The Illusion of Control

Stilling the Mind

In my last post, I offered the concept that choice is all we really have and to choose wisely but after a recent painful event, I pondered, do we really have choices?  I will get to that event but for now, if one considers the philosophic concept of determinism, one abandons free will which in turn points to having no choice whatsoever. The definition of determinism is thus: it is the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. Some philosophers have taken determinism to imply that individual human beings have no free will and cannot be held morally responsible for their actions.

Take for instance the case of Covid.  If we choose to follow the recommended CDC guidelines, we will greatly reduce our chances of getting or spreading the disease.  Furthermore, it is suggested that we stay home as much as possible to reduce our chances of becoming a vector of transmission.  At this point, we all pretty much know why it’s a good idea to flatten the curve.

And still the pandemic goes on, month after month as hot spots move about the American landscape, this is a fire that has yet to be stamped out. Many people are getting tired and stressed by the length of our vigilance. We are an independent thinking nation of people and while many are embracing the challenge to not become another statistic, others are venturing out. I’ve seen more and more cars on the road as summer progresses and we “quaran-cheat” with parties, gatherings and celebrations.  We’ve needed this social time; humans are social animals.  Some choose to camp out in secret backwoods spots or spend time on a beach if it hasn’t been closed. As an avid backpacker myself, I watched as the Pacific Crest Trail association implored hikers to not attempt thru-hiking the trail this year.  Permits were revoked, trail angels and support faded away and hikers groused about it or applauded the decision depending on their ideas about the pandemic crisis.

In the effort at maintaining good mental health, I continued to hike my local trails as I am blessed to be in a place where I rarely run into other people.  My wilderness plans were focused on more remote locations away from the PCT which has become pretty well trod of late so I am in agreement with the PCTA’s decision regarding Covid-19.

The choice to stay within my comfort zone of risk, as in backpacking and horseback riding was sound as far as I was concerned.  I am very well experienced in both these things and have whittled down all risk as to be non-existent.  I am a safety star, careful my middle name.  Surely these activities will pose no risk to the general public, right?

Yes, and no.  Here’s where personal choice comes into play.  If you eliminate all risks, as much as is humanly possible what else can go wrong?  But it is exactly why we call things that go wrong “an accident” because life is unforeseen and unpredictable even when we do the best we possibly can.

Which is how I came to be in the emergency room of a hospital getting multiple x-rays to determine how many bones I may have broken on a remote national forest trail while riding my 100% safe and trustworthy horse.

Basically, shit happens.  Sometimes even when you use the power of your choices to become as well informed and as well prepared as you can.  Even when you are experienced and conscientious, aware and careful. One cannot factor on everything, and especially those factors you are unaware even exist.

Who knew that on that fated moment a deer would scare my husbands’ horse (they aren’t usually scared by deer) and that he would dump my husband then wheel into my horse and she would  jump in response and at that moment my saddle fittings would fail and dump me onto my shoulder?  Who knew that a second deer would boldly linger in the brush, then leap out, charge at our dogs and further frighten the already unsettled horses? Who knew that my shoulder would tear and I would be left with an unusable left arm to catch a frightened horse sporting a saddle sideways upon her ribs?

No one knew and least of all, me.  The me that not 15 minutes before had checked my girth to make sure it was fastened tight, less I have an accident!  The silver lining was that we hadn’t gone far; the bad part (besides being hurt) was that we had just set up camp for a long anticipated 3-day horse camping trip.  And there we were, just a few hours later, taking it all down and loading up for a drive home with a stop at the emergency room along the way.

Nothing broken, but in a great deal of pain, I took to my bed for days and slept off the pain meds and allowed myself to heal.  My ribs were severely bruised, making it even harder to get up and move about; my arm hung uselessly by my side. In the time between doctor appointments, I pondered all my choices that led up to that point, and wondered what I could have done to change any of the results other than remain safely at home.  And yet, accidents happen at home as well; I’ve personally torn my knee tripping over a wheel barrow.  My friend broke her leg in her back yard and another just spent 7 days in the hospital with complications from gall bladder surgery.  I myself had the same surgery a year ago and then returned with complications as well, both times having to leave the safety of my home with these serious ailments.

So where does choice figure in when sudden emergencies occur?  One can choose to stay home with the hope that they stay out of harms way, but harm can find you at home.  One can choose to live life and venture out as safely as possible and still, harm can find you there as well.

