THE PATH OF WILDNESS
Shadow Dividend and Ulysses' Ride
“The adventure is the not getting there...”
Live afraid, die afraid
I wonder if my friend Eric was very afraid before he died. He knew it was coming. I'd tried to talk him out of this plan weeks before. He did not seem afraid then. But of course, he was afraid. He was about to do something that would cease his living. But that's not the fear I'm referring to. Was he afraid in that other way?
This other "afraid" is the fear we sometimes feel when venturing into new places. It is the afraid of the unknown. And the afraid of the unseen, or unfamiliar, or even unwelcome. That is the afraid I am after. I want to live afraid in this way always...or nearly always. And what a gracious thing it would be to die this way as well. Especially if our mind retains some ability at the edge of death to reflect upon the unknown where we will venture next - or perhaps venture not? Do torments await just a failed breath away? Or maybe paradise? Or perhaps oblivion—most likely that—the moment our brain chemistry stops bubbling? What delicious fear of anticipation. Which will it be?
How dull it must be to live and die not so afraid. To pass each day within a walled garden of the mind; comforted within a seemingly safe enclosure of thick rampart assembled of precedent, authority, society, certitude, and faith. Sipping weak tea among cultivated herbs and flowering plants yielding sweets scents and beautiful blooms. A place of few wild weeds–though much weeding. There are sounds here heard from outside the walls. Nasty sounds. Heathen sounds of the World.
Meanwhile, barbarians roam narrow, thorny trails leading over craggy terrain, past swamps and through woods dark and mysterious. It is never night in the woods and never day. Always dusk. Always threatening darkness without a torch. And that howling...is it getting closer? Those that roam here are suffering. They hunger, and they thirst, and bleed and endure loneliness and doubt. But they came here by choice. They want to be lost. They want to explore. They want to live afraid. They walk past the walls and wonder at who built them, and why? Finding no doors, wanting not to enter, moving on...
This is how I hope to live...and to die.
And always outside the walls.
Safety is never free
With nowhere to go
No home to call my own
No way back
If I knew...
That bridge was the right place to be
I go to Siberia not because it is safe, or easy, or interesting or fun. I go because visiting that place—and in particular that bridge, especially alone and at night—is none of these things. I go to pay a hard premium on the best living I know: the life of challenge, and fear, and confusion; of uncertainty and disorder and chaos and the real and immediate threat of death. These valuable things come to us at the very dear cost of that which we are taught to strive for most: security, comfort, warmth, love, community, friendship and the hope of a quiet, peaceful and timely death. I want these things too—but not of their own accord. I wish them only if they can be had after the harder work of The Good Life is done; after we've rolled up our sleeves in youth—whenever youth happens to occur—laced tight the boots, pulled up the hood of our jacket and tromped out and away from home along some pathway only we can see, leaving others to gawp and gape in our wake and ask after where we are going and when we will return. Stop then, only for a moment, to turn back and fix our determined gaze into their moistening eyes. Look the timid clear and deep, and speak with honest, wavering resolve—don't hide the quivering in your own voice—and tell them you will one day be back, one day not so soon—you'll return one day with stories, and scars to show and possibly a painful limp to explain. Give them a loving smile and a loving little wave goodbye. Then, turn back and switch off the flashlight. Look for the outline ahead of empty mountains against cold and deep starlight and then start walking into the night. Step carefully, mindful of snakes, and holes and the twists and turns of this alien landscape. Walk until deep night or even until dawn maybe. Meet the new day where safety is no longer the price you must pay for the life you never wished to live.
And return one day to the people you love as the person you never dreamed you could be. Return the Stoic. Return alive. Return alone to make or rejoin your family and to endeavor now upon a new life of social virtue in pursuit of a better existence for each of us. Return to pursue The Good Life.
Virtue is also never free
We must first cross the desert alone
Getting off the boat
Change may sometimes require us to first pretend we are someone else.
There is no dishonesty in play-acting. Sure, others—especially those who already know us—may see right through the pretend and wonder or even tease us about our seeming charade. But this trick of make-believe is a good one, especially once we have fooled ourselves and forget to act. And then we suddenly find ourselves in a new role, with new clothes perhaps and a new persona, and new surroundings, and possibly even a new life.
You can only become
The person you first pretend to be
Becoming someone new, or living a new life, is a journey which sometimes requires a little help. We may need a gentle—or firm—nudge to get going; something to break the stable inertia of the life we live now. This is especially true when our current life is dug-in and settled, and when others cling to us demanding we stay; hanging on like zombies, hungry, not for brains, but for the security and comfort our presence brings to their own lives which they deem content, or which they have settled for; the life they now live and desperately wish you to live as well.
There is also our own fear and trepidation to deal with. This, in fact, is the biggest challenge. For who can become someone who they are too fearful to meet? Or visit someplace they want without first opening a door to step out? Or live a life imagined only in dreams? To these people I offer no consolation...little hope even. You will become exactly what you are. And if you do not like that person today, while you are young and fresh and full of potential, you'll probably not like them very much when you become old and decrepit and are dying, and the dream you had imagined all those years back is now as impossibly removed as a mysterious and inviting ocean isle passed by long ago during a journey across the sea. That foreign port is now long removed. Your final port-of-call is just ahead now in old age...the ship is currently making secure to the dock and you must soon get off. Oblivion awaits upon the shore. An eternity of nothing just ahead. Bring your failing body down the ramp now. Screw-up that sour expression into one last scowl. Think or even speak some pained, angry words to the world just as you have been doing for the last decade of old age, attempt to share your upset with everyone around you one last time. And then goodbye. You go to your oblivion with a backward glance perhaps and a vain hope of ever after. A longing look of pain at the imagined memory of a life you had not the courage or resolve to live. Goodbye. Or not even goodbye. Perhaps for some, good riddance even.
