Our little house glows with warm light in a pine needle meadow. Tall pines tower above our camp as the soft notes of Miles Davis’ Steps To Heaven serenades the night.
~Somewhere in California
Thousand Island Lake: Ansel Adams Wilderness
In a field, golden with Indian Summer, we have made camp on the shores of Thousand Island Lake. We are completely surrounded by sheer walls of granite the color of polished nickel. Not since we left Colorado have I seen such a grand display of undeniable beauty. Even more beautiful it seems than Mount Jefferson, Mount Hood, or the colorful Three Sisters. Even more beautiful than the pristine beaches or the misty rainforests of Oregon. But lately, everyplace we go is even more beautiful than the last. Perhaps we have fallen into the simple beauty of the Now. But here the landscape is wide open. Deserts meet mountains. Rock and sky. Water and trees. But the trees here are spaced apart with room to breathe. One can wander at will in any direction with nothing so much as pine needles or the occasional mountain range blocking your way. In most directions you will find smoothly polished rock to tread upon, paving your way to the heavens. Views extend for miles in every direction. Miles upon miles of a rolling sea of solid granite. And the sky, so blue it appears dark in the middle of the day against the stark silver peaks. A wild country to be sure. Black bear, deer, muskrat, and big horn sheep wander freely. How joyful they must be in this Garden Of Eden. Gone are the deep heady forests. Here we have stumbled upon the grand finale of planet Earth!
The Sierra Nevadas. The crown jewel of America. Unspoiled. And free to all who wander into her sun drenched valleys. My heart goes out to Ansel Adams. John Muir. Theodore Roosevelt. And the many others who helped preserve this earthy paradise. Thousand Island Lake sits like a well manicured park, yet miles from the nearest road. The golden grass that surrounds the lake is soft enough to walk barefoot upon. On the shore of the lake are numerous small beaches of fine white sand, enticing you to wade out into her cool blue waters. Upon exiting the water, the dry air dries the skin almost instantly, eliminating the need for a towel, like the deserts of Utah, the swimming pools of Arizona.
The night sky here is larger than our peripheral vision, creating the most difficult task of having to choose which part of the sky to focus on. For any moment of inattention causes one to miss shooting stars and flashes of light we cannot begin to explain. Are they distant planets? UFOs? Or just God winking at us from the heavens. We cannot be sure. Better not to know and live in the mystery. What do we really know anyway? We give things names as if a name were a means to an end. But can we really know a star? Does the word star describe a star any more than the word water describes our lakes, streams, and oceans? Once we lose the word, the mystery returns. Science, although a useful tool, describes nature no better and no worse than a child describing a bird. In all of our scientific discoveries, we still cannot manufacture a grain of wheat or the wing of a fly. Life defies all words and any possible thought. Thought stops life. We find ourselves the most alive only when the thoughts subside. That is where our lives unfold. We find the only way to truly understand this wilderness is to lay our thinking minds to rest and simply breathe it all in. Feel its magic. And surrender to the mystery.
How lucky we are to be here, of all the places in the universe, on this little planet we call Earth.
Ansel Adams Wilderness Part 1
A cold wind stings my face as the sun warms my back on this late September morning, high up in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. We are camped at 9000 feet, just 800 feet below treeline. Massive mounds of solid granite surround me appearing silver in the blazing morning sun. As I sip my English Breakfast Tea, I peer out into a live version of Ansel Adams photographs, appearing almost black and white in front of me. This wilderness, which used to be called the Minurets Wilderness, was later changed in honor of the dramatic photos that Ansel Adams captured of this stunningly beautiful mountain range. And rightfully so. For Ansel Adams’ photographs inspired millions of people, including myself, to put the protection of these lands above all else. People who have never even seen the Ansel Adams Wilderness, and likely never will, can look at an Ansel Adams photograph and feel a primal urge, deep inside their hearts, to want to protect such beauty at any expense. For there is simply a knowing, beyond words, that this is God’s country. God’s cathedrals. A 230,000 acre church designed by no man.
To sit here in this grand cathedral, the cathedral of cathedrals, I feel a buzzing energy all around me. A sacred energy so thick, so deafening, so certain, that it has the ability to stop all thought. And in its place, a timeless feeling of pure love as old as these rocks themselves. The one love. For in the absence of this love nothing exists. And in the presence of this love, everything exists, everything is possible, and everything is everything.
