DAY 4 — YOSEMITE
Coming to the mountains has felt like coming home.
Spring is in bloom, the snowcaps have melted and are rushing across the terrain, falling down mountains, scattering into mist, trickling through every open pore. It’s as if nature is washing itself of itself.
Many people, including us, are climbing up the sides of mountains to see the view from the top. The trails are steep. On the way up, people are mostly rude, competitive, anxious to reach their destination. Not much different than being in the city, rushing around, so focused on crossing the next thing off of our lists, cutting others off, and missing the whole point of everything. However, somewhere between 4,500 and 6,000 feet up, our agendas begin to break apart.
Out of breath, legs shaking like leaves, we stop and allow others to pass, giving us a moment to look around and see where we are. Tiny creatures in an enormous landscape. Vulnerable creatures too. A small misstep on these rocks could send us tumbling down the jagged cliffs. Leaning a bit too far into the river, we could be swept into the current, dropped into the valley.
We slow down. Our thighs are burning. Our shoulders ache. We stop to rest more frequently, saying hello to those who pass, fewer and fewer the higher we climb. We become aware of the subtle beauty all around us, the layers of forest, granite, plutonic rock, the colors, sounds, smells, and we begin to realize that we will never arrive. Our egos want a destination, to feel a sense of success upon arriving, but even if we reach the top of this trail, it’s just a speck in the middle of all this. Can the mountain even feel me standing here with my trembling legs? Does it care if I wash my hands in its stream?
“Be melting snow. Wash yourself of yourself.” —Rumi
People seem different coming down the mountains. Their bodies are tired, but their eyes look as light as birds, as if they might fly right out of their faces. They smile. And gape. And cautiously venture to the edges, trying to see how the water falls, where it goes once it hits the ground. As far as we can tell, though, it has no destination. It just keeps flowing on and on all day long, all night long, no matter if we or they or the black bear or the endangered red fox or the lizard are here or not. Everyone in California is talking about the drought, while here the water gushes.
“Nature is, above all, profligate,” wrote Annie Dillard. “Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place?”
In the Mariposa Grove where giant Sequoia trees stand like legends, there have been wildfires. So many trunks are charred black, and there are just as many trees lying on the ground as there are standing. It looks like a cleansing, a burning away of what was unnecessary, superfluous.
Sequoias, like all redwoods, are fire-resistant. They actually benefit from forest fires because competitive species are destroyed, freeing up the earth’s limited resources — such as water, nutrients, and space — for the sequoias to use to continue growing.
“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.” — Pema Chodro
Soon after the Europeans arrived in Yosemite, a huge forest fire broke out. It probably started from a leaf, a handful of sawdust or the like, as everything in nature is flint, ready to spark. The Europeans panicked and put the fire out as fast as they could. The sequoias haven’t grown since. These giant, resilient trees were forced to share the grove with other deciduous lifeforms that would’ve naturally burnt away had nature been allowed to take its course, and since resources were limited, the sequoia’s growth was stunted.
I think of myself. How I try to put out every fire as quickly as possible, afraid of what might happen if I allow them to run their course, but after walking nearly forty miles through these mountains, I begin to wonder, is it possible that my fears have inhibited my growth in certain ways so that I’m not my natural self? If I allowed the fires to break out, might I find what is indestructible in me?
“A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.” — Pema Chodro
Back in the cabin that night, I’m exhausted but cannot sleep. I’m having dreams. Nightmares, really. I dream that we are rafting through a river on top of a mountain. The water is strong, deafening. Someone points out a train moving below. Fredo is behind me, asks where the train is. I point to the train but he does not see it. “Baby, it’s right there!” I say impatiently. Next thing I know, he’s in the water. I scream and try to paddle over to him but the waterfall has already taken him. I call his phone, getting a busy signal until an automated message tells me that he cannot be reached.
In another dream, we are on top of Nevada Falls. I walk over the same edge where, in real life, Fredo warned me to be careful. “I am,” I said, peering down into the valley. In my dream, my foot slips and I am falling, and falling. 6,000 feet of falling.
Then we are on the rock where Fredo made a cape out of his shirt and acted like Superman who’d just conquered a mountain. In my dream, we decide to practice Stop, Drop and Roll, a fire safety technique we learned as children. We roll across the rock, laughing like crazy, closing our eyes and squealing, when suddenly I roll right off of the edge of the cliff.
