the names of the individuals involved in order to protect their privacy

An Alpine Stream of Consciousness (Part 2 of 3)

I wake up when I wake up and without even leaving my bed I fold the pillows over onto themselves in order to fashion them into a passable meditation seat. It’s difficult to keep from thinking about the mountains as I sit, but eventually I do – allowing the overall ‘felt sense’ of my anticipation to come to the fore. In time, though, this too subsides and I settle into simply paying attention to the many sounds and sensations and wispy clouds of cognition as they arise and pass away.

After showering I pack away my cotton attire of the previous day. “Cotton kills,” it is said, and I’ve certainly come to believe how true that can be – in the mountains, anyway. It holds the sweat and moisture close to your skin where it drains you of your body heat. Instead, I don my trail garb: a pair of polyester trekking shorts, and the polypropylene t-shirt that has accompanied me on every cold-weather excursion that I’ve been on in the past fifteen years. Now, all I need to do once I get to the trailhead is slip into my wool socks and hiking boots, strap on my backpack, and set about putting one foot in front of the other. Even my water bottle and drinking system are already filled to the brim with St Louis water and ready to go.

The land in between Limon and Colorado Springs is mostly ranching country – rolling prairie with stands of cottonwood trees nestled in its draws and drainages. Stone silos and satellite dishes, gnarled fence posts and new four-wheel drive trucks exist at once in my mind as I slip on past; and with each mile that rolls beneath me the Front Range becomes more clearly defined, and Pikes Peak rises higher and higher. Long ago I stood with my friend Stan atop its windswept ridges, looking down upon the countryside that I now drive through. I remember the patchwork quilt of multihued gold and green and buff, and how I could almost see the curvature of the earth. And I remember how the earth and sky don’t so much meet as they become one another – merging miles and miles away somewhere that, even in its remoteness, seems almost close enough to touch. Funny how that happens with distances far beyond the human scale.

Yes, and I remember, as well, how strong and sharp-witted Stan was back then, and what good wilderness company he was, in spite of his being some twenty years my senior. These past few years have been somewhat less than kind, however – straining Stan and straining our relationship. I didn’t even tell him I was heading out here, and for that I feel just a little bit guilty. I suppose I didn’t want to be in a position of saying no in the event that he asked if I wanted company.

Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is playing once again on the stereo – music from another time and place that I’m allowing to be brand new. I’ve declared it to be perfect morning music – perfect for such daysas this when the sun is bright and each moment is tinged with equal measures of nostalgia and anticipation. And so the morning flows onward like a clear alpine stream, accepting as its own each drop that falls into its valley. Music and memory and emotion…, the blood and bone of being…, the earth and sky of seeing – they swirl together and keep on rushing onward. I breathe in and I breathe out. I breathe in and I breathe out. To be born again…

I get lost in Colorado Springs, as I always do, but soon enough I find my way again behind a column of motorcyclists wending their way up Highway 24 – past the Garden of the Gods and the turnoff to Pikes Peak, through the canyon carved by Fountain Creek, and on up to Woodland Park where they pull off and grant me passage into the highlands beyond. I crest Ute Pass and roll on through the high country between the Tarryall Mountains and the Rockies farther west. Trout Creek Pass serves as the entrance to the Arkansas River watershed, and as I sweep around its long downhill curve the Collegiate Peaks come into view. The land is vast and open – not so wide open as the Plains, mind you, but seeing one mountain from another lends an awesome perspective that the emptiness of the Plains cannot provide. Mount Princeton looms on the far side of the valley. Its summit rises like a bowed head above two shoulders wrapped in a cloak of dark forest. I find myself thinking of slumbering giants, ready to awaken without warning – perhaps like one from Francisco Goya’s imagination.

Of course, I realize that I’m painting the mountain in ominous shades of my own imagining, but the fact remains that there is danger enough up there for the unwary. Even on the warmest of days the temperature drops quickly as the sun begins to set. A badly sprained ankle that delays your descent can leave you exposed to hypothermia. Clouds can accumulate in a matter of minutes within a virtually empty sky, leaving you scrambling for shelter from icy rain and hailstorms. Lightning, too, need not be accompanied by any advance notice – save for the tingling sensation and the atmospheric crackling that precedes its deadly entrance onto an otherwise pleasant scene. Oh, and then there’s the quite mundane possibility of a fall from a precipice, or a tumble down some rocky couloir, or the unexpected appearance of a bear beside the trail. Ah, but would the mountains even be as beautiful without such danger? Would I even want to be up there unless there was at least some possibility of not ever coming down?