But there is another way... It is not safe. It may not even be very sane. But it works. I guarantee you it works. Even if it wounds, maims, or kills you...it works.
The Path of Wildness is easy to find
The course of a stream
Leaves blown in the wind
A beast's track through the brush
And the direction of our first inclination
The Path of Wildness is the hard way out of the youthful bind of indecision regarding the life of our dreams. The technique works even when we are older, though it is best deployed when we are young, and have so much more to gain from even the slightest course correction to our early life trajectory.
The trick is to identify our dreams for what they are, and then honestly assess which life we really want to pursue. Imagine yourself much older and looking back to examine the pathway of your spent life. Which route, of the many before you, would you be most proud and happy to have lived? Which life would have been in best accord with the values you hold dear? Indeed, consider the impact on others; and if you've already made some big and important life choices and actions such as marriage and the starting of a family then I hope you'll give these responsibilities the very heavy weighting they deserve. In short, do not take on such important responsibilities unless you are really prepared to see them through. This is especially true with children, to whom your first allegiance must always be applied. Do not get married or have kids then too soon. As these are paths not easily diverted from without the potential of great upset to the well-being of those you have already committed to be there for. These responsibilities cannot be taken lightly. But even if you already made such choices early–as I did–then there is still a way..
But if you have not yet made such commitments, and you are in a sense free - sure, you've probably got family who want a say in things but this fact is nothing like the responsibility of starting your own family, and you can certainly tell the extended family that you will live your own life if you so choose—then get ready to plan your Great Life Adventure.
A Great Life Adventure is a key life activity and experience which taps into the dream you identified in charting your course along The Path of Wildness, where The Path is nothing more than the collection of facts you have accumulated about your dream along with the resolve and maybe a little gut-feeling needed to take that first step forward into such a life. Where will that first step go? What are you headed into? Whatever that is will become your Great Life Adventure. Whatever life you live, for a day or a week, or a month or a year or more is the experience which will make you into the man or woman you dream to become. But don't expect to return as any one particular being, as any exact type of person, or with the dream you've pursued intact and complete; for if you do your adventure right, you will likely become someone you didn't expect or even imagine might exist. This is the magic of a Great Life Adventure embarked upon along The Path of Wildness. It's a dream begun in some mystery, and nudged forward with some instinct, and then carried through with resolve despite the setbacks, pains or even some dangers encountered along the way.
And then who will you become? I do not know. I cannot even suggest you will become anyone, as you might die along the way, even in the first steps. You must, however, accept that risk, welcome it even, for the trick of adventure to work. It is a gamble with your very life—a gamble with your everything, in fact. It is a risk of living you cannot ever repeat or return to. You must take that risk now, or soon, as the moment will very quickly pass, and you will never get it back.
But it you do go...if you set out on your own Great Life Adventure. And if you do step...if you do step lively upon The Path of Wildness. And if you do somehow return, then I'm confident you'll be glad you did when old age arrives at last, and the ship pulls into that last port, and the ropes go down and the gangplank is lowered and the captain calls you to depart. How will you appear to the world then? What countenance will you present as your last visage before oblivion? Something tells me you will go out with less regret. And that this will show upon your face, and your body, and your deeds and in the whole story of your life. And then you will be gone. And maybe the world will even miss you a little.
Every genuine adventure ends in a new life. How many lives can be lived in a lifetime? One is enough...as long as we die alive.
I realized tonight that The Path of Wildness has many points of egress yet just a single point of ending. For this reason, I'll walk a little slower tonight, though I know that neither haste nor restraint will make much difference in the end.
Death will take me in any condition. For death is the single point of ending of every life story and the doorway is always open. But you cannot fit through the door. None of us can. We must leave everything behind, including ourselves. Death only accepts nothing. Death only waits for nothing. Death is nothing.
With nothing ahead and everything on hand why not choose the story of adventure while we have a chance? Every next footstep then is a potential start... Every decision a worthy point of departure. What story will it be told in these next moments? What story will we live and share and tell and show our kids? What story will death take from us to fade like the afterglow of embers in life's wake?
The adventures of youth may differ from those of older age. Gross impulse and stimulation giving way to measured exercise and restraint—a very different kind of impulse and reward. Experience matters most when we are young, until we have had enough of the novelty and excess of living and turn to discover the more meaningful adventure of discipline and self-control. And then the fun begins, though our face might only rarely belie this sage endeavor. The best times are when the adventures of youth are passed, and when the hard lessons of middle-age are largely complete, and when the final series of options are before us and we recognize our sober opportunity of self-discipline and measured restraint. And we choose then to die well when the time comes so sooner than we had thought. We choose then, to die alive.
Sometimes, we decide to go forward. Sometimes, we leave behind what's safe and sound and settled and seemingly good. Some of us do this to better ourselves and our situation, others because there seems no other option; maybe some make the change in order to satisfy others, or the expectation of family, or society, or because it's what someone our age should do. Still others may do so for the sake of adventure and for the chance to move when sitting still no longer satisfies, or has become dull or without challenge. But, for whatever reason we move, for whatever reason we decide to up-end our current life and change to another living, we do so with the hope of something better, a desire that what is new is somehow more of the thing we want, or seek, or long for. But where is the value in such movement and life change? Where is the deep value of making new life from old living?
