“There is pleasure in the pathless woods.” -Lord Byron
I wrote this post on September 2nd, and I found the above quote on my Valerian Root teabag about a week later. I thought it applied to what follows.
Today is my first day off, and I decided I would like to go for a hike. Ben, head honcho at Raisin’ Roots Farm, suggested I check out Greyrock Mountain, what he described as a challenging hike northwest of Fort Collins down the Poudre Canyon. I read on Alltrails.com it is “heavily trafficked” and “rated as difficult” and “features a lake”. I also read the trail features a 2549 ft. elevation gain. I decided it sounded like fun.
The drive to the trailhead took me into lack-of-service land. Apparently it was only seven miles, so I wasn’t too worried about difficulty level. Yet when I parked and realized my sole water bottle was just under half full, I thought, Man. Maybe I should have packed more water. I ended up thinking that quite a few times throughout the hike.
It was a beautiful start to the hike, crossing a bridge over the Poudre river flowing crystalline in the late summer sun. With my Vibram Five Fingers strapped on the feet and my little Osprey clearance-at-REI bag on the back, I started tromping down Greyrock Trail. Simple enough for a while. Nice burn in the quads, good cardio going, some beautiful stretches through purple and yellow wildflowers. Didn’t see many people out there—possibly because this happened to be the same day as “Tour de Fat”, an annual event put on by New Belgium where people dress up in costumes, bike through town, and get wasted. Folks typically start drankin’ before 10AM. On my drive out to the foothills, I passed bikes operated by a samurai, a cowboy, a troop of princesses, and a crash-test dummy. Anyways, that was then. Now, at Greyrock, the trail started angling toward the vertical.
I forgot to mention that at the beginning of my hike, I squatted beside a boulder near the river and offered up intentions and gratitude. I asked for guidance, I asked for insight, and I asked for deeper connection to my surroundings. As I asked for these things, I tuned my senses to the cool wind whisking through the foliage. Then, I tromped onward.
Further up the mountain, I paused in a clearing and inhaled the incredible stillness of the scene. I couldn’t see much beyond the thickly lain pines, but a few foothill peaks offered a pleasant view of the distance. I was struck by how silent it was out there, especially now that my feet weren’t disrupting the stillness. I contemplated the difference between this place and the city. A city is a contained sector of noise. It’s images, distractions, sounds, vibrations, all contained within a finite bubble. Out here is space. Out here is a silence that stretches through the vastness and expands through the cosmos. Out here is healing.
Now the trail was really becoming vertical. I was basically climbing a slope of rocks on all fours. It was great fun in my Vibram Five Fingers, which, despite not being cool anymore, stick well to rocky surfaces. A few fawns made their presence known, leaping through the foliage. I thought of my burgeoning interest in bowhunting, how life-affirming it will be to go out into the wild in search of game. I recall being drawn to giftshop bow and arrows when my fourth grade class visited Cahokia Mounds outside St. Louis. I realized I underestimated how challenging it will be to carry the deer back down the trail (or non-trail), how important it will be to honor the animal’s life by using all its parts I can. I realized I have a lot to learn. But I couldn’t think too much about this, because I was in the middle of the woods and no longer seemed to be standing on a trail.
Where was it? It had just been here. I had been following it the entire time.
It definitely was not here.
I started following ascending boulders in no particular pattern or arrangement. I traveled on in what seemed to be the right direction. Impassable boulders revealed it to be the wrong direction. I backtracked and looked for something I missed. Nothing. I looked all around me. I saw only dense trees, vibrating grasses, and big freaking boulders.
I thought, Wow, what a pickle! This will be great to share this story. Inner storyteller Sean said, Oh man, what a silly guy I was, thinking I was ready for serious hikes! Good thing I got out of that! I was so lost! Then inner realist Sean was like, Dude. Shut up. You are lost. This is happening right now.
I started getting scared. I started thinking, What if I don’t figure it out? What if I wander deep into the woods and never find my way back? What if it gets dark and the scary animals come out and I have no weapon or water? What if I die out here! Oh no!
Death. Aren’t I supposed to not be afraid of that? Crap, it got me again! Here was its possibility around me, playing out in paranoid scenarios. Here came all the worries, all the doubts, all the self-defeating narratives. You’re too sheltered! You don’t know what it takes to navigate the wild! You always underestimate how powerful and unforgiving nature can be!
Confusion joined the internal screaming match. Weren’t you supposed to have mastered your fear now? Didn’t I overcome it by making the move out here? Hadn’t you checked it off the list?
Ha ha! mocked my fear. You cannot rid of me so easily! I am still with you! Turn back, you fool!
Amidst the noise of this story unfolding in my mind, I remembered a lesson I have been learning lately, a lesson a close friend reminded me of the night before, a message so derned important I’m going to do that blog thing where I put extra emphasis on it.
So subtle! So powerful! I breathed in. I drank a gulp of my dwindling water. I focused on the situation, cause what good were these fears doing me? I figured, if I needed, I would start going down, and eventually I’d find the river again. But I did not want to be so easily defeated.
