Relax Completely

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The rare Methow River fairy captured at long last on film.
Let go of thousands of years and relax completely.
Open your hands and walk, innocent.
~ Shitou Xiqian (8th Century Chinese Zen Master)

 

Out for a bike ride, I headed up Wold Creek road past where it turns to dirt, on over a rattly cattle guard and turned around at the second cattle guard. From there I left the road behind for mountain bike trails, both single track and old roads. I had climbed some hills, sweat forming on my brow even in the chill of late evening air, and now had the joy of descending, winding my way down to the river. After going through a couple of cattle gates, I found myself on the banks of this magnificent river who had turned a pewter silver in the quickly setting sunlight. The color of liquid mercury, coming from the river reflecting the clouds, reflecting the already set sun. There were holes in the cloud layer through which I could see the tops of clouds glowing pink and peach in the westerly light. It was breath taking and like an idiot I stood there in amazement trying to capture  and hold on to what I was seeing.

Later, as I pedaled up the driveway past marmot rock, whose namesakes were surely underground sleeping or doing whatever marmots do in their burrows (having a bit of tea, perhaps), I was suddenly struck with a realization that caused me to relax completely and smile. “You can’t hold on to anything,” the universe seemed to be shouting at me. Not the sunset, not the river, not my daughters, not my wife, not my health and certainly not my life. Definitely not my hair, which is already leaving me, and not my cares. I can’t hold on with these ridiculous words nor photographs nor memories; not with who I think I am, who I tell myself I was nor who I want to become. There is nothing to hold on to and no one to do the holding anyway.

With that flood of understanding, I took off my biking shoes and felt a deep relaxation that I had not felt for days. I let go of everything, for a moment, and rested free in this world.

Into The Wild West

 

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Photo by Jimmy Zammar.

In that land we led a free and hardy life, with horse and rifle.

~Teddy Roosevelt

We arrived a week ago in the old western town of Winthrop, Washington in that valley that will be our new home. If you want to say it correctly, its “Warshington.” We are excited to be here but it still feels a bit like we are visiting, rather than living here. Our first weekend, we had friends visit which was a great distraction from all the work that we still need to do on the bus. Plus we could not get into a storage unit for a few days and therefore the bus was full of our belongings (yes, simplicity is a main reason for living in the bus, but we are not about to get rid of all of our camping, backpacking, fishing etc gear) and we needed to clear it out before we could start living in it.

With our friends, we cooked and talked and laughed and hiked up Lookout Mountain. The wildflowers both down here in the valley and up in the mountains are amazing.

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Photo by Jimmy Zammar.

We took in the views of distant snow-capped mountains, drank in the beauty of wildflowers and ultimately our path was blocked by snow so we did not make it all the way to the top.

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Photo by Jimmy Zammar.

A wonderful weekend spent with close friends was the perfect way to begin our new life here in the Methow Valley.


written by David LaFever

What Then?

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The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.

~Richard Bach (“Illusions: Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah”)

She seems to be languishing, a body that was once full of vitality is now spent and she is exhausted, too weary to stay upright. I stand by her side, watching and wondering what to do, what to think. Standing mid-stream, water flowing all around, I see her struggle against the current and then succumb to its power and downstream she goes. I watch as she is pushed by the rushing water, knowing that she will never swim this far upstream again. She doesn’t have the strength. This is likely her last day and her tail, well-worn and white from digging redds (gravel nest), indicates that she has already spawned and will soon die. What then?

We are taught that death is something to fear not something to celebrate and we often act as though it is not natural. There are times when we admit that it is inevitable but we still seem to believe that it is something that will only occur in the future. But what if there is no future, only the eternal now? What then?

I think of my mother, dead now more than four years, whose birthday it is (February 1st). She would have been 69 years old, far older than the three year old salmon inhabiting the creek with me today. I remember being with her during her final days, how thin and frail she was but there was still a sparkle in her eyes, when the pain wasn’t too great. So too with this salmon – still facing upstream and swimming against the current (a sparkle in its flesh) – until she can no more, and then letting go and floating downstream. Is this what happened with my mom, did she let go and float on? What then?

