Everyone has a natural rhythm. In my seasonal cycle, mountains rise in me like rivers rise in the spring. When the snow melts off the streets and the trees open their first buds, dreams of walking through deep valleys and struggling up steep, mountainous slopes flood my sleep, washing away the winter’s months of stillness. It’s difficult waiting for early summer. I squirm like a kid waiting for Christmas. I make lists of maps and look for places to walk away from empty talk, garish skylines of aluminum, and streets lined with black staves of wire instead of trees.
But, no matter how anxious I am to dive into the first national park I see, when I do go, there’s always a waiting period before I can settle into the trail’s rhythm. On those initial miles, I feel out of sync with nature, and it’s not until I’m two or three days deep into a long-awaited hike that my body will break through the surface tension holding me captive. My muscles and nerves relax and suddenly, I’m no longer drowning in questions or choices that don’t really belong to me. From that point, I am newborn and can rise into the scenery and the silence, while the sun’s warmth on my skin laps away the last vestiges of civilization.
Technology and Syncopation
As I slip into every day’s simple cycle, I am reminded of how in the past, for tens of millennia, when the sun went down—the world fell into a darkness we could not see into. What was out there, silent, watching, hungry, was a mystery that no one dared delve into. The night was for taking shelter and sleeping until the sun returned and lit our way again.
We have undone this rhythm with lights on everything. Don’t get me wrong or label me a Luddite; I enjoy having lights to read by, music to listen to, and television to watch, but the fact remains that we have thrown off our natural rhythm, and that exacts a price.
For mostly economic reasons, we have imposed our will on nature’s rhythm, the beat of which has formed us since the beginning of time. This technological syncopation has entered our minds and seriously thrown us off. As an Air Force member, I worked shift work for nearly twenty years, and I remember reading research from the late Seventies that showed the ill effects working night and day had on physical and mental health. Today’s research continues to reinforce those earlier studies.
Paying Modernity’s Price
In 2016, Medical News Today, an international publication for health news, published the results of a meta-analysis that showed shift work posed an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, and a second study indicated that shift work impaired brain functions like: memory, cognitive speed, and overall brain power. Apparently, we cannot throw off the rhythms that have formed us without threatening our health.
Carla V. Finkielstein, an associate professor of biological sciences at Virginia Tech, said that ” television, computers and longer hours of social activity also contribute to what is referred to as “social jet lag,” as well as many new diseases and disorders that are more prominent in Western societies.” Depression is higher among shift workers. Plus, many of these disorders occur in those who work longer hours than usual. Even too much overtime throws one’s system into a tailspin.
And what can set our mental health back on an even flight path? The outdoors. Being surrounded by nature has been shown again and again to reduce people’s stress, increase their cognitive ability and creativity, and strengthen their ability to focus their attention. Putting aside time to be outside in a pleasant environment shifts our attention away from ourselves and away from negative emotions. Even something as simple as a walk in your local park has been shown to increase your attention, calm stress, and lower your blood pressure.
Remember when I said it took two or three days for me to slip into the rhythm of the trail? Meet David Strayer. He is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah who specializes in attention, and he talks about something he calls the “three-day effect.” Strayer demonstrated it with a group of Outward Bound participants, who performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking. “The three-day effect,” Strayer says, “is a kind of cleaning of the mental windshield that occurs when we’ve been immersed in nature long enough.”
So there’s scientific proof for what the early environmentalist, John Muir intuited. He said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. ” But however beneficial to my health, I will always venture into the wild not because science says I should, but rather how it makes me feel connected to something larger and so very alive. Entering the rhythm of the natural world resonates within us as humans. Nature restores our spirits, heals our bodies, and soothes our weary souls.
Last Monday, America was graced with an experience that hadn’t occurred in about one hundred years: A total solar eclipse that spanned the nation from coast to coast. Being science geeks, (Or just geeks really) my family and I had been planning to place ourselves in the path of totality for about a year. I had ordered the finest glasses, studied the best camera settings for capturing solar eclipses, and reserved a campsite right on the lunar shadow’s center-line. Once the day arrived, all we had to do was load our camping gear in the car and tiny trailer, then drive south and west through the the lonely heart of Nebraska’s Sandhills.
For five hours, we rolled up and down miles of hills and empty two-lane highways, plenty of time for thought. I spent my time watching out the window at the pale green of little blue stem, cheery yellow sunflowers, and spiky yucca soap weed. All doing their part to anchor the sand dunes hidden underneath. Below the sand, ran a giant delta of freshwater called the Ogallala Aquifer. It was invisible, but it kept the world above alive with it’s ancient and silent running water. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d wonder what magic kept the landscape from drifting away.
