Specks and Droplets

Isaac and I made it to Glacier National Park, our first major stop together, as night clocked in for its shift. The mountains, the trees, the change of a bright natural filter to one of deep blue, grey, and black — viewing the landscape — the case for any landscape — is a you-had-to-be-there moment. The moment brought looming intimidation and it was, at the same time, just as gorgeous. Aside wildlife, the only civilized were those working or visiting the park. And those people visiting, as exhilarating and awe-inspiring as Glacier is, should feel slightly uncertainty and uneasy.

The moon and sun are eternal travelers.  Even the years wander on.  A lifetime adrift in a boat or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.

Matsuo Bashō, Narrow Road to the Interior

I’ve been reading Narrow Road to the Interior by Matsuo Bashō (translated by Sam Hamill) similar to a person reading The Bible — casually, passage by passage, digesting the words. Centuries before Steinbeck traveled with Charley, before Frodo embarked on his journey, and before Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty hit the road, the Japanese poet took to his own adventure. In this book, Bashō tactfully combines poetry and prose to verbalize and chronicle his experiences.

Not only does he talk about people he meets and the places he visits, there is a strong focus on Zen Buddhism and nature. Lucky for Bashō, he didn’t have to endure and battle against social media or electronic temptation. Instead, it was natural to focus on what’s in plain sight. This July journey of ours, Isaac and mine, reminded me of a mysticism and meditation class from college and having a busted camera app on my phone made it significantly easier to pay less mind to the device with no mind.

Instead of paying attention of the devises, pay mind to what’s around.

Glacier National Park [Photo by C. Malone]

As prepared for a hike as a person can be, no one is truly prepared for a life’s journey. We’re essentially winging it. We’re all performing improv every minute of every day — even while sleeping — and playing it as real as possible. Or so we’d hope.

It’s a great big world we live on, a planet we share. In the big scheme: We’re each a droplet in a massive ocean. We’re all just little specks. (According to Yakko on Animaniacs, “We’re all just little specks about the size of Mickey Rooney.“) Our solar system is a tiny portion of the Milky Way Galaxy; ergo, we’re all even tinier specks. The Milky Way is just as tiny of a portion of the entire universe.

We’re not just even tinier little specks — we’re probably smaller than how we molecules.

Embarking on a hike in the great outdoors, especially at Glacier National Park, really put things into perspective. Personal thoughts were revisited. New thoughts were generated. These mental manifestations came out during a time of a pandemic — a time of loneliness. When there aren’t many people hiking, it sure does feel lonely even when in good company.

When encountering others while adventuring. Some were wearing masks and others were not. In more crowded spots on the trail, we more or less avoided others and quasi covered our faces, but those moments were quick. We also had a terrible time finding a campground. Only one was open and visitors were practically on top of each other. Great job, National Park Service. The other grounds were closed, ironically, because of the Covid-19 pandemic. So much for spacing out, right?

This is where common sense would kick in. Wouldn’t it be smarter to open more campgrounds and spread people out? Nah, says our government. Similar situations were experienced in future campgrounds, at Grand Tetons National Park. The first night we found a lakeside cabin on a whim. We called, the owners asked for cash, a random guy met us on one of the several desolate roads after midnight, he lead us down a long and narrow road to the cottage, and we parted ways. Come to find out, it was a gorgeous spot come morning.

Photo by C. Malone

I can understand why people dislike the outdoors and/or hiking. It’s tough. It can be in the middle of nowhere. It’s traversing through unfamiliar territory. There are threats of exposure, poisonous plants, dehydration, risks of tripping over rocks and turning ankles, and various wildlife. Some may think it’s boring. There is room for plenty of excuses, especially regarding landscapes, trees, and other environmental aspects and this includes once you’ve seen something, you’ve seen it all.

I beg to differ.

It’s been a while since my last hike, and methinks this was the most intense to date. We headed up to Glacier National Park’s Sperry Chalet, which (as mentioned in a previous blog post) is tied for the fifth strenuous hike in the national park with a 12.3-mile trip and 3,360 elevation gain. I was far from prepared, even with the mentality of “I’ve hiked before; ergo, I can hike anything.” However, I hadn’t hiked since the previous year.

Aside from cramping up, fighting a decreasing pace, fearing I’d run out of water, the uncertainty of making it all the way to the top — let’s face it: me being my own worst enemy in general — I was exhausted. It was mostly exhaustion from this year with the global atmosphere, the negativity, wedding blowback, being unemployed.

All of it added up. I didn’t really have a way to constructively release it.

I was also unprepared for all the actual beauty. Every view and perspective from every angle are new. Even when revisiting places, each moment is a different experience than previous experiences. The stretch of towering trees on the trail at moments felt dizzying, like a maze, and it felt as intimidating as the Swamp of Sadness (you know, The NeverEnding Story) at times. A the same time this all felt comforting, as if the trees were providing shelter. The journey is home, according to Bashō. The trickling water of the streams proved hypnotic and soothing. The clicking of the branches were a natural metronome of varying tempos, like jazz. And the wildlife — we got so close we could’ve tackled a deer or mountain goat.

[The last paragraph makes it seem like I’ve never hiked before; ergo, to you, I (may have) never hiked prior to this outing. Admiring the world as if I had new eyes is comparable to the state of awestruck when seeing skyscrapers in a big city for the first time; ergo, I’ve (apparently) never been to New York City.]

It was pretty amazing seeing mountain goats live and in person. They mewed, “We are going to make it through this year, if it kills us.”

There were also bears. We didn’t see any but they were out there. Without firearms, our only defenses were playing dead, knives, and bear spray. The outdoors and its wildlife will swallow you whole just as easily as fellow humans in populated areas.

Humans will also devour each other, sometimes slowly or sometimes in a snap of a finger, for a variety of reasons. We’re all the same species, folks. We’re all the same species no matter what we look like. We’re all the same species regardless of gender, race, identity, political side, and even if we have a disability. Put up or shut up, treat each other with respect, and talk about those differences as they come up.

As I sat at the top, looking down the mountain from the chalet, life stopped. My demeanor changed. The remainder of this trip (which would blow by) was significantly anticipated. I stopped hating myself for whatever reasons, reasons which mostly generated from dwelling on things out of my control. There was no desire to leave immediately and, like any place that leaves me breathless, part of me did stay.

I have to give major kudos to my brother-in-law, who helped me challenge myself. Even though he may not have done it purposefully or recognized it, I appreciated the experience wholeheartedly. Plus, we got to know each other better — what else is there when you’re spending a week-plus in a car together? The last venture together was to Joshua Tree national park a couple years back.

Us3, not U2, at Joshua Tree

In the days that followed we ventured through a variety of scenes and landscapes — grasslands and deserts, coniferous and deciduous forests — including the beauty of Wind River country and the Wedding of the Waters (Wind and Bighorn Rivers). No camera focusing, just with the eyes. Even bland South Dakota had its perks but we drove through a lot of it at night. I was able to finally enjoy Yellowstone National Park and see Old Faithful, get blasted with bursts of sulfur from the other hot springs. We’d even bask in the mineral hot springs while in Thermopolis, WY.

When in Thermopolis, do as the Thermopolians do.

“Every turn of the road brought me new thoughts and every sunrise gave me fresh emotions.

MATSUO BASHŌ, NARROW ROAD TO THE INTERIOR

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