Farther upstream I meet a salmon carcass, bright red spawning colors and monstrous kype (hook-like tip of jaw) indicating a male. My field partner and I collect it and notice its bright eyes. It did not die long ago. We take our field measurements, mark it with a jaw tag and then put it back where we found it before continuing to wade upstream. We soon find another carcass, this time a female and haul her out of the water for measurements. Her mouth and gills are covered with caddisflies, who, protected within their stick and leaf homes, are devouring her skin and flesh. This very flesh, full of important marine nutrients, becomes caddisfly, bear, huckleberry and redwood. The caddisfly will soon be eaten by this mother salmon’s young fry that in another three years may be right back here again, continuing this cycle of life and death. Each nourishes the other in an endless dance that we need not be afraid of. We are in each other just as salmon and caddisfly, bear and redwood are in each other. This ever-flowing river of arising and passing, passing and arising will lift us free.


By David LaFever

In this high place

 

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Snow lake.

I wanted to share the following poem by David Whyte because it so beautifully captures what I experienced at this snow lake in the Trinity Alps (see previous post). The sense of wonder that I was trying to convey, I am beginning to realize, came from a place of non-questioning. I simply existed and went about my tasks of setting up tent, starting fire, warming feet and the like, without questing, analyzing or judging my actions. It was simple and easy because there was no second-guessing and it was full of wonder. Not elation nor ecstatic joy, but deep felt belonging and satisfaction. Thank you David Whyte for your brilliant poetry!

 

“Tilicho Lake” by David Whyte

 

In this high place

it is as simple as this,

Leave everything you know behind.

 

Step toward the cold surface,

say the old prayer of rough love

and open both arms.

 

Those who come with empty hands

will stare into the lake astonished,

there, in the cold light

reflecting pure snow,

 

the true shape of your own face.

 


Posted by David LaFever

 

Wandering into Wonder

“With thoughts clear, sitting silently, wander into the center of the circle of wonder.”

~ Zen Master Hongzhi

The upper canyon and the trail I was following was covered in snow, as were all of the mountainsides around me. My attempts to follow any trail that might have been there were thwarted by an early season snow storm and lack of a thaw. I was pretty sure that I could have figured out where the gap in the mountains was where I was suppose to cross over to the other side but I had never been there before and didn’t know what the snowpack was going to be like on the other side. Pausing, I caught my breath and listened to the sounds of water trickling everywhere from snow-melt, and realized that my feet were soaked from hiking in trails that had become streams. I thought this was going to be my last trip of Fall and I was not prepared for winter, not yet anyway.

Farther down the canyon, I had hiked through an autumnal world of slanted light colored by leaves releasing colors previously hidden by the photosynthetic rapture of summer. Yellow willows, red dogwoods and golden elderberries reminded me of the splendor of fall foliage in upstate New York where I had grown up. While nowhere near that colorful, I delighted in the splashes of deciduous color in an otherwise monochromatically green conifer world.

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Fall foliage in Long Canyon

Unable to find the gap I was looking for which would have taken me over into the next drainage, I turned around and headed back down following the footsteps that I had just made in the ankle to shin deep snow. The upper canyon, in this part, was dotted here and there with montane conifers like western white pine and mountain hemlock, old friends of mine whom I was glad to see. We always see to meet in such beautiful places. Red rock boulders sat like giants on their haunches amidst an otherwise granitic mountain world.In addition to the red rocks and green conifers, willows stuck out through the snow, the yellow hue of autumn emerging through the sparkling white of winter. They seemed as surprised by the snowfall as I was.

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Red rocks and granite peaks

I thought I would just keep descending back into the canyon in order to find snow-free camping and firewood by which to stay warm. That would have been the prudent thing to do but I also knew that a lake lay off-trail to the south. Without giving it much thought at all, my body simply turned up the chute that lead to the lake and I started climbing. It quickly became apparent that this was going to be a slog through soft snow that was shin to knee deep if not deeper and that it was not going to be easy. The pull of wonder – where was I going and what would I find there- kept me going and onward I trudged, stopping every now and again to pant, sweating all the while in the cold mountain air.

