by Marc Piane
When I opened my eyes the sun was already high in the sky. The light filtered through the canopy of leaves and I could feel the warmth on my cheeks. The air was thick with the smell of wet leaves and pine needles. Usually when I go backpacking I wake up with the first cracks of sunlight but yesterday had been a long day of driving and hiking. I guess I needed the sleep. I had left all my technology at home including my watch. I’ve never been great at telling time from the position of the sun. Probably 10 am.
It was spring and not very cold so I slept outside next to the camp fire that was still smoldering from the night before. Slowly I nursed it back to health and set a pot of water on top to boil for coffee and oatmeal. Solitary backpacking trips like this are always a bit of a spiritual experience for me, whatever that means. I can see the wisdom of the “vision quest.” Really it is just being alone with your thoughts as you walk in the woods. Very meditative. I also always feel like it forces me to experience things as they come. I have left myself no choice.
When the water started boiling I reached into my backpack and located a packet of oatmeal, maple and brown sugar, and some ‘coffee bags’ that I had made by packing grounds in a piece of filter and tying it with thread. I put water in my blue camping mug and put the bag in to steep. In my bowl I emptied the contents of the oatmeal packet and put in some water. The smell of coffee and the oatmeal reached my nose and filled me with a feeling much like being covered with a comfy blanket.
I leaned back against a tree and closed my eyes.
On these trips I never set a schedule for myself. That is really hard for me. Back in Chicago I am self employed so I have gotten very good at making a schedule for myself but as a result I always feel nervous at first being idle. Getting miles out in the woods you are forced to live at a different pace.
I took a sip of my coffee. Hot. Earthy. Almost chocolatey. I put a spoonful of the oatmeal in my mouth. It was sweet and thick and I could feel the warmth slide down my throat. After I finished both I started to pack my backpack. Everything has its place. It’s the only way it fits into the pack. I doused the embers with the remaining water. It was a very small fire so it didn’t take much to render it dormant.
I sat on a fallen tree and looked at my map. Last night I had slept in a valley near a river that ran through the area. I decided that today’s hike would be up to the crest of the mountain. It was a smaller rolling mountain so no climbing necessary but it meant an uphill walk all day with a 40 lb pack on my back. Just yesterday I had hike down the other side of this mountain. For a moment my mind wandered to thinking about how Sisyphus must have felt. The difference is that I was doing it by choice not as a punishment imposed by the gods which might make it even more absurd. The classic philosophical definition of the absurd is the place where the objective world and our perception of it meet. A backpacking trip was truly absurd and all about experiencing.
Once I had my backpack packed, I hoisted it on my back. “Lift with the knees.” I fastened and tightened the waist belt and headed out down the trail. For now the trail followed along a small stream. It was spring and so the forest was coming to life but still with evidence of the carnage from the previous autumn and winter. This area is so alive in the spring. Almost a temperate rain forest.
Just then a light rain started to fall.
As raindrops hit the bare skin on my arms I could feel each drop like a little spike of cold. The feeling shot up my spine. I got goosebumps. I could almost imagine the jolt of electricity running through my nervous system. Because of some nerve damage I had years ago the sensation was slightly different in my right arm. On my left arm the raindrops felt cold and wet but drops felt almost like boiling water on my right. Each drop made we wince. My mind wandered to the thought of the difference in sensation due to damaged wiring and to the mechanical part of our perception of the world.
The rain began to fall a little harder. Hiking always generates body heat and the rain felt good, for now. I always find the sound of rain in the forest very soothing. The pitter-patter of thousands of droplets as they hit the leaves. The smell of rain always relaxes me too. Very smooth and calming.
As I hiked along I could feel the grade of the trail gradually increase and my quadriceps started to burn. The only problem with rain is it makes the backpack a little heavier.
My mind wandered back to the difference in perception between my arms. The human body as biological robot. So much of our perception of the world is based on our senses. I remember reading a book by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio where he talks about our perception and associations with experiences being formed over our lifetime and each new experience being based on previous experience. Each of us has a different life experience thus each of us perceives the world differently. Robert Anton Wilson calls it “reality tunnels”. Over a lifetime we build our tunnel. Philosophers like Camus call it the absurd. Subjective reality. Wilson talks about how it is surprising that our “reality tunnels” ever intersect with our life experiences all being unique and yet somehow they do.
