THE TETONS

A man stopped by my camp site last evening as I sat having a glass of wine and reading “Treasure Island.” We got to talking and it turns out he is a seeker of places in this country that are what he called “spiritual vortexes,” and this valley here is apparently a strong one.

“How do you know when you’ve found one? What makes them different from other places?”

He thought for quite a few minutes. “I feel a sense of deep peace.”

I tried to get more specifics from him, but deep peace was it.

While I cooked my supper I mused on how interesting we humans are, with all the different attributions and explanations we come up with for identical feelings and events, and often without having a single split second of doubt that ours is the only possible one. I find this place deeply peaceful also, and I attribute it to a combination of things: the particular landscape, the huge lovely green spaces between each campsite, my thoughts and feelings at the moment, and maybe even how delicious my dinner tastes.

I walked early this morning on the little road that runs along the middle of the valley, a few miles from the Teton mountains which rise suddenly out of the flatness into their towering rocky spikes straining upwards into the stratosphere. The sun disappears behind them in the late afternoons, sometimes causing an intense white shimmer around each peak, making me want to bow down before them. Or run like hell.

The valley itself is fairly plain, flat and grassy, with a few outcroppings of trees here and there, stretching uninterrupted for miles in every direction. The only claim to fame, as far as I can tell, is the presence of moose and elk. As I walked I tried to imagine what it would be like to believe without question that the feeling of great peace that this valley inspires is proof that this is a spiritual vortex, whatever that might be. It certainly would add an element of excitement and importance to imagine that some kind of cosmic beings, whatever they might be, were aimed right here at me at this spot. For me, the deep feeling of peace was enough, I didn’t need that excitement, even if I could have believed it.

But wait a minute. It turns out I experienced my own particular kind of excitement. I was suddenly hit, seemingly out of nowhere, by a rare aha! moment. Instead of coming from out in the cosmos it seemed to me to bubble up from within myself. The man I talked to had told me he has written a book, or rather that he wrote down a book that was dictated, word for word, by a saint that he channeled (was it Germaine? Jerome?). He was vague about what this saint had to say, but assured me that he learned a great deal about himself in the process. I tried unsuccessfully to imagine that my aha! moment was dictated by the voice of a dead saint. That line between those who can take the leap of faith and those who can’t is just too wide and deep for me to cross, even in imagination.

Now I know that listening to someone go on and on about their therapy session or their dreams is about as boring as it can get, unless you’re their therapist or they are your offspring or your soul mate. But here I am, nevertheless, about to tell you about my discovery. It concerns a pivotal event which changed the course of my life because it was the exact moment that I decided to become a psychologist. It happened right here, near where I was walking. I’ve always known this part of the story.

It was 1965, and, along with my then-husband and the two tiny daughters who had been born so far, I was having a lively lunch with friends in their cabin here, laughing and talking, the sun streaming in the windows. Down a shadowy hallway was a closed door, behind which the mother of one of the friends was lying in the dark under the covers, apparently so depressed she was unable to move. A psychiatrist neighbor was called in. He walked down the hall and closed the door behind him. I was transfixed, wondering what in the world he was saying to her, how in the world he could make a difference. When he emerged I heard him whisper something about “she’ll be feeling better soon” as he left ( I hadn’t yet heard of psychotropic drugs). It was at that moment that I knew absolutely that I wanted to learn whatever it was he was doing in that room. As soon as we got home to Berkeley I signed up for my first psychology class.

What I suddenly realized on my walk this morning was that there was much more than intellectual curiosity involved in that decision. Why had I never seen that before? What brought it to my attention was a memory from my growing up days unexpectedly popping into my head. I had never put the two together before but I immediately saw the similarities. I think what did it was thinking how dramatic that lunch was made by the extreme lighting: the sunniness of our happy lunch in contrast to the darkness of the room behind the closed door. It brought to mind a similar extreme lighting design, the one that illuminates my entire childhood.

