Today’s Walk

I’m sitting at the top of Monument Mountain, the place where Herman Melville met Nathanial Hawthorne for the first time.

It’s a hot day for the Berkshires. I’m sweating in the muggy air, but a slight breeze refreshes my skin. This humidity is nothing like the pizza oven heat of Georgia.

While going up the mountain I took a picture of a log bridge–I’m a little afraid of crossing narrow bridges, even when there’s nothing but a creek below. So I took a picture to illustrate the obstacles I’m forever confronting.

  
When I went to look for my phone to take another picture, this time of the rocky ascent to the summit, I realized I had left my phone at the log bridge.

So back down the mountain I went. A couple had seen my phone in the ground where it must have slipped out of my backpack (or what is more probable is that I missed the pocket completely, dropping the phone silently on the pine straw and moss covered path).

While climbing back up to where I am now, I thought I would maybe start leaving my smart phone behind when I go on these long walks. I usually put my phone in airplane mode, and I don’t check email, but I do use it to take pictures.  

So here I am on the summit, thinking about Herman Melville and typing into a WordPress app. I read that the day he came here with a gathering of local literary types, it rained, and he spent a good while describing to Nathaniel Hawthorne the intricacies of manning a whaling ship.

The trail here is well maintained. The granite and schist stones form a staircase that allows the hiker to reach the top fairly easily, but I doubt the rocks were arranged so artfully when Melville walked here. 

The air was the same, the flora and fauna the same, and some of the views. From where I am now, I can see Monument Mountain high school, where someone has written the name Maia in large white letters on the lawn in front of the school. Even from this height I can see the heart over the letter i in place of a dot. Someone loves Maia. 

To enter the nineteenth century imagination, I think I would have to abandon iPhone technology for a while. I don’t even know how Melville would have traveled from his Arrowhead farm in Pittsfield  to Monument Mountain in Great Barrington. Horse and wagon maybe? I know he liked to camp and was an avid outdoorsman. 

He became depressed after Moby Dick didn’t sell, and he turned to alcohol. This is a lesson in not tying one’s ego to one’s art. I don’t blame Melville–he had to support his family, and he had wanted to do so by writing. Art and business don’t mix. Robert Graves said something to the effect : “There’s no money in poetry, and no poetry in money.”

   
 

Traveler, There Is No Path

Today’s walk took me from Iron Ore Road in West Stockbridge to Lake Mahkenaac in Stockbridge, also known as the Stockbridge Bowl.

The plan was to swim across the lake once I got here, but lightning and rain rolled over the mountains, so now I’m huddled under a tree, waiting for SA to come get me in the car.

I had to walk along a highway to get here, not too busy with traffic, but the speed limit was 50 and there was no sidewalk. I tried to walk in the grass and face oncoming traffic whenever I could.

It was not a meditative walk due to the cars, but I did think about Antonio Machado’s poem, sometimes translated as “The Wayfairer,” other times as ” The Traveler.”

When I walk alone and set my own course, I sometimes feel lonely. My obstacles are at times tangible, like the cars on the road, but often the blockades are  mental. It’s a matter of summoning the motivation and finding the courage to make my own path, again and again.  

    
    
    
 

Keeping the Camino Alive

On a physical level, the best outcome of my pilgrimage is that after 22 years I have been able to go off anti-depressants. 

I don’t mean to judge anyone who takes SSRIs, not at all. We are all trying to figure out what our lives mean and how best to live.  

It wasn’t the Camino alone that helped me ween myself off them. I also had the help of a mind-body therapist who continues to offer suggestions for passing through anxiety and panic, the two main symptoms of the depression I have experienced off and on since childhood. 

If the medications work, then take them. But after more than two decades on various SSRIs, I had fluctuating blood pressure and strange head rushes that led to near fainting, symptoms that have now disappeared since I went off the medication. 

I attribute my peace of mind to the days and days of spending six to eight hours outdoors, walking and meditating. Even though the heat in Georgia can be unbearable, I continue to walk.