Which leads me to control and the illusion of control.  There are times when we may think we are in control of our destiny, that the choices we make, make a difference. We eat healthy, exercise, reduce our stress, contribute to society, brush our teeth, are kind to others. And then there are times that clearly point out how little control we have; control of our life isn’t always available, we just thought it was ours to choose, but it wasn’t.  It’s in these times of perceived tragedy and accidental injury that we see that control may not be ours to hold. No matter the free will we exercise over ourselves, ultimately, we cannot control everything.  Is this what is meant by faith and trust? Is it not the realm of faith that something, someone, some higher power has control and purpose and that there may be meaning in the chaos of circumstances beyond our control?  Is this the ultimate in trust?

I don’t subscribe to determinism, nor do I believe that we are entirely subjected to free will.  Perhaps it’s a combination of both a higher power and our own free will.  But, and here’s the kicker, one has to be aware of the choice before we are free to choose.  When someone reacts out of anger, triggered by old programs and patterns, they are not choosing if they are unaware there is a choice.  Choices come when one is aware.  It is our sacred mission in this life to awaken enough to see the choices before us, to transcend old habits and programs and find the free will that belongs to us.  Not all of our life is steered by our own free will, sometimes fate steps in and removes that illusion of control over our destinies.

Meditation may just be the easiest, simplest way to awaken to our egoic patterns of mind control that robs us of our free will and choices. In meditation, we exercise our ability to control wayward thoughts and old programing that keeps us from awareness and we bring our attention to the moment at hand. There are many techniques but the goal (if there must be a goal to stilling the mind) is learning how to find space between who you think you are and who you really are.  It’s listening to your inner voice and finding quiet knowing and clarity.  It is that clarity that awakens your mind to the choices in life that are before you.  Choices you never even knew you had.

And when you find your clarity to make awakened choices, you also may find the illusion of control and relax, surrendering yourself to something bigger and more beautiful than your own small self.  And that is a choice I can get behind.

Trail Magic

Good Morning South SIster

Good Morning South Sister!

Trail magic is when you find something you need or suddenly someone is there with food and water or even an ice cold beer.  It’s incongruous things that seem to be provided magically.  “The trail provides” is an oft bit of shared hiker wisdom, but I think it’s really life that provides.  If “provide” is the right word, really.  It’s just that on the trail the need that is provided for is seen so clearly for what it is, it doesn’t get lost in the chaos that is most people’s day to day struggle.  But trail magic happens all the time.

The other day I had misplaced my keys.  As I was searching for them, I found a letter that had fallen under a table.  A letter I needed because it contained key information about a project I was working on.  Immediately after finding the letter, I found my keys.  Coincidence or “trail magic”?

I could probably come up with a list of these kind of serendipitous moments, but really, they’ve become so common place I just go “ahah!” then move on with my day. However, their common place-ness doesn’t detract from their wow factor.  They are for me the exception that proves the rule, with the rule being, life is an amazing and magical place.  We are here to remember our connection to the magic, the universe, the “god-ness” of it all.  These little markers are our verification that that kind of energy exists and we are a part of it.

The above painting is from the day after my own magical day on the PCT.  The day I met Mowgli and Raven and blissfully walked  from the Minnie Scott Spring to this exact spot.  I set up my tent just outside of the above image and took the snapshot first thing in the morning as I got back on the PCT.  South Sister was indeed that blue in the morning and I was full of joy and happiness as I made my way to Mirror Lake.

It seemed fitting that it was my very first painting after I returned home from the trail and this seems exactly like the best spot to leave it in my running commentary/transcription of my trail journals.  I still have a few more days to put together, sadly however, I recently lost most of my photos from the last leg of my journey.  A crappy SD card is to blame, but I managed to upload some images to the cloud so I am still able to illustrate my journey.  For now, I thought the painting would do, along with a reminder that trail magic is all around.  It doesn’t exist solely on the trail. You just have to notice that it can be anything from a stranger’s smile to that $20 you found when you were hungry.

On BEing…. a trail journal part 7

Day 12  Onward to Mirror Lake

August 11, 2016       9 miles

Awake by 7 and on the trail  by 9:30.  Mosquitoes and condensation slow my packing up as I dried my rain-fly before stowing it in the pack.  I don’t want to carry any more water than I need to! Eventually I am on my way and I tell myself it doesn’t matter that it took me 2 and a half hours to get on the trail.  What difference does it make?

Camped just to the left of this picture, I took it first thing in the morning.

Camped just to the left of this picture, I took it first thing in the morning.

I wonder what marvelous things will happen today?  I am amazed at this part of the PCT, I’m on new ground, and it’s simply wonderful!  There are great views, nice campsites and a neat unnamed lake that had me very tempted for an early stop.  Alas, the surface was buzzing with mosquitoes so I go on by after taking a few pictures.  I run my battery charge down by taking too many panorama shots, a phenomena I suddenly notice for the first time. No wonder my phone was so inconsistent with holding a charge.