I lived with a cruel aunt and the eight retarded children she cared for on her farm, from the time I was three years old on, and when I was five I began spending the school months in another farmhouse, a tiny boarding school run by well-intentioned but sad remote emigrees from war-torn Europe. Both houses represented darkness to me, made especially noticeable by the lighting change as soon as I crossed the threshold and ran outside. I was always alone but had complete freedom after my chores were done or the school day ended. I was able to run and chatter and sing and explore and lead the happy part of my life outdoors in incredibly beautiful countryside.

The first aha! moment of my life, and probably the most transformative one, happened when I was about six. I had just run out of my aunt’s house, chores finished, and was running along the little dirt road that led to the barn, when I stopped short in front of the road sign that said Slow Children. For some reason at that moment I realized for the very first time that I was not one of the slow ones, I was not like those children in the house, I was different. There was hope for me.

Hope! Hope for me. And that’s what I felt again at that lunch here in the Tetons so many years ago, and didn’t realize it until now. That psychiatrist had somehow made the depressed woman feel better, and before that moment I hadn’t realized such a thing was possible. (You see how naive I was). Maybe the bottomless black hole of utter despair and isolation, that I had assumed everyone teetered on the edge of, was peculiar to me, and thus maybe I could find a way to shrink it, lighten it. When we got back to Berkeley, besides signing up for my first psychology class, I also started looking for my first therapist. Lucky me, I found a good one.

So maybe there is something going on here worthy of the word “vortex.” But then again, the simpler explanation incorporates the compelling, even poetic, words: “random happenstance.”

HAPPY HAPPY BIRTHDAY

It’s my birthday today, I’m 78. I look at that number and realize that for the first time it’s beginning to sink in: I am old, I really am old. I’ve felt and looked so much younger for so long, really until this past year, that the birthday numbers – probably for the past 20 years or so – have made little sense to me. Today, 78 makes sense. I’ve aged during this past year, more than during any other year, and not only in my body but also in my mind, in my spirit, my attitudes. I don’t mean by that that I feel diminished, I mean that subtle changes have occurred and I feel different.

I’ve always been so cavalier about aging that birthdays have rarely felt particularly one way or another. This morning when I had half awakened in my snug little trailer I was overcome with a longing for my daughters, all three of them. I had such a yearning to hear their voices, to see them, to feel their presence. And when I added my six grandchildren to my yearnings I lay weeping into my pillow, the thousands of miles between us almost unbearable. It’s a kind of weeping I find myself doing more and more, and I think it has to do with nostalgia, not some unhappiness in my current life. It’s like a memory of a past time, a time that is over, never to return. Or perhaps it’s a feeling of what might have been. It’s definitely a visceral sense of the passage of time.

Now I sit here with my pot of tea, having watched the rising sun as it moved down from the Teton mountain tops, gradually crossed the valley and entered this campground under the trees. It’s finally warming me from the outside as the tea is warming me from within. I know it won’t be long before I’m shedding layers of clothing and moving to a shady spot. I’m feeling at peace now, even happy, as I imagine my daughters and grandchildren in their particular lives all around the world. I raise my tea cup in a toast to email, Skype, FaceBook, air travel. My moods seem more intense these days, and they change more rapidly, unlike so many things that slow down.

It’s a little later now, and as I ate breakfast I watched almost everyone leave the campground, with canoes or bikes or fishing poles, all lured by the potent Snake River nearby. I’m sure they all have cameras too. Driving along the roads here often presents an unusual phenomenon: all cars, going both ways, suddenly stop right in the road, everyone leaning out their windows with their cameras, taking photos of a moose that is quietly eating grass in the field. One came right into the campground yesterday and stood for a long time a few feet from me, seeming to contemplate at length the mystery of us humans. I bet he was wishing he had a camera.

And now I’m aglow with the milk of human kindness. I went over to ask one of the volunteer hosts where is the best place to refill my propane tank, and he insisted on coming over, loosening the ties holding it down and carrying it to my car. He said I must call on him when I return with it full and he’ll put it back on for me. I have been constantly humbled by the generosity and kindness of men on this trip, I’ve never experienced it to such an extent before. Whenever I drive into a new campground it becomes immediately obvious that I’m not very good yet at backing up the trailer into a small space. It has never failed: a man, sometimes a number of men, come running over and ask if they can help me. Some offer to do it for me, and once one even jumped into the driver’s seat and took over when I had walked to the back to check on my directions.

