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Dogwood at Nelder Grove - Deanna Wulff

Dogwood at Nelder Grove – Deanna Wulff

It’s difficult to guard a secret for most of your life and then tell everyone about it. I didn’t even tell my fiancé about it, until we had known each other for a year. I didn’t want him to think I was too “out there.”

It’s as if I’m describing someone else’s life. In high school, I had closets full of clothes, I’d curl my hair just exactly so, and I’d wear nylons with matching flats and belts every day. I was even voted “most likely to make a million.”

And that was the plan.

Transitions

High School Student, Waitress at Wawona, Ranger

But that particular plan began to unravel when I realized that it didn’t matter if I had all the money in the world, if I sold my life in exchange for it. You get one life, and that’s it. This realization led to another question or two: What makes people happy? What makes life worth living? I chose to study journalism, because I could ask anyone whatever I wanted under the guise of a story. I was looking for hints from our best and brightest. Still, when I finished my degree, I’d only gained a surface understanding of it all, so I applied to get a Master’s Degree in literature. Perhaps, our greatest writers could explain life’s mysteries.

That’s when things took an unexpected turn.

The South Fork of the Merced River

The South Fork of the Merced River

My parents balked at paying for another liberal arts degree. My grades were fair, but not good enough for a scholarship, and I wasn’t willing to acquire debt. So how would I pay for graduate school? I walked through the student union, and there was a career fair. Tenaya Lodge, a resort on the south side of Yosemite, was offering summer jobs. I applied and got the job. Off I went.

When I arrived, I rented a room from a couple who I didn’t know. I soon learned that they had problems with drugs and alcohol, and they argued a lot. I referred to them, as Mr. Six-Pack, and Mrs. Bottle of Wine. One day, the police had been called. Six-Pack had threatened to drag Wine off into the woods and kill her. He had crashed his car into her friend’s vehicle too. Time to get out of there. Pronto. I packed my bags, scribbled a quick goodbye note, left a $50 check for extraneous bills and headed out into the night. The problem was—I had no place to go. I called my mom, and she paid for a hotel that first night.

The Sierra National Forest - Nelder Grove

The Sierra National Forest

The very next day, I went into the woods and pitched a tent. I stored my clothes in a locker at the lodge and showered there. I would work until late at night and then drive out into the darkness to sleep in a flimsy nylon contraption. Initially, I was terrified. I would grip a cooking pot and a bottle of laundry bleach each night. My plan, if attacked? I would hit the intruder with the pot and throw bleach in his eyes. But nothing bad ever happened. Instead, something wonderful happened. I would awake to the smell of pine, to the mellifluous sounds of a nearby stream, to warm sun draping through boughs of trees, to birds singing and chipmunks scurrying along. In a month, I never felt happier or more beautiful in my life. So I came back the next summer and the next. Each time, I felt as if the light of all living things was flowing through me. It was pure joy. I did return to finish graduate school, but my real education came from the woods. I decided that the wilderness was worth knowing better.

Again, off I went.

After the Rim Fire

The Stanislaus Forest after the Rim Fire

Fast forward nearly 20 years. I’ve explored the American West relentlessly, and in all that time, I’ve only grown a deeper admiration for the original place. Its quiet beauty infuses my soul with peace and contentment. Upon my return, however, I noticed its neglect—big trees gone, soil eroded, land overrun. It’s been logged, mined and seldom given the care it needs. Then, I witnessed the Rim Fire. I watched as the northern portion of Yosemite and the Stanislaus Forest went up in flames, and I realized that the forest on the southern side might suffer the same fate too—and if isn’t cared for, no one will get to experience the power and beauty of the forest, as I did.

So how do we save the forest on the southern side of Yosemite?

We change the policy at the highest level via a national monument designation. With a Presidential Proclamation, we can protect more than 500,000 acres, two major watersheds, hundreds of Indian artifacts, unique geological formations and the lovely delicate forest. In doing so, we can extend nature’s reach.

View of the Sierra National Forest from North Fork San Joaquin River - Photo by David Husted

View of the Sierra National Forest from the North Fork San Joaquin River – Photo by David Husted

People will be able to walk from the Central Valley up into the High Sierra and beyond in a peaceful  undeveloped setting. We’re starting near the Minarets, the high peaks in the region, the spiritual pinnacles, and we’re going to grow outward from there. If you’d like to join in the creation of this special place, contact me via email or donate to the Minarets Foundation.