The rain started to slow down to a very light drizzle. The rain was just enough to cool things down a bit and add a humidity to the air. The air became very still and a slight fog started to form. As I ascended the trail I noticed the change in the underbrush. Down in the valley there were ferns and moss on everything. As I headed up the mountain I saw it change to deciduous bushes. I wasn’t sure of the variety but the change was noticeable.
I tried to take my mind off the fact that my pack felt increasing heavy as I walked uphill by focusing on my breath. I had been walking for about 2 hours or so and was starting to get a little tired and hungry. I decided it was time to take a break. I took off my pack and leaned it up against a tree. I opened the side pocket and fished around inside it for a granola bar. When I found one I grabbed my water bottle and sat down on a rock on the trail’s edge.
I began listen. As I listened, more and more sounds met my ears. It was like the forest was waiting for this moment to play me its symphony. In reality that symphony is always going. I had just stopped to listen.
Symphony of Sound
As I sat there the first thing that caught my ear was the sharp, distinct song of a cardinal. I looked around for him but the tree cover where I sat was very thick. His song was so bright, so stark. I decided to close my eyes and let my ears drink it in.
That’s when it happened. The cardinal call was so prominent, like a melody of the forest song, but then another series of birth calls, more like chirps and squeaks, sneaked their way into my ear’s eye. Seemingly much less organized than the single line of the cardinal. At first I tried to identify the bird. I had heard it before. But it occurred to me that the instrument of the player was not important at this moment. The symphony continued.
I focused on my breath. The funny thing about actively attempting to enter a meditative state is that trying not to try is a paradox of sorts. I remember a meditation teacher telling me once that you need to give your mind something to do. Have it pay attention to your breathing. Sama vritti. Equal length breath. 1-2-3-4-5-6…6-5-4-3-2-1
As the cardinal song soared above the chirps of the multitude, I began to notice a slight thumping sound. At first it was a foreign sound to me and my mind tried to classify. Maybe it was drops hitting the leaves from the rain that had slowed. There was a moment of my mind starting to lose the fragile focus I had just started to find. Breathe. 1-2-3-4-5-6…6-5-4-3-2-1.
A wash of sound whispered steadily underneath the cardinal song, the cacophony of chirping, the thumping of dripping water hitting leaves. Wind. Wind in the leaves. Thousands of leaves all whispering as the air of a light breeze brushed them. Ancient trees responded with very quiet creaks and groans as the wind pushed their branches gently to and fro. 1-2-3-4-5-6…6-5-4-3-2-1.
I sat there in a moment of stillness. I felt a thought come over me. If these sounds are always there, why don’t I notice them? Layer upon layer. The mind is a powerful thing. We filter out so much surrounding experience. We have to or we’d never be able to have a conversation or complete a task. At that moment though, I saw the importance of slowing down, giving my mind a break, and letting experience flow. It all starts with breath.
Almost as though a conductor had cued a change something happened in the canopy of trees that disturbed the steady wash of sound. All at once the cardinal stopped. The cacophony of birds got quiet. Only the thumping and the wash of wind on leaves remained.
I sat there for a moment longer. Breathing. 1-2-3-4-5-6…6-5-4-3-2-1. Slowly I began to open my eyes. How long had I been there? It didn’t matter. This was exactly why I left my watch at home. The temptation to scrutinize fractional divisions of eternity.
I noticed that the sun was past high noon and I did want to make it to the crest of the rolling mountain before nightfall so I had a safe place to camp for the night. It gets very dark deep in the woods.
I put my water bottle and the wrapper from my granola bar back in my pack. I hoisted it on my back. “Lift with the legs.” The time I had taken to experience the symphony of sound all around me had rejuvenated me for the next leg of my hike.
I headed up the trail.
The trail meandered slowly up the rolling mountain. I could feel the air getting less humid as I ascended the trail. This was welcome because the humid air in the valley was thick. The spotty clouds had broken and the sun shone brightly in the sky. My brief rest had energized me for the last leg of my hike but also put me in the mood to ponder.
Change is the only constant. That adage kept rolling through my head as I made my way up the trail. It is an age old cliché and one that almost made me crack a smile at the cheese level but those five short words have so much meaning. Spending time in nature always brings that thought to the surface. As a snapshot, nature is a noun. It is a generic smattering of trees, mountains, rivers, lakes, clouds, and an occasional animal. Experiencing nature is to see it as a verb. A constant act of doing. My brief time listening and noticing reminded me of that. For a time the observer and the observed were one.