Our new life may be hard. It probably will be very hard, indeed. And there will likely be moments–many perhaps–when we question our decision and ask ourselves "what have I done?" But these times will pass, they will come, and they will go, and we will soon find ourselves in our new lives, once more settled and alright. With new places of our own; a new home, new friends, another position, new expectations, and fresh frontiers. These are all good—or perhaps they will one day seem good, after we're fully settled, or after this new life adventure is done and we reflect from the vantage of a yet more distant life setting—but what is the heart and marrow of what we've done in terms of value? Where is the deep dividend of this change which we have wrought upon ourselves?
The shadow dividend
Is what we lose
Through the act of moving on
There is something to be gained in what we lose from the process of life change. It's a dividend of sorts, realized from our investment of courage and action and movement, a shadow dividend found not from the gaining of something new, but from the loss of something which once was, or which we once had, or which we once did, or thought, or a way in which we once lived. This shadow dividend is the dark exfoliation of that excess of self which once girdled our lives like the spare-tire of a middle-aged man's gut, or the cluttered garage of the hoarder who discards nothing, or the gossip who collects the secrets of others like sordid jewels to put to no good end. We gain when we lose these things we do not truly need. We become something more and better for their loss. We are made new for the breaking away and falling off of what we find we do not, or should not, need. We are new then for the becoming of someone who leaves behind the self they should never be. The shadow dividend is found in the lessening of ourselves to just our most vital, necessary, and sustaining self. It is the reduction of a man or woman to someone who is better for being less, and smaller, and more slight, and less here than simply alive, and good, and sound.
This is a value in moving on. The leaving behind of what we should never need.
I've an opportunity to exercise what is perhaps my earliest principle - The Path of Wildness:
The Path of Wildness is easy to find
The course of a stream
Leaves blown in the wind
A beast's track through the brush
And the direction of our first inclination
In particular, I have been offered a chance of new work in a new city. I know this routine well, it means a new life; or rather, a new chapter in my one and only life. Yumiko–my wife–knows this routine also, as she has been my partner in all but one of the many chapters we have so far shared. But should we do it–assuming the offer comes through? Should we give up our current safe and sane–a quite wonderful safe and sane to be sure - for the doubt and challenge of what is largely unknown?
I have done the math and the figures show nicely in favor of going. I learned that I must work until age 67 anyway, something about the way Social Security is set up, and so this is the same if we stay or go. And though my prospects at my current job are good if I stay, they are not bad either if I go. It is safer, I think, to stay. As I have developed a reputation and many connections of trust and appreciation built of hard work and a dedication to doing good. Sure, I can build these again in the new place, but that is a lot of social capital to give up. But on the other hand, it may be wise to spread myself a little more around the public-sector community of Information Technology (my field), should hard times come and I need or wish to leverage connections for a new situation. But I am not young. I will be fifty-six with my next birthday. But yeah, I will be fifty-six... How many more adventures have I got left in me?? And then there is my wife... She seems keen. I think she would like a change. Heck, we would both like a change. Not that this life is bad, but because we both enjoy change. Change is the thing we both love. Living many lives in a single lifetime is our hobby. It is the quality that brought us together and propelled us through our life together to date. We both know we will need to settle at last. But in the meantime...do we have another adventure yet to enjoy and partake? I suspect we do. This is the gut feeling which I will address shortly.
What I have just done there...that paragraph above...is the first part of The Path of Wildness. It is the exercise of evaluation, of collecting and assessing the facts of the case and the options ahead. It's looking at what is real and making an honest case for and against, or towards one option or the other, to the right or the left, or whatever decision might be made...or not be made; for not deciding is also an option, though maybe a very dangerous option. Can you live with yourself later if you do not decide? If you withdraw from the challenge of worthy life consideration, will you then find yourself haunted later with the echo of "what if?” Surely, that is a risk. Surely that is a fact. It is that risk–the risk of avoiding risk–which we attempt to assuage through the bold treatment of options just ahead of the life we might–or might not–live. And so, I will step boldly–perhaps with shaking legs–upon The Path of Wildness and make my choice.
The Path of Wildness is easy to find
The course of a stream
Leaves blown in the wind
A beast's track through the brush
And the direction of our first inclination
And now, I have assessed the facts and I know better the reality of the options before me. I will be darned if the way is not clear. Even if the way is clear, it still isn't clear; as there is doubt and suspect and worry and possible regret huddled nearby whispering among themselves in the shadows of my fear. Muss muss goes the gossipy voices... Muss muss they seem to say, while shooting me convicting looks and glances of forecast blame and accusation. "Speak up!" I shout at them, which only makes the skeleton-thin figures retreat further into the dark. "Be damned, I know you may be right. All of you. You may be right. But what worth such a life of fear? What value to the great ambition of living is it to cower there in the dark? Sure, there's protection should the great sky open with a cloudburst we know must come. Yes, the skies are dark and there is an echo of distant thunder. But I am not with you in this fear of yours. As I do not fear the rain or the storm or the lightning blast and strike with might surely kill. For death too comes in the gathering dark. And it will find us all despite our seeming shelter; if we stand open to the sky or huddled in the cave, death will find us all. And you can tell one another your stories of forever. And make the darkness and the dank enclosure better for your feign belief. But I do not believe you. For you have no better reason to believe than belief itself, which is simply wishful thinking. And so, I will leave you now, you huddled mess of my mind. Go on with your fear. I am going outside to give the matter one last think. I am going to climb to that near ridge and survey what is really out there. And then I will make my mind one way or the other. And if I need, I will consult my gut which has already made up its mind. My gut, which is the instinct of youth and an apparition of my better self, the self which will live while it can and die when it must. Such better council than the night. The light is always such better council than the night.”
