In The Wake of Sheltowee
Indeed, the Alps are high,
but not nearly as high as the dung heap
in my grandfather's yard, when I was 5.
Monday October 2, 1995
Late afternoon sun disappearing over the rocky rise to the west, wandering on the slopes of volcanic Mt. Peale in central Utah with a contingent of the Sangha, looking for an appropriate site to make base camp. Coming upon a six pack of canned lemonade that had fallen out of the back of someone's pickup, still cold from last night's chill , I call us together and pass them around. It seemed cow hooves had trampled every once-even surface into an uneven mess which had subsequently hardened and would not be easy sleep on. Way too many animals of the wrong kind up here. As Edward Abbey wrote, "Even when the cattle are not physically present, you see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don't see it, you smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle." This was certainly true on the upper slopes of Mt. Peale. We eventually found some relatively soft, dry earth on a slight slope and although they'd been here too, we were able to kick down the ridges and stomp out a few tent-sized patches in the grass.
When man began to domesticate animals, in positioning himself as lord of their reproductive energies, he took many of their qualities into his being, and not simply through biochemicals. Perhaps this helps explain why such animals can often seem so human.
This was our fourth trip to the southwest in two years. On retreat from the ordinary, taking some time away from the day to day business, a moment's distance from the deadening influence of habitual perception, too much paint and plaster, the usual overdose of electricity and gas pumps. All of these things have their place no doubt, but we tend to approach them in a way that reifies separate worlds and delusions of immunity.
For six years we had been coming together around a tantric altar a few times a week, but inevitably, the intensity of our communion seemed to diffuse into the big sleep, once again slogging through the inevitable ruts of calcified habit energy which characterize samsaric life. So we had begun setting aside a few weeks in the spring and fall to come together, to practice and study the teachings in isolated places. Being with each other for extended periods of time would naturally draw us into deeper considerations. In this spirit, we began to wander far from home through scenes of great beauty to develop the meditation.
I had already been in Colorado for twelve days when the second crew had arrived, a week previous. Tenkar had expressed that she was uncomfortable spending too much time with the group and on an excursion to Big South Fork a year previous, she had dramatized things to the point where we canned the whole trip and went home. So this year, I decided to just come out with her and Zoe for awhile and it was good. The plan from here was a little sketchy.
I had come out with Tenkar and my daughter Zoe in early September and we climbed Windom Peak (14,082) in the Needles Range. The world was silent; therer was no wind, no earthly sounds, and the view was fantastic. We gazed into a sea of peaks so dense, I declined even trying to identify them via compass and map as I usually do and was simply mindblown for a few hours. The Vallecitos valley dropped to the east and the rocky grey mass of the Grenadiers rose to the north. Mind had shut up and vision dominated. A few days later, Tenkar left Zoe and I at the Black Canyon and heading east before blowing the transmission in Oklahoma where she had to spend the better part of a week in a small motel while it was replaced. Padma Zhibde was living in Denver at that point, and according to plan, she met Zoe and I at the Black Canyon campground on Saturday morning. we did a quick tour of the overlooks before heading south into the eastern San Juans, through the ancient caldera of Lake City then off the blacktop and onto the gravel of Henson Creek Road where we soon parked, and hiked up into the Uncompahgre Basin. Snow fell that night and into the next morning.
After a long breakfast, the snow seemed to abate and we decided to attempt the peak. We were within sight of it when dark clouds rolled in and thunder began to rumble. A mere half-hour from the summit, two enormous bolts convinced us we could always attempt it again later, and we played it safe by heading back down. On the way back to the tents, we spoke with a young man who had been up earlier that morning. He peaked just as the snow tapered off and with obvious satisfaction, remarking that the view was spectacular for about fifteen minutes before it clouded over once again. The next day we crossed the Continental Divide through Creed to Durango to rendezvous with other Sangha members.