Each day is a new challenge in maintaining a balance of body, mind, and spirit. I’m tottering on a fragile tightrope of sanity, but walking and writing continue to be my medicine. 

   
    
    
    
   
Yesterday’s hike:

About 8 or 9 miles, from Burnt Hickory Road to Dallas Highway at Kennesaw Battlefield Park, then on to the visitor’s center and back to Burnt Hickory.

Creatures I noticed:

Dragonflies, ants, butterflies, various birds, including two giant vultures, a wee toad, about the size of my thumb pad, a chipmunk, many squirrels.

I stood still and listened to the cicadas in the trees and the grasshoppers in the tall grass. There was very little breeze, and the trees were still and silent, their leaves dry and weary from the heat. The noise from the highway and the passing trains at times overpowered the silence of the woods.  

It was a heavy, humid trek. I encouraged myself to keep walking by remembering the way I felt toward the end of my walks on the Camino–with sore feet and tired legs, I still managed to make it up those steep inclines. You can do this, I told myself. 

Why Go on a Pilgrimage?

“Why are you doing the Camino?” is one of the most common questions a pilgrim is asked along the way. It’s probably the hardest question to answer.

When you request a pilgrim’s passport, the credential that allows you access to the city and charity hostels, they give you a questionnaire to complete, asking your reasons for walking the Camino. The possible reasons include religion, spirituality, culture and history, and sport.

Also, when you stand in line in Santiago de Compostela to receive your “Compostela,” the document that proves you completed the pilgrimage, these same questions are asked. You show your pilgrim’s passport with the stamps you’ve collected along the way, and the volunteer at the desk then asks you to give your age and your motivation for going on the pilgrimage.

My reasons for going to Spain and walking the Camino changed as I went along. From the start my journey was spiritual but not religious. I’m not a practicing Catholic, even though while in Spain I found the ritual to be beautiful at times, but overly somber at others.

What I wanted was the freedom to walk under an expansive sky all day long with nothing to think about except my most basic thoughts, and that is what I received, although the process wasn’t as simple as all that.

I met a retired Australian man named Tim at a hostel in a town called  Hornillos del Camino.  Over beers in the backyard of the hostel (Australians consider beer to be a food, I’ve been told), Tim said, “The Camino has a way of purifying one’s thoughts. While we walk, the only thoughts that end up calling our attention away from the images, sounds, and smells of walking, are ones that concern the body: Where will I sleep tonight? What will I have for dinner?”

Later that evening I saw Tim lying on the grass with his legs up the wall to let his circulation have a rest, caring for the body.

But not everyone has this experience. I met many young people who were on the Camino to heal from traumatic life experiences. Some were trying to get over heartbreak and loss.

I know I had a few days when I was very tired from all the walking. One night I had too much wine to drink (after walking 20 miles, more than one glass of wine is too much for me), and the next day I walked up one of the highest mountains of the Camino (this story deserves its own blog post, which I will eventually write). For seven kilometers I cried all the way up the mountain, out of self pity, rage, and homesickness.

After about ten days of walking I developed shin splints, and every step I took was painful. I was creeping along when I saw Philip from Belgium who had begun walking two months prior from his hometown. “Take it easy,” he said. “The Camino is the Happy Road.” That’s the day I decided to take a bus to the next town and walk only 10 kilometers.

Philip’s attitude toward the Camino is different than others. Many believe that to go on a true pilgrimage, one should suffer. For Philip, the Camino was a way to celebrate life. He smoked cigarettes, drank coffee, beer, and wine, and walked on the plains at night to see the stars.

One of the names of the Camino is La Via Lactea, The Milky Way. Historians say that early pilgrims followed the Milky Way to reach Santiago de Compostela. Compostela translates as “field of stars.”

I was walking in May, right when many twenty-something students begin their summer vacation, so there were a lot of college kids from all over the U.S. Canada, Europe, and Korea. Many of these kid were doing the Camino as a physical challenge, walking 50 km a day. Their experience was completely different from mine, I’m sure.