And so, I will walk out and up and look and consult and then decide. And then I will move boldly forward onto whatever way my consulted and resolved self decides. And accept whatever end I then find.
The very first principle I identified for The Good Life is something call The Path of Wildness. I happened upon this idea while living in Japan and exploring alone in the deep and empty mountainous wilderness of the Japan Southern Alps. Hiking far off-trail and without maps or compass I would sometimes find myself confused about which way to go... It was then that I'd enlist my reason to assemble the facts of my circumstance: the appearance of the landscape, the position of the sun, the flow of water and maybe the sound of cascades suggesting dangerous waterfalls. I would then sit for a bit and take in these facts to give them a good think...allowing myself five minutes or so to assess and decide my next move. Often, I could not make up my mind as there were too few quality facts to decide upon, or my fear of being alone in such a strange and remote place might be muddling my ability to think clearly. It was then that I'd employ my instinct to help me make up my mind...I'd listen to what my gut feeling was telling about the direction I should next go to make my way either deeper into the wild or to find my way back out. My gut wasn't always right, though it did serve as a useful tiebreaker when my reason was stymied, or the facts simply could not support a better-informed decision. I use this principle often now in life whenever I cannot quite make up my mind. I assemble facts, allow some time to think them over, and then listen to my gut to help me decide finally what I must do if reason alone proves insufficient to the task.
This long night hike in the desert one-week back reminded me of those experiences in Japan which drew out from the principle I now call The Path of Wildness.
The course of a stream
Leaves blown in the wind
A beast's track through the brush
And the direction of our first inclination
Desert journal entry: November 15, 2019
Past years journal entries are rife with seeming hyperbole regarding the quality of desert night hiking during November. Last night’s solo adventure enlists no hyperbole in describing the experience as magical, sublime and even mystical. I left Siberia ghost town on foot well after sundown, wearing just my shorts, my lucky blue hiking shirt, and a light fleece sweater. The nearly full moon was playing peekaboo behind high cirrus cloud-cover, requiring the use of a flashlight for the first hour. I could navigate then by turning off the light and gauging my place by noting the black silhouette hulks of the dead volcanoes I’ve come to know here. Eventually, the moon came out from the clouds for good, and I put away the light to hike like a cat in the dark. When my eyes had fully acclimated to the moonlight, I could see clearly every rock and bush around me, along with all the landscape for two-hundred square miles. An utterly empty landscape of humanity - save me...and I was a poor representative. Eventually, I crossed over the Edge of Deep Water, I walked by very near the Black Volcano and by 1:00 AM I’d arrived at Campo #1 (all place names from my book). I was pooped. Yet, I was elated. By now, I was in shirtsleeves and the diminishing cold was starting to make me feel mortal once again - for the walk alone, without light, through trackless desert night, had been like an experience no human should know while still alive. That experience was what heaven should be like should such a place be real. Fortunately, it’s truly possible to have such experiences, which well deserve the name heaven, even if the name is only a dream. Such was my solitary night hike last night in the desert. Truly, November is heaven in the Mojave Desert.
I was away for a few days this week moving. My family and I have at last truly, finally arrived in America. It took over five years to fully execute our transition from Japan to the USA, though I think the work is now done. Moving to another apartment was not the thing–we have made four such moves so far here–as much as moving to THIS particular apartment did the job. And again, it is not the apartment as much our state-of-mind in executing this move. During the past three moves around Irvine we felt like refugees trudging around with our few possessions, selecting places to live more out of necessity rather than choice, and setting up house with odds and ends and leftovers of our own and other people's lives–stuff we found others had discarded–as we attempted to make house of whatever we had at hand. This time was decidedly different... This time the choice of where to live–house, condo or apartment; and what city, Dana Point, Laguna Hills, or Irvine–was so deliberate as to feel like the edict of a family who were truly comfortable enough in our new community and secure enough in our meager fortune to make up our own minds. Plus, all the stuff is also now our own - no more leftovers. In fact, we fully discarded all the other people's stuff we had accumulated since coming to the USA. We have new beds, new furniture, new knickknacks, nearly everything new! But it wasn't so much the newness of the things we possess, as the newness of our sense of belonging and resolve which made the difference. We're here. We're back in the USA. We're fully returned.
Now, I wonder how long this settled sense will last before Yumiko and I get bored with this particular life and decide to move on to something else - which is what we always do? I rather suspect we may not do this again very soon, as we are getting a little older now and the process of destroying and rebuilding lives isn't as easy as it once was.
Going more deeply alone
I am a little intimidated at the idea of going alone without social media. So far, living untethered from the modern community has been much easier than I had imagined. Being so long in the habit of sharing so much of my action and thinking seemed like it would be a hard thing to give up–but it isn't. I've quickly replaced this activity–distraction, really–with reading and writing, which are much more satisfying pursuits. But that's in my civilized life, where I have my family and people and my work. Going deeply alone here feels less so when I'm so well rewarded with the satisfying distraction of my books and my journal. What will this be like in Siberia?