Every dream ends the same. Either I’m dead or the love of my life is dead, and why am I dreaming such things? We are safe now, snuggled together in a cozy cabin bed, his face in my hair, my foot wrapped around his leg. Is this my consciousness dealing with the threats we encountered earlier? But I never felt unsafe in real life. What is it that threatens me? What is it that fell from the mountain, rolled off the cliff, urged the one I love into the water?
Outside it is pitch black. As I lie awake, I hear something moving out there. We’ve seen wild turkeys and jackrabbits, but this sounds like something bigger. Supposedly there are bears out here, mountain lions too. This is why we destroy nature and plant gardens, I think. Nature is scary. Indifferent. Hungry. Afraid. Park rangers say that bears don’t want to eat us. They prefer whatever’s in our picnic baskets or kitchen cabinets, but if we frighten them, they will attack in order to protect themselves from what they perceive as a threat. Creature fear. We have it too. We also react to the fear in others, because we know this fear all too well, we know what it is capable of.
Here in the wild, lying in the darkness of night, defenseless, I feel so unimportant. So unnecessary, superfluous. I often feel this way in society too, but there the ego takes over. There we build high-rises, fortunes, labels, masks, judgments, false identities, illusions that become our rights, endless distractions. With information always at our fingertips and computers that can’t tell us what’s worth knowing, we are taught that we can be anything we pretend to be, that everything on this planet was created just for us. In fact, I find that I’m more afraid of an armed robber bursting through our window than I am a bear. Animals take only what they need. Humans, however, are never satisfied with what they need. They always want more.
Wash yourself of yourself.
When morning comes, I’ve barely slept but I feel spacious, my breath whistles through my body like wind in a valley. I don’t know what it is, but something I’ve been clinging to is gone. Something in me has died.
Just outside of the door, there are big animal tracks. Not a bear or lion, not a human either. Probably just a deer.
“Did you know that a deer sheds and regrows its antlers every year?” I ask Fredo, who is making a fire in the small oven. We have coffee and breakfast and spend time together. We are playful, bold, gentle, kind.
A butterfly dances at the glass door, lands on Fredo’s shoe. Bright yellow dots flash on the tips of its black and white wings. How fragile this creature seems, and yet what a process of becoming it endures. From caterpillar into cocoon into this exquisitely beautiful delicate thing. Yosemite, too, took a long time to become. The process involved glaciers, plutonic rock, molten materials, volcanoes, earthquakes, and more. 500 million years ago, it was just an ocean floor. Then it became a meadow with gentle, rolling hills. And look at it now, a steep mountain range with deep river canyons and polished granite exposures. It’s a breathtaking site, but let’s not pretend that it became so easily.
Two nights ago, it was late when Fredo and I got back to the cabin. We’d walked 16 miles that day, saw unbelievable things, but sitting at the dinner table, we found that we had nothing to say to each other. Indeed, outside of practical details and planning, we’d barely spoken since we left the city. We hid ourselves, kept our distance, and didn’t know why until the last hours of that second day, as we slowly unraveled an event that had occurred earlier in the week. A misunderstanding. Somehow we’d offended each other and tried to ignore our pain, find an easy way out. But days later, we still struggled inside, unaware.
The fire broke out, you could say. Voices boomed. Tears flowed. And when it was over, we were standing outside in each other’s arms, looking up at the sky filled with bright twinkling stars. We even saw one star explode before disappearing into the darkness. What are the chances that, of all the stars in the sky, we were looking at the same one?
We’ve been through so much, more than I can comprehend, and even if we’ve lost everything else, perhaps we have found what is indestructible in us — a love that isn’t undone by any threat, a love in which we have always been completely free, and yet end up looking at the same star.
It hasn’t always been easy. It took time to get here, and we still aren’t there yet. We could be like the giant sequoia trees whose growth has stalled. I’d rather be like Yosemite, still evolving. Just recently, a rockfall sent 80,000 tons of rocks tumbling into the Yosemite valley at 160 mph. Only time can tell what these powerful forces are doing. Only time can tell me what I am.
Coming to the mountains has felt like coming home. Saying hello. Washing myself of myself.
*All images are mine, taken between April 16–19, 2015 in Yosemite National Park.