There is a climbers trail to the north side of Faith. I didn't find it, but I will one day!

There is a climbers trail to the north side of Faith. I didn’t find it, but I will one day!

I cross paths with an older solo woman hiker by the name of Honey.  We nod and keep walking, not even exchanging a word. I only learn her name later from 2  women I meet further down the  trail when we stop to talk about how unusual we all are (they were older too). I encounter few solo women, fewer still the ones who are closer to my age. There seem to be lots of 20 something guys, in pairs or alone.  Sometimes they are with a 20 something woman/girl/gal… chick?  I don’t know which term to use to describe a female 20 something… all my choices seem wrong.  Old fashioned or condescending, a product of a misogynistic culture that I am only recently becoming very aware of.  I don’t know how I’ve missed this part of the world around me, I guess I just never paid attention.  Maybe if I had taken a woman’s studies class in college it would have opened my eyes a bit wider to the injustice of it all, but I seem to be making up for lost time.  In the past few years I’ve been studying this subject most intently.

I remember being 17 and sitting in my mother’s living room as she and her girlfriend groused about life. As divorcees with children and no career options  in the 1970’s they had something to grouse about, life had not been easy for them.  “It’s a man’s world” said mom’s friend.  Being the know it all I surely was at 17, I completely disagreed.  “It might have been for your generation, but it’s not for mine!” I said ‘wisely’.  They were kind enough to let me figure it out for myself, but damn, it’s taken  me a long time.  I must have believed that the woman’s movement had changed everything and leveled the playing field, and I went on with my life as if it had.

For decades I thought it was just me if things were unfair.  I never saw it was because I was a woman… if some of the unfairness was because of my gender, I was blind to it.  I didn’t notice discrimination. Hell, I never even saw the blatant sexism in a job where the men used me as bait for customers!  I was an uninformed idiot, truly, and being unaware meant I could be manipulated and used. At some point I felt so used up, without even knowing why, I just wanted to hide in my quiet country life and not interact with the world at large.  As for gender roles, well,  I always just did what I wanted to do and didn’t think who’s “job” it was.  I was proud when I could run a skill saw or build something  better than my husband. He was proud of it too and gave me support to try all sorts of things.  I never heard messages that I couldn’t do something because I was a woman.  The day my girlfriends teased me about being more of another “man” around the place because I did things that their husbands usually did, (such as mowing, splitting firewood, building fences, sheds, a barn, my studio!) was the day I started to really wonder why they had limited themselves to traditional domestic chores. How had our society reinforced these kinds of roles? I see much of our cultural bias as restrictive but I think the things I’ve done fall under the category of “I didn’t know what I couldn’t do” more than a conscious rebellion against sexism.

As I write this it’s two days from a critical historic moment for my country.  I feel the sexism and misogyny here has reached a height that is surprising to say the least.  The persecution of a woman candidate who has dared to be herself and who did not play a submissive game and thus has felt the wrath of our media and any political hack who could post on the internet for not fitting the mold, is beyond belief.  It has been hard to hold on to my center, to my peace of mind, to my surrender.  The recharge that the trail gave me has been drained as we’ve gotten closer to this election process… but it’s no wonder as I’ve been taking some sweeping political panorama shots.  I’ll have to go hiking again as soon as possible for another charge of my emotional battery!

I cruise down the trail, happy and content in my solitude.  I’m glad I haven’t let my age or my gender stop me from doing what I wanted to do.  I preen a little when I come across a group of 7 women who are circumnavigating the Three Sisters together and they all admire my bravery.  I walk on feeling a little like the kid who got a gold star on their schoolwork. But my self satisfaction doesn’t last long as I consider how I was being proud of something that wasn’t really that hard for me. I figure it’s not really bravery if the emotional cost is low.  Courage is facing your fears and doing it anyway.  Hiking alone doesn’t worry me…. my brave moments were crossing the rushing glacial waters of the Muddy and the Sandy.  Both events witnessed only by myself and the universe.  I’m proud of myself for doing that. But hiking along this section of the PCT?  It’s a privilege in so many ways.

The women’s group offers me trail bars and food to help me on my way, but I decline, I’m carrying way too much as it is.  I need to lighten my load, not theirs!

Trees grow right out of the walls of the secret canyon.

Trees grow right out of the walls of the secret canyon.