So much of the world is hidden — eclipsed by layers of nature that both blanket and depend on what’s underneath. I thought of how, in two days, the moon would slip between Sun and Earth and wondered, “What revelations might emerge from the lunar shadow?” I couldn’t say, or rather, didn’t want to say. I wanted my memory of the eclipse to rise out of experience, not expectations.
Then, in an incongruous jump, I thought, “Really, why see an eclipse at all?” Some of my friends had said, “What’s the big deal? There’s a shadow and it get’s dark. So what?” But that low estimation was lost on me. People traveled around the world to experience a few minutes of totality. Something drew them. Something was drawing me. I wasn’t completely sure of what it was: the rarity, the beauty of the corona, or maybe the uniqueness of being surrounded in a shadow from space. Everyone held some individual idea or expectation of one degree or another.
My friend, Sofia, who traveled all the way from Maryland to Nebraska with her family, was with us, too. She is an aerospace engineer who worked on the Hubble Telescope at one time and still works at the Goddard Space Flight Center, so her interest in a cosmic phenomenon is understandable. But she had other reasons.
Through a close friend’s confrontation with an unexpected illness, Sofia solidly collided with her own mortality. Her friend and colleague had been recently diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which is always terminal. In looking back on his life, he saw there were many things left undone, so to fill his last months or years, he started a bucket list. He urged Sofia to do the same, but soon, and not to wait for a death sentence. She took his advice, created a bucket list, and “see a total solar eclipse” was on the list. So, here she was.
Paul, Sofia’s husband, was there largely in support of his wife, and he wanted to see, as he put it, “the solar system’s engine run with all the perfection needed for an eclipse to occur.” I have to say, that’s one of my reasons too. The improbability of our Sun, Moon, and Earth all being the exact sizes and the exact distances necessary for a total eclipse is mind-boggling. For me, that astronomical implausibility adds to an eclipse’s mystical draw.
On the day of the eclipse, we awoke under a thick blanket of fog. Everyone was a little anxious, and we attempted to get satellite pictures on our phones, looking for unclouded areas we could quickly drive to if the skies refused to clear. Unfortunately, our remote location in the Sandhills made reception an iffy proposition. Sofia was very concerned. She had invested a lot into this trip, financially, and even more emotionally. In the end, the maps revealed the the same message Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz learned — that no place was really better than where we were, so we settled in to wait.
Soon the fog lifted and clouds cleared away. Our anxiety lifted too. Paul and Sofia set up their enormous binoculars and SLR digital camera on tripods and we tracked the sun as it moved across the sky and watched the moon chase it even faster.
As the moon Pac-manned it’s way across the Sun, our excitement built as the light changed, turning slightly more yellow and intensifying the grass-green hills. The light on our skin lost some of its heat and the air turned cool and still. By the time the last sliver of sunlight disappeared behind the Moon’s stony lid, everyone in our group grinned uncontrollably, clapped, cheered, or happily cried.
At totality, The Sun stood seemingly still in the noonday sky. Its center utterly black. The solar corona wisped around it like, as Sofia said, “white hair floating in water.” Darkness had fallen like a stone. The stars lit like someone had flipped a switch. All around us, morning and evening colors painted the horizon like stained glass. I felt directionless, and no matter how beautiful, it was disconcerting.
Two minutes and thirty four seconds. That’s all we had to absorb this, perhaps, once in a lifetime event. That’s a lot of pressure. I wanted to savor every second, but at the same time, I wanted to take pictures, look all around me, actually be with my friends and family, see the totality through the binoculars. It was too much. So I sat in my chair, craned my neck back and gazed into the totality. Well, I did take some pictures.
A black gem ringed with silvery light, a little like a star sapphire. That’s my analogy for what it looked like. Ebon and beautiful. The fact that the gem was our Sun and Moon made it all the more magical. Since I don’t believe in magic, you could say a part of me was in disbelief. But another part was awed beyond belief. Emotions were all that were left me.
Did I cry? Almost.
Even though I fell short of tears, my feelings must have connected to an ancestry stretching back into pre-history, because, nagging in the back of my mind, there was a tiny fear that the sun wouldn’t return. Science be damned. Paul held that same niggling dread and made the observation that, “the Sun’s return seemed like a physical manifestation of hope.” I like the idea of a cosmic reprieve. We don’t deserve it, but I’ll take it.
After the Moon brushed by the Sun, and the light slowly brightened, it felt like that moment after all the Christmas presents are opened. Now what? I wanted to hit rewind, see the instant replay. It couldn’t be over.