It used to be, when I traveled with my tent, that it was the women who came over to me with wonder and sometimes pity in their voices: “You’re all alone? and in a tent?” Now I’m no longer an object of interest because the little trailer is the star, and I must say, when I’m in a campground filled with huge bus-sized RVs, it does stand out. When couples walk by they stop and exclaim how cute it is, and I’ve never heard a different adjective, not ever. The women all want to look inside, the men look appraisingly all around the outside. So many times one of them has pointed out something I could do better, or brought to my attention something I hadn’t even noticed needed care. Often they go get their tools and even lie down on the ground in order to perform a task they feel needs doing. One man asked if I had checked my lug nuts after the first 200 miles (I had failed to read the small print). It turned out that they were all dangerously loose, and he tightened them for me with an alluring tool that is used for only that one task – the idiot savant of tools. Another man spent a long time figuring out how to make the stabilizer jacks easier for me to use, and even came back the next morning and made me move them up and down in front of him just so he’d be sure he’d done his job well. Many men have answered many questions I’ve had, and they do it enthusiastically and carefully, just like the best teachers. I’m so moved by this new relationship I have with men, so moved by their generosity and willingness to help, and I’m learning more than I thought I possibly could about things I’ve never before been interested in.

I have fine plans for the rest of the day: I’ll walk at Jenny Lake this afternoon and then go to an evening event in Jackson that makes me smile every time I think of it: a hummus festival, with a tasting competition and a film about hummus called Make Hummus, Not War. I will carry with me, as I do every day, the knowledge that I am incredibly lucky to have this life of freedom and ease. And I will feel love streaming in to me from all corners of the earth.

CROSSING NEVADA

I was daunted by the wide aggressive blue line slashing its way across the map of Nevada: Route 80 is a four lane highway all the way. And then I looked down an inch or two and saw a thin red line, Route 50, with green dots all along it indicating “scenic route” and that got me interested. And when I saw, written all along that scenic route, “Loneliest Road,” I was hooked. So yesterday I drove for nine hours on The Loneliest Road for 427 miles across Nevada.

Somehow adding a dimension to the pleasure of that drive, a memory came to me of the only other time I had driven this road. It was fifty-five or so years ago – fifty five years! I was a young woman still in the throes of my first passionate love affair. At the time I imagined myself on a white horse, clinging to David, my long hair flowing behind me (I was steeped in 19th century novels in those days). In actuality I was clinging to David, but we were on his 1951 BMW motorcycle, wearing helmets. We drove at night to be cooler, and the moon was full. I don’t think there was another car the entire night, it was just the two of us, making our way in the moonlight through the strange different-planet world. Was that me? When I conjure her up there is an essential inner-core part that is exactly me still, but the rest of her seems unawakened, incomplete. Perhaps that’s how an ancient oak tree looks down at an acorn.

This time I made my stately slow way in the green car pulling the tiny white trailer. I could probably count on a few hands the other cars I saw the entire day. There were miles and miles between the few little towns still clinging to their unpainted derelict existence. I wanted badly to stop and talk to the people still living in them, I couldn’t imagine what they were doing, how they eked out a living. But I had miles to go……

The landscape is bare, barren, brown, with long vistas in all directions to the bare hills and mountains scattered helter-skelter on the horizons. I drove miles through long flat valleys, then climbed up through canyons cutting through mountains, then back down to another many miles of flat valley. Over and over all day. And all day I was filled with a deep sense of peace. The barren unchanging landscape, not even one tree to break the spell, lulled me into a state of unusual quiescence, a feeling of deep contentment.

For me it’s always a pleasure to be en route, I’m neither here nor there but rather suspended between the two. It’s why I enjoy any kind of travel, even through airports. But this day provided more than just suspension, it was an experience all in itself, that Loneliest Road. I found it incomparably beautiful.

How do I stay awake on these long somnambular journeys, especially this one of so many hours, with almost not a single distraction the whole way? There wasn’t once all day that I came even close to needing a nap. My method is really quite simple. I have periodic wild bursts of physical activity, working each muscle group strenuously while continuing to drive in a safe and responsible way. I’ve thought about putting my driving exercises into a little booklet, but really, anyone can figure them out with just a bit of experimentation.

