Wednesday, January 26, 2011


The world is still when it’s below zero. Vibrant. Alive like a wire. Everything is crisp. Wide awake. The steam from furnaces curl out of pipes in every roof in the neighborhood and makes it seem like I am living in a small village with everyone cooking breakfast over open fires.

The world is white with snow unifying the land. Snow coats the road and is piled in long rows on the sides. Snow covers the rooftops and mailboxes. Bare tree trunks and branches brush black strokes across the land’s white canvas. When a male cardinal flies up to the feeder, its red seems impossibly rich and bright.

Winter days are often gray, but on those few mornings when dawn rises clear and cold, the sun sends rays that make the land glow pink or yellow for a few minutes. The world sparkles as if crystalline. My boots crunch on the glittering, crisp snow and echoes as I follow the cuneiform tracks of birds to see where they go.

I shiver outside in thick coat and gloves until I adjust to the stillness of movement, the quiet, the beautiful cold.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Walking With Senses Open

To really experience nature, I need to have all my senses working. Hearing is pretty much a given because I do that fairly well by default. And when I am outdoors, I listen even more carefully, wanting to hear large, carnivorous animals moving through the woods before I run into them. But when I focus on one sense, I also mute the other senses and let them drift.

I limit what my eyes see by deciding what I am going to look at ahead of time, with the result that that is all I end up seeing. For example, I’m under the trees by Camp 4 when I decide to walk into the meadows to see what the clouds are doing to Half Dome. As I move through the meadow trying to get a clear view of the dome, I fail to notice the coyote resting by a log, a ten-point buck, and a harlequin duck on the river.

Next time you’re outside, don’t focus on anything. Just open your eyes and try to see everything at the same time. Be aware of movement on the periphery of your vision. Notice the birds flying overhead without looking directly at them. It’s an unfocused looking because what we’re doing is trying to see everything at once and react to what is going on before we decide where to put our focus. I’ve found this helpful when I try to find owls in the woods behind the house, especially in the winter months when the empty branches create so many crisscross patterns that it’s hard to identify the patterns in the feathers of an owl.

Another other important sense to use outdoors is smell, and this is where your mouth comes in. When you’re outdoors, open your mouth a little and breathe in using both your nose and mouth. You should be able to flood all your smell receptors with air from both sources. Have you ever seen an animal with its mouth slightly open sniffing the air. That’s what it’s doing. I discovered this one day when I was hiking in the highlands behind Eagle Peak. It was hot and I was tired after hiking ten miles so I took a break. I happened to be breathing with my mouth open and began to pick up a variety of scents. I closed my mouth and sniffed, but the scents were faint. I opened my mouth, breathed in again, and picked up the scent of trail dust, pine trees, hot granite rock, moisture from a nearby creek, and something musky. A minute later a deer bounded out of the woods fifty feet ahead me.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How Not to Die When Hiking

            The most important decision I make when hiking in the wilderness concerns how many risks to take.

            If I stay on the trail, odds are good that I will survive. And I’ll survive if I have enough water for the trip and I’m physically in shape to hike up and down mountains for hours on end, and if the trail is clearly marked even when it goes over bare stone so that I don’t go off in the wrong direction, and the weather doesn’t change and turn beastly hot or frigidly cold, and it doesn’t snow and hide the trail, or freezing rain makes everything so slick that it’s impossible to continue on or go back over the ice. And I’ll survive if I don’t surprise a hungry bear or mountain lion, don’t trip and sprain an ankle, or fall down a ravine and have a boulder pin me down so that I have to cut off my hand in order to survive, like Aron Ralston, the guy portrayed in the movie. These are the common, everyday cautions.

            But I ratchet up the risk by pushing on the limits of my luck and doing things like hiking alone, which the rangers say never to do. Yet I do because I haven’t found anyone willing to get up before dawn, hike for twelve hours, eat fistfuls of nuts and raisins, and come back to camp at dusk. And I’ve discovered that I relish the quiet of a long hike by myself.  Forgotten matters rise to the surface from my subconscious that I think about, and I listen to the woods, the rivers, the birds, and the wind flowing through 200-foot-tall Sugar Pines, making them sing. When I’m in nature’s world, I like to pay attention to it. If someone were hiking with me, we’d talk and I would be thinking about what to say next. We’d be listening to each other, not to the outdoors. While this is valuable, it’s not what I go into nature to find. 

            There’s also part of me that likes to see if I can survive by myself in the wilderness, even if it’s essentially just walking through a strange forest filled with unsocialized animals for a really long time. Sometimes I take a shortcut between two trails, end up in a place that isn’t on the map, and have to figure out how to get back. Sometimes a bridge over a fast-moving creek is gone, and I have to find a way to get safely across. I like to sit quietly for an hour and see what animals show up.  Coyotes often come by, as do chipmunks and red-tailed hawks. I also like to stand on the edge of mountain peaks and look straight down below my toes, and to do things like hang from a tree that is leaning over the canyon just to have a better view of a waterfall because experiences like this put the taste of death in my mouth.

            What I want to find is what life is made of and to see how I react when I’m challenged and there’s the possibility of death if I make a mistake. I want adventures that remind me how glad I am to be alive.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Taking Off the Old, Putting on the New

Camping helps me see what I’ve done to my life.

I like to stay up late but I also like to get up when the sun rises. This leaves me tired. So I drink coffee to get me through the day, but when I’m camping, I can’t do this four hours out on the trail and I’m irritable by the afternoon and headaches form. When I go camping, I generally have to sleep in the first few days because I’m so tired from work. What have I done to my life?

Letting go of old habits, a theme this time of year, is hard because I do them without thinking. I like them, and I think they help me get work done. I don’t like to think about them when I don’t have to because there are more important things that I don’t want to think about first.

I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ll think about it.