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The “path” to the lake

What is wonder, what is the feeling of wonder and where does it come from?

After an hour of hard climbing through deep snow, I crested the top of the pass and was greeted by a cold wind and an icy and breath-taking world. While I was not thinking then about wonder, I was blown clean and cool by the wind and the wonder of it all.

As I now consider wonder and wonderment from my cozy house, I realize just how much it was a part of this trip for me and how ordinary it really is. The climb to this lake was not a conscious decision; really it just happened. And once I was there I just set about clearing snow away so that I could set up my tent. I simply flowed and wandered in the mountains, finding myself on a snow-covered pass with a dark and brooding lake some seventy-five feet below me.

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A dark and stormy lake

I have often thought of wonder as being close to ecstasy but realized on this trip that it could also be very simple and plain. Most ordinary. I went about clearing snow, setting up my tent and laying out my sleeping bag because those were the things that needed to happen. While I did not stare about me in amazement, I was full of wonder at where I was and how I had even arrived here. Wandering and wondering  go hand in hand and it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. It’s best to remember that not all who wander are lost – they could simply be on the edge of wonder.

As I lay down in my down sleeping bag, feeling returning to my frozen toes, I simply breathed deep and stared in wonder at my tent fly. I was full of gratitude for being so very much alive in such an wondrous place.

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Sunrise over Mount Shasta

words and photos by David

Allowing the world to contaminate me

 

Trinity Alps Wilderness, California

As I sat on the granite monolith, simply breathing in and out, I began noticing the sounds, smells, sights and sensations of this mountain world. There was the gentle lapping of lake water on the rocky shore, the green dots of conifer trees on the light gray granitic mountainside, the call of Steller’s jay, northern flicker and red-breasted nuthatch, and the feeling of cool stone on my bare legs. But before this intellectualizing and naming of experience, there was just the experience itself. Before I turned this momentous world (a world in the moment) into something extraordinary that I could capture and consume in words and concepts, there was just the world in all its ordinariness and intensity.

Elisabetta Corrà said, “The extraordinary seeks something beyond reality. Intensity forces us to experience reality…” There was still the lapping of the water against the shore and the birds calling and the like but I wasn’t busy naming it and putting it on a list of experiences I had had. This is difficult to explain because our usual mode of explanation, language, is not the experience itself. There I was simply experiencing and as I did something dropped away, like an autumn leaf falling off a maple tree.  I had become porous, and the beauty of the place and its wildness contaminated me, became a part of me and I a part of it. We were in relationship, in love, and one landscape of mountains and waters and that was all there was.

Plop a trout rose to the surface to capture an insect, and suddenly I was back, thoughts and conceptions and all. There was the lake, the granite peak rising above and my small tent. I rose, stretched my stiff legs, and carefully made my way down the rock to boil water, chopped vegetables and make dinner in a most beautiful and serene kitchen.


written by David

The High Mountain Pass That Was No Barrier

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So high you cannot
Climb or get close to it;
Raindrops scatter in the flying wind.
The gate is barred with green moss.
Suddenly forgetting thought,
Without attainment,
Only then will you be sure
The gate has been open all along.
~ T’aego (Korean Zen Master, 1301-1382)

 

As I stood on the high mountain pass, catching my breath from the steep ascent, the wind whipped my clothes nearly taking my hat with it and quickly cooling the sweat on my brow. I looked around, taking in the immense scenery, which was both close and personal and far away and distant. Mount Shasta’s white-capped cone lay off to the east, rising over the Marble Mountains in between, while the Siskiyou Mountains, tree-covered and verdant, lay all around, intimate. I became dazzled by the chromatic display of rock lying at my feet – strange greens of ultramafic and sparkling whites and grays of granite. It was everything that brings me up steep mountains to these kinds of aeries – cleansing, spacious and stunningly beautiful. I felt invigorated and alive with the heightened perception rarefied air. As I continued to look around I realized we were not at our intended pass. Where were we and how did we get here? Perhaps most importantly, what do we do now?

