Below are 5 pieces of fiction that I wrote. . .
“I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head.”
― Primo Levi
Nine months into my stay in Bozeman, Montana, I found myself economically penniless and spiritually hungry.
Life felt authentic, probably because there was so much wide open space between the “real world” and me. At that point in time, I was also about as close to the earth as one could get, living in a tent in the middle of the mountains.
My job as a dishwasher had become mind-numbing and I had no luck finding anything better. Competition for jobs was fierce because everyone was flocking to beautiful Bozeman. It seemed to me that I was out of options. In sheer frustration, and out of a desire to do something real, I rebelliously moved twenty miles west into the Tobacco Root Mountains, just beyond an old mining village called Pony. This was perhaps the wisest and most foolish decision I’ve ever made.
The tent was fairly roomy, the spring weather gorgeous, and I enjoyed living far from civilization. I had set up shop in a lush valley surrounded by stunning snowcapped peaks and it seemed as if I had this amazing place to myself. I spent time hiking and enjoying the streams, lakes, and wildlife. I soaked myself for hours a natural hot spring in the middle of a meadow while reading Thoreau and Emerson. I watched the sun and moon rise and set, witnessed a triple rainbow and listened to the coyotes howl. At night, I glimpsed shooting stars, gazed at the Milky Way, warmed myself by campfires, stared at the snowy moonlit mountain peaks and wrote in my journal. In many ways, it was the best of times. I felt extraordinarily present in the world and unusually comfortable in my own skin.
A few weeks into this adventure, however, the fact that I had no plan seemed increasingly foolish. Although I was feeling more alive than ever, I was losing my hope that I would somehow procure the necessities of life. Moving into the mountains had been an act of blind faith (and desperation), but reality was closing in on me. I had no money for gas or food (or anything), no known way to communicate with the outside world and I was down to three days of rations. The future looked bleak. I was as close to the economic bottom as one could get. At the same time, life felt so real. The irony of this juxtaposition was not lost on me. I was twenty-four years old.
So there I was living on faith and faith alone with only three days of food. Those days passed quickly and, before I knew it, I was sitting in my tent one early morning holding a small can of ravioli, the very last bit of food I had. Without much hesitation, I ate it, the whole thing, and then set out on a hike.
I hiked all day. Around two in the afternoon, I started getting really hungry. I had no food but I pressed on, driven by something. I must have walked five miles or more in the Potosi valley, exploring areas I’d never seen. I was in new territory and the sights, sounds and smells absorbed my senses. The landscape grew more and more beautiful and this helped me forget my hunger. There were lakes and streams in the valley and the forests along the edge gave way to rocky slopes on either side. Towering above those slopes were the magnificent peaks of the Tobacco Roots that had always captivated me when I glimpsed them from Bozeman.
It was a gorgeous bursting day and I felt weight lifting from me as I hiked on. An hour passed and the valley floor turned steeply upward. After a long and exhausting ascent, I arrived at the top of the high hill and found myself at the edge of a small lake perched impossibly above the valley. There was no one around. I hadn’t seen another human being in weeks. I was beyond hungry at this point. To my right was an abandoned mining shack that probably hadn’t been occupied by anything other than bugs and mice for more than a century.
I knelt down by the rocky edge of the lake, cupped my hands and took a drink. The water was ice cold. Its chief source was the spring snowmelt from those stunning mountain peaks, the same ones that had drawn me to this valley in the first place. I gazed at the crystal clear lake as the wind blew geometric ripples across its surface. I stood there in silence and closed my eyes as the sun warmed my face. The only sounds were those of the gentle wind in the trees, the quiet gurgle of a distant stream and the occasional chirping bird. I opened my eyes and felt an overwhelming sense of peace and gratitude.
That moment by the side of that high mountain lake was ethereal. Life felt pure, stripped down to its essence. For whatever reason, I had a powerful faith at that moment that everything was going to be O.K. I was filled with boundless patience. By all accounts, I should have been terrified by situation, but I wasn’t. Maybe I was stupid or delirious from hunger, but I pretty much served myself up to the world at that moment and said, “here you go.” And I’ve been doing that stupidly or deliriously ever since to varying degrees.
– – –
After lingering by that lake for an hour or so, I began the long hike back towards my tent. As the late afternoon turned to evening, I felt peaceful but dizzy with hunger. All those fears of coyotes, mountain lions, bears and strangers crept into my mind over and over again but I was able to push them out as fast as they entered. It was almost dark when I made it back to camp. As soon as I arrived, I resisted the urge to sit down and instead mustered the last of my energy to make a fire.
