Nature has been one of my greatest teachers, and so has solitude, so together they make for an awesome opportunity to listen at a deeper, slower, more connected, even primordial place. For a few summers in a row a few years ago, I backpacked in to a spot off the beaten trail where my naturalist and writer friend John Nichols recommended I go. I wanted a place with a natural spring for fresh drinking water so I wouldn’t have to pack in water or drink from surface water, and so I ended up camping for a week at a stretch at the base of Lake Fork Peak not too far from Wheeler Peak, the highest in New Mexico. John knows these mountains like the back of his hand, he even recounts tales of following raven families raising their young and being able to recognize them from year to year, so I trusted I would be in a great spot to make daytrips from and explore, both my inner self and the high alpine environs in all directions.
I left my cell phone in my car at the trailhead, brought no food except for a few dates for my hike out and made sure I had some paper and pen to jot down any inspirations that came my way on my self-styled vision quest. I carried my gear up the rocky trail just over two hours to my destination, pitched my tent and washed the sweat off with water from the nearby clear, cold mountain stream. Just above it was the lovely spring bubbling up from a rocky crevice in the bank, crystal clear and a very welcome, life-imbuing source to drink from. I felt blessed.
A small area had been cleared a long time ago to create a campsite once used by loggers tucked in among the firs next to a rockslide of impressive proportions, and there was no one else around. It was just me and the beauty of near-pristine nature at 11,000+ feet, with a few mid-summer patches of snow still lingering in the shade and the welcome scent of moist earth and sunlit pine. It felt amazing to be free of all obligations and all technology for a week and I was looking forward to just being and listening. The only sounds I could hear were the gurgling stream rushing by and an occasional plane overhead, and the clickety clomp of hooves of some kind, perhaps bighorn sheep, traversing the rocky ascent on the other side of my sheltered camp. A black-tailed mule deer doe curiously came over to sniff about my tent area and I watched her from the hilltop above. Such grace and presence she had! She visited often those days I was there and I was happy to see how thriving and peaceful all the wildlife appeared to be in this verdant zone of life. Seeing nature flourishing serves as a great reminder to me how much well being exists everywhere beyond the hurried human lens of life we so often find ourselves immersed in. I felt joyful and not afraid in the least to be alone in the woods, in fact, I felt more at home than many places I had been in “the madding crowd” of cities and towns. I knew there was most likely a mountain lion nearby watching me too, I could smell and sense his habitat in a high zone of rocks on my hikes to the waterfall over the next ridge. But I also knew there was no reason for him to attack me, for I belonged there and was at peace with all beings and I was offering him the respect and honor I knew he deserved. And it was worth the walk through his terrain to see the high alpine meadow of colorful wildflowers reminiscent of the Swiss alps I had once hiked in, far beyond icy Williams Lake where many locals and tourists’ treks usually stop.
I was trying to time my adventure before the rains of July and August arrived, but at that altitude heavy clouds moved in every day and kept me guessing as to how long each downpour would last. Once coming back from the wildflower meadow it was magical, every time a rain shower started I found a large tree that had fallen in such a way that I could crouch beneath it until the shower passed to keep me from getting too chilled. How it could be that four large trees were toppled in such a way along my trek back that each could provide shelter for me exactly when I needed it, I’ll never know, but I sure was grateful that life all around me seemed to be conspiring in my favor!
One sunny morning I decided to climb up the rocky side near my camp and along the ridgeline of Lake Fork Peak, reigning in among the circle of high peaks a couple hundred feet shy of 13,000’. There was no trail, it took being present to move gracefully up the large boulder field and across the loose talus (shale-like rock fragments) toward the summit. At the top I paused to see where the clouds were gathering and estimated how much time I had to explore before the rain, and more importantly the lightning, began for the day. I guessed less than an hour, and I was pretty high up. I had some experience mountain climbing with ropes in my past, but always with others who knew the equipment and so I was I bit higher than my usual familiar zone of free style bouldering with not much of a drop involved. I love the exhilaration of exploring and that enthusiasm of being fully alive in the moment has always been enough to keep me safe, and I assumed that would continue no matter the weather.