Mumonkan in Japanese (Wúménguān in Chinese) literally means “the high mountain pass that has no barrier” but is often simply called “the gateless gate.” Were we at such a high mountain pass? If so, could we see that it was gateless, that it provided no barrier and that we could just walk on through? To be able to discern the difference between true barriers and those gates that are already open but that we think are closed is our challenge and practice. Mental imaginings and self-imposed limitations strongly influence our perception of barriers. “Argue for your limitations and they’re yours”, said Richard Bach. We were at the “wrong” pass so this could not be the way, the gateless gate, we concluded, so how do we get down from here?

Every trip I have ever been on has its own flavor, its own texture. Some trips are smooth and sweet while others are rough and bitter. This trip had a flavor uniquely its own – earthy and real, the flavor of unknown paths and barriers.

After a very early meeting time of 6:00 am, we set out from the high school with six kids, six adults and three cars in a caravan heading towards the mountains with excitement and anticipation. Northward up the Pacific coast we traveled together and then turned inland following the aquamarine ribbon of the Smith River. We soon left the pavement behind, ignoring the sign that said the road was closed ahead, and headed up a gravel Forest Service road. A few days prior, one member of our group had called the Ranger Station to check on road conditions and was assured that this road was open all the way to the trailhead. Not so. As we rounded a bend in the road, we were met with a closed and locked gate some five miles or so shy of our destination. We immediately got out maps, laid them on the hood of a car and set to figuring out where we would head next. After some discussion by the adults, while the kids milled around not paying much attention to the decisions being made, we got back into the vehicles and headed back down to the paved road and off in a new direction. Sometimes there are true barriers on your path.

A short time later, we turned off the pavement again and headed up another Forest Service road. This time, we stopped at the sign that said, “Road Closed 9.3 Miles Ahead” which again would put us miles shy of our destination. Dejected but not deterred we got out our maps and leaned on the hood again to figure out Plan C. Because nearby options were becoming limited, we decided to head farther away but still in the Siskiyou Mountains. Back into the vehicles we climbed and off we were, bouncing our way down the dusty road. This time we drove up and around the very mountains we were trying to make our way into the heart of, going farther to get closer. An hour and half later we left the pavement, for the third time in as many hours, and drove several miles up another dirt road. This time our path was blocked again by the trunk of a large Douglas-fir tree, fallen across the road. We each chuckled, cursed or cried, depending, at this latest barrier to our path. Fortunately, this time we were only a half-mile shy of the trailhead so we hoisted our heavy packs and headed up the road on foot. Sometimes the paths you think you are going to travel, you cannot; and sometimes barriers can be overcome and so you carry on as best as you can.

As we hiked up the trail, we traversed through conifer forests, over serpentine outcrops and across snow fields before reaching the meadow where we camp. It was lush and green, long and narrow, five acres or so in size, and ringed by towering conifers – incense cedar, white fir and sugar pine. A small creek, with diminutive rainbow and cutthroat trout, flowed through the forest, adding a watery tone to tranquil bird and wind sounds of this mountain meadow. Our group arrived at the meadow and was greeted by a large black bear, sitting in the middle of wildflowers. It looked at our group as we looked at it and then it turned and unhurriedly walked into a thicket of creekside willow and alder. That was the last that we saw of it.

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The following day we headed off on a day hike, leaving our backpacks behind and traveling light, essential gear only. We headed up and over a low mountain pass and into another valley which contained a small, unnamed lake stocked with stunted brook trout. At this point, our party split in two: one group stayed at the lake and then slowly made their way back to camp, while a second group, my group, headed off towards Youngs Valley (which was our very original destination). We would then take a trail around Polar Bear Mountain, over a higher mountain pass and back to camp. This was going to be a long and arduous day hike and I really looked forward to it. Youngs Valley was beautiful – a big meadow ringed with conifers and covered with wildflowers in splashes of purple, red and yellow. Here we were in the headwaters of Clear Creek which flows into the Klamath River near Happy Camp but we soon hiked over a low divide and found ourselves in the headwaters of the Illinois River, which flows in the opposite direction on into the Rogue River. We continued on in the Illinois River watershed, our path becoming less and less obvious as the backlog of maintenance needs in this area became apparent. The trail continued on, mostly level as it followed an old road, and at about the point when we thought the trail would begin to climb, it did and we followed along. We breathed heavy and sweated in the hot sun. Climbing higher we passed by an old metal jeep bumper and other automotive debris strewn by the side of the road and I wondered how anyone ever drove up such a steep and rocky road. As the trail steepened I wished we had a jeep.

