Dedicated urbanites “know” beyond shadow of doubt – because doubt never raises its disturbing head – that civilization is the real world: you only “escape” to wilderness. When you’re out and away and immersed, you “know” the obverse: the wilderness world is real, the human world a superimposed facade… The controversy is, of course, spurious. Neither view can stand alone. Both worlds are real. But the wilderness world is certainly older and will almost certainly last longer. Besides, the second view seems far healthier for a human to embrace. — Colin Fletcher River (1997)
2013 Appalachian Trail Thru Hike
Middle Virginia – Mile 1477
We reach McAfee Knob in late morning – I’ve been waiting for this photo op since I saw a hiker’s jubilant photo here on a postcard in Millonocket, Maine on Day 1 of our AT thru hike.
Groucho is grouchy, brooding and snacking, but consents to take the photo.
Even though the air is brisk, I take off my wind pants emulating the carefree look captured in so many NOBO summer photos. Feeling vain and proud I realize we made it. I can send my folks a picture of beautiful me in beautiful Virginia, my dad’s home state. I contemplate going off trail right then and there. This photo is proof of my accomplishment. What more do I have to do or to learn after 1477 miles?
We start down the mountain. Groucho always walks faster than me, but today I feel light and keep up. I stop to tie a shoe and look up. Groucho has disappeared around a corner. Darn. I’d tried to keep pace, willing my steps to bring us into harmony after a difficult and divided morning.
I step lively and reach a clearing where power lines cuts through the forest. Animal paths weave through the open meadow and I see an opening in the trees beyond where the wide path continues. I continue, lost in thought and bathed in a blaze of sunlight for a moment.
Groundscore! Back in the trees I find a pair of sunglasses. I put them on and jog down the path wanting to share my tiny joy with Groucho, who must be just around the bend. Feeling confidant and light on my feet I head down a gentle slope. I cross a gate blocking the path and look back at the sign on the gate “no motor vehicles” says the sign.
My steps slow as I reach T in the path. I could go right or left but not straight and there are no white blazes to indicate which way to turn. Typically on the AT there are friendly 2” x 6” white vertical blazes spaced about a minute apart. Blazes fade or flake off trees occasionally, but are reapplied by volunteer crews. When a major or confusing turn is coming in the path, they paint two blazes askew but side by side. If the Righthand blaze is higher, turn right. When the left is higher turn left. Some parts of the trail, like just outside Dartmouth, the trail is almost over-blazed at the frantic collegiate overabundance of the DOC at marking every tree for the last 100 years. What I’m saying is, it’s hard to lose the trail…
My throat tightens. When was the last time I saw a blaze? How long have I been walking alone? Did I miss a turn? I felt like I was right behind Groucho, but was I?
Unease sets in as I realize with irony that there was a gap in our map set, and this is the blank space – my first time without a map in 1400 miles. The maps we’ve been cursing carrying because it’s so hard to lose the trail, even on a moonless night in deep forest. And this is the first time I have actually needed it.
I check my watch. 4:00pm, with sunset in about 2 hours… there’s time. I stop and breathe I plan to turn right at the intersection and walk for 5 minutes – if I don’t see a blaze I’ll backtrack and take the left turn for 5 minutes. If that doesn’t work, I will backtrack further… maybe I missed something at the power lines.
Then I see the craziest spider right on the path. Large and in charge – with a huge orange pumpkin butt. I stop to take a photo. If I die out here will they be impressed with my huge spider picture?
I walk for a couple more minutes and realize it’s been too long. Even night hiking in Vermont we saw blazes every 40 seconds or so. When hiking alone I rarely feel fear, but as I head down the fire road fear starts to creep like vines into my consciousness.
I turn back with a sinking heart, taking the other branch of the T for a few minutes, finding no blazes there either. I must have missed a turn, but where? If I go back to the power lines, will I see the AT this time? What if I sprain an ankle or see a bear? If I die out here, alone, would anyone find me?
Without my map, I don’t know where these old fire roads lead, or which direction I’m supposed to be going. And even if I find the right trail, how far ahead of me is Groucho? I check my watch again. About 4:30. I am, at minimum, half an hour behind him, and his phone only has service sporadically.
I try to text anyway “Thought I wasn’t getting enough miles in today, so decided to trail blaze on a forest road or something. Trying to find the AT now”. Fingers crossed he will get it. Fingers crossed that I am right and that going back was going to take me closer to Groucho and the AT.
Jogging back up the road I scour the trees for blazes or possible side trails, nothing, nothing, nothing, and more nothing. Nothing even looks familiar. Will this road even lead me back to McAfee’s Knob?
I sing songs. I sing loudly. I sing to erase fear so I won’t make stupid mistakes. I make up lyrics when I didn’t know them:
“Under Pressure, pushing down on me, pressing down on you, no man has fallen. It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about, watching some good friends screaming ‘let me out’. Tomorrow you’ll get high high highhhhhhh. Turn away from it all like a blind man, get on the floor but it don’t work. People under pressure they get crushed and torn, Why? Why-ieeeeee …” In moments of desperation I turn to Bowie.