I spot Bongo Billy's up ahead as I’m closing in on the town of Buena Vista. It’s a pleasant surprise to see it open after so many years, and I find myself reminiscing about times spent there with friends sipping cappuccino and eating warm cobbler a la mode after coming down off the trail. Yes, everything is different, and yet nothing at all has changed. I pull in and switch off the engine. A line of customers snakes out through the screen door, down the steps of the wooden front porch, and out onto the gravel parking lot. I grab my trail map to peruse as I wait, and take my place behind the hikers and mountain-bikers and Arkansas River rafters that are fixing to reward themselves for a day well spent. I look at my watch. Wow, it’s already well past two o’clock and I still have an hour of bouncing along a gravel road in order to get to the trailhead. Hmmm…, do I really need that coffee, after all? My question is answered when it starts to rain. I hop back in the car and head through town and out the other side. Bongo Billy’s will have to await my return.

From Highway 24 I turn onto a gravel road that skirts the Clear Creek Reservoir and then follows its namesake up into the hinterlands beyond. The road is thoroughly washboarded from the water runoff and I barely maintain ten miles an hour as I maneuver from one side to another based on whichever looks marginally smoother. The temperature gauge on the dashboard creeps higher. Apparently my little engine doesn’t much care for being in such a low gear for so long. I think about the oil that I added this morning and I wonder whether it’s gotten low again already. My concern doesn’t rise to the level of making me stop in order to check it, though. It’s just the high RPMs, I assure myself. Everything is fine.

The rain has stopped by the time I make it to the trailhead, but the swift-moving clouds are thick and billowy and trailing gray streams of precipitation here and there. I’m pretty certain that I’m going to get rained on before I make it to my evening destination. I didn’t spend all that time freezer-bagging my gear for nothing, though. It’s time to go, rain or shine. I lace up my boots and strap on my pack and set about putting one foot in front of the other. A wooden footbridge takes me over Clear Creek – rushing and roaring about as loud as a mountain stream can roar. I stop and listen to it for a time. There’s no point in hurrying now.

I sign the trailhead registry on the other side of the bridge. Almost everyone else is from Colorado with the exception of someone from New Mexico and a couple of guys from Texas. Okay, well at least I’m not the only flatlander up here!

The trail wastes no time gaining altitude as it switchbacks steeply up the Missouri Gulch; and between the high-altitude air, and the steepness of the trail, and the fifty pounds of gear that I’m carrying I’m soon huffing and puffing as if I’ve just finished a 400 meter sprint. Notwithstanding my frequent rest stops, however, it’s not long at all before I’m high above Clear Creek. That’s how steep it is. Now the roaring sound that I hear is that of snowmelt and rainfall pouring down from the valley high above. When the switchback veers left the sound grows louder, and when the switchback veers right the sound subsides; but each time it switches at all I stop to rest – panting, drinking, and listening.

St. Louis is only about 500 feet about sea level. The trailhead, on the other hand, sits at around 9,700 feet. I know because I checked. A body needs time to adjust to the differences in atmospheric pressure and oxygen density that accompany such elevation changes – at least this body does. And that’s precisely why I’m packing in with the intention of sitting tight for the evening before attempting any of the peaks. It’s a lesson learned from experience over the years; but even the best-learned lessons cannot escape the scrutiny of a second-guessing mind.

That second-guessing mind returns each time I see a group of hikers loping down the trail with satisfied smiles on their faces and but a modicum of gear strapped to their backs. I know they’ve all been atop Belford, and maybe Oxford as well. I can see it in their eyes. They started out early this morning and they’ll be in a warm bed by this evening. I smile and nod to them in greeting, and then I take another drink and mop my brow yet again. And all the while a little voice in the back of my head is saying: “Perhaps you should have just set up camp down below. Perhaps a base camp high up in the alpine isn’t worth all this effort. Perhaps you should have chosen a less difficult route, or a different mountain altogether. Perhaps you should have gone someplace new. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps….” Of course, I’ve thought all of this through already, but that doesn’t matter one iota. After all, they wouldn’t be called second thoughts if they didn’t come, well…, second.

A father and his adult son make their way down the trail toward me. I can tell by how much they favor one another.
“How’s it going?” the father enquires as he slips on past.
“Slowly, but surely,” I reply, smiling, as the son slips by as well.
“Well, you’ve only got a couple more switchbacks to go before the trail gives you a bit of a breather,” the father calls out over his shoulder.
“Thanks for the good word!” I reply, not seeing much point in telling him that I’ve been up this trail before. I take a drink and watch as they continue down the trail. Then I listen once again to the roar of the water rushing down from on high.

