A long time ago I lived in a rustic cabin located well “off the grid” in some faraway California woods. It was a sweet spot on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Different forest types converged there and mixed things up ecologically. Ponderosa pine, black oak, white fir, incense cedar, and douglas-fir casually mingled with blue oak, ghost pine, golden-cup oak, and impenetrable manzanita. I list all these names just so you will have a chance to say them out loud for yourself. Wildlife too: mule-deer, juncos, black bears, pileated woodpeckers, coyotes, flickers, and mountain lions. In a nearby meadow stood a seldom-used Zen meditation hall. On the rare occasions when people were in there, I could tell because things around the meadow got quieter.
Next to the cabin was a large outcrop of stone with several bedrock mortars in it. Here Nisenan women used to grind acorns into flour to make bread. That was a long time ago. Nobody uses the bedrock mortars anymore or eats much acorn bread. Even so, I tried to keep things tidy by sweeping off twigs and leaves that fell on the rock just in case somebody might want to give it a try. As for my own groceries, I got them at a big supermarket called Lucky. It was down in town, about an hour’s drive away. Often I would eat my dinner outside on the grinding rock. The climate in northern California is conducive to that sort of thing.
The cabin was built by a poet back in the seventies. Another poet—this one a friend of the poet who had built the cabin—was going to build his own cabin close by. But something happened in this poet’s life and instead of building a cabin he disappeared into the surrounding forest. He was never seen again. He left a note suggesting suicide. No body was ever found. Either the poet actually did commit suicide and chose a really good place to hide it, or he disappeared into myth. Some suggest he simply ran off to Mexico. In any case, my rent checks went to the poet who built the cabin. He now lived on the other side of the country, in Manhattan. Funny thing is, I never met this poet landlord of mine, yet I lived in his cabin which still had a lot of his stuff in it, including a big framed picture of Walt Whitman. I didn’t have much stuff myself in those days, so I was happy to have the company.
When you live in a rustic cabin like that, it’s hard not to spend a lot of time thinking about the uses and disadvantages of poetry for life. It’s also pretty hard not to think about ghosts. So that’s how I spent my days: reading lots of poetry and brooding on ghosts. When night came around, I would light up a kerosene lamp and place it outside the door on a little table. I pondered how this faint and unlikely flickering must have appeared to those who drift through the manzanita after dark. No one ever knocked on the door.
(Photo by David Robertson)
I remember once hearing a Dharma talk at the Zendo of the Outside Lands. The room was crowded with familiar faces. The Zen Master went through all the formalities that precede giving a Dharma talk—a dignified entrance, bowing, offering of incense, more bowing, a careful arranging of the zafu, more bowing, then finally sitting down just so. I’m leaving out many details—including more bowing—but you get the picture. At last the Dharma talk was ready to begin.
The Zen Master said: “The course of any human life is just a naming of the peaks and valleys.” That was it. Dharma talk over. He got up, performed the formalities in reverse, and made a dignified exit. I looked around at the faces in the room to see what was to be made of this. All I saw were peaks and valleys. They had names.
Nowhere is boundless and we were in the middle of it. Chilly morning in the Catskills. Vague trail up a remote peak. Thwarted expectations of solitude: a fresh set of footprints already in the snow. Could be anybody, maybe the landowner.
Time passes in elevation gain. Soon enough we meet somebody coming down the snowy trail. He is alone and a big man. Not the landowner. He has no gun. He wears microspikes on his boots. We have microspikes in our packs. Microspikes provide traction on ice.
“Hi,” we say, “do we need microspikes?”
He shrugs. “I’m disabled,” he says. “One more fall and I’m a goner. I’m wearing microspikes to play it safe. I live in Saugerties. I walk very slow. I have joint problems and high blood pressure. Nobody will hike with me. And I have neuropathy here.” He points to his feet. “I can’t feel a thing. Have a nice day.”
He shuffles off down the trail. His walk sounds like a bartender chipping ice.
We decide to play it safe. We pull the microspikes from our packs and put them on. We’re close enough now that we probably need them.
A few weeks ago the musician David Rothenberg and I went for a hike in Rochester Hollow. It’s in the Catskills, where anything can happen but seldom does. Rochester Hollow was once the demesne of a wealthy man. He’s no longer around. Now the place is a patch of Forest Preserve favored by cross country skiers. When we arrived at the trailhead the snow was crusty and the ski conditions crappy. We put on microspikes and started walking up the trail.
We followed some hardened footprints in old snow. They were the trace fossils of somebody else’s walk in the woods. Even though a breach in time stood between us and them, we enjoyed their company, these people who made the footprints. They showed us the way. Eventually we came upon a huge snowball they had rolled and left in the middle of the trail. It was rock hard and looked like an abandoned love affair or something dropped by a glacier. We studied it and became the geologists of bygone fun. Then we were ready to move on. That’s when we observed the footprints had come to an end. The fun was over. Maybe rolling that snowball had tired them out. From this point, we were on our own.
It was lonelier now but we kept walking. It felt like a long time. Then we arrived at one of those inexplicable Catskills curiosities you often find tucked away at the end of a spooky hollow. Sometimes it’s a forty-foot golden Buddha shining in the sun, sometimes it’s an abandoned summer camp with the ghosts of a hundred years of campfire songs drifting among the bare trees. Today it was just another one of those monuments to the nature writer John Burroughs.
In this part of the state, memorials to John Burroughs are more abundant than employment opportunities. From the looks of it—half buried today in snow—this one had seen better days. A few generations of hunters’ potshots had taken their toll. The busted up words on the stone were teetering on the edge of meaning. It was language poised to become a homicide victim, a simple expression of grief shot up into an experimental poem:
beloved naturalist, author American
reforested by his neighbors
perpetual joyous care
We walked back to the car in silence.
Today is the day I climb Vly Mountain. It’s one of the lesser-visited peaks in the Catskill Mountains of New York. I have not been up it before. I have a route in mind. The guidebook says: “This route is rarely used. It is a longer route. Few people ever use this route.” So I choose this route. I wonder why it’s so unpopular. Maybe I feel bad for it. Maybe I have a soft spot for unpopular routes. Maybe this is just a pity-hike.
I arrive at the trailhead at the end of a lonesome dirt road. A hoot-owl calls from the boughs of a dark pine. He could be warning somebody about something. Or he could just be hooting because that’s what hoot-owls do. I’m a human being, so I start walking up the unpopular route. The venerable trees—sugar maple, beech, oak—look too tired from a long winter to muster any interest in putting out leaves. None of this helps the route with its popularity problem.
The unpopular route gains elevation quickly. The ground is bare for the first mile. Then I run into the snowpack. It’s deep. But the temperature last night was below freezing so the snow is still hard. I’m able to walk on top of it. The snow gets deeper and deeper but I’m still walking on top of it. I’m feeling pretty good despite the steep unpopularity and the slovenly clearcut I pass. After while, I take a break. I look off into the woods. Something unexpected. A blue chair in the middle of nowhere!
I make my way over to it. The blue chair is surrounded by white snow. It too looks like it’s had a rough winter and is only now coming out of it. Behind the blue chair is a makeshift table installed between a couple of tired trees. Somebody has gone to a lot of trouble to give a touch of hominess to this unpopular route. A jar of strawberry jam would look really good on that table. I wish I had one. All I’ve got is a notebook. I sit down in the blue chair and write these words in the notebook.
I don’t know how popular this story is going to be. Nothing much has happened on this hike. Except I found a blue chair in the wilderness. When I finish writing this, I will get up from the blue chair and continue my hike. I will resume my journey, via an unpopular route, to the summit of a lesser-visited peak in the Catskill Mountains.