But it was and we were finally more free to interact with one another and so we milled around laughing and saying things like, “That was amazing!” and “That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever experienced in my life!” Nothing Neil Armstongish, but everyone knew what the other meant. We had gone through it together.
It’s been just a week since millions of people united together in their appreciation of nature’s wonder. We all stood in the Moon’s shadow for a minute or two and gazed into the Sun’s corona for the first time — that unseen solar atmosphere is what warms our planet. Like the Ogallala Aquifer and the Sandhills, it keeps us alive, even when we can’t see it.
Much has happened in a week. Charlottesville stands out. It’s surreal in a way to live for a few days outside the sphere of the news and then to return. I’ve done it dozens of times as a backpacker, gone into the wilderness and returned to find all kinds of things changed. This time I returned to something out of the late 1950’s. But, the total eclipse has formed a new analogy of hope for me. Even as we slip into a shadow, I feel like the light of our better nature will soon emerge, and we’ll walk in the Sun again.
Heading into the backcountry excites me. The draw of serene days and stunning scenery coupled with the physical demands and danger set up an ache that won’t let go until I set my boots on the trail. My last post, Pilgrimage, recounted important trips I took into the Rockies and Tetons in order to lay claim to who I was and who I wanted to be. The outdoors are where I am most alive, and in my pursuit of natural highs, I find many metaphors for living a good life.
Speaking of which, have you noticed how time, or rather the lack of it, drives how we spend the hours of each day? Don’t the pressures of getting things done cut deeply into our life and rapidly bleed it to death? Yeah, me too. But I have taken some time and bothered to ask, does it have to be that way? And my experience as a traveler has provided me with some metaphorical insight.
One of the first things I do to prepare for a backpacking trip is to determine what to bring. There are certain items: tent, sleeping bag, cook stove, etc., that aren’t really much of a choice. You need these things. I know where to put them in my backpack; they’ve been allotted a place already. In my metaphor, these are eating, sleeping, and making a living. I have to do them in order to live. (Although many people dangerously play with sleep.)
It’s when you start trying to determine the other items where some thought comes into play. Factors like, how long the trip is, what’s the terrain like, and what weather can you expect come into the decision process. If it’s a short trip, I’m not going to pack as much food and may even decide to splurge a little and bring something special, like a pouch of tuna or a tiny bottle of wine. If the terrain is rugged and steep, everything is pared down. No book, music, or fancy food.
Are you seeing some parallels to life yet? When we sit down to “load” our week with events, projects, and work, shouldn’t we enter into a similar process? Are you discerning and careful about what you choose to fill your days with, or are you apt to quickly say, “yes,” to demands on your time out of politeness or some need to meet an imposed standard? Of course you have to be at every game your four children are in! What kind of parent wouldn’t?
If I packed my backpack to meet some machismo ideal, I might try and carry heavier weight just so I could prove my manliness. However, I’d probably ruin my enjoyment, since at the end of every day’s hike I’d be totally exhausted and weak. I wouldn’t be able to take that quick side trip to the hot spring, or climb up to the valley precipice to look out over the incredible panorama of snow-covered mountains. All I’d be able to do is stagger from camp to camp, growing more tired with every step and that feeling would build each day and every passing mile.
That describe your current life?
Maybe not that bad, but you see the point. So many people today insist on doing everything, stuffing their lives with too many events and projects. I can do it all! is a modern mantra. The problem is, it’s also a myth.
In Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism, he reminds us that we can’t do everything, and therefore we shouldn’t try. I can’t fill my backpack with everything; I would literally breakdown and fail to enjoy the trip. Nor can I fill my days with everything–for the exact same reasons. Cramming life with obligations and standards to meet means living a life that is imposed on you and you’ll be miserable while you’re at it. To avoid this scenario, set personal priorities for living; if you don’t, someone will set them for you.
To move in the direction of an essentialist in the backcountry is to actually follow core guidelines for the outdoors, but to follow that direction in mainstream society will be counter to the current flow. There will be push-back and taking charge of your time will require courage and discipline, which everyone has when the stakes are high–and what’s higher than the quality of your life?
In order to wholly enjoy a backpacking trip, I need to pay attention to every step. Between every two end-points are an infinite number of others that await my enjoyment. The same is true for every life, and all of us can politely take control of our own priorities, pare down to those essentials that mean the most to us, and start enjoying life even more. Have a blessed journey.
Every summer when I was single, I embarked on a three to four week/over-sixty-mile backpacking or rock climbing trip. And it wasn’t just something to do either. I needed it. The military life I had adopted did not mesh with the soul I cultured by growing up in sedate, rural South Texas. Where, on summer nights, I listened to coyotes and called back to owls hooting in the mesquite trees surrounding my family’s five-acre place.