Let’s build a big beautiful park for people and for wildlife for all time.

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Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, is the object of relentless derision. Critics complain about her drug addiction, her sex addiction, her infidelities and her overwhelming grief. One reviewer writes: “This is not so much a book about hiking the PCT as it is her own catharsis: her father brutalizing her and her family, the death of her mother, her heroin addiction, and the final straw for me: the graphic murder of a beloved horse (it made me ill). And the hiking of the trail? She’s lucky to be alive. Don’t take notes. She’s Adventure HIker Faded Edgesill prepared, and with the aid of strangers, who provide rides, showers and food, she ‘makes it.’ I was not inspired. Just saddened.”

After reading such comments, I was determined to avoid her book. Why read a memoir that brings personal horror into the holy temple of the American Wilderness, which I personally cherish?

But I kept hearing women chatting about it. They would mention it to me at parties, or I’d catch a phrase from strangers passing by. Try as I may to avoid the book, it kept coming into my life, so I finally bought a copy and read it all the way through.

And yes, her critics are right; Strayed includes every painful detail of her life, down to the heroin-induced scar on her ankle, which was fresh the day she started hiking the PCT. But Strayed also takes her readers up and down mountains and successfully articulates the satisfaction of simple shelter and a solid meal and the way wandering in the wild makes you crave sweet soda and greasy fries, and thankful for a sunny day, a hot shower and a cold beer. Yes, she barely survives the PCT, but that’s the point. Backpacking takes grit and determination, and it hurts, just like life. And it’s wonderful, just like life.

Strayed’s critics need to a giant step back (or forward) and consider the underlying theme.

Consider that Strayed spent the next 15 years learning to write in order to tell this story. Consider that she highlighted the three months that she walked in the wilderness—above all. Consider that on the PCT, she began to recover from her overwhelming grief at that loss of her closest ally, her mother. Consider that by interspersing flashbacks of death, sex and shooting up, she effectively enshrines the haven of the natural world. Her walk in wilderness was the single most powerful and redemptive experience in her life, and it took guts to put her foibles into a book and publish it for all to see. That’s brave, not sad. I wrote my own hiking book for someone just like Strayed – to point my finger at the best places I know and to share beauty with people who most need it.

What saddened me about her book was just one thing. In her Acknowledgements, she forgot to thank the wilderness itself, without which, there would be no journey, no story to tell, no redemption, no place for her children to visit and reflect. So many people spend their weekends enjoying parks, forests and open space and so few work to protect them, and they’re under threat all the time. We’ve allowed rampant logging in our national forests, and what’s left of them seems to be on fire. In California, clear-cutting is still widespread, and in Oregon, where Strayed lives, it’s worse. Just fly to Portland and look down.

Strayed is a beautiful writer, she’s amazingly honest, and she’s achieved something good with this book, despite the barbs. I respect her accomplishment and her tremendous recovery. She’s absolutely headed in the right direction; she’s simply not gone far enough, not near far enough.

What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.―Mahatma Gandhi 

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Cover No EdgeHumans have been around for 200,000 years, and we’ve been walking for most of it. We’re meant to do it. It’s only recently that we started sitting, and the results are predictably bad.

Time outside, particularly walking in a natural place,  improves the mind, body and spirit, which is basically the holy trinity of a healthy life and living. When we walk in the wilderness, we think more clearly, we develop stronger bodies, and we feel better about ourselves and all living things.

That’s the philosophy behind my hiking book, which I’ll officially launch on the first day of spring.  You’re invited to celebrate with me at Title Nine in Los Gatos at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 20.

In a nutshell, the 29 hikes described in the book cover select portions of the Southwest, largely California, but also southern Utah and northern Arizona. It’s taken me most of my life to find and appreciate these special places.

rock shadow embellishThus far, I’ve worked in Yosemite, Death Valley, the Grand Canyon and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks. For 15 years, I’ve wandered the West, from the dewy forests of Olympic National Park to the southern deserts of New Mexico, and many places in between. This book is about the best places I’ve come to know, and how they’ve changed me and help me grow.

Read the official introduction. Listen to the accompanying playlist.  And go outside and enjoy this beautiful day.

When you get back, you can buy a copy here for $25 and plan your next adventure. (Please note: There may be a momentary delay in delivery. It’s not automated yet, so you’ll receive it directly from me.)

I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.—e. e. cummings

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