At the cathedral in Santiago, I saw a young Korean buddy I had met in France at the beginning; I was weeping from gratitude at having arrived, but he was grinning from ear to ear and said, “Why are you crying?” I just gave him a big hug in response.

I’m still thinking about how my journey has changed me. For now, though, I will keep walking. The Camino lives on.

Home

After walking every day for a month and a half, I must admit I am addicted to the movement. I’ve never felt so good in my life. Spending at least eight hours a day outdoors, moving at a vigorous but not taxing pace, was and is the medicine I need.

Today in Georgia it’s raining with some thunder and lightning, and I’m feeling a bit antsy from staying indoors. The sky is dark, and I’m missing the freedom I feel from being outdoors. What would I do now if I were still on the Camino? I’d put on a rain poncho and keep walking.

One of the lessons I am learning from the Camino is that the Way doesn’t end, it only changes. It’s time to put on my boots and live the Camino as it manifests itself where I happen to be right now–in a semi tropical rain forest filled with tree frogs, cicadas, goldfinch, and chickadees.

These little birds congregate in my front yard because of my husband’s new bird feeder. He watches them through his office window. He invites the Camino to his front door, a different way.

Trees surrounding my back porch.

Trees surrounding my back porch.

Day 3 of Camino 

Today I walked 21 km from Roncesvalles to Zubiri, a small town in Navarra. Navarra is part of the Basque region of Spain and France, and all the road and street signs are in Spanish and Euskera, the Basque language. It has been fun speaking Spanish again and reacquainting myself with the culture.

The Spanish consider Roncesvalles to be the start of the Camino de Santiago. There’s a very modern pilgrim’s shelter there, modernized in 2011. 

The shelter is located in what used to be an Augustinian monastery, and it’s attached to a church that was originally built in the twelfth century.

Last night I attended a special mass for pilgrims to receive a blessing, the same blessing that has passed down through the centuries since medieval times.

There was a beautiful gold light illuminating the altar, and above hung a statue of the Virgin Mary made of gold-plated walnut. 

The priest spoke of the mystery of the faith, of the word of God, but the mystery that he spoke of that touches my heart the most is the mystery of nature. That’s where I go to connect with what it means to be free and at peace. 

                 

A Poem for the Way

I’m preparing for my pilgrimage to Santiago in a fairly intensive manner during these last few days, mostly in a reflective and meditative way.

When I walk in the woods with my loaded pack, my mind wanders over the some of the different events in my life that continue to cause pain, but beneath the pain I absorb the healing power of the sky, the trees, birds, the rocks, the lizards, the deer, and the other hikers.

Some of my friends and loved ones responded to my call for lines of poetry, prayers, wishes, or desires that I could put into one long poem. My intention is to read the poem at different points along the Camino.

I am so touched by their generosity. I want their words to fill others as they fill me. It’s titled “Prayers for a Traveler.” We are all travelers in this world.

Prayers for the Traveler

Hath she her faults? I would you had them too.
                      They are the fruity musts of soundest wine;
                      Or say, they are regenerating fire
                      Such as hath turned the dense black element
                      Into a crystal pathway for the sun.
–George Eliot

She is only a faint line disappearing back into sand.

O blessed road! Although the hard ground and slope veers ever upward,

I am not naked nor alone: my feet are shod with thoughts of God, my body robed

with love from family and friends back home.

May my mom know that I love her and miss her and think about her everyday.

May you be given all you need

May you be granted that for which your heart longs

May angels guide your journey, and may your steps be light

May you be blessed by a field of stars, and may those blessings follow you always

May your soul cry and sing and open, now free.

May you shed your skin and become anew.

May you be refilled to fully embrace the array

of possibilities that will open up for you

as you continue your journey – the trail and beyond.

May compassion become our universal religion.

I accompany you in spirit, and I hope your sojourn brings you what you seek.

I wish you lightness of step and heart

I wish for you that when the days feel long and doubt enters – you push it aside.

Aside –

Perhaps – like the dandelions losing their thin, yellow petals,

as they are swept in the wind – scattered…

Do not carry doubt, or worry, speculation, or question-of-self

Walk with grace and trust and love

The very thing I try to do in my life – and sometimes, struggle – and how ….

I ask you to look upward at the sky and pray

for health and peace of mind – love and light

Be safe, be real, be true.

You are brave and I am proud

I ask you to return safely with stories of adventure,

some turmoil perhaps, and lots of gratitude and growth.

Return safely, keep strong, be safe.

May God give my son more healing in his spiritual journey.

Didn’t I tell you not to be seduced by this colorful world,
for I am the ultimate painter.

Please let me grow into my elderly years
happily, healthfully and peacefully
with my husband as my son goes to college,
meets a wonderful partner and has a family of his own,
which we will help nurture and be an integral part of.

Enfold us in your arms, shield us from sadness and despair,
look over us in times of joy and times of fear,
do not let us feel emptiness or hopelessness,
and lead us to believe in our dreams and longings.

At the exhibition of the artists of elsewhere
I am standing in a shaft of light.

Thank you, jahgod, for allowing me to see the light
and freeing me from hang ups
I know that the future is mine to grasp.

May the long time sun
Shine upon you,
All love surround you,
And the pure light within you
Guide your way on.
–Kundalini farewell blessing

thistle

Hike: A Noiseless Patient Spider With Turkey Buzzards

Today’s hike was Pigeon Hill trail in Kennesaw. I only did half the hike today because I got a late start. To the visitor’s center from Burnt Hickory Road is 2.5 miles (five miles there and back), but I stopped at Little Kennesaw and turned around so that I would have time to meet my friends for a poetry reading.

Today is Walt Whitman’s 195th birthday, and to honor his poetry some Poetry Atlanta folks have organized a non-stop reading of all 52 songs from Song of Myself.

I was thinking of Whitman as I picked my way across boulders and rocks toward the summit. When I sat on a lichen-covered ledge to take a rest in the shade, a tiny red spider floated in the air next to me, spinning an invisible thread that helped it move up and down, and I remembered Whitman’s poem, “A Noiseless Patient Spider.”
A NOISELESS, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

***

I wish I could experience the same confidence Whitman exudes in the capability of his soul. That’s why I go hiking and meditate, swim in open bodies of water, practice yoga. It’s a path outward that circles inward. Today I felt like most at peace watching the turkey buzzards circling the tree tops, until one swooped close, it’s red face angled toward some dead creature.

 

Gentle Hike to Cascade Falls

Over Memorial Day weekend I went on a four mile hike on the Pine Mountain trail at Roosevelt State Park, land that is connected to F.D.R.’s Little White House.

F.D.R. chose Warm Springs, GA as a getaway from Washington and the world stage because of the curative properties of thermal springs there. Polio had rendered him paralyzed from the waist down at the age of 39, and bathing in the springs helped him regain some of his strength.

He bought the land surrounding the springs in 1927 and converted the area into a rehabilitation center that is still thriving today. The waters are not available to the general public, but people in need still receive the benefits of the warm springs.

The Pine Mountain trail covers twenty-three miles of easy to moderate hiking through a gentle mountain range, hills mostly, south of Atlanta. The four miles we hiked took us from a radio tower and picnic area off a two-lane highway to a meandering creek-side path under the cover of oaks, pines, and rhododendron. Tiny waterfalls spilled over brown and gold rocks along the way.

We crossed the creek several times until we reached our destination, Cascade Falls. We took our boots off, waded into the cool water, and later watched a millipede crawl across the sand while we dried our feet in a patch of sunlight.

I scrambled up a twenty-five- or thirty-foot overhang just because it was there. I started climbing what seemed like a stone stairway, but about halfway up I realized I would have to pull myself up part of the way, which was a little scary. I should have taken the trail to the top. But I made it, and was relieved once I flopped myself over the ledge.