In the North Cascades

People ask “Why do you like to do that?”

From the guidebook: Resting along the Canadian border for more than 50 miles, the Pasayten Wilderness encompasses the crest of the Cascades, almost 150 peaks over 7,500 feet in elevation, 160 or more bodies of water and at least that many waterways including a dozen which have carved incisive canyons with vertical walls.

Rugged ridges in the west flatten into park-like wonder on eastern plateaus, and you’ll find deep drainage’s on both sides of the area. It is a big piece of very wild country with a diverse forest that changes from vegetation typical of western Washington (fir, cedar, western hemlock) to growth typical of eastern Washington (fir, pine and larch).

Residents of the area include deer and moose, mountain goats and bighorn sheep, the fabled gray wolf and the intimidating grizzly bear, and the largest population of lynx in the Lower 48.

“What’s it like?” I’ve heard about this area for years. It’s hard to get to and I won’t see many people if I’m there during September.

I’ll go for a week.

First, a point of contrast

The habits and patterns of my household demand a constant mentality of planning, and of fitting pieces together. My life becomes dominated by ongoing, interwoven processes of working, consuming, and maintaining the complex systems related to family finance, schools, functioning appliances, banking, etc. My mind is necessarily plotting. “What comes next?” “How does that piece fit in?”

I need these deep habits of anticipation to create predictability and control. Otherwise stuff won’t get done. So the day becomes a dense choreography of meetings, writing, calls, e-mails, and errands. Everything is in process. The axis of time drives all.

I’ve got to be vigilant or it becomes an exhausting, absurd, and mindless sequence of mental and physical movements. A certain unconsciousness can take over, and I feel strangely hypnotized in the rush.

Lots of time spent alone in the wilderness has installed some valuable sensibilities in my psyche that help keep my urban life fresh. When I keep these in mind, I deal with the complicated flow well.

Him: “Sir, how would you like to save a great deal on your long distance charges?”

Me: “Let me assume that you are truly offering me good savings if I were to switch to your plan. I believe you. But I don’t care! I don’t care one bit if I’m paying “too much” right now. I don’t want to take one second to even explore it with you. Life is too short. I’ve got to go! Goodbye!”

Just observing

I’m walking north on a high ridge with the sun low in the western sky. I look east at the shadow of my ridge rising on the next hill over. I stop. Can I see the shadow moving? Can I feel the earth turning away from the sun? I’m still, and realize that I can see no flow of within the shadow’s movement. Rather, I seem to register a sequence of jerks, advances in the shadow that seem to come in steps. Then, as I settle down, I think I get better at it. I find a very defined boundary that the shadow is about to cross – a major change in color of rock or a rock/tree transition – and suddenly I have the sense of the shadow moving. But I can’t tell if I’m tricking myself.

Later, the sun is five minutes from setting on the steep hillside I walk across. I try to focus on the main characteristics of the light in the area, which means picking a point in space in the middle of it all, and not focusing on any particular object in the scene. The 60 seconds of actual sunset is a gradual removal of light, profound and strange. There’s a small sinking of my heart and turning of mood as the light becomes fully drained away.

After dinner, the moon is setting behind a mountain. Through binoculars, I watch as it slides downward. Here I am able to detect continuous movement. The earth is really turning. This particular moon is new, maybe six days old, maybe 30% lit. The second that the crescent disappears behind the rocks, the un-lit remainder becomes visible. We don’t usually see this ghostly shape – it is illuminated by sunlight reflected off the earth. (I’m of course not referring to the “other” side of the moon, which we never see. )

These changes in light and movement each require a whole lot of calm. They are wonderfully enjoyable. I try to simply experience the changes, and avoid theorizing about them or labeling them while I’m doing it. Obviously, we can’t be directly aware of most changes in nature. But certain natural processes come very close to being perceivable, and with the subtlety comes a sense of things very powerful.



To get to the trail head, I drove a total mess of a road for an hour, ending at 6,100 feet. I then hike for eight miles to 8,000 feet, where I’ll camp.

I’m quickly reminded again of what carrying a 50 pound pack is all about. I think of the enormous strength and endurance of athletes, of just what the human body can do. I consider the crushing physical hardships that so many endure around the world in their work and in their migrations. What a pampered life I lead, with its perfectly calibrated comforts.

So on this first hike up, I decide to just keep going and to observe myself moving out of the zone of physical and mental ease.

