The ocean’s pulsing is called into my awareness. It’s 5:30AM on a Friday morning and I’m awake. The house holds a quiet sleepy space, which I honor with tiptoes as I head to the kitchen to start the morning’s brew. As I fill the pour-over, I abide in a thrill subdued by sleepiness. I’ll momentarily be en route to the Eastern Sierras. I trust the seven-hour solo drive from Santa Cruz to the mountains will help me realize what I need to know in my life right now.
I load the last of my trip gear in my car, buckle my seatbelt, and pause for a moment in the dark car to bring the coffee to my lips. The smell and the heat trigger my senses. I turn the key in the ignition, hit shuffle on my playlist, and start out slow, inviting pleasing melody and the subtle spillage of color above the ocean horizon into my heart. I take my time meeting the ocean-bound curves of West Cliff Drive — it’s not until Highway 17 that I’ll weight down deeper into the gas pedal.
I’m on the road to clear my mind. The mountains hold promises of space, solitude, and quiet — everything I crave. The recent summer months have put my body, heart, and mind through magnificent delights and trials.
That’s why I’m driving seven hours by myself in the three days I can manage to scrape together without losing out too much on my next paycheck. Well, it’s part of it, anyway. The truth is, there’s a lot to heal from. There’s a lifetime to heal from, and I know my last trip to the mountains played a part in moving me forward in exactly the way I needed. I remember as I went through the mountain pass it was like going through a passageway of my soul; when the mountains rose up and the valley swooped down before me, I erupted into tears. How incredible. How vast. How beautiful. The road has a way triggering breakthroughs, and I need breakthrough.
When I saw an image of the Ancient Bristlecone Pines on Instagram, I knew I was going to visit them — and soon. So here I am again, passing the hours, watching the landscapes change, pulling over to stretch and leap into handstands, pulling over to wait patiently and compassionately for beauty-induced tears to clear up and to eat. I’m not quite sure why driving on the open road through stunning landscapes unravels emotions and provides clarity, but it does. I suppose it’s a kind of meditative experience. There’s an upheaval. Consciousness transforms just as do the horizon’s lines and nature’s assemblages.
The final approach to the Bristlecones is in the Inyo National Forest and is unbelievably gorgeous and thrilling. The ground rolls up and down as the road, framed by bright yellow desert flowers, curves through hilly scrubby terrain. I turn up the volume and delight with each rise and fall of the car. As I ascend the mountain, an immense landscape falls into view. I didn’t realize it would be this impressive.
By the time I arrive finally at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, I am exhausted. I step out of my car and shiver. Also didn’t realize it would be this damn cold. And I was sleeping in my car tonight? Advised by a docent I take an easy trail. I puzzle at the gnarled, twisted, burly, ancient trees. Curving patterns in the trunks meet jagged branches that address an equally bold grey sky.
Reading the interpretive signs, I learn that a naturalist made a paradigm-shifting discovery regarding these trees one day by accident, when he went the wrong way and saw a side of the mountain in a way he hadn’t glimpsed before. This gives me pause.
I eventually wind my way back to the car. In truth, I’m a bit disappointed. I was hoping to spend hours with these trees, meditating and resting, absorbing their ancient wisdom. But instead I’d taken a somewhat touristy jaunt through the grove in under an hour. But it is too cold, night is on the evening’s heels, and my body is done. I’ve gotten good at cutting my losses. I face up to the craziness that has become my hatch, spend a few minutes organizing, and get back in the driver’s seat.
About a mile or two out from the Bristlecones I pull up a steep, short dirt road that I’d noticed on the way in. I park my car and arrange my blankets in the hatch. It is a cloudy, moonless night. That is to say, it’s dark. It’s not very late yet, but it’s already very dark and silent. I close myself into the hatch, think about all the possible ways I could get murdered or die out here, conclude none of those will happen, and turn on my headlamp.
I turn the pages of “Beyond Words,” a book by conservationist Carl Safina that includes stories about the lives of wolves. A man spent every day of his life for more than ten years observing a wolf pack, and what he’s learned is breathtaking.I become enchanted as the words meet my tired eyes and unsettled heart. I begin to feel a kind of steadiness build within me as I follow the story line. I feel like I am in the right place, even though I barely know where I am. And I’m falling in love with these wolves.
When I turn off the light to sleep, I lie awake a while, questions about love mixing with images of silver fur and thoughts of “Twenty-one,” “the perfect wolf,” who never lost a fight and never killed his adversary. Dignity. I feel I’ve learned something from those wolves on a level I don’t often access. Sleep comes, thankfully.
I awake at dawn. While part of me wants to go back to sleep, the part of me that sees peachy tones rising from the horizon and wants to feel the morning grace is stronger.
I awkwardly step into my boots as I exit the car. Still cold. Still quiet. But the faint light is casting the land in a heart-stopping glow. With unexpected patience I set up my camp stove and brew coffee, grateful to hold the hot mug in my stiff cold hands.
Now the light is brightening, and I ascend the rest of the slope to behold my surroundings. I begin to emerge more completely from sleep’s loosening embrace as the scenery and caffeine stimulate me. As I come to wakefulness, something happens to the quality of the moment. There is an incredible, so smooth-it’s imperceptible shift.
I can see the vast landscape unfolding in all directions. Mountains miles away hold their ground, flourishing with secrets and promises of stability. There is a great quiet. A great stillness…and that majestic presence is merging with me. The transition is imperceptible — imagine being on a plane and having such a smooth descent you aren’t quite sure if you’ve landed or are still up in the air. I’m not sure if that’s possible (if it is I’d like to meet that pilot), but that was this. I become yet I already am the vastness and the quiet. I am simultaneously empty and complete — a continuation of the resonant soul of the world. There is no more turbulence. There is no contradiction, no clutter, no confusion, no disturbance. No ache. I am seamless and whole.
I am replete with gratitude and love.
This is beyond words.
These, and all the plunges into divine grace we are lucky enough to have are life-giving glimpses of what there is and what can be in this life.
I of course must come back to my life which is too often fraught with details I don’t care about, and which is filled with problems and frustrations that I suspect we’ve invented. I of course must return to a world which regularly violates what is sacred, and which can feel hopelessly fragmented and dissonant. But I come back to this life with deeper strength, and with the lingering energies of the profound, loving peace the mountains gave me.
We all know this fundamental steadiness. Each of us at some point, and most likely very early on in life, has come into connection with the vastness. The completeness. The peaceful power. And each of us can again. I can’t guarantee that going to the bristlecones and reading about wolves will make this happen for you, or for me again for that matter. In fact, trying to make it happen will almost certainly ensure that it doesn’t. What I can say is there must be openness. The painful, dark, and confusing contents of the body, heart, mind, and soul are of the same stuff as profound peace — and so if you reject the mess, you also reject the stable energy — the perfect calm and clarity.
Anything that arises in heart, body, or mind can become a gateway into soul integration — maybe it takes time, maybe it’s sudden. But there must be openness.
The mountains offer lessons that are nothing like what we learn in a classroom. I come away from the Eastern Sierras knowing that I can’t change everything I want about my life right now, but I am learning how to visit that space of my soul. I am learning to return to connection, and whenever I can scrape together a few days in a row, you bet I’m hitting the road, passing through the landscapes of my heart and mind, and learning how to step into that presence once again.
We can all become part of this healing journey and this exploration into the wilds of the heart, body, and mind. Each of us can make space to honor our soul, that great presence, which is shared with all that there is. And whenever we’re feeling fragmented, or distanced from ourselves, nature is here to remind us who we really are.