Although I do not usually remember my dreams or find them very meaningful when I do, I had what I felt was a very significant dream the night before Zhibde had arrived. My father had died of cancer earlier that summer. I had not been very close to him either physically or otherwise during his last years. We certainly loved each other, but due to the nature of our temperaments and interests, it was not always that easily communicated or expressed. Since his passing, I had informally been offering him prayers and spiritual direction in the bardo. In this dream, he seemed to become aware of my intention with real clarity, as he embraced me lovingly, communicating a desire to spend more time with me. In a manner well understood by both of us, I said, 'Alright, that's great; just make an appointment...' and we both laughed. He was saying goodbye to me, expressing his appreciation for the little stretch of life we shared together, and giving me his heart's blessing. I woke up on the edge of the canyon feeling very whole and happy that morning.
It was almost 11 pm when the Sangha rolled into the designated site on the outskirts of Durango. And they felt shakey. The driving was longer and more difficult than they had anticipated. Although Zoe and I had been outdoors for almost two weeks while they were back in Tennessee, the Turtle contingent pulled into the campground fairly wasted, like they were glad to finally be arriving at a relative's house after a long, exhausting journey. The usual gossip hybridized with their unspoken pre-occupations and seemed to leave a minimum of energy available for the higher intention of our gathering, but they just got here, so what the hell. We talked and ate and showered in the space of a few hours but many subtle signs indicated that things did not seem to be clicking. The following days played out a similar mind in a more observable manner.
We started by trying to ascend Hesperus, or Dibenitsa, the northern mountain of the Diné (Navajo) mandala, but lacking a good map we guessed at which approach to take and ended up on nearby Centennial Peak, named in 1976 for you know what. Great view in any case. Very raw cliffs and dramatic exposures of ancient rock. It was not Hesperus but it was definitely way the hell up in the sky. Bad weather on the way down drove us from Colorado to the canyons of Hovenweep and then hiking across the slickrock in Canyonlands, Utah. I had not been here since I hitched through as a teenager over twenty years ago with Padma Tenkar. The desert is a very magical place and I was happy to spend a few days in canyon country, watching the crew gradually release the concerns of preparation and the speed of the road and begin reconnecting with the original impulse to come west. Pretty as it was, I did not want to stay in the desert too long. Not this time. There, on the northeast horizon, the La Sals, second highest range in Utah, loomed like a hallucination with a light dusting of snow on the peaks. They were calling me.
The experience atop Windom was weighing heavy in my memory, merged with a desire to share that kind of space with my amigos.
Although we were high on Centennial, Chödön was annoyed that we didn't bag Hesperus; it was to have been the third mountain of the Navajo mandala we would have climbed in as many trips west. Getso was disturbed that I offered no positive reinforcement about her recent divorce. Marc was being as helpful as possible but seemed a bit miffed that there was not more of the ballast he had come to expect from tripping with the Sangha. Jenny has always been a pretty yin kid and was glad Zoe was already out here. Zhibde just seemed glad to be getting out of the city and connecting with the Sangha for the first time in months. So after getting washed out of the La Platas, we rolled over into Utah and gradually dried out, roaming through the canyons and across the layer cake mesas of the San Juan Basin.
The days were getting shorter; you could feel it in the angle of the afternoon sun. There was an element of that Sunday afternoon vibration, that feeling you'd get when you were a kid and the weekend was almost over, an awareness that this opportunity will soon pass. and you should make your move, whatever that might be.
At some point, it was obviously time for darshan. We were in the backcountry of the Needles district in Canyonlands National Park, and wandering through the fields of Chesler Park. Marc and Chödön found a great boulder which was relatively flat on top and provided a view in all directions. We sat up there for an hour or so before Getso and Zhibde, the eldest among us, decided that they could never manage to make the climb up the side of the rock. So for the sake of unity, we came down and searched for another, more accessible perch. Much time passed before we all crowded onto a narrow sloping shelf of sandstone, a tight little perch which featured a view opening onto a relatively uninteresting field of grass, the expanse constricted by the narrow walls of a deep defile. We hunched like we were in a small theater, chanted a few prayers and burned some incense but something was amiss.
What is it? I looked off into the sky and said nothing.