A redtail hawk flies overhead, riding the thermals of this exhilarating morning wind. He does not appear to be hunting. Nor traveling anywhere. Just riding the wind. Back and forth, he arches his wings to create graceful dives and then hovering in place, defying gravity. A surfer of the skies, he has perfected the art of being a hawk. Also, the chipmunks dart here and there in the morning sun. Full of energy on this brisk Tuesday morning. I look to the west, over a sea of granite mounds, slabs, and folds to where we will be traveling today, up above treeline, to the distant wonders of our dreams. Into the mystic we shall go. . .
McMenamins Brewery. Bend, OR
After waking to misty blue skies, the fiery orange sun peaks over Broken Top Mountain, turning the low clouds into cotton candy. It takes a few hours to drag ourselves from this alpine paradise and finally hit the trail. Our route out of the high country descends through wildflower meadows taking us passed crystal clear streams and cascading waterfall after cascading waterfall. The entire hike down is like this, but as beautiful as it all is, our minds are already back in town. Thinking of the ice-cold draft beer we will have at Deschutes Brewery, Ten Barrel, or any one of the other dozen or so microbreweries back in Bend. Along with a shower, maybe some hot springs, music, and our comfy bed. All the pleasures that come with life in the front country. Pleasures the we take for granted but always have a new appreciation for when coming out of the woods. Of course these fine pleasures will be short-lived. It will just be a matter of time before the mountains, deserts, canyons, and rainforests will be calling for us to return. But for now, nothing sounds better than Bend Oregon.
And let me tell you, it didn’t disappoint. Bend never disappoints! After a six-dollar shower at the local recreation center, we make our way over the McMenamins Old Saint Francis Schoolhouse. This is of course an old schoolhouse transformed into a brewery, restaurant, music venue, pub, and, the best part, Turkish soaking pools. Just another reason that Bend is such an awesome town.
Now this is a place I would expect to see in a dark corner of New York City, down some secret alley, among the ultra-hip crowd who are in the know of such a place. Or perhaps in Vegas, obnoxiously overpriced, and in some ritzy casino filled with overweight tourists from Texas. But no, this place is in Bend Oregon, so the vibe is laid back, easy-going.
Upon entering, we each order a brew from the bar. Valerie goes with the Terminator Stout and I order a Hammerhead, described as a classic Northwest Pale Ale. Classic or not, this Northwest Pale Ale is among the best beers I’ve ever tasted. Starting with a slightly spicy amber sweetness, it settles into its Cascade hops, then it finishes with a zing that holds not a trace of bitterness. Perfection in a glass. We then make our way over to a dimly lit table in a cozy dark corner of the pub. Small lamps adorn the corners of the room and an oldschool jukebox plays carefully selected cuts from artists such as Son Volt, Beach Fossils, The Grateful Dead, Widespread Panic, and Bob Dylan. As the beer is working its magic, the carnitas nachos arrive, followed by seared ahi tacos. To die for. We order another beer and let the vibe linger a while longer as the high notes of Jerry Garcia’s Franklin’s Tower bounce around the room, painting smiles on faces throughout. When we are finished enjoying our meal, we go ahead and pay our bill of $33, gather our towels, and head to the Turkish pools.
The Turkish soaking pools are located down a long, winding, dimly lit hallway in an ornately decorated room of blue artesian tiles. This room is filled with the sounds of cascading water, distant music, and it is open to the night sky. As I relax into the hot water, I can see the big dipper and other constellations overhead. The same ones I recognize from our previous three nights spent lying on our backs high up in the Deschutes National Forest and the Three Sisters Wilderness. I learn that this room is open to the sky all year-long and I imagine what it must be like soaking here in the winter as a light snowfall descends through the opening in the ceiling and onto my face, beer in hand. I imagine soaking here in a light rain, or during a thunderstorm. What an asset McMenamins is to Bend. What an asset indeed.
After an undetermined amount of time, we finally make it back to the truck camper, slide under our down comforter, open up the skylight above to expose the night sky once more, and drift off into delicious dreams of decadent abundance.
Three Sisters Wilderness Part 3
Happy hour. Were we not happy already? We celebrate with smoked pacific oysters on the half shell. Ok, not on the half shell, but out of a can. One of the most delicious delicacies you can bring into the backcountry is smoked oysters, readily available at most grocery stores and delicious on a cracker with a drop or two of hot sauce.