I looked through my backpack and tent for morsels of food to no avail. I was starving. I remember thinking that Gandhi would have laughed at my defining hunger as starvation. I also remember thinking that hunger is supposed to raise your awareness like sleep deprivation or pregnancy. The words of Emerson and Thoreau bounced around in my mind as my tiny fire died down. I climbed into my tent, completely exhausted, and zipped up my sleeping bag. I felt thankful for the day because it was real and because my mind was blissfully on the present almost the entire time.
I fell asleep feeling humble, cold, hungry and grateful.
– – –
The next day I awoke at sunrise and walked down to the stream to drink some water and wash myself. I was deliriously hungry but decided, for some reason, to go for a hike. I hadn’t really been back towards the east since I’d first arrived in this valley a few weeks ago. All my adventures had been to the west. One dirt road divided the valley. I hiked a mile or two down the road and my prospects brightened. I saw two men working building a tiny cabin, something I hadn’t noticed before. I waved hello and one of them came out to the road to greet me. We chatted for a moment. It turned out he was heading back to Billings and the crew needed a replacement for him.
“Are you any good with a draw knife,” the man, Gary Senn, asked. I will never forget him because I might not be around now if it weren’t for him. I sure as hell wasn’t begging my way back to town. At the time, I remember thinking that I would stubbornly stick it out there in the Tobacco Roots no matter what happened.
Fortunately, my chance meeting with Gary averted such an unnecessary and foolish disaster. That day I got hired and ate a hearty meal. I ended up going to work with this small team of men for the next month or two helping to build a few log cabins at a spot called Potosi Hot Springs. My job was to hand strip the logs for the cabins. You should have seen the callouses on my hands. I grew stronger each day and was soon in the best shape of my life. It was as hard a work as this philosophy major had ever done.
(END OF “PEAK WATER”)
Here’s another fictional piece. . .
In the spring of 1993, I had the good fortune to be a member of a crew building log cabins in the middle of the Tobacco Root Mountains in Montana. It was my job to hand strip the logs with a draw knife. I had some serious callouses and worked some long hours, but it was one of my favorite jobs. After all, we were working outdoors and living in paradise.
I was staying in tiny 10 x 12 cabin by a trout stream with another crew member. You could hear the sound of that stream at night. The snow capped peaks, Montana’s big sky and the forests surrounded us in beauty.
We were working in a pretty isolated spot. To get there, you first drive 40 minutes west of Bozeman, cross the Madison River and enter the old mining village of Pony. Then you turn onto a bumpy dirt road and wind many miles into the mountains. It was definitely a road less traveled. The six of us hadn’t seen another human being or car in weeks.
On the weekends, I had a day or two off. Those were probably the most amazing days imaginable. Instead of making the long drive into town with the crew, I stayed behind and enjoyed the solitude of the mountains. I read Emerson and Thoreau while submerged in the natural hot springs that could be found within a mile of a our work site. I also explored more of the valley and wrote in my journal. I witnessed a triple rainbow, watched the beavers, bald eagles and other wildlife do their thing. I even tried my hand at fly fishing. I caught nothing, but it didn’t matter. Just being there (and having a day off from hard physical labor) was a true gift.
My life in that valley was incredibly idyllic, but I was attracted to the beauty of the snow covered peaks of the Tobacco Roots that surrounded us. When I had been living in Bozeman, I had looked out at those peaks countless times and felt drawn to them. I wanted to explore the areas above our valley.
I also had always had a fear of spending the night alone high in the mountains. I wanted to face that fear. So I decided to head 1500 feet above the valley one night to sleep alone up there under the stars.
I told my coworkers (all native Montanans) about my apprehension and explained my plan to confront it. They had quite a time telling me all sorts of scary stories about mountain lions and bears and coyotes.
The next day, after a long day at work, they handed me a .44 Ruger pistol with a six-inch barrel. The gun was so powerful that, when they taught me to shoot it, I missed the can, but it still went up in the air. The recoil almost knocked my shoulder out of joint.
We worked a regular Monday to Friday week in the valley and I planned to go on my adventure on a work night. On a Tuesday morning before breakfast, I got up extra early and carefully laid out my clothing for that evening. It was spring in Montana and the temperature drops into the thirties at night, especially high in the mountains where I was heading. I planned to build a small fire, but I was not taking a sleeping bag or tent. It was just going to be me (warmly dressed) and the elements.