I've long known that I've used the thin thread of connectivity–just one bar out there–at Siberia to assuage the sense of deep alone and even some fear which I suspect might be haunting my mind way out in the deep desert. Even when I've no bars of connectivity in the Deep-Water wilds I nevertheless have my video camera, behind the lens of which I can quickly take shelter from the deep alone. I don't know if I'm yet ready to give up that particular false sanctuary, especially as talking before the camera lens still seems to have some value to me as a means to communicate my various messages of Going Alone and–more importantly–The Good Life. But what will it be like to face Siberia without Facebook, or Instagram or the rest? I think I know the answer. It will be better. Far better. The next stage of Going Alone.
Moving Emily into her new place
Today was the last day our daughter lived at home with Yumiko and me. Emily has been with us a long time, since November 25th, 2000 when she was born at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, California. She has lived with us in nine separate homes since that time: three in Japan and six in the USA. That is an average of just over two years in each home. I wonder if this pace of change will have set some precedent for her in terms of establishing an interest—for better or worse—in living many lives over the course of a single lifetime? Time should tell.
family spent the evening prior to the move helping Emily pack. In fact, it was Emily's boyfriend Chris who helped the most, the two of them going slowly through Emily's possessions, deciding what to keep and what to take. Chris even spent some time reviewing Emily's many photos to create a nice album for her to take to her new apartment in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. Emily had asked Yumiko for her favorite meal as her "last supper" before departing---a type of Japanese-style shrimp pasta—which they made together while I shared with Chris some old videos of our lives in Japan. The evening was more exciting than bittersweet, as Emily is quite eager and ready to go, and not too keen on holding onto the past or even the present, for that matter; this fact being perhaps evidence that her parent's wanderlust and ever eagerness for new life has indeed sunk in.
We moved Emily to her new home in two trips, between Irvine and Marina Del Rey. Her new situation is a shared space, similar to a college dormitory, where she will have a nice room of her own adjoining a common living space, kitchen and shared bathroom. The location is very convenient to many South Bay amenities, and just minutes from where Chris will be attending university beginning next month, so the two of them will be close. Chris is a good guy. And I am glad he will be nearby. Emily is also just a short distance from where Yumiko works, which will make weekday visits handy should Emily and Yumiko wish to catch up or Yumiko desire to drop off a care package. Finally, she is less than an hour from Irvine, so we can go see her or visa-versa on weekends or when she wants to see our dogs, Rudy, and Ollie.
During the second trip, Yumiko and I stopped by Target and Tokyo Central—dour local Japanese supermarket—in order to pick up all kinds of starter essentials, including a rice cooker which Emily will need to make her new place a proper Japanese home. Good job, mama!
I'll confess that I worry a little--OK, a lot--if we've done our best preparing Emily for the challenges she will face living on her own. She is a good person at her core, and I think that should carry her through to the far side of the important stuff. Sure, I won't be there to do her dishes anymore, or to slay the immediate dragons of her life, though both Yumiko and I will always be close by in spirit, and memory, and of course by phone or chat should she need to talk.
Good luck, Emily!
Adrift across a desert night
In his book Walden, specifically in the chapter titled "The Ponds", Henry David Thoreau describes the seasons and moods of Walden Pond as well as the nearby White Pond and Flint's Pond. In the passage quoted below, Thoreau communicates his experience and sense of the rudderless passage of time while reclining in a small boat which he allows to drift with the breeze over the extensive surface of Walden (a "pond" which measures a half-mile by a quarter-mile across). The experience—to borrow Henry’s own vocabulary—might be described as "singular", which word perhaps falls short of capturing such a worthy life milestone. In fact, when I visited Thoreau's grave in Concord many decades back, the poet in me wondered—as I looked upon his headstone marked "Henry"—if the essence of this, and his many other such experiences, perhaps lingered with the man still, whose mortal remains were at rest, decomposed there below my feet; memories like gemstones taken to the grave within a closed fist, to outlast the stuff of the mortal who does soon become earth. So too, perhaps, does the gem of Thoreau's living experience of drifting across the pond bejewel the memory of his lost mortal remains, as a most precious lingering gift, a treasure imparted of words, from the treasure seeker to anyone who might pause to read of what he had found:
"I have spent many an hour, when I was younger, floating over its surface as the zephyr willed, having paddled my boat to the middle, and lying on my back across the seats, in a summer forenoon, dreaming awake, until I was aroused by the boat touching the sand, and I arose to see what shore my fates had impelled me to..."
-Henry David Thoreau
Likewise, have I drifted over my own pond—in the desert, at night, when I strike out from Siberia ghost town towards the empty hills and mountains to the north. My open eyes are soon shut by the dark, which depth is deepened by my reluctant use of a torch, and my eager willingness to become lost. I wander then into the wastes for half a night, turning here and there where I may, or must, or do, without the knowledge that I have changed way. Still air draws me forward like vacuum, while breezes and gusts push me along with whispers and words rustling of night. My feet are lost almost from the first, crossing places I may not know, feeling warm stones with my soles, stumbling often, falling forward into new lands I fool myself are familiar, until my thoughts move away from caring where I am—and I just walk on further into the dark, guided by nothing, my ambition nothing, my destination...nothing; until fatigue takes over and I lay down on the sand to sleep, a deep and dreamless sleep of further progress into night, finding places where no memory can return, lying cold and alone on the sand covered with stars and an infinity of dark.
I find myself then where "my fates had impelled me to", ashore somewhere I'd never hoped to be.