It’s the little things that satisfy the soul up here. The simple things. Take breathing. Something we do all the time, and without thought. But up here in the high country, breathing is invigorating, even decadent. How often do we take the time to just sit and breathe? I find myself indulging so much in the simple joy of breathing that it often becomes a euphoric experience. And people today are starting to realize this. We are actually paying to breathe. Yoga, meditation, martial arts, all teach us to focus on the breath. And we leave these classes feeling invigorated. But this is to be expected. For most of us wake up in the morning to a hysterical alarm clock, take a focused and efficient shower, dress in a frenzy for work, drive in traffic to get there, leave work, drive in more traffic, pick up the kids, drop off the kids, and run four yellow lights to barely make it in time for our yoga class so that we can finally breathe!! Ahhh. And now we breathe. Deep breaths, big stretches, focusing on nothing. And this, we all know, is tough after a day like this. But even if for just five full uninterrupted minutes we can forget about our busy life of details, deadlines, and obligations and focus on just the breath, it has to power to transform our day.
And so I treasure these long summer days of breathing, walking, breathing. And with a sense of gratitude and abundance, I overindulge myself in hours of this kind of ecstatic breathing. Breathing in the sounds of flowing water, chirping birds, singing insects, rustling trees. The scents and the sounds, I breathe them all in. With every breath, I become more of what surrounds me. And it all seems so ridiculously, so hysterically perfect that I can hardly contain myself any longer. And just then, at that crucial moment, a raven flies by, at eye level, and as his eye meets mine, for just a fraction of a second, he gives me a glance. A curious look that I observe to read “What? Does this one get it? No. Probably not.” And with a loud squawk of disapproval, he flies off into the canyons below.
But who am I to try to understand the complex consciousness of the mysterious black raven. If that were my purpose, I would have been born a raven, not a human. And so I breathe all of this in too, all too comfortable in my own human skin and simply let things be as they are. For how else should they be? How else could they be?
Green Lakes: Three Sisters Wilderness Part 2
Today we are camped high above a lake in an area known as the Green Lakes. Although this particular green lake is turquoise blue, the color of the Caribbean. What makes these lakes such a color I have no idea, but it seems that the colder they are, the bluer they appear. This one is being fed by a glacier stream. Ice cold. And beautiful. Around the shoreline grows velvet green alpine tundra, equally vibrant in color. It’s a windy day, but the wind is warm, bringing with it the glow of summer. I’d say a rather perfect day. And now that we’ve arrived at camp early there’s nothing left to do but write in my journal, read my book, sip my tea, take a swim, or a nap. All excellent options. But as usual, I’ll choose not to decide. Perhaps it’s the lack of decisions that makes backpacking seem so relaxing. So Zen like. We are given the chance to rely on instinct rather than logic. I have nothing against logic. It comes in handy when doing a project. But instinct is something we seem to have forgotten almost entirely. Animal instinct. Take a bird for example. As far as I can tell, there seems to be no discussion, no decision-making, no committee meeting that takes place in the millisecond that occurs before a flock of birds changes direction during flight. Rather, a unanimous decision takes place instantaneously. There is no question as to which way is best. There is only one answer. The right one. A decision not premeditated, but made at the last possible second. As it should be. For what other way is there? Do the salmon decide whether or not to make the journey upstream to spawn or do they simply just go when it feels right? I think we all know the answer. But then why is it that human beings must ponder over every possible decision. Why must we plan out every detail of our lives. Year by year, day by day, minute by minute. If every moment of our day is pre-planned, where is there any room left for instinct? And so we are losing our most valuable skill.
Something that separates us from our furry, feathered, and scaled relatives is language. Advantage or hinderance? With language, we are able to put our thoughts together in such a way that we can make decisions to do incredible things. Entire cities are constructed. We create electronics and gadgets that do unbelievable things. We can easily and efficiently communicate and travel across the planet. We write books. Record history. Start religions. And start wars. With language, it seems, we are given the power to do anything. But language a hinderance? A disease? Could it be possible? Could language actually be limiting our full potential as a species?
If human beings reacted out of instinct instead of logic, would the world be the same as it is today? Would we have made all the same decisions leading up to now if we were not capable of verbal communication? And if we could not communicate verbally, how would we communicate? Is it possible that we once had the capacity to communicate like the flock of birds or the school of fish? Or could we have evolved to this level if it hadn’t been for language? I don’t know the answer. And I’ll choose again not to decide, but what would the world be like if we all just “knew” the right answers and never had to decide anything?