Working in rotating, 12-hour shifts and living with the speed, aircraft noise, and pressure of life on an Air Force facility set me on edge. I always knew when it was time to go. I would grow steadily more depressed and my right eye would begin to twitch. That was my body’s signal to provide my supervisor with a leave projection and set about planning my annual pilgrimage into the backcountry.
There was lots to do: pick a destination, obtain the necessary maps, plan my meals, etc. But this really wasn’t the beginning. Every pilgrimage really begins within the soul. And I don’t necessarily mean a pilgrimage must be religious. You don’t have to walk the El Camino de Santiago or embark on The Hajj into Mecca to step off into self-discovery and restoration. Those paths, while not magical in themselves, draw power from the traveler’s faith and the history they represent.
A traditional religious pilgrimage possesses a meaning before you have taken a single step. You can tap into the power of those who have traveled before you. Meaning rises from every traveler’s story and the belief that drew them there. Those stories and beliefs, like crumbs marking the way, show you where to walk, which can embolden any traveler. There is an inherent optimism set in the success of those pioneers who trod the path before. However, sometimes the deepest discoveries are made by setting aside maps and their legends to rely on the compass of who you are and what unique understanding you are seeking.
My pilgrimages were always of the second sort. I found that going mapless allowed the deepest personal discoveries. Rather than a religious trek, I let my soul’s needs guide my inner direction. On the trail, every step is a prayer, and the miles, like rosary beads, passed under my feet in a litany of meditations on what it meant to be a modern American man, to be a Christian, to be single, to be searching for purpose, accomplishment, or meaning.
Even though I may have shunned a spiritual map, I was smart enough to carry maps of the land, and I did carry Rainer Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. The mountains, like a library, are deep with quiet surroundings, which lend themselves to thinking–deep or shallow, and Rilke was my favorite muse. As a bonus, it was under a hundred pages and didn’t weigh much. Rilke always provided me with insight about maturing, being creative, or what love is and is not. He had his personal flaws and failings, but the wisdom he chose to write down for public consumption, rarely failed me. To me, such a book is as important as any map I can carry into the wilderness.
Rilke urges us to live our questions now, so my backpack would be stuffed with animal necessities, while my heart brimmed with the unsolved questions I struggled to fall in love with. Questions that arose out the day to day experiences of life as a young man in a world burgeoning forward technologically but seemed to be tumbling backwards socially. Rilke advised not to seek answers, but I grew up in the nascent era of instant gratification, so I was prone to being impatient. Sue me. However, as I walked the rocky trails of America’s and Europe’s wild places, my pilgrimages began to open up what it meant to “live the questions” and to gradually live into answers. Not The answers, but answers that belonged to me.
For example, in July 1998, two months before my marriage, I hiked into Rocky Mountain National Park. As I crossed the Continental Divide on foot, I felt I was crossing another divide, one that parted my life in two. I was 38 and had always been single, never even had more than three or four romantic relationships before. Now, I was about to join with a woman for life, and I was unsure about what the future held. Some of that uncertainty arose from my past.
My childhood family life haunted my ideas of marriage. To say I came from a “broken home” doesn’t capture it, shattered is more like it. I have three half-siblings, all four of us are from different fathers as my mom married six times. I have two step-brothers and a step-sister, but all were distanced by my father’s abuses. My wife, Brenda, says I don’t have a family tree. I have a shrub; it’s been cut back so many times. A successful marriage was light-years outside my personal experience.
But two days deep into Tonahutu Valley, I began to break free of questions or choices that belonged to my family past, but not to me. I slipped into the scenery and the silence and became more able to look objectively at possibility. Still, even as peace flowered within me, more questions buzzed in my head like hungry bees: What was marriage’s promise? Could life alone be as good? Should I look for certainty, or was the bend past this current hour allure enough?
Did my pilgrimage provide answers to those? Well, frankly, no. But it did allow me the opportunity to look at my life from an uncluttered perspective. And now, I have my wife of eighteen years, two teenage children, a personal training business of my own, etc. Many questions have been lived and that living has provided, if not outright answers, at least assurances. And I am well.
Now, more than a half-century into my life, I feel more like every day is a journey into unknown possibilities like loss, failure, and uncertainty. And since I am less of a cynic, there’s also the potential for success, joy, and hope. As I live more in the present the gifts of the future are more of a surprise, which I like, but I also still like going on long pilgrimages into the wilderness. Perhaps I’ll see you out there, or we’ll pass on the street, caught up in the pilgrimage of living.