Not eager to descend the way I had come on the sliding shale field, I decided to take a path that looked like it might be a shorter way down. It started off pretty easy, the rocks were holding steady and I made my way down about 100 feet. And then as I scanned the descent from there, I realized there weren’t really any hand holds for a good long stretch in every direction— a really really long stretch to be exact. What I did see was sheer granite-like outcrops and some stray patches of grass and no trail or path downward to be seen anywhere, and my overall feeling was “UH OH this way is A LOT STEEPER than it looked from up there!” I took in the grandness of the view, spectacular in every way with not much elevation left between me and the circle of high peaks all around. The trees back where my tent was looked like little specks, there was a long way to go. A few thoughts came into my mind as the sky started darkening and the temperature dropped rapidly. My breath tightened and I contracted some from my previously exhilarated state. Hmmm maybe this was a little foolhardy, climbing to a place I have never been before with loose and unsteady terrain, by myself with no one to know if I fell, and no one to look for me either. Well I knew that train of thought wouldn’t help me much, so I closed my eyes and took a few deep and centering breaths. It helped, and my thoughts cleared as my spirits rose. No use looking down, I thought, it is way too far and too steep to take all that in, it just brings up unease. No use looking back to where I had come from, it was too far and too steep to return that way now and a bit dizzying. I guess now is one of those moments to draw on any spiritual wisdom I might remember and those insights of the great teachers, and just be here Now. A few more deep breaths and the realization, all I need is the next hand hold or foot hold, I don’t need anything more than that. Be fully present, and what I need will be shown to me next.
I re-scanned the scene in front of me with more composure. All that existed between the line of granite-like rock I had been using as a handhold on the way down and the next rocks I could follow (down and across an eight-foot gap) was one little yellow alpine flower and a few clumps of very very short grass amid the slippery scree that I knew with one misstep could avalanche me downwards. I can’t possibly use that flower as a hand hold, could I? And the inner knowing came clearly “yes, it will hold you.” Hail started flying and beaning me on the head, and thunder cracked loudly and ominously while a bolt of lightning flashed just over the next peak, prompting me to not dally. “Okay little yellow flower, I am so grateful for your being here just when I need you and I trust that your roots are strong enough to help me to the other side.” And so it was. I made it across the eight-foot gap balancing my body and keeping my field of gravity low, and gave a little prayer of thanks to the little flower’s strength and Presence for guiding me to see what I needed to see at that crucial moment. Amazingly, after I reached the other side of the scree field, the little flower still bloomed on brightly in its stronghold on the slope. Elated, even with the darkening skies and hail pounding, I traversed the rest of the way down. Relying on intuition to lead me to the best path for the next few feet of descent, I did not look farther ahead than I could handle or plan for, and I did not look back so I could keep my footing sure. At one point it took sliding partway down a traverse on my butt, but it was definitely worth the holes in my climbing pants instead of holes in my skin!
Coming back into the treeline zone, I wove my way through a new area of vegetation and dense forest and eventually made it back to my tent a little wet and weathered but also empowered and happy. I got muddy following a stream that I sensed would lead me back to the spring, but I didn’t fall even once throughout the whole ascent and descent and I give credit to the power of being present in the moment. Back at the tent it rained for hours, giving me time to journal and meditate and contemplate the deeper meaning of being alive.
Alone in the woods that summer and the next, I learned something else as I leaned inward. Beyond the first day headache from fasting and high altitude, and wandering thoughts of people I wanted to connect to and warm food it would be good to eat, and ruminations of what the future might bring, and doing kundalini yoga at night in my tent to keep warm, beyond all that, I dropped into a state of awareness so beautiful that I can reconnect with it even to this day.
I felt a supreme harmony of all life co-existing in a field of bliss that we can access when our minds aren’t busy planning for the future and replaying the past. I listened deeply to nature in all its aspects and for the first time in my life gently heard something I have never heard or felt before, possibly what others have called the Music of the Spheres. I felt One with the water and the air and the earth and the animals and the plants and the sky and the mountain and even the insects. I felt One with Oneness Itself. For all my many experiences connecting to spirit and nature, I am forever grateful.
My wish is for all beings to experience this Oneness at least once, for in this place of primordial beingness I believe we can find the solutions to all the problems that face humankind, big and small. In the next challenges we may meet, let’s pause, breathe deeply and remember, so what we need most can appear.