Monday December 30, 2019
When I first saw it, I thought it was someone seeing me. I caught a bright flash in my peripheral vision and it nearly made me fall over, temporarily negating my night vision. My feet fought anew to catch purchase on the off cambered ramshackle single track trail. Wet roots and slippery stones hid under damp leaves in the darkness now where just a moment before there had at least been a slight glow of a leafy path. When you hike at night, a lot, in a deciduous forest, in the Winter, you get to know these things. But only if you leave your headlamp off. The leaves lay flatter on animal paths as well as the thin single tracks that we humans make for our hiking, running and mountain biking. If you go out a lot at night and leave your headlamp off you can see how the starlight paints the faintest of dull silvered path before you. It’s like a glow with a towel over it. And that’s what confused me. How had they seen me? I was hiking “dark”, in a hollow, with a dark green sandbag held over my head. I kept moving, angry that there were other people out here at night besides me.
I go out at night to have the forest to myself, in terms of humans at least. I like how the darkness wraps around me like a blanket. I enjoy getting scared by night rustles in the leaf litter and seeing how my imagination can so easily make it into a bear or other animals that are even less likely to be there. A mountain lion? A pack of coyotes? A lone wolf perhaps? A lion…? I was daydreaming again, then another flash on my right. Brighter this time. What the hell? Okay who is out here and why are they flashing their annoying headlamps down on me from way up on the ridge? I stop. I look. It’s the moon. It’s popping over the horizon of the big hill in the low points. It’s also rising. I feel less alone now in exactly the way in which I came out here to. It’s me, the stars, the moon and the sky pouring a draught of blackness down on me. The same sky that my ancestors looked at 100,000 years ago.
My rule is that the sandbag can’t touch the ground. From start to finish. More than that, it’s not allowed to drop below the level of the top of my head. So it has to remain aloft the entire hike either with both arms or alternating one at a time. It’s one of my favorite ways to feel alive. It’s also one of the few ways I feel I have access to. What fights have I to do? Yes. Yes I think about fighting. I am certain that it’s in my nature. I don’t want to fight. But my human nature says fight. It says push back on the things that I want to go differently than they seem determined to go. Right now that’s taking care of my parents. It’s my mom’s terminal diagnosis. It’s how I had to leave my home and my work and my dreams behind to do what I am doing now. It’s how I can’t understand how I lived for 48 years yet was totally unprepared for the simple reality of taking care of my parents at this stage of my life. It’s how today a home health care worker asked me and my mom “so you live here with your parents? It’s the three of you?” And I said yes like it was somehow normal.
I love my hardship hikes because they allow me to work out my relationship to struggle. I’ve been doing this on and off now for about 3 years. The sandbag represents the weight I carry through life. It represents the action of being a human and the way that there are so many things I can’t ever change. The need for food. The need for love and companionship. The lack thereof. The way that people I care about will die and have died. The way that no matter how hard I try, I will not win every time. I might even lose the fight to live long enough to witness life going in the direction that I hope it might go. And then on the other side of that, what happens when it does, and how it’s never what I thought it would feel like to get there.
As my triceps are burning and my lats are shaking and my quads feel like jello I imagine that I am carrying all the things that I want this world to do better. Racial equality. Systemic changes that must come to pass, without which, I deeply worry. Health care. Climate change. My children’s happiness and welfare. Any kind of suffering gets to me. What can I do about any of it? Carrying that bag reminds me that my concern is what I carry and that by now, I have accepted that it’s mine to love. I can’t put it down even if I wanted to. Because I never would. I wouldn’t want to be here without it. I don’t put the bag down because I want to complete a cycle of something with the weight of the world. Everytime I think of putting it down I think of how, in the rest of my life, the things that are my responsibility don’t ever get put down or removed. They are permanent. So to finish the hike doing something this difficult, in truth, makes my actual burdens feel lighter.
Watching the moon rising I thought about how I could be doing this hike at any point in human history and it would be the same. It could be any year in human occupation here and the concern would be there all the same in some way or another. Humans struggle. The more I have accepted this, the less I actually struggle. I want to change things, but for me, that’s a joy. I picked a 1.25 mile twisty turning technical trail, thin and reedy through dense forest. Elevation change of 1,200 feet. That’s 600 feet down the short mountain and then 600 back up. I like it like that. I want it to be arduous. I kept noticing that warm wind coming from down in the valleys below towards me. I kept dreaming about those stalwart twinkling stars. Always. Just always there for us. No matter what we are going through. I was remembering how, in Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” he talked about that starry crystal clear night, in the winter, as a POW and how perfect it was. I just went to find that quotation online to post in this piece I am writing here but couldn’t find it. But I found instead something more perfect, for it represents what I thought about even more on this hike.
“[T]here are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
That’s what I thought about the most. As long as we have these labels we will keep repeating everything that keeps holding us back. Why would we compare stars? They are all bright. They are all celestial. As long as we see a difference between ourselves and break off into groups we are caught. I stopped at one point on a tight turn, sparse trees near a ridge, the wind a bit gusty and lovely. I thought about how nothing can erase the things that I have done that I bear shame for. And that too is part of why I enjoy these painful hikes. It’s not the same as punishment but it’s to say to the sky above, “I won’t forget that I can’t forget to do better.” It reminds me of how I must be vigilant. It’s easy to fall into indecency, to let wars happen, to look the other way, to not say something is wrong when you know it’s wrong. It’s easy to fall into seeing groups among humans instead of stars on Earth. My screaming shoulders remind me on these walks that part of what I am here doing is to not be someone who falls into a state that is sloven and unvigilant. Keeping that sandbag up there hurts. Every single step is painful. I am never able to forget the weight of it. And it’s a beautiful reminder that vigilance requires a sacrifice of comfort.
Which brings me back to why I was on the walk in the first place. I needed to get out of the house. I have lived there now for only about 70 days. That’s nothing to many. But to me, it feels like a lifetime. My mom’s chemoradiation cycle of 7 weeks completed about 1.5 weeks ago now. I thought life would somehow go back to an easier kind of “normal”. But nope. Organizing home healthcare workers, doctor appointments, creating calendars for all three of us and so much more is more than a full time job. I have zero income for the first time since…I don’t know when. It’s all consuming. My hikes are necessary. They are me saying “you think leaving behind your whole life and moving to another state to take care of your parents is hard? Brother…try carrying this sandbag over your head for 1.2 miles over 1,200 feet of elevation change and THEN tell me what hard is!” Both are hard. The hikes are temporary and so give me that feeling of being able to complete something challenging until it’s done. I get to put the bag down at the end. It reminds me that one way or another, the human part of “human being” does come to an end. The black sky and stars make me think about how Viktor Frankl and so many billions of other humans have looked up and pondered their path and learned from it. That’s my path. The sense of continuity. We struggle. Yes. We also persevere and we try to be decent. We try to be better than we believe we are. Whether we are better than we ever know doesn’t matter much to me, it’s in the-always -trying-to-be-better that gives me hope for humanity. In those moments, it’s true to say that I become my own inspiration. But I am never doing it alone. Without nature though, yes, completely alone. I’d never make it.