After work, I put on my cold weather gear and placed a travel alarm, a couple of Hershey bars and a small hunk of cheese into my coat pocket. I also grabbed the enormous borrowed pistol and slid it into the holster on my belt. It was 5 p.m. and I was ready.
I ascended the high hill to the south. It was steep through the woods so I had to wind my way up. I was moving quickly because it was getting dark fast. It was May 9, 1993, a couple of weeks after my 24th birthday. A year or even a month earlier, I would never have imagined I’d be hiking up a mountain in late evening with a six-shooter in my holster.
The ascent was exhausting, but my adrenaline was pumping as I scanned for the mountain lion, bear and coyotes about which I’d been repeatedly warned. It was getting dark but I could see pretty well since there was still snow on the ground in the higher elevations. Spring doesn’t come quickly in Montana. As I approached the tree line, the ground leveled off a bit. I hiked above the tree line and walked into a small meadow that was covered in snow. I decided this was the spot I would spend the night. I turned around and paused for a moment to take in the awesome sight of the glimmering snow-capped mountain peaks spread out before me. I had climbed about 1000 feet above the valley floor and was now at an elevation of about 6,500 feet so the view was spectacular.
I didn’t pause long before getting to work on building my nest for the night. This was a weeknight. I had to be at work by 7 a.m. so the first thing I did was set my travel alarm clock for 5:30 a.m. I then cleared some snow for a campsite and procured some stones to build a fire ring. Next, I hiked down below the tree line and made some trips back and forth to gather what I thought would be enough wood for the night. I also dragged some pine branches up the side of the mountain and built myself a pretty snazzy on-sided windbreak (a structure I would later burn for warmth).
It didn’t bother me that I had no tent, no sleeping bag, no water and no container in which to melt snow. By 9 p.m., I was happily settled next to a roaring fire, the coals glowing orange and purple. I was foolishly eating snow when I got thirsty which probably did a number on my body temperature, but I didn’t care. This was bliss.
Here’s what I wrote in my journal that night high in the mountains:
“10:20 p.m. – May 9, 1993 – Upper ridge – east of Potosi Hot Springs, Tobacco Root Mountains, Montana, USA
One of the most amazing nights of my life. I am sitting two feet from a tiny roaring fire. I plan on sleeping here tonight without a sleeping bag or tent and heading down to work in the morning as the sun comes up over the Bridger Mountains. I see Belgrade to the north, Bozeman to the northeast and Harrison to the north. The towering snow capped rocky peaks of the Tobacco Root Mountains are looming splendidly to the south, their jagged silvery summits basking in the starlight.
What prompted me to begin writing is the brilliant display of the Northern Lights — aurora borealis! Huge curtains of white, green and red shimmering from the horizon to a 45-degree angle and approximately 90 degrees wide. The curtains, which have lasted for more than an hour, turn often to spikes driving all the way up to the crisp clear stars. The big dipper is directly overhead. A sliver of a moon should be out a little later tonight. I’m letting the fire die down so my eyes can more easily adjust to see the auroras. The lights of tiny Montana towns sparkle. . . a coyote barks (but does not howl) way off to the east.
“My campfire is just a beautiful bed of hot coals now. It’s so hot, even without the flames, that I could wait three hours and throw another branch on and it would start right up. It took over an hour’s work to get it to this point. I have no water, only snow to drink (no cup either, must melt snow in my mouth). Otherwise, I am well outfitted. The largest piece of equipment is the .44 Ruger handgun loaned to me by my co-worker. There are five bullets in the chamber and the hammer is on the empty slot. No safety on this bad boy. I have five additional bullets in my pocket and five more in my sock.”
Why I thought I would need 15 bullets and how I would get the last five out of my sock in time to reload, I’ll never know. I gazed at the stars, snowcapped peaks and auroras for hours and then hiked back down below the tree line in the dark (I had no flashlight) to gather more wood. I stoked up the fire with as many branches as possible and curled right up to the fire ring to keep warm. After an hour of peacefully watching the fire, I drifted off into a deep sleep. That was probably around 1:30 a.m. I had never felt more at peace or more in tune with the earth.
After what must have been about two hours sleep, I was gently awoken by the distant howl of a coyote. It didn’t scare me. In fact, it sounded pretty cool. I glanced at the fire and drifted back to sleep for what must have been another fifteen minutes. Again I was awoken, this time by the howl of a coyote about two hundred yards to the north. I shuddered and froze for several minutes, listening intently for any movement in any direction. After what seemed like an eternity, I gathered enough sense to throw the remaining wood on the fire to create warmth and scare off any coyotes.
I laid back down, my back tense, my ears perked, my eyes peeled, adrenaline pumping. I waited. A few minutes later, I heard a coyote howl long and low a few hundred yards to the west, just downhill in the direction of the grove of trees from which I’d gathered my firewood. Then, seconds later, the original coyote from the north howled again, as if to answer, “Yes, I see him and he looks tasty and helpless.”
I yanked the borrowed .44 Ruger out of its leather holster with a sweaty palm. The gun was heavy and the longer I held it there pointed into the darkness, the heavier it became. To make matters worse, my palm grew sweatier with each terrifying moment. Additionally, I’m not a gun guy. I’ve only fired three or four guns in my entire life. At that point, I was nearly as terrified of the gun as I was of the thought of being eaten by coyotes.
Another five minutes of silence went by and, to fill that void, I repeatedly inventoried my ammo in my head: five in the chamber, 5 in my pocket and five more in my sock. I imagined how many coyotes might travel in a pack and tried to calculate how accurate I’d have to be so as not to run out of ammo. Anyone who knows anything about pistols will tell you that accuracy at twenty yards in broad daylight is quite a challenge. In the dark, it’s a pipe dream.
Now it’s one thing to laugh around the fireplace in the cabin by the stream with native Montanans about how harmless coyotes are. They’re afraid of humans. They’re afraid of fire. They’re afraid of everything when men are talking within the safety of sturdy shelter. It’s quite another thing to be surrounded by howling coyotes while alone in an unfamiliar place in the dark. In those circumstances, fear knows no bounds.
The five minutes of silence were followed by the most terrifying and real symphony I have ever heard in my life. The northern coyote barked a few times and let out a long loud howl. He now sounded to be about 50 yards off. I pointed the gun in his direction and squinted in a desperate attempt to see. The fire, of course, had stolen my night vision completely. Then the coyote below me to the west howled again from about 75 yards. I swung the gun in his direction, the long barrel gleaming in the faint moonlight, the snowcapped peaks towering above my sights.
Next, and most terrifying, was a chilling howl from about 25 yards behind me to the east. I swung around and, for the first time, I put my finger on the trigger and actually considered firing. At what, I did not know but I was fairly certain the boom of the .44 would scare them off. Unfortunately it also occurred to me that it could also awaken my workmates and trigger a search party. I would never hear the end of it.
After the eastern coyote howled from that terrifyingly close distance, I could actually hear him whine and snort. I pictured the steam coming from his nostrils but couldn’t see it. I was very nearly in shock at this point but somehow managed to continue holding the gun.
Seconds later, the western and northern coyotes howled again, sounding closer and I was beginning to picture my dramatic end from struggle to feast. Then the eastern coyote snapped me out of my morbid vision by howling long and low from fifteen yards. I could hear his breath and the crunch of each footstep as he inched towards me. I froze. I didn’t fire. I didn’t flinch. I didn’t move. Inexplicably, I pointed the gun straight up in the air and just sat there, barely breathing. The howling and encroachment continued and the excitement among the coyotes seemed to build as they sang their lonely songs sometimes simultaneously. I sat there stiff for what seemed like an eternity but what was probably a minute.
And that was it. Something must have spooked them because they suddenly stopped howling and ran off. It was 3 a.m. in the Tobacco Root Mountains just west of Pony, Montana and I was feeling incredibly alive. The auroras had stopped but sliver of the moon lit up the jagged mountain peaks in a spectacular fashion. After fifteen minutes or so of just staring at those beautiful mountains, I carefully slid the gun back into its holster and pulled out my pen. I wrote these words in my journal at 3 am. from that mountainside:
“I’m really living now. I am living in the present.”
As I think back to that moment now, I realize that sleeping alone by a tiny fire in the Tobacco Root Mountains with no sleeping bag and no tent had everything to do with a quest for present-mindedness where your worries about the future and regrets of the past all disappear because you’re truly absorbed in something. I suppose it’s the same reason some people rock climb, race cars or skydive. For me, the shock of being surrounded by coyotes pried open a window to that feeling of presence.
The good news is that, we obviously don’t need something so dramatic to take us there. I’m beginning to learn that we can walk peacefully into the same warm room through the unlocked door (rather than prying open a window). Walking in the forest, camping, skiing, doing yoga, laughing with friends, playing with a child, practicing whatever art you enjoy. . . Being fully immersed seems to be the key. We’re finally paying attention. That’s how the ordinary becomes extraordinary. We awaken to what’s been there all along.
Here’s another passage I wrote in my journal while curled around the fire on the side of that mountain in 1993:
“Next time I will bring plenty of water and a cup. Also a sleeping bag and some food. Maybe even some cocoa.”
The heck with that.
Someday I’ll return to the Tobacco Root Mountains. For at least one night, I’ll sleep on that same hillside. . . with no tent, no sleeping bag, no water. . . and no gun.
(END OF “NO GUN”)
BELOW IS ANOTHER FICTIONAL PIECE
“The moment I jumped off of it was the moment I touched down.”
– Alanis Morissette
It was 1 a.m. on a starry night in Nebraska and we were speeding down an empty interstate. Miles Davis played on the stereo and the dashboard glowed amber. I opened the windows a few inches to stay alert and the scent of fresh earth filled the car.
Michael and I had been driving west for 24 straight hours, alternating shifts behind the wheel of my Suburu. We’d traveled half way across the country and had just decided to take our first real break. Our senses were dazed from the blur and vibration of 1400 consecutive highway miles. Pausing for a few hours of rest in the still of the night would be heaven.
I took the next exit. The sign read “North Platte”. As we left the highway and followed the curve of the ramp, we saw nothing but darkness. The exit deposited us onto an empty road in the middle of nowhere. I drove a mile or two and turned into a small gravel area at the edge of an enormous field.
I switched off the engine and we were suddenly surrounded by the most exquisite silence. Michael let out a deep sigh. I rubbed my eyes. We sat there for a moment in the stillness like two astronauts who had just landed on the moon after days of space travel.
The real treat, though, was emerging from the vehicle. We climbed out into the night and stretched like cats. All I could see was one enormous cottonwood tree and endless acres of flat fields.
Then I looked up. It was a moonless night and the sky was spectacular. This was my first time west of the Mississippi and I felt like I was viewing the heavens for the first time. Without light pollution, we could see ten times as many stars as usual and they extended all the way down to the horizon. The Milky Way was positively brilliant. It looked like the edge of a luminous frisbee floating gently towards us. (Catch!).
Michael popped the trunk, grabbed his sleeping bag and stretched out on top of it beneath the tree. It was a warm evening. A light breeze was gently rustling the leaves on that magnificent cottonwood. I leaned against the car, exhaled long and slow and gazed up. A meteor sped silently across the sky and disappeared. Summer insects buzzed. My body was still vibrating from all those miles on the road but my mind now felt surprisingly clear.
It was the summer of 1992. I was 23 years old and nearly penniless. My future was utterly uncertain. I’d spent much of the drive across America turning my predicament over and over in my mind. What would become of me? And what would people *think* of what would become of me? No matter how far or fast we drove, my troubles had kept pace and churned in my gut. In the absence of faith, worries grow like weeds.
Something had shifted in me though the moment we arrived in North Platte, Nebraska and stepped out into the night. The sea of stars had left me positively awestruck. Thoughts of the past and future were momentarily washed away and I was astonished to discover the gifts that remained. They were all around me: a chorus of crickets, the arc of shooting stars, the fragrance of fertile ground and the cool of the breeze on my neck. The ordinary had become extraordinary simply because I was finally paying attention.
I looked up at the night sky stretched out over me like a familiar blanket. For the first time in a long time, I felt grateful. I may have been standing in the middle of nowhere, but it somehow felt like home.
Apollo 15 Astronaut James P. Irwin once described the experience of standing on the moon like this: “I felt like I was an alien as I traveled through space, but when I got on the moon, I didn’t feel that – at all. I felt at home there even though earth was a long ways away. We could see it directly above, about the size of a marble… I felt something [on the moon] other than just what we can visually sense – – a spiritual presence was there… I realized that Dave Scott and I were the only two on this vast planet – – another world. We were the only two there. We felt an unseen love. We were not alone.”
After a few minutes of stargazing, I eased my exhausted body into the passenger seat, rolled down all four windows and fully reclined. I listened to the wind rustling the leaves as I drifted off into a deep sleep.
A short while later, I dreamed the clearest dream I have ever had. It seemed as real as any “awake” experience. I dreamed that I was kneeling on the ground in the grass in front of the car there in North Platte staring straight up to the stars. And this incredibly bright light, the most powerful light I’ve ever seen, began to fill the sky. Eventually it completely took over my field of vision. I remember quite vividly that it was the brightest light I have ever seen but it did not hurt my eyes and it filled me with the most intense joy – so intense that I began shaking and weeping with the deepest happiness I have ever known.
I felt absolutely certain at that moment that everything was connected and perfect and everything was O.K. and would be O.K. It was faith as a knowing rather than faith as a hoping. I felt supremely patient. I felt whole.
I continued to stare up into the sky, weep with joy and tremble for what seemed like five minutes or more. My whole body was shaking.
And then, after more than five minutes of this revelatory dream, I suddenly woke up. I was back in the car, but I was still shaking and weeping just as I had been in my dream. I sat up and blinked. It was completely dark except for the starlight. I laid back down and gazed out the open window. The branches of the big cottonwood were slowly bowing in the breeze.
I wiped the tears from my face and looked up at the stars. Each one of them was a sun warming its own corner of space. From this distance though, they were just tiny jewels in the clear night sky.
(END OF “THE ASTRONAUTS”)
HERE’S ANOTHER FICTIONAL PIECE:
“The cosmos is filled with precious gems… Each moment you are alive is a gem… It needs you to breathe gently for the miracles to be displayed. Suddenly you hear the birds singing, the pines chanting, see the flowers blooming, the blue sky, the white clouds, the smile… You, the richest person on earth, who have been going around begging for a living, stop being the destitute child. Come back and claim your heritage. We should enjoy our happiness and offer it to everyone. Cherish this very moment. Let go of the stream of distress and embrace life fully in your arms.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh
After four more hours of deep sleep, I awoke once again. This time it was still dark but the horizon was beginning to glow and a few ambitious birds were chirping. I climbed out of the car and stretched. I felt rested and refreshed. Michael was already awake and was studying the map with his flashlight.
As the dark sky continued to brighten, we split a granola bar and chatted like Lewis and Clarke about the best way to cross Wyoming. The southern passage would take us past the Bridger-Teton National Forest and through the stunning landscape of Yellowstone National Park. Unfortunately that was also the longer route. And with hardly any money at all for food and fuel, the scenic path was a luxury we couldn’t afford. We needed to reach Bozeman, Montana with as much money in our pockets as possible. That way we’d have enough to eat while we were looking for jobs. The last thing Michael and I wanted was to be flat broke in the middle of paradise.
We therefore chose the northern route instead. This would lack the breathtaking scenery, but it would reduce fuel costs and shave more than two hours off our trip. We’d roll into town just in time for dinner.
Michael folded the map and began stuffing his sleeping bag into its sack. I glanced over at my Suburu glowing faintly in the dawn’s early light. There is a sort of worn beauty about a vehicle that has carried you on a great journey and will hopefully carry you still further. The stone chips, road dirt and bugs strewn across the front of the car were all evidence that we had come a great distance and survived.
“Subaru” is the Japanese name for the Pleiades star cluster. In fact, that grouping of stars (also known as “The Seven Sisters”) is the company’s logo. As such, the star cluster was prominently featured on the front and rear of my car. Our little starship.
Michael loaded his sleeping bag into the trunk, slid behind the wheel and started the engine. I heard him click a cassette into the stereo and Van Morrison’s unmistakable voice began emanating from the speakers. I climbed into the passenger seat and took one long last look at that grand old cottonwood tree. The sun bathed it in early morning light as its branches waved in the wind.
During the short drive back to the highway, we noticed some road signs that we hadn’t seen the night before. They indicated that we had spent the night near the intersection of the North Platte and South Platte rivers.
Fifteen years later, I would sit in the study of a stone house in Pennsylvania, open the book “Black Elk Speaks” and gasp. Shivers ran down my spine as I looked at a hand drawn map in the opening pages. It prominently featured the intersection of the North Platte and South Platte rivers. It turns out that, on that starry night in Nebraska, I’d had my dream while sleeping close to what was sacred ground for medicine man Black Elk and his fellow Lakota Sioux. On our first real stop during our relentless push west, we’d just happened to spend the night in a sacred land.
I also later discovered where that beautiful cottonwood tree had come from. In 1878, Buffalo Bill Cody had bought 4,000 acres of land around North Platte, Nebraska. Cody was famous for his “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” which traveled the world. He planned to start a ranch in North Platte and make it his home in retirement. There was only one problem: Cody loved trees and the property he purchased was a treeless prairie.
He learned that most trees would not grow in the North Platte area due to a problem with water absorption. Cody needed trees that could withstand the wet conditions so he had many cottonwoods planted around the property. The trees thrived. Word of the success spread and others followed suit.
We had spent the night by one of those magnificent cottonwoods. 114 years earlier, that tree had just been a sparkle in Buffalo Bill’s eye.
It’s a small world. In his elder years, famed Lakota Sioux medicine man Black Elk toured the globe with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show. Those two were an improbable combination, but I suppose it’s no surprise that they would have bumped into each other. Despite being from two different worlds, they shared the same neighborhood, an intersection of rivers that will be long remembered as a place of great consequence.
Michael steered back onto the highway, pressed the accelerator and resumed our push westward. The sun began painting the landscape in warm shades of red. 800 miles remained between us and Bozeman, Montana. It would take about 11 hours to cover that ground. I looked at the gas gauge and did a quick calculation. If we filled up the tank two more times, we’d still have enough money to eat for almost a week in Bozeman when we arrived.
All tolled we would be traveling 2200 miles on this journey, almost the exact diameter of the moon. If you laid the United States around the curved lunar surface, San Francisco would be on one side and New York City would be on the other. That’s only a 42 hour drive (without gas stops) from one side of the moon to the other.
It may be a small world. But it’s an even smaller moon.
We cruised steadily west through Nebraska on I–80 as the sky grew brighter. Flat fields stretched as far as the eye could see and they glowed orange in the morning sun. We had the windows down. The fresh air, vivid landscape and blue sky were intoxicating. Blues Traveler was on the stereo. It was a true joy to be on the open road with the wind in our hair. We were in the groove and making good time. Since Michael was driving, I was able to just watch the world go by. It was a rare treat to have the time to notice the sights and sounds that unfolded with each mile.
A long journey is full of gifts. One of those is the relaxation and inspiration that come from having left one place but not yet arrived in the next. This is that comfortable “in between time” that is a unique treasure. One has a break from being part of the action and can instead savor being the observer of both the internal and external world.
Many an invention, song, novel, revolution and relationship has been sparked in that rare refuge that appears mid-journey. This is an oasis in time when a person allows his or her heart and mind to stretch their wings. A feeling of spaciousness and calm arises. And there’s no telling what can develop in the imagination when the mind is allowed to kick off its shoes and relax.
Buddhist masters have taught for thousands of years that such a feeling of spaciousness can be cultivated intentionally anytime anywhere. It doesn’t require a physical journey at all.
Franz Kafka put it like this:
“You don’t even need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, simply wait. Don’t even wait. Be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you. To be unmasked, it has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
As a 23 year old speeding west towards Montana, I didn’t really understand any of that. All I knew was that I felt free. For the first time in my life, I sensed that anything was possible. And it turned out that my intuition was right.
– – –
As the miles rolled by, my thoughts turned to my dream from the night before. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and smiled. Something had changed in me beneath that Nebraska sky. I felt patient. Eminently patient.
Something about my dream also seemed very familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. And then it hit me: Edgar Mitchell.
(END OF “THE INTERSECTION”)
HERE’S just the first portion OF ANOTHER FICTIONAL PIECE:
“Astrophile: a person who loves stars”
I’d read about Edgar Mitchell in a magazine. He was an American naval officer and aviator, test pilot, aeronautical engineer, and an Apollo 14 astronaut. As the Lunar Module Pilot, he spent nine hours working on the lunar surface in the Fra Mauro Highlands region, making him the sixth person to walk on the Moon. Mitchell was a true man of science. He had earned his doctorate in Aeronautics and Astronautics from M.I.T. He developed ingenious solutions that helped save the lives of the crew of Apollo 13 when their craft developed a dangerous oxygen leak (a triumph that earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom). Edgar was no slouch.
His time on the moon during the successful Apollo 14 mission had a profound impact on him.
“Edgar Mitchell was on his way home. Two days before he had been on the moon collecting rock samples, and now he was speeding through space accompanied by two other astronauts. Gazing at the earth and the stars through the tiny window of Apollo 14, he was engulfed by a new and startling sensation: an all encompassing aura of universal connectedness. All sense of boundaries dissolved, and he saw that he, his companions, and everyone and everything on the shining planet in the window were held in a luminous web of consciousness. What is more, he knew with absolute certainty that, as he put it later, ”the glittering cosmos itself was in someway conscious.”
“I had studied stellar formation and knew how the furnaces of the stars and galaxies created our chemical elements,” Mitchell explained. [Edgar D. Mitchell, The Way of the Explorer: An Apollo Astronaut’s Journey Through the Material and Mystical Worlds].
“My job as lunar module pilot was to be responsible for the lunar module itself and responsible for the science on the moon. So, when we started home, I had a little more time to look out the window than the other guys because most of my responsibilities were completed. We were in a particular mode called the “barbecue mode” [slowly rotating]. . . every two minutes a picture of the earth, the moon, the sun and a 360 degree panorama of the heavens appeared in the spacecraft window.”
“I’d studied astronomy and I’d studied cosmology and fully understood that the molecules in my body and the molecules in my partners’ bodies and in the spacecraft had been prototyped in some ancient generation stars. In other words, it was pretty obvious from those descriptions, we’re stardust. Well, that was pretty awesome and powerful, particularly since I had a little more time at this point to be reflective and to think about it.”
from interview with Edgar Mitchell in the film “the overview effect” http://space.stackexchange.com/questions/12114/how-many-astronauts-have-had-spiritual-experiences-while-in-space
“On the return trip home, gazing through 240,000 miles of space toward the stars and the planet from which I had come, I suddenly experienced the universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious.”
“TO HAVE THAT EXPERIENCE OF AWE IS AT LEAST FOR THE MOMENT, TO LET GO OF YOURSELF, TO TRANSCEND THE SENSE OF SEPARATION. So it’s not just that they were experiencing something other than them but that they were, at some very deep level, integrating, realizing interconnectedness with that beautiful blue green ball.”
– David Loy, Philosopher (during interview in the film “The Overview Effect”)
A few related notes:
- Here’s how Carl Sagan put it with us being made of stars (he’s so young and fresh faced here :):
- Buddhist monk Jack Kornfield said something related to these astronauts, especially similar to what Edgar Mitchell said about us being made of the same material as the stars**:
“To find equanimity and peace requires an acceptance of the mystery of life itself. Modern science tells us that a big bang started the universe, hurling matter through space. Some of this matter formed stars, and some of the residue formed the planets. In this way everything on the Earth—stones, frogs, clouds, and our own living bodies—is formed out of the same material that formed the stars and planets. As the cosmologist Brian Swimme says, “Four and a half billion years ago, the Earth was a flaming molten ball of rock, and now it can sing opera.”
“When you can appreciate your life as part of this unfolding mystery of the immense forces that formed the entire universe, you can more easily accept the difficulties and hardships that you face.”
- Einstein said this:
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
- Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way:
“I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. We are, all of us, inextricably linked.”
- Dostoevsky put it like this in the Brothers Karamazov:”Today, everyone asserts his own personality and strives to live a full life as an individual. But these efforts lead not to a full life but to suicide, because instead of realizing his personality, man only slips into total isolation. For in our age, man has been broken up into self-contained individuals, each of whom retreats into his lair, trying to stay away from the rest, hiding himself and his belongings from the rest of mankind, and finally isolating himself from people and people from him.And while he accumulates material wealth in his isolation, he thinks with satisfaction how mighty and secure he has become, because he is mad and cannot see that the more goods he accumulates, the deeper he sinks into suicidal impotence. The reason for this is that he has become accustomed to relying only on himself; he has split off from the whole and become an isolated unit; he has trained his soul not to rely on human help, not to believe in man and mankind, and only to worry that the wealth and privileges he has accumulated may get lost.Everywhere men today are turning scornfully away from the truth that the security of the individual cannot be achieved by his isolated efforts but only by mankind as a whole.BUT AN END to this fearful isolation is bound to come and all men will understand how unnatural it was for them to have isolated themselves from one another. This will be the spirit of the new era and people will look in amazement at the past when they sat in darkness and refused to see the light. . .
. . . Until that day, we must keep hope alive, and now and then a man must set an example, even if only an isolated one, by trying to lift his soul out of its isolation and offering it up in an act of brotherly communion, even if he is taken for one of God’s fools.This is necessary to keep the great idea alive.”
THE STORY OF THE FISHER KING MAY CONTAIN THE SECRET OF LIFE. . .
Kindness may be the grail. . .
Note: I hadn’t consciously thought of the Story of the Fisher King at all when I was writing some of the fictional pieces that appear on this blog. But it does seem to loosely fit some of the themes somehow. I suppose that’s true of a lot of stories.
I think we are ALL the Fisher King. . . discovering the grail of kindness. . . then forgetting it — falling into the trap of ego for months or years. . . then rediscovering the grail. . . then forgetting again. Over and over. Perhaps knowing the story can help us forget less often. Here’s hoping. . .
Check out this stunning 2 minute clip.