During the following day's hike, a few of us got off trail for awhile. The remainder of us rested in the shade of a twisted Utah Juniper while we alternately hooted and waited. There, off to the northeast, above the pink and salmon beds of the canyons, a small range of volcanic peaks climbed above the horizon with sharp grey slopes rising high above treeline. It felt good just to look upon them; that is where we should be - yeah, let's head up into those mountains. This impulse was inseparable from the fact that we were tracking through these canyons with a spirit vibe akin to the energy which is regularly employed in mulling through the convolutions of the samsaric brain. The canyone seemed to be external verification that the mind had become stone, a great place for fools to wander, providing us with all sorts of objective referents to prove our existence. It was all so horizontally oriented, We already live upon a plateau. Hell, we as long as we are out here, let us avail ourselves of the sky, and make use of the earth as a footstool to commune with the subtler elements of our nature. Such altitudes would require either a plane or a balloon to experience back east. As beautiful as the high desert can be, I had come west to climb even higher into the sky.
Yes, on to the mountains...
The weather was clear, So we headed up Mt. Peale the next morning. Beyond the realm of the hoofed locust, above tree line, the upper basin is full of broken grey boulders, smashed by the weight of a glacier that weighed down on these peaks less than a thousand years ago. The mass of this range was originally a Cenozoic igneous intrusion, a blister formed under overlying sediments which eroded away long ago leaving a few peaks over 12,000 feet above sea level, six thousand feet higher than the surrounding plains. Far below on the broad shoulders, dwarf Gambel Oaks and tall Aspens were turning red and gold. The skies, as always, were billowing with invisible nitrogen, the air fresh and sweet to breathe. Swallows and swifts played in the empty blue. After finding refuge from the wind on a dike of white rock west of the peak, we snacked and talked and studied the map. We spent a few hours looking around, passing offerings and watching the sun gradually fall toward Tukuhnikivatz, and collectively decided to make another attempt at peaking in the San Juans, magnetizing vision to the east. From our vantage point on Peale looking across the San Miguel Valley into Colorado, the Sneffels range was brilliant with snow and there was no weather evident on the horizon. We descended quickly, choosing to jump off the high ridge over relatively steep cliffs into soft snow rather than return by crawling down the rocky route we'd taken up out of the cirque.
By noon the following day, both cars were winding upward on a ledge through great beds of Leadville limestone laid down during the Mississippian period, approaching Yankee Boy Basin as snow began to fall again. We set up camp outside the old mining town of Sneffels and by the next morning, six inches of cold white had accumulated. As it showed no signs of stopping, we stuffed the bags, collapsed the tents, and called it quits, carefully crawling down to Ouray along a narrow shelf of a road. Near the bottom, an old man and his wife from Illinois were heading up in a late model, forest green Cadillac. I tried to stop them and tell him what was ahead, but he must have really wanted to get up there as he completely ignored us and leaned on the gas, like we were going to try and panhandle a quarter from him. We drove north to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and ended the trip with a steep walk to the bottom of the gorge before heading back east.
On the long ride home, there is plenty of time to think. Chödön seemed attached to sitting next to me for most of the ride back but was relatively thick and unresponsive to my comments and jokes. The trip was over. Our scope had been more limited than I would have liked. Of course, this was not simply a matter of equipment. I am neither husband, boyfriend or father to anyone here besides Zoe, but these are some of the primary ways that this crew relates to me. No, what we lacked was an uncommon grounding in something beyond mundane perception, a deeper cohesion of heart, some blissful resonance awakened through mutual contact with the primordial terrain, a relaxed awareness of the reality both easily suggested and completely obscured by appearances, the diamond blue truth beyond the present maya.
Altogether, I felt we had been wasteful of our time. Somehow, this last part of the trip had not been satisfying. We seemed less cohesive than ever. It is such a long drive and there was really not much worth reflecting on. I felt like we never shook the mindset that we had come out here to put aside for the moment, and we were already going back.