Yes, I’ve been up this trail before – numerous times, actually. But the time that I’m thinking of is the very first time almost two decades ago. That was when my then girlfriend, Elaine – who’d gone to graduate school in Boulder and who had certainly done her share of climbing – first introduced me to the world of fourteeners. She was experienced and confidant. I was a risk-averse novice. She wanted us (she and I and her two dogs, Mikie and Gretchen) to set up camp down below and blaze our way up to the various summits on successive days – travelling lightly as we did. I thought it prudent to set up a base camp up above from which to stage our respective day-hikes. Our compromise was for me to carry enough gear to set up camp in the event that it was necessary, but then stash it beside the trail once we’d made it above the tree line. If we needed it, it would be there; if not, I would simply pack it back down. Needless to say, we didn’t need it, and so I ended up carrying all that extra gear for nothing – save for my own peace of mind, that is. Unfortunately, though, that peace of mind did not come without a cost, and it was on that trip that my eyes were first opened to the fact that an overly cautious approach can be just as much a hindrance as can hitting the trail with no sense whatsoever as to the risks that are involved. We did some great climbing, though! And I can’t even begin to sing the praises of those tough little alpine corgis. God, how I loved those dogs!

I still run into Elaine every once in a great while. She’s married and has a family and still travels to beautiful places. She seems pretty happy, and I’m glad for that. I don’t think she climbs much anymore, however. When last we met she was talking about her knees giving her trouble and how she might even need a replacement one day. “Yes, we’re all getting old, aren’t we?” I commiserated – having dealt with one running injury after another for years.

My second trip into this valley was to pass on the favor of an introduction to a couple of married friends of mine, Bill and Linda. We headed out from the trailhead early in the morning that time, and made camp high up in the valley. Without pause, we proceeded to the summit of Belford, and after Belford, we headed over to Oxford – another fourteener connected to Belford by a ridge referred to as a ‘saddle’. We’d have made it up Oxford, as well, if a lightning storm hadn’t materialized just as we were closing in on the summit. All in all, though, it was a pretty successful climb, and if I’d not ended up with such a wicked case of altitude sickness afterwards I’d have been as happy as I could be. It was on that trip that I learned the lesson that guides my present course of action: set up camp above the tree line, and then wait until the following day before heading to the summit. The extra time at high altitude allows one to better acclimate to the altitude before the additional exertion of heading to the peak.

I think about Bill and Linda all the time. We don’t see each other much anymore. They started a family and I started…, well, for now let’s just say that our lives have moved down different paths and leave it at that! Bill and I used to be training partners for everything from bicycle racing to running to adventure racing. Actually, it was Bill who kind of coaxed me out of “retirement” in order to be his teammate on the one and only adventure race that I ever did. For many years prior I’d veered away from all things competitive entirely. It just didn’t seem very… Zen, I suppose. Ah, but my competitiveness came back in that race, though! (Call it karma.) It had been a long, long day of running and canoe paddling and mountain biking and orienteering, and we knew that a few miscues had left us with barely a middle-of-the-pack standing. We also knew that there was little we could do to make up very much time along the miles and miles of trail-running and mountain-biking that remained. Oh, sure, we could have run faster or ridden harder, but that’s easier said than done. No, if we were to improve our standing at all we’d need to make a bold move – a maneuver that would either catapult us into competitiveness, or leave us thrashing around in the woods in last place. We decided to cut the trail. Mind you, this is perfectly legal in adventure racing, where navigation and orienteering skill are of primary importance. So, we dead-reckoned our way through the forest to the next checkpoint rather than following the serpentine trail, and (lo and behold!) we discovered that we’d leap-frogged into a top-ten position – well ahead of everyone who’d simply put their heads down and ground out those final miles along the trail.

That was the last competitive race that I ever did. Bill, on the other hand, went on to get a four-person adventure-racing team together, and they ended up getting into it in a very big way. And then one day I got a call from Linda saying that Bill had been out on a training ride and had apparently suffered a heart attack. He was in intensive care. Shit! We just don’t know, do we? We just don’t know.

The trail levels off just as the man said, and just as I remembered. The stream is now more of a swift-flowing brook than a rushing torrent, but I’ve got to cross it, and that presents its own special challenge. I unfasten my pack – as I’ve learned to do when crossing such a stream – and cautiously set one foot atop the loose pile of logs that serve as a bridge. My first steps are slow and deliberate, but by the time I’m halfway across I’m picking up speed. I suppose I’m counting on my momentum carrying me the rest of the way across should I happen to lose my balance. On the other side, I refasten my pack and take a drink – steeling myself for the next set of switchbacks up ahead.