I turn a corner, seeing the powerlines. This must be the AT junction. I scour the rock structures and trees and there are no blazes and no alternate paths.
Am I going crazy?
I cross back across the power line and to the path I thought was the AT where I last saw Groucho. I start to panic, and things are starting to feel a little Labyrinth for me. Flushed and heart pounding, I wonder about who has the tent? How do I get in touch with Groucho? Should I hike all the way back to the Knob? All these thoughts churning, sucking me further into a vortex of despair….
I look up, and suddenly I see a northbound blaze.
Relief. I spin to see where the southbound blaze is… and finally I see it, leading to a tiny bit of trail leading off the forest road.
Curses. This IS marked, but I feel like there should be a freaking beacon or something. I TOTALLY missed the blaze before and I can see why; 30 meters away the power lines cut a bright, sunlit swath through the dense forest. It’s as alluring as Odysseus’ sirens – the sunshine and signs of civilization had called me off course.
I turned onto the proper and super well blazed AT southbound and quicken my pace. How far ahead is Groucho by now – an hour or more? Will I have to run to catch up to him by dark? Does he even know I am missing?
10 minutes later I find Groucho rolling a joint, sitting on a rock. Having noticed my absence he stopped, and sat. Knowing he was on the AT (as evidenced by a nearby blaze) he decided to wait for me.
I feel so relieved at being found. And, despite moments of panic, having kept my cool. All of the worry and fear of the last hour begin to melt away. I feel foolish, but also jubilant. I found myself!
Groucho walked for a bit, stopped for water, and waited for me to catch up. He almost immediately realized something was wrong because he had only just seen me ten minutes before. He decided to stay put, but after about an hour of smoking joints he was feeling a little anxious and about to come looking for me.
I feel great – with the weight of uncertainty vanished, and my hiking partner found. We are both relieved. Despite our individual strength, stamina and endurance, and despite our independent natures, our ability to hike whole days without talking to each other, and despite the everyday annoyances that sometimes drive us apart — we are a team, and there is comfort and sweetness in our camaraderie. Sometimes you don’t know what you have or need until you (almost) lose it. The trail would provide this lesson in a myriad of ways on our journey. We are a great team.
We stay close, talking, and arrive at the Catawaba Mountain Shelter. The spring is dry, but a trail angel left gallon water jugs, and hey – a fire pit! We’re both emotionally exhausted, so we end the day a little early here. I collect wood, and Groucho cooks over an open fire. We eat chocolate, drink water and relax. Everything feels easy after this afternoon. I read Agatha Christie in front of the fire until I get tired and we go to sleep with quiet efficiency.
Last week I taught four yoga classes in the Puget Sound area. One in the Tashiro Kaplan Community Room in Pioneer Square, one at Laughing Buddha in Mill Creek, one impromtu private lesson with a good friend, and one at the MAHA farm and forest on Whidbey Island where Nko (aka Groucho) and I work-for-stay several days a week.
I’ve been teaching weekly for about 2 months, using the sequences we learned in our teacher training as a framework, incorporating new areas of focus each week learned from other yoga teachers, online articles, spiritual lessons, and sequencing videos. This week I decided to return to my roots. Well… my root chakra, that is.
The vinyasa class we learned to teach at the Mystical Yoga Farm in Guatemala closed with a special focus on the chakras. This sequence activates and “tunes” the seven main chakras in the body with poses and bija (seed) mantras to chant aloud as you inhabit each pose.
Why do mantras with yoga? A few words from mindbodygreen.com:
In Vedic healing and spiritual traditions, specific mono syllable seed sounds or “Bija Mantras” were developed to create balance and harmony in the human body, mind and soul. Each and every part of our body functions at a specific rhythm and pulse and when all our systems are balanced and tuned with each other we experience perfect harmony and health.
So here’s a vinyasa sequence I worked from this week that closes with a kick-ass Chakra alignment that I learned from School Yoga Institute as part of their amazing training:
Finding a comfortable seat, tune into breath, encourage belly breathing, 3-part yogic breathing, kapalabhati (breath of fire), kumbhaka (breath retention), and other breathing exercises as desired.
CONNECTING BREATH AND MOVEMENT
Any sequence that begins to gently stretch the body, tune with the breath, and build heat. I did:
- Seated (cross legged): forward fold, back bend, side bends, side twists
- Table top: lift opposing arm front and leg behind, and switch
- Downdog (pedal it out), 3-legged dog, Scorpion dog
- Low lunge with back knee down, prayer twist hooking opposing elbow over front leg
- Half Hanumanasana (half split)
- Pyramid (or modified pyramid with back heel popped up)
Build some heat with 3 or more repetitions of a sun salutation! I enjoy a fairly classic sequence, moving very slow the first time to find alignment and give beginner cues, and speeding up each consecutive time.