I listen to Carrot Quinn’s interview on Real Talk radio  (listen here) and learn that she often cache’s food and only carries 4 days at a time.  I’m thinking this is a very good idea.  8 days of food is too much.  I’ve tried to eat more but that’s not always easy to do.  The trail falls easily downhill and I hike past a darling mini canyon surrounded by lava cliffs with a flat grassy floor.  The only way into the box canyon is to push your way in between a narrow grove of fir and spruce. I force myself in, I want to see this little canyon I had glimpsed from above as the PCT dropped down then veered off. I walk the perimeter and think about how this would be a good horse camp, you could practically let the horses go and they’d be corralled in among the lava walls.  The whole canyon is about 2 acres and is exactly the kind of side trip thing I’m glad I have time to explore. No water, so not a perfect camp, but I admire the secret space among the expanse of towering mountain views.

I get to Rock Mesa creek by noon and settle down for a rest/lunch break.  I was supposed to stay here after camping at Obsidian but again, it’s too early and when I look at the map again, I realize Mirror lake is only 4 miles away.  I’d rather end my day there and zero at the lake than stay here.  Not that I need a trail zero, but I wanted a day where I didn’t have to pack up… a day to just BE in a place.

I wander about, looking at an area near the creek where I camped over 20 years previously.  It’s odd to be at these spots full of old memories, I recall sitting out an afternoon of thunder and lightening in a very small tent with two large, wet dogs.  The places haven’t really changed much… the trees in the high country don’t grow like they do in the valley.  But they do grow and so too the brush.  The camp spot was still there, I recognized it immediately.  And 20 years later I see what a crappy little spot it was.  It had been much more remote… now there was a trail nearby, following the creek downstream. All those years ago we bushwacked our way down a half mile to the waterfall that was hidden below the Mesa Creek crossing.  Now, there’s a bridge on the PCT and trail heading downstream.  Who knows, 20 years from now, it could be forgotten and grown over, a faint line leading nowhere.

Mesa Creek and meadows.

Mesa Creek and meadows.

After about an hour rest, I hike out and avoid the large group of thru hikers who are congregating in the sunny meadow.  They are laughing and full of fun, but I’m still in my solitary zone.  I don’t really want to interact right now so I wave at them in acknowledgment and move on. Some wave back.  The southbound trail is busy… perhaps I’d have had a better chance of hiking all day in my alone-ness by going north, a better chance of getting in a solo bubble and staying there. Oh well, that’s not what’s happening, so I surrender and accept.

Later, I meet a gal and her barnacle… I nick-name him the barnacle because she tells me he started hanging out with her and she hadn’t been able to get rid of him since the California border.  We exchange trail names, but I promptly forget them as all I can think about is the barnacle phenomena.  Earlier I met a hiker, Sweet Pea, who also had a tag-a-long dude.  I wonder if the guys are hoping for more or maybe the girls are liking the security and friendship?

Then I meet Safe Bet, a Brit who quit his job and moved in with his parents so he could hike the PCT.  He was carrying too much water, because he likes the safe bet… hence the name.  I climb up the Rock Mesa and laugh at how I used to think it was so hard (I’ve climbed it 4 times now).  After climbing up out of the Gorge, nothing seems as difficult.  SOBO Mt. Hood was a real bear of a section but the views were absolutely stunning!

I get mistaken for a SOBO thru a lot… one gal says I look so serious.  But I’m not sure if it’s my outfit or the determined look on my face she is referring to.  I hope it’s the outfit since I’m totally blissed out on the trail.

Your first view of the Mesa wall.

Your first view of the Mesa wall.

The views as I hike are not as steep and epic as Mt. Hood,  but the Sisters have their own charm.  Rock Mesa continues south along the flanks of Faith (South Sister).  It’s open and arid and beautiful to travel the Wikiup plains which stretch way out into the distance.  It was hot by the time I got there but with my umbrella I did just fine.  I was listening to another hiking podcast, Sounds of the Trail and it was so perfect because it was all about how the hard days cause us to question why are we out here.  These challenging days cause us to rise above the hardship and release our inner grit.  And when you’ve risen to the challenge and have beaten it, then you are stronger.  Mentally as well as physically.

The start of the Wikiup if you are heading south.

The start of the Wikiup if you are heading south.

Today was that mental challenge for me.  The unrelenting heat on the plains, well, I had some doubts that I should be venturing out.  I’ve had a few bouts of heat stroke, so when it hits 90, I try not to do anything physical in the sun. But under my personal shade, it was fine. Slogging along, I thought of my days in endurance riding.  Sometimes you are in the doldrums of the race.  It’s hot, you’re tired, your horse is tired, you just want to get to the next vet check or you think longingly about the end of the ride and never going through all this nonsensical torture again.