And just why do I keep coming back to this place, anyway? That’s just one more thing to ponder as the trail becomes almost as steep as it was before – pushing me yet again to the limits of my endurance. This time, however, I slump down onto a large rock by the side of the trail and slip off my pack. Oh, how heavenly! I twist my torso to the left and then to the right, and then I freeze as a chipmunk scampers down the trail. He stops and studies me for a moment before darting into the cover of the undergrowth. I turn back around to face Quail Mountain, rising up like a wall on the other side of Clear Creek. It seems so close. That’s how steep these valley walls are. I watch as clouds not much higher than where I sit spill their rain into the valley below – their misty trails standing out against the backdrop of the forest across the way. I’ve gained nearly 1,200 feet of elevation since leaving the trailhead.

Yes, why do I keep on coming back to this place? I suppose I’ve been this way all of my life. When I was young and my parents took us to Baskin Robbins Ice Cream (home of the 31 flavors for those who may not be aware) I always wanted chocolate chip. “Don’t you want to try something new?” my parents would ask, clearly urging me to expand my horizons. “No.” I wanted chocolate chip. “I might not like rocky road or bubble gum, but I know I like chocolate chip.” And when I went backpacking in my younger years, I would often return to the same stretch of the Ozark Trail time and time again. It wasn’t like it was boring, after all. It wasn’t like I could predict what it would be like on any given visit. Conditions were different, after all. I was different. It was like visiting an old friend, a mentor, actually, one who taught me many a good lesson – like don’t count on finding that spring on the map in order to replenish your water, even if you have been there before. I recall becoming so dehydrated one time after not being able to boil enough drinking water in the few (now empty) V8 cans that I’d brought that I thought I was beginning to hallucinate. (I’d not bought any pots for cooking because there was actually a no fire order in place due to the dry conditions. I’d not brought any iodine tablets, either, because, of course, I was going to find that spring.) “What the hell is that glowing, pulsing light in the middle of the trail up ahead?” I wondered. “Am I starting to lose it?” It turned out that it was a pile of deer feces totally covered with colorful butterflies, all slowly opening and closing their wings in the bright sunlight. It was a sight that I’d never seen before, or since; and it is one that’s had me laughing at myself many a time since.

Oh and then there was the time that I set out with a pair of hiking boots that I’d not adequately broken in. I ended up getting blisters so bad that I decided to find a shortcut home by making my way down from the rugged bluff-top trail, wading across the swollen river, and then bushwhacking across the flat floodplain. Well, if you’ve ever hiked through the virgin bottomlands of Missouri you know that the riverbanks can be a tangle of brush and brambles that make passage without a machete in each hand almost impossible! And so it was for me that day. I wrestled my way down to the river only to find that it was far too swift to cross without my risking getting swept away by the current. By the time I wrestled my way back up to the bluff-tops it had grown too dark for me to find the trail once again; and so I bedded down, tentless, in the middle of the woods, where I spent a mostly sleepless night watching the moon slowly arc across the sky, and listening to the occasional truck engine whining into the lonesome night way on the other side of the valley. So close..., so close….

The alpine stream is now roaring on my right – rushing through a deep and rocky gorge. Yes, I’m close to breaking out of the tree line. After that the trail will level off substantially and there will be a number of soft, grassy patches on which to pitch a tent. I pass the ruins of an old log cabin sheltered by the last substantial stand of tall pines along the trail. What a paradise this must have been! What solitude! A little further on I break out of the tree line and come across the two Texans camping alongside the trail. We exchange pleasantries for a time and discover that – surprise, surprise – we’re all planning on heading up Belford in the morning.

“Hey, what’s that rope for that you’ve got strung across the ravine?” I enquire. It looks as though they’re using it to cross back and forth.
“That’s for our bear bag,” one of them responds. “You have to get a little bit creative up here above the tree line.”
“Oh, of course, of course,” I nod, recalling the length of rope that I’d brought for that very same purpose – the one that I’d almost forgotten. “Well, I hope to see you on the trail in the morning.”
“You bet, have a great evening!”