I like to throw in something that kind of burns. My first teacher Jamie often invigorates us with a fierce Uttkatasana sequence featuring prayer twists, and heat-releasing “fists of fire”. After some rigorous sun salutations, this really makes you sweat.
All of yoga is good for your core, but for this week, I threw in a sequence of plank variations – working on both the front and back muscles of the abdominal corset. (I.e. plank, 3 legged dog, knee to nose, 3 legged dog, knee to right elbow, 3 legged dog, knee to left elbow, etc.)
I moved through some Classic Poses in the middle of class, i.e. Crescent Lunge (or instead do Warrior 1), Warrior 2, Reverse (Peaceful) Warrior, Extended Side Angle Pose. Triangle. You can do these hatha-style (10 breaths per pose), but a couple of my classes were advertised as vinyasa, so I made this sequence flow by returning to warrior 2 between each pose on the inhale, and exhaling to the next pose, and repeating the whole sequence 2 or 3 times on each side.
Then if time allowed, I added half moon and/or standing split to the end of this sequence for the follow up rounds.
After that rigorous middle section, it’s was time to play!! I invited the class into each of the poses listed below, and invited each person to attempt to make floor contact with the chakra as we chanted that chakra’s Bija Mantra three times together (slowly… one one long breath per chant.) The “a” sounds are pronounced as soft a’s, like the “A” in Awesome.
Headstand (or Rabbit for people not yet in headstand)
Crown Chakra: Spirituality
Where is it: Tip top of head
Imagine the color: White/Rainbow
Chant: AUM (Om)
Solar Plexis Chakra – Intelligence/Power Center/Self
Where is it: Bottom of Sternum
Imagine the color: Yellow
Supine spinal twists
Sacral Chakra – Sensuality/Emotion
Where is it: Belly Buttonish
Imagine the color: Orange
Supine (reclining) butterfly
Where is it: In the space between your hips/groin/pelvis
Imagine the color: Red
For a 75 minute class I left 10 minutes for participants to remain in Corpse Pose, allowing all the benefits of the practice (the physical, the emotional, the breath, the chakra work, and any spiritual realizations) to integrate and then float away. Imagining the body sinking into the earth and the thoughts of the mind floating by in the sky, allows freedom from one’s chattering mind and physical sensation. The full relaxation of a body that having worked, and now emerges as a flexible, strong and balanced open vessel. In this space, we more easily shed our attachments, our to-do lists, our stresses and worries, our aches and pains, which provides the opportunity for our souls of pure light and love emerge in freedom, without judgement or worry. This is the real benefit of yoga.
CLOSE CLASS WITH AUM
Before we Aum-ed it out, I asked class to bring their hands in prayer position, to their heart chakra, bowing their third eye toward their hearts, aspiring to find balance between the two.
Nko's mural at the Mystical Yoga Farm includes a rainbow of the chakra symbols/colors on the right hand side. These are the traditional colors associated with the chakras.
When I returned from the Appalachian trail it was easy to feel. My emotions, like my body and breath, ran strong and deep. Emotions surfaced suddenly and ran their course like summer storms. I was an empty vessel, quickly filled with feelings without notice; and just as quickly they poured out…
“I am large; I contain multitudes.” – Walt Whitman
The meditation of thru hiking stripped away patterns of normalized anxiety. I had constructed my behavior, and my emotional self, on my ability to engage with work, email, social media and to-do lists. Outside these dominant forms I found myself rich in emotion – overcome by abundant wonder, fear, sadness, humility, excitement, laughter, gratitude and love. I realized I had been using the crutch of anxiety, the “glorification of busy” to define my whole identity. Busy-ness had overridden the diversity of my person – my body, emotion, and intellect. I had allowed my mind, and my wandering thoughts to take over completely.
The meditation of walking allowed me to release myself from this egoistic pattern, and experience again the full spectrum of human emotion in an immediate way, becoming emotionally available to myself and those around me.
Being back in the city now I’m trying not to fall into the trap of wandering stress, aimless anxiety and endless to-do lists. I fought so hard to free myself of this anxiety on my first thru hike, and again on our trip to Guatemala, but it’s not unlike depression or addiction, where the pain itself is known, and it’s familiarity has become comforting.
And here it is. Returning to the city I return temporarily to the shackles of perceived productivity, busy-ness, email chains and social obligations. I am awake now to the trap of these samskaras (negative patterns of thinking) and know they don’t define me. Yet I am still temporarily enthralled by their siren’s song… fooled into thinking they are important somehow.
I hike, meditate, practice yoga – I do all these things to preserve the purity of what I accidentally experienced on my first thru hike; a true unmediated vision of myself. A comfort in a mind that has burned out all thoughts. An experience of joy in my body, my breath and movement. Mind, body and emotion inextricably connected.
I want to make this my new normal. I want to return to the state – where through physical exhaustion, the magnitude of nature, or the quiet of purpose – I understand that everything I need is inside of me. Where I can finally release my addiction to the stresses of civilization, realizing they are just my ego distracting me. My truest purpose; just being. Myself!