The hole along the way
I've always been one to notice the hole in the fabric of humanity, where one may press through a finger to the place outside. You can peek through such a hole...though there is nothing to see due to the brilliant ambient backlight of where we now are, and the rush of smoke-like familiar air which flows out past us through the hole into the apparent void—smoke-like, for the congestion of countless generations breathing at once and through time, the stale air of expired speech and laughter, and the crying out at birth, and the guttering last utterances of death; molecules of atmosphere kept in through closed doors and lashed windows and heavy curtains drawn tight. But still, we can peek through the little hole in where and what we are, and see out into the darkness outside, and know there is more.
A clear road at night—
To a lighted city down below
Companions along the way
A place to rest and eat...
A break in the trees—
Into the dark woods above
No place to rest or eat...
And if we wiggle our probing thumb the hole then gets wide, for no shutter is real once we elect to say no. And now we've two fingers through, and then three, and now our hand; though we still can not see, it is too dark, and very cold—or is that heat?—and the wind falls now with a mad, whistling rush of vacuum drawing our dear something into void. Has down now become out? Is it gravity pushing the wind? Will I fall through?
You will not fall. As though the opening is now large enough to leave if we choose, we nevertheless always remain without some force of will first deciding to go. There are shapes now beyond in the dark, and something moving with stealth among what may be trees. And a strange sound perhaps in the distance, very far. There is no road or trail out there in the beyond, no place to go, nothing to see, and no one to show us the way. But you've come this far now... You've opened the way.
Will you step through to where no promises are made, let alone kept?
And no friends are found, let alone made?
Nor warmth, or light of life even, let alone desire?
The course of a stream
Leaves blown in the wind
A beast's track through the brush
And the direction of our first inclination
The beginning of Going Alone
I remember when I first thought up the idea of Going Alone. My family and I were living then in Japan, and I was making YouTube videos for the Walking in Japan and Abandoned Japan series. I was active at that time on social media, and among the questions I answered from viewers were periodic requests from people who planned to visit Japan, and who asked if they could join me on an adventure in the mountains. Such arrangements only rarely worked out, as the logistics of visiting both Japan and my out of the way city proved more challenge than most Japan dreamers were willing to overcome, though I did escort at least one or two groups a year with me into the Japan Southern Alps. The guided trips were fun, as it was nice to meet new people, and to talk freely with native English speakers, and to see my favorite remote Japanese villages through the curious eyes of other foreigners who shared my appreciation for such rare and special places. But, the trips were not the same for me. Such trips were nothing like my adventures alone into the rugged mountains of central Japan; and I knew what was missing—it was the fact that I was not going alone. I did not understand why at the time, but I knew that solitude in the wild was the special ingredient which was the real draw and reason that I went to such places. Going alone was the very purpose of my going at all.
Going Alone is not about living alone. It is about going forth and then returning, from places where there are none.
And so, one day, while still living and adventuring in Japan, I dreamed up the title of a new video series—something to replace Walking in Japan. The new series would be called "Going Alone" and would be essentially identical to Walking in Japan. The sole purpose of the name change was to create a handy label to dissuade others from asking to join me in the mountains. For, who would venture to invite themselves along on an adventure called Going Alone? It was just a passing idea, something I thought up while strolling alone through a small village, smiling a little at the silliness of the idea before letting the notion go. I never even wrote the Going Alone idea down, as the thought seemed nonsense, and anti-social even, and was in no way related to what I was then doing and sharing from the mountains of Japan. In fact, I remember feeling a little embarrassed that I had even dreamed up the idea of Going Alone. After all, how selfish was it of me to consider a video series titled for the sole purpose of warding away potential companions. However, there was indeed something to the idea of Going Alone which I sensed was important—not the title, but the fact of Going Alone—and it was this relatively rare experience of being alone in the wild which was the true thing which I was trying to protect. Not my privacy...but my being alone.
And then in 2014 I came home to America. I came back initially alone, to start a new job, and to get settled before bringing my family across the sea to join me. At first, I did not adventure at all from my new home in Southern California, life itself then being more than enough newness, challenge and change. But soon, I began to go back out again into the wild looking for new places to adventure and explore. And I found my way back into the Mojave Desert where I had once wandered as a younger man. I returned then to the wild—and I returned alone. But this time I did things differently. I chose not to seek places in particular, no famous national parks like Death Valley or Joshua Tree, no monuments like the East Mojave, and not even the ghost towns or natural sights which are everywhere out there in the desert lands. No. Instead, this time I only sought to go to places where nobody else might be, or where no one else has been for a very long time, or perhaps ever— I was after then the deep, penetrating solitude, and the experience of places unseen for ages by others, to be very far off the named and charted parts of the map, into the empty spots in between, or better yet, to the lands once labeled on very old maps as the home of dragons—places forgotten or lost, offering little of anything other than the experience of Going Alone. Though I was not yet thinking of going alone. I was only thinking to go.
And I kept this up for a year. Going out into the desert alone twice a month to hike. Exploring widely for a while, before settling at last upon a vast area of seemingly unremarkable landscape on either side of Route 66 between Ludlow and Amboy—fifty-odd miles of beautiful, yet rather ordinary, places one might just normally drive by without thinking to stop. But, I did think to stop. And I found places to stop. Places where I could leave my car or, later, my motorcycle, to go walking from the road into the dull and blank horizon. To walk then over the line of distant sight to see what was beyond reach of where we can no longer see, to places in the desert where we cannot see back, and where the empty does then begin to swallow—where we are swallowed then slowly by the empty, gradually, bit by bit, a little more each time we go out, alone, into such a place. And that is how I began to go back to the desert alone, not seeking to be alone—not yet at least—but rather to experience being alone; until one day it began to dawn on me that I could just barely see something now way out there which I had never seen before, except maybe briefly once or twice as a young man during those early years when I came to the desert alone. I was beginning to see—or sense might be a better word—what there was—or wasn't might be the better term—way out there alone in the desert wild. The Great Indifference became apparent to me then. And I knew that I could only sense such empty if I were first myself drained to nearly nothing. I had to come to the desert alone. And I had to go far, and deep, and wild, and almost lost. Better still I had to go at night, without a light, or any flame or any good sense of knowing the way to go. And I had to go by myself— I was beginning then, to truly go alone.