As a teen on Long Island, I remember tripping with a group of folks among whom was this kid named Joe who said he couldn't drop anymore unless he was in the country cause it was too depressing to come down in the city. Twelve miles distant, the antenna on the Empire State Building was visible through the trees, backlit by the setting sun. Depressing? This was a new idea to me and I remember thinking at the time that this fellow was being a bit oversensitive. I figured, what is the difference? It is the same world in any case. It really depends on your head and what your nest feels like. Create a space that you like to come back into. Of course, all of this should work toward freeing one from attachment although I knew one friend who HAD to have fresh orange juice during the Sidpa Bardo or things just weren't going to come together too good. In any case, I had long since built my winter lodge, done that already, and the horses under the hood were dragging us there.
Yes, but this was supposed to have been the autumn walkabout, a well-needed retreat away from the habitual routines for the sake of purification and perspective, vision and transformation. There is only so much time we can afford to be away from home and it ain't always easy to come by.
The mountains disappeared into the scrub of the high plains as we rolled east and I gazed out into the blue/brown distance, thinking on all of this. Upon sustained reflection, I realized once again that there was little I could do about the mindset of the folks I was with other than continue communicating, but as for the structure of the trip, I felt that we would have been much better off committing to a longer course and simply weathering whatever transpired; in some real sense, we were simply tourists who had tried to manicure our time too much and got burned. This was the trap of life after eden, struggling to have fun, grasping to redeem lost time. We were unable to get beyond the shadow of this dualistic approach, so that the tone of the energy was 'vacation' rather than pilgrimage or retreat. To avoid this kind of thing and possibly open another approach, I decided to get out on one of the longer trails back east after the upcoming retreat with the Khenpos in Tennessee next month. There is something about the roughness and regularity of a long trail that enriches the whole endeavor. We had simply spent too much time getting in and out of the car, too much time holding on to old mindsets, putting too much misplaced faith in some elusive phenomena which might carry the winds to a higher place and not put enough effort, heart, or energy into the art of simply being vulnerable and human together in a wild place.
Perhaps it was just one of those things you are moved to do when you turn forty and obvious mortality inspires you to use what you have while it still works, but somehow, all of this led to a desire to be walking north as the diminishing arc of the sun gradually sank toward the southern horizon. I wanted to watch birds fly south overhead while I traveled upstream into colder weather, to walk away from the known with my back to the sun and not be afraid. I was moved to re-enter the territory of the dead, and keep that appointment, but for the moment, in association with the body.
Sunday November 11, 1995
This was the weekend we had received the Vajrapani initiation. The Khenpos were offering us protection from obstacles both subtle and gross that beset practitioners. Friday night rain fell so heavily upon the tin roof of the temple that the entire gathering had to huddle a few feet from the Khenpos to even hear what they were saying. The building was still under construction, there were no microphones and some sections of the walls were missing. During the actual empowerment on Saturday, a driving wind and rain blew down deity pictures and thangkas and knocked over a few vases of flowers. Most of us were wrapped in shawls and blankets or sleeping bags during the teachings. Beyond a genuine concern for our well-being in such conditions, the Khenpos were obviously unperturbed by all of this and in high spirits. At last the skies cleared late Saturday night and Sunday morning dawned cool and blue. The sun soon warmed the air.
Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche
preparing to demonstrate his slingshot
After lunch, we sat in a circle by the tents and read from the Middle length Discourses of the Buddha out loud. I had acquired this $75 book by a very circuitous route. Way back when I used to subscribe to Tricycle Magazine, Wisdom Publications ran an ad showing a cartoon of a psychiatrist sitting alone in his office chair in the lotus posture, visualizing a multi-armed deity. They announced a contest offering $100 worth of their books to whoever submitted the best caption. I thought about it for a few minutes, sent in an entry, and forgot about it. Then one day, years later, I got up off my meditation cushion and asked Tenkar to call Wisdom Books and find out who ever won that contest. So she did. They said, Oh that? That was just an old advertising campaign and the person who thought that up is no longer with us, etc. etc.,. Is that so? I felt like they were avoiding a straight answer and that if there was no winner, it was false advertising, yes, FALSE ADVERTISING, right there in a so-called Buddhist magazine. So Tenkar called Tricycle and told them about it. Tricycle called Wisdom and said, Hey what gives? Then Tenkar called Wisdom again after Tricycle had softened them up, and this time, the wise guy at Wisdom tells us Yes, yes, there was definitely a winner; but what is your name Miss? She tells them. Oh no, I'm sorry honey, your entry didn't win. Tenkar explains that she never entered the contest in the first place and asks, Can you please tell me the caption that was chosen as the winning entry? Oh sure. Hold on a second. Then they told her; Deity Envy.... Tenkar laughs and says, Well, the man who submitted that caption is sitting right here next to me and he wants to claim his prize...