After an hour of hard walking up, the pack’s shoulder and waist belts are chaffing. I feel the elevation. I’m tired. But I keep going at as fast a pace as I can without winding myself. At two hours I’m really hot and thirsty, but confirm to myself that there’s a lot of margin by which I can handle more of this simple pain and tiredness. I drink some water as I walk.

I’m trying to focus on longer, deeper breaths, on the rhythm of these breaths, and on my heartbeat. I notice that I immediately lose steam when I start to day-dream. It’s only by being attentive that I can use the full capacity of my lungs.

The last hour is nasty. And when I stop, I feel both a sense of accomplishment and a reminder that I’d again forgotten about the nature of really hard physical work. Hiking is the only way I ever experience this.

It’s not the amount or type of work. Going well outside of one’s comfort zone will differ widely depending on the person. It’s the experience of finding real meaning in something that would conventionally be felt as unpleasant.

It’s a great thing. And so I declare to myself that I’ll do some of this every day of the trip.

(Of course, I’m making the choice, and I control the activity. There’s no analogy to the pain of the peasant cracking rocks to build roads in the Himalayan countryside.)

Fooling around

It’s another day, and I climb off the trail on to a mesa that is a great, open flatness. It’s a expanse that just goes on and on, with lots of the world visible in every direction. I drop my pack. It’s 11 and I’ve done my hard three hours.

I putter and fiddle around. Have a drink. Take a little walk. Read a few pages. Fix something with my knife. Check out some new sharp tweezers. Take another little walk. Change how I’m sitting. Daydream about inconsequential stuff. Throw rocks. Move to get back in the shade of the tree.

Four hours go by.

At about 3:00 I go to get water from the stream, which I know is a quarter mile back on the trail. I say to myself, what’s the longest I could take to get that water and still be moving the whole time? So I shuffle down the mountain. It’s hard to go so slowly. What an odd test I find this to be. Again and again I forget my intention, and find myself speeding up.

But I do have all the time in the world, and if I walk slowly enough, I can devote myself to looking out, hearing, and smelling all of this that is around me. I work at it and use an hour……


Actually, a funny thing happened. I was liking my mesa so much that I had decided to stay the night. But at about 4:30, this red haze floated up, and within 45 minutes very light ash was falling on me. I could actually see the source of the fire, and it wasn’t close. But I didn’t want be here any more, and my original intended camp was in the other direction from the fire anyway. I felt compelled to move, to leave. It felt weird being up there then.

The night is as important to me as the day

There’s almost no place in the greater Seattle area to see the dark skies of real night. But here, at almost 8,000 feet there is no ambient light whatsoever. And what is above is astounding.

I’m lying on my back in the sleeping bag, comfortable as all get out. My head is perfectly propped. I did a massive piece of stretching, and I feel like I’m just sinking into the ground.

I have no tools. No binoculars, no telescope, no star charts. Just my eyes. “1x” magnification. What can be experienced with the tools that came with my body?

BYet even in this supposedly pure observational mode, I see just how assisted I am by knowledge. I understand latitude and longitude – where we sit on this sphere, Earth. Tonight I’m at latitude of about 48 degrees. I also know where the north star (“Polaris”) is, which is aligned with Earth’s axis. So, by definition, Polaris sits 48 degrees above the northern horizon. (The earth spins such that our north pole always is aimed at it.)

It requires a real imaginative stretch to be able to look a star sitting 48 degrees up from the horizon and imagine the pole of the very large sphere you are sitting on extending in a straight line to that star. I try to make sense of this, which is tough because we feel that we are sitting on a flat surface. But we’re on one sphere, and it sits within a much larger one. It’s the relationship between these two spheres – the earth and the celestial sphere itself – that creates great thought experiments and fun. This is a puzzle I can do.

I’ve always been fascinated by the movement of the constellations. Depending on the time of year or time of night, they might be observed in different places in the sky and at various seemingly topsy-turvy positions.

Northern hemisphere stars – such as the Big Dipper in the chart below – rotate around Polaris.


Of course, the stars aren’t rotating, we are. I enjoy cultivating my sense of the earth’s turning within the unchanging (at least by our sense of time) celestial sphere. And as the earth rotates, my perspective looking up at any particular constellation changes with the rotation. Different stars within a constellation rotate in different arcs, which accounts for all the convolutions of the constellations as they move.

CI have more fun. Because I know that stars near Polaris must circle it in 24 hours, I draw an imaginary 24 hour clock around this sole stationary point in the sky. Any constellation will move on its arc a quarter of this circle in 6 hours.