A few hundred feet below the pass, the road became less obvious and so we decided to leave it behind and just head upslope toward our pass, which we could see was not much farther upslope. The going was relatively easy as there was no underbrush to trip us up and the scree was stable enough to provide solid foot holds. We quickly reached the pass, out of breath and exhilarated, where we were greeted with two very different sensations. First was spaciousness as we were able to see mountains upon mountains in all directions – the Siskiyous, Red Buttes, Kalmiopsis, Marbles, Trinity Alps and Mount Shasta. The light of this place was all-encompassing and the air fresh and clean. The colors, mostly bright greenish grays of ultramafic rock, lent the feel of a Dr. Seuss book to the place. Contrasting quite sharply with this heavenly feeling was a heavy, sinking feeling in my gut. We were not at the right pass and our meadow was not in the valley below as it was supposed to be. We were blocked, we were stuck and what were we going to do now? Was this a true barrier or simply the perception of one?

We considered our options while also trying to take in the beauty all around us. Having several more hours of hiking in an unknown direction created a sense of foreboding making it difficult to relax and enjoy the view. We thought about going back the way that we had come but didn’t really know where we had left the trail behind and didn’t like the fact that this would put us back into camp after dark, creating worry in others awaiting our return. At least we did have headlamps and could hike safely in the dark. We also considered heading back down the way we had come and going cross-country with the hope that we would pick up the trail across the mountain slope – a short cut of sorts but treacherous ground from the looks of it.

While back at the pass I had noticed the trail from the lake to our campsite that we had walked a few hours earlier was several hundred feet below us. I suggested that we hike down that way, which would be off trail, but would get us back to camp in a reasonable amount of time. We were apprehensive because we didn’t know how difficult it would be, especially for the three high school students who had never done anything like this before. They were game and as we didn’t have any better options, down the mountain we went. It was steep, rocky and uneven ground but not overly difficult or treacherous. Within forty-five minutes we were back on the trail and heading towards camp. We still had many miles to go but were all so relieved to be on safer ground that we nearly danced our way back. Had we continued to perceive this mountains pass as a barrier, who knows what our path would have been like.

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Our feet and the old mountain took us where we needed to go and taught us lessons that we would not have learned otherwise. Lessons about truth and beauty being found off in so-called wrong directions – “off the trail, on the path” as Gary Snyder said – and that resilience, fearlessness and courage are only truly cultivated in the challenging moments of our lives. Perhaps most importantly this experience taught me that joy and happiness result more from letting go of my expectations rather than fulfilling them, and to embrace uncertainty with the trust that the gateless gate will appear. Had we navigated as expected and had we stayed on the trail then we would not have learned so much. We would have been on the trail and off the path. These unexpected moments are not the path we think we are on, but the true path we must travel. If we are open to it and able to perceive with clarity then the gateless gate will always appear.

I have considered this trip since, with thoughts arising like, “Where did we go wrong”, and “How did we lose the trail?” It is easy to over-analyze situations like this, thinking solely about the “what-went-wrongs” and the “how-did-we-make-that-mistakes” but we need to be careful with such thinking. It puts up barriers where there aren’t any, shutting the gateless gate. We assumed that we knew the path we needed to take, in this case a trail, but in reality our path went somewhere else. Luckily we were open to it, although we almost weren’t, and I shudder to think of what would have happened had we taken another path. This mountain pass, then, was our path, in spite of our thinking otherwise, and it had no barrier, only stunning beauty, immense spaciousness, and the clean air of high mountain majesty. To perceive that our moment-by-moment life is this way is the crux of our matter – the gate is always gateless; it has been open all along, if only we can see it that way.