About a half mile up the trail I find a spot that I know is as good as any other I’ll find. I think it’s the very same spot where Stan and I spent a boring day sitting alone in our respective tents because the relentless rain just wouldn’t let us sneak in a summit bid. I slip off my pack and start contemplating precisely how I should position my tent, but before I can think much about it a cold rain begins to fall. I spring into action: throwing on my rain jacket, rolling out my tent, snapping the tent poles together. I fasten and stake, zip and tie. Then, unceremoniously, I throw all of my gear into my newly erected abode and dive in after it. It’s only then that I realize that my fingers are so cold that I can hardly move them. I blow warm air into my cupped hands, and when my fingers have loosened up once again I begin arranging a proper living space. Once I’ve got things reasonably organized I reach for my inflatable zafu. It’s a zafu shell sewn in the traditional manner, but instead of being stuffed with kapok it’s got a little beach ball inside! It’s a souvenir, if you will, from when my teacher attended the Parliament of World Religions in South Africa back in 1999. He needed to transport a supply of meditation cushions over there so that he could lead various meditation sessions, and so the sangha came up with the very practical and portable solution of inflatable zafus. After Yoshida roshi returned with them they were sold in order to raise funds for the Zen Center. I have certainly gotten my five dollar’s worth out of that investment over the years! I blow air into it until it’s firm enough to sit on and then I meditate to the sound of raindrops hitting the roof of the tent scant inches above the crown of my head.

When the rain subsides even a little bit I crawl back outside and set up my stove in order to cook some dinner. Thankfully, I’ve got a fairly streamlined operation planned out. I strike a waterproof match and hold it next to the hissing burner. The propane flame pops into existence and I set about boiling a pot of water to heat the foil packet of lentil stew that I’ve packed. When the lentils are done I add couscous to the water; and when the couscous is done I pour the lentils on top. I walk slowly around my campsite in the light rain, eating my dinner and taking stock of my surroundings. Of course I can’t miss the trail switchbacking up the base of Mount Belford like a zipper before snaking over a ridge and out of sight. Pecks Peak rises steeply on my left, a neglected thirteener in a valley of fourteeners. Hidden from view behind it is Mount Oxford, which most people summit only after reaching the peak of Mount Belford. On the other side of my campsite, across the roaring stream that’s been with me all afternoon, rises an unnamed ridge that extends all the way up the valley to Mount Missouri. Mount Missouri sits as if at the southernmost end of a throne room, with lines of snow still sliding down its couloirs even this late in the summer. Around the bend, hidden behind Mount Belford, is Elkhead Pass, entrance to a completely different valley with fourteeners all its own – Mount Harvard and Mount Columbia. I’m debating heading over there after I’ve had my fill of this valley. For now, though, for the next few days at least, this valley will be home.

Oh, yeah! I start looking around me for a way to string up a bear bag. The best solution that I can come up with is to climb up to where a single lightning-ravaged tree leans out over the steep hillside sloping up to Pecks Peak and string a line to another stunted specimen further down. The bag certainly doesn't hang high enough to keep a bear from getting into it if he should find it in such an unlikely place, but he has to find it first – and at least he won’t find it in my tent!

Daylight is quickly fading now. I crawl back into my tent and journal by the light of a flashlight for a while. Growing sleepy, I deflate my zafu until it’s soft enough to be a pillow, and then I lay back to go to sleep. It’s still raining just a little bit – blowing through in waves that patter against the tent roof and then subside. But, of course, the most prominent sound is that of the rushing of the alpine stream. It roars with uncanny constancy right next to me. As I listen to it further, though, my ears become more and more attuned to the subtleness of its composition. I hear deeper notes, like a bass line, rising up from the gorge below. I hear higher overtones flowing down from above that suggest a melody all of their own – disconnected from the larger musical composition even as they remain an integral part. And after a while I begin to notice individual splashes and plops and gurgles that I’d been deaf to up to that point.

Funny, this stream has been roaring like this every second of every day since the very first time that I heard it some twenty years ago. Through all of life’s twists and turns it has been here – clear and pure, always flowing. Everything is different, and yet nothing at all has changed.

I doze off for a bit and by the time my bladder stirs me back to wakefulness it’s well into the night. I stumble out of the tent into the darkness, but after getting my bearings I realize that it’s not really that dark at all. The moon is up behind the still-billowing clouds, and some stars are twinkling here and there amidst sparse swatches of deep, black sky. I can still make out the peaks, and especially the snow-filled couloirs of Missouri. It’s beautiful – more beautiful than my memory could have ever allowed me to recall. Any doubts and second-thoughts and idle ponderings about my coming here are now just so much mental waste pissed out along the trail far below. I stand now as open as I can be to all of the truth that the universe has to convey – truth in all of its immensity…, and vastness…, and depth. Yes, it is true that nothing is hidden, but there’s always more truth to be found. And so I keep watching. For a long time I stand watching. And then a cold wind blows down the valley and sets me shivering to my core. I crawl back into my tent and fall asleep.


Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank