Friday, March 9, 2012

"Guide My Walking..."

This post was written for the Faithful Fools' March Newsletter, found here.
PCT hiker on the Big Horn Plateau

“Be thou my feet, and guide my walking
Be thou my eyes, that I may see
Open my heart, give me compassion
Hear my cry, and answer me...”

This song by Juliana Howard became my mantra as I walked with myself. It had been a few days since I had last seen another hiker and, with the trail covered under several feet of snow, the comforting sense that I was traveling the same route as anyone else came and went with footprints I would stumble upon from time to time. I had only a few days of food with me, and I started to wonder if I would make it out of this section of wilderness at all, let alone in time to meet the friends that would be waiting for me at the next road-crossing. I had spoken with the National Park Ranger for this area just before starting north of Tuolumne Meadows. She said she was looking forward seeing her territory for the first time in about a week, but would have to wait out the snow before starting to patrol it regularly. This was more solitude than I had bargained for.

The mantra helped. It lifted my spirits some: in part because of the fond memories of learning and singing it for the first time with a cadre of Fools on a Seven Day Street Retreat, in part because it helped remind me that, as small as I am, the greatness that surrounds me is something I am connected to, something I am a part of. I no longer had to rely only on my own eyes to see where I was going, on my own feet to find the way. The way and I could find each other. We did find each other, over and over, and with a timing that challenges my scientifically-trained skeptical mind: it seemed that the footprints I came to rely on to double my speed of travel (the map I had of this section was woefully inadequate for navigation in snow) would appear to me at the moments when I was deepest in the mantra, and least focused on my own fear and misery. 

Whatever journey I'm on, walking the streets, in the wilderness, or on the path of my daily life, I strive to recognize myself in the place I'm in. When I'm distracted by myself – thinking about what I've done, what I think I'm going to do, or how I'm feeling – I often miss what's around me, sometimes to the extent of missing my path itself. Similarly, when I'm looking only outward at the world, I can forget that I am a part of it. When I sing “Open my heart, give me compassion; Hear my cry, and answer me,” I am called to extend compassion to myself and the world together, for we are the givers and those who need compassion simultaneously. The world and I cry together, and together we can answer that cry.
Approaching Forester Pass

My fourth day in this desolate area began at dawn with a ice-cold hour of crossing the snow-fed braids of Piute Creek. It continued with several hours of climbing up and down the ridges separating drainages that feed Hetch Hetchy, the reservoir supplying water to San Francisco. At 4pm, I stood shivering in a patch of sunlight, having just swam across the 30-foot wide Stubblefield Creek, which was still over my head at its opposite shore. The deer I saw on the other side gave me a look I read as “what are YOU doing here?” I hiked on, needing to make time in order to meet my friends the next day. I found footprints again when I most needed them – in a featureless area: flat, away from creeks or lakes, and deep in trees blocking possible views of surrounding peaks – and followed them to the edge of Wilma Lake. I followed the prints as they picked a path through the trees, staying just above the icy lake shore. As I came around to the inlet, which more merged with than entered the lake, I saw my path-finders standing on a bridge ankle-deep in water. We made camp shortly after, and hiked together the next day until we hit trail good enough that I could go on ahead and meet my friends, just as they had sat down to dinner.

It is a cliché that we go on journeys to find ourselves. When we surround ourselves in a new context, we get a new perspective. These perspectives slowly give us a fuller picture of who we are, and we begin to piece together our core being from the parts of us present in every context. 

Hiking alone in the high Sierra
A journey also is a time to remember who we have with us. At the beginning of each Street Retreat, we toss a ball of purple yarn around the circle, connecting us to each other, as well as to the thousands of previous and future Retreatants who participate in the same ritual. I don't have a ball of yarn in hand at the beginning of every journey I take, but the Faithful Fools – and what I have learned with them – are always with me.

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