I alternate this with wild bursts of singing, or with loudly proclaiming a formal speech on whatever subject I find myself thinking about. It’s wonderfully freeing to have no critics in the audience. And I bring along lots of crunchy, salty, spicy food: nuts, seeds, cut-up veggies, pickles, crackers with hot pepper dips, and I chew as loudly as I want. There are definite advantages to traveling alone.

In a word, a great deal of motion and sound and wake-up food, at regular intervals, keeps me going no matter how many hours I drive.

When I had found a campground and settled in for the night, I looked back over the day. It seemed to me that I had experienced Nevada, at least one important aspect of it, and I had a real understanding of what an unusual state it is. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere along Route 50, but as a road to drive, for me it was as good as shooting off into space in a spaceship, and visiting an exotic planet unlike anything here on this earth.

MONO LAKE

When I first saw Mono Lake the light was such that it looked almost repellent. It looked chemical, downright poisonous, encircled by bare dry land on which nothing seemed to live. (I learned later that this was partly due to my polaroid glasses). I didn’t stop because I was on my way to a new campground and wanted to be sure to get a site. It wasn’t until the next afternoon that I returned to the lake, and after I spent a couple of hours in the awesome Visitors’ Center and walked around it for a bit, it looked entirely different to me.

Along with public libraries, visitor centers are the unsung heroes of travel in the U.S. The Mono Lake Visitors’ Center uses three rooms full of exhibits plus a movie plus many handouts to tell all the wonders of the lake. I’ll just tell you a few of the things that immediately got me fascinated and eager to learn more.

—The huge lake (66 square miles) is fed by seven streams as well as by underground seeps and springs, plus about seven inches of snow and rain per year. It has no outlet, none, only the approximately 45 inches of evaporation each year.

—It’s three times saltier and 1000 times more alkaline than the ocean, and can become even more concentrated as the water evaporates. Salts and carbonates are brought to it by the streams crossing ancient sea beds and volcanic deposits. I’m captivated by the vision of these streams crossing such things.

—There are wonderfully strange rock formations under the water, called Tufa, made from the calcium carbonate.

—Although no fish can live in the lake it’s one of the most productive lakes in the entire world. Trillions of alkali flies and brine shrimp, unique to Mono Lake, thrive there. Eighty species of birds are supported, and with the huge population of migratory birds each year the number rises to at least 300 species. For the Native Americans that lived there the alkali fly pupae were the main food source and so they were called Monache, “fly-eaters.” That became shortened to Mono by us white folks when we took over.

—The land around the lake is anything but bare with nothing on it. There’s a large population of little land animals (including porcupines!) in the sagebrush surrounding the lake, and many scavengers, such as ravens, vultures, and magpies, who keep the area neat and clean.

—One other species helping with the cleanup are the most-prolific-of-all gulls. In March they fly from the Pacific to the little islands on the lake, where no predators can get them, to nest and breed, not returning to the Pacific until August. That’s a long flight, round trip, and means they have to fly very high over the Sierras. They are the main consumers of the alkali flies and the brine shrimp, along with the humans who every summer harvest and package tons of the shrimp as food for tropical fish.

—The whole area is surrounded on three sides by various volcanic formations. Many are still active, as evidenced by the steam vents and hot springs everywhere. The last volcano erupted only 250 years ago.

My campground is seven miles up a long narrow canyon across the highway from Mono Lake. It’s the only campground up this road. We’re all tucked into a dense stand of tall dark pines by the side of a perfect little mountain lake. It’s very colorful around the lake, and full of variety. There’s our dark pine copse, there are a few small marshy bright green meadows with plenty of wild flowers, there’s a grove of aspen with convoluted stunted trunks (the weight of the snow bends their little trunks each winter as they grow, and when they’re covered with that snow the beavers nip off their tops), there are a couple of wet rocky places, and then there is the mountain. This one is all warm earth tones, with huge boulders at the lake edge. The mountains here are not like the pristine stately ones of Ansel Adams photographs. These seem to be in the process of being hacked away at their tops, with huge fields of rock, fist-size to boulders, cascading down into the lakes. Some mountains are black, some reddish-yellow, and some gray. The rock fields are tricky to walk across, but well worth the effort. In the evenings in my campground lake, three beavers glide through the water near their enormous dam, and there are always a few of us standing on the shore in silence, watching them, our spirits mysteriously uplifted.

The lake by the campground is the first in a steppingstone pattern of at least seventeen lakes going all the way up the canyon, each a little higher than the last. Much to my delight, they are within fairly easy walking distance from the campground. Each is decorated differently with the beauties at hand: the three mountain colors, the pines, the aspens, the meadows. The water in each is glass-clear and icy.

I stand at what feels like half-way between these two dramatically different landscapes, Mono Lake and this canyon, and it seems to me there should be some zing I feel where their differences meet, perhaps a mild electric jolt or a gust of icy wind. Instead, there’s just quiet and peace.

Whenever I walk up the trail to enjoy some of the little lakes, there’s always a sea gull somewhere, all alone, silent, way up, circling slowly. That it’s white is always startling, and so beautiful against the deeply colored rock of the mountains. Is it the same one every day? What has taken it so far away from its flock? Is it seeking adventure? Solitude? New experiences? Is it just plain curious about the world? Is it longing for something unnamed? I ask myself these same questions.

ALONE IN THE WILDERNESS

In the late afternoon I drove up the mountain to the end of the road. The trailhead is there, the entrance to the John Muir Wilderness. With my first breath of the air I could already feel how much higher the elevation was from the 9300 feet at my campground. And the trail went straight up from there, following along Rock Creek as it rollicked noisily down through the canyon. I got to the top and found a comfortable rock to sit on, right on the edge of a sheer granite cliff. Far below a lake filled the canyon floor. Looking down I felt I was at a dizzying height, but when I looked up I saw that I was surrounded on three sides by towering mountain peaks. Except for the trail there was no sign that any human had ever been there.

I thought of how Rock Creek must be dashing down from those high peaks to fill this large silent lake. And then how the lake must be spilling over on the down side so that Rock Creek could resume its wild travels. The sky was clear but for two feathery clouds. I became aware of the wind, way up, howling distantly through the dark chasms between the peaks. All else was still and silent.

My mind immediately got busy. I began wondering in what ways this would be different if someone were next to me on the rock. First I imagined each daughter in turn, from Maine, Amsterdam, and New Zealand, sitting there with me. Such love I felt, such closeness. And how different it made the whole experience. Not better or worse, just different.

Then each of my six grandchildren were there with me, one by one. Oh my! And then they were all there together, and the place and the experience were truly transformed. I may have laughed out loud a few times. Such a good time we had together as I sat there all alone on that rock.

Fantasies! They have so often calmed the wind howling through the dark chasms of my life. They’ve entertained me, soothed me, softened the edge of loneliness. They’ve kept me from acting out on hurt and angry impulses. They even provided me with a family, with love and protection, all the years I was growing up without. They’ve given me courage, they’ve illustrated choices. What a gift sits there in these brains of ours.

But then the whispers started. I know them so well. “What if you fall off this cliff? What if you have a heart attack or a stroke? What if a wild animal comes charging at you? What if……” STOP IT!! (I may have even given the side of my head a light whack with my palm). Finally – finally! – I was able to join the vast silence. I watched a hawk down below, making slow circles high over the lake. Was it hoping for thirsty little critters seeking water?

Later, standing at the picnic table cooking my supper, the half-moon brightened as the sky darkened. My time in that wilderness still filled my thoughts. How different the whole experience would have been if there had been even just one other person somewhere near that rock I sat on, even a stranger. How enormous the difference is between being truly alone and not. I experience that difference in all aspects of my life, the most noticeable of course being in living alone versus being part of a couple. There are pros and cons to both, I’m not sure which I’d choose if the choice were entirely mine. But on that rock today I knew that my being so completely alone, in such a place, was an extraordinary moment which will stay with me always.