I tuned in my focus more acutely to my surroundings. Some of the grass appeared to be more trodden than other sections, showing patches of dirt too consistent to be free of the step of humans. I followed these patches, turning to my instincts on whether they were correct–after all, hadn’t my entire motive for moving to CO been because of intuition? My intuition led me along a ridge of this lightly-trodden land, and I trusted it was heading the correct way. There seemed to be a thin trail forming at my feet. I had done it! I had found the trail again! I am so awesome!
Then the trail disappeared again. Shit! Stupid ego. Now I was deeper in the woods, further from the original trail, and more confused on where to go.
Shit! What fools made this trail? Didn’t these know how to mark it? Hell-o! You put colors on the trees! Scoundrels!
Another voice crept in, one that clearly knew more what it was talking about. You chose this. This is your decision. Accept it, and respond.
I repeated the process of tuning in to the lightly-trodden land. A few small birds fluttered treetop to treetop. A pair of does hopped over fallen tree trunks. My fear told me to go back. I wasn’t safe here. A bear might eat me. I should just accept that today’s not my day, just admit defeat and return to the ole RV. I was about to listen to this fear, figuring it was actually trying to help me out, when I noticed something.
Just up the ridge, a barely-visible stack of five small rocks rested on a boulder’s edge.
This past summer, I learned that these small stacks are put in place to guide people. They are laid by past hikers to let current hikers know they are on the path when the trail becomes confusing. The same friend who had reminded me to be gentle with myself taught me this when we hiked through the desert outside of Moab.
But what if I am not remembering correctly? What if these indicate no path? What if they were laid by sadistic mongrels meant to trick naive fools like me? What if—
I followed. When I got lost again, I sought to increase my focus rather than listen to my fears. I looked for more rocks. Soon enough, I found them, and I laid a small stone on top. I tuned more deeply into my instincts, trotting down the possible-paths by following what felt like the right direction. Through a clearing in the trees, I saw a massive gray rock rising like . Certainly this was the Grey Rock that gave this trail its name. Toward the Grey Rock I ambled, uncomfortably parched, thirsty beyond my supply. I summited a ridge, and through a few trees, I popped out onto the path. Here it was, thick and well-laid as before, stretching both directions—toward the rock, and back through the spaces where I had veered from it.
I thought back to my intention-setting. I suppose my desire to tune more deeply into my surroundings came in surprising ways. (Be careful what you wish for, eh!) I gained an insight that I must not underestimate hikes in this region. And I learned that if I become humble and look for signs beyond myself, I will find guidance in the subtlest of places.
I carried onward and followed the thick path. I got lost another time or two, but the small rocks and my intuition always brought me back. I passed people along the way who helped steer me aright, including a very tan and mysterious looking woman who said, “It might confusing ahead, but there are signs. If you don’t see the signs, look for the secret signs.”
I found secret signs in more piles of rocks and hidden stakes in the ground. They led me all the way up to a plateau, where I paused. Realizing how thirsty and fatigued I had become, I felt grateful I had reached the summit.
But I hadn’t reached the summit, said the old couple who suddenly emerged from the woods. There was still the lake, featured ahead. Exhausted, fearful of the cramps that threatened if I did not rest, I thought to the role of lakes in mythology, the places of rest amidst the harsh journey. I had to make the final push.
The final push was like scaling the boulders of Joshua Tree—lots of movement on all fours, strong bursts up steep slopes, no clear direction to the path. But once again, I was guided by the rocks, the spirits of hikers past. Soon enough, I arrived at the lake. It was pretty disgusting looking, a greenish body of water where slimy-looking things floated. But still it called on me to rest, just like the family sitting near it eating sandwiches from their wisely-prepared bags. Just ahead of me was the highest point of Grey Rock. I scaled the steep slopes on all fours and stumbled onto the summit. The foothills stretched into the distances, undulating like shadows through the fog. All directions I looked, they expanded to the horizon. A dim glow appeared to be coming from their sharp peaks. I sat and beheld them, feeling amazed.
I sat for a while up there. My body needed rest. Though it was dehydrated, it told me it had the strength to carry me down. Several bumblebees revolved around my head. At any point past, I would have felt afraid of being stung. But in this moment, I did not move. Rather, I sat calmly and took the bees’ presence as a reminder to enjoy the nectar of life, to find the pleasure of the pathless woods and feel the sweetness of existence move through me. I looked down and saw the family had departed. I was alone on this peak, out in the foothills, far beyond the road, yet only at the beginning of the unfathomable expansion of the Rockies. Thinking of traveling further, I felt great fear.
Crap! The fear is back!
But of course the fear is back. The fear will always come back. It challenges us to move through it with wisdom, for when we do, we grow.
Up there, I entered a sort of trance-like state where I witnessed what appeared to be thousands of little reflective atoms swirling and dancing through the air. I knew this was happening internally, yet I was witnessing it externally. That internal/external division dissolved. The mountains were reflecting me to myself. They were reminding me of how expansive this path of life is, how many possible routes can be trodden. They were telling me that as many fears as I have overcome, still there is the essential fear in my heart, the fear of my mortality. So long as I remain fearful of the fact that I will one day die, I will feel this fear trickle into all aspects of my life.
What a precious gift this life is. Perhaps we fear death because we love life. We know deep down it is such a tremendous opportunity. How any of this is happening continually blows my mind. I am so stoked to be a part of it.
With a small sip of water, I placed my hands on a boulder, thanked the earth for all it had taught me, and headed back down the trail.