Then I think about the celestial equivalents of longitude and latitude, which pinpoint locations in the sky and are known as “right ascension” and “declination”, respectively. The ever-increasing concentric circles of stars moving around Polaris are measured in degrees, just like latitude on earth. I spend a fair amount of time working out distances between stars in terms of numbers of degrees. (Note: The charts on these pages are from the opening pages of Terence Dickenson’s book Nightwatch, published by Firefly Books, 1998.)

On a night like this the Milky Way itself stretches from horizon to horizon, and contains great striation and complexity. The earth sits on the outskirts of one of its spiral arms – the Orion Arm. Within these hazy clouds of stars are all sorts of interesting objects I know how to find – dark nebulas, globular clusters, double stars…..

As the night progresses, I see how much I’m combining of two modes of experience – purely taking in what is above while bringing to mind what I have learned previously.

My hike the next day allows for yet another type of reward – the time to think though what I learned the previous evening.

I love walking along with the time to think about things. The four hour period last night was magnificent and inspiring. And its meaning is connected to an emotional element that is hard to translate. The best and deepest “knowing” has a strong “feeling” element. Thus the paradoxical problem of translating to others the wonders of direct sensory experience.

I have one book with me, Timothy Ferris’s Seeing in the Dark, which is a history of how amateur astronomers have driven the processes of celestial discovery. He describes the experience of today’s astronomer as largely one of computer screens, equations, readouts and reports from extraordinarily complex machines and instruments.. Many astronomers haven’t looked through an eyepiece for years.

“Too bad for them,” I think.

I notice a certain creeping self-congratulation about my astronomy observations. I tell myself that all the astronomical theory and explanations and technology just sit between myself and the natural world. I was using no tools, and was simply watching and sensing. Observing “directly” is what provided me with the great mix of wonder, enjoyment, meaning, and outright fun……

But upon scrutiny, I come to see that I’m making some phony distinctions between my “aesthetic” pursuit of just looking up and the more “intellectual” efforts of science.

The perception and experience of those sensations that I’m calling “aesthetic” or “artistic” are potentially a part of any interaction between a person and what he is perceiving. It’s really about the quality of the relationship. Every experience and activity can be an act of direct aesthetic experience.

Scientists can have the same sensations of awe, wonder and connection that I had as they look at the results of an experiment shown on a computer print out. It’s attentiveness and presence that are the main contributors to the quality of the experience. These are what deserve cultivation.

Sitting, reading

Instruments become nothing more than simple extensions of our senses. I know that I can’t experience the magic of Saturn’s rings without seeing them through a telescope.

Knowledge deepens the aesthetics. That fuzzy thing below Cassiopeia in the sky is the Andromeda galaxy. I could never know this by just staring up at it. I might appreciate the fuzziness. But I’ve been taught by others that this is the only object outside of the Milky Way that we can see with the naked eye, and that it is 2.3 million light year away. The light that hits my eyes tonight from Andromeda has been traveling since before humans even arrived on the scene. This knowledge adds immeasurably to the experience.

I’m lying on the ground after lunch the next day and I read the following from the Ferris book:

If we could ride a balloon down through Jupiter’s colorful cloudtops…’s what astronomers think would happen. First we pass through the gigantic yellow, salmon, purple, brown, and gray cloud bands of the upper atmosphere. The light drops towards a dull red as we fall deeper, passing through ammonia ice clouds, then a combination of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, then water ice and rain. Darkness falls, and at a depth of less than 1,000 kilometers – a fraction of the 71,000 kilometer trip to the center – the density of the atmosphere increases to the point that it turns from gas to liquid. If our craft is capable of descending through the resulting ocean – its 15,000 kilometers deep – we should find below it a second sea, composed of metallic hydrogen and helium, that constitutes the bulk of Jupiter’s interior. (Page 181)

At most levels, I don’t have a clue what this means. But I love it. I read it again carefully, and wonder about it. What do I now understand? Not that much. I think I’m appreciating the idea of differentiation of substances. And that there is actually a place like this.

Jupiter’s magnetosphere, the wasp shaped zone within which its magnetic field takes precedence over the wash of charged particles constituting the solar wind, extends more than seven million miles ahead of the planet in the direction of its orbital motion, where it stacks up against the solar wind at what is called the magnetopause (Page 186)

Magnetopause. What? I read the words, and I find myself enjoying the idea of these huge forces out there that I can’t remotely conceptualize or understand. But they exist! And while astronomers have a way of explaining what they are, the mystery of why they are as they are is untouchable. Whatever the properties of light, why is there such a thing? Where did light come from? Why did it happen?