Anyway, we were reading this text during one of those massive breaks after lunch, before we got up to attend a fire puja. Early into the chanting, a woman with a serious appetite who had been floating around the sangha for awhile hurriedly walks up and grabs me by the arm, asking if I could please come with her, immediately. This got the attention of the Khenpos and most of the circle. She quickly led me to a van at the edge of a grassy field where my friend Devon was laying down on the back platform. I could have guessed what was happening. She excitedly asked me, 'What was in that pipe?' Devon had toked on a little pipe that had been passed around earlier. This woman was quite upset and asked me if I thought we should bring Devon to the emergency room. I smiled and said I really didn't think so. That would be seriously overreacting. Devon was currently in the midst of an affair with this lady, had not told his wife about it and was simply carrying too much subconscious. He was loaded up with double-think and his usual buffers had momentarily dissolved. I told him to relax and breathe deeper. He did and soon started laughing. All of a sudden, both of the Khenpos were at the open door of the vehicle to see what was going on. Devon was evidently fine and more than a bit embarrassed.
Since most of us only get to see the Khenpos about twice a year, we lingered till fairly late in the afternoon before saying goodbye. There was a flurry of the usual exchanges with other practitioners, inspired by the enthusiasm of the moment, wherein they recite the same empty lines implying that we should let them know when we are practicing so that we can all get together sometime. This never happens, but we smile and humor each other during the ritual. Once packed, we ease across the dirt roads leading out of the hollow where Gochen Ling is located and head northeast toward Pickett State Park.
This territory was part of a tract turned over to the state of Tennessee by the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company in the mid 1930's, when, you can be sure, it was no longer profitable. Stearns, a wealthy industrialist family from Michigan, owned over 200,000 acres in the Big South Fork Area. They had originally come for the timber but needed rails and coal to ship it out . In the process, they got into the coal business as well. Their most productive year realized a bit less than a million tons of coal and 18,000,000 board feet of lumber. Coal mining peaked in the 1920's and by the time of the Great Depression, both black rock and timber were significantly depleted. Stearns was determined to see if there was any more milk in this tit and gave it another squeeze by investing in the Blue Heron Mine which operated from 1937 to 1962. Eventually, silence reigned and the land began to recover.
We headed up US 127 which follows a thin ridgetop lined with small homes hosting the World's Longest Yard Sale, over a decade old and stretching 450 miles north into Kentucky and south into Alabama from its humble birthplace, right here in Jamestown, Tennessee which is also the hometown of WWI hero Sgt. Alvin York. We discipline ourselves and keep driving.
We had hoped to walk two or three miles into the woods to make camp as the light faded. As it was, Dondrub ended up calling his mom and then drove the long way round, arriving over an hour later than the rest of us and well after dark, so we spent the night in Pickett. This was the twelfth backpacking trip that the sangha had made in eighteen months, but the first for Dondrub. He had minimal gear and only wanted to walk in for a day before doubling back to his truck the next morning, just so as to get a taste I suppose. At first I was reluctant to say yes; special requests like this can compromise the solidarity of a trip and space everyone out. But Dondrub has a stubborn tendency to insist on doing things in his own style; so for the sake of including everyone, I will even try to make room for that sometimes. Initially, it seemed like he should either get enough gear to come along for a few days or not at all. On the other hand, I thought the experience might serve to convince him of the value in acquiring better equipment.