Looking back at the way I've come. Hello South Sister!

Looking back at the way I’ve come. Hello South Sister!

But you can’t quit.  You are in the middle of nowhere and you have got to press on.  I’ve had some hard moments on the endurance trail and sometimes you kind of hit a wall but you still… just…keep…going.  And then, you round the corner and you are done.

I trudged across this sandy desert of a plain and then, I was in the forest again. Ahhhh, shade!  On I march, now I’m listening to Amira’s book, (how cool is it to have an author as a house-sitter?) the second in the Seeds Trilogy.  The resistance fighters are turning to guerrilla tactics as well as infiltrating and destroying from within.  Listening to these stories keeps my mind occupied as I march through the miles in the heat of the day.  I save them for times like this and they transform the trail into something different from what I’ve experienced in the past.

I’ve been a backpacker for over 30 years now, before cell phones and the internet.  (Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth.  HA!)  Technology has changed the wilderness experience, true.  I no longer feel so remote or out of touch.  But listening to a story or a song, lightens my load in the same way my hiking poles help me on the trail.  They are tools however, and not a crutch.  I still have to do the work out here, they just make it easier.  Sometimes I listen and sometimes I’m quiet and in the moment. It just depends on what I want to get out of that part of the trail.

I cross paths with a hiker who has her phone pressed to her ear.  She steps aside as if we were meeting in the cereal aisle at Safeway rather than on a remote trail in the wilderness.  She’s calling Elk lake to say she forgot something and would they…. at this  point, I’ve moved out of range.  I still think it’s odd to have phones in the wilderness, it’s so incongruous.  I forget I even have a phone… I think of it as a camera, an audio player and a GPS but then I remember and stop to check my own signal.  4G!!  Hurrah!  I turn off airplane mode and the Galaxy begins to ding.  Messages are checked (there are a few well wishes from my family) and I send out a few of my own.  Now people once again know where I am and the world feels a little smaller and definitely less remote.

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I used my umbrella to shade my tent while I lounged about inside after my swim.

I cruise into Mirror lake and walk it’s perimeter before I settle on a site on the far side, tucked up into a stand of young pine.  The mosquitoes aren’t too bad, but I do get stung by a yellow jacket when I was bushwacking between possible camp sites.  I’ve taken 2 Benadryl but think maybe one more might be a good idea.  I’m glad I don’t have to hike any more today as Benadryl sleepiness will soon creep up on me.  It’s the only thing that will minimize my reaction to wasp stings which seem to have gotten worse the more times I get stung.  I hate to say I hate yellow jackets, but I kinda do.

I’ve got a nice little spot among the trees, the lake is a short walk away across the soft mud flats and I’m far enough away from the usual camp sites that I’m alone even on a well used camping lake.  I do my laundry and take a good long swim across the lake where I haul myself out on a rock in the middle and sun myself like a turtle.  I feel so good!  Another 9 miles down and now I can take a zero.  Finally, my first zero on the trail.  The hotel thing was nice, but not quite what I was imagining when I put this whole trip together.

Later, I have a wonderful meal, another one of my homemade dried creations.  Curried sweet potato, vegetables and rice, so delicious.  I thank my past self who made this  for me now and chuckle at the concept of time.  There was a Sky in the past who cooked, dried and packaged this meal and then here I am, opening and re-hydrating this little packet of nourishment and love.  It feels complete.

Time… I’ve been thinking about time on this leg of my journey.  Reading the Power of Now will do that to you but being away from my normal time centric life also puts these concepts and ideas into the forefront.  Everything happens in the now… even planning for a future event is something you do in the now.  Ruminating over the past happens in the now.  I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of time travel.  As if one could leave the present now and actually zoom forward or past and actually make that your now.  But in a way, when we project or remember, we are time travelling!  In our minds, we leave the present now to visit these memories or imagined futures.  Problems occur when we cannot see the difference between what goes on in our heads with what goes on in our NOW.

I’m getting it… slowly.  I keep re-reading these concepts and each time, it becomes more and more my reality as it reminds me how to focus on the now.  How to be kind to myself as I learn, how to withhold  judgments of others and  judgments of myself.  The more I release these pains and sufferings, the more I surrender, the greater (faster?) my growth.  My peace, my understanding… my accountability to my soul.  The less ego, the less mind…  the more integration of my body, mind and spirit.

That’s a lot to digest for one day.  I step out and take pictures of the setting sun.  The sky is on fire with the end glow of another glorious day and I feel immense gratitude for my place in the world.20160813_055903