Superclusters are made of clusters of galaxies. Within a billion light years of earth reside about 80 superclusters, composed of some 160,000 galaxy clusters containing 3 million large galaxies…. All these hierarchies of structure – galaxies in groups and clusters, which in turn belong to superclusters, indicate that the universe is organized into bubble like formations roughly 250 million light years in diameter, and that massive superclusters consist of dense regions where the walls of two or more bubbles intersect. (Page 273)

Intersecting walls of bubbles! How could there be such hugeness? But with the metaphor of bubbles comes the paradox of appreciating something that I can’t even remotely comprehend.


Is the experience of reading these passages necessarily different than the experience of staring up on a cold night? At one level yes, and at another, no. The enjoyment of experiencing is the same.

Most of the time, we only register changes when we come around a corner, over a ridge, up to a pass.

Sometimes I’ll just walk along, no motives whatsoever. I’ve no comprehension of what I’m doing physically or mentally. I’m just hanging out, sauntering along. I’m thinking about a lot of different things.

Then, though, I’ll find a pace that’s right and look straight ahead, trying to rely only on my general peripheral vision with no focusing on anything. Can I give equal attention to the whole scene? Can I take in the whole visual field and give no object within it priority?

Remember my earlier comments about some of nature’s slower changes, like the moon setting. I walk along, and register the movement in the total visual scene, which unfolds slowly and with its own beauty. Foreground objects within 15 feet – such as trees – move quickly. Mid-distance ridges, tree lines, rock outcroppings move more slowly. The horizon – whatever it is – pretty much doesn’t appear to change.

Put it all together and a wonderful three-dimensional sensation emerges of a scene that is moving and in flux. It’s different than staring at the beauty of a peak in the distance. Focused attention on objects reduces the third dimension of depth and space. This is different.


Can I be conscious of other senses? The sound and feeling of the breeze. The smells. Just how much can I hold? Being “present” sounds good, but is actually quite a strange proposition. What am I really holding my attention to? What am I directing my perception towards?

(Here is another exercise – apologies if it sounds like drug use is involved: Try sitting very quietly, and put your attention on the visual field in front of you. Hold the entire scene, don’t focus, and play with crossing your eyes to thicken the scene up bit. Try to become aware of only shape and color. It will take awhile, but you might find yourself suddenly looking at nothing more than a shimmering of shape and texture. All the meaning is removed from the objects, as is the sense of three dimensions. You are facing a two-dimensional piece of abstract art!)



Within this tremendous enjoyment are definable low points.

It’s 1:30 PM, and I’m tired and in a place with little shade, a lot of heat, and varieties of biting bugs. While I find the tree to sit under, the rigors of the hard walk have me agitated. I feel windblown and overexposed. I’m dirty. I try to read. I can’t keep with it. I’m distracted. I don’t want to be here. But there is absolutely no where to go.

Occasionally I feel the “aloneness” of such wilderness. When I hiked by myself in the Grand Canyon for a week in the spring, I felt more ensconced, protected. Maybe it was knowing that hundreds of people were 3000 feet above on the South Rim.

I’m not sure we have evolved to be lone travelers through landscapes like this. Twice, I was completely startled by sudden animal noises as I lay outside star-gazing. My heart was just thumping.


Of course, being out here is also a hundred other little processes, systems, discomforts, annoyances, experiments, and pleasures. Eating, cleaning, packing, setting up, tearing down, organizing, sleeping. A hell of a lot of moving small objects around.

There’s so much I don’t notice. I only scratch the surface of other important domains: Wildlife, geology, trees, plants.


Being out here isn’t somehow more integral or connected or real or vital or spiritual than life at home.

I was propped up on my elbows looking out and I was thinking about those people who always call to sell phone services.

There’s this pervasive idea across so much of the spiritual literature that we are somehow “fallen”. If we could only tear away all our defilement’s and illusions and hearken back to our pure and original nature.

This has never made sense to me. We’ve not lost our “nature”. There’s nothing to “get back to”. A city is no less natural than a beehive. Our languages, tools, conflicts, and intentions don’t sit separate. It’s all nature – wondrous and horrific. The auto-dialing telemarketers are no less “natural” than the scene in front of me up here.