I believe human beings are drawn to sports for this very reason. Football, basketball, soccer, mountain biking, skiing. And extreme sports like whitewater kayaking, kiteboarding, windsurfing. Because when it’s game time, and the ball is thrown to you, there is no thought. No words. Just instinct. And professionals who truly excel in their sport fully realize this. For to be good, really good at your chosen sport, words, thought, and decision-making must take a backseat to pure instinct. If you are second guessing your decisions, you will fail. True pros are able to make decisions instantly, in the moment, without any possible doubt. They “know” what to do and when to do it. They “know” the right answer. Like the flock of birds. Or the school of fish. Is it possible that what we call talent is just really good decision-making? And is it possible that really good decision-making occurs with no thinking at all?
Thinking. It always comes back to thinking. Are we thinking our way into madness and destruction? Have we lost or just forgotten this most simple and pure way of being? Perhaps the mystics are right. Perhaps if we all just quiet the mind, we will all become enlightened, once again. Like the birds. Like the fish.
I for one would much rather have the opportunity to communicate with a bird, even for just five minutes, rather than with some extraterrestrial from another planet. We have so much to learn from this Earth that we live on. So much to learn. Before we figure out how to destroy it.
Three Sisters Wilderness
This is the most beautiful place in Oregon we’ve been. We are camped in a lovely meadow in the Three Sisters Wilderness. To the north lies a rock castle adorned in rich colors of deep red, gray, and gold known as Broken Top Mountain. Small pines cling to its lower slopes. Puffy white cloud formations appear out of nowhere and then explode in slow motion as they hit Broken Top’s jagged spires. A remarkable display that could keep one entertained for hours alone. If that weren’t enough, Mount Bachelor lies to the south. This giant appears like a ghostly apparition in the distance, a stark contrast of white snow against black rock and hazy sky. Mount Bachelor is a volcano. As a matter of fact, most of the peaks in Oregon are volcanoes. This is evident by the abundance of lava rock scattered pretty much everywhere in this region. With year round skiable terrain, Mount Bachelor is a playground for gravity sport enthusiasts who come to ski her deep glaciers. All of Bend Oregon is a playground for connoisseurs of human-powered sport. Possibly the most livable city in America, Bend boasts over 300 days of annual sunshine and more mountain biking, hiking, backpacking, paddling, windsurfing, skiing, snowshoeing, and free camping than you could imagine. Free camping. As it should be. Gone are the “NO CAMPING HERE” signs. In their place, “NO CAMPFIRES”, “PACK IT IN PACK IT OUT”, AND “LEAVE NO TRACE.” As long as we are truly leaving no trace, why shouldn’t we be able to park and sleep wherever we like? Well, just outside of Bend you pretty much can, with hundreds of miles of beautiful trail outside your door. Free of charge. Yes, I would certainly call Bend a livable city. A place where you can earn a modest income doing something you like and enjoy the finest things this beautiful country has to offer. Outdoor recreation. And when people are spending their free time exercising in the outdoors, they are happy. And that anyone can tell. Just visit one of the many breweries or coffee roasters in town. People are fit, attractive, and full of laughter and smiles. Eager to strike up conversation with a stranger. People in Bend love their city. And it shows. When people love their city, it sparkles with energy. The land responds to this love, becoming more beautiful, and the people respond to the land, becoming more beautiful themselves. And so a circular energy of appreciation and love is created.
I sit here with Valerie in our little meadow at the edge of the world. Looking out at this beauty as a gurgling stream delivers clear snowmelt to the base of our camp. Gone are the mosquito clouds of July. Here are the golden days of mid August. A perfect time to be in the mountains. Long warm days. Cool star filled nights. And that high summer feeling that the season will never end. Oh how I love summer in the mountains. Frolicking on the rooftops of the world. Lollygagging with the lilies. And loving as lovers do. Jobless. Homeless. And happy.
Up here in these high meadows, it is impossible not to be head over heels swept away by love. And lovers are everywhere. Kissing in the parks. Paddling their kayaks and paddleboards in the lakes. And rocking that camper next to us in the trailhead parking lot at 3am.
Oregon. A soft little word that rolls off the tongue and will forever remind us of the endless summer of 2014. The summer of love.