I started to think about how this applies to life in general. In city life there is constant bustle and it is easy to see the change all around us. Maybe it is because of the head down approach to urban living, or maybe it can be seen as ego getting in the way, or maybe it is the comfort we get from sameness, but we don’t notice that change. In fact, we get frustrated by it. We take the exact train everyday and if it is late it is tantamount to the world crumbling around us. We go to our favorite restaurant and order the same thing. We even follow the exact same route if we are walking or driving somewhere. There is comfort in sameness.
In change there is an uncomfortable feeling. A feeling of flux, of not knowing. Change takes more energy. There is also an exhilaration. Like jumping out of a plane with only your experience as a parachute.
I had been so lost in thought that I did not notice that I had almost reached the top of the rolling mountain. There was a trail the followed the crest. From my vantage point just off the top I could also see that there was a small man-made shelter at the place where the trail I was on met the trail along the crest. The foliage had definitely changed as I hiked up the mountain. In the valley it was mostly deciduous trees. Up here it was mostly pine trees. The pine scent was refreshing.
I reached the top and came up to the shelter. It was modest but sturdy. Brick shithouse sturdy. It was a short building, maybe just over 6 feet at it’s highest. It was made of mortared together river rock and flag stone for three walls and a chain link fence for the fourth; to keep the bears out. The roof was wood shakes. It had a small chimney and fire pit and two wooden bunk beds.
It was definitely minimal but it would save me having to pitch my tent. The temperature had started to drop as the sun sat low in the sky. I knew sleeping outside would be cold. This would be perfect.
I opened the chain link door and walked in. I could see as I walked up that it was not occupied. If someone came along I’d gladly share with them.
I leaned my pack against the wall and went out for a short walk to find some fire wood.
I didn’t have to walk far from the shelter before I came upon a fallen branch. Pine makes good tinder for starting a fire but luckily this was a branch from a harder wood tree. Maybe an oak. Burns longer. It was too big to carry so I stepped hard on it. There was a sharp snapping sound as the branch broke. It was very dry and must have fallen some time ago so it would burn well. I grabbed the piece I had broken off and stood on it as I pulled up snapping it in two. I picked up those two pieces as well as a big handful of pine twigs and headed back to the shelter. It was getting near dusk and I wanted to get to fire started before dark.
When I got back to the shelter I dropped the sticks on the floor and dug around in my backpack for some fire starter sticks I had bought at the camping store. Basically sawdust and paraffin. I knew they were kind of cheating but a quick and easy way to start a fire. I also grabbed the small waterproof box that contained the wooden matches. I put the starter stick in the fire pit and arranged the sticks in a loose lean to on top. One strike of the match and… fire. The sharp crackling sound cut through that still air that was now almost complete devoid of sunlight.
I fished around in my backpack again a found a flask. Whiskey. A nightcap. I knew I needed to cook dinner but right now I just needed to relax and enjoy the fire. There was a chill in the air and the soreness in my muscles from my hike today was starting to burn. I leaned my backpack against the bunk which was maybe 5 feet from the fire pit and sat down with my back against the pack. I let out an audible sigh, unscrewed the cap from the flask, took a swig of whiskey, and felt the burn down my throat ending in a warm feeling in my stomach. “Smooth” I thought in a slightly sarcastic way.
I could feel my body get heavier from fatigue and whiskey. Time seemed to slow down. I could hear the chorus off cricket and the crackling of the fire. I could feel the cool night air interspersed with wafts of warm air from the fire. My mind wandered to the Flow theory of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He theorized that there is a finite amount of information our brain can process, so when we are occupied with a task we lose our ability to monitor time. This moment was the opposite of that. My head was clear and I was just watching the licks of flame in the fire. It felt like time had stopped.
My mind then wandered to the great book by Alan Lightman called Einstein’s Dreams. In the book each chapter provides a short vignette with one perspective on time. One particular chapter came to mind. The world with no time. Only images. I took another sip from the flask, put on the cap, and closed my eyes. Time had stood still and only the warmth of the fire, the sounds of the crickets, the smell of the burning wood, and the lingering taste of whiskey on my tongue remained.
I leaned deeper into my backpack and drifted off to sleep.