Eventually, my family re-joined me to carry on our lives together in the United States. Though I continued my long established habit of going by myself into wild places for a day or two every other week. But now, I did things differently— I was going alone not just for adventure, but for the experience of Going Alone. I was working then to build upon the vision of The Great Indifference which both unsettled and caused me to restructure my life. I was Going Alone for the purpose of coming back: to return a better man, a man more alive and aware for the fact of having gone to the edge where awareness and life are nearly lost—not the edge borne of danger, but the frontier perceived of deep solitude, and the fact of the deliberate act and endeavor of Going Alone.
I went alone into the desert not to escape, nor to rest, nor to seek comfort—but to die. I went alone to the desert to expire my certitude belief that I in any way understood. I went alone to the desert to lose there my very life of peace. I went alone to the desert to waste my body and my belief to nothing, to become a dry and hollow shell, to blow in the hot wind and freeze in the night and desiccate myself to sand. I went alone to the desert to become a nothing corpse among the hard angled stones, un-buried below the inferno sun and the vacuum cold of the windless desert night. I went to the desert alone then to return home as someone new—as the man I now am: a lesser man, a slighter man, a more empty man, and one to become filled, and made whole, and be grown through family and work and home and society, and all of the things which the empty desert does seemingly deny. I went alone to the desert to know the contrast which makes this life so precious, scarce, fleeting and true.
I went alone to the desert to discover nothing. That I might then return home to discover and create my everything.
Notes from my muse
I'd suffer alone under a bridge
I always leave the engine of my motorcycle running for a bit after arriving at night at the desert ghost town of Siberia. In a way, I need to screw up some courage to kill the bike and bring on the silence and the deep dark of a place so far removed from the warmth and help of humanity. Those first few seconds after the engine stops are utterly dark and silent, while my eyes adjust to starlight, and my eardrums seemingly grow taut and retune from attendance to the sounds of our civilized world, to the empty silence of the desert night. In a few seconds, the wilder me takes over, and I lower my heavy backpack to the ground before slowly turning 360 degrees to ascertain the darkness—and consider my next steps.
If I'm going to camp beside the bike, then the tasks are easy, and performed by rote muscle memory: switch on the flashlight, unload the bike, set up my tent, and prepare dinner before going to sleep. However, if I'm going to begin hiking immediately, then my chores are much simpler: strip off my riding gear and put on my hiking clothes, secure the bike and stretch my legs, hoist the 50-pound pack onto my back and begin walking.
The motorcycle is lost in the darkness within seconds of setting out. Within minutes the last signs of the ghost town are vanished to dark. Shortly thereafter I cross over the railroad tracks and carefully slide down a gravelly flash flood berm onto open desert. From this point forward, it's wildness in every direction. I carry and use a small penlight to spot rattlesnakes while hiking at night, though if the moon is out I can sometimes turn off the light and navigate carefully by the stars, and the black, mute hulks of distant mountains. At moments like this, walking alone by starlight across a trackless waste, the hesitation I felt before turning off the motorcycle is utterly lost. This fear seems to vanish once I'm away and walking alone into the open desert. Fear then has a strange, inverse way of diminishing with every mile traveled alone at night. My confidence is bolstered as I stalk among the soulless beasts, becoming every bit their equal in both vulnerability and mortality. It’s curious how this sense sometimes stays with me after returning home.
The quality of wilderness solitude I bring back with me to civilization bolsters my movements, tightens my thoughts and firms up my speech with an immediacy and decisiveness my more civilized self can rarely muster. This strange, wild quality shows up in such things as an easy smile under otherwise stressful situations, a peaceful frame-of-mind during a challenging meeting at work, or a relaxed calm when life goes all wrong, as it is sometimes prone to do. I enjoy these alien qualities while they last, which they rarely do; and though I know the worth and value of going to, and returning from, the wild alone, I still always hesitate at that last moment before turning off the switch that connects the animal I am, with the man I must be.
It took me three visits to muster the nerve to summit a small, mountain I’d found in the eastern Mojave Desert. The first time I made it only to the base, where I lingered for a while, screwing up the courage to scramble up the steep and slippery face. I wound up retreating without climbing, walking away under cover of an excuse that the slope was too steep, and the volcanic rocks too loose and sharp. Sometimes it's better to heed caution when you’re alone in the wild, though that doesn't mean I can't try again another day.
The second time I came I'd timed the day poorly, and had to leave quickly in order to make it back to base camp before night. This was possibly just another excuse, though I'll humor myself and allow the label of necessity; after all, it’s not a good thing to be caught alone in the desert without shelter when darkness falls hard on a cold winter night.
I finally climbed the mountain on my third visit, which was a victory hike of sorts to celebrate completion of a much more difficult and challenging hike to a distant black volcano. Returning past this nameless mountain after that longer hike felt almost like coming home, as I'd been here twice prior, and knew the route back to camp fairly well. On a whim I climbed the mountain, and discovered a lost trace of humanity at the summit, and enjoyed a lovely view of the quiet and empty landscape where every success goes without recognition, and every life is forgotten upon the moment of its passing.