Here is a photo tribute to an entire summer spend kayaking the northwest. I hope you enjoy. . . These photos are from lakes in Idaho, Oregon, and Northern California. … Continue reading
Here’s a photo tribute to an entire summer spent mountain biking the northwest. Hope you enjoy. . . Lake Tahoe, CA Lake Tahoe, CA Ketchum, ID Stanley, ID Stanley, ID Stanley, ID Stanley, ID Smith Rock, OR Smith Rock, OR Paulina Lake, OR Park City, UT McKenzie Bridge, OR McKenzie Bridge, OR Sun Valley, ID Downieville, CA Downieville, CA Downieville, CA Downieville, CA Bend, OR Bend, OR Truckee, CA Truckee, CA … Continue reading
I don’t know what to write about. You see, I am sitting here at camp with plenty of time to write but nothing is coming to mind. So I thought I would write you this letter. I’ve been reading Edward Abbey and he can just go on and on about a cactus bloom or a slab of sandstone. Yet when I look around my camp, I just see trees. A tent. Camp gear. Marching ants that want my food. Mosquitos that want my blood. And flies that want both.
It’s strange to be on vacation from vacation. My backpacking trip ends tomorrow but I don’t have to go home. I don’t have to go back to work. So it feels kind of different. I’m not so desperate to get away from it all. Rather, I’m sort of going inward. Traveling to a deeper state of experience and appreciation for life. A broader perspective of my new life, as it is now. I’m simply relaxed in the knowing that we’ve created all of this. Actually, we’re creating our reality moment by moment. Day by day. And on our own terms.
I don’t think I’ve ever simply done exactly what I want. Day after day. It’s strange indeed, this new way of living. But it’s made sweeter with the knowledge that it’s only temporary. I’m not rich. And I’m not retired. I’m only taking a break from life as I know it. But what if? What if there IS a way to live every day exactly the way that I want to? And if so, what does that look like? How do I function in the world this way and how do I give back? These are the larger questions at hand. Is one year long enough to break away from old habits and lifelong beliefs of how the world should be and how a person living in this country should live their life?
As we travel along, we run into all kinds of people. And they are all very different. It really does depend on where you go. City to city. State to state. Country to country. You can learn so much from travel. People have a lot more connection to their environment than they probably think. I’ve learned this by going into the backcountry first and then visiting the towns. For example, Idaho is almost nothing but forest. Miles upon miles of rough, unchanged, largely inhabited forest. Land of the jagged Sawtooth Mountains. A very masculine state. And the people carry this same energy. Oregon on the other hand is soft. The ground is soft. The trees are soft. The plants are soft. And the people here have a genuine softness to them. A very feminine energy so it seems. Where Idaho is live and let live, Oregon is love and let love. The friendliest people I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. Instead of rough around the edges, Oregon is soft around the corners. Even the hills are soft in the fading sunlight.
More often than not, I just run into two types of people. People who seem happy and people who don’t. And some places simply have more of one than the other. I’m not exactly sure why this is true. Could it be access to recreation? Where there is lots of recreation, people seem to be happy. Perhaps it depends on the population. Where there is plenty of room to spread out, people aren’t constantly getting in each others way.
Wherever people are happy, it shows. Houses are well cared for. Yards are thoughtfully kept. People are riding bikes. Is it even possible to ride a bike and be unhappy? People are fit and attractive. Their dogs are attractive with coats that shine and eyes full of joy and excitement. Their flowers bloom and their gardens grow. Local businesses are owned and run by the people who live there. The shops are tidy, offering local produce, local art, and full of sweet smells. The signs out front of these shops are artfully handwritten with care.
Here is the key word. CARE. People who are happy CARE.
People who are happy surround themselves with happiness and thrive on making others happy. And it is such a joy to find little towns like this. And I’m not talking wealth here. I’m not talking rich vs poor. For I have run into dozens of little farm towns filled with loving people who seem to truly care about their homes, their streets, and the towns they live in. You won’t find an old washer or dryer in a yard. And you won’t find trash in the streets.
I’m not sure what comes first. The happiness or the caring, but you cannot have one without the other. If you’re not happy, try simply putting some thoughtfulness and caring into whatever it is that you are doing. Clean the windows. Cook a delicious meal. Plant a garden. Or go ride a bike. But do it with care and grace. Giving it all your attention. And most importantly, put love into every step. Soon you will forget that you were ever unhappy. Living among other people who also care certainly makes living a happy life much easier. Caring IS contagious. And it’s really cool when you find little towns where this exists.
Then you stumble into areas of neglect. Boarded up windows. Trash in the gutters. And in the stores, lifeless produce, dusty bags of stale potato chips, and a lonely soul behind the counter with tired eyes. And I wonder, how did this happen? And why do these people still live here? I don’t claim to have the answers. I’m just asking the questions. Any comments?