And, when I’m working with groups, watching the interactions among individuals working together, I can put myself in the same stance as lying on my back looking at the stars. It’s the same sort of wonder, and no less profound. When I drive to my meetings, participate in their convolutions, and write up the results, I can cultivate a mindset not so different as that of walking along just looking out.

Now, I could continue this “mysticism of everyday life” concept and begin to report on the pleasures of “experiencing the fact that I and these dishes actually exist, and that I am at this very moment washing them!” (I won’t.) Yet there are some choices regarding our approach to what’s directly in front of us.


As I look down on myself sitting in this universe of unimaginable forces and mass – and all of it with no apparent source – I realize that my appreciation of the great mysteries of existence transcends my need to know. The idea of God or gods or a supreme being just seems to coarsen it all up. The unknowability feels much more magnificent.

At some deeper level, I don’t actually need to backpack or look at the stars.

There’s a funny thing about this quasi-ecstatic tone that I’m playing around with. I don’t want to so captivated by any experience that I come to have to have it. There will come a time when I experience the loss of my ability to hike. There will come a time when I lose my ability to work. And there will come a time when I lose my complete ability to experience.

In fact, the intense feeling of desire to get out and hike is a kind of emotional contraction and a narrowing of the field of view. If I’m sitting around at home dreaming of hiking, I’m missing the point.

Being up here doesn’t matter. Can I love it, but not be attached to it?

I’m lucky. What good fortune. That’s all. And purely tragic that so many others in the world suffer, live as they do, and don’t have the opportunity to have what they desire. When I bring to mind the attributes of so many other lives, it seems utterly unfair and unjust that only some of us are afforded a broad range of good experiences in life. So I work to avoid the feeling of “seeing myself in my satisfaction”. I try to just go about my business, thankful at some simple level.

(My religiously oriented friends might think “guilt”. Not at all. The act of bringing the struggles of others imaginatively to mind – whether conceived as a billion people or just one – triggers a simple sadness. There’s just such absolute randomness in how life’s chances – health, economic, social, intelligence, etc. – are distributed.)

Optimum tempo

I’ve come to know that I absolutely love being on high exposed trails with the greatest views. But it is never in any sense “climbing”, which requires a targeted attention and care that doesn’t allow for ruminations, stream of consciousness thinking, the kinds of rhythm I like, or the “hanging out” aspect. Climbing is a different aesthetic, and one for which I’m unsuited.

But there’s one approximation to climbing that I know about and love.

A few years ago I went on a five day mountain bike trip that scared the heck out of me until I figured out how to go downhill on a rough track. One of the people I was with explained the requirement of keeping close attention to where you would go next and not to what you would avoid. This sounds self evident, but there really is a huge enhancement when attention is entirely focused on the path that will be taken. You can avoid attention to where you don’t want to go!

It requires absolute vigilance, and in that first day of the trip, I realized that real single track mountain biking is akin to climbing, and not hiking. I probably wouldn’t do it again.

But I retained that knowledge about how to ride, and now use it for one of my favorite activities – running down a trail. This I do only at points of high energy and after I’ve got my hiking strength up from recent trips. Every aspect of consciousness is devoted to the judgments about where the next foot goes down. No looking about whatsoever!

On a typical, rough trail, it’s a dance requiring every part of the body. Speed is constantly fluctuating. Arms are pure balancing mechanisms. It’s complete engagement.


My friend Paul has as one of his core piano-teaching concepts “optimum tempo”. He teaches how to practice a piece such that one is within a tempo that allows for playing the piece correctly, with only small number of mistakes. And then those mistakes are immediately observed, isolated, and practiced such that the mistake itself doesn’t wear its groove into the piece. But to use the concept, one must be really present.

You know, this trip has been an outrageously good time, and done at a pretty good tempo!


Washing dishes

When it’s all done with, I’m not so sure about making any big claims as to the meaning of any of this. It’s just stuff I do. At some level, these wilderness activities are enhanced to the degree that I see them as practices. Their value emerges as I give them attention. Walking, looking, thinking – they get a lot of their purpose when I do them as well as I can.

And when I arrive back home, some things stick. Resilience, presence, gumption are renewed. I’ve been reminded again that the bombardment of urban life can be managed by my stance towards the bombardment. Be loose and easy-going. Orient myself to the quality of the process. Know that others will generally care about and take care of the content. Practice the virtues.

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