I took my supper and my little chair into a grove of aspens near my camp site by the side of Rock Creek. I could hear low voices by a crackling fire nearby, and by another fire I heard sleepy children being scared by a ghost story their father was telling. It was just the right amount of company for me as I ate my supper under the aspens.

BETWEEN THE GNATS AND THE BRISTLECONES

I’m now in a tiny campground, only eight sites, high up in the Sierras north of Bishop.  I’m in a lush meadow shaded by pines and aspens.   A lively stream dances through it and at night I think I can hear the waterfalls further up the mountain.  Rich birdsong all day makes music superfluous.  The air is so thin that the colors – orange pine tree bark, white aspen bark, greens everywhere, sky blues, white clouds – all are stripped down to their brightest essence.   

I too feel stripped down to my brightest essence.  All my actions have a simplicity, a clarity.   I stand at the water pump filling my jugs, thinking of the women through the ages who have gone to the well for water.  I follow a steep trail up the mountain along the waterfalls, immune to the difficulty of the climb.  I sit quietly with a young woman weeping under a tree while she tells me her husband went off fishing for the day and their seven year old daughter died exactly a year ago.  I cook at the picnic table, sighing aloud at the spicy aromas fattening the thin air.  I think of the bristlecone pines that grow on a mountain across the valley.  

The bristlecone pines are the oldest living trees in the world.  The oldest one of all is 4723 years old, and it stands just across the valley from me.  I try to imagine the world when that tree first began to grow.  There is nothing else that can thrive there on the crest of that mountain because the conditions are so harsh:  frequent violent storms alternating with total stillness.   Where did that seed blow from?  How did it get started?  The bristlecones grow so slowly that the wood becomes extra dense.  No insects, rot, or disease can penetrate it.  Very little lives on that crest except those trees, no animals. no greenery, just a few scraggly small plants.   I sit in my meadow writing, an infinitesimal part of a huge pulsing cacophony of life, – colors, sounds, breezes – life whirring around me.   Gnats natter around my face;  if they’re lucky they’ll live five days..  And over there across the valley stand those strange ancient trees, totally alone in their harsh bare silent world.  I wonder if that  oldest one will make it to 5000.  Or more.  

I walk a mile up the road and find a small rustic lodge, one main building with a few cabins around it.  Way up here, in the middle of nowhere, they have a tiny cafe in which they offer the usual burgers, sandwiches, soups and chilies, all prepared by an inspired cook.  But it’s the dessert menu that gives me a start:  six different kinds of pie.  And not just ordinary pie.  Five inch high triangles of apricot cream, key lime, Dutch apple, lemon meringue, chocolate mousse, coconut cream, all resting on exquisite flaky crusts.   I order a bowl of tart cherries with sliced almonds on top, and sit out on the deck under the mountain peaks, watching a group of young hikers just back from a long trek into the wild, telling their tales and eating those pies.  

In the evening I try to open a can of beer.  I don’t often choose beer, but there’s something about having a refrigerator for the first time while camping that makes it an exciting possibility.  But I’m unable to pull the tab, my hands simply cannot do it, they don’t have even that much strength any more.  I get a screw driver and that does the trick. 

I sit drinking and think about these hands of mine that have served me so well all my life.  From childhood until fairly recently I was an avid cellist, playing many hours every week, always working on the Bach Suites, always playing quartets and trios with friends.  My hands were strong, responsive, intricately trained.  And now it’s over, they’ve finished their work.  I look down at them – veiny, bony, wrinkled – and feel a rush of gratitude.

Until this moment I’ve been pushing them, doing hand exercises unrelentingly, determined to return them to their former strength.   Tonight I fully realized that that is not going to happen, it’s not possible no matter what I do.  I can’t halt time.  And that’s as it should be.  A new stage has begun for me, one in which I learn to be clever with simple tools, my screwdriver, pliers, hammer.  I’m already learning to ask more often for help when I need it.  

As I sit drinking my beer I viscerally feel myself a part of something mysterious on this incredible planet. I cannot begin to fathom what life is, or death.  But it’s my hands tonight that have helped me in a new way.  They’ve brought home to me the reality, the human-scale understanding:  I am there with all the others on that spectrum, somewhere between the gnats and the bristlecones.