The original decision to begin backpacking more intensively was sparked during a short trip the sangha had made toanother park, thirty miles to the west a couple of years previous. Since '89 we had been packing coolers, tents and sleeping bags twice a year, and driving a few hours northeast to attend retreats with the Khenpos; why not leave earlier and spend an extra day just hiking on the Cumberland Plateau? Most of us had lived for decades within a few hours of some of the prettiest trails in the country but had never walked them. As a boy staying at summer camp, I had loved going on overnight hikes and again as a teen hitching with a cheap backpack a sleeping bag, a few books and not much else. But once landed on The Farm in 1973, these things were generally put aside for more practical business. Or so we thought at the time. One significant exception occurred in Guatemala on a full moon night in January of 1977, when ten of us ascended Volcan Acatenango (13,350) guided by Cruz of Calderas. Standing on the peak of Acatenango was actually the highest I had ever been on the planet outside of an airplane. Almost eighteen years were to slip by before I climbed any further into the troposphere.
My family had been living at the foot of Turtle Hill for five years. That was longer than I had lived anywhere since I was a kid. Now that we had established a comfortable base on the Highland Rim, it was time to start getting back into the woods. The extra day spent on the trail would give us some time together, a chance to relax and realign before going to the retreat. And everyone agreed.
So it was that in April of 1993, the Turtle Hill Sangha arrived in numerous vehicles at Standing Stone State Park, rather late in the day. There had once been a great sandstone monolith here shaped like a dog which was used to mark a boundary line between separate Indian nations. The Cherokee called it NEE YAH KAH TAH KEE. Originally an eight foot tall rock standing on a sandstone ledge, it eventually fell and broke into many pieces. Souvenir hunters began carrying pieces away. Before it completely disappeared, a plan evolved. Long after the local natives were either killed or forced west, the efforts of a small group of Narragansett Indians called The Improved Order of Redmen raised funds to create a monument composed of the remaining fragments. In October, 1895, three thousand people gathered in Monterey, Tennessee to dedicate the only genuine relic of aboriginal origin in the state. An ironic inscription on the rock reads GSD404 which means 404 years after the Great Sun of Discovery. For unknown reasons, these mysterious Redmen used 1492 as the beginning of their dating system.
After looking at the little pamphlet featuring a map of the trails, we decided on a route that was basically an eight mile loop. It was almost four o'clock by the time we got to the path, and I knew we were going to have to push to make it around before dark. Tenkar had one year old Kyema tied on her back in a Guatemalan cargador. I had a daypack with water. We were all in sneakers, still not having accepted the inevitability of leather hiking boots. Kunga was ahead of me and seemed comfortable at any pace. Just watching him bounce along the path made it all seem quite possible. I'd look up and think, 'He doesn't seem to have any problem with this.' Then I'd turn around and sure enough, Tenkar and Gyatso were still back there, smiling. We wound through a few narrow hollows which hosted some huge virgin Hemlocks as well as many old wooden stump rings six feet across, the remains of the American Chestnut. These giants were destroyed by the greatest botanical disaster in North American history, the chestnut blight. By 1950, more than 90% of them were gone. They were among the grandfathers of the eastern forests and their gargantuan stumps still remain to tease us with what has been.
The trail pulled away from the creek and curved up onto a ridge where we found a natural stone altar with a reddish hue. Nobody set it up. Just one of those things. We stopped here and offered a few prayers before passing over a wooded ridge, down through a clearcut section and across a few brooks and small waterfalls as the light failed. We managed the rest of the way by starlight and sheer perseverance. Although we'd started with over a dozen, only four of us were still together on the trail, plus baby Kyema on Tenkar's back. We figured everyone else had turned around long ago. Four hours later, arriving at the wooden bridge where we'd started, we were noticing that it was so dark you could see stars floating in the water . The sound of approaching footsteps and a voice surprised us,
Pema Rigdzin had caught up. He must've been a few minutes behind us for over three hours. Without a single flashlight among us, we climbed one last, very steep slope and were soon back in camp. Hungry and tired yes, but I was ripped. I decided I had to get out into the woods more often. This led to plans for a major excursion the following summer. Over twenty of us would travel out to New Mexico together, but that is a whole 'nother story.
go to part one