Sometimes when I'm alone, and very far into wilderness, I look back and realize suddenly that I've been swallowed by the empty. It's the understanding that there's as much wildness behind me, as there is in front of me, and again on every side, that triggers the panic. When the fear comes, I usually start talking out loud to no one way out there in the nowhere. It's a strange dialogue between the part of me that is freaking out, and another side which is calmly talking away the fear with a plan and the force of reason. When I was younger, the panic often won, and I'd sometimes literally run from the place which brought on the fear. This hasn't happened though in years, and I usually now simply sit myself down to wait out the irrational fear. The fear always fades. The quiet and peace—and peace of mind—always return. This video clip captures the very start of my panic, when I first look over the lip of the volcano and realize I had a long hard hike yet ahead of me, and then look back and realize the hard way behind which I traveled to get here.
The scariest things in the wild are accident and imagination, especially when we’re alone, and are without the comfort, aid and reassuring words of a travelling partner. I take pains to prevent and avoid accidents when I’m alone in the wild, though my imagination is less impressed with planning and reason, and sometimes has its way with me when something strange happens on a hike, causing sudden fear which springs upon me fast, often rising to a panic while I scramble to gain mental control. This usually happens during the day, as was the case in this video a few minutes before I turned on the camera. Such fears rarely visit me at night anymore—perhaps because I’ve challenged them enough in the dark to convince them they are not real. My mind though, still gets tricked during the day, like the time last year when I saw a face peeking at me from some rocks within the Volcano Wilderness, or the black flying thing which visited me in a dark Japanese bamboo forest a few years back, or the terror which flooded my body with adrenaline, causing me to run for my life from a desert canyon in Utah more than three decades ago. I don’t run anymore from these things, but instead I always move closer. Invariably the strange terror I perceive turns out to be nothing; an inanimate object, or a curious play of natural forces such as wind, rain, sunlight or shadow. Everything supernatural invariably flees before genuine inquiry, or is found out in the process, and in the finding, becomes no longer supernatural. I’ll retreat from real threats, like bears, boar and killer hornets; though I won’t run from dangers I suspect aren’t real, like ghosts, monsters, demons or gods. My imagination is welcome to ambush me whenever it likes, as I’ve nothing to lose in the face of what isn’t real, and much to gain in peering deeply at whatever makes me scared.
I’m getting further now from the thinking which produced Going Alone. It was like a place, a very desolate place, where only that one thing could be done. Now I can see a new landscape of thought, like mountains far away. That’s where I’ll make The Good Life. The peaks and craggy summits of that very different landscape are clear in my mind. I can draw the outline even. All that needs to be done is to go there. And then to write about whatever I might find.
The desert was very dark last week until the moon rose about 3:00 AM. The appearance of moonlight spilling over the Old Dad Mountains woke me up and I went outside the tent to witness the partial moon illuminating the outline of both mountains and clouds. Whenever I see the moon at night while alone in the wild, I'm reminded of a poem Sarah Kemble Knight penned in 1705 while travelling alone through New England. In the poem's opening lines (below), she expresses her trepidation travelling as a woman alone through the night in a dark woods. And then the relief she feels when at last the familiar face of the moon (which she refers to as "Fair Cynthia") appears to light her way. I made an effort to commit these lines to memory when I was a teen and I've had ample opportunity to use them throughout my life:
"Fair Cynthia, all the Homage that I may
Unto a Creature, unto thee I pay;
In Lonesome woods to meet so kind a guide,
To Mee's more worth than all the world beside."
-Sarah Kemble Knight
I’ve developed a plan for this week's attempt on Mt. Wildness. I've identified two potential approaches to this very remote desert mountain. The better of the two will involve many more miles of hiking, which will take longer, though there's little chance of getting mixed up along the way. The more direct route will take me through a fairly formidable badlands I call The Sandman's Bed. The area is formidable not particularly for the maze-like twists and turns of many flashflood arroyo, but instead for the unsettling quiet of a place where the wind seems to barely ever stir and there's no sound at all to help us remember we were once human.
My perennial desert nighttime destination is the lost and deserted desert mining camp called "Campo #1". Like Siberia ghost town, I lay some claim upon this forgotten place; I describe it as my place to sleep in peace after a long solitary sojourn through trackless lands illuminated by starlight and moonlight and perceived by my own faint and failing vision and capacity to see and know. But still, I always find that place...no matter how dark the night, or lost or turned around I might seemingly become, or curious about other places in the Deep Water Wilderness where I might go to pass the deep hours of night...I yet always find my way to Campo #1. And I know that if I'm fortunate enough to live to a ripe old age, and they prop me up in the old age home to wait out the long hours to death, I know then that I'll sit there with a knowing and inscrutable grin upon my face as night falls and my mind returns to the deep desert, to the trackless wanderings alone in the night, with no light but nature's pale illumination, and no guide other than my own seemingly lost and shuffling footsteps over gravel and sand and granite and alluvium the depth of a sea. I'll return then as an old man in my wheelchair or bed to the land where none may ever again go but me. My place out there in the deep desert wilds which I found and never share but through stories and pictures and memories and the subtlest of knowing smiles.
I’ll take my place
And among women
I’ll walk my days
As they walk theirs
And moving ahead